Animation Trails
January 11, 2023 posted by Charles Gardner

We, Robots! (Part 11): The Cartoons I DIDN’T Grow Up With

I am aware of a number of series that rightfully deserve mention under the umbrella of our subject topic, offering substantial helpings of footage spotlighting robots. However, many of these were shows that were definitely off my radar. As the title of this week’s chapter indicates, these were shows I rarely or never watched in first run – and in many instances, practically never at all subsequently. Most of these fall under the heading of “action/adventure”, which, with the exception of a few early anime productions I have discussed along previous trails, and a few early DC ventures of Filmation, I never felt in my youth anyone was doing well, until the dawn of “Batman, The Animated Series” from Warner Brothers. I was not introduced to the Fleischer Supermans in my childhood, and only familiar with the Filmation version, which at least got my attention for a time, so I’d never seen action cartoons produced on a good budget or with much attention to developing a compelling storyline. Anything in the “action” genre without laughs thus became something of a poison to me in my early viewing – a guarantee of quickly changing channels, or just turning off the set.

While I further grew to draw a lasting association between most anime and this built-in bias, the aversion to such product was even more ingrained into my viewing preferences if the name “Hanna-Barbera” was associated with any series, as I regrettably, to this day, still feel that Bill and Joe never got the vibes right to seriously produce anything intended to be serious. Most of such series I could only tolerate in the smallest doses, out of sheer curiosity to see just how bad they could get. In fairness to the duo, I’ve over time warmed slightly to the series “Shazzan”, but, on the other hand, can still get laughs by doing a dead-on impression of just the creature sounds which were heard every week on “The Herculoids”, and indicating that these effects alone sum up the entire story line for every episode ever produced.

Against this background, I began this week’s chapter with the notion of force-feeding myself information on these largely unexplored properties to give them some page coverage in this column. Unfortunately, in several instances, I still could not find comprehensive coverage of episodes from some series on the Internet, and with others discovered that research seemed to reveal little, as there were no clear origin stories to genuinely explain the setups for the characters – they were just born in place to fight cardboard villains, with no particular reason why. Eventually, my patience waned, as I can think of many preferable ways of spending a New Years’ weekend than tutoring myself on such drivel. I thus will provide a relatively brief discussion of the nature of these various series, adding a personal insight or observation regarding same when I can.

One of the earliest examples of robot anime was Astro Boy (aka “Mighty Atom”, Mushi Productions 1963-65) As a child, however, I somehow never saw a frame of it, and only knew of the name from TV Guide listings at unearthly wee small hours of the broadcast day, far too early to get me to open my eyes on a Saturday morning. There was a Little Golden Record released of the theme song – but I never even saw the recording in the racks, and only acquired a copy of it at a collector’s swap meet well over 40 years later. I achieved my greatest familiarity with the character from a much later project where the origin story was re-imagined and retold as a CGI animated feature, to be discussed in a later chapter of this trail. Such interpretation, however, was more tailored for contemporary Western audiences of the Pixar persuasion and modern senses of humor, which I found quite entertaining and palatable, but which anime purists seemed prone to overly criticize.

I have since found the opportunity to view the original pilot of the television series, which I admit to be of quite high quality. The character was created by Osamu Tezuka, who from several of his later efforts has come to be my personal favorite of anime writers/producers. Although time has not to date permitted, I really feel I should give more of this series a chance to see where its storylines went. The plotline of the origin story is a bit of a modern-day twist loosely taking ideas from the tale of Pinocchio, but with an odd maudlin angle that probably was a bit heavy for an average American child audience to comprehend. A young boy is killed – in this adaptation, by a freak accident involving a self-driving car that is supposed to be controlled by signals embedded in the highway. (Perhaps quite prophetic of things to come, as modern-day driverless taxis and trucks continue to be the subject of experiment – and accidents.) The father, a noted scientist and head of a research institute, is torn by grief, and hatches out of the depths of his despair a plan to devote the entire resources of the institute toward a single project – to build a super robot, in the likeness of his lost son. The other scientists realize he may be going cuckoo, but nevertheless follow his orders, producing Astro Boy. The intelligent robot seems to possess a full range of emotions, learns quickly, and rapidly accepts its place in what he believes is a loving relationship with his new “father”. For a time, Astro and “dad” seem to get along famously. That is, until a few years pass, and the scientist realizes he has overlooked something that to him is important – Astro Boy does not grow to match other children of his age. The scientist is suddenly struck with the artificiality of the situation, and begins to see the folly of his hopes that this robot could ever be a replacement for his lost son. The scientist becomes more and more frustrated with Astro, distancing himself from the robot despite the robot’s unwavering devotion to him, and finally renounces any continued love for the robot whatsoever. Before Astro knows it, he is sold away to the operator of a robot circus – who just happens to be of Italian accent, leading to direct parallels where it is evident he is playing the role of Stromboli in this story. The circus owner’s claim to fame is the staging of battles between his robots, in the manner of epic gladiators of Rome, with each battle intended to be a duel to the finish of one of the combatants. Astro is pitted in his opening bout against a large steel robot at least eight times his size. Among the audience is a spectator who has attended not to marvel at the battle, bit in the hope of breaking it up – another scientist from the institute, with a large oversized nose (known by the unimaginative translation of Professor Elefun). He enters the center ring before the real blows begin, and demands that the owner/ringmaster release the boy from such cruelty. But the circus owner flashes in the scientist’s face a dozen permits under which he operates his shows, pointing out that there is no regulation against pitting robots against each other. The Professor is forced to turn away, amidst the boos of the crowd, at present powerless to stop what will follow. Astro discovers the use of rocket power built into his heels, and flies around the tent, then into the chest of his opponent, knocking him down. The circus owner shouts to Astro to finish him – but Astro has not the will nor the heart to cause any further harm to the large robot.

That night, the circus owner sternly reprimands Astro for not finishing what he started to please the crowd, and threatens to cut off his supplies of power unless Astro shapes up in attitude by the next bout. Astro discovers a pile of other robots in a back supply tent, lying nearly motionless, because they also have fallen from favor in the eyes of the owner or the crowd, and have worn out their usefulness to the circus. They are ready to be junked, and can do nothing about it, as their power is nearly expired die to being deprived of any new recharges by the owner. Astro decides to share voltage from his own battery with them to revive them – all the while depleting some of his own resources. That night, another robot’s stunt of leaping through a circle of high-voltage sparks goes wrong, producing a fire inside the big top. Though almost depleted of his strength, Astro Boy is the only one who can hear the cries for help of the circus owner, pinned down beneath a pole inside the tent. While the other revived robots prove their worth by performing simpler rescues of members of the crowd, Astro, using his last ounce of strength, lifts away the fallen poles, and drags the owner to safety, before collapsing. The scene fades to a hospital room a few weeks later, where the owner is recovering nicely. Professor Elefun, now new head of the institute after the ousting of Astro’s “dad”, has returned to again make a plea for the boy’s freedom. But the owner is as ungrateful as ever. “What am I supposed to do? Say ‘thank you’ to a robot?” The owner insists Astro owes him for being built into a star, and if the Professor chooses, go ahead and sue him, as his ownership papers will surely win in court. But Professor Elefun informs the owner that a lot has been happening in the weeks during his convalescence, and turns on a news broadcast on the TV set. There, thousands of robots cheer in a public square before a congressional building, at the announcement of a robot bill of rights, declaring them all free. In a funny “take”, the owner jerks upward into a sitting position, in shock at the news, the features of his face lingering for a moment in their original place and having to catch up with the rapid rise of his head! Faced with a future of criminal charges if he violates the new law, the owner slaps Elefun across the face, but breaks into pathetic sobbing as he acknowledges defeat. “Coming, Astro Boy?”, says the Professor, tenderly offering Astro his arm, as they leave the hospital together down the corridor.

I do not know if subsequent episodes were able to keep offering stories of this caliber, or devolved like so many early productions into mere “epic” battles with the villain or monster of the week. This problem of early anime writing was, unfortunately, also common to other fields of Japanese entertainment as well. After all, wasn’t this the same nation that had launched successful but aesthetically meaningless series based on endless repetitions of battle such as “Godzilla”. “Rodan”, and any number of badly-costumed monsters? What worked on the big screen would no doubt trickle onto the small, sometimes almost in equally unartful fashion.

Speaking of such monster epics, it is somewhat easy to draw parallels between the series Gigantor (originally “Tetsujin 28-Go”, TCJ, 1963-66), and a piece of live-action drek which circulated in syndication around the same years, known in the states as “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot”. For reasons entirely unexplained, a boy just bordering on his teens is somehow the master, by way of a remote-control device, of a ten-story tall robot, who is purely mechanical, has no voice nor personality, and merely battles anything you put in front of him at the push of a button (or, in the case of Sokko, a verbal command into a microphone). There is no origin story in the premiere episode, where everyone already seems to know about Gigantor, as they consult the boy to investigate mysterious attacks upon the bases of various nations on the continent of Antarctica. By American standards, the animation is decidedly violent, and Gigantor spends nearly all his screen time bashing through flying squadrons or tossing tanks into cliff faces. Perhaps the only creative idea in the premiere was to freeze Gigantor in his tracks by bathing him in jets of water until he freezes into a ten-story ice statue. Gigantor didn’t even have any secret weapons of his own to break out of the trap, and had to be thawed out externally by the humans. Some super robot, without even its own heat generator!

I haven’t had the patience to thoroughly investigate another early Japanese property, 8th Man (TCJ, 1963-66), beyond its pilot, which, while coming nowhere close to the story-sense of Astro Boy, seemed at least passible, if exceptionally rudimentary in some animation techniques. It has become a staple of public domain video in isolated episodes, and I recall long ago tuning out after about five minutes into an old VHS or DVD copy picked up with other PD cartoons I cared about. The central plotline of the pilot is something of a predecessor to “The Six Million Dollar Man”, centering on a murdered detective whose life-essence is transferred to an android body – the first successful attempt at such procedure after seven previous failed tries with other murder victims. In the American version, he is known in his new form as “Tobor” (Robot, spelled backwards) – was this perhaps inspired by Ruff and Reddy? Though his body form is different than his original facial look, he has the power to transform his face and build to match any person he can imagine – including replicating his former self when needed. He eventually tracks down his own killer, and seems to avoid using his old look so that the murder charges against the criminal will stick. Later episodes seemed to be nothing more than a standard violent shoot-em-up or sock-in-the-jaw battle, entirely typical of the cheapest of Japanese product, and I found no character to whose personality traits I was drawn. An odd tidbit from this series was that 8th Man would carry with him a cigarette case of “energy cigarettes”: which he would light up to replenish his strength in case of emergency, much as Bugs Bunny used such a carrier for his super carrots in Super Rabbit. Just try and get that idea on the air for a kids show in the present surgeon-general conscious climate! Perhaps the most notable take-away from watching subsequent episodes was the embarrassing efforts of the American distributors in coming up with an English translation. Not only were characters on screen prone to flapping their jaws endlessly, requiring the dubbers to keep up an otherwise unnecessary jabber of useless words providing little in the way of necessary story exposition, just to fill the onscreen time, but the editors of the visuals had done nothing to excise images of numerous signs written in Japanese, leaving the American dialogue writers to come up with the lamest excuses for why the signs were written in such language, while attempting to pass off the series as if it were set in contemporary America! I think even a five year old would have quickly gotten wise that, whatever the characters said, this was definitely a substandard product imported from a foreign land. Sort of an equivalent of trying to pass off to a flag-waving native of the red, white, and blue a serving of sushi as if it were Mom’s apple pie!

The aforementioned glut of Hanna-Barbera action adventure we experienced as the ‘60’s wore on was guilty of one series spotlighting a robot. This was Frankenstein, Jr. (1966-67), who was forced to share the spotlight in the banner of his own series with a super-powered rock group known as “The Impossibles”.

Awkwardly, although Frankie received lead billing, the average show seemed to offer us the Impossibles’ segment as taking up the lion’s share of the footage. This same anomaly was also surprisingly present in another double-bill series released around the same time, “Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor”, where Moby again took back seat to about twice the footage devoted to Mightor. Why give second-string treatment to your nominal star character? My only guess is that H-B thought Frankenstein’s and Mony’s names had more selling power for top billing – despite the fact that their story situations seemed to offer the writers only about half the possibilities for creating scripts as were available for the companion characters with which they shared the time slot. So what you heard in the title wasn’t necessarily what you got, but was hoped to at least get you to tune in. I personally could care less about any of the characters in these pair-ups, so with myself, the sales strategy didn’t work. Plus, the weakness of the primary characters was glaringly evident from only a few viewings, so putting them under top billing didn’t disguise that there was little there to build upon. The basic setup for the Frankenstein cartoons is almost identical to Gigantor, with a youthful boy-genius somehow in charge of a giant robot who serves as guardian of a city. There is again no origin story to provide background, and, although the boy has a scientist father, he appears to have invented the robot himself. Frankie, unlike Gigantor, is possessed of amazing artificial intelligence (voiced by Ted Cassidy), and communicates with the boy in full conversational fashion, as if they were lifelong best friends. I’ve yet to catalog his array of powers and weapons, or his weaknesses (if any), but he seems to spend all his screen time battling a menagerie of monsters, criminal masterminds and henchmen, all cut out of the same cookie-cutters that provided one-dimensional villains for every H-B action cartoon of the day. You thus have a “been there, done that” feeling right from the start in this series, giving you little or no incentive to come back for a second viewing.

A reader reminded me of Hanna-Barbera’s Dynomutt, Dog Wonder (1976-77) and The Robonic Stooges (1977-78). Although these shows were played for comedy, they also slipped under my radar, as H-B’s comedy sense was in its waning days by the time of these productions, and I generally wasn’t following much of their output at all. There seems to be little to say about either show. No origin stories to explain the characters’ existence. No “book of rules” as to their powers – anything goes to fit the occasion, as long as you hang it on a telescoping extender. Fairly lame dialogue humor. All villains cut of the same typical H-B cloth, with violence restrictions in place to hamper the writers’ creativity (if any was possessed in the first place). This is particularly harmful in the case of the Stooges, leaving no opportunity for their signature moves of face-slapping, eye gouging, etc. Voicing deserves mild comment.

No original Stooge voices in the “Robonic” series, the most recognizable voice being Paul Winchell as Moe. “Dynomutt” includes Gary Owens, largely playing it straight as “The Falcon” – an obvious Batman ripoff, complete with social register alter-ego and secret lair full of gadgets. Dynomutt’s voice confuses me, as it sounds all too familiar from voices of the past. I get the feeling someone is crossing Red Skelton’s “Clem Kadiddlehopper” voice with Stan Freberg’s voice for Charlie Horse in the one-shot pilot produced by Bob Clampett for Republic. Long memory. Other random observations are that the Falcon can’t be too concerned about his secret identity, considering that he displays his robotic dog in social circles by day – completely giving away who he must be by night. As for the Stooges, the most aggravating part is an editing technique which H-B picked up from Filmation (who in turn were probably copycatting the live-action “Batman”), where all transitions from one sequence to another are achieved by flashing a logo coming at you on the screen. This also crept into other H-B series of the time, such as the “C.B. Bears”. Thank God it died out after awhile.

Battle of the Planets (Tatsunoko Production, 1978-80) would not even receive inclusion in this overview, were it not for a problem in the distribution of the imported anime to the states, that required some serious re-jiggering of the story material. Culled from the Japanese “Gatchaman” franchise, which placed no particular emphasis on robots as starring characters (though mechanical marvels, such as an alleged “giant turtle” in episode 1, would be used by enemy forces), the series presented some definite obstacles to successful use under U.S. broadcasting standards – way too violent at times for the airing of various sequences to a domestic children’s audience. While other imports, such as “Kimba the White Lion” and “Speed Racer”, had overcome similar problems with minimal editing, still leaving plenty of footage left from the more-extended running length of episodes in Japanese broadcast schedules to completely fill an American time slot, the amount of cutting necessary to make Gatchaman episodes suitable for American viewing cut deeply into the running time necessary to fill a broadcast half-hour, even with a goodly inclusion of local commercials. Something was needed to “pad out” the running time after editing. That “something” was supplied by an idea to capitalize on the popularity of the “Star Wars” franchise and its association with robots. The nod to LucasFilms is fully evident right from the opening title sequence filmed for the American version, which scrolls large letters across the screen in vertical diminishing perspective, trying its best to look like the signature Star Wars opening scroll without stepping on ownership toes. To supply the needed extra footage within the episode, new limited animation was created of a robot, as closely resembling R2D2 as possible, purportedly directing the operations of the Gatchaman team from a central command post where all activities on Earth seem to be monitored on screens and computer consoles. The robot, known as 7-Zark-7, was voiced by Mr. Ed’s Alan Young, in one of his earliest cartoon roles, predating his debut as Uncle Scrooge in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”, and would serve to alert the humans of impending danger, plus expound to the audience upon sequences missing from the editing of the Japanese original. While Young does his best to add to the series some needed comic relief, he is supplied only with rather lame and boring dialogue, ultimately adding little if anything to the presentation of the series’ convoluted plots, which appear to have been hard enough to follow in their original versions without the editing making things worse. Another odd conversion of the series to America was the choice to have a junior member of the team, who was a completely normal juvenile in the Japanese original, recast as a creation of genetic engineering, with an odd speech impediment that is a result of some faulty DNA that makes him precede every phrase with some strange sounds and noises, much like dialogue for Klunk in “Dastardley and Muttley In Their Flying Machines”. Go figure.

From America, there was also the popular yet almost entirely formulaic Inspector Gadget (DIC, 1983-86). I genuinely tried to watch and want to like this series, hoping for a triumphant return of Don Adams to the animated screen after his success as Tennessee Tuxedo. Regrettably, I felt that Adams was largely hampered and restrained by the poor writing of the scripts, into merely reading dialogue written with little thought for comedy impact, within annoyingly repetitious storylines, such that his acting abilities were never permitted to shine. It further felt that Adams was never permitted to ad lib or contribute any material of his own, so that practically none of his trademark personality except for his intonations was present. Thus, the potential appeal of the character to me was gone. His supporting cast was equally vacuous, consisting of standard little girl/brainchild Penny who had no personality except for being smart, and Brain, a dog who never spoke and served only to take the lumps for Gadget’s blunders while constantly saving the Inspector’s neck, in a manner much less funny than Buttons’ pratfalls to save Mindy on “Animaniacs”. After a few episodes, I yawned and went elsewhere. With no clear origin story known, Gadget himself appears to be another “Six Million Dollar Man”, though we have no idea what sort of previous disaster might have befallen him, or why with his natural ineptness he would have been chosen as a worthy candidate for experimentation. Possibly the only part of his body that may be flesh and blood is his head, as he is somehow provided life support from the rest, even when his neck is extended a half-mile from his torso in telescoping fashion. His various “gadgets” to fight crime vary to suit the occasion, and include a helicopter hat, wheeled feet, telescoping limbs, and what have you. In at least one episode, a little fun was developed by devising an enemy weapon that randomly short-circuits Gadget’s control of these devices, causing them to all try to pop out at once (allowing at least the animators to have some fun with brief spurts of random apparatus flashing on the screen for only a few frames at a time). Despite the series’ earning of good bucks for its producer DIC, and even spawning a feature live-action/CGI film at Disney, I give the effort an overall ranking of C-, for lack of inspiration, where even its creators seemed to be bored.

With the massive popularity of the Star Wars franchise, particularly as live-action filming temporarily reached its climax with the completion of the third feature film, Return of the Jedi, it was only a matter of time before an adaptation to animation would be attempted. The task fell upon Nelvana studios, who developed two series to package together into an hour-long block in simultaneous release. The first was called Droids (1985-86), focusing on the animated adventures of C3P0 and R2D2 in a pre-quel to the first movie, while the second was titled “Ewoks”, focusing on the small furry allies who assisted Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in wining the decisive battle against Darth Vader and his forces in the final feature chapter. “Droids” was not picked up for a second season, while “Ewoks” continued to air for some time afterwards as a stand-alone half-hour. This is somewhat odd, as, in this author’s humble opinion, “Droids” was the superior project. Both shows were co-produced and contributed to in writing by Paul Dini, but “Droids” featured the added star power of the original voice of C3P0 and the original vocal “effects” of R2D2. “Ewoks”, on the other hand, included no original voice cast, was “too cute by half” in its storytelling, and completely changed the lead characters from jibber-jabbering little Gremlin types into fully-verbal rough equivalents of the Smurfs, with exceptionally one-dimensional personalities (a lead character spends every episode fixated upon obtain the equivalent of boy scout merit badges of honor to add to his portfolio of valor, with nearly nothing else to motivate his actions). Getting back to “Droids”, the animation is on a reasonable par with better-drawn series of the day, and the writers attempt to punch up the dialogue with some reasonably witty quips for C3P0 reminiscent of the feature films. I am unsure how the story lines fit into the Star Wars story continuity, having only had episode 2 rather than episode 1 available for viewing. However, the robots work for unknown reasons with a new girl and guy pair of co-pilots who are in some manner connected to the rebel rebellion, suggesting that Vader and the emperor are still in command of the empire somewhere outside the scenes. C3P0 can be fast-talked into joining “freedom’s fight”, but when caught in the line of fire, seems more than happy to turn over the most dangerous duties to R2D2. So, there are a few mild smiles, and overall, I’d tend to rank what little I’ve seen as reasonably passable entertainment.

And then there was the Transformers franchise (Sunbow Productions/Marvel Productions – financed by Hasbro, 1985-87), in multiple incarnations, ultimately leading to multiple CGI feature films. Though a commercial success, this series originated from that infamous period when it seemed that the only way a show could receive a green light for production was to carry a not-so-hidden agenda to serve as an advertisement to push the sale of a product. Few if any seem to have recalled that the product in question was essentially a modernization of a concept first developed by Mattel in the wake of the James Bond spy craze of the 1960’s, which resulted in a line of toy spyware called “Zero M”. These consisted of innocent looking devices (cameras, transistor radios, penknives, etc.) which, at the flick of a switch or press of a button, would unfold to convert into some manner of lethal firearm, ranging from pistols to high-powered rifles. Some toymaker with a long memory thought of the idea of having convertible objects that transform into robots rather than handguns, and thus the Transformer line of toys was born. I was always confused at the cast of characters in this show, trying to figure out which robots were the good guys and which were the bad, but is seemed that the “Autobots” – robots who unfolded from the parts of assembled cars of various make and vintage) were the heroes, while another clan, known as the “Deceptagons”, were the heavies. It all made little sense to me in animated form, and plotwise seemed little more than an excuse for firing endless rounds of laser and ray gun beams. It made even less sense when converted to feature film. At least in the original TV format, when a robot converted in shape, there were still structiral elements of the car it had transformed from visible, so that it appeared, like the toys, the transformation was the result of the internal workings of a complex design of hinges and gears. When the feature films had their debut, however, all sense of the mechanical in the transformations disappeared, the effects animators instead opting for a weird visual where the image of the autos disintegrate into what I can only describe as “pixel dust”, then solidify to take the form of the new robotic shape. I never bought into this form of morphing, which might as well have been some form of magic which could have been more cheaply achieved by a mere phase dissolve, rather than trying to get us to believe that some mechanism could separately gear each microscopic pixel of the characters into a new position. Thus, I rejected the features entirely, only many years later seeing about 15 minutes of one of the sequels, whose script seemed even more incomprehensible than the original animated series. And, common to both the original series and the features, the very fact that the films were motivated to push the sale of a product always stuck in my craw, giving me added reason to judiciously avoid the series outright.


Challenge of the Gobots (1984-85) was a one-season Hanna-Barbera affair, which I simply could not watch at all – especially considering it was based on a toy line which was a ripoff of another toy line! These imitation Transformers allegedly resulted from a whole planet’s inhabitants adopting robotic bodies to protect from natural disaster resulting from a meteor’s collision with the planet. Of course, this all happened in the midst of a fierce civil war, resulting in two armies of transforming robots endlessly battling each other (sound familiar, Transformers fans?) I truly can’t bring myself to say much more about it, as the entire premise itself speaks volumes – BEEN THERE, DONE THAT!

Voltron (1984-85) was another series I consciously avoided, that seemed to be nothing more substantial than violence for violence’s sake. Oddly, this show was pieced tohether from two different series that seemed to share a virtually identical robot, but different teams of operators, making it near impossible to follow any cohesive plot lines in the American version due to cast changing back and forth from episode to episode. The gimmick with this series was five “lion” robots which could work independently, but when facing a formidable challenge could link together as arms, legs, and head to join into a super robot. Yes, there was associated toy merchandising – what else? The whole concept of link-up in this fashion makes the role of various of the team members seem less than desirable. Can one imagine how uncomfortable a rude you would have if forced to endure the thudding tromping of walking as one of the robot’s legs, or the punishment of duking out blows as the robot’s hands? No one would want to join the team unless they could obtain the only comfortable driving position – the prestige spot of the head. The series seemed to make an effort to avoid emphasizing this problem, seemingly never showing us the plight of the individual riders’ vantage points once the larger robot was assembled. It also feels like more than coincidence that at the same time as these 5-man linkups were achieving screen popularity, a group of “Planeteers” was similarly joining forces to summon the spirit of “Captain Planet” in another eco-friendly competing series. Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.

Tranzor Z (aka Mazinger Z)

I will not at this point discuss Tranzor Z – as I actually followed this show, and liked quite a bit of it – so it will receive write-up in a different column to follow. Likewise, I will also not treat here the comedy farce “Megas XLR”, which, while it may have looked anime, was in fact a wickedly funny comic send-up of the genre – something I also enjoyed, as it gave the worst of these projects a good swift kick in the pants where it was deserved. We’ll save both of these for discussion of the “good stuff” in later chapters.

There are probably dozens more, especially from the world of anime, which I’ve avoided too well to be familiar with or simply overlooked out of lack of interest, which bloggers to these columns may want to comment upon. Maybe some of our readers actually followed the shows described above, and have particular favorite moments to share regarding same (we’ll accept even discussion of moments that make these shows memorable as “so bad, they’re good”). Let’s see what you can come up with – as well as what series you also may have consciously chosen to avoid for one reason or another.

More armor and action (with more laughs) next week!


  • One robot anime that was popular in Japan in the 1980s but was never really dubbed into English was Dr.Slump & Arale-Chan (Toei,1981-86,1997-99). It was about a loony inventor named Senbe Norimaki who created a girl robot named Arale who he passed off to everyone as his little sister. It was based on a manga by Akira Toriyama (who created Dragonball) which was translated into English by Viz Publications. Arale and the rest of the inhabitants of Penguin Village also appeared in the Dragonball manga/anime.

  • I really hope you cover The Loud House in this series of Animation Trails since that show also has robots involved in a few episodes.

  • Sorry this week’s column was an irksome chore for you to research, but you picked the Trail and have to follow it wherever it leads. I actually liked a lot of these cartoons, especially Inspector Gadget and the early anime.

    I hated Astro Boy when I was little. A few years ago, I came across an old book from my early childhood and was amused by the picture I had drawn on the inside cover showing Astro Boy being devoured by a giant insect! The show came back when I was older, and by then I was able to appreciate the futuristic design and elaborate backgrounds. I liked Tobor the 8th Man, but the scary opening with the flying saucer and the rampaging dinosaur sent me running away from the TV set in terror every time it came on.

    Inspector Blooper in the Gigantor cartoon sounds like Harold “Gildersleeve” Peary, or someone trying to imitate him. The name on the side of the battleship is Asakaze, or “morning wind”. Japanese warships were typically named for weather phenomena, never after people or places as in the West.

    Many years later, Dynomutt and the Blue Falcon were featured in an episode of “Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated”, as were Dr. Benton Quest, Race Bannon, and their nemesis the evil Dr. Zin. Speaking of whom, I guess you must be unfamiliar with “The Robot Spy”, about a giant robotic spider sent by Dr. Zin to collect information on Dr. Quest’s top-secret project. But it’s one of the best episodes of “Jonny Quest”.

    The evil Transformers were the Decepticons, not “Deceptagons”, which I suppose would be geometric figures with a misleading number of sides. Most, if not all, of the Decepticons were voiced by Frank Welker (who also voiced Dynomutt). I was very impressed with the Transformers promo when I saw it in 1985; Hasbro must have blown a lot of money on it. But the series itself was typically cheesy mid-’80s fare, and I quickly tired of it. Still, I was glad to have some familiarity with the show about a year later, when I went to a party where the guest of honour was a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. He happened to mention that his grandson loved the Transformers cartoons, but he himself couldn’t make head or tail out of them. So I explained the premise and the characters to him. I’ll never forget all the other guests looking on aghast as he and I debated how to conduct the time signature changes in the theme song. Great party.

    • “…never after people or places as in the West”
      You just had to say “never”.
      Except for the battleships

      and the aircraft carriers

      If you had just stuck to the naming practice for classes of destroyers you would have been more correct.

  • A pity that you didn’t mention the anime Space Battleship Yamato (1974-75) (brought to the US as Star Blazers (1979-84)) as its robot crewmember and comic relief Analyzer (renamed IQ9 in translation) could be casually mistaken for R2-D2, despite coming before. A nice threesome to gather IQ9, R2, and 7-Zark-7.

    I don’t know if anyone has mentioned that Superman’s Mechanical Monsters took a side trip through Hayao Miyazki’s film “Castle in the Sky”(1986) before gracing “Sky Captain”. Speaking of Superman, will you be discussing in one place the changes Brainiac went through in various shows?

    Looking forward to your favorites of this era. Soon, sooooon I will see the walking eyeball/daddy longlegs robot from Jonny Quest in all its glory!

  • Didn’t Dini also wrote some episodes of “Transformers”? I admit I never cared for the show either. Although, I did like one Hasbro based show that Sunbow and Marvel did, this wasn’t it.

  • I don’t understand why you would bother to write entries on subjects that you know little about and have no affinity for.

    • Filler?

    • Because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to bash anime and tokusatsu for being “formulaic”, while not noticing that Wiley Coyote and all the other chase cartoons are even moreso. You want “successful but aesthetically meaningless”, watch the average piece of Chuck Jones tripe.

  • I only found out about the Droids and just watched the first few episodes. Seemed to be a cut above its contemporary cartoons, and showed some better understanding of science than the Star Wars films (which not only had explosions in space, but gravity in space).

    The original Astroboy cartoon is my favorite onscreen version (theme song is one my top three tv themes). I particularly like the episode Astro Boy has the concept of the presumption of innocence explained to him (I can’t remember what else happened in the episode).

    I believe the creator of 8 Man also did the manga version of Batman

  • Re “Gigantor”, aka Tetsujin 28-Go (Iron Man #28), the origin, which was never a part of the US version, was that it was a prototype weapon developed by the Japanese military at the end of World War II, but which was unable to be deployed before the surrender The young boy with the control box is the orphan son of the scientist who was behind the project. Part of the “message” of the show was whether a weapon designed for war could be used for “peace” (that is, fighting crime protecting against and those bent on world domination and destruction), which, without this backstory, was lost in the US version.

  • Astro Boy had another record released by Simon Says titled “The Three Magicians”. This was basically a audio only version episode 33 of Astro Boy.

  • Also, for The Robinic Stooges, American Mythology currently has an ongoing comic series for them which lean more into comic tropes and such. One interesting story line is called Days of Dunderheads Past, which is a parody on the famous X-Men story line. This one has the Stooges send Curly back in time to prevent an apocalyptic future. These time travel shenanigans result in Shemp being brought into the Robinic Stooges, who wasn’t present in the HB cartoon.

    Overall, these comics are a bit more fun than the show and lean more into comic medium. it helps the editor for this series is a huge Stooges fan as well.

  • “Sort of an equivalent of trying to pass off to a flag-waving native of the red, white, and blue a serving of sushi as if it were Mom’s apple pie!”

    Or chocolate cake, as happened in “Star Blazers” (Space Cruiser Yamato) in its 1977 incarnation…

  • Another anime show that could be added to this discussion was the “Captain Future” series of 1978, based on the iconic pulp novels by Edmond Hamilton. Curt Newton, aka “Captain Future,” roams the solar system with his friends Grag, the metal robot, and a “synthetic android” named Otho. Some of these programs made it to home video in the U. S., but I don’t know if they were shown on TV or not. I also don’t know if Grag was renamed in the English language dub; this was his name in the original stories. Anyone have more info on the “Captain Future” programs?

  • In view of your distaste for Hanna-Barbera’s action/adventure cartoons of the 1960s, which I do not share, I’ll just point out that Space Ghost had to deal with A LOT of robots.

    “The Robot Master”: The evil Metallus deploys his metal horde of robot flyers, robot needle monsters and cannon robots against the Ghost Planet, although they might more accurately be described as unmanned spacecraft or drones rather than robots.

    “The Schemer”: When the titular villain’s scheme to send our heroes into a fiery supernova is thwarted, he unleashes his Destroyer Monster, a giant robot. As so often happens, it turns on its creator.

    “The Cyclopeds”: The evil Cyclo has his fleet of flying saucers chase Jan and Jace into his Maze of Horror, where they are attacked by a robot called the Super Cyclo Terror. It’s described as an “eight-armed monster,” even though it only has four arms. Blip the monkey spray paints its optical sensor, blinding it.

    “The Space Birds”: giant robotic birds called Metallo Hawks are sent to destroy the Ghost Planet’s communication satellites.

    “Attack of the Saucer Crab”: A flying saucer is sent out as a spy probe by Rob Coar, or possibly Bob Coar, the “unseen and ruthless ruler of the galaxies.” On the planet’s surface, the saucer sprouts jointed legs and claws and gets around like a giant robotic crab. Space Ghost destroys the probe, preventing it from transmitting any information to the galactic overlord Rob Coar or Bob Coar, who is never heard from again. At least, not in the original series run, though for all I know Space Ghost might have had him as a guest on his talk show in the ’90s.

    “The Drone”: This time it’s not a drone, but a robot octopus called a “robo-chanic” that hijacks the Phantom Cruiser and takes it to the Black Planet.

    “Ruler of the Rock Robots”: The evil Zorgat brings giant rock formations to life to attack Space Ghost and company. Despite the title, the rock creatures don’t appear to be at all mechanical in nature, and are “robots” only in the sense that they’re under Zorgat’s control. One might with equal justice call them “zombies”.

    “The Challenge”: This is a fun one. Zorak, the leader of the praying mantis people, has commissioned the construction of Titanor, an enormous robot made of indestructible styranotanium. He challenges Space Ghost to a winner-take-all battle for control of the Ghost Planet, and Space Ghost accepts. Titanor immediately dominates, using his styranotanium fist to conk Space Ghost repeatedly on the head and drive him into the ground like a railroad spike. But Jan and Jace, using their inviso-power to eavesdrop, overhear Zorak gloating that he had stolen Space Ghost’s power bands and substituted fakes in their place. “How did he get them?” asks Jan. “Never mind that,” says Jace. Later on, in an offhand concession to story continuity, he mentions that Zorak must have gotten the power bands “that time someone sprayed sleep gas in the air vents of the Space Lab.” Oh yeah, then. Anyway, they restore Space Ghost’s real power bands, he beats Titanor, and everything’s copacetic in the end.

    “The Molten Monsters of Moltar”: Part of the six-part series finale with multiple crossovers. Moltar sends his senso-thermal robots (i.e., mechanical birds) to capture Space Ghost, and some other robots transport him via space shuttle into exile on the planet Amzot. Amzot, however, happens to be the home of the Herculoids. They rescue Space Ghost, who takes the shuttle back to conclude some unfinished business with Moltar.

  • And speaking of the Herculoids….

    “Mekkor”: A robot army of floating rubbish bins with mechanical arms invades, until Zandor cuts off their power source by throwing his frisbee shield at it. (My wife insists that these robots must have been modelled on the Daleks, but Doctor Who had never been shown in the United States until the 1970s.)

    “The Raiders”: Sta-Lak, a pointy-eared alien with two-toned 3D glasses, orders his robot servants to take Tara hostage.

    “The Android People”: The evil Dorbok directs his rather simian-looking robots to capture Zandor and use him as a model for creating the ultimate warrior android. Robot Zandor is a colossus that lumbers around yelling “Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!” The real Zandor disables its control system by shooting his slingshot at a white triangle on its chest. Seems like a pretty serious design flaw in a warrior android, but I’m no engineer.

    “Mekkano, the Machine Master”: The title villain summons his robot army to break him out of the Inter Galactic Prison so he can wreak vengeance on Zandor and the Herculoids for having put him there. Said army includes Mecho-Trackers, Mecho-Stroyers, and the unstoppable Electro-Smasher!

    “The Zorbots” The Zorbots don’t appear to be robots per se, but an alien race ruled by Konar or Connor, who wants to steal the planet’s atmosphere. He has two giant robots called Cybrons who operate the Turbo-Inhalator and battle the Herculoids when they try to interfere.

    “Invasion of the Electrode Men”: Volton, not to be confused with Voltron, and his robot army of Electrode Men come to Amzot to convert the planet’s matter into energy.

    “Queen Skorra”: Her Majesty uses her Vibro-Ray to create a monster of living mud that throws fireballs at the Herculoids. Oh, and she also has three robot henchmen.

    “The Return of Sta-Lak”: The evil 3D movie aficionado creates robot versions of the Herculoids, with added features like extra limbs.

    “Malak and the Metal Apes”: Malak the dwarf king unleashes his latest war machines against the sea people. Contrary to the title, these robots aren’t particularly apelike; their arms might be a little longer than their legs, but they don’t have prognathous faces, walk on their knuckles or swing through the trees. They’re only referred to as “apes” once, at the very end of the cartoon, so the title might have been something of an afterthought.

    See what fun you missed out on?

  • We fans of Lost In Space don’t like to talk about the animated adaptation thereof (Filmation/Hanna-Barbera, the ABC Saturday Superstar Movie, 8/9/73 — Charles A. Nichols, dir.), but our beloved robot is of course featured in it. Unfortunately, he’s voiced by Don Messick rather than Dick Tufeld, and comparisons with Uniblab are inevitable.

  • Osamu Tezuka’s original Astro Boy Manga, which the animated series is based on, was reprinted in English years ago. It’s actually a very deep, humanistic work and its creator controlled the adaptation. I remember being very affected as a kid by an episode which I later recognized as a serious allegory of German resistance to Hitler. A young partisan and older intellectual were killed in the story, which pulled no punches in showing the costs of dissent in a totalitarian society. This was really strong brew for a kid show.

  • My reasons for not watching many of the cartoons mentioned here -besides the HB ones which I found too childish when they were being shown on Saturday mornings was a lot more pedestrian than most people I’ve seen commenting here. No local station was broadcasting them in the 60’s or 70’s so I didn’t know that they existed. No one was running Astro Boy or Gigantor or even similar series like Speed Racer in my area in the 60’s -70’s so I was unaware that they existed. The only science fiction shows that I remember from that period were the Gerry Anderson shows like “Fireball XL5” and “Stingray”. I don’t recall seeing “Thunderbirds” until my late 20’s. I think if they had been around for me when 1 was 5-12 years old I would have been pretty interested in them. I am now interested because of the people and companies that made them and the cartoons that came afterwards because they existed.

  • Does Cartoon Research have access to the archives of the late Fred Patten? He spent his life writing about anime and is arguably the most significant force breaking it into the American market.

  • Charles, the reason GIGANTOR (IRONMAN #28 in Japan) and JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT (GIANT ROBO in Japan) are similar is because they’re both by the same creator; manga artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama.

    And by the way, JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT is one of my top favorite tokusatsu (Japanese SPFX) shows, and one of the best produced by Toei. (I prefer the original Japanese version myself.) Let’s not be too harsh!

    Incidentally, GIGANTOR was heavily broken down from its original Japanese version, as a single episode was usually made up from multiple episodes from the original Japanese version! (For instance; one of my favorite episodes, “Danger’s Dinosaurs,” was made up from not one, not two, but about 5-6 episodes! I was surprised at how much more story there was (and stakes as well)! The original Japanese version had cliffhangers galore (and the series didn’t take a breath and relax until Episode #26!), whereas Americans will find the US version *much* faster-paced. Also, the original Japanese music score is by the same composer as SPEED RACER (Nobuyoshi Koshibe)! I do love the music in the US as well.

  • Droids was supposed to take place before the action of original Star Wars. Boba Fett was the only other character from the movies who was in the show. The prequel movies retconned the premise so it’s now considered to be non canon. It was a little bit ahead of its time in the structure because it has story arcs of 3 or 4 episodes which I thought made it harder to follow in the original Saturday morning run if you missed an episode. It never got a full series release on any video format. SciFi channel repeated it around the time of the Star Wars Special Editions and Episode I. The whole show is available on Disney+.

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