[Article written for Toon Zone News - 27.10.06]
Nostalgia trips are a double-edged sword. Putting it slightly more pretentiously, one can only look to the past, with the eyes of the present. Adding even more ostentatiously to that, we can never recapture that magic of our youth -- merely skim the surface of our memories.
To add the icing to this rather pompous-looking cake, I will further suggest that the best we can hope for in any reminiscence is a shallow reflection of our youth’s bright fascia.
My point -- wrapped in trite analogies best suited for the inlay of the very worst glam rock the eighties could offer -- is this: re-watching Space Sentinels for the first time in twenty-five years was going to be an awkward blast from the past.
Space Sentinels, a Filmation wonder from 1977 about three cosmic superheroes protecting the Earth from enemy yadda yadda of the week, was the very jewel of my infancy. I loved the music, the glowing launch tubes, the large floaty computer, and even the obligatory annoying Filmation comic side kick, Mo (or to call him by his less affectionate name – Maintenance Operator).
But I’m no longer a little boy. Now I’m a crotchety old man, tied in a bow made of jaded trials and tragic experiences. So I was very wary as to how these fond child based memories would translate into adulthood, and if, indeed, by watching Space Sentinels now, I would tarnish my memory of “then” - if you see what I mean.
This DVD collection has all 13 episodes of The Space Sentinels as well as 5 episodes of a follow up show called Freedom Force that was a component of the Tarzan and the Super Seven show. Bundled with this are a host of special features aimed to appeal at the nostalgia buff, be he casual or hardcore. Filmation has once again offered a rather packed DVD collective. But how does the show itself fare?
I must say I was uncertain at first. I would suggest it would be best to watch several episodes before making judgment on Space Sentinels.
The gaudy suits and rather bland central characters may put the uninitiated off fairly quickly, but if one looks a little deeper there is some good stuff here - and I can say that without fear of being caught in cloud of nostalgia.
Not that I would pretend there weren’t some successful lumps of sentimentality here to warm my cockles. The music is as good as I remember it; a funky yet muted track that never overwhelms the show, but gives it a distinct and consistent aural sound. Yes, the music came flooding back. The animation isn’t quite as technically gifted as later Filmation shows that dabble in rotorscope and overlay effects, but it does have some nice qualities to it. The super computer Sentinel One is a powerful show icon that has stuck with for over two decades and stands up well today.
His animation is far simpler than I remembered, but works just as well. The design and animation for his computer mechanic, Mo, is also nicely visualized. Mo is certainly one of the better attempts at designing a cartoon’s comic relief. A great deal of attention has been taken in rendering a flexible and visually comic character. In fact, it seems more attention was put towards Mo than the team itself.
The basic premise of Space Sentinels is actually more impressive to an adult as it is to a kid. The three superheroes are based in human mythology as indeed are many of the antagonists. The Space Sentinels Hercules, Astraea and Mercury are all based in Greek or Roman mythology, and, as the story goes, their mythological legend comes from the super powers that the Sentinel home planet has bestowed on them. Since then, they’ve lived on Earth, immortal, protecting it from the evil, thus creating the myth of these three Legends.
As the series progresses we find out that there are Sentinels on many planets with similar powers. We even meet some earlier potential Earth sentinels (who again are born from myth). Overall, the background story makes not just for quite a mature premise, but it is an idea that involves itself in the episode storylines, something which I didn’t recall or expect from the show. It was rare for cartoons in the seventies and eighties to really explore the basic fantasy plot premise - especially for a show that was so short lived.
Another impressive element of the narratives is the diversity of the stories and the focus on the plots to carry the tale rather than the characters. You don’t get any storylines that really focus on any of the lead characters as you do in most animation - then and now. No “Orko feeling sorry for himself, goes wandering off and has to be rescued, thereby learning his lesson trusting strangers” tales.
The heroes interact around the plots, rather than the plots interacting around the heroes. In all honesty, in a kid's cartoon of this ilk, it's rather refreshing.
To my pleasure, the stories actually get better as you progress through the series. After a few episodes, the crew go airborne and into space with their spaceship. This adds an extra level of diversity to these fairly simple stories.
Time to name favorites: “The Prime Sentinel” is a tale set in outer space that gives a great deal of back-story to the show premise. Watch out for some alternate galactic Sentinels. “Morpheus: The Sinister Sentinel” offers a little more back-story to the show and while a little slow, does offer a formidable villain. "Space Giant" offers an enjoyable twist and while the “The World Ship” is a little obvious, it has a gentle wrap scene for the series.
As I mentioned before hand, the downside to the show are the lead characters who are never really explored to any satisfactory level and end up feeling rather shallow. Their backgrounds are never referred to, and their relationships never change. However, quite often there are enough plot turns to keep the story interesting without having to rely on the central characters to carry it. Despite this flaw, one has to also acknowledge the multi-racial quality to the heroes. Such ethnic diversity in lead characters was fairly rare, and it’s good to see a show have a lead cast of different races without really falling foul of cliché. Yes, Mercury does martial arts, but beyond that, the Chinese stereotype ends.
A pity that the heroes have so little life as this really is a problem for the show. There is so little chemistry personality wise. Yes, Mercury is wise cracking, Astraea is a cool lead and Hercules is, well, strong, but it really adds up to very little. Sentinel One probably has the most charisma but is stricken with a horrendous monotone that can get a little tiresome. And with no supporting cast beyond Mo and Sentinel One, the cast feels very insular and slightly claustrophobic – immortal life in a spaceship at the bottom of a volcano with Hercules’ muscles, Mercury’s painful jokes and Mo’s painful pratfalls? Hell. True hell.
Nevertheless, The Space Sentinels succeeds more often than it fails. Get past the rather uninteresting heroes, and the stories are rather good and the actual finish is solidly produced. Space Sentinels offers thirteen episodes that are varied in storyline yet consistent in production.
Special features? An odd mix. You’ll find the scripts as a DVD ROM extra – very nice for the hardcore follower. There is also some interesting special footage. There is an animated presentation pilot for the series in its earliest form: The Young Sentinels. It makes for a fairly interesting to watch, particularly in context as a series pitch. More curious is a talent test pilot for the proposed Young Sentinels life action series. I'd say it's definitely worth a watch. It’s played out well and a curiosity in itself.
For the casual buyer, there are some blink-and-you’ll-miss-em documentaries (where the opening and closing sequence seems longer than the interviews) with producer Lou Schemimer, a host of writers and some of the art crew. There really isn’t much to be said about these interviews. They are fun and friendly, but won’t offer any deep insight for anyone beyond a casual viewer.
There is a special “The Magic of Filmation” which is an interesting if slightly indulgent look at the studio behind the show. This is actually quite fascinating, particularly into the creation of the studio. These guys did have some true chutzpah. It’s around thirty minutes in length and has interviews with a variety of Filmation staff members from throughout its history.
The final bonus to this DVD - and I struggle to use the word “bonus” in this case - is the five episodes of Freedom Force, an animated cartoon made a year or so later that also stars Hercules. Well, it stars Hercules' model sheet. His character and voice are rather different. For this reason alone, this DVD has been given a special feature that is about as special as finding a dead fly in one’s soup.
Freedom Force follows the Space Sentinels premise of adapting mythological characters into contemporary animated stories. Unfortunately, unlike Space Sentinels, this has no charm and stories that flow as gracefully as a gangster in concrete boots. It’s a tedious and arbitrary affair. None of the characters really have any relationship to each other, the designs and models are extremely lack luster and really this is a show to watch when drunk, or preferably, when passed out. There are no redeeming features to Freedom Force. Music is average, the voices are a little too hammy and overall it’s the sort of production that blights Formation’s reputation. The only good thing I can say about it is that like Space Sentinels, it goes for ethnic diversity with a range of heroes from different continents. While this is a commendable ideology, it doesn’t make watching it any more exciting that paint drying.
The DVD package is a mix. The inlay is great; it has descriptions for every episode with a little piece of trivia for each. The interactive menus are well presented, if a little sluggish in between episode switches and the overall mix of special features is pleasant though not horrendously inspired. The real let down is the disks themselves - no pictures on these disks. Simply blank faced double sided DVDs. Not a major issue, but visually a little disappointing upon opening.
For all its faults, The Space Sentinels actually lives up to and beyond the nostalgia trip. Sure, it’s not as exciting as it was when I was a kid, but it’s not really produced for adults. That being said, I have more respect for it as an adult, being a little more aware of its mythological roots and appreciating the rather refreshingly plotted pulp action that went over my head as a kid. The characters may be a little drab, but the stories are diverse and interesting enough to mitigate this flaw.
It’s a DVD that shows you some of the best - and worst - of Filmation. Space Sentinels is unique and worth a look if you are into nostalgia trips or curious about kid cartoons of the seventies. Freedom Force is for the hardcore enthusiasts only, and if you are one of those fellows, maybe you should get out more. Come on, guys, it’s bad. Best to remember Freedom Force is merely a bonus, and we can’t get too grumpy over bonus features, can we?
Just remember: thirteen episodes of good to five episodes of bad, still makes this a good DVD collection. I’m glad that Space Sentinels hasn’t let me - or that five-year-old kid that lurks within - down in any way. Good solid animated kid’s fiction - recommended.