I watched so many cartoons as a kid that there are a bunch that I barely even remember any of the actual episodes, just the overall concept. Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors falls into this realm for me. I know I watched the show because I have vivid memories of the theme song and of the opening credits sequence (in particular the bit where Gillian the wizard takes out one of the evil Monster Minds and then he magically licks his finger and marks a kill tic in the air…)
Revisiting the series though, I’ve found that I have little memory of the actual episodes or the struggles the characters have to deal with. I think the main reason why I don’t remember is that I never had any of the Wheeled Warriors toys and therefore I never really had an opportunity to reinforce the experience with play. In the end it’s probably a good thing that I never got into the toy line because I’m sure it would have confused me to no end. Not only is the overall concept of the series on the wacky side, but the toys had a much different back story that kind of clashed with the cartoon. There were no main characters with the toys, no Jayce, Gillian, Audric, Flora, Oon, or Herc, just a bunch of generic guys with brown and orange suits. The cartoon is sort of similar to He-Man in that the toys came first and then a show was built around them.
Anyway, getting back to the cartoon, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors was probably one of the most visually arresting series of the 80s, at least as far as concepts go. The series revolves around a brilliant scientist named Audric and his son Jayce. In an attempt to end hunger in the universe, Audric developed a special plant that could grow indefinitely and produce enough food to feed everyone. In the last stages of his experimentation though, a huge burst of solar radiation mutated his creation, literally giving his plant creations minds of their own and turning them in the oddly vengeful Monster Minds. In a last ditch effort to protect the future food source of the universe, Audric cut his remaining un-radiated root in half. He kept one half and sent the other with his trusty robot servant Oon to give it to his only son Jayce. When the root is united in a safe environment the two can defeat the newly formed Monster Minds and bring a hearty mouthful of peace to the universe…
Oon escapes the Monster Minds and delivers the root (kept in a rather large charm necklace) to Jayce who was waiting on a small planetoid for his father to return. Along with Jayce is the mysterious wizard Gillian and Jayce’s half-sister Flora (who is half human – half plant and another of Audric’s wacky experiments.) Gillian, a cross between Merlin and Leonardo Da Vinci, has been building an army of motorized vehicles, the Wheeled Warriors, though for what purpose I do not know. After figuring out what happened to Audric, Gillian takes Jayce to a nearby crystal forest to recover a special ring, much like Excalibur, which is the symbol of power for a group of mystic heroes called the Lightening League. If you’re getting lost in all of the layers of weird back-story and myth you’re not alone.
Even though the concepts are so varied, mixing alchemy, science, technology, magic, and monsters, not to mention melding science fiction, mythology and fantasy into a stew that’s barely palatable, I love how crazy and mixed up the show is. Leave it to the French-Canadians to create such a trippy concept around such a straightforward vehicle-based toy line. It’s because of this mix that I find the show so fascinating and visually arresting. On the one hand there are a ton of over the top organic designs with the villains. Led by Saw Boss, an imposing purple and green figure with a bulbous head, glowing orange snake eyes, and a living cape that resembles insect wings lined with bone, the Monster Minds are kind of bat-shit crazy in appearance.
I’m convinced that Nelson Shin and his production team must have been influenced by these characters when they designed the Qunitessons and the various inhabitants of Qunitessa in Transformers the Movie back in 1986. Not only are the Monster Minds gnarly plant creatures, but they can also transform (organically) into more technological (and metal) vehicle forms. This techno-organic mix is really hard to get my brain around. It gets even more outrageous when you consider that Saw Boss is literally growing his empire across the universe. Most of the shots in space focus on his empire literally growing with giant roots hanging in the cosmos.
Similarly, Jayce is a very weird character that’s an amalgam of Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, and Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors. There are also a lot of weird visual cues that make the character seem jumbled. With his bejeweled, wire headband that might as well be a crown, his magical ring, his special plant amulet given to his by his father, and a crazy stripe of white in the middle of his auburn hair, he’s kind of all over the place. It feels like the character designers were intentionally ignoring the less-is-more rule of thumb and throwing every ingredient they could think of into the pot in the hopes that something would take. It’s unfocused and kind of reeks a bit of desperation to try and make some sort of mythology, but again, it’s not without its odd charms.
Not only is the show at odds with itself conceptually and visually, but in tone as well. Though the story is more or less dramatic, a lot of the episodes try and shoot for a weird mix of humor with the Han Solo-like Herc Stormsailor and the bumbling incompetence of the Monster Mind clone warrior vehicles. Some of the action is also on the goofy side of over-the-top with the evil clones being dispatched in utterly Looney Tunes-esque sequences.
The character designs of the villainous vehicles are also sort of hilarious as they’re anthropomorphized, complete with goofy faces. It’s sort of strange when you think about that since the bad guys aren’t just beaten, but being drones they’re crashed, disfigured and destroyed at every turn. I think this is an example of the extent to how much the reigns of the parent’s group had loosened by 1985. At the end of the day, if there is one thread running through the series, it is all of these incongruities. You even see this in the dichotomy in the themes of ending world hunger and having a villain that’s basically eating everything out of existence.
There are a couple of aspects of the show that I absolutely love, the main one being the theme song. Written by Haim Saban, the musician turned kid-vid mogul who was the mastermind behind bringing the Power Rangers to American TV, the lyrics strike a great balance between explaining the overall concept of the show while the song itself is the perfect example of a pumping 80s power ballad.
The theme opens with the following expository narration…
“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!”
Then it bursts into pure 80s passionate cheese. I love it!
There’s a power that comes from deep inside of you, ‘Cause every day you’re reaching toward the light, And you know there’s a long long way ahead of you, But when your wheels get you there, things will turn out right!
Just keep ’em turning, don’t stop ’em rolling, The fire is on, (Wheeled Warriors!) Battle drums burning, wheels moving, Wheeled Warriors! (Wheeled Warriors!)
Come take a chance, keep ’em turning, don’t stop ’em rolling, The fire is on, (Wheeled Warriors!) Battle drums burning, wheels moving! Wheeled Warriors! (Wheeled Warriors!)
The other thing that I really dig about the show is the look of the Lightening League vehicles. There’s something extremely beautiful about the designs that I’m having a hard time putting my finger on. I think it’s the large canopies (I’m a huge fan of this feature in vehicle design), and the fact that they remind me of Lego space vehicle concepts.
At the end of the day the series is certainly one of my guilty pleasures. There’s a ton of stuff going in that makes absolutely no sense and it often feels like the writers had no idea what they were doing. But on the flip side, because it’s so weird there are no rules to keep you rooted in the ground (if you pardon the pun) and it free up the creativity in such a way that we could get a sequence where Jayce turns himself into a giant glowing plate glass window that slices through all of Saw Boss’ trapping roots!?!
It might not make a lick of sense, but it’s entertaining and weird and I can’t ask for much more…
If you’re curious about getting a look at some of the merchandising for Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, I talked about a Sticker Fun Book back in an earlier edition of Peel Here.
Also, the first half of the series is available from Shout! Factory. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll eventually release the second and final half of the series via their exclusive P.O.D. service…