It’s easy to overthink the toy commercials of your childhood

While nostalgia is generally not a good or advisable force to have influencing your opinion of the actual past, its relationship with creative works is more complicated.

The other day, I re-watched the pilot episode of ThunderCats with someone who had never seen it before. Being with an adult watching the show for the first time, the flaws in it were more obvious than I’d anticipated and much of the re-watch involved incredulous exclamations at each new plot progression.

I wasn’t old enough to catch the show on television during its first run, but I remember renting VHS collections from Video One when I was very small, maybe 1990 or ’91, and loving it. I don’t know what sort of order I was able to see it in, and I certainly couldn’t have seen them all. There were more than 120 episodes total, and at most, three or four to a video. Still, when it aired on the Toonami block of Cartoon Network in the late ’90s, I had the experience of remembering the Mutants and Mumm-Ra and the Berbils already.

Even then, still a child but with a better developed sense of critical faculty, elements like Snarf were annoying and silly. And certain questions I had weren’t answered or weren’t answered sensibly. But that was nothing compared to watching it as an adult.

thundercats_1985_2011_logo_by_pencilshade-d4y2uzrThe synopsis of the first episode is that there is a group of feline humanoids called The ThunderCats. They’re fleeing their exploding planet and traveling across interstellar space to rebuild their society on a new world, which of course turns out to be our Earth.

Along the way, they’re harassed by a hostile group of races called ‘the Mutants’ who are after the Sword of Omens, a weapon of mystical power. That sword is currently in the possession of Lion-O, a future Lord of the ThunderCats but at the start of our story, still just a boy being groomed for leadership.

None of this actually makes sense in the episode as presented. In fact, the very first thing we see is a ship in space and the small group who’ll end up being our protagonists watching as their planet blows up, killing the innumerable population still on its surface.

The characters show little curiosity and no grief over the unimaginable tragedy before the Mutants arrive and destroy the entirety of the escort fleet, but fail in their attempt to board the protagonists’ flagship and steal away the mystical sword.

We don’t see anyone on the planet or any of the other ships before they’re killed, and that may very well be a necessity to get around ’80s cartoon censors. But the effect is that there’s absolutely no sense of tragedy or loss or even drama from watching these few remaining survivors escape and make it to a new home.

You can imagine if the show had started on a doomed planet that everyone knows is about to violently end, with only a very few ships capable of taking some members of the ruling nobility to safety, and then when they get there, being surprised at their weakest moment by an attack that further reduces their number, until only a single ship is able to defend itself to escape with the last remnants of an entire civilization.

As presented, that apparently all happened, but the narrative focus either intentionally ignores all of that, or the writing was just so lazy it didn’t think about any implications of the events necessary to get our toy-line protagonists to their starting point.

It was a different time. The idea for the toys came first, and the plot-justification for them after, but when we first see the ThunderCats, they’re all naked, living on a safe planet where weapons (and clothing!) are unnecessary. But as you can see above, without clothing they literally exist in form as action figures: safe, null, and genital-less. That’s what they are as characters, and trying to ascribe any sort of active inner life to any of them creates more problems than it solves.

Likewise, Thundara, their home planet planet, is just a Krypton analogue. There’s no reason to explain why it’s blowing up; it needs to be gone for the plot to get rolling. Incidentally, it’s not until about 100 episodes later we learn that a generation prior, Jaga, the wizened, current leader of the ThunderCats, disposed of a powerful enemy weapon by tossing it into the planet core, and therefore his  recklessness is directly responsible for the genocide of his people. To my recollection, everyone takes this information in stride.

Because the navigation system has been damaged, Jaga volunteers to manually steer them all to the closest habitable planet while the others stay in their stasis pods. He nobly does so because he’s already old and likely to die even if he used the pod to slow down his aging. However, he’s able to guide the ship all the way to Jupiter before succumbing, whereupon he evaporates out of his leotard, cape, and helmet and stays dead until the next episode when he returns as an Obi-Wan-style Force ghost. Death is not a real thing to action figures.

Our audience surrogate, Lion-O, has a faulty stasis pod, so he retains the mind of a child but on awakening, has the body of an adult. He’s instantly granted authority and deference by the legitimate adults, and is entrusted with the one artifact considered worthwhile in all of Thundarian culture.

Other than that, there’s never an explanation of why the Mutants care so damn much about the Sword of Omens that they’d pursue the ThunderCats for however many years that space journey represents. They just want it, so of course they’d travel through time and space, abandoning their home galaxy for it. The Mutants are never again presented as a credible threat in future episodes. They can be competent offscreen or against hypothetical characters we never see, but relative to our small group of protagonists, they have to be incompetent, cowardly, and certainly inducing neither terror nor sympathy in young viewers. They have to fail, and you can’t fear someone who has no chance of achieving their aims.

This happens again but more slowly to Mumm-Ra, the mummified dark sorcerer they ThunderCats find on Third Earth. He requires a future power-up after failing so repeatedly, then gets his own, darkly mystical weapon. The Mutants are superceded by a group called the Lunataks, but because the status quo demands the ThunderCats succeed and the villains fail, they turn into a silly joke as well.

AvatarElementsAll of this is in contrast to a more modern show like ‘The Last Airbender’ or its sequel ‘Legend of Korra’, which have their own flaws, but are written to have characters with actual feelings and motivation. Rarely are villains strictly evil; they may do bad things, but their ambitions are sensible from their perspective. The heroes are allowed to fail or have setbacks as often as successes.

Most important, ‘The Last Airbender’ is a reference to an act of genocide perpetuated on an entire race of people in an attempt to kill our primary protagonist. His moment of childhood weakness to abandon his role as a hero and savior meant he wasn’t available to protect the people close to him, and when he finds out they have all died, he grieves. He’s able still to be happy, but he never forgets that he failed, failure has consequences, and suffering and death are part of the human experience.

Which is heavy stuff! But the show is still a cartoon, and the action scenes are exemplary; it’s funnier in puns, gags, and running jokes than anything ThunderCats ever did intentionally.   It’s just well-constructed in every way you could hope for, as a child or as an adult applying full critical faculties. Someone who watched the show as an 8-year-old is going to get more out of it at 15, and still more at 30.

I’ll never have that first moment of perfect innocent, love for ‘The Last Airbender’ or ‘Korra’. You can look at that as a pure, beautiful feeling to have, but really what it is is the toy-craving love. ‘I want to have an action figure’ love. ThunderCats was created to sell toys. ‘The Last Airbender’ was created for the same reason, but it — and to a greater extent its sequel ‘The Legend of Korra’ — were harried by network executives for their popularity among older, non-toy buying watchers. I didn’t watch the reboot of ThunderCats that came out in 2011, but it was apparently a lot more nuanced and sensible, but also less effective at selling things, so it didn’t last past its first season.thundercatsAvatar

You wonder why the advertising department didn’t notice this and start trying to sell more Fire Nation hoodies or ThunderCats coffee mugs. But they didn’t. Maybe the toymakers were already locked in. I don’t know. The ThunderCats of 1985 got 65 episodes right out of the gate. ‘Korra’ got 13, then another 13, then 26 for what is referred to as four seasons total. The airing schedule for it was even more chaotic.

Money indulges a multitude of sins, and a lack of money is its own sin.

My nostalgia for what I enjoyed as a child indulges a lot, too. As I watched the more than 30-year-old children’s cartoon, my mind was active and engaged in applying more thought into analyzing the events and its repercussions than anyone apparently ever bothered to invest in creating it.

The premise is hurried, and it spends very little time to stop and think about the human effect of the actions, which makes me want to stop and think about it. Naive love motivates a deeper love to try to understand and explain something that can best be understood as having a simple explanation: ineptitude.

Whatever music you listened between 12 and 16 will be the best forever. Cartoons probably run 6 to 10. Your imagination is colonized most profoundly by different things at different times.

So it’s inarguable that children’s media today is better than 30 years ago, and I’d argue in the past decade, it’s literally been as good as it’s ever been now that we view children as valuable minds to be shaped rather than tuggers of pockets or screaming bundles of pure evil. But a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore, and no matter how much new stuff you add as an adult to expand your experiences, the first, formative material retains its proportions in your head.

That’s why the return on investment for re-examining and understanding what was actually good, what was egregious, and what was just mishandled is surprisingly large. It’s almost like therapy.

The end result is a powerful transformation that takes something that was lazy, greedy, and less-than-two-dimensional to turn it into a satisfying creative work of your own making in your own head.

But I think it will be a while before I go back to do more work on it.


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