So the Saturday Supercast Jerzy Drozd, Kevin Cross and I recorded recently was pretty mammoth. We ended up talking about the 1st G.I. Joe cartoon mini series for well over two hours and it was decided to break the show in half to make it easier to consume. This worked out pretty well for me, at least in terms of spacing out these Cartoon Commentary! posts to coincide with the podcasts. In the first episode we cover a lot of the basic stuff involved with the mini series as well as diving into the first two episodes. For this column, I’m going to concentrate on that second episode which originally debuted on September 13th, 1983 and was titled Slave of the Cobra Master.
Again, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the massive amount of Cobra branding that was thrown in for this first mini series. Above is a nice example of some of the background artwork used to illustrate the Cobra temple. Not only does that snake make for an awesome temple topper, but it’s also a conduit helping to direct the energy bursts from the M.A.S.S. device. Also, it’s kind of interesting how intertwined snake imagery was with action entertainment in the 80s. The cold blooded reptile’s use in G.I. Joe is pretty obvious, but it also served as the design for the obviously named Snake Mountain, Skeletor’s castle in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Then there are the intertwined snakes in Mumm-Ra’s headpiece on the Thundercats show, and of course I was a huge fan of both the first Conan movie and Clash of the titans, and the duo of James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom and Harryhausen’s version of Medusa terrified me. Anyway, it’s just a thought…
One of the reoccurring themes in the Joe universe is Cobra Commander’s megalomaniacal Caesar complex (written into the Writer’s Guide), which is illustrated quite well in the first two cartoon mini series’ with the Cobra gladiatorial arena fights. In the A Real American Hero mini, the fight takes place between two mind-controlled opponents, the captured Duke and the slave giant Ramar. Again, this is interesting, at least to me, in that it works in fun action, a couple elements of the fantastical, and even a bit of world history, though that last one is a stretch. Either way, it’s fun and again it works to define the character of Duke who never backs down, not even when the odds are stacked against him.
In fact Duke’s smarts and tenacity are even admired by Destro. Cobra Commander and Destro are each controlling one of the combatants (Destro has Duke and CC has Ramar), and in mid battle Destro relinquishes control over Duke knowing that he’ll be able to handle Ramar better under his own control. As a kid I was never all that fond of Duke’s character, though a lot of that could be contributed to his bland character design (and granted it’s only really bland in comparison to the outlandish Joes that would follow and what made up most of my collection.) Now that I look back at him I think that his simple (in terms of not being flashy) design works perfect for the type of character. Just goes to show the differences in the two mindsets…
What’s also kind of weird in the Joe universe is that Cobra’s infatuation with world domination and wealth often takes the form of an accumulation of gold. When CC and Destro make a bet on the arena battle the spoils are pieces of gold (which is also what CC uses to pay off the Dreadnoks in the second Joe mini series.) I wonder if this was a purposeful way to avoid talking about money in the cartoon, like maybe the producers or story editors (Steve Gerber and Buzz Dixon) wanted to avoid as much real world strife as possible. We also see gold used as the ultimate coveted element (a very fairy tale like quality to the writing) in its use as a way to escape the mind control devices. When we’re introduced to Selena, the save girl with a heart of gold (oh geez, bad turn of phrase I know), she gives Duke a thin stick (think bubble gum stick) of gold that will allow him to shirk the headband’s power. I’m also reminded of an episode of Transformers where there is a pool of gold liquid that when bathed in makes robots invincible to laser fire (great Beachcomber episode to boot.)
When Duke decides it’s time to use the gold strip to break the mind control it unfolds in a very odd way. I was expecting Duke to be free to do what he wants, which is essentially what happens, though it comes in the form of redirecting the energy used to control the headbands into laser like beams that knock the controllers out of Destro and CC’s hands. It’s more visually interesting, but it’s also one of those weird leaps in logic that the show is famous for. To be honest, even as an adult I don’t mind these leaps.
There’s another subtle moment (like in the previous episode where the Baroness in disguise fingers her earring) in the sequence where Selena is helping Duke to escape via the Cobra Viper Glider (one of the few times in this mini series where the writing feels like it’s pushing the toys.) As they’re talking his Joe class ring glimmers a couple times. He eventually gives the ring to her so that she can both remember him and so that he’ll remember to come back and save her and the rest of the slaves. It’s also another sequence to show off his lady’s man side (by the end of the series he’ll have both Selena and Scarlett hanging off him.)
In a weird turn of events, the Joe team rescues the scientist (Dr. Vandemeer) that unwittingly helped Cobra build their M.A.S.S. device. He helps them to build their own M.A.S.S. device, which is sort of a odd way to combat the original problem on a couple of different levels. On the one hand it doesn’t seem like a likely answer unless the goal is to use their device to steal Cobra’s device. I mean they’re matter transference machines, not weapons. Also, as Jerzy brought up in the Saturday Supercast, it sort of breaks the unspoken rule of using the enemy’s weapons against them, a concept highlighted by the plight of Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series. It points to the idea of corrupting one’s self to combat corruption, which is pretty self-defeating in terms of a winning end game strategy. On the other hand, this conceit opens up the plot of this and the following two episodes as both teams race around the globe in search of the rare catalytic elements that power the M.A.S.S. devices. It’s not just a matter of trying to stop the other side, but scoring these elements for your own team in the process. It helps set the tone of the series as a whole and it makes the mini visually stunning for all its environments…
The first location explored is the dreaded Sea of Ice in the Arctic Circle where the pink radioactive crystals are located in a cave guarded by Cobra. I love this sequence because it features some of my favorite Joe team members from the 1st two waves of figures from ’82 and ’83. Putting myself back in the 1983-4 mindset, I wasn’t all that fond of the basic green fatigue-wearing Joes. I hadn’t read the comics yet, and I wasn’t paying attention to the file cards yet (and I think at the time my parents were still giving me figures already out of the packages so I didn’t even realize there were file cards to clip), so the characters that stuck out to me were the ones that had interesting visual cues. First and foremost there was Snake Eyes, who completely decked in black stood out the most of the early Joes. Then there’s Tripwire and Flash, both of which had cool-looking helmets (with the coveted visors), and the grey and red highlights (respectively) to the basic green fatigues that made them aces in my book. Scarlett has always been a cool character, and for me she fell into that group of figures I never managed to get my grubby hands on, so I wanted her all the more. And last, but certainly not least, Snow Job, who was one of the first Joe action figures I distinctly remember receiving (right before meeting up with my Dad after he got off work at a local Florida Red Lobster.) The sense memory of a mound of empty King Crab leg shells acting as a stand-in for a snowy peak that Snow Job could ski across is burned into my memory.
Animation-wise, the scene when the group of Joes enter the cave has some really nice choice camera angles, not to mention some nice shading and shadows (which always tend to make the art look so much richer.) As a funny side note, it’s kind of odd that Snake Eyes carries a walkie talkie with him seeing that he’s practically mute and all. I will admit that it’s been pointed out that walkie talkies do have Morse Code buttons on them, and I realize he can listen in, but it’s still kind of oxymoronic.
Something else that caught my eye while watching this episode is the dynamics of telecasting Cobra Commander to the world during one of his maniacal world domination rants. There are a couple of shots which showcase some of Cobra’s finest troopers running the TV camera. I guess either Cobra has one hell of a cross training media department, or they’ve spent some time recruiting out of the various A/V clubs in high schools around the country. It leads to the obvious question, is there a brigade of sanitation troopers roaming the various temples and the Terror Drome in full gear?
Also, even though it isn’t really that much of a miraculous bit of precognition on the writer/designers parts, I thought it was kind of cool to see a quick shot of a suburban home with a flat screen the size of a coffee table on the living room wall. We’re pretty much living in that age I guess. Now where’s my personal jetpack and standard issue tan & silver laser rifle?
I’ve mentioned it a couple times in these past couple of columns already, but I thought it was really interesting that the story editors make it a very clear point in the writer’s guide to stay away from using real world U.S. antagonists as enemies in the cartoon. Instead, the unspoken guideline (I haven’t seen it stressed in print) was to show other countries as allies against Cobra. In this first mini series Cobra’s second major target of their M.A.S.S. device attack is Russia. Cobra burgles an entire battalion of their tanks and soldiers, teleporting them to the temple base. I do have to stress that I thought it was odd that this army didn’t put up any fight when they arrived, unlike Duke who practically took on the entire Cobra army by himself twice by this point.
Ron Friedman is the man responsible for the heavy lifting on the writing duties in this mini series (as well as the other three Joe Minis and the G.I. Joe & Transformers movies), and if there is one reoccurring theme that I kind of dig, it’s his inhibition when it comes to potentially offing or downplaying beloved characters. Granted I’m sure these were decissions that the entire writing staff disscussed, but they tend to occur in his contributed episodes. Of course his most famous coup in this department is killing off Optimus Prime in the Transformers flick, but he also intended to kill of Duke in the Joe Movie (changed after the animation was finalized and the reactions were coming in to Prime buying the farm), he helped Buzz Dixon depose Cobra Commander in the Arise, Serpentor, Arise! mini, and in this episode basically left Snake Eyes for the soon to be eradiated dead. Honestly, the show hadn’t been on long enough to really garner Snake Eyes the "beloved character" status, but it was still a gutsy cliffhanger in my eyes. I mean, unless you’re James Bond or Ursula Andress in Dr. No, there really isn’t any coming back from radiation poisoning so bad your entire body beings to glow. The "good bye" scene with Scarlett was pretty touching too, with nice shot of Snake Eyes slowly backing up into the radiation cloud.
If the show was every going to be accused of product placement, it’s probably in the scenes involving Duke’s crazy escape from the Cobra compound. First Selena insists that the only way out is by stealing a Cobra Viper Glider, which Duke of course does, and then proceeds to go on a wacky trip with a bunch of Cobra troopers in tow. I say wacky because not long after Duke is airborne, he crashes into a tree, and then falls directly into the waiting cockpit of an idling H.I.S.S. tank. He then speeds away in the tank, through a nearby swamp where he again crashes into an embankment, and then ends up falling into a pit of quicksand. It’s daring and exciting, but a little bit too Benny Hill for my tastes.
Something interesting I noticed during this chase sequence was another (almost) product placement in the form of the Cobra Water Moccasin. For a brief second while in the water we see a white Moccasin speed by the frame…
…which is kind of interesting in that the toy hadn’t been released yet. Most everything that ended up in this first mini series, from characters to vehicles, was already available in the 1982-1983 toy line (with some exceptions like the Baroness, the S.H.A.R.C. which will show up in the next episode, and Duke – who was only a mail-away at the time.) There was also an appearance of a Rattler-like jet which shows up in the fourth part of the mini, but my guess is that wasn’t tied in with Hasbro. So the Moccasin showing up, in a different color no less, seems to point to the idea that the writers/designers of the cartoon had access to upcoming vehicle designs. Either that or their rendition of the water craft struck a nerve at Hasbro who then put it into production.
Anyway, like I mentioned above, the last we saw of Duke he was all but drowning in a pit of quicksand. What I love about this sequence, and it’s something I never would have thought to watch out for if it hadn’t been for Mark Rudolph’s description of camera angles and blocking in the original Star Trek show (on an episode of the Art & Story podcast), is how interesting it is when a scene is framed by close-up objects in the foreground. I love the shot of the two Cobra troopers with their legs framing either side of the screen and Duke breast-deep in quicksand. Not only is it visually interesting, it gives the scene a menacing tone with the soldiers towering over duke and being so close to the "camera" that viewers get a feeling of being too close to the enemy. It’s a little thing, but it’s a nice touch.
What’s really weird about this sequence though, and what makes me wonder if there is something missing in this segment of the episode is Dukes sudden memory loss and almost death. Honestly he seems to be playing possum until the Cobra troopers leave, and in the next scene he’s on a gurney being attended by Doc and all of a sudden everything is tense. If nothing else, why exactly does Duke forget about the whole affair in the Cobra fortress? It seems like a very weird cliffhanger ending to me.
In the final episode of this mini series there is a segment where Doc is trying to help Duke remember in some sort of sensory deprivation chamber (that looks an awful lot like the bacta tank in the Empire Strikes Back), and his memories are projected onto a screen. In this sequence we get a glimpse of Duke’s childhood and young adult years where he’s fighting off bullies and being a football hero. When we talk about this in the Saturday Supercast Jerzy recalled the fact that this sequence of Duke’s younger years was cut on the copy of the official FHE VHS tape for the miniseries. It points to the idea that there are different versions of the episodes floating around. I’m pretty positive that there are differences in the original broadcast episodes and the later syndicated ones, if only because as the years go on the restrictions of cutting in commercial time get harsher. So I’m sure there are a lot of episodes that are missing segments and I have to wonder is Rhino, when they were putting together this mini series DVD might have gotten an edited set of the masters that was missing something. It’s just a thought.
Anyway, this commentary brings us up to date with what we end up talking about in episode 19 of the Saturday Supercast. Also, we should be posting the follow-up show, episode 20, in which we discuss the next three episodes as well as touching on some of the more modern incarnations of the franchise, namely the new live action film set to debut in August, the Rise of Cobra, as well as the lead up cartoon even that debuted this past spring called G.I. Joe Resolute. Also, and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me mention this, the season 1.1 DVD set of the original G.I. Joe cartoon (featuring this very episode) hit store shelves yesterday and is current available on Amazon for only $17. Alright, pimp mode off.