My Custom-Made Saturday Morning Block
In which I wax nostalgic while presenting my source of retro-relief.
The year 2014 had many wins and losses, but perhaps one of the most underwritten losses was not of a person, animal or plant species, or sports game, but of a uniquely American pop cultural institution. What I refer to is that which we, for decades, have always looked forward to at the end of a long and drudging week, a perfect excuse to get up early, pour a bowl of cereal, and turn the television set on. I refer to, my fellow nostalgia nuts, the fabled Saturday morning block of television shows––most of them cartoons, of course. The last bastion of this great American entertainment/marketing gimmick––the CW's "Vortexx"––aired its final broadcast in 2014 after recent FCC-backed legislation passed. There have even been wild stories of people standing vigil at their TV sets…Okay, I kid, I kid, it's not exactly that much cause for mourning.
Last year was also the year I graduated college, and with it, feelings of slight unease in this time of transition came along as I started to position myself in the working world. I needed something to help put myself at ease as I work to find a decent, and more permanent job, as well as giving myself relief from the temp work I did. Inspiration came after reading articles from all over the place about the demise of Saturday morning cartoon blocks. It was then I created an outlet for my growing reminiscence amid my stepping into the realm of the working stiff. After bookmarking several YouTube playlists, I crafted my own Saturday morning block, giving me something to look forward to every weekend like the days of yore.
My block isn't an ordinary one, yet at the same time, it follows a similar formula. It is a combination of mostly action cartoons (often designed to sell toys, he said cynically), some of which including dubbed Japanese anime, and some of which are based on comic books. What makes mine stand out is its multigenerational lineup, in that the combined programming spans three decades. Plus, all of the shows are what many of you here would call the "unlikeliest contenders" in terms of choice. Among those shows are four that I actually did watch in my younger years during the late 1990s and early 2000's, and ones where I never got the chance to see the "whole story". Join me now, as I present to you the programming found in my homemade Saturday morning cartoon block:
1. Spider-Woman (1979-80)
The first series in my lineup is also the lone 1970s representative. based on the Marvel comics character introduced two years prior, the show focused on the superheroic alter-ego of Jessica Drew (voiced by Joan Van Ark) as she fought different villains, monsters, and what-have-you over the course of 16 episodes. Unlike the source material, the cartoon series ditched the Arthurian elements and connection to HYDRA. Instead, Jessica Drew was now publisher/editor-in-chief of "Justice" magazine, assisted in her newshounding by her photographer Jeff Hunt (Bruce Miller) and her semi–precocious nephew Billy Drew (Bryan Scott). The only other Marvel characters to appear in the whole show were Spider-Man himself, the crime boss known as the Kingpin, Dormammu, and Graviton. (The latter two being the characters in name only.) One other thing making this version of Ms. Drew different from her comic book counterpart was her very Lynda Carter "Wonder Woman"-esque transformation sequence.
I added this series mainly for the curiosity factor, as I had read about the show multiple times and wanted to see how this final DePatie-Freleng Enterprises cartoon (before they became Marvel Productions) was executed. Needless to say, it was corny in some places, but that's to be expected from a cartoon of its time. Incidentally, due to the show's 16-episode count, it was the first on my block that I finished in its entirety. It also reinforced my idea/hope that one day, should Drew return to animation more in-line with her comic version, that she'll be played by Joan Van Ark's daughter, voice actress Vanessa Marshall.
2. The Incredible Hulk (1982-83)
The second comic-based show on this block, and one I learned about thanks to the great website Marvel Animation Age, the series was produced by the same team that gave us the 1981 "Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends" (1981-83)--kinda makes you wonder if they're meant to be in the same continuity...Anyway, this iteration of the Hulk mythos followed Bruce Banner (Michael Bell) and his gamma-powered alter-ego (Bob Holt) as they fought different menaces, some of whom were after whatever experiment he was working on at Gamma Base. His supporting cast included the usual suspects, such as fellow scientist and love interest Betty Ross (BJ Ward); her father, base commander General 'Thunderbolt' Ross (Robert Ridgely); his right-hand man Major Ned (Glen in the comics) Talbot (Pat Fraley); and Bruce's 'sidekick' Rick Jones (Michael Horton), who sported blonde hair and a cowboy hat in the cartoon. Two new characters were created specifically for the show, they being diner-owner Rio (Roberto Cruz) and his daughter Rita (Susan Blu), who dated Rick. Serving as narrator was none other than the Man himself, Stan Lee.
I found this show to be a good fit for the block due to it being slightly more 'dramatic' in tone than its contemporaries, and since I liked the 1996 Marvel Animated Universe Hulk series, I wanted to see how this predecessor did. Surprisingly, despite the changes made to avoid the eye of censors, this show is remarkably charming--curiosity satisfied! I especially liked how they handled She-Hulk (voiced by Michael Bell's wife Victoria Carroll), along with what few actual Marvel villains they did use, such as Hulk foe the Leader (Stan Jones), Fantastic Four enemy Puppet Master (Bob Holt), HYDRA, and Spider-Man villain Doctor Octopus (Bell). It'll be a shame once I finish all 13 episodes.
3. Saint Seiya/Knights of the Zodiac (1986-89)
With this show, this goes back to when I was introduced to the original manga by Masami Kurumada, via the U.S. version of Shonen Jump magazine. The story follows five young men as they fight evil as the armor-wearing knights of the Greek goddess Athena, in her human incarnation of heiress Sienna Nobu (or Saori Kido for the purists out there). Each warrior wears an armor (or 'cloth') based on one of the 88 constellations, with the main five of the saga being Pegasus Seiya, Dragon Shiryu (my personal favorite), Swan Hyoga, Andromeda Shun, and his older brother Phoenix Ikki. Together, they square off against foes such as the corrupt master of Sanctuary, headquarters of all knights; the mariners of the sea god Poseidon; and the spectres of Hades, god of the Underworld.
I had originally glimpsed the anime on, of all things, a "Super Duper Sumos" VHS tape, among other previews for anime releases offered by DIC/ADV Films. Later on, around 2004, Cartoon Network aired some of the episodes of the DIC dub as part of its short-lived Saturday-evening action cartoon block, two of which I caught. Then came the lengthy period where I collected all 28 of the manga volumes put out by Shonen Jump USA, which ultimately made me decide to add the anime--in its uncut, ADV-produced dub--to my block.
4. Spiral Zone (September-December 1987)
"Spiral Zone" stands out among its contemporaries mainly for its dark and semi-apocalyptic premise. Based partly on a toyline made by Bandai/Tonka, the series focuses on an international team of soldiers--made up of Dirk Courage (Dan Gilvezan), Wolfgang 'Tank' Schmidt (Neil Ross), Hiro Taka (Michael Bell), Max Jones (Hal Rayle), and Katerina Anastasia (Mona Marshall)--tasked by the UN-formed MCC with freeing the Earth from the machinations of a mad scientist. Said scientist, now calling himself Overlord (Neil Ross), is backed by his Black Widows: Bandit (also Ross), Ursula 'Duchess' Dire (Mona Marshall), Razorback (Frank Welker), and Reaper (Denny Delk). Over the course of 65 episodes (which means this show will outlast the rest on my block), the Zone Riders would be deployed around the world to destroy Overlord's 'Zone Generators' to free the world from his clutches.
I got curious about this show while perusing behindthevoiceactors.com, as well as remembering some photos of the toys I saw in an old Tomart's collector guide I have. One Wikipedia search later, and I decided to give the show a shot; I did not regret that choice. Considering that J. Michael Straczynski (under the pseudonym Fettes Grey) had some hand in the show's development, it's no wonder it had such a distinctive quality to it. I hope that quality carries over when I transition to the Toei-animated episodes.
5. Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs (1987-1988)
The only show on this block that's a combination mecha anime and space western (like its contemporaries "Bravestarr" and "The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers"), "Saber Rider" is a U.S.-dubbed reworking of the 1984 anime "Space Musketeer Bismark", and was brought over stateside by World Events Productions (who had done the same thing in 1984 with "Voltron"). The series followed a quartet of 'Star Sheriffs' in the far future, made up of Scots-English nobleman Saber Rider (Rob Paulsen), race car driver 'Fireball' Hikari (Pat Fraley), gunslinger and bounty hunter 'Colt' Wilcox (Townsend Coleman), and engineer April Eagle (Pat Musick). Together, they carry out missions for Cavalry Command in order to protect the settlers of the 'new frontier' from the evil vapor-beings known as the Outriders, led by Nemesis (Peter Cullen). Whenever the Outriders would unleash one of their colossal 'renegade units', the Star Sheriffs would transform their ship, the RAMROD unit (also Cullen)--designed by April herself--into their own giant robot to face these threats.
How this wound up on the block is an interesting story. Back in my junior/senior years, I needed a way (among others) to relax after long days of coursework. Upon perusing Hulu, I found four shows to kill time with on my weekday evenings: "The Bob Newhart Show" (which I should resume at some point), "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (same), the aforementioned "Galaxy Rangers", and "Saber Rider". The trick with that show, though, was that only 26 of the 52 episodes were available on Hulu. That, for me, left a bit of unfinished business post-graduation, until I started crafting my block in the Fall. Now that I've resumed "Saber Rider", I can't wait to see how it concludes.
6. Ronin Warriors (1988-89 in Japan; 1995 in the USA)
This show is one of the four from my own childhood that I decided to revisit in my block. Known originally in Japan as "Yoroiden Samurai Troopers", the series focused on the five titular warriors--Ryo of Wildfire (Matt Hill), Kento of Hardrock (Jason Gray-Stanford), Cye of Torrent (Michael Donovan), Sage of Halo (also Donovan), and Rowen of Strata (Ward Perry)--who, possessing mystic armor and weapons, fight the dark forces of the evil Dynasty. Assisting them in their quest are Ryo's white tiger White Blaze; Mia Koji (Lalainia Lindbjerg), a young student-teacher specializing in ancient myth; Yuli (Christopher Turner), a young boy whose parents went missing after the Dynasty reemerged; and a mysterious warrior-monk known as the Ancient (David Kaye). The Dynasty itself was led by the evil emperor Talpa (Mina Mina), and its forces commanded by his four warlords: Anubis of Cruelty (Paul Dobson), Sehkmet of Venom (Ward Perry), Cale of Corruption (Richard Newman), and Dais of Illusion (Matt Smith--no, not the 11th Doctor all the girls love).
As mentioned before, "Ronin Warriors" is a show that I do have a childhood connection to. I caught most of the series when it was rerun on Cartoon Network's Toonami block in the late 90's, which in turn inspired me to acquire two of the action figures made by Playmates Toys. (To those curious, they were Ryo and Sage, and the place was the king of closeouts, the late, great KB Toys.) Flash-forward some odd years later, and I randomly think about Ronin Warriors when I compared them with "Knights of the Zodiac" and, strangely, another anime run on Toonami, "Sailor Moon". A while later, realizing I never saw the 'whole story', I happily added it to the block. (I should admit, way before I even started thinking about this block, I watched the final episode for no reason. But that was only a few years ago, I think I'm good.) Interestingly, I realized that Ronin Warriors' spot in the block made it the perfect 80's/90's bridge, since while it aired in Japan in 1988, it aired in the U.S. in 1995, just two years before the next show in my block...
6. Extreme Dinosaurs (September-December 1997)
The second show with a childhood connection, and one of the few where I only had up to two pieces of tie-in merchandise. It was also a late addition to the 'extreeeeemmmme' trend prevalent in American pop culture at the time, and was a spin-off of another DIC-produced, Mattel toyline-based series, 1994's "Street Sharks". The show told the story of four dinosaurs turned into super warriors by Quadranian scientist Argor Zardok (Terry Klassen). The four--T-Bone the T-rex (Scott McNeil), Spike the triceratops (Cusse Mankuma), Stegz the stegosaurus (Sam Kouth), and Bullseye the pteranodon (Jason Gray-Stanford)--rebel against Argor and battle his second group, a trio of raptors: Bad Rap (Garry Chalk), Haxx (Lee Tockar), and Spittor (Klassen). The Dinos are assisted by Chedra Bodzak (Louise Vallance), a Quadranian law officer assigned to take Argor in. In the ensuing scuffle, Bad Rap's weapon accidentally causes the event that leads to the extinction of the dinosaurs. All combatants manage to avoid certain death after Chedra places them (and herself) into suspended animation, while Argor disappears into the timestream. Chedra, the Dinos, and the Raptors manage re-awaken in the present, where the Raptors, dissatisfied with Earth's climate, set out to cause global warming in order to give them a more hospitable environment. The Dinosaurs and Chedra vow to stop them, setting the stage for the series' 52 episodes. Later on, the Dinos would get a new member in the form of Hardrock (Blu Mankuma), a pacifistic ankylosaur from an alternate Earth.
My experience with "Extreme Dinosaurs may have been brief, but it still stuck with me for years. I caught only two episodes when it was originally on TV (one of which had Hardrock), got one of the 'war paint' variant figures (T-Bone), and rented a VHS tape containing the first four episodes a few times from the late, great Hollywood Video. All this time, I had no idea it was a spin-off of Street Sharks! Anyway, upon revisiting this show so far, I've found it to be corny at times, but figured that as long as I treated it as a satire--a case can be made for this due to all the 'comedic' sound effects used in the series--it was worth revisiting. On the subject of comedy....
8. Mad Jack the Pirate (1998-99)
Besides being the third childhood-connected show, it's also the only outright humorous cartoon on my block. From the same people behind "Eek the Cat" and "Toonsylvania", the series focuses on the high-seas adventures--or shenanigans--of cowardly, unsuccessful pirate Mad Jack (Bill Kopp) and his first mate Snuk the rat (Billy West), as they search for treasure while sailing on their ship, the Sea Chicken. Among their semi-recurring antagonists are Mad Jack's rival, the William Shatner-like Flash Dashing; ill-tempered Scotsman Angus Dagnabbit (Robert Pike Daniel); and their ship's 'landlord', the mobster Sharkface.
Here's where this gets more nostalgic for me--the years of 1998-2001 were THE years where I watched Fox Kids almost dutifully. Despite that, I only remember at least two episodes of "Mad Jack", with one being their brush with the Martha Stewart-watching vampire Count Draclia. When Halloween rolled around last year, I thought of that episode and rewatched it, now being old enough to get some of the jokes. I later happily added the show to the block. I've since, as of a couple of weeks ago, finished all 23 episodes, making it the first Bill Kopp cartoon series I've ever seen in its entirety. And yes, it IS quite funny, I especially loved the episode "Johnny of the Lamp".
9. NASCAR Racers (1999-2001)
The final show in my block, and the fourth from my own childhood. The show tells the story of two rival racing teams--Team Fastex and Team Rexcor--as they compete in the 'futuristic' NASCAR Unlimited Series Division, where drivers (in cars enhanced by cutting-edge, tech-based gimmicks) race on a variety of tracks and courses, with the main one being in the Motorsphere of New Motor City. Between the two seasons of the show, the cars shifted from the sleeker XPT models to the boxy Nitro Racer style. Team Fastex, the 'good guys', consisted of Mark 'Charger' McCutchen (Ian James Corlett), the third generation of a family of racers; Steve 'Flyer' Sharp (Roger Cross), an ex-Air Force pilot with severe nerve problems; Carlos 'Stunts' Rey (Rino Romano), whose glory-hounding masks his goal of helping his ill father; and Megan 'Spitfire' Fassler (Kathleen Barr), daughter of team owner Jack Fassler (Paul Dobson) and designer of all the cars. Team Rexcor, owned by the greedy and corrupt Garner Rexton (Ron Halder), consists of Lyle 'The Collector' Owens (Phil Hayes), an ex-Fastex driver with a grudge; Hondo 'Specter' Hines, a sneaky but naive driver; Zorina, a former supermodel with a mile-wide mean streak; and Diesel 'Junker' Spitz, a German ex-gang member known for trashing other cars on the track. More rival racers were added in the second season, such as 'Redline' O'Rourke (Kirby Morrow), Phil 'Octane' Knox, Chrome, Tanker (Scott McNeil), and the mysterious Grim Repo.
To the best of my memory, I caught about nine episodes of the show as it aired, a couple of which were in season two. I remember liking it enough, so much so that toys of Charger and Flyer wound up in my house at some point. Eventually, I got wrapped up in some of the other Fox Kids programming of the time (such as Beast Machines, Digimon, and Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy), and a few external factors had me watching less TV for a small period of time. I felt as I was constructing this block, that I should make up for 'lost time', and thus I added "NASCAR Racers" to the final slot on my block. (On another note, only recently I recovered my Charger car from storage.)
And there you have it, folks! I hope you like my lineup, and that this piece inspires you to not only check out these shows, but to come up with your own custom Saturday morning block. With an enormous back catalog of material at our fingertips--thank goodness for YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu!--that's more than just possible. And now, I'll end this the way they do over on The A.V. Club, with a few...
And that's that for my inaugural article on this site, after years of being a mere observer. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.