Godzilla on the Small Screen

A tale of two TV interpretations of the King of the Monsters.
March 28, 2016
Without a doubt, probably the literal biggest star in film history is one of Japan's equally-biggest exports this side of sushi, the CD, and 'Super-Sentai'-style shows. Of course, I refer to the legendary King of the Monsters, the daikaiju (giant monster) trailblazer, and as of 2015 an official citizen of the land of the rising sun, Godzilla.

Godzilla has been a hit with fans for decades, with 28 films alone in his native Japan and a slew of merchandise sold worldwide. The appeal was not lost on American film and television producers, who made sure the Big G was made a household name stateside. As such, Godzilla has maintained a steady U.S. television presence for years, notably airing many of the films in Toho Studios' series. (El Rey Network recently ran a weekend-long marathon of them.)

When it came to American interpretations of Godzilla, the outcomes varied. We know that the 1998 Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich film effort did NOT do so well, and the 2014 Gareth Edwards take had the slight opposite effect, with a sequel having since been greenlighted. Strangely enough, where American film remakes of Godzilla have mixed results, American television efforts based on the kaiju king seem to do a bit better, evidenced by two animated cartoon adaptations: Hanna-Barbera's 1978 series, and the 1998 Sony Pictures Television spin-off of the flop film.

Here, I'll be delving into the similarities and differences between the two cartoon takes on Godzilla, both of which were instrumental in helping me develop my lifelong fandom when it comes to the King of the Monsters. So sit back, have a hot-buttered rum, and enjoy the kaiju komparison....

As the saying goes, 'age before beauty', so first, we'll be looking at Hanna-Barbera's 1978 animated take.
Co-produced with Godzilla's parent company Toho Studios, with help from the franchise's longtime U.S. distributor and producer Henry G. Saperstein (a good friend of Joseph Barbera), the show originally aired on NBC as half of an hour-long block called "The Godzilla Power Hour", alongside another Hanna-Barbera action show called Jana of the Jungle. It would then alternate between having its own standalone timeslot and being packaged alongside other shows (mostly Hanna-Barbera-produced), running for two seasons until 1981.

The show followed the exploits of the crew of the research ship Calico, made up of Captain Carl Majors (Jeff David), Dr. Quinn Darien (Brenda Thompson), her nephew Pete (Al Eisenmann), and her assistant Brock (Hilly Hicks). Joining them was the 'comic relief' of the show in the form of Godzooky (Don Messick), Godzilla's 'cowardly cousin' and a small dragon. (Like his film counterpart Minya, he could only breathe smoke rings.) Godzilla himself (Ted Cassidy, using a roar similar to the one he used in the Incredible Hulk TV series) became their 'guardian' after they saved Godzooky from a coral reef. Whenever the crew ran into trouble (usually in the form of other giant monsters), they would use a special communicator (or Godzooky's howling) to call Godzilla into action.

The show deviated heavily from the source material, and more than just the relationship between Godzilla and the human crew (Godzooky's inclusion could be seen as the show's answer to Minya in the Toho films). The Big G's powers were altered--instead of breathing his signature blue atomic fire (and his dorsal spikes glowing in the process), he breathed regular flames, and also possessed heat vision similar to Superman. None of his familiar monster friends and foes were used, so many of the creatures and villains were original creations, similar to the kinds of terrors you'd find in an old Marvel monster comic from the 50's and 60's. Of course, the violence was greatly toned down thanks mostly to Standards and Practices, and a small bit of educational content was snuck in very 'subtly': a brief explanation about certain scientific phenomenon or instruments, at certain points in each episode.

This show was my first exposure to the Godzilla franchise, after Cartoon Network ran the entire series as part of its 'Super Chunk' semi-recurring marathon block in 1998, the year that the TriStar movie premiered. I got hooked afterwards, gobbling up some of the movie's merchandise (though not seeing it till about 2004-ish), and renting one of the Toho films from Hollywood Video (1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla, my most-rented tape). I didn't see the show again until I spotted one of the DVD's at a Suncoast Video (RIP). Since then, I've managed to acquire Classic Media's long out-of-print three volumes of the first season (now I really need the second--someone untangle the legalities, PLEASE!).
As another saying goes, 'out with the old, in with the new', where now we'll jump two decades ahead to look at Sony's 1998 animated take.

From the same people who gave us Men in Black: The Series and Extreme Ghostbusters, and who would later give us Jackie Chan Adventures and The Batman, Godzilla: The Series aired from 1998-2000 on the Fox Kids block for two seasons, with two of the episodes never airing in the U.S. It did well in the Fox Kids lineup of the time, until it was overshadowed by the rise of Pokemon on Kids WB and Fox Kids' own Digimon, engaged in a neck-and-neck struggle for dominance on the airwaves; this resulted in the show having a pretty nebulous broadcast history, being rescheduled, skipped, or even temporarily taken off the air. The show was actually better-received than the movie it spun off from, due in part to the similarity fans saw to the original Godzilla mythos.

Within the context of the narrative, the show followed the titular monster--a spawn of the movie version--coming to the aid of Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (with Ian Ziering replacing Matthew Broderick), as he led the research team Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team ('H.E.A.T') as they investigated giant monster phenomenon around the world. Joining him were two fellow scientists from the film, Dr. Elsie Chapman (Charity James, in place of Vicki Lewis) and Dr. Mendel Craven (Malcom Danare, reprising his film role), along with two new characters: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), Nick's intern, and Monique Dupre (Brigitte Bako), a French DGSE agent placed on the team by Philippe Roache (Keith Szarabajka, taking over for the film's Jean Reno). The team was rounded out by Craven's robot N.I.G.E.L. (Tom Kenny), or "Next Millennium Intelligence Gathering Electronic Liaison", whose record number of fatalities would be overtaken by one Kenny McCormick. Other characters from the film included Nick's ex, reporter Audrey Timmonds (Paget Brewster, filling in for Maria Pitillo); her cameraman, Victor "Animal" Palotti (Joe Pantoliano, in lieu of Hank Azaria); and Major Anthony Hicks (Kevin Dunn, reprising his role).

Believe it or not, I watched this show on Fox Kids years before finally seeing the movie, and this also helped cement my G-fandom before long; it helps that this was during a period of time where I was a real Fox Kids devotee. (And the fandom's right--it's miles better than the film.) Imagine my surprise when, one day, I find the show not only on Netflix years later, but also the complete series on DVD. Thank you, Mill Creek Entertainment!

Now that everyone's primed on the two shows, let's compare and contrast.

In terms of key similarities, there seems to be only one: both shows feature a heroic incarnation of Godzilla allied with a human scientific research team, with their own comic-relief 'mascot', fighting giant monsters and aliens around the world.

In terms of key differences, there are many, aside from the time periods in which each show is set:
1. Hanna-Barbera's Godzilla is seen as a heroic figure by both the Calico crew and the general populace wherever they go, whereas the Sony version has a more 'Hulk'-like reputation--to the point where most of the world still sees the creature as a threat.
2. The 'comic relief'/mascot of each show is different (tiny dragon vs. exploratory robot), but each still got laughs out of the audience.
3. The looks and designs of the opponent monsters--the '78 cartoon's look like something(s) from the imaginations of Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, or Herb Trimpe, while the '98 version's are like something out of an early Image Comics series (or the imaginations of Arthur Adams or Mike Mignola).

4. The storytelling differs in that the '78 is more episodic and has a bit of a camp tone, while the '98 is more serious and has a bit more serialization (especially with the 3-part "Monster Wars" arc).

I hope you all enjoyed this look back at the Monster King's two turns on TV. I sure enjoyed writing this, and it in turn has led me to a big question:

Will anyone attempt a small-screen take on Gareth Edwards' version of the beast?
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