Ahh, the DiC seasons. You’ll never find so many people who have never watched something hate it this much.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Recently, ’80s cartoon purveyors extraordinaire, Shout Factory, have seen fit to release the largely forgotten final two seasons of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero on DVD. As the first two seasons were produced by Sunbow and these last two seasons were produced by DiC, Shout Factory has elected to dub these volumes “Series 2” so as not to offend the fans who refuse to associate the two shows as one and the same.
To give you a little background, Hasbro initially hired cartoon production company Marvel/Sunbow to produce their G.I. Joe cartoon. And chances are, when you think of a Joe cartoon from the ’80s, you’re thinking of the Sunbow series. Sunbow’s G.I. Joe ran for two TV miniseries, two seasons and finally a straight-to-video movie (which was later broken up into its own TV miniseries), spanning ’83 to ’86, with the movie covering ’87. Then it got cancelled.
Two years later (that would be ’89), Hasbro revived the cartoon for another season, this time under the much cheaper production company DiC. Only going for another two seasons, the DiC episodes ended in ’92 and the Real American Hero franchise ended for good (Sgt. Savage and His Screaming Eagles and G.I. Joe Extreme would quickly attempt to fill the void, however).
Fans tend not to think well of these seasons, mainly for their cheap animation, childish writing, almost complete voice recasting, forgettable new Joes and what can only charitably be described as “fabulous” character designs. I can’t fault fans for disliking these seasons, as most of those complaints are solidly grounded. However, many take the hate a bit too far, and many of the haters have never even seen the series beyond the theme song because it has been lost to the ages until now.
The Sunbow series, as enjoyable as it was, wasn’t immune to many of the same problems that plague the DiC era. Cheap animation? Sit through any episode done by South Korean studio AKOM, like “The Primordial Plot”. Childish writing? One of Cobra Commander’s multimillion dollar evil schemes involved etching his face onto the moon with a laser. Forgettable new Joes? Look how few characters introduced in that first miniseries, “The MASS Device”, actually said or did anything interesting beyond those five episodes. “Fabulous” character designs? I present to you Gung Ho, Shipwreck, Spirit and the rest of the Village People for consideration.
The problem with the DiC seasons is that they took those unfortunate qualities and cranked them up to an 11. When the animation is bad, it is practically incomprehensible. When the writing is bad, you’ll find yourself in total agony. Hardly any Joe introduced in these seasons has a personality whatsoever, rather than forgettable Joes being the abnormality. And as for the outfits, well, it wasn’t DiC’s fault; let’s be fair. They had to take Hasbro’s toys and put them on TV. If Hasbro wanted to deck out an entire Cobra division in yellow plaid body suits or make them drive hot pink tanks, then there wasn’t much DiC could do about it.
To my surprise, Season One actually doesn’t contain any of the most terrible episodes you’ve probably come to associate with the DiC series by reputation. The anti-drug two-parter, the one where the Joes form their own subdivision of Planeteers called the Eco Force, the one where Cobra Commander tries to force kindergarteners to read pro-Cobra text books and is defeated by playground equipment, the clip shows…Those are all in Season Two! Season One actually contains some surprisingly enjoyable episodes that I’d actually consider recommending to fans of the Sunbow series.
In faux-Sunbow fashion, the season opens with the traditional five-part miniseries; this one being “Operation Dragonfire”. This is the highlight of the whole set and, in my opinion, worth picking the season up all on its own. Written by Douglas Booth (who worked on the Sunbow series as well as other Sunbow shows done for Hasbro), it acts as an immediate follow-up to the events of G.I. Joe: The Movie. Cobra Commander is restored back to a humanoid form, Serpentor is dethroned and we’re more or less back to the status quo.
It has a certain Sunbow feel to it, aided by opening with an altered version of their theme song (replacing “A Real American Hero” with “International Hero”) and even including a mix of their classic background music throughout the episodes along with DiC’s loathsome keyboard efforts. Many characters also appear in their designs from the previous series, while others appear in their new garb, and it makes for a decent bridge-gapping measure. The story revolves around a new Joe named Scoop (who also happens to be a Cobra spy) and we see a battle between the two sides over a mystical power source called Dragonfire from his POV. I honestly think it’s a stronger five-parter than either “Revenge of Cobra” or “Pyramid of Darkness” (the latter of which is terribly overrated, in my opinion) and if you love Cobra Commander and despise Serpentor, then you should be pleased with how this one turns out.
It’s everything after “Operation Dragonfire” that’s a pretty rough ride. The DiC seasons were done on the cheap, so they lack the overall polish of the Sunbow episodes. The storyboarding, direction, atmosphere…everything is terribly “pedestrian” in comparison; very straightforward with no ambition. The Sunbow series wasn’t always perfect, but those episodes had a certain quality to them that at least illustrated effort. The actual animation quality in the DiC series doesn’t start out bad at all (and, in fact, can have a lot of great details from the action sequences to the body language), but by about Disc 3 you begin to notice the budget running out. Once you get to the end of Disc 4, characters are moving at about nine frames per minute and there are so many technical errors you may at times be bewildered as to what exactly you’re watching.
Perhaps the greatest disconnect between the Sunbow series and the DiC series is the almost complete recasting of the characters. Only Morgan Lofting (the Baroness), Chris Latta (Cobra Commander), Sgt. Slaughter (himself) and Ed Gilbert (General Hawk) returned to reprise their roles. The rest of the cast was substituted with sound-alikes from Canada. You’ll probably recognize a few of the Canadian voices, especially if you watched Beast Wars. Scott McNeil, David Kaye, Gary Chaulk, Ian Corlett, Jim Byrnes and Terry Klassen can all be prominently heard, either filling in for classic characters or voicing new ones. Perhaps most notable is dual American-Canadian voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who tackles about 50% of the cast in this show. Seriously, he’s Serpentor, Destro, Low Light, Altitude, Sky Dive, Copperhead, Colonel Brekhov, Big Ben, Spirit and I know I missed about seven or eight more characters.
Still, it’s all worth it just for Cobra Commander. I’ve always been a fan of Chris Latta’s performance, so seeing all these episodes featuring him that were “new to me” was very satisfying. Even though the Commander-himself is forced to traipse around in what I can only call “scuba armor”, Latta’s performance rises above the often low writing quality and adds a sense of hilarity to even the stupidest lines. He brings the character to life even when the animation often refuses to do so.
As for the rest of the episodes, well, it’s give or take. “Victory at Volcania” is a two-parter starring General Hawk (who has to wear a flight suit throughout this season even while driving tanks) as Cobra takes over a volcanic island to power a super weapon and Hawk wonders if he’s too old to be of any use. It has one particularly hilarious scene where Cobra Commander issues his usual threat to the world via television and various television stations proceed to send him complaint letters for preempting their shows.
“Granny Dearest” sees Cobra villain Metalhead having to convince his visiting grandmother that he works for the good guys and it isn’t nearly as unbearable as I thought it would be (and has some surprisingly competent animation, too). “The Nozone Conspiracy” features a rather interesting Cobra scheme to destroy the Ozone Layer with aerosol sprays and then force the world to buy their sunblock. “Pigskin Commandos” starts out with the sort of ludicrous plot that makes G.I. Joe fun, as a Range Viper challenges G.I. Joe to a game of football (with tanks) in order to save Captain Grid Iron’s life, but quickly devolves into a stupid chase scene across Manhattan that lasts too long. The ending is a riot, though.
“Injustice and the Cobra Way” is stupid, but earns points for featuring the return of Sunbow character Hector Ramirez… albeit strangely renamed Jose Riviera (despite that, a newspaper byline still reads “Hector Ramirez”). “I Found You… Evy” comes after the animation budget falls out, so it’s ugly, but the script is surprisingly deep, seeing Ambush discover that his old childhood friend has joined Cobra and that it may be his fault. “The Mind Mangler” stars Duke and his new voice sucks. It’s a good twist episode, though, as it starts out as the sort of humdrum, generic plot you’ve come to expect from this series and halfway through displays an actual hint of genuine underhanded scheming on the part of Cobra.
And those are the ones I would rank as “sort of good” or “not terrible”. The rest, though?
“That’s Entertainment” features General Hawk and Colonel Brekhov teaming up in a parody of the “Road To…” movies starring Bob Hope (and also boasts an obnoxious Hope caricature they have to rescue). The “D-Day at Alcatraz” two-parter takes an interesting plot and wraps it in stupid comedy shtick, particularly as Metalhead is menaced by the Ghost of Alcatraz. Some of the visual gags are pretty good, but they’re the only highlight. “Stuck on You” is the worst offender of the lot, as Cobra Commander and Pathfinder have to escape a jungle by working together. All the while, a female gorilla tries to get it on with the Commander and it’s pretty embarrassing to watch. The ending even tries to rip off the squirrel scene from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and by God, is it awful.
Any episode I didn’t mention I excluded because they were just totally forgettable.
In the end, I suppose my main complaint about these episodes hasn’t anything to do with the animation, voice acting, writing or stupid uniforms. It’s the fact that Cobra Commander has all of five named underlings to do his bidding (Destro, the Baroness, Zarana, Gnawgahyde and Metalhead). The villains get incredibly monotonous because there’s so few of them and before the season even reaches the halfway point, the writers begin to struggle. So generic Cobra troopers start taking on starring roles. An unnamed Alley Viper is a main character in “Operation Dragonfire”. An unnamed Range Viper is the primary antagonist of “Pigskin Commandos”. And worst of all, Night Creeper Leader had to be made up wholesale just to boost the ranks of identifiable villains, and he stars prominently in three episodes. The Sunbow villains may not have always been competent (the Dreadnoks), but at least there were a lot of them to go around.
Anyway, I would still recommend this set for “Operation Dragonfire” alone, as it is genuinely good and certainly worth owning. Any other halfway decent episodes you fish out of the set should be considered a bonus.