Well, it's finally here: the 5-dvd set release of Defenders of the Earth, Volume One! This was one of the cartoons I used to look forward to watching every Saturday when I was a kid in the mid '80s. The short-lived Defenders of the Earth took three classic pulp adventure heroes from the comic strips published by King Features Syndicate - Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician (and Mandrake's former manservant, now upgraded to hero in his own right, Lothar) - and banded them together against the great villain Ming the Merciless, who again is bent on invading Earth. Defenders of the Earth only lasted one season, in 1986, but still managed to churn out a mind-boggling 65 episodes!
The show also introduced a younger generation of heroes: Rick Gordon - Flash Gordon's brainy but brash son; Jedda Walker - the Phantom's daughter, who has telepathic powers; Kshin - Mandrake's adopted son, who is the magician's apprentice and who has an alien pet named Zuffy; Lothar Jr. (or LJ) - Rick's best friend, who's into martial arts and is also the son of Mandrake's friend Lothar. These kids did their own share of world saving, but, every now and then, also got in the way of the big three.
And let's not forget Dynak, the computer that the Defenders of the Earth heavily relied on. Here's the twist: in the first episode "Escape from Mongo," Ming the Merciless had captured Flash Gordon's wife, Dale Arden Gordon, and was using brainwashing techniques to get her to tell him the whereabouts of Flash. Dale resisted, fatally. But, before she perished, her "soul" was saved into a crystal, which was then used as a power source for the computer Dynak.
Other changes that were made for the cartoon show: Ming's appearance was altered for us sensitive moderns; he went from bearing a haughty Fu Manchu countenance to a more alien, greenish, and, therefore, less offensive appearance. With the same thought in mind, Lothar, formerly Mandrake's manservant, was elevated to full hero status and was shown as more intelligent than he had been previously portrayed. Also, in the comic strips, Mandrake only had hypnotic powers. As a Defender, he drew on actual magic.
To folks out there who enjoy some darn good, hand-drawn animation and nicely paced adventure stories, and especially to those "older" folks who'd thrilled to the exploits of Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and Mandrake in the past, in their different incarnations and mediums, this dvd is a must have. I think Alex Raymond, who created Flash Gordon, and Lee Falk, who created the Phantom and Mandrake, would've been happy with this show. The episodes took place in outer space, in the jungles, in urban and exotic locales, which gave each of the three classic originals a spotlight to strut his stuff in his preferred environment. The youngsters, too, were showcased quite a bit, particularly Rick and Jedda, who possibly had a romance blooming. Kshin, as the youngest of the kids, had the most to prove (or so he thought), thus leading to several scrapes, none more dire than in the episode "A Demon in His Pocket."
Over the course of 65 episodes, the Defenders of the Earth, time and again, staved off invasion attempts by Ming the Merciless and his minions. But not every episode had Ming as the main baddie. Longtime foes also popped up to annoy the Defenders, such as in "The Evil of Doctor Dark," where an old foe of Mandrake re-surfaces. Kurt Walker, who was the Phantom's brother but who became his enemy, was developed specially for this series. And, sometimes, Ming eschewed his armadas and blunt tactics and opted for more subtle ploys, as when he tricked the Defenders into entering the computer Dynak into a chess competition in "Bits and Chips" or when he took advantage of the latest Earth craze for household robotic aides in "Ming's Household Help." One of my favorite episodes was "Terror in Time," wherein the Defenders time travelled back to the days of King Arthur and hooked up with Prince Valiant.
I remember the 1980s as a time when there were a lot of good cartoons on tv. I remember rushing home from school just to watch G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, He-Man, and Robotech. On Saturday mornings, I would wake up early (even before my parents woke up) just to watch Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Battle of the Planets, Voltron, the SuperFriends, and the Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour. And, of course, Defenders of the Earth. God, I miss those Saturday mornings.
Anyway, hot on the trail of the excellent Flash Gordon: The Complete Series dvd collection, BCI does it right with Defenders of the Earth, Volume One with regards to the dvd extras. Special Features include an audio commentary on the pilot episode "Escape from Mongo"; interviews with the show's creators; a full length animated storyboard with Interactive Comparison for Episode #126 "Terror in Time"; an original presentation pilot for "Defenders of the Earth" featuring alternate characters and animation; image galleries; Dvd-ROM features: scripts, storyboards and the complete series Bible (PDF format, PC/Mac readable); detailed character profiles; trivia and fun facts. This dvd collection also comes with a booklet of episode guides and 2 "Comic Strip Champions" art cards (4" X 6") by comic book artists Rafael Kayanan and Mike Allred. Now, there's also supposed to be a bonus episode here from the Flash Gordon animated series - Episode #1 "A Planet in Peril" - but, for the life of me, I can't find it anywhere on the discs. But that probably has to do more with my being mechanically illiterate than anything else.
For those who hearken back fondly to their youth and for the new generations of youngsters who are curious about animated shows done before CGI really took off, this is surely worth dropping a few hard-earned dimes. And, needless to say, keep an eye out for Volume 2, which contains the remaining episodes, also imminently coming your way.
And here are the included 33 episodes (I know, the episode numbering's a bit wacko, but this is how the box set episode guide lists them, so who am I to argue?):
DISC 1, SIDE A
101 - "Escape from Mongo"
102 - "The Creation of Monitor"
103 - "A Demon in His Pocket"
104 - "A House Divided"
DISC 1, SIDE B
120 - "Family Reunion"
105 - "Bits 'n' Chips"
106 - "The Root of Evil"
107 - "Cold War"
DISC 2, SIDE A
108 - "The Sleeper Awakes"
109 - "The Revenge of Astra"
110 - "The Hall of Wisdom"
111 - "The Mind Warriors, Part I"
DISC 2, SIDE B
113 - "The Mind Warriors, Part II"
112 - "The Lost Jewels of Tibet"
114 - "The Evil of Doctor Dark"
115 - "Diamonds are a Ming's Best Friend"
DISC 3, SIDE A
116 - "The Men of Frost"
117 - "Battleground"
118 - "The Panther Peril"
119 - "Fury of the Deep"
DISC 3, SIDE B
121 - "The Defense Never Rests"
122 - "Like Father, Like Daughter?"
123 - "The Would-Be Defender"
124 - "Doorways into Darkness"
DISC 4, SIDE A
125 - "Deal with the Devil"
126 - "Terror in Time"
127 - "Ming's Household Helpers"
128 - "the Starboy"
DISC 4, SIDE B
131 - "The Book of Mysteries"
132 - "The Future Comes But Once"
133 - "Kshin and the Ghost Ship"
134 - "The Carnival of Doctor Kalihari"
135 - "The Mystery of the Book"
& Special Features