Go! Mighty Orbots!

I feel like that title was just lazy. Not cheap and lazy, just lazy.

What do you know about Mighty Orbots? Not a lot, but I’ve got the DVD of the series, always meant to watch it. I guess now will do. Let’s watch.

Young scientist Rob Simmons commands a team of robots, named with the anagram Orbots, that when danger calls combine into a bigger robot. It’s set in the future, robots are commonplace, as are alien threats.

Magnetic Menace (by Michael Reaves and Kimmer Ringwald)

Immediately, beautiful art and animation are evident, courtesy of top Japanese studio TMS. Earth acts as the police force of the galaxy… feels like there’s an analogy there that I won’t touch. We get a somewhat contrived roll call and merging sequence to show off the individual Orbots and combined form. Even though it’s a show that originated in America, it feels very much like a dubbed Japanese show. Interesting dynamic with the Orbots lineup, comprised of bossy little girl Ohno, powerhouse Tor, nervous Bort, gluttonous Crunch, and robo-babes Bo and Boo.

To oppose them is the evil organisation SHADOW headed by living supercomputer Lord Umbra, who has not physical form as such, but appears as luminescent facial features. In this episode, he uses evil rock stars Dragos and Drax to use weaponized magnetic music, which would, like, totally fuck things up. Some of the limitations of the voice actors are exposed, for instance the idea of Don Messick as a rock star is bizarre. It feels vocally like a cast of old guys playing young, except for the perpetually youthful-sounding Barry Gordon, between gigs as Wetworth and Donatello. The look of the show is definitely the star at the point, before the writing and acting.

The Wish World (by Michael Reaves)

Umbra employs shapeshifter Plasmus to get revenge on the Orbots after their latest defeat of one of his warriors. Target number one: Ohno, who after hearing Rob go on one too many times about being “just” a robot is drawn to Wish World, where she could become a human. I like the concept for the episode, but it probably should’ve been placed later in the run. Reuse of stock animation, as high quality as it is, becomes evident, as does the function of the narrator. I’ll also go back to my previous point about the voice acting, Plasmus sounds ancient! Don Messick plays him, and generally the whole cast is good, but it does feel like a gang drawn out of retirement, which doesn’t match the young characters.

Trapped on the Prehistoric Planet (by Marc Scott Zicree)

The mentalist Mentallus (a real stretch for a name there!) is ordered to draw the Orbots to the most dangerous planet in the galaxy. I think it was a foregone conclusion that it would be dangerous, given that it’s called EVILON! Awesome preview for this episode, with lots of weird dinosaur-like and insect creatures shown, but not used to their full potential.

The Dremloks (by Michael Reaves)

Idylla – sounds like a nice place from the name! Shame it’s the home of an irritating, cutesy race of creatures who look like Ewoks called Dremloks. SHADOW robots come to invade and imprison them. They become far more interesting when they’re brainwashed, with obvious glowing red eyes to indicate that they’re evil. This makes for a fun episode with the otherwise “sweet” creatures becoming unnerving, like zombies. It extends to the male Orbots too, with Bort’s fingers extending and waggling at length, like Freddy Krueger.

Devil’s Asteroid (by Buzz Dixon)

The Mighty Orbots appear to have gone rogue… but the Mighty Orbots are on vacation! The real Mighty Orbots have to stop the fake Mighty Orbots. This results in a more interesting double-double-cross than the normal quest to clear names.

Raid on the Stellar Queen (by Marc Scott Zicree)

Star pirates, led by Captain Shrike, capture a space cruise ship that Galactic Patrol Commander Rondu and his daughter Dia are on, so the Orbots have to rescue them. Decent episode, mainly because Zicree has a bit of fun by showing off references from Bessie Smith to Wide Sargasso Sea to Star Trek. There’s a subplot with Bort having self-doubt… I’m sure you can imagine how that one works out. The animation, of course, makes up for any shortcomings, as fluid as the Batman: The Animated Series episode Feat of Clay Part II.

The Jewel of Targon (by David Wise)

A single life sign is detected on the otherwise deserted (and pretty sinister) planet of Targon, so half the Orbots are sent to investigate. There, they pick up a jewel placed there by a SHADOW agent. Interesting bit, as once the job is done, and with a defective escape ship, Umbra just leaves the agent to die there. Turns out the jewel is actually an egg, containing a dangerous beast. A bit of alternate nighttime animation for the Orbots stock footage is cool. The time spent on Targon and the nighttime battles are suitably atmospheric.

The Phoenix Factor (by Donald F. Glut and Douglas Booth)

Dr. Phoenix, now partially robotic and with exposed brain visible within a glass dome, is brought back to life by Lord Umbra to do his bidding and get revenge on those who banished him from Earth. First victim: Ohno, the sufferer of Phoenix’s robotic virus. Really good episode, Umbra is much more active in this episode, if mostly from a manipulating point of view, and Phoenix is more obviously motivated than many of the SHADOW agents.

Leviathan (by David Wise)

The Orbots battle a sea monster who is endangering undersea mining operations, but someone else is responsible for controlling the beast. Turns out that the Orbots are being manipulated at the same time as well. It was during this episode that I realised what the show was starting to remind me of – Inspector Gadget. The male Orbots have the goofy nature of Gadget, the female Orbots have the brains and “get to it” of Penny, the combined form is the Gadgetmobile, Rondu is Chief Quimby, Umbra is Dr. Klaw, and SHADOW are MAD agents. Nothing wrong with that, but the interchangeable nature means that a lot doesn’t stick.

The Cosmic Circus (by Donald F. Glut and Douglas Booth)

Circus-themed episodes are generally best approached with caution, but this one isn’t bad. The nefarious Ringmaster brings his train to Earth to make the Galactic Patrol his captives and replace them with clones. An unintentionally funny moment occurs when a black operative is given the highest voice that Barry Gordon can muster. The Orbots get the scoop on his plan, so when they become part of his show he puts the screws to them. The idea of being trapped in a mirror realm while an evil duplicate is out there and you can do nothing about it is a scary premise that works well here.

A Tale of Two Thieves (by Buzz Dixon)

Two Victorian-esque thieves (an older, Cockney-accented mentor and his young understudy) steal something from the Orbots and they have to find it before it causes problems. At the same time, Lord Umbra commissions his female agent Belladonna and her transforming robot sidekick/vehicle to get it as well. There’s a little bit of a morality play about whether to do right or whether to do wrong played out between the older and younger thieves. It’s a fun setting and a bit of a chase with some double-dealing taking place too.

Operation Eclipse (by Marc Scott Zicree)

Rondu is reunited with an old friend, but Rob doesn’t trust him. Turns out his suspicions are well-founded, as he is now an agent of SHADOW, leading an invasion of Earth. This does have the feel of an episode that’s building towards a series or season finale, but I imagine it’s just coincidental. It’s a shame that they didn’t have a serial approach from episode to episode, it would be an effective payoff by the end and probably would’ve given the show a more enduring appreciation. Rondu does get to have a feature episode, though, participating in mental combat with Drennan.

The Invasion of the Shadow Star (by Michael Reaves)

Is Rob planning to build new Orbots? The Orbots are led to think that, while SHADOW work on total darkness by constructing a Sun Smasher weapon. Lord Umbra sends out a ransom demand after testing the weapon. To “prove their worth” the Orbots go to Shadow Star to stop the doomsday weapon being used. Again, there’s a sense of this being the biggest and most consequential episode, but I don’t know if that was on purpose. Michael Reaves was a pretty committed writer, the man who tried to craft a conclusion to the seemingly unending Dungeons & Dragons, but it seems less obvious here and a little bit of a shame that they didn’t try to fully exploit the conventions of the form.

In review: This is an interesting, forgotten show. Not strong enough to be a forgotten classic, but it has no poor episodes. The animation is amazing and I wish some other shows had been blessed with that quality. The heroes are pretty rounded and likeable, the villains clearly defined. I think where it may have not been as well appreciated, beyond real life economics, is seeming too strange, too foreign, and possibly too inaccessible. It needed a bigger cast too. But what it does have, it mostly takes full advantage of and makes the most of.