Back in the early 1980's, the toy megamanufacturer Mattel reportedly was working on a line of "Conan the Barbarian" action figures. Somewhere along the line, however, somebody in the Marketing department must have decided that an uncivilized pagan sword-wielding barbarian might not be the ideal role model for children, and so the toy line was converted into the "Masters of the Universe" series of toys.
The toy line sold surprisingly well. Mattel, looking for ways to boost sales still further, asked the animation studio Filmation to produce a cartoon show based on the toys.
Mattel got far more than it bargained for. "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" was born.
To its credit, Filmation did a remarkable amount of work to create the first season of He-Man. They went to the trouble of rotoscoping live-action footage to create a library of stock character movements. Their background artists created some stunning and surreal settings for the action, and the incidental music by Shuki Levy, Haim Saban and Erika Lane was often haunting and lyrical. "He-Man" had a look and feel which was startlingly different from other cartoons of the time.
The series started off straightforwardly enough, telling simple adventure stories from the planet Eternia. The prince of Eternia, Adam, has a magic sword which can transform him into He-Man, an incredibly powerful defender of the kingdom. His nemesis, the evil Skeletor, plots with his henchmen to conquer Eternia, and also to control the mysterious Castle Greyskull from which He-Man gets his power. After throwing in a few allies for He-Man, a lot of melodramatic comic-book dialogue, and the occasional magic artifact, another typical cartoon adventure series was born.
But the show didn't stay typical for long. The scriptwriters for the series, most notably Paul Dini, took the simple characters and began exploring them as people... often with surprising results. Prince Adam begins to worry that his father, King Randor, has more respect for He-Man than for him. "More than anything, I want to give up that disguise and make my father proud of me," he says in one episode. Later on he renounces He-Man's powers at a critical moment, with tragic results. In another episode Orko, the comic relief for the show, stops joking long enough to question his own usefulness... and finding himself to be basically unimportant, he tearfully leaves the kingdom. In "The Dragon's Gift", He-Man strikes a bargain with a dragon to save a friend's life... but discovers later that his side of the bargain is to take the life of another. And so on.
Perhaps the most extraordinary of these was "Teela's Quest", where Teela - Captain of the Royal Guards, and adopted daughter of Man-at-Arms - despairs of her adoption, and resolves to discover who her true mother is... regardless of the personal cost.
No question about it: this was not shaping up to be your average kid's show.
The show was immensely popular, and the sales of Mattel's "He-Man" line of toys skyrocketed. The success led to a sudden deluge of similar toy-based cartoons, including "G. I. Joe", "Thundercats", "Transformers", and "She-Ra", among many others.
The success, of course, also served to raise several obvious questions as to how ethical it was to design a children's cartoon series around a line of corporate merchandise.
Peggy Charren and Robert Krock, of Action for Children's Television, were among the first to express their concerns. They noted that television shows based on brand-name toys "blur the distinction between program content and commercial speech. Children are attracted to the concepts of the shows and don't fully understand the selling intent behind them... [This has become] a gold mine to station managers and toy manufacturers, but a commercial nightmare to most parents."
Unfortunately, rather than producing a reasoned discussion and some much-needed insight, the question was taken over and quickly polarized by extremists on all sides. Dr. Thomas Radecki, of the National Coalition for Television Violence, decried the "He-Man" series as "a blatant attempt to sell violence to children through the peddling of violent action toys... The brutal barbarian is still held up as a model. It's incompatible with the survival of a democratic society." Curiously, Dr. Radecki had never actually seen an episode of "He-Man" when he made this statement. The corporate point of view was presented to the public in equally fanatic terms. When an issue regarding advertisers' ethics was raised by the publicly-funded Children's Television Workshop (the producers of "Sesame Street"), merchandiser Cy Schneider flippantly dismissed the issue by insulting the questioners: "The people at CTW sound like adolescents - they talk about ethics and keep asking for money." (This quote is taken from Schneider's frightening how-to manual of merchandising to children, Children's Television: The Art, The Business, And How It Works. You can find the quote in Chapter Six: "The Do-Gooders, Politicos, Pedagogues, and Assorted Other Ax Grinders".) As for television stations, some went so far as to defend themselves by asserting that the cartoons they aired were educational programming - filing statements with the FCC stating that G. I. Joe's fight against the evil Cobra demonstrated "social consciousness and responsibility," and that The Jetsons "instructs children about life in the year 2000."
I wish I was making all this up. But it's all true.
...Who, in the end, was taking advantage of whom? Was He-Man a hero, or was he just another corporate salesman? Was Filmation's work a triumph of art and character, or was it just a half-hour-long Mattel commercial? Were children being entertained by the series, or were they being manipulated for commercial ends?
Fascinating questions of corporate influence on the young, and of the blurry distinctions between art and commerce, were raised and brought into sharp relief by Filmation's Masters of the Universe... but unfortunately, the extremists on both sides succeeded only in polarizing the subject and preventing any intelligent discussion.
Filmation made a total of 130 episodes of "He-Man", in two series of 65 episodes each, and a further 77 or so episodes of the spinoff series "She-Ra". Sadly, though, the later episodes (with a few exceptions) were unable to maintain the extraordinary quality of the first series. One might think that was why, after a remarkable run of over two hundred syndicated episodes, the story of Eternia finally came to a halt.
What truly ended the series, however, was greed.
"He-Man" proved to be a victim of its own success. The first season was so successful as a merchandising vehicle that other manufacturers, eager to seize upon a profitable idea themselves, quickly began bringing toy-based cartoons of their own into production. Within two years the market for syndicated cartoons was saturated and hopelessly overcrowded, and programs began to fail left and right. "He-Man", despite its earlier success, became one of the many casualties.
Time passed, and Group W Productions, the owners of Filmation, eventually sold the studio to L'Oreal, the French cosmetic firm.
The speculation is that L'Oreal, far from interested in actually doing any animation, was only interested in acquiring the European rights to Filmation's library of past products... including "He-Man". Whatever the truth of the matter may be, L'Oreal was quick to shut down Filmation's future - Filmation's entire production staff was fired in one day.
"The announcement just dropped out of the blue that Friday morning," director Tom Tataranowicz recalled. " 'Put down your pencils and get out.' "
L'Oreal may have had reason to be in haste. The closure took place one day before a new federal law went into effect, a law requiring the company to give its employees 60 days' written notice before the mass firing. It appears that, in addition to having no interest in animation, L'Oreal was also more intent on saving a few bucks than it was on giving Filmation's employees any chance to brace themselves before the closing of their company.
Filmation's doors were closed, and its productions silenced, on February 3, 1989. Filmation's 230 employees, most of them animators, found themselves cast out into the street without jobs, and so it was that the doors to He-Man's future were sealed forever.
In the June 1988 issue of Los Angeles magazine, Lou Scheimer, the executive producer of "He-Man", was asked about the biggest threat facing the animation industry. He could have answered with a long statement decrying foreign competitors, or the cost of Filmation's excellent Union animators, or even a complaint about parental watchdog agencies such as Action for Children's Television.
"There are just too many bookkeepers," he replied. "Too many fucking bookkeepers."
Here are a few tidbits which true diehard fans of the series might find to be of interest:
(I have avoided, up until now, any mention of the live-action 1987 movie Masters of the Universe starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella. Oddly enough, when it first opened in theatres it proved to be a twofold testament to the skill of Filmation's animators and writers. For one, at the screening I attended, most of us in the audience were adults - adults who were fans of the show, with no kids to use as an excuse for our being there. For the other, at the end of the screening, I heard many of those same adults sounding bitterly disappointed. "I expected better," many people said. "They just didn't pay enough attention to the show." When a big-budget, live-action movie can't stand comparison to the low-budget, animated TV series which spawned it, it's worth thinking about.)