Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Superfriends

The Superfriends as many fans of 1970's cartoons will know consisted of animated adventures of DC comics super-heroes. The series had a shaky start at first and some say was ahead of it's time. The original version of the series featured a slightly different line-up than what you see in the above picture. The original version did not have The Wonder Twins and Gleek. Instead, the original version had two kids named Marvin and Wendy and their dog, known as Wonder Dog. The stories were almost always ecological or environmental depicting mad scientists wanting to hurt the environment. A moral/lesson was often at the core of each story, too.

The Superfriends headquarters was referred to as The Hall of Justice League in the first version and Hall of Justice thereafter. Ted Knight was the program's narrator.

That version consisted of 16 hour long episodes and ran just one season, 1973-1974, and would continue to re-run until ABC-TV decided to re-try the show with a different twist.

The All-New Superfriends Hour
came along in 1977 and this version is the one that caught on. Marvin, Wendy, and the Wonder Dog were gone and in their place were Zan, Jayna, and Gleek a trio of aliens from the planet, Exxor. The two teenagers it's been said were patterned after Donny and Marie Osmond. The Wonder Twins displayed super powers...something Marvin and Wendy hadn't. Zan could transform into any form of water-based shape: water, ice, steam. Jayna could transform into any animal. The powers of the Wonder Twins were executed by the two of them hitting their fists together and shouting "Wonder Twin Powers...Activate!". Gleek couldn't transform into anything but he had a shape-shifting tail that could also stretch, which often came in handy. The core line-up of Superfriends were Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. The stories in this 1977 version were far less ecologically charged but they still carried a moral lesson. William Woodson was the narrator of the revival series and he'd continue with the show throughout it's run. Half of the 1977 season was issued on DVD earlier this year with Volume Two hitting stores in January 2009. There were 15 episodes of the 1977 series produced.

This 1977 series was split up into a formula. The first adventure paired two of the Superfriends together in a 6-7 minute adventure. The second segment, also running close to 7 minutes, featured The Wonder Twins and Gleek dealing with teenage issues in adventures of their own. The third segment, known as the main story, featured a 30 minute adventure with all of the Superfriends. The fourth and final segment focused on one of the Superfriends teaming up with a guest super-hero. In between all of this were extra's. The De-Coder segment featured a word association game broken into two parts. The first part of the game gave a viewer a clue and they were to remember it because part-two of the de-coder would reveal the second part of the word association clue. A viewer was to guess what the word was in relation to the main Superfriends adventure. Another extra was the Magic segment where one of the Superfriends would demonstrate some form of magic trick and then in a follow-up reveal how the trick was did. Another was the health segment where exercise was promoted. These bumper segments ran barely a minute.

After the ratings success of the 1977 version, ABC-TV debuted Challenge of the Superfriends which also ran an hour in length, in 1978. This version of the series introduced the super-villain group known as The Legion of Doom. The first half of the show featured an adventure with the core line-up of Superfriends along with the Wonder Twins and Gleek. The second half of the show didn't feature the Wonder Twins and Gleek but instead increased the number of Superfriends from five to eleven and focused on 13 villains who operated from the Hall of Doom: Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Sinestro, Bizarro, The Riddler, Scarecrow, Black Manta, Grodd, Solomon Grundy, Cheetah, Giganta, Captain Cold, and Toyman. The new additions to the Superfriends that season were: Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Samauri, Apache Chief, and Black Vulcan. The last two super-heroes were created in 1977 for the All-New Superfriends Hour and hadn't actually appeared in DC comic books. Samauri was another creation for the Superfriends cartoon that never appeared in the comic books. There were 16 hour long episodes made for the 1978 season. The show ran 1 hour and consisted of two 30 minute episodes and technically that means 32 half-hour episodes were a part of this series. The series was released on DVD as "Challenge of the Superfriends" and "Superfriends: Volume Two", breaking up the two segments of the hour program.

In the 1978 series we saw Aquaman turn into a pre-historic beast as a result of radiation exposure. Superman and Wonder Woman shrink themselves to micro-size and travel through the Aquaman beast's veins. Gleek, while the beast is strapped down under chains, accidentally turns on the shrink ray, which shrinks the chains and allows the beast to easily break his confinement. All the while, Aquaman beast has gotten loose and goes on a destructive rampage of Metropolis. The episode is appropriately titled "Journey Through Inner Space". The Phantom Zone, a place where Kryptonian's sent their criminals, is the focus in the episode "Terror From the Phantom Zone" when three villains escape and seek revenge on Superman. Red and Blue Kryptonite are both featured in this episode. The villains expose Superman to the red kryptonite, which ages him. Later, he has to travel to the remains of Krypton to seek out blue kryptonite, which may reverse his aging. Aquaman's base of operations, Atlantis, is featured briefly in the episode "The World Beneath the Ice".

In another episode, "Battle of the Gods", we see Wonder Woman and the other Superfriends in a challenge set forth by Zeus. The episode starts out with the Superfriends in a galactic fight with space aliens. Shortly afterward, Wonder Woman is telepathically contacted by Aphrodite. This brings Wonder Woman to a planet, home of the immortal Gods. There, she saves Aphrodite's temple from collapsing but we soon learn that Hera is jealous of Wonder Woman and Aphrodite. The rest of the Superfriends arrive on the planet, setting in motion Hera's antics. She and Aphrodite begin bickering, she accuses Aphrodite of giving lavish praise to "mortals" like the Superfriends. Zeus appears and halts the argument and challenges the Superfriends to face hardships "that only the greatest could survive".

In the Challenge segment, a lot of the episodes revolved around the Legion of Doom's conquest of universal control. Each story featured several members of the Legion hatching a plan to rid the world of the Superfriends. All of their attempts failed but the Legion was never the end of each story, Luthor would almost always have an escape plan, causing the Legion to get away just in time. In "Trial of the Superfriends", the Legion put the Superfriends on trial. Well, some of the Superfriends: Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. Luthor is the judge. Sinestro acts as prosecutor while Grodd acts as the leader of the "jury". The episode centers around a destructive element known as liquid light. While several of the Superfriends are on trial and later set free without their power devices, running from Brainiac's android duplicates, several other Superfriends are on the pursuit of other members of the Legion who are planning on releasing the liquid light in a heavily populated area. In the episode "The World's Deadliest Game", Brainac creates a device that makes the Earth appear to vanish. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and Black Vulcan are at the moon helping NASA. As the three head for home, they notice the Earth is gone. Hawkman contacts Superman...but the transmission cuts out. Toyman, watching the events unfold on a monitor at the Hall of Doom, mimics Superman's voice on a radio and tells the three that the Earth is light years away and they need help. This causes the three to make their way to the signal picked up on Hawkman's radio but nothing's's then that they fall into a black hole and land on Toyman's artificial planet of toy traps. "Swamp of the Living Dead" shows the Legion of Doom joining forces with a "sinister being" conjured up by a swamp witch. The evil spirit captures the Superfriends, who are placed inside clear cases in the bottom of the swamp. The evil spirit gives the Legion of the power to command the dead. When the Legion double-crosses the evil spirit, he sets a group of zombies after them...causing the Legion to set the Superfriends free, hoping the zombies will go after them instead.

"Doomsday" features Sinestro, Cheetah, and Black Manta plotting revenge against the rest of the Legion. This happened at the start of the episode when the Legion deserted the scene of the crime, leaving three of their members helpless. Superman and the others capture Sinestro, Cheetah, and Black Manta and hold them at the Hall of Justice. In the meantime, Sinestro creates three anti-matter duplicates to take their place as the real villains escape into the universe of Qward. When Superman taps Sinestro on the shoulder, he vanishes into the Qward universe. Superman finds his way back to the Hall of Justice but in the meantime Sinestro, Cheetah, and Black Manta build a separate Hall of Doom and set out to destroy Luthor and the others. In the end, the Superfriends put an end to the plot, and the three villains re-join the Legion of Doom. There is an episode entitled "Superfriends: Rest In Peace" where Luthor discovers a deadly element that can wipe out all of the Superfriends. The plan works up until a clever plot twist causes the Legion's latest scheme to fail. This episode features a brief appearance by Batman supporting character, Commissioner Gordon; as well as Superman associates Lois Lane and Perry White.

The 1979 season saw the debut of World's Greatest Superfriends and this series focused on the core line-up of five Superfriends, along with the Wonder Twins and Gleek. The series ran one hour and eight episodes were made. The bulk of the show's airings were repeats of previous seasons.

Throughout 1980-1982, the series aired an hour in length but the formula was changed. Each hour show now featured a half-hour repeat episode from the previous seasons in addition to three new 7 minute episodes. These short episodes were naturally easier to churn out and produce and so Hanna-Barbera continued producing 7 minute episodes for three seasons. A new super-hero was created for this series of episodes, El Dorado. ABC-TV canceled the series during 1983 and a syndicated series was launched as a result. Hanna-Barbera continued to produce 7 minute episodes of the series because it was still running over-sea's, specifically Australia, and the syndicated program meant that it could thrive without network interference. These episodes weren't shown in the United States in abundance. The bulk of the episodes aired in the United States for the first time 12 years later in 1995 on the USA cable network on a compilation series called The Superman-Batman Adventures. Naturally, with such a lapse in time, most viewers who caught these episodes weren't even aware they were seeing episodes new to the United States.

ABC-TV picked the Superfriends series up again in 1984. This version was radically different than any previous take on the series. There was no Aquaman in this series...although he appears in the show's opening. Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show was a deliberate attempt to tie the series with the action-figures that used the 'Super Powers' logo. The show featured Firestorm as a new addition to the line-up and several of the stories were written around his eager enthusiasm approaching his job as a super hero, sometimes landing him and the other Superfriends into dangers. The series ran a half hour in length and featured two separate adventures, which means each adventure would run 11-12 minutes a piece. In addition to Firestorm, the series is noted for introducing Darkseid and his associates into animated form. Darkseid rules the planet Apokolips and on this series his henchmen were his son, Kalibak, and Dessad. The Wonder Twins and Gleek weren't a part of this show in the way they had been. They appeared in a few episodes, notably the episodes called "Uncle Mxyzptlk", "The Wrath of Brainiac", and "The Case of the Shrinking Superfriends". Brainiac appeared in skeletal form in this series in spite of the fact in the opening of the show he appears as he did in the 1970's. There were 8 episodes produced, each consisting of two segments, mathematically making 16 episodes and these were released on DVD. In this series, Wonder Woman's boyfriend, Steve Trevor, is name-dropped on the episode "Darseid's Golden Trap", which featured a rare Superman story dealing with Gold kryptonite. Red kryptonite was the focus on "Uncle Mxyzptlk".

A running theme in the 1984 series was Darkseid's attempts of getting Wonder Woman to fall in love with him. The very first episode, "The Bride of Darkseid", introduced this sub-plot.

The series did an about-face in 1985. This version, Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, was was more serious and in a way kind of hinted at the overly dramatic portrayal of the super-heroes in the next decade. Cyborg was the latest super-hero added to the series. He and Firestorm had most of the action during this final version of the series. This version also featured a couple of firsts. Critics and fans have often claimed the series featured way more Superman villains and there's a reason for this. In my way of thinking, when someone says the show's name, Superfriends, which hero comes to mind? that is my theory as to why Superman had the bulk of attention throughout the classic run of the Superfriends. Yet, in the 1985 version, two of Batman's famous villains made their only appearance on Superfriends: Joker and Penguin.

The Joker was featured with Darkseid in the episode "Wild Cards". Penguin was featured with Felix Faust in an episode called "The Case of the Stolen Super Powers" even though Batman, nor Robin, are featured in the story. Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk were featured together on the strange episode "The Bizarro Super Powers Team". Batman's origin was shown for the first time in animation on the episode "The Fear" featuring a much more wicked Scarecrow than originally depicted on Challenge of the Superfriends. Also, Superman died in one of the episodes...after prolonged exposure to kryptonite...but Superman survived, of course...but the story-line nevertheless tackled a subject seldom attempted. Darkseid was still pursuing a relationship with Wonder Woman. This is featured on the episode "The Darkseid Deception" where he masquerades as Steve Trevor.

Galactic Guardians ran 8 episodes as well...two of those 8 episodes contained a second segment. So, what we have here are 6 half-hour adventures and 2 episodes featuring two 11 adventures a piece. The Superfriends series, in all of it's versions, came to and end in 1986 after ABC-TV canceled the show when the last version of the series ended it's last repeat cycle. There was no more episodes produced, either. Superheroes were fading from animation by the late 1980's with a rare exception being a 1988 animated version of Superman. Superheroes wouldn't come back onto TV in any real big way until 1992 when FOX-TV debuted Batman: The Animated Series and that program set in motion the overly dramatic, angst-ridden depiction of the super-hero's that persists to this day. Superman and Spiderman {a Marvel comic hero} would see new animation series as a result of Batman's success on FOX. Later, an entirely updated version of the Superfriends was debuted, called Justice League, featuring ultra-modern updates of the characters. I consider myself a fan of the classic-era Superfriends. I've watched the newer versions and to me they are just too serious and lack charm, if that's the proper way to put it? The cartoons sound more like mini-drama's instead of adventurous cartoons...and the voices carry a hint of movie-star diction instead of cartoon animation.

The first version of Superfriends from 1973 is not available on DVD and neither is the 1979 version or the 1980-1983 seven minute short episodes. The shows that are on DVD are The All-New Superfriends Hour, Volume One released earlier this year. Volume Two will appear in January 2009. The other versions on DVD are: 1978's Challenge of the Superfriends, which was split into two DVD releases, one 16 episode collection featuring the Legion of Doom episodes and another 16 episode collection featuring typical adventures from the first half of the 1978 series; 1984's Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, and Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. 

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