Yeah, but who’s defending my kitchen?
“These are the kind of characters you’d sell your mother into white slavery to be able to write for.”
—David Wise, writer for Defenders of the Earth
Four 1930s-era pulp heroes made something of a comeback in the mid-’80s, when Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Lothar teamed up in a futuristic setting to battle the evil Ming the Merciless, while also raising a group of good-hearted but mischievous teens.
Defenders of the Earth: The Complete Series, Volume 2 contains the show’s final 32 episodes, plus a Skull Cave-sized helping of bonus features.
Meet the cast:
Flash Gordon, having returned from space after his wife’s death, prepares to defend the Earth from the sinister Ming the Merciless. Using his advanced technology and his arsenal of futuristic spaceships, Flash is the team’s stalwart, driven leader, ready to dive into action and save the day at a moment’s notice.
Mandrake the Magician, a longtime friend of Flash’s, joins the cause. Not only does Mandrake bring his years of knowledge and experience to the fight, he also uses advanced hypnotic techniques and slight-of-hand tricks to convince enemies he has vast magic powers. Or maybe he does have magic powers…
Lothar, formerly Mandrake’s loyal manservant, is in this version updated to a full-fledged superhero. He’s not only the team’s muscle, but he’s a strategic genius as well. When he’s not punching through brick walls with a single blow, he’s imparting some inspiring words of wisdom to the kids.
For 400 years, there have been rumors in the African jungle about the “Ghost Who Walks,” better known as the Phantom, who has kept the locals safe from evildoers. But the Phantom is really not a ghost; he’s several generations’ worth of masked heroes. This Phantom, the 27th in the bloodline, joins the Defenders in their struggle against Ming.
Each of the above four heroes is a single parent, and their teen kids also become valued members of the team. Flash’s son Rick is an inventor and skilled pilot. Lothar’s son L.J. is a martial artist and self-styled ladies’ man. Mandrake’s adopted son Kshin is a magician-in-training whose curiosity often gets him into trouble. The Phantom’s incredibly hot daughter Jedda will someday take over as the new Phantom (perhaps sooner than she thinks), and she takes her destiny very seriously. And let’s not forget Kisa, Jedda’s pet jaguar, and Zuffy, the cute, cuddly little comic relief alien.
Finally, Ming is still out there, plotting to overthrow the Earth, and the Defenders along with it. Whenever Ming decides to take a breather, the Defenders of the Earth have to deal with evil wizards, rampaging dinosaurs, giant robots, ancient vampires, and any other threats to humanity.
I love this show, and if you’re an ’80s nostalgia freak like I am, you’ll love it too. On paper, it shouldn’t work. Here are three old-timey pulp heroes who don’t have a whole lot in common recast in a futuristic setting with kids and tons of explosions. But somehow, it all works.
Okay, so this is a pretty old show, and it does reveal its age in some ways. Defenders of the Earth originally ran five days a week, and it didn’t have that big of a budget. As a result, the visuals can be pretty clunky at times. The characters have a jerky feel to their movements, and their mouth movements don’t always sync up perfectly with their voices. Also, there are several instances of the “slide walk,” in which the camera pans across the background faster than the characters are walking, giving the appearance that they’re sliding along the floor. It’s one of those things that after you notice it once, you can’t help but notice it every time afterward.
Despite these flaws, the show remains an absolute blast to watch, thanks to the nonstop creativity in every script. I always love it when I see writers just let their creativity run amok, and that’s the case with Defenders of the Earth. Any kind of adventure story the writers dream up is fair game. The characters might be searching for buried treasure in one episode, flying around in space the next, traveling through time after that. It’s like Star Wars meets Indiana Jones meets Dungeons and Dragons meets Batman meets a drug-addled psychotic’s fever dreams. Another bonus to this series is how every episode moves along at a quick pace, with a lot of story and characters packed into each one. Usually, you’re too swept up in action and craziness to notice how low-rent the actual animation is.
A number of fan-favorite episodes appear in this set, such as “The Gods Awake,” in which Mandrake enters another dimension where his magic is far more powerful; “The Ghost Walks Again,” in which the Phantom is believed dead, so Jedda must summon her courage to take his place and save the day; “Call of the Eternals,” in which the Defenders are under attack by three giant unstoppable robots; “Flesh and Blood,” in which Flash falls for a woman involved with an anti-robotics criminal group; and “Return of the Sky Band,” a flashback to one of the Phantom’s ancestors, which adapts a classic Lee Falk tale almost word-for-word.
Even more notable, though, are two five-episode arcs, in which the writers take the show to even more dizzying heights. The first of these is the Prince Kro-tan arc. Just like the Defenders, Ming is also a single parent, and his son Kro-tan decides to conquer both his father and the Earth, stirring up five episode’s worth of trouble as he does so. It begins with the stakes already raised as Ming’s forces launch a full-on assault on the Defenders’ headquarters, as opposed to the secrecy employed in his other plans. Kro-tan, in the hopes of succeeding where his father failed, shows up on Earth in disguise as a human. He romances Jedda, sabotages the Defenders, and “moleculizes” Ming by shrinking him down into a tiny handheld compartment. Taking the concept of evil to a new level, Kro-tan then equips the Earth with “thought bombs,” so that he can blow up the planet whenever he wants, just by thinking it. With their headquarters trashed and their planet held hostage, the heroes lose the home field advantage by spending the rest of the arc on Ming’s home planet Mongo, where Kro-tan tries to force Jedda into marrying him. He then separates the Defenders, teleporting them to different parts of Mongo, until finally an even greater evil is unleashed, and the unlikeliest hero of all saves the day.
These five episodes make an exhausting two hours plus of nonstop action and excitement. Fortunately, they also offer some much-needed character development for Flash Gordon, showing that he has a psychological need for action and heroism, and that he feels lost without it. There’s a moment in Part Two when the characters believe Ming is defeated once and for all, and they all look forward to a normal life. Flash, though, ends up with nothing to do, since battling Ming has been his whole world. His attempts to stay busy don’t go well, which not only provides some humor, but shows Flash as a person with flaws, so he becomes more than just the always-does-the-right-thing good guy.
The second five-parter in this set is the “Necklace of Oros” arc, which is a little more all over the map. An interdimensional energy being named Graviton needs this necklace to return to his home universe and rule it with cruelty. Ming, meanwhile, wants the necklace to power his new anti-gravity machine, which he plans to use to end life on Earth. This same necklace just happens to be Jedda’s birthday present, courtesy of the Phantom’s vault at Skull Cave. From there, the arc is mostly a big power struggle between Ming and Graviton, with the lives of the Defenders hanging in the balance. Also, there’s a side trip to space where Flash is reunited with his old pal Prince Barin (the same character played by Timothy Dalton in the notorious 1980 Flash Gordon movie). Overall, this arc is a little less structured than the previous one with fewer character moments, but it still delivers plenty of Defenders of the Earth action.
Like a lot of shows of this kind, Defenders of the Earth did the occasional “message” episode. Here we have stuff like Kshin befriending a boy in a wheelchair, Jedda falling for a hunky guy who drinks and drives, and Rick being tempted with drugs. On the plus side, the creators deserve some credit for taking the subject matter as far as they do, especially with Jedda getting wasted at a party and actually getting behind the steering wheel after her date passes out. Most cartoons wouldn’t put their characters through the wringer like this. On the negative side, these episodes still come across as heavy-handed moralizing. I know the creators had the best intentions in mind, but couldn’t they have done it with a little less preachiness?
Despite flaws in the animation itself, the DVD transfer is a good one, with bright, vivid colors. The stereo sound does its job just fine, especially during the totally cool theme song. The commentary on “Return of the Sky Band” with writers, producers, and voice actors is very funny and informative, and definitely leaves the viewer wanting more. Similarly good is the featurette, with interviews with the writers in which they discuss in detail the process of creating scripts, from pitching them to breaking down the stories with the show’s story editor to drafting a detailed final version for the animators. The “character profiles” are text-based descriptions of not just characters, but creatures, artifacts, and technological doo-dads seen throughout the series. The model sheets show the original drawings used to establish the look of the characters. The “bonus movie” is just the first few episodes from the first volume reedited together to look like a feature-length adventure. If you own the first volume, you already have these. There’s also another episode of the 1979 Flash Gordon series, as well as some scripts and some very nice-looking storyboard galleries on DVD-ROM. Finally, this five-disc set comes with two collectible art cards with new drawings of the Defenders of the Earth by artists Mike McKone and Stephen Sadowski. Overall, it’s yet another outstanding DVD presentation by the folks at BCI Eclipse.
The word here is “retro.” Whether you view Defenders of the Earth as 1930s retro, considering the characters’ origins, or 1980s retro, considering the show’s origins, it’s nonetheless retro all the way. If this double throwback sounds like anything you’d enjoy, then check it out.