Marvel Films/Hearst Entertainment (1986), BCI (April 3, 2007), 5 discs, 800 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Not Rated, Retail: $39.98
Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Mandrake The Magician and his assistant Lothar return to battle Ming The Merciless for the final 32 episodes of this 1980s syndicated series.
The Sweatbox Review:
The premise just doesn’t get any less surreal in the last half of this series. It’s still space hero Flash Gordon, jungle legend The Phantom, and world adventurer Mandrake teaming up in the near future with their offspring to fight the machinations of Flash’s old enemy Ming. Never before or since have comic strip characters been teamed up in such a fashion for an ongoing television series. It’s an idea that is simultaneously extremely cool and totally wrongheaded, and even after watching Volume Two I am still at a loss as to whether or not I think it was a good idea. The execution hasn’t changed either, given that the 65-episode run was all basically a single “season” created for the express purpose of running the episodes Monday to Friday for a whole year, allowing for each episode to be shown four times annually. The crazy pre-production schedule at Marvel Films mixed with weak work from the Korean production studio combined to create a series that had inconsistent animation to say the least. While much of the drawing is very detailed, the time spent rendering all that detail sacrificed fluid animation or even good anatomy drawing.
The stories, at least, are often interesting, and it’s the stories that hold my interest even when the animation frustrates. In volume Two, there are a number of unique tales that should charm fans of the show and its legendary characters. Naturally, there is a fair bit of sludge to get through as well, but enough gems pop up to keep one going through the five discs of this set. I appreciate the show the most when it utilizes the backgrounds of these newspaper strip icons, as each has decades’ worth of history to explore. Truthfully, much more could have been done in this area, as the writers seem much more knowledgeable about The Phantom than Flash or Mandrake; but The Phantom episodes alone make the series worthwhile for me.
For a more extensive rundown of what makes this show alternately tick or blow up, take a gander at our review of the Volume One release. In short, both the animation and writing is often sloppy, and the show exemplifies much of what was bad about 1980s syndicated cartoons; but the show is not a total loss, as the strength of the classic characters can make up for a lot of poor execution in the eyes of a comic strip fan like me. For this review, I shall just highlight what I found to be some of the more entertaining shows in Volume Two.
I am not all that familiar with Mandrake lore myself, but appreciate it when Defenders tries to do something with his history, as in the first episode on this set, The Gods Awake . Here, Mandrake must find his old teacher in order to battle an ancient deity. It probably has nothing at all to do with the comic strip Mandrake, but it is a nice effort nonetheless. The Ghost Walks Again shows The Phantom’s allegiance to an old jungle tribe that actually consists of aliens trapped on Earth long ago. Probably the neatest episode of this second volume has to be Return Of The Skyband, found on Side B of the first disc. This story includes an extensive flashback to a real story from the 1930s Phantom newspaper strip that featured a female band of air pirates, and ties it into Defenders continuity. It’s great to see The Phantom in the 1930s setting, wearing the classic striped shorts, and girlfriend Diana Palmer also appears. This episode is also a great example of how much latitude the creators of the show were given, being that the show was not on a network; violence, including gunshots and deaths, could be shown here when similar things would never be seen on another Marvel show like Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends .
Moving on to Disc Two, the Defenders meet another literary legend in Dracula’s Potion on Side A, while Side B holds four episodes containing a longer storyline about Ming’s son Prince Kro-Tan. By the time that epic storyline concludes on Disc 3, Ming has been dethroned, the Defenders go to Mongo, and Jedda marries into Mongo royalty. The other notable episode on the third disc’s first side is Lothar’s Homecoming, which is about the only time that Lothar’s past is spotlighted (though it contradicts the newspaper strip by placing his home in Jamaica instead of Africa). The second side of Disc 3 brings back a Mandrake villain in The Return Of Doctor Dark, and Jedda visits The Phantom’s Skull Cave in The Necklace Of Oros, the first of a series of episodes that includes the next one, Torn Space, as well as a couple more on Disc Four. The fourth disc also has a story that at long last brings in another character that actually appeared in the Flash Gordon newspaper strip, Prince Baron. Ming Winter sees Baron asking for Flash’s help back on Mongo, where Kro-Tan is up to no good.
When I first viewed the show years ago, I was not all that impressed that the producers had saddled it with not one, but four teenage sidekicks. I wasn’t interested in seeing the offspring of these heroes; I wanted to see the heroes! Now that I have seen the series presented as a whole, I can see that the balance was actually pretty good, and I can even appreciate episodes that tell such stories as LJ’s love troubles in The Frozen Heart, or The Adoption of Kshin. After all, with 65 episodes, there are plenty of stories to tell.
Defenders Of The Earth is far from the best show ever made, and at times even struggles to reach mediocrity, but I have to admit to having a certain regard for it. The timeless characters from the King Features library certainly help a lot, and it is clear that the creators of the TV show were trying to tell fun, exciting stories. In the end, it can be seen that they had some serious budget and time considerations, yet they still managed to create a show that serves as a fair example of a 1980s-style action-adventure cartoon show.
Is This Thing Loaded?
The offerings here are similar to what we enjoyed with the initial volume of the show on DVD. Apparently, no one told BCI and extras producer Andy Mangels that Defenders is not all that much of a classic, except in the eyes of a few ardent fans. I have to admit that putting so many nice extras on their sets is what often convinces me to buy several of the BCI Ink & Paint sets. The first disc starts things off with an Audio Commentary hosted by Mangels and featuring the show’s creators, on the episode Return Of The Skyband. A better episode could not have been chosen, as this is the one with the cool flashback to the 1930s Phantom. My only complaint is that some nut on the track insists that Superman preceded The Phantom in print, when the reverse is true. Despite this boo-boo, the track is otherwise informative and interesting. Looking at the DVD menus, which are again brilliantly conceived, each episode is given its own Fun Facts, pointing out neat things for fans, or continuity errors.
The rest of the extras reside by themselves on Disc Five. There are Interviews (27:47 total) with story editor Bryce Malek, writer David Wise, and storyboard artist Michael Swanigan. While Wise repeats some of what he said in the commentary track, these interviews are overall well worth a listen. Malek’s comments may be the most illuminating; he admits that he never read the Flash Gordon comic strip, and says he is surprised that Defenders Of The Earth has any fans!!
The other main video-based feature is Defenders Of The Earth: The Story Begins (1:28:43), a movie version of the show’s first few episodes telling the origin of the team and their fight against Ming. I don’t really see much reason to watch this if you’ve already seen the regular episodes, but it’s a good way to introduce the show to someone who’s never seen it. Also, we finally see the Bonus Episode promised on the last set (but which failed to appear on it), the first episode of the 1979 Flash Gordon cartoon.
Character Profiles updates the profiles from the last disc, investigating Artifacts, Characters, Creatures, Locations, and Technology, including clips from the show. The Model Sheet Gallery offers 51 pieces of art. More From Ink & Paint has show openings and movie trailers for twenty-one BCI sets. (Man, they’ve really been pumping them out!)
DVD-ROM: Using your computer, you can access Storyboards for seven episodes, as well as a Script for the episode Audie And Tweak.
This second volume continues the exemplary packaging work that was begun by BCI on Volume One. Five discs are housed in three separate slimcases, the first two carrying two double-sided discs each (each side having four episodes), with the third one housing the final, single-sided disc devoted entirely to special features. The covers of the slims spotlight the offspring of the heroes this time out, with the interiors carrying their respective model sheets. The outer slipcase, in the tradition of the He-Man sets, switches to having the villains take center stage this time out. The package also contains a splendid 8-page episode guide (only marred by spelling Bryce Malek’s name as “Bruce”), plus two art cards illustrated by comic artists Mike McCone and Stephen Sadowski. The back of the envelope containing the episode guide and art cards even has what must have been early conceptual art— a poster-type painting that has early versions of the characters, including gender switches among the kids.
Ink And Paint:
Again, nothing new to report here, as the transfers are on par with the previous set.. The video looks OK on a smaller screen, but blowing it up onto a larger one reveals a soft, dirty transfer. The low budget of the show certainly did not help matters, I’m sure. The compression work left some shimmering, but I did not note pixellation or macro blocking. As with the first set, a mediocre show gets a mediocre (at best) transfer.
And don’t expect the audio to shine, either. The presentation of the shows themselves stays no-frills, with an audio track that gets its point across without doing anything to impress. Dynamic range is narrow, but there aren’t any serious problems.
The second and final volume of Defenders Of The Earth is pretty much on par with the first one. This set simply rounds out the show’s 65-episode syndication run, with a mix of stories that are possibly a little tighter this time around, but still typically average. Aside from the presence of those great King Features characters, the main selling point of these sets is the exemplary work that BCI does in packaging them and producing (with Andy Mangels) some great added-value material. While I cannot heap much praise on the show, itself, I do have a soft spot for it; and as always I am impressed by BCI and Mangel’s fine work that nearly fools me into thinking I’m viewing a masterpiece.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?