As time goes on, I grow less and less apologetic for loving the original 1980’s G.I. Joe cartoon series. It’s essentially a large-scale toy commercial and Sunbow certainly produced a number of stinker episodes, to say nothing of the relatively disappointing feature film. However, at its best, the Sunbow G.I. Joe had surprising depth, blending the weighty and the ridiculous in perfect measure to produce episodes that were could be hilariously funny, unexpectedly poignant, surprisingly subversive, or just plain weird (but in a good way). At its very best, it could manage to be all the above at once, all wrapped around a core of relatively harmless action. Among most G.I. Joe fans, the second series from DiC is often brusquely dismissed with derisive venom, if it is even acknowledged at all. With such a massively negative pedigree, I must admit I walked into Shout! Factory’s first 4-disc DVD release of the series with considerably lowered expectations. The good news is that I don’t think the show is quite as bad as many Joe fans say it is. The bad news is that even at its very, very best it only barely manages to measure up to the Sunbow series, it hits that high-water mark only intermittently, and many of the problems with the series are truly endemic.
Just about all my issues with the DiC G.I. Joe series are summed up in the differences between the opening credit theme songs of the Sunbow series and this one. Right from the first line of the theme song of the original series, you know who G.I. Joe is and why they do what they do. It’s also a perfectly coherent, wordless story from start to finish, with music played on real instruments. The original theme song gets a small but significant change for the inaugural DiC mini-series, “Operation Dragonfire,” as the lyrics insist that the team is now “an International Hero” even as the show’s own tagline still says “a Real American Hero.” It’s a minor point but the lack of attention to detail and the thoughtless recycling of something as trivial as a title card is rather telling. However, the new theme song and opening sequence for the series itself is an entirely vapid, synthesizer-driven affair backing nothing but an incoherent clip reel. The lyrics that don’t stand for anything except the importance of “getting tough,” without any of the idealism or patriotism of the original. While one could argue that the original version is a simplistic, jingoistic expression of American exceptionalism, it also clearly stands for something idealistic that I think has always been core to the appeal of G.I. Joe throughout the toyline’s long history. The new theme song doesn’t stand for anything and (with one alteration) could apply equally well to Cobra, thus stripping G.I. Joe of one of the major traits that made it memorable in the first place. After seeing it dozens of times, I can still sit through the original series opening credits; after watching them once, I couldn’t skip the new series opening credits fast enough.
The problems in the title sequence are expressed in different ways throughout the rest of the series. “Operation Dragonfire” follows the events of the movie, and is a throwback to the classic five-part mini-series that launched the TV show, with a globe-trotting adventure between the valiant heroes of G.I. Joe and the ruthless terrorist organization Cobra. I didn’t find the mini-series to be appreciably worse than the other Sunbow mini-series, although it still ranks a distant fifth of the five. “Operation Dragonfire” unwinds some events from the movie, returning Cobra Commander to power (complete with a new suit of battle armor) while writing out Serpentor entirely. While most of the original voice cast was replaced, at least Morgan Lofting reprised the Baroness with the same enthusiasm and “We Catch Moose and Squirrel” accent, and the late Chris Latta returned to give Cobra Commander his inimitable sssssibilant blend of petulance, arrogance, and cowardice. Maurice LaMarche also fills in nicely for Arthur Burghardt as Destro. Unfortunately, the mini-series also replaces Zartan and the Dreadnoks with his far less interesting sister Zarana and the single Dreadnok Naugahyde, both sporting ludicrously thick Australian accents and moronic personalities that don’t measure up to Zartan’s crafty/sinister vibe or the constant threat of anarchic violence under the Dreadnoks’ dim-bulb exteriors.
The Joes fare even worse, since few of the original team members return at all and of the original Joes, only Sgt. Slaughter (who reprises his role as himself) is recognizable. Costume redesigns, different and less distinctive voice actors, and complete personality-ectomies means these Joes are the palest shadows of their former selves. In the original series, Lady Jaye became a favorite for her tomboyish haircut and uniform, her more assertive personality, and voice actor Mary McDonald-Lewis’ distinctive raspy delivery. In this new series, Lady Jaye retains the outfit and the haircut, but becomes more of a generic girly girl in all other respects. Generic characterization and dialogue also means that none of the newer Joes are anywhere near as compelling as the distinctive personalities in the original show. The mini-series includes a subplot involving the newest Joe team member Scoop, and even though the initial twist is revealed early on, I won’t give it away since it’s one of the few decent surprises “Operation Dragonfire” has to offer. However, I will say that the original series worked in the same territory much more fruitfully in one two-part episode.
Unfortunately, things go downhill fast from that middling start. In addition to Zartan, top-level Cobra baddies like Storm Shadow, Dr. Mindbender, and Major Bludd were booted as well, replaced by an annoying, drooling moron named Heavy Metal who fails as badly at comic relief as he does on the battlefield. None of the newer Joes fare much better, continuing the trend from the mini-series of generic designs, dialogue, and voice actors. There are several characters I still can’t remember until someone mentions their name. I’m also baffled at the incompetence that would completely change Lowlight’s design so completely between the miniseries (where he is a clean-shaven blond) and the series (where he changes to a bearded brunet). The original series’ mechanical designs looked like they could be real weapons (especially since, in many cases, they were based on real weapons), but the DiC series’ equipment looks like kids’ toys. The series was always more about playing at war than real war, but its even harder to take seriously when the vehicles and aircraft all look like overbuilt designs a 5-year old would come up with. I also greatly miss the musical cues from the original series, where the easily identifiable themes and leitmotifs could trigger specific emotional responses immediately. All that terrific background music has been replaced with boring and entirely unmemorable generic 80’s action music. By the end of disc 4, it also seems like someone noticed how juvenile and stupid the show was and responded by making it even MORE juvenile and stupid, complete with sound effects lifted from the Hanna-Barbera library when someone falls from a height or slams into a wall. Many of these problems were creeping into the comic book as well, so not all of this can be blamed on DiC, but their abundant lack of craft surely didn’t help.
To be fair, there are a few episodes that can stand up next to the Sunbow series without looking too bad. “Victory at Volcania” is the first episode that feels like one from the original series, and the subplot of General Hawk’s fear of being too old for field operations is reasonably effective (even if Ed Gilbert’s delivery sounds enough like Adam West’s Batman that I’m never able to stifle snickers when I hear it). “That’s Entertainment” is ludicrous, but in the same subversive way as the entertainment-themed episodes like “Cold Slither,” “The Wrong Stuff,” or “Cobrathon” from the original show. Plus, there’s something inherently funny in watching Cobra Commander attempt to impersonate a thinly disguised Bob Hope stand-in, and the original show’s penchant for improbable disguises continues as Cobra Commander rips off a rubber mask to reveal his battle helmet underneath it (click the thumbnail to the left for the sequence). “D-Day at Alcatraz” and “BIOK” both feel like they could have been done on the original show (with the latter credited to Christy Marx, who wrote several scripts for the first G.I. Joe series), and probably would have been even better if they had been produced by the Sunbow crew.
Shout! does the best it can with this series, but they really had very little to work with. Reportedly, DiC lowballed Hasbro to steal away the series from Sunbow, and their lack of creative and financial resources are on display everywhere from the cheap, poor animation to the low-grade video stock. Video quality is pretty good, although some episodes clearly had inferior masters to work from. The episodes are in their original full-frame with mono sound. The four discs of the set ship in a single-width DVD box, with the inside of the cover providing an episode list, but there are no other extras.
Serious completists will probably welcome this new release, but fans of the franchise would probably do better to stay away and those looking for a good entry point into G.I. Joe will get much more entertainment value out of the excellent Season 1.1 set. This series is not as bad as I was led to expect, but it’s still a far cry from being good.