Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors: Vol. 1 Review
Thundering across the stars, to save the universe from the Monster Minds: Jayce searches for his father, to unite the magic root and lead his Lightning League to victory over the changing form of Saw Boss. Wheeled Warriors explode into battle - Lightning Strikes!
Unbeknownst to most of us who grew up in the eighties and thrived off U.S. animation series, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors was (much like any other series of the time) based upon a run of toys, simply known as Wheeled Warriors - developed by Mattel in 1983. Emphasis was placed squarely on super-powered vehicles belonging to the Lightning League, who did battle against the evil Monster Minds. The reason for a lack of knowledge, and why next to none of us received any at Christmas, is simply because the toy company recalled all sets just months prior to the series airing in 1985; a case of fearing that nobody would buy them without having seen the show first. Even so, as impressive as these plastic marauders were they were additionally lumped with pilot characters that had, well, no character whatsoever. Indeed it was one of the most abysmally marketed toy products of the eighties. In hindsight it ended up working to the advantage of the television series; while it certainly did nothing to boost toy sales it managed to follow its own path, develop its own characters independently from Mattel and have seemingly little agenda other than to entertain children - and that it did.
The series was co-written by a number of staff members, including Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski, who at the time of Jayce (here on in) had been working at Filmation, where he additionally scripted several storylines for He-Man and the Master of the Universe and She-Ra - Princess of Power. Huck Barkin and Jim Carlson were on board as story editors, and under their watch Jayce was commissioned for 65 episodes. It hit as hard as it could, though it never quite managed to deliver what Mattel had demanded of it, subsequently getting canned before it could even resolve its central plot. Still, it became a much loved series in its own right, one which stuck in the heads of its audience and to this day remains something of a cult show.
The story sees Jayce Somethingorother, son of Audric, who is separated from his scientist father after a terrible incident. Audric had been trying to create a plant that would end starvation, but when radiation leaked into his laboratory his plant creations evolved into evil things with brains. They instantly became known as Monster Minds, led by the ruthless Saw Boss, who subsequently took over Audric’s lab for his own base of operations. Audric had since fled for his own safety, taking with him one half of a root that would be the key to stamping out the threat of the Monster Minds. Jayce is given the other half of the root and the Ring of Light by Gillian, a wizard friend of Audric’s who also joined by Audric’s loyal servant Oon and daughter-like Flora. Jayce is told that one day he and his father will unite the root and save the universe. When the Monster Minds lead an all out assault on the planet, Gillian manages to bring down a space barge where they meet its pilot Herc Stormsailor. After a quick negotiation Herc invites them on board and they flee. Now in space, with very few paths to take, Jayce must lead his new Lightning League across the stars - root in hand for guidance - in the search of his father, while Saw Boss and his vegetable minions draw ever closer to their whereabouts.
With 65 episodes overall, Jayce and his buddies have a lot of time to kill in between searching for Audric. With an undetermined time frame, we can only assume that they’ve ended up travelling for months, possibly even a few years. Naturally, then, the crew meets all sorts of folk along their travels, from hillbilly gold diggers and space pirates to warrior knights, enchanted princesses and telepathic fish; all spread across various star systems, with every planet the crew step foot upon having breathable air - which is rather lucky. The bulk of the episodes in which Jayce and company visit a new world deals with the inhabitants going through a spot of bother, to which our heroes try effortlessly to solve the problem and quickly move on. More often than not that cause behind the concern is directly attributed to the Monster Minds, who have been scouring the universe in a tireless bid to claim and settle on every known rock. This of course sees Jayce, his team and those they try to save share a common bond, thus securing heroic ties and seeing the good triumph over evil as expected. Other episodes contain feuding clans and what not, but they each essentially follow the same basic path: Jayce and co. land; find out what’s wrong; fight some shrubberies - save the day! Most are formulaic, but sure enough one or two proper gems can be found, such as my particular fave of these first 33: episode 15 - ‘Blood Stone’, in which Jayce must race against time throughout a crystal pyramid in order to reach the “Blood Stone“ and prevent total crystallisation of the planet. It’s one of the few genuinely exciting stories that gets by on sheer pacing and solid tension. The series also features its share of moral stances, but in comparison to the likes of He-Man, M.A.S.K. and Thundercats these are woven into each narrative in a far more subtle manner, rather than bludgeoning the viewer with a 30-second epilogue, and it often lends a more suited human element to the cast as they live through these chaotic events. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the crew’s ongoing adventures though is that Jayce’s dad sure does get around a bit, leaving an endless trail of clues behind. There are several episodes that specifically deal with the search, as the team pick up on Audric thanks to the root, but more often than not the trail either goes cold, or Audric appears to be a plant in disguise - cunning tactics indeed from Saw Boss, who always manages to keep one step ahead of his enemies.
However, the reality is that bulbous-headed fiend and his salad crew are, in a word, utterly useless. The Monster Minds: an assortment of Mexican and New York-accented cronies, are extremely goofy and hilariously inept. For instance, why on earth would Saw Boss create vehicles so incapable of traversing heavy terrain? They’re rubbish - the ditch being their own worst enemy. Anyhow, he stills ends up blaming them every time they fail to capture Jayce. Saw Boss himself is actually more of a disappointment - one of the more weaker villains seen in eighties cartoons, primarily due to the fact that he does sod all. He pretty much sits in his spherical house: ‘The Fortress of Black Light’ orchestrating his next attack, until it’s time to teleport away whenever his plan goes horribly wrong. The main problem is that he just isn’t a big enough presence, never truly making himself known. In a sense it may be considered a good thing, but there’s not a great deal of mystery or intrigue surrounding him anyway. Furthermore he never directly confronts Jayce; opportunities certainly present themselves for him to do so, such as episode 6: ‘Flora, Fauna and the Monster Minds’, which is the first time we think he’s going to give the boy a run for his money, but alas it’s wasted, like the few other occasions when he decides to land on the same planet as them. At least Skeletor and Mumm-Ra got off their arses from time to time. Saw Boss, then, is a kind of sad and unintentionally amusing character, whose dialogue simply grates after a while. He always ends each episode, much like Dr. Claw, with his “I’ll get you next time, Jayce”, but after a while his threats seem all too idle and the potential menace (for such a hulking beast) he could have had becomes practically non-existent.
As for our heroes, well, they’re typical archetypes, and here their influences couldn’t be any clearer, what with the series heavily borrowing ideas from the likes of Star Wars. Neither are they hugely developed, simply going off basic outlines which are sporadically examined at irregular intervals. We have Jayce being bestowed a fancy ring by a wise old man, which immediately places adult responsibility on him as he becomes the sworn leader of the Lightning League. He’s a little headstrong, somewhat naïve and hasty, but always determined with a clear focus on his ultimate goal. Then there’s Herc Stormsailor, who has clearly been lifted directly from Han Solo: a smuggler of sorts who owns a massive space barge named ‘The Pride of the Skies 2’. Driven by money, he’s easily tricked into helping others out with the prospects of a fancy reward in return, and as is often the case he usually ends up finding zip. Using sarcasm for humour and saying “Kid” a lot leaves him with an obvious personality as the most laid back and “cool” character of the bunch, while a spot of bickering placed here and there between he and Flora - a girl born from one of Audric’s plants who can communicate with animal and plant life - harbours an underlining affection between the two, showing the man as having a heart after all. Gillian is the wizard of the team, in a literal sense, and with a fair amount of technical knowhow to boot. He’s always got plenty of advice and can somehow usually predict the exact cause of every single phenomena they come across, while he also has a shamelessly perverse desire to constantly trick Herc into carrying out tasks. And then there’s Oon: a living body of armour, and Jayce’s loyal companion. He carries a magic lance, which doesn’t actually do anything - ever! It’s never explained what it does; my guess is it’s what keeps him alive as such. Regardless, he’s just another token squeaky-voiced character whose role is to provide comic relief and a spot of moral support. Finally we have Brock - a flying pink fish…
And even our heroes can be unintentionally funny as well. They’re often as goofy as the Monster Minds, occasionally creating their own problems, which again adds a human element, but there’s an odd sense of logic permeating through various episodes, and the writers try to move on as quickly as they can from one set up to the next. Despite everything that happens, the copious attempts at rallying off exposition and the sheer amount of impending doom on display, Jayce and Gillian almost always save the day using the most obvious means. Try as the storylines might, there’s rarely ever a moment when Jayce doesn’t ask for his Ring of Light to help out when they‘ve exhausted every other option. Similarly Gillian just waves his hands and mumbles some gibberish and instantly magic’s away the invading force. For the latter it can be especially contradictory at times, because the sage often leads us to believe in a time of crisis that there’s nothing he can do, but will then turn around by the end in a sort of “Not really, yes I can” kind of way. A bit of a manipulative trump card, but then if not for this each episode would be about five minutes in length.
Although for the most part Jayce feels like a normal cartoon and not one designed to shift merchandise, it does still show its toy roots whenever the crew have to use their vehicles to do battle. Jayce will issue commands to several of the unique machines, each of which has its own special ability. Armed Force, Drill Sergeant, Spike Trike: you can guess where it’s going, and sure enough they’re always there to get their master out of a sticky situation. Likewise the Monster Minds have their Terror Tank and Gun Grinner etc, and it’s only ever during these instances in which Jayce usually name-drops with a loud cry that the series ever becomes slightly distracting.
Much like the majority of eighties animation Jayce has a distinct eastern flavour to it. Produced in the U.S. and France, but animated overseas in Japan it instantly bares similarities to other fan favourites. That’s not to say it automatically looks wonderful; it’s still a show done on a budget which often makes compromises, but if anything the effects are just nice overall. At times the animation can look really great whenever there’s an obvious sense of more financing, but most of the time it shows up various flaws or inconsistencies, which tends to become distracting in character’s faces or body proportions. It moves fluidly enough and is certainly no worse off than what we’ve already come to expect, but rather unfortunately there are hilariously bad instances which prompts us to wonder just what exactly the animators were thinking. I refer to episode 21: ‘Sky Kingdom’, in which a frustrated Jayce seems to repeatedly bang his head against the ship’s main console. It does have a wonderfully animated opening credit sequence, however, but then all of these shows did, and it’s undoubtedly what the series is best remembered for. It has one of those songs that nobody could ever forget, and that’s something I’ve always admired in particular about cartoons from this era. These scores have never been bettered in the years since; you could always happily sing along to the theme tunes and recall them with excitement when discussing amongst friends. It was regular collaborators Haim Saban (who penned the winning theme) and Shuki levy doing the score - a pairing all too familiar: Over the years they’ve provided wonderful music for many series such as He-Man, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Inspector Gadget and M.A.S.K., while Levy did plenty more independently such as Ulysses 31 and Star Com. You can’t argue that their contribution toward animation isn’t a startling achievement.
1) Escape from the Garden
2) The Vase of Xiang
3) Steel Against Shadow
4) Silver Crusaders
5) Ghost Ship
6) Flora, Fauna and the Monster Minds
7) Fire and Ice
8) Space Outlaws
9) Future of the Future
12) Critical Mass
13) The Purple Tome
14) Hook, Line and Sinker
16) The Slaves of Adelbaron
17) The Hunt
18) Blockade Runners
19) The Sleeping Princess
20) Deadly Reunion
21) Sky Kingdom
22) Quest into Shadow
23) Unexpected Trouble
24) Bounty Hunters
25) Double Deception
26) Gate World
27) Space Thief
28) Moon Magic
29) Affair of Honour
30) Doom Flower
31) The Stallions of Sandeen
32) Brain Trust
33) Lighting Strikes Twice
Presented on four single-sided discs, the series comes in two slim-line cases, housed in a card slipcase featuring fairly uninspiring art work. The DVDs are region free.
The episodes presented here are a bit up and down. Taken from an analogue source, presumably the broadcast tape masters, with evident wear such as occasional tape lines, they appear wildly inconsistent throughout. Each episode varies, with some being softer than others, or washed out and overly contrasty resulting in horrid white skin tones, while others are nice and colourful, but prone to bleeding. All of them share the same thing in common with regards to heavy cross-colouring, a little chroma noise, aliasing and slightly poor compression artefacts, the latter being more noticeable during fast paced action and particularly during the opening credits. They’re also non-progressive, showing combing artefacts. Perfectly watchable overall and shouldn’t be too problematic for those watching on standard displays.
The original English soundtrack doesn’t fair a whole lot better either. Most of the episodes are fine, though you need to raise the volume a bit, but a few have considerably lower audio levels. Episode 30: ‘Doom Flower’ has a 2-second drop out, which is found at 01:39:28.
There are no English subtitles for the series, which is going to upset quite a number of people as time and again this proves to be overlooked for these classic toon releases.
The bonus material is very light. Disc four contains two scripts in PDF format. One is for the pilot episode titled ‘Escape from the Garden’ by Haskell Barkin and the other is for episode 3: ‘Steel Against Shadow’ by J. Michael Straczynski. It’s a shame we couldn’t have had more though. I especially would have liked to read Straczynski’s reported script of the final episode/movie that was never made. Perhaps for the next release…
Also included is a gallery of rare, original concept art. This one is a bit more interesting. We can see that the original designs for the Lightning League team didn’t greatly evolve, but the Monster Minds, however, were far more terrifying in concept than what he eventually ended up with.
Getting older seems to make you more cynical. I know I’ve been a little unfair, it’s a kid’s show after all. As someone who grew up with and utterly adored toons like this and now reviews a lot, it’s impossible not to notice these things. But despite my admittedly over-analytical comments I do enjoy Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. It’s a product of its time, the kind of show they just don’t make anymore. If anything the only real problem is that it doesn’t offer much by the way of story arcs, which in the end makes for some awfully repetitive episodes, which can certainly take its toll on the viewer if they’re watching the series in complete succession, over a short period of time, as I did. Still, I imagine kids today should enjoy it a lot, just as we were all thrilled as youngsters twenty years ago. Plus it even has an episode with a thieving monkey alien called Kleptos. Why wouldn’t you want to see that?
Special thanks to J. Michael Straczynski for clarifying a previous error in this review.
6 out of 10
4 out of 10
5 out of 10
2 out of 10