Defenders of the Earth: The Complete Series, Volume 1 (DVD)

By jungle law, I call upon the strength of ten tigers!

OK, everybody sing along:

Out of the sky
His rockets ignite
He jets into battle
Flying faster than light
Flash Gordon!

Lord of the jungle
The hero who stalks
The beasts call him brother
The ghost who walks
The Phantom!

Master of magic
Spells and illusion
Enemies crumble
In fear and confusion

His strength is a legend
His skills conquer all
Under his power
We never would fall

With our new young heroes
Proving their worth
Four become eight
Defending the Earth

Defenders of the Earth—Defenders!

What appears to be a harmless little superhero cartoon from the ’80s actually has several decades’ worth of history behind it. Try to keep up.

• Flash Gordon was created in 1934 by cartoonist Alex Raymond. Flash was an all-American athlete kidnapped into outer space and found himself in the middle of an interstellar war. He quickly became a galactic hero, facing off against the sinister Ming the Merciless. Raymond’s comics are often credited as being an inspiration for several generations of sci-fi adventures to follow, such as Star Wars. Flash has appeared in various media since then, including comics, pulp novels, movie serials, TV cartoons, and an infamous 1980 movie.

• The Phantom, created by Lee Falk in 1936, is believed by many to be the first masked adventurer, pre-dating the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, and Batman. For more than 200 years, a man known as the “ghost who walks,” a.k.a. the Phantom, has fought crime in various forms, operating out of his Skull Cave home in the jungles of Africa. What the world at large doesn’t know is that there have been more than 20 Phantoms; not a ghost, but generations of heroes reaching back through history. Like Flash Gordon, the Phantom has also appeared in pulp novels, cartoons and an infamous 1996 movie.

• Mandrake the Magician was also created by Lee Falk, in 1934. Clad in a tuxedo, top hat, and black cape, the dapper magician outsmarted criminals with sleight-of-hand tricks and powerful hypnotic suggestions. Mandrake’s muscle-bound manservant Lothar was always at his side, whenever the power of his two fists was required when a spell was not. Like the above heroes, Mandrake has appeared in numerous media, including more pulp novels, comic books, movie serials, and an infamous failed 1954 TV series.

In the mid-1980s, the folks at King Features Entertainment and Marvel Productions took these classic 1930s heroes and gave them a modern update with Defenders of the Earth. Today, the first 33 episodes are on DVD in a box set of five double-sided discs. Is it nostalgic fun, or should these characters have stayed in the past?

After the death of his wife, space hero Flash Gordon returns to Earth, after nearly being defeated by intergalactic tyrant Ming the Merciless. Ming has followed, and now plans to conquer Earth as well, with the help of his army of ice robots. To defend the Earth, Flash calls upon some old friends: Mandrake, a magician turned crime fighter; Lothar, a super-strong adventurer and best friend to Mandrake; and the Phantom, a mystery man with many strange powers who lives in the jungles of Africa. While setting up a high-tech base inside a dormant volcano, it’s revealed that each of these heroes is a single parent, and their four teen kids have abilities of their own. Flash’s son Rick is an inventor, Lothar’s son L.J. is a martial arts expert, Mandrake’s adopted son Kshin is a magician in training, and the Phantom’s hot daughter Jedda has the same powers as her father and will someday take over for him as the new Phantom. Also helping save the day are Kisa, Jedda’s pet jaguar, and Zuffy, a cute, cuddly little alien. Ming has all kinds of insidious plans to destroy and/or take over the Earth, and it is up to the Defenders of the Earth to, you know, defend it.

It seems like an idea that shouldn’t work. After all, aren’t these four characters too different to appear on the same series? You’ve got a futuristic space hero, a guy who is a strange combination of Tarzan and Batman, an Indiana Jones adventuring type, and a guy who looks like he stepped off the set of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Instead of making this seem confusing or awkward, the show’s creators instead make the most of the characters’ differences, forging an adventure series in which pretty much anything is possible. There are evil wizards, giant robots, dinosaurs, space aliens, treasure hunts, deadly holograms, underworld demons, doomsday devices and any other weird crap the writers and artists dream up. Frankenstein’s monster even makes a cameo. This “anything goes” style of writing means that these 33 episodes never feel repetitive. After one episode is over, you can’t wait to see what crazy comic book plot the Defenders will face in the next one.

The writers manage to pack a lot of story into each episode. Take, for example, the episode “Bits ‘N’ Pieces.” It begins with Flash and the Phantom in outer space, under attack by Ming’s forces. From there, we join the other Defenders as they attend a chess tournament where Ming has an evil plot brewing. This leads our heroes into fighting their way through a secret complex’s lethal security system. After narrowly surviving, the four young Defenders are miniaturized to an almost-microscopic size, allowing them to enter a futuristic super computer, represented here as a strange, Tron-like world. Once inside, the youngsters face off against the computer’s monstrous defense systems, and Rick faces a ghostly apparition of his late mother. Then, it ends back with Flash and the Phantom, in an explosive aerial battle high above a volcanic atoll. Oh, and a gigantic maggot shows up at one point. Keep in mind that all this takes place in a single 22-minute episode, providing enough screen time for all eight heroes to have a moment to shine, as well as their two animal sidekicks, and their recurring villain. That’s quite an impressive feat.

Flash Gordon might be the show’s marquee star, but he unfortunately has the least amount of character development. His main ability, it seems, is as the group’s people mover—he flies the ship. Occasionally, he barks orders at the other Defenders, casting him in a leadership-type role, but that’s never clearly defined. (At other times, Mandrake seems to act as leader.) There’s no real sense of a father-son relationship between Flash and Rick, there’s no feeling of rivalry between him and Ming, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time grieving for his recently deceased wife. When villainess Princess Astra shows up in one episode mistakenly accusing Flash of murdering her mother, I thought I’d finally see a look into Flash’s history, and how he handles such a personal conflict. At the story’s conclusion, though, the conflict is between Astra and Jedda, with Flash watching from the sidelines. Flash is the one character here that could have benefited from better writing.

The creators fared much better with Mandrake. They obviously put a lot of thought into the character, in the hopes of making the dapper, top hat-wearing hero a little more hip for contemporary kids. This version of Mandrake is less of a prissy-boy and more of a suave hero. No matter how dire or life-threatening the situation, Mandrake keeps his cool, and usually a sly witticism at hand. Whenever the other heroes can’t fight their way through a crisis with their bulging muscles, that’s when Mandrake politely asks them to step aside as he smoothly magics them out of danger—and that’s just awesome. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of consistency when it comes to Mandrake’s powers. At first, we’re told that his only “real” power is hypnosis, that by gesturing hypnotically, he can make his enemies see whatever they want to see; convincing them that he’s an all-powerful magician. In other episodes, though, he a full-fledged wizard, whipping up all kinds of spells to save the day. Too often, Mandrake is used as a fallback—whenever the writers need a way out of a situation, they just have Mandrake use magic. It’s too bad they couldn’t have been more consistent with Mandrake’s powers, because otherwise he’s a great character they had to work with.

In the original comics, Lothar was Mandrake’s loyal manservant. Some readers have balked at this, alleging stereotyping, while others feel the comics were ahead of their time by depicting an interracial friendship. You’ll have to track down Lee Falk’s originals to make up your own mind. Just know that in this version, Lothar has been built up considerably. He’s an equal to the other heroes, with powers and skills of his own. It’s always been my feeling that this take on the character was loosely based on Indiana Jones, a tough, globe-trotting adventurer. Others, however, have suggested that his style here is more based on the G.I. Joe characters, and I can understand that comparison. Fortunately, the creators have also made it clear that Lothar is more than just the muscle, but that he also has a keen mind as well, and there are several times when he fills in as the brains of the group. Like Mandrake, though, I’m left wondering what exactly Lothar’s powers are, if any. We’re told he has amazing superhuman strength—he punches through a brick wall during the opening credits—but in most episodes he’s more of a rugged tough guy than a Hulk-like super strong type. Again, a little more consistency would have benefited an already great character.

The Phantom can be a tough character for viewers to get. He’s a “jungle man” who doesn’t really look or act like a “jungle man.” There are a few Defenders of the Earth episodes in which the Phantom doesn’t quite fit in, and will have some viewers wondering “What’s the guy with the purple tights doing on this show?” Some of my favorite episodes, though, are the ones in which the Phantom really gets to shine in his home jungle. He can speak to animals telepathically, and he can summon the strength of 10 tigers when he seriously needs to kick some butt. The most exciting moments are those in which the writers let the Phantom cut loose. We get some nice character development for him too, especially in the multi-part episode in which he confronts his evil older brother, who wants the Phantom title for himself.

The four young Defenders are never treated as sidekicks, but instead remain valued members of the team, even if they still have some growing up to do. Rick’s various gadgets and gizmos make for a convenient plot device in many episodes. L.J. is probably the least powerful one in the group, but he makes plenty of wisecracks, and he likes to flirt with any young ladies he comes across. He fills the need to have an ordinary guy on the show to interact with the magicians and the spacemen. As the youngest Defender, Kshin tends to be the “Wesley Crusher” of the group, in that his tinkering with some new technology or a mystical text often leads to life-threatening trouble. He’s not as annoying as Wesley (but then, who is?); just know that sometimes he’s more of a story device than a genuine character. The most interesting of the young heroes is Jedda. Not only is she hot, but there’s a lot going on with the character. She’s lived most of her life in Skull Cave with her father, knowing little about the outside world, so she’s discovering ordinary teenage life for the first time, thanks to her friendship with L.J. and Rick. But, she’s also well aware of her destiny, and, knowing she will be the Phantom someday, she takes her hero work very seriously.

I love the closing credits on these old cartoons. They’re often a treasure trove of geeky trivia. From the Defenders of the Earth credits, I learned that not only was Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee a story consultant on the series, but he also wrote the lyrics to the kick-ass theme song. Stan really is the man! Also, in a jaw-dropping adherence to the comics’ original continuity, the credits contain a note stating that this is the 27th Phantom (the current Phantom is the 21st, setting Defenders of the Earth in the distant future). Finally, two doctors appear in the credits as “clinical psychology consultants.” Your guess is as good as mine.

Although the animation is a little hurting (more on that below), the DVD transfer is not. Defects are at a bare minimum, and the colors are bright and vivid. The 2.0 sound does its job. It’s not flashy, but the dialogue, music and sound effects come across just fine. The interviews on the fifth disc contain thoughts on the series from directors, producers, voice actors, and comic experts, and each has something interesting or amusing to say about the show. The original pilot is here as well. It’s in rough shape, but it also reveals a lot of early ideas that didn’t make it to the final version of the show, such as Jedda originally being Flash Gordon’s hot daughter. Only one episode gets a commentary, but it’s a great one, with voice actors, directors and producers. It’s packed with all sorts of fascinating behind the scenes info, and plenty of laughs as well (some unflattering things are said about cute, adorable little Zuffy). For more Defenders of the Earth excitement, there are storyboards, character profiles, trivia notes, and, on CD-ROM, scripts, more storyboards, and the complete series “bible” used by the show’s writers. This set also has an episode of the 1979 Flash Gordon animated series, just recently released on DVD.

I love the designs and the overall comic book style of the show, and this is a nice DVD transfer, but the actual animation leaves a lot to be desired. All the movements have a jerky motion to them, and there’s not a lot of variety to the characters’ facial expressions. I get that this was likely not a high-budgeted show, and the pressure to have episodes airing every weekday meant that a lot of corners were probably cut during production, but crisper animation and more fluid movements would have upped this show from “fun and amusing” status to “holy crap this is amazing” status.

I was at a comic book convention a few weeks ago, and one dealer had a display of Defenders of the Earth merchandise from the mid-’80s. Just about every person who passed by made some sort of comment along the lines of “Hey, I remember that show.” These characters have been around forever, and they still have relevance. The show holds up surprisingly well, and I can see today’s kids getting a kick of it.

Defenders of the Earth contains some big, fun, old school superhero adventure. It’s far from perfect, but a great ride nonetheless.

The Verdict

By jungle law, not guilty.

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