Thundercats: Season 1, Volume 1 Review
“Urble durbley, Burble urble.”
(Lion-O. Episode 3 "Burbils")
Being a child of the 80’s meant growing up alongside some of the most fondly remembered cartoons of all time. The phrase “They don’t make them like they used to” certainly rings true today when looking back at the likes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Dogtanian and the Three Muskahounds, Bionic Six, M.A.S.K., Starcom and of course the iconic Thundercats. Ted Wolf’s unforgettable contribution to animation back in 1985 became so revered by its target audience that it stayed with them long into adulthood. As I revisit the series I’ll try to discuss a little about why the show works as well as it does and how it’s managed to stand the test of time as it were.
Although the first series began production in 1983 it never officially aired until 1985. It ran until 1987 and amassed 130 episodes. Of course these kinds of shows were given huge episode runs, primarily due to the fact that they were huge money spinners. Like most popular toons in the day Thundercats had that certain appeal which meant that kids would want the toys. Unsurprisingly then the Sword of Omens made it onto most kids’ Christmas list, myself included and the figures and playsets were in equally high demand. Wolf had stated at the time that he wanted to make a series about superheroes, but that their adventures would contain moral values; it doesn’t sound a lot unlike He-Man then. That series was developed purely to sell its toys, while Wolf seemed to be adamant about story first. However the man was also a gifted toy inventor, so it’s quite easy to assume that he knew exactly how it was going to develop. But anyway, who really cares about that? The most important thing is just how well Thundercats tells its story.
In an unknown part of the galaxy a race of cat-like super beings narrowly escape death when their home planet, Thundera becomes unstable, causing a chain reaction which inevitably brings about destruction. Only a small number of these creatures, known as Thundercats survive: Jaga, Tygra, Panthro, Cheetara, Wily-Kit, Wily-Kat, Snarf and the young boy, Lion-O. Soon they detect an M-class planet which they decide could be a good place to start a new life; however when their ship is heavily damaged their navigational systems go haywire. The only way to reach their destination is by manually piloting the vessel. The eldest Thundercat, Jaga volunteers for the task and orders the others to go into cryogenic capsules. As Jaga’s life force runs out he switches to auto-pilot, in the hopes that the ship will carry his loved ones the rest of the way. Time passes and the Thundercats manage to land safely on a strange new planet, which they learn is called Third Earth. Due to slight aging they wake up to discover that Lion-O has grown into a man, and with that he is appointed the new lord of the Thundercats. Jaga entrusted to him the mighty Sword of Omens and instructed him to use his powers for good and to take care of his brothers and sisters. Meanwhile several mutants have tracked the cats to Third Earth: Slythe, Jackalman and Monkian, having helped destroy the cats’ ship crash their own and lose it in the desert. They journey until they find a pyramid which is also the house of the evil Mumm-Ra - a thousand-year-old mummy who is now slightly peeved that he has been awoken from his sleep, and that his reign over Third Earth might just be compromised. He teams up with the band of hopeless mutants and seeks out to rid the planet of the pesky Thundercats. As they settle down in their new home the cats construct a giant lair, build vehicles and befriend many more inhabitants. Their days won’t be easy, but as long as they’re together they can look out for one another and heed to the mighty call of “Hoooooooooo”!
Thundercats is an incredibly simple tale; it’s a classic, albeit typical epic of Good vs. Evil, set on our own planet in the distant future. As the cats explore their new world they happen to come across many weird and wonderful things that only those watching would be clued up on. One of the strengths of the show is that it does consistently treat the Thundercats like aliens; though they’re technically superior and incredibly intelligent they still know little about the planet they now inhabit. Most of their encounters along the way are treated with a comedic touch, for example the discovery of a substance which used to be known as soap, or in the search for Thundrillium they encounter gold, which Panthro dismisses as purely being junk. It’s definitely one of the show’s charms and it manages to raise a smile or chuckle from time to time as it becomes more obvious that this is planet Earth. Attributing to this are several key elements, with the most interesting relating to Egyptian history. The further they journey the more they discover, which includes friends that they can reply upon as allies. Depending on your levels of tolerance these other creatures may or may not annoy the living hell out of you. Part of the task in keeping things fresh is by introducing some odd and eccentric creatures: there’s the Robo-berbils - half bear, half robot sentient things; the pirates known as “Berserkers”, who repeat their words three times over; Bolkins (sheep people with stupid accents), Unicorn Keepers, Amazon women and more. While some of the characters border on dull the episode content manages to differ plenty enough for it to be engaging.
When the cats aren’t responding to the cries of help from those in need they’re busy tackling the mutants and Mumm-Ra, who threaten their everyday lives. Although the episodes involving Mumm-Ra don’t exactly follow an arc they’re still amongst the most interesting. The mutants on the other hand feature in just about every episode, but are treated as buffoons. If there’s one thing we understand from shows such as this the bad guys always provide us with dumb comic relief. In that respect Thundercats doesn’t greatly capitalise on such dominant figures, and while Mumm-Ra might not be the most fleshed out villain ever we at least get an insight into his insecurities and weaknesses, which the cats use to keep him at bay. The mutants themselves are simply variants of creatures we all know, but unlike the cats they have no real history. I suppose looking back it really wasn’t a concern for the creators, because who would actually care about them? There’s no reason to and yet when watching these episodes today you become curious as to how or why three baddies from distinctively different races came together as a trio with one sole purpose - and yes I know they came from planet Plun-Darr. We do get an interesting episode though in number 14 “The Spaceships Beneath the Sands”, where the mutants finally revisit their crash site and retrieve their weapons so that they may stand a better chance up against the cats. Saying that though, it is worth bearing in mind that I’m viewing this series for the first time in twenty years, so my recollections are poor at best. With only 33 episodes here that leaves plenty more to hopefully dig deeper into each character.
Aside from our staple heroes and villains we also see recurring figures from time to time, from the likes of The Driller and Hammer Hand. The Thundercats get more help from Mandora - an officer who tracks down the baddest of the bad across the galaxy; and then of course we get the clichéd characters who start off as being baddies because they are easily exploited but then turn good - like the samurai, Hachiman for instance. Actually I take a little of the clichéd remarks back, as there is a Scottish, robot pirate who owns the Jolly Roger in episode 31 “Mandora and the Pirates”.
The early portion of the series does manage to flesh out the Thundercats particularly well, along with their origins (with Thundera being mentioned in more detail during episode 15 “The Time Capsule). We get to know each cat and their special abilities. Jaga was the original leader who now survives as a Ben Kenobi-like ghost, offering pearls of wisdom to Lion-O. Tygra is perhaps the second eldest of the group and brings with him extreme intelligence. He’s an architect who designed the lair and carries a bolo-whip, which enables him to become invisible at will. Panthro is the strongest of the group; a martial arts expert as well as being the chief mechanic. Thanks to him the cats have the luxury of the Thundertank, hover boards, the Feliner and many more little items to help them out on their quest. Cheetara has speed on her side and uses a staff for fighting. She also has a sixth sense, which is highly underdeveloped due to the fact that when she uses it it renders her pretty much useless for days. We get to learn this and see it being harnessed from episode eleven (“The Ghost Warrior”) onward. Incidentally this particular episode also introduces a neat little story involving a Thundercat gone bad, named Grune the Destroyer. Wily-Kit and Wily-Kat are the youngest of the group; they’re inquisitive and irresponsible and always seem to cause some trouble for the cats, but their intentions are often well meant. Kit appears to be far more adventurous, while Kat tries to act responsibly but often finds himself going along with her just so that he can prove to her that he is no coward. Snarf is Lion-O’s best friend and former nanny. He’s not a Thundercat, but a creature from planet Snarf who is considered a part of the team. Each of these players gets their own time at some point, which proves their worth within the collective. Finer examples come from Snarf who muses over his role now that Lion-O is an adult. In episode 25 “Snarf Takes up the Challenge” Snarf finally gets an opportunity to show that he can be as dependent as any other Thundercat, when he must set out to rescue his friends from the wrinkly clutches of Mumm-Ra.
But it’s Lion-O who proves to be the most interesting. He’s unique in that he’s a hero with many flaws; he’s impulsive and because he’s the new lord of the Thundercats who possesses the Eye of Thundera (which is bejewelled in the Sword of Omen’s hilt) he thinks that he can solve everyone’s troubles. The truth is that he’s still a boy, with the mentality of a twelve-year-old and he needs Snarf and the other cats to keep him on the rails by teaching him valuable life lessons. It’s here that we get to the moralistic elements of the series. He-Man did this previously in a rather heavy handed manner, by presenting its morals as a tag to each episode. Thundercats tries to actually tie it in with the action onscreen, although it’s still far from subtle. Perhaps on a subconscious level these morals rubbed off on me and many other viewers at the time, though I seem to recall tuning in just for the cool cats and fight scenes. It’s difficult to say if Thundercats and He-Man etc still hold that power today; I’d certainly like to think so because at the very least it’s an admirable quality which seems to be a lost thing now.
One thing about revisiting Thundercats was wondering if it still looked good twenty years after its television broadcast. This was a Japanese animated show, supervised by Masaki Iizuka and animated by figures who would go on to produce prolific anime, such as Director, Katsuhito Akiyama (Macross technical director and director of Bubblegum Crisis, Battle Athletes and Armitage), Lupin III animator Yukimatsu Ito and many more. Masayuki’s (Fist of the North Star, Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL) opening sequence is still as wonderful as ever, showcasing some nice, fluid animation which often rubs off on the episode content itself. The series excels when it gets inventive. Clearly its anime influences are apparent. The series often uses various methods of creating larger perspectives; it creates some pleasant effects in terms of developing foreground and background elements, which pushes the envelope that little bit further than other largely syndicated US produced animation did at the time. It’s not all perfect though and at times character models lose details and their faces go a bit iffy, but nevertheless the scope is impressive as Third Earth continually opens up and we get a greater feeling for its vastness, along with a non-stop style in which the camera rarely ceases to move.
Considering that this is review is based upon the first 33 episodes that leaves me with very little else to elaborate on, so I’ll cut things short for now and leave you with an episode run down:
Note: The first three episodes are the syndicated versions. These feature several cuts integral to the story and were originally a movie length pilot.
2) The Unholy Alliance
4) The Slaves of Planet Plun-Darr
6) The Terror of Hammerhand
7) Trouble with Time
8) The Tower of Traps
9) The Garden of Delight
10) Mandora the Evil Chaser
11) The Ghost Warrior
12) The Doomgaze
13) Lord of the Snows
14) The Spaceship Beneath the Sands
15) The Time Capsule
16) The Fireballs of Plun-Darr
17) All that Glitters
18) Spitting Image
20) Return to Thundera
21) Dr. Dometone
22) The Astral Prison
23) The Crystal Queen
24) Safari Joe
25) Snarf Takes Up the Challenge
26) Sixth Sense
27) The Thunder-Cutter
28) The Wolfrat
29) Feliner - Part 1
30) Feliner - Part 2
31) Mandora and the Pirates
32) Return of the Driller
33) Dimension Doom
Warner Bros presents the first 33 episodes of season 1 in an attractive box which houses three amaray cases. Each case holds two discs, which feature the cat symbol, while the sleeve artwork shows the Thundercats. The box that houses the cases comes with a nice lenticular style design, which has Lion-O peering through the Eye of Thundera.
I really wanted these episodes to be remastered, but at the same time I knew it wasn’t realistically going to happen. With 130 episodes being released it seemed unlikely that Warners would get the original negatives and then fix them up. It seems very likely that instead we have the broadcast tapes being used; the occasional line across the screen signals this. That said the image is pretty stable, with good colour and detail, although colours are prone to bleeding. Aliasing proves to be quite distracting in places, and Edge Enhancement also blights the transfer. Dot crawl is present but keeps to a minimum and finally there‘s interlacing. The framing is also a bit strange; I understand that this is how they were animated and televised but all too often faces get cut off to the left or right, if there are a few characters on screen at once. You can see that they most likely animated these in full and then when it came to framing they did some dodgy cropping - Some very strange decisions indeed. The source material is in pretty good shape then, but sadly the authoring leaves much to be desired.
For sound we get original 1.0 English mono. That means that all the action takes place centrally, which is fine, and to be expected really. Clarity is good, but it would have been interesting to hear a newly mixed soundtrack in accompaniment.
NOTE: Episode 2 “The Unholy Alliance” does not have a backing music track, for the box set release; the single volume releases should be rectified versions. This has upset many fans and as a result Warner’s issued the following statement:
“Warner Home Video is advising consumers who purchased Thundercats Season 1 Volume 1 DVD that the English version of Episode No. 2, The Unholy Alliance, on Disc 1 is lacking the background musical score. For any consumer who wants to have Disc 1 replaced to include this episode with the background musical score, please contact Warner Home Video at 1-800-553-6937 so that a self-addressed stamped envelope can be sent to you for return of your current disc. Please note that the replacement Disc 1 will be sent to you in approximately 4-6 weeks.”
Now I’m not sure if this applies to those outside of the US and Canada, but it might be worth a shot in contacting them to be sure.
Warners also provide English subtitles, which read well but there is the occasional omission, such as the brilliant quote atop of this page.
I’m afraid to say that no, the famous outtakes are not included in this set. Then again it’s no surprise, but a super-duper Easter Egg would have been nice. I’d have liked to have seen cast interviews, and audio commentaries would have been feasible from fans or otherwise
Feel the Magic, Hear the Roar! Thundercats Fans Speak Out! (7:07)
Star Trek legend, Wil Wheaton and fellow fans express why they love the series so much. It does border on being a little too excessive in terms of praise, not helped by Wheaton and fans singing the theme tune, doing impressions and making sound effects. Besides this they offer a few good opinions, but this is all too brief.
Just some trailers for other Warner shows such as Batman and Superman.
Thundercats is a great little show and it’s easy to see today why it became so popular and why it still remains so fondly remembered. It has a few dud episodes (because of this you may want to view at a leisurely pace) but then many shows do, and it does get a little cheesy from time to time; for the most part it offers plenty of entertainment though. It’s a little disconcerting that Warners don’t treat their animation titles with the same amount of respect that they do for their classic movies. At least they’re offering a replacement programme, which is more than can be said for one or two of their other titles, but the original movie length pilot is still missing, which would have made a nice addition.
Last updated: 24/06/2018 12:15:12