Opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author, David C. Matthews (unless otherwise indicated). Images used are copyrighted by their respective owners, and appear under the "fair use" provisions of the copyright laws.

Monday, June 20, 2011

DVD Review: "The Herculoids: The Complete Original Series"

UPDATED: See note at end of post

  • Series premiere: Sept. 9, 1967 on CBS

  • DVD release: June 14, 2011
  • Created by: Alex Toth

  • Stories by: Ken Spears, Joe Ruby, David Scott

  • Voices: Mike Road (Zandor, Zok, Igoo, Tundro); Virginia Gregg (Tara); Ted Eccles (Dorno); Don Messick (Gloop, Gleep)

Let me say up front: I have been waiting for this release ever since the DVD format became public. I was a huge fan of The Herculoids when I was a child, watching these strange but lovable creatures and their battles with the nefarious forces - some from off-planet, some native to the planet - who sought to destroy, enslave, or exploit the planet Amzot and its inhabitants.

And as I saw Warner Home Video release series after series of Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Wacky Races, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Josie and the Pussycats, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (as well as the other two series that, together with The Herculoids makes up my own "holy trinity" of H-B action cartoons, Jonny Quest and Space Ghost and Dino Boy), my heart held hope that some day Zok, Tara, Tundro, Gloop and their friends would join their brethren on my DVD shelf. That day has come at last with the release of The Herculoids: The Complete Original Animated Series on the Warner Archive label.

Okay, let me get this out of the way: I'm disappointed that WB Home Video (WBHV) didn't see fit to give The Herculoids the same "deluxe" treatment that Jonny Quest and Space Ghost got, nicely remastered with a good (if not extensive) selection of bonus materials. (Even the one bonus feature The Herculoids gets is recycled from an earlier WBHV release; more about that later.) I'd have liked to see galleries of concept art, storyboards, model sheets, etc.; I even fantasized about a bonus CD of soundtrack music.

But given the economic realities of the times, and the declining sales of DVDs lately, I can't fault WBHV for not going all-out for this set. The Herculoids debuted in 1967: 44 years ago! Most of its original fans are *ahem* as old as me, and the series is not well-known even by knowledgeable fans of Hanna-Barbera. So WBHV (probably correctly) saw at best a niche market for a release of the original series; were it not for manufacture-on-demand (MOD) technology, we probably wouldn't be able to enjoy even this release. So, while I'm disappointed that the kind of "deluxe" release I'd hoped for will more than likely never see the light of day, I am grateful that at least we have the original cartoons in a collectible form.

As stated on the product page at the Warner Archives site, these episodes have not been "remastered or restored specifically" for DVD, so there's a little dust and other flaws in the transfer. But honestly, there are so many instances of dirt on the production cels themselves that it's hard to tell which is which; in any event, what there may be is not so noticeable as to be distracting unless you're a demanding videophile, so I'll rate picture quality as "good, not quite great", although this is the best these cartoons have looked in years! (These cartoons will actually look better on smaller screens.)

The sound is the original mono from the original broadcasts; back in the day stereo soundtracks weren't produced even for prime time shows. These episodes sound as good as they can be expected to sound given the age of the materials involved, so once again, I'm rating "good, not great".

As for the content: as I mentioned before, I was a huge Herculoids fan when I was a child, and even today I carry a great fondness for the concept and the characters. Looking at these cartoons as an adult (moreover, as an adult who was inspired by shows like this, Space Ghost, et al to become an illustrator/cartoonist who dabbles in action/adventure comics), I see an imaginative and spectacular concept that didn't reach its full potential due to tight production schedules, minuscule budgets, and the decision that each half-hour program would consist of two 10-to-11 minute episodes instead of one full-length episode. The short running times reduce many of the stories to "shorthand" versions of plots that become somewhat repetitive and formulaic, because almost no time could be devoted to character interactions or explorations of the potentially fascinating creatures and cultures featured in some episodes (such as "The Raider Apes", the Parrot Men from "The Beaked People", or the Reptons from "Ruler of the Reptons").

But having said that, there's still a lot of fun to be had from watching the Herculoids in action; whether it's Tundro shooting energy rocks from his forehead horn, Zok firing "laser" beams from his eyes, or Gloop and/or Gleep assuming their many and varied forms!

I have a couple of quibbles with the presentation, however: I'd have liked to see the shows presented in their original broadcast order [SEE UPDATE BELOW], and some reassurance that the episodes are complete and unedited, especially as regards the prologues to the second cartoon in the half-hour program. (In their original broadcasts, the first cartoon would start after the first commercial break following the opening credits. At the conclusion of the first cartoon, a brief prologue teased the next adventure. These prologues were often edited out of the episodes during their rebroadcasts on the Cartoon Network and Boomerang cable channels.) "Time Creatures" on Disc 1, in particular, seems to start very abruptly as Dorno confronts invaders from Amzot's future, and I wonder if this episode is missing a prologue. It's hard to tell without knowing whether it's the first or the second episode in the show. (Although according to both the Wikipedia article and the Big Cartoon Database entry, "Time Creatures" is the first episode of the show, so maybe the abrupt start is a bit of experimentation on the part of the writers and animators.)

There's no mention of it on the case, but there is one bonus feature, recycled from an earlier WBHV release, "Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1960s Volume 1": a short (4 1/2 minute) mini-doc entitled "The Herculoids" First family of Quasar". It's mostly talking heads, animation historians like Jerry Beck and animation professionals like Paul Dini and Mark Evanier talking about the appeal of the Herculoids to young (mostly male) viewers (one interviewee refers to the concept as "dinosaurs in space" which really isn't far off the mark), the contributions of designer Alex Toth on Saturday morning animation, and the influences on and of The Herculoids. The highlights of the feature are the (all-too-brief) glimpses we get of concept art, model sheets, and storyboards. (My own wishlist for bonus features would have been to have a gallery of this production art on the DVD.)

(Odd that the feature is entitled "First Family of Quasar", though, since the name "Quasar" wasn't used for the Herculoids' home planet until the 1980s "Space Stars" revival of the characters; the few times their planet wasn't referred to as "Zandor's planet" or other such nickname, it was known as "Amzot", which I think is a much cooler name anyway.)

Bottom line: this is a "must-have" for fans of the show; it might be an acquired taste for those unfamiliar with the show from its original run or its Cartoon Network/Boomerang repeats. And I salute Warner Archive for finally making The Herculoids available on DVD!

UPDATE, June 30 2011: According to a tweet I received from @WarnerArchive, the episodes are presented in original production order, e.g. the order in which they were made.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Preview video clip for Herculoids DVD!

The website TV Shows on DVD has been great at alerting me about news of the release of The Herculoids - The Complete Original Animated Series from Warner Archives. And now, they've posted a video clip from the set!

The order page for the DVD states that "This film has been manufactured from the best-quality video master currently available and has not been remastered or restored specifically for this DVD and Digital Download release" (emphasis mine), but still, if the preview clip is any indication of the quality of the rest of the set, it'll still look GREAT! And I am even happier than before that I already have my pre-order in for it. I am stoked! Once I receive the Herculoids set, my three favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoons shows (also including Space Ghost and Jonny Quest) will be in my collection on DVD, fulfilling a long-time desire.

BTW, those of you who are fans of the show might just recognize the clip as an excerpt from the episode "Mekkor", which I'll be reviewing episode after next (next up is "The Spider Man" - and no, no Marvel characters appear in that story!).

UPDATE: Found another preview clip! This one's from "The Pod Creatures".

UPATE 2: Found a third clip on YouTube; once again, from "Mekkor". This one, though, needs a spoiler warning because it gives away the climax of the cartoon.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Episode Review: #6, "The Pirates" - Sept. 23, 1967

NOTE: I have no idea why some of the images are only partially loading. The files I have display completely and correctly in Photoshop, and I've replaced the problem pics repeatedly, but the problem just won't go away. My apologies.

(My copy of this episode did not include a prologue, but because this was the second story of this half-hour, I assume there was one. Fortunately, it doesn't seem too important to the plot.)

UPDATE: "The Pirates" actually appears as the very first episode of the first half-hour show on the Warner Archive DVD release. Since the episodes are arranged in production order (instead of broadcast order), I have to assume there was never a prologue to this episode. This makes pinning down Sept. 23, 1967 as the original broadcast date very problematic, since both Wikipedia and The Big Cartoon Database list "The Pirates" as the second cartoon in the program, "The Mole Men" being the first.


A sinister spaceship hurtles through the stellar void, a small explosion occurring just behind them.

Inside the craft, two humanoid figures lay in glass tubes protruding from the bulkhead. Nearby, the captain of the crew questions his second-in-command: "Has their ship been destroyed, Lieutenant?" "Yes, sir, without a trace."

"Good." The crew is gathered around a large bin full of sparkling gems. "We have what we came for." As for the prisoners?

"Dispose of them in the usual way."

The "usual way" consists of shooting the "orbit capsules" into space like torpedoes. "Let the Patrol recover them," the leader orders. "Head for Zandor's planet!" The ship picks up speed as it heads for its new destination.

Finding a suitable spot, the ship comes to a hovering rest over the ground of the planet. "Post two guards while we bury the chest!" orders the captain.

Two hovercraft exit through a hatch on top of the ship, as the two sentries take up positions.

Underneath the ship, an energy beam burns a hole into the ground, into which the treasure chest is lowered under the captain's watchful eye. But one of the guards has a report: "A party approaches!"

He's spotted Igoo and Tundro, with Dorno on Tundro's back, unwittingly nearing the site of the treasure burial. The captain gives the order: "Whoever approaches must be eliminated!"

"Hey, what's that?" exclaims Dorno as he spots the onrushing hovercraft.

The pirate guard opens fire on Dorno, who takes refuge behind a boulder.

The hovercraft attack Igoo and Tundro, easily evading Tundro's energy rocks and Igoo's grasp.

But Tundro makes a prodigious leap and impales one of the hovercraft on his horn.

He tosses the craft to Igoo, who crushes it in his paws.

The pirate guard escapes via jet backpack, as Igoo bellows his frustration.

The other hovercraft pirate then attacks Igoo with his ray pistol, but to little effect.

Comes the cavalry to the rescue, in the form of Zandor a-dragonback on Zok.

The pirate sees another new target…

…but Zandor intercepts the blaster bolt with his shield. And now it's Zok's turn…

…scoring a direct hit on the hovercraft.

The two pirate guards, now reduced to jet backpacks for mobility, evade another blast from Zok's eyes and report that they are being attacked by "a man on a winged creature!"

"It is Zandor!" repiles the captain. "Return to the ship at once!"

Zandor notes that the escapees are heading for the thick jungle. "There may be a lot more invading the planet! Leave me here, Zok! You go warn Tara; I'll look for Dorno!"

But the escaping pirates have found Dorno first! "Get going, Tundro!"

The pirates fire their ray pistols at Dorno; direct hits! But the rays have the effect of paralyzing Dorno, and lifting him off Tundro's back.

Tundro realizes too late that Dorno is gone, as the pirates carry Dorno back to the ship.

At the top of the cliff overlooking the ship, Igoo watches in helpless frustration as the hatch closes, trapping his young friend inside!

Commercial break!

Inside the ship, the pirate captain gloats over capturing the son of Zandor, "the perfect hostage!"

The ship's engines prepare for takeoff, but a well-placed boulder thrown by Igoo from the cliff above squashes that plan (as well as the engine). Zandor finds Igoo, who points out the ship. "So that's it! Space pirates burying their stolen treasure!"

Just then, a warning from the pirate captain: the hatch on top of the ship opens to reveal Dorno, a blaster pistol held to his head by the pirate behind him. "Either you allow us to make repairs, or you will never see him alive again! You have only minutes to decide!" as the hatch closes again.

Understandably, Igoo wants to crush some evil space pirate skulls; "No, Igoo!" A familiar screech is heard from the sky above: Zok has returned, bearing Tara, Gloop and Gleep.

Tara, of course, is distressed by her son's plight; but Gloop has a plan.

On the viewscreen inside the ship, Zandor is seen signaling his willingness to talk. "Open up," orders the captain, "but be prepared for tricks!"

Gloop, meanwhile, is taking a strategic position just under the ship.

"Do you think it'll work?" asks Tara. "It's got to work!" is Zandor's reply.

The hatch opens again, with Dorno and his guard once again visible. "Your time is up, Zandor," intones the pirate captain. "You have three seconds; yes or no? One! …Two…!"

Gloop stretches up to the open hatch and surrounds Dorno on the count of "Three!" The pirate guard fires at Dorno, point-blank range - but Gloop's embrace protects the youngster from harm! Dorno is then whisked quickly out of the hatch, and the clutches of the pirate gang!

The captain's orders: "Your weapons! Use them!!" But Gloop stretches up again and wraps himself around the pirate guard, flinging him roughly out of the hatch.

"Now let's get out of here!" Dorno tells Gloop.

"It's Zandor or us! A fight to the finish!!" the enraged pirate captain exclaims, as he gives the order to "Man all flying torpedoes - and attack!"

We see three hovercraft exit the ship to attack the Herculoids. "You know what to do!" Zandor shouts to his friends.

Igoo picks up one of his favorite weapons: a huge log - which would've taken out all three craft at once, but the pirates' ray pistols stop the log in its trajectory, and burns it to a cinder!

A flying torpedo fires a beam from its underside, lifting Igoo into the air, and dropping him!

"He'll crash on the rocks!" Dorno exclaims in terror. But not if Gloop can help it…

Igoo bounces off the trampoline-form of Gloop…

…with enough upward momentum to shatter the hovercraft!

The other two hovercraft attack Zandor; but from his position on Tundro's back he fires an energy rock at them; Tundro fires two more from his forehead horn.

The force of the exploding rocks crumples the hovercraft, when then explode!

From the top of the cliff, Tara and Dorno watch the battle, unaware of a fourth pirate hovercraft which has gotten the drop on them!

But Gleep's gotten the drop on the pirate…

…and forced it to crash into a not-so-nearby tree.

Two more hovercraft appear; "They're all yours, Zok!" Zandor shouts to the dragon.

"My crew is gone! But if I have enough power, I can still take off!" The crippled ship does indeed possess enough power to lift off…

…but Igoo stands in wait for it.

He grabs the ship as it passes, and manages to pull it back, before tossing it on a course of his devising…

…into the face of a cliff!

"He didn't make it," Dorno astutely observes. Zandor agrees: "Thanks to Igoo, his pirate days are over!"

"What about the treasure they buried?" asks Dorno. "We'll leave it there, and forget it," Zandor replies. "And let's hope no one ever finds it!"


Heh, between this story and the previous one ("The Mole Men"), we've covered two staples of science-fantasy: mole men and space pirates.

But as tempting as it is to make "arrr matey!"-type comments whenever pirates are mentioned, they aren't really appropriate here. While this unnamed captain and his crew do fulfill the technical definition of pirates - they hijack space-faring vessels and "relieve" them of their valuables - there's really not much to associate them with the pop-culture stereotype of pirates that are all the rage now. The captain does not carry a robotic parrot on his shoulder (as do the pirates featured in at least one episode each of Lost In Space and Doctor Who; the crew doesn't use nautical terms in their speech; indeed, the only concession to pirate imagery is a vaguely death's-head-looking symbol on their uniforms and on their vehicles:

This is actually a credit to the writers of the episode for not giving in to that temptation. I don't think, even as a child, I would've taken these characters seriously as villains had they been portrayed as simply outer-space versions of Long John Silver.

Plot-wise, though, this is little more than a variation on the second story, "The Raiders": Dorno serves the same "hostage" role that Tara fulfilled in the earlier story, but the basic plot is the same. So there's not a whole lot to say about this episode that wasn't already written about "The Raiders".

I do wonder, however, how Zandor's reputation has gotten out to the rest of the galaxy given how few people actually survive their encounters with the Herculoids; also, how many nefarious types still target Amzot for their evil schemes despite the fact that nobody has yet succeeded in defeating Zandor and his troupe!

And isn't it considerate of the pirates to eject their prisoners into space where there's at least some chance of being rescued, rather than killing them outright? Yeah, yeah, I know it's not mercy on the part of the pirates, it's the unwillingness of the writers of children's shows to make their villains too villainous, lest the pressure groups come down on them. (And in many ways The Herculoids was one of the more violent cartoon series of the time, with plenty of implied deaths! And indeed the pressure groups did come down on the superhero and sci-fi cartoons of the time, resulting in the replacement of shows like The Herculoids, Space Ghost, and Birdman with lighter fare like Wacky Races and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?)

The "Oh, Come ON!" Moment? I have to say that, as rote as the plot in this cartoon was, it actually was told better than some of the others I've seen lately, so an OCO moment was hard to come by. Pressed to choose one, I'd have to pick the moment, at the climax of the story, that Igoo grabs the escaping pirate ship and stops it in mid-flight. I don't doubt that Igoo possesses the strength to do so, but where does his anchorage come from? What's rooting him to that rock he's standing on that allows him to stop the ship, rather than the ship carrying him off? And this is a concept that is not at all unique to this episode; it seems to be a staple of almost all superhero shows, and shows that feature people (or creatures) of extraordinary abilities. How many times have you seen a superhero in a movie or TV show stop a carful of escaping crooks by simply standing in front of the car and letting it crash into him, while he stands immobile as a rock? Once again, it's a matter of strength or invulnerability, it's anchorage: if the hero only weighs, say 200 or 250 pounds, that's not enough weight to stop an oncoming car. The car would knock him off his feet! His purpose would still be accomplished; the crash would disable the car, stopping the crooks' escape, and the hero's invulnerability would protect him from injury, but he wouldn't be able to just stand there unbudging like Juggernaut from X-Men (who possesses some mutant power that gives him that anchorage, from what I understand).

When the captain sends his crew on the "fight to the finish" versus the Herculoids, Zandor makes an interesting statement: "Here they come! You know what to do!" A tacit acknowledgement, perhaps that this sort of thing happens so often (alien invaders/ravagers/scum attack the planet) that the Herculoids have formulated and practiced "standard" defense strategies against them? (It would actually make sense…)