Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Super Friends through the years: A look back

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Super Friends franchise making its debut on ABC, but this year is the 35th anniversary of its revival under the title, The All-New Super Friends Hour. Sure, it's been alternately praised and reviled, depending on whose commentary you're reading, but bear in mind that until the mid-80's, the series was hamstrung by anti-violence restrictions put in place after the first wave of superhero cartoons in the 60's. Let us consider, then, the history, which actually begins 40 years ago.........

*1972:

Batman & Robin, voiced once more by Olan Soule (ex-Dragnet) and radio legend Casey Kasem (American Top 40), made 2 guest appearances on The New Scooby-Doo Movies on CBS, marking their debut with Hanna-Barbera. Kasem was accustomed to essaying additional roles aside from Norville "Shaggy" Rogers in just about every Scooby cartoon, so this was nothing new, and he'd pull double duty again when Josie & the Pussycats teamed with Scooby, but that's another story. Both Scooby-Dynamic Duo team-ups saw them face off with the Joker & the Penguin, and the producers of Batman: The Brave & the Bold paid homage by including a 3rd meeting between the Caped Crusaders & Mystery Inc. vs. Joker & Penguin in an episode that also featured song satirist "Weird" Al Yankovic several months back.

Meanwhile, Filmation finally was able to make use of Wonder Woman as she guest-starred on The Brady Kids, over on ABC, in the episode, "It's All Greek To Me". Superman would appear in a separate episode, but for now that is unavailable on YouTube. However, it appeared this would be the end of DC's involvement with Filmation, as H-B acquired the license to produce Super Friends.

*Super Friends (1973-77): Only one season was produced, but as was the practice of the time, the reruns would cycle through for a second year, and then the show was brought back as a mid-season replacement during the 1975-6 & 1976-7 seasons.

The concept was rather simple. Instead of fighting familiar enemies such as the Joker or Luthor, Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, & Aquaman would be beset with ordinary, misguided scientists and average citizens (such as Mr. & Mrs. Mole). One of the better episodes of the series saw Green Arrow make his only appearance in the series in an episode that was inspired in part by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but the Gulliver in this story was a scientist upset with population growth. Casey Kasem played Gulliver and did a near-perfect Peter Lorre impersonation in essaying the part. Ex-Mouseketeer Sherry Alberoni (ex-Josie & The Pussycats) & Frank Welker (Scooby-Doo) voiced trainees Wendy & Marvin, respectively, and Ted Knight (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) served as narrator.

*The All-New Super Friends Hour (1977-8): After three years of reruns, the Super Friends returned, and there were changes galore, mirroring what had been done in the namesake comic book that bowed a year earlier.

Wendy & Marvin  had been written out of the comics, replaced by the Wonder Twins, Zan & Jayna, shapeshifters from the planet Exor. As we've documented, the two sets of teens would meet in the comics, but not on TV, until an infamous [adult swim] short a few years ago. The very first Wonder Twins short, "Joyride", starts off with the Twins trying some surfing. The very sight of Jayna in a two-piece purple (of course) bikini is worth the price of admission alone. And snarky internet commentators like Seanbaby think the Twins were "useless"? Oh, I beg to differ!

The format called for four stories, plus health & safety and nutrition tips, magic tricks, and puzzles.

*Challenge of the Super Friends (1978-9): Enter the Legion of Doom, as Luthor, Riddler, Grodd, and a host of other DC villains would unite to plague the Justice Leaguers. The series was actually a one hour format, as a separate story aired in the first half, picking up where the previous season left off.

Oddly, H-B also produced 2 live-action primetime specials that aired not on ABC, but rather NBC, and that's something we'll discuss over in The Land of Whatever in due course.

*World's Greatest Super Friends (1979-80): The writers mined the library for literary classics to use as templates for some of the eight episodes (yes, only eight) during this season, when there should've been more. ABC clearly fumbled the ball with this decision. There were stories based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as well as homages to Robin Hood, Aladdin, and the classic Star Trek episode, "Mirror, Mirror", which sent Superman to an alternate universe where his team happen to be villains (!).

*Super Friends (2nd series)(1980-4): Still in a half-hour format, the producers opted to cram 3 short features into 30 minutes, with mixed results, averaging 8 new half-hours per year. We've posted some of the shorts on occasion.

*Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show (1984-5): The title change was predicated by Kenner's Super Powers line of action figures. Since the Wonder Twins weren't included in the toy line, they were written out of the show after appearing in 3 episodes. Firestorm joined the team, and Adam West was brought on to be the voice of Batman (with Olan Soule moving over to play Professor Martin Stein, 1/2 of Firestorm). Not the best series in the franchise, especially with Jack Kirby's seminal galactic villain, Darkseid, saddled with the gimmick of pining away for Wonder Woman. Only a completist would want the DVD for a guilty pleasure.

*Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (1985-6): The end of the trail. Cyborg, one of Robin's Teen Titans teammates, joined in the final season (voiced by "Ghostbusters" co-star Ernie Hudson), and narrator Bill Woodson was phased out in favor of a more dramatic format, which worked out very well with "The Fear", which illustrated Batman's origin on TV for the first time. Some people might look at this after having seen the flirting between Batman & Wonder Woman on Justice League Unlimited and think that the roots of that angle might have started with "Fear", as the Amazing Amazon is the only other member, aside from the Dynamic Duo, in this instant classic. Not many episodes in this season, either, but I'd recommend getting this DVD before Legendary Super Powers Show.

After 13 years, ABC decided to put the franchise to rest and cancelled Galactic Guardians. Considering that the network's other H-B franchise, Scooby-Doo, was sent to the kennel in the spring of  '86, this shouldn't have been too shocking. Given the shabby treatment accorded the Twins, Samurai, Apache Chief, & Black Vulcan by [adult swim]'s staff of idiots in recent years, it would take a lot to restore some respect & dignity in a new series. WB tried paying homage on Justice League Unlimited by creating characters that were, in a sense, analogues to the above heroes (i.e. Longshadow was meant to be Apache Chief, albeit much younger).

Sadly, buying the DVD's are the only way you'll get to see these series now, as Boomerang let the rights expire and won't pony up and pay WB rights fees to bring them back, despite the pleas from a loyal fanbase. Their loss, of course.

As I've often documented, one of the faults to the writing in those days was a lack of continuity and/or characterization, often left on the backburner of priority. Today's writers might be able to do something, as long as they don't stray too far from the original source material. Why do you think fan fiction is so popular nowadays? As fans, we can let our imaginations have a template and a forum. Right now, it's the only way to relive and revisit our memories.

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