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Adventures in Universe Building (aka The “My Little Pony” Posts): Part I – 80s Cartoons Were Terrible

Not a good show.

Thankfully I pretty much gave up on any notion of being “cool” a lifetime ago… but this is a big leap even by my standards. Against all odds, there are people out there who want me to write about “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” (presumably because they want to laugh at me). Before I do however, I need to start somewhere else, and work around to it, because what’s really been turning my crank since Christmas is thinking about Universe Building and (ultimately) how I think a lot of ongoing fantasy series have really messed up the concept of Universe Building in both audience expectation, and also creator intent. But since Universe Building is such a meta concept, I need to craft a bit of a “grand unified kitchen sink” theory requiring all sorts of odd bits and pieces, so there’ll be a lot of ranting about seemingly non-related things for a bit, capice? I actually considered doing this as a video blog as I’m stronger at lecturing on this type of material rather than trying to write it, but I’m not sure I’m man enough to be confident I can pull off a YouTube video extolling the virtues of “Twilight Sparkle” and “Rainbow Dash”. So – bear with me for the next few days as we see where this crazy rabbit hole leads. First stop: The 80s!

Cartoons targeted at girls in the 80s were, for the most part, terrible. I can say this as an authority. I was the only boy on my street until grade school, so I’ve played more than my fair share of Barbie, My Little Pony, and – most of all – Strawberry Shortcake. Suffice it to say if I was going to be eternally stuck playing the Peculiar Purple Pieman (and I was, invariably, always The Peculiar Purple Pieman1 ) I had to understand “the canon”, as it were.

What frustrated me most about the cartoons my friends were watching, wasn’t the female protagonists, or their stereotyped gender content – it was that the stories weren’t interesting.

Let’s shift gears and talk about “Story Engines” for a moment. Lots of people use this term meaning slightly different things, but I tend to use it as a shorthand for identifying the base distillation of a character or series. The iconic immutable core that makes something what it is. Take (for a very, very, Canadian example) The Littlest Hobo. The daughter of a friend, when she was three or four, referred to the show as “Dog running and helping”. That was exactly the Story Engine that ten seasons of television was based on: Every episode the titular German Shepard would (literally) run into a new group of characters, help them solve their personal problems Lassie / Rex-The-Wonderdog style and, forsaking any material reward, would run right out of frame at the end of each episode heading for another adventure. If I walked up to any Canadian (of a certain age) and said “Dog running and helping” they’d know what show I’m talking about. For a less domestic example I suspect most people could figure out “Teenagers (and their Great Dane) travel America to discredit paranormal activity”.

A double-aside: Scooby Doo is actually a really great study of Story Engines since it’s many incarnations each alter the core story engine in different ways so you can see how subtle shifts at that base level can really change your final product. Also it gives an interesting lens to investigate why Scrappy-Doo is so universally hated. All food for a future post.

So, back to 80s cartoons. The vast majority of 80s cartoons used a really generic cookie cutter template: “Protagonists idyllic lifestyle is interrupted by villain with non-specific goals.” Now this isn’t an impossible engine to work with but it’s just not terribly dynamic for serialized storytelling. Is there really any difference between Gargamel busting up the Smurfs picnic, Mum-Ra trying to steal the Thundercats Sword of Omens, Or the Misfits trying to sabotage Jem and the Holograms latest concert? You invariably just ignore the unique story opportunities of each universe because all you’re doing is re-skinning the same action setpieces leading to the requisite showdown chase sequence / sword fight / battle of the bands conclusion. Don’t get me started on Inspector Gadget.

I bring up Jem specifically as it was probably my favourite “girl targeted” show of the decade. Fractionally, because I strictly recall generally loving the first halves of many of the episodes, and then being frustrated by the conclusions. The setting, if you’re not up on your retro cartoons, was rife with fascinating story hooks. The protagonist (Jerrica Benton) was trying to run an orphanage, a charitable foundation, and a music label – and secretly keeping these entities solvent by fronting an all-girl rock band in disguise. Essentially Jem was Batman – an exceptionally talented individual forced to create an alter-ego to work outside the normal system in pursuit of an idealistic agenda. Episodes would start with hooks like business trouble, nosy journalists, family issues, the strain of a rock band touring on the road, recording a record, an orphan running away… but inevitably would distill down to “the evil punk band villains sabotage something” (usually a concert). Every. Episode. Heck, I suspect I would have happily watched a cootie-filled episode of Jerrica vacillating between her two boyfriends reverse Archie Andrews style if it meant we could have a Misfit-free episode. It’s one thing to have Batman fight villains every episode, as part of his unique universe is a never-ending supply of interesting distinct villains. It would be another thing if every Batman episode ended in him having a guitar solo contest with the Joker.

And Jem was (in my opinion at the time) the best of the lot. Does Strawberry Shortcake strike you as a character well suited to foiling plots, or sneaking into the Pieman’s castle to steal recipes, or anything else that essentially boils down to “fighting villains”? I still recall exactly one part of one particular Strawberry Shortcake special ( which wikipedia has since informed me was from Strawberry Shortcakes Homecoming Surprise) , given the fact I would have been five when it aired and we didn’t own a VCR at the time it clearly made an impression. I have no idea what actually happened in the special itself – but I clearly remember the ending: Strawberry Shortcake had made a bunch of friends, each from a different exotic country, and she held a party for them – each bringing a unique dessert from their respective homeland to the party. That’s it. Five year old me had his mind blown by the concept of a pot-luck dinner (As an added bonus, even on my deathbed, I will still have the lyrics to this completely asinine song seared into my brain… I can’t tell you how horrified I was to discover I could still sing this song from memory, over 27 years later).

So yes, Strawberry Shortcake who works so well throwing parties, was engaging in breaking-and-entering, and lord knows what other ill suited tasks every week. Any exciting story opportunities presented by any of these shows particular universes was just used, at best, to tart up very same-y stories.

Three final asides:

1. None of the above is not to say that kids didn’t love these cartoons. We did. Passionately. Which is why it really hurts to go back and watch some of them now and see how bad they were… but I hope to work around to (eventually) how kids understand Universe Building on an entirely different level than adults do, and can get something out of even the weakest shows.

2. “Boy” targeted cartoons weren’t any more diverse in structure, mind you, but they at least tended to feel a lot less dissonant. The characters were generally more suited to a competitive fight-of-the-week environment (of course The Real Ghostbusters were going to fight the ghost-of-the-week, of course the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would foil Shredder and/or Krang). As an added bonus there was a lot less preaching in the boys shows; The GI JOE team may tack on a PSA at the end of each episode about waiting a half hour before you go swimming – but we knew that wasn’t the point of the show – the point was blowing up stuff with lasers. Thundercats would maybe work in a moral about lying to your parents, just so long as it didn’t take away from the sword fight with the alien space-mummy. In retrospect I wonder if the real issue was that the moralizing just stuck out more given how paper-thin a lot of the girl show plots were. To resolve this would require watching a lot more 80s TV than I’m willing to do… any takers?

3. I also don’t want this to come off as an attack on any of the creative teams involved with these shows. Maybe some were just cranking out product for a pay cheque, but I’m sure a lot just boiled down to the available resources or support available to them (and what general corporate thought was about what this product was supposed to be and who it was for). I’m not ignorant of the fact that the production team for The Snorks went on to make Tiny Toon Adventures so it’s not that they didn’t have skill.

Things got a little better towards the end of the decade. I can remember watching cartoons with my brother (younger brothers being an excellent excuse to watch television “that only babies would like” on the sly) and thinking they was already an evolution going on. I specifically recall thinking “The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin” was cutting edge storytelling with it’s continuing plot-lines, and story engine of “Three Friends hunt for treasure exploring a new universe” – but within a year or two of that I had discovered the “Comic Book Store” (much to the detriment of every allowance I’d ever have again). It’s too bad, as I really missed the heyday of the relaunched Warner Brothers Animation department (with Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, The Batman Adventures) and Disney (with Talespin, Chip and Dale, Darkwing Duck…) . There were a number of series which really re-energized the field and considerably raised the bar. Then towards the end of the decade we got another big surge with a generation of kids raised on cartoons (and exposed to foreign animation from France and Japan like never before) getting out of art school and bringing radically innovative design sensibilities to a new wave of cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack and the like.

So there – it’s taken me nearly fourteen hundred words to get through “80’s Cartoons were NOT VERY GOOD.” But now we’re finally all on the same page and can proceed on this particular adventure!

UP NEXT: Now what about those Universes themselves?

  1. from Porcupine Creek – ya-ta-ta-tah-ta-ta-tah-ta-ta-ta-CHA! []