By the power of Grayskull - I have the power!
These were the immortal and poetic words, instantly recognisable to anyone who was a child in the 1980s and had a taste for cartoon violence served up with an American accent on a weekly basis. These were the words that would transform the pretty average Prince Adam into He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe, which spelled a harvest of woe for odious evil-doers, vile villains and parents' wallets everywhere.
The 1980s was a golden age for the kids'-cartoon-show-tied-to-a-merchandise-line combination. At times it seemed impossible to turn on the TV without being bombarded by the Transformers, Thundercats, the Centurions and a myriad of other colourful and often ridiculous celluloid crusaders as they righted wrongs and plugged their little plastic doppelgängers that massed in toystores across the globe. But all that came after were mere pretenders to the throne upon which sat He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
He-Man battled his nemesis Skeletor week in and week out on the Filmation cartoon series while children re-enacted the battles at home with the action figure line produced by the US company Mattel. Both the cartoon and the merchandise endured for a good long time, spawned some quite successful spin-offs and even resulted in a motion-picture outing for the franchise, but more on all that later... let's get down to the actual He-Man phenomenon that started it all.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe followed the tried and tested US formula that had served the makers of cinematic and televisual entertainment since time immemorial. He-Man was the lead male who expoused the virtues of truth, justice and equality and had a tight bod to boot. Opposing him was Skeletor, the lead villain of the piece who personified all that was dark, evil and diabolical and just to make sure the audience got the message he looked the part as well. Each had a band of sycophantic, loyal henchmen, followers, lackeys and general hangers-on that aided in, or were often the subject or source of, the conflict that constituted th episodes of the series.
Set on the (hopefully) fictional planet Eternia, the series took place against a background that contrasted the type of sword and sorcery settings one would expect to see in Conan the Barbarian with over-the-top technology more at home in a camp space opera like Flash Gordon. This idea seemed to work for the young audience (to whom it was no big deal that although he could maim and kill with a laser-powered death ray, a warrior on the planet Eternia still went to the toilet in a hole in the ground) who lapped up the action and the formulaic plots as fast as the animators could draw them.
For his own part He-Man drew his power from the magical sword which he carried, given to him by the sorceress of the Eldritch and mystical Castle Grayskull. Uttering the words of power quoted above released this power and with it He-Man protected the world from evil. It was a simple as that.
The strongest thing that He-Man had going for it was the diverse cast of characters that populated the episodes on both sides of the good/evil divide. All the main characters (or at least those that had action figures available) had a 'thing' that defined their abilities and more often than not their names as well. The general rule was that the later the character appeared in the history of the franchise, then the more outlandish and bizarre he or she was.
Trying to list all of the characters who popped up in the course of the series and the various spin-offs would be an effort in futility and a boring one at that, so here are a few of the most important and interesting inhabitants of Eternia for your perusal.
The Good Guys
The principal hero here was of course He-Man himself. But in fact He-Man was simply the alter-ego of Prince Adam, son of the ruling house of Eternia. When not righting wrongs as He-Man, Adam cultivated the image of a rather weedy layabout with no real purpose other than to inherit the throne and then father an heir in his turn. Adam suffered from an acute case of 'Clark Kent Syndrome', whereby he did nothing more than change his clothes and affect a different kind of behaviour in order to convince his close friends and relatives that he was a completely different person. The fact that he and He-Man were as alike as identical twins along with the fact that they were never to be seen together in the same room with each other never seemed to bother anyone in the slightest. There was also the fact that the supposedly-cowardly prince looked like he'd been weaned from milk straight onto anabolic steroids as a child; again nobody seemed to comment on this fact. When transformed into He-Man, Adam fought for good in nothing more than a loincloth, furry boots, a strange strappy harness thingy that he wore on his huge torso, and a very bad haircut. He was armed with his magical sword, but the action figure also came with a battle-axe and shield.
Cringer, Adam's pet Eternian Tiger (distinguished from a tiger native to the planet Earth by its green fur and yellow stripes) also exhibited the same cowardice until he was transformed into the mighty Battle-Cat, an armoured feline that He-Man rode into combat.
Man-at-Arms was the technical wizard that, as his name suggests, came up with various weapons, gadgets and otherwise combative gizmos to aid the good guys in their battles against the bad guys. The Man-at-Arms action figure was cast from the same basic body-mould as the He-Man action figure (as were most of the male gender) and so sported the same loincloth and boots, but his skin was green in order to give the impression of a body-stocking. Over the top of this he wore a breastplate, a set of armoured plates on his left arm and right leg as well as a metallic helmet all covered in impressive tubes and circuit-boards. In the cartoon series, Man-at-Arms was identified as the father of Teela and sported a moustache that the action figure lacked, possibly in an attempt to portray the character in a more mature and paternal light.
One of the few female characters in the original series, Teela was a young woman who made her way as a warrior alongside enough testosterone to float the entire fleet of the British Navy. Accordingly tough and rugged, Teela still never stepped out of line when it came to the authority of the men that surrounded her (which says a great deal about the patriarchal ideology of the show). The Teela action figure was suitably more svelte than the male figures and came with a cobra-headed staff and removable breastplate and head-dress also in the image of a cobra, neither of which seemed to feature in the series very much.
Stratos the bird-man was perhaps the strangest character to appear on the side of good in the original series cast. Boasting blue skin on his body, but caucasian skin tones on his face, Stratos flew through the skies by virtue of the bizarre combination of feathered arm-pieces and a rocket-powered jetpack, though the need for both of these items in tandem was never explained. Stratos is perhaps one of the best examples of a typical He-Man character in that he was defined by his ability to fly, beyond that there was little else that could be said in any way shape or form.
Another interesting character from the original cast was Ram-Man. As might have been expected, Ram-Man was named for his unique ability to employ himself as a human battering-ram. Being possessed of spring-like legs, a sturdy helmet and a belligerent temperament, Ram-Man would normally add to the proceedings by becoming irate with someone or something and launching himself bodily at the offending obstacle and more often than not render himself insensible in the process. The Ram-Man action figure had legs that could be tucked up into its torso and released at the press of a button to duplicate the character's unique talents.
Man-E-Faces, whilst having the daftest name since Frank Zappa named one of his offspring, had the rather handy ability to disguise himself as any other character that he chose. This made him a valuable commodity as an ally and a riot at parties to boot. In the cartoon series, Man-E-Faces was limited in his abilities only by the imaginations of the writers and artists that created it; in reality the action figure was obviously a little more limited in what it could do. Twisting a dial on top of the figure's head rotated between the three different faces available to the master of disguise. These were a fairly average chap, an impassive robot and a green-skinned toothy monster. The figure came armed with a large orange ray-gun to top it off.
The Bad Guys
Even as far as cartoon villains go, Skeletor was a strange sight to behold. The arch-villain and number one evil-doer in He-Man's life was an ever-present embodiment of monolithic nastiness and never wavered in his attempts to perpetrate naughtiness on an epic scale. As is usually the case, the trappings of evil were laid on thick and Skeletor as a result boasted a black-hooded skull for a head balanced atop a body that was firstly blue in skin-tone, and secondly adorned with a strappy leather outfit that had definite satanic overtones. To add to the effect his action figure came with a suitably dark purple version of He-Man's own and a staff topped with a ram's horned head, as if the skull motif wasn't enough to emphasise the fact that Skeletor was a very bad man indeed. As with many of his cartoon contemporaries, the deeper motivations and origins of Skeletor were never explored in any way shape or form. He was just the bad guy, he always had been and that was that, you just had to be glad that he was far too inept ever to conquer the world in the first place.
Among the first henchmen ever to follow Skeletor was Beastman, a hairy orange fellow that one could easily imagine had a very big problem with unpleasant bodily odours and general issues of hygiene. It follows that Beastman had some form animal empathy due to his association with all things bestial, but this seemed little be far from a potent force for evil and his primary function was seemingly to lick Skeletor's boots and have the tar beaten out of him by He-Man and his comrades just like all good evil henchmen. The action figure version of Beastman came with a whip so that he could take out his frustrations on the opposition.
Predating Star Trek's Borg by a good few years, Trapjaw was a cantankerous cybernetic organism who had more in common with the Tin Woodcutter from The Wizard of Oz than the assimilating collective. Trapjaw had a mechanical right arm that could be fitted with various tools and contraptions and a metal jaw (hence the name). He also had green skin, possibly as a result of gangrene from his replacement parts, but that was not dwelt upon in the series. The action figure was supplied with a selection of devices that could be stuck on the end of its mechanical arm such as a grappling-hook and a vicious gaff-hook much like the one sported by stereotypical pirates in place of a severed hand; the jaw also moved up and down making the figure look like it was chewing a particularly sticky toffee.
Evil-Lynn filled the token female slot for the forces of evil much like Teela did for the good guys, but that was where the similarity ended rather abruptly. Like many other female villains in children's animated series, the character of Evil-Lynn owed a great deal to the dark, brooding female icons of the early decades of Hollywood who were definitely not made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Wielding a magical sceptre and wearing a strange metal headdress, Evil-Lynn seemed to have a certain degree of sorcerous knowledge and often assisted Skeletor closely as he indulged in the pursuit of black magics (as all cartoon villains are contractually obligated to do at some point in the course of their careers). Similar in shape and build to the Teela action figure, Evil-Lynn came armed with her magic sceptre and meant business from the word go.
Green-skinned, slimy and probably smelling of fish as well, Merman was yet another character that left little to the imagination if one either heard the name or saw the guy in the rather grotesque flesh. Not the most original of ideas, it could have surprised few to learn that Merman dwelled at the bottom of the ocean and had a line in commanding the more unsightly denizens of the deep such as octopus and squid to do his bidding. Merman's big disadvantage was that when separated from his native element he was literally like a fish out of water and of little use to anyone. The action figure came armed with a yellow plastic sword that resembled nothing so much as a piece of baby-sweetcorn, and against He-Man's powerful weapon was probably as much use.
Rather than having the traditional single eye in the centre of his face, Skeletor's visually-challenged lackey Cyclops actually had four, but as he could only use one at a time no one seemed to be concerned that his name could be seen as somewhat erroneous. These aforementioned eyes were set into a circular green helmet that covered his cranium and swivelled around to bring the desired eye the front of his head. The eyes in his helmet were various geometric shapes such as triangles, hexagons and squares and presumably each endowed him with a different optical benefit (such as x-ray vision, the ability to see infra-red radiation, and a verifocal lens so that he could read the evening paper after a long day of being unspeakably evil). Apart from that there was little you could say about Cylops, of course his action figure featured the revolving helmet as well, needless to say.
The art of producing a spin-off involves either taking an established character from a popular series and giving them one of their own (as in the case of the series Frasier being spawned from a character in the original series Cheers), or a totally new series or concept being piloted on an existing series used as a 'platform' from which to launch it on an unsuspecting public. She-Ra, Princess of Power was of the latter variety as the He-Man universe made a bold move to storm a domain more commonly associated with names such as Barbie and Ken. Assuming (probably quite incorrectly) that there was no appeal in the big muscles and mindless violence world of The Masters of the Universe for a young female audience, She-Ra took an altogether more graceful and delicate approach to the formula set out by its predecessor.
Set on Etheria, the twin planet of He-Man's home Eternia, She-Ra's adventures were launched by a feature-length animated outing which featured the major players from both worlds and neatly introduced the new characters in the series. The plot involved the discovery of a gateway between the two worlds and He-Man making the trip across to the other side. Here he meets a young woman named Adora who is under the influence of the evil Hordak, leader of the dreaded horde. Captured by these evil-doers, He-Man nevertheless learns that Adora is his twin sister from whom he was separated at birth and the rightful heir to a magical sword (the twin of his own save for a clear gem set in its blade) which he has carried with him from Castle Grayskull on Eternia. Hordak, it turns out, was a former ally of Skeletor back on Eternia, but fled to Etheria after defeat at the hands of He-Man's parent's taking the kidnapped infant Adora with him as a hostage where he raising her as his own daughter and filling her with his own twisted values and hatreds against those who vanquished him. Unsurprisingly He-Man manages to win Adora over and convince her to switch sides to the rebels opposing Hordak and accept her inheritance as She-Ra, but not before all parties concerned have raced back to Eternia to foil the revenge plots of the reunited Hordak and Skeletor.
The characters and action figures featured in the series were notably of a more fluffy pink quality than those in The Masters of the Universe with features such as combable hair and even alternate outfits. Gone also were the grotesque musclebound physiques of the first series, replaced with slender catwalk curves for the female characters and more athletic builds for the few male characters.
Unlike the supporting cast boasted by The Masters of the Universe, there were few memorable characters after She-Ra herself (ie, He-Man reincarnated as a Hollywood blonde). The ranks of the good guys were made up by characters such as an archer rather predictably named 'Bow' and a mermaid known as Mermista. In the case of She-Ra, Princess of Power, it was the bad guys that stole the show every time.
Hordak and his Horde were cast from the same mould as Skeletor and his cronies back on Eternia, but rather than following the tried and tested satanic symbolism and black magic motif once more the series creators envisioned the new bad guys as a technologically-advanced bunch. Hordak himself had a similarly skeletal face to the original Skeletor, but wore flashy body armour and could perform neat tricks like changing his arm into a cannon. He was served by legions of mechanical Horde Troopers and wanted nothing more than to crush all opposition under his heel and take over the known multiverse. His henchmen included such characters as Leech (no need to detail his powers with that name) and Modulok who came in a mass of separate body parts that could be fitted together to form any number of combinations. The only problem faced by the Horde was that they were far too vicious, evil and nasty to be put up against She-Ra and her effeminate allies or marketed towards the young female age-groups that the She-Ra range was aimed at. The solution was that Hordak and the Horde were shipped lock, stock and barrel over to Eternia to do battle with the forces of He-Man (and Skeletor, if the kids who played with the action figures were that imaginative), where they fitted in just fine.
Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture
It's pretty much always the case that if a concept is a success in one medium then someone in the USA will try to convert it to another in order to squeeze every last drop of commercial viability from it before taking the traumatic step of coming up with something new. And thus the world was graced with the adaption of the Masters of the Universe motion picture descending upon movie-theatres the world over. In the movie, Dolph Lungren was given the role of He-Man and went head-to-head with Frank Langella behind some of the worst screen make-up ever seen as Skeletor. Suitably camp and hammed up in every way possible the wafer-thin plot saw He-Man, Teela and Man-At-Arms flung far from their homeworld and stranded on Earth (probably to keep the budget down) in pursuit of a device known as the 'Cosmic Key' whilst being pursued by Skeletor's assassins. The movie was most probably set mainly on Earth to save money on elaborate sets and favoured the technological aspect of the original Masters of the Universe setting over the fantasy elements as magic and monsters were out of vogue in the Hollywood of the mid to late eighties. Needles to say the movie was merchandised to the hilt and a whole new range of action figures supported it in the shops. But when people look back and remember fond memories of He-Man, very few are picturing old Dolph in his loincloth and mullet.
The New Adventures of He-Man
By the mid-1990s, He-Man was showing his age badly. Kids were buying into newer and (at the time at least) more hip cartoon series such as The Real Ghostbusters and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not ready to give up on the old favourite without a fight, He-Man's creators enlisted the help of Japanese animators to revamp the characters and breathe new life into the most powerful man in the universe. He-Man and his nemesis Skeletor were thus whisked away from the drab confines of Eternia and deposited in a flashy sci-fi setting populated by fighter pilots and space explorers. Both He-Man and Skeletor were given complete overhauls, leather and fur replaced with body-armour and spandex. The action figures were streamlined and He-Man went from hulking Conan clone to athletic jock overnight even being given the ultimate accessory for a leading man of the time: a ponytail. Each was placed in charge of a suitably updated group of like-minded characters and the whole process started over again.
But as is usually the case the new image was only a temporary success and lacked the staying power and popularity of the original. Eventually the new, leaner He-Man and slim-line Skeletor disappeared without a trace and, as with the movie incarnation of the Masters of the Universe, are seldom remembered as having had anything to do with the enduring originals.
Masters of the Retro Trip
As with many such children's TV shows, the main audience today is the same kids that watched the series and played with the action figures the first time round. Today the Masters of the Universe logo appears on t-shirts, Internet fansites and countless references that amuse those who fondly remember yet mystify the youth of the day as much as Pokémon references work in the opposite direction. Recently a trend has emerged for old favourites such as The Transformers and GI Joe to be reissued as collectors items and Mattel, the company responsible for the original range of Masters of the Universe action figures, has hopped on the bandwagon with glee.
One can now buy miniatures of the original characters in packs of four; reissued action figures cast in cleaned and improved moulds or ones deliberately made to resemble the often imperfect originals, as well as totally new, updated versions of the same figures, beefed up and polished for the 21st Century. So thanks to the power of nostalgia, He-Man is still wielding his mighty weapon against the nefarious plans of Skeletor all these years down the line.
So one more time, all together now:
By the power of Grayskull - I have the power!
Related BBCi Links
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