Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Archive: Drawn to Television: American Animated SF Series of the 1980s

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Archive: Drawn to Television: American Animated SF Series of the 1980s

Article excerpt

Much attention has been paid to sf film and more recently television, yet animation, as part of these media, is still a relatively untouched area within sf scholarship. Perhaps because of the controversial and somewhat inaccurate perception, noted by Paul Wells, that animation is 'an innocent medium, ostensibly for children, and largely dismissed in film histories' (Understanding 187), sf scholars have ignored the plethora of animated media texts that can be considered part of the genre because sf on television has itself at times been accused of such childish things. Seemingly bucking this trend are the Japanese anime features, such as Akira (Otomo Japan 1988) and Ghost in the Shell (Oshii Japan 1995), which have attracted more scholarly interest, not least because of their 'mature' subject matter, graphic depictions of violence and thematic concerns with the cyborg, technology and the claustrophobic urban environments of dystopian futures. Animated sf on television, particularly American, is largely ignored since it both attracts a young audience and is emblematic of the insidious nature of the television industry, whereby only the potential for a show to make advertisers - and thereby the networks - money drives the production of new content.1 This drive for profit, seeing the audience as merely consumers, is one of the reasons why animation took so long to embed itself in prime-time schedules.2 While this essay is an attempt to address the imbalance in sf scholarship, to bring a focus on television animation, I cannot claim to discuss every series there has been. I do suggest, however, that by paying closer attention to the historical, industrial and cultural contexts of just a few examples of the animated genre we can see how important and influential they have been and continue to be today.

For Wendy Hilton-Morrow and David McMahan, 'the relegation of animation to Saturday morning programming for children' in the form of cartoon series during the 1960s meant that it would always be seen as just for kids (77). Sf was central to this marketing pitch, with CBS director of daytime programming Fred Silverman choosing to air animated series such as The Herculoids (US 1967-69; 18 episodes), Space Ghost (US 1966-68; 42 episodes) and Jonny Quest (US 1964-65; 26 episodes) as part of 'Superhero Saturday': 'Advertising rates for these programs skyrocketed, and animation was once again an important commodity for the networks - but only as Saturday morning programming for a young audience' (77). In some senses, the change in animated programming and its intended audience in the sixties reflects similar debates over the live action sf serials of the previous decade. Captain Video and his Video Rangers (US 1949-55), Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (US 1954), Space Patrol (US 1950-55) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (US 1950-55) have been largely left out of historical accounts of the genre's evolution on television. Lacking in technical brilliance, adult storytelling and complex character development, 'these series showed' however 'that television was a suitable medium through which the alien, usually men with face paint, and the human, albeit idealised visualisations of the human male, could be shown in a futuristic setting' (Geraghty American 27). Likewise, the Saturday cartoon series popular from the 1960s to the 1990s are more than simply the advertisers' golden egg. This article is intended as a first step towards the reappraisal of this much maligned constituent of sf television, for as much as we need to acknowledge and critique their industrial and commercial origins we must look under the surface of these animated series and examine what they actually mean within their cultural contexts. Drawing on just two of the many animated sf series as case studies, The Transformers (US/ Japan 1984-87; 98 episodes)3 and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (US 1983-87; 95 episodes),4 I argue that there is more to them than meets the eye.

Toys and the evils of children's television

For television scholars, 'most animated programs were little more than poorly drawn, glorified half-hour commercials for action figures and video games' flooding the children's toy market in the early part of the 1980s (Hilton-Morrow and McMahan 78). …

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