One of the most popular and enduring cartoons ever made, He-Man was the result of a collaboration between toy giant Mattel and animation outfit Filmation. Mattel had put out two figures in 1981 (a barbarian warrior and his skeletal blue nemesis), only to find themselves inundated with letters from children demanding to know who they were and why they were fighting. Mattel brought in TV scriptwriter Michael Halperin to write a series bible that would form the backbone for Filmation’s series. He came up with the world of Eternia, a fantastical planet where Star Wars met Conan the Barbarian. Filmation specialised in producing animation quickly and cheaply, and were one of the last US animation studios to resist outsourcing their work to the Far East – probably a contributing factor to their sad demise in 1990. The studio kept budgets low by repeatedly re-using stock footage in episodes and featuring long takes panning across backgrounds. Continuity was something of a mess as a result, although in truth it was unlikely that many younger children even noticed the repetition. Bringing on board then-unknown writers such as Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Larry DeTillo (Beast Wars) and J M Straczynski (Babylon 5), the studio churned out 130 episodes in just two years. The show proved to be an instant success – in the early eighties, it was almost impossible to spend more than 20 minutes in a children’s play area without witnessing at least one child yelling “I have the power!”.
Interestingly, the early version of the world of He-Man was very different from the colourful, kid-friendly cartoon that came to be so famous. In the illustrated mini-comics released with the first series of toys, He-Man was a barbarian from an Eternian tribe (there was no Prince Adam). The planet’s inhabitants were dealing with the aftermath of the ‘Great Wars’, which devastated the civilizations which once ruled supreme. The wars left behind advanced machinery and weaponry, known only to select people. An early incarnation of the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull (called ‘The Goddess’ at that point) gave He-Man some of these weapons, and he set out to defend the secrets of Castle Grayskull from the evil villain Skeletor. He-Man possessed one-half of the Power Sword; Skeletor had the second half, and used it as his main weapon. When joined, the two halves of the Power Sword provided the key to Castle Grayskull (this is why the two figures’ swords could combine into one, when the action figures were initially released). By the time the animated series was developed, however, He-Man’s origins had been revised completely: his true identity was Prince Adam of Eternia, son of King Randor and Queen Marlena (a human from Earth).
Unlike most animated shows, He-Man never had an introductory episode – the characters all burst on screen fully formed. While some characters (The Sorceress, Teela, Battle Cat) would later have their origins explained, we never found out how Prince Adam, the spoilt heir to the throne of Eternia, first discovered his fabulous powers. In the series bible, Prince Adam was supposed to be a gangly teenager who transformed into a muscular hero – budgetary constraints (again) meant that a costume change was all they could afford. It made a mockery of the dual identity conceit: Superman’s alter ego at least had the decency to wear glasses – He-Man just put a shirt on! His allies were equally colourful. There was Orko, the obligatory child-friendly ‘clown’ character found in most eighties cartoons. Orko was part court jester, part magician, and often so annoying that the nicest thing you could possibly say about him was that at least he wasn’t Snarf from Thundercats! Man-At-Arms and his ‘daughter’ Teela provided gadgets and strategic planning respectively, while Cringer (Adam’s cowardly pet tiger) skulked around the castle, hoping to avoid being turned into Battle Cat, He-Man’s faithful steed. Meanwhile, the mysterious Sorceress pottered around in Castle Grayskull, guarding its intangible secrets from evil, and occasionally transforming into a bird to warn our heroes of danger.
Not that she needed to bother – He-Man’s foes were probably the least effective hoods in all of cartoonland. They were led by the awesomely camp Skeletor, who, while he was many things, was most certainly not a master strategist. He had three plans, which he rotated: (1) Use a mystical artefact against He-Man (which usually backfired at the pivotal moment); (2) Try to force entry into Castle Grayskull by pulling down the Jawbridge; and (3) Kidnap someone only to inadvertently let them escape by squabbling internally. These three plots fuelled the show for 130 episodes. Incomprehensibly, some parents’ groups were initially up in arms about the violence (?!) of He-Man. In truth, the show favoured wrestling moves over outright violence, and was probably one of the most morally upright shows on television. Filmation even went so far as to add a public service announcement at the end of every episode, where one of our fearless heroes would lecture the viewer about the dangers of talking to strangers. These PSA’s were later adopted by many other children’s cartoons, perhaps to assuage the makers’ guilt over what were, otherwise, not really much more than half-hour toy adverts.
Having said that, one of He-Man‘s finest moments was the episode The Price of Power. After accidentally ‘killing’ an innocent bystander, He-Man relinquishes his powers and throws his Power Sword into the abyss. Without Eternia’s protector, Teela is forced to take matters into her own hands with a mesatronic bomb. Of course, He-Man realises his mistake in time and regains both his sword and his powers, but not before Teela is badly hurt. The final image of He-Man carrying a wounded Teela into the sunset is strangely poignant, and would have been a fitting end to the show. As it was, He-Man only lasted two seasons. It was, however, revived several times, including once on the big screen in 1987, and twice in animation (the terrible 1990 effort The New Adventures of He-Man and the 2002 continuity-friendly reboot). The show also had a spin-off in the form of She-Ra, Princess of Power, which featured He-Man’s long lost twin sister Adora. Whilst He-Man did provide a springboard for some of the best writers working in television today, even watching it through the rosiest, most tinted glasses in the world (and believe me, I’ve tried!) it often now seems cheap, lazy or just plain badly written. The magic that made it so watchable to me as a child is well and truly lost on me as an adult. It’s just as well that I’ve still got those memories – as does everyone else out there who may once have been a fan of He-Man.