Tried this a few weeks ago, but it didn’t really hit when I looked at The Legend of Prince Valiant, possibly as much because people are busy on the weekend, but let’s try again with Defenders of the Earth, which is like the Avengers or Justice League of King Features Syndicate, starring:
- Flash Gordon, and his son Rick
- The Phantom (27th iteration) and his daughter Jedda
- Mandrake the Magician and his ward Kshin, with pet alien Zuffy
- Lothar, Mandrake’s bodyguard, and his son LJ
Opposing them are Ming the Merciless, with his own son Prince Kro-Tan, and his ice warriors.
First off, we have to talk about the awesome theme tune, defining the four main characters. I have to say my favourite bit is for LJ (“His strength is a legend, his skills conquer all! Armed with his power we never will fall!”). Some new animation in there, but also some recycled clips from episodes, and you can tell that some episodes are better than others straight away (Ming recoiling in terror as Mongor flails is far poorer than the rest of the intro).
I’m skipping some of the early character and group-establishing episodes to pick out some with juicy titles or premises.
The Evil of Doctor Dark (by Alfred A. Pegal)
Ming’s men free Dr. Damien Dark from prison as well as the Psychic Warriors Lillith, Ra and Mara, who look like an alien rock band. Lillith and Ra still have evil intentions, but Mara wants to repent. Immediately noticeable is how heavy the vocal effects are on Defenders computer Dynak X and Ming’s general Garax, to the point of being almost unintelligible. Ming commissions Dark to put back together the pieces of the Orb of Konos, which gives the user immortality. You can see already the gears turning inside Dark as far as how he’s going to betray Ming, which Ming knows already. The writers for this show loved multi-part episodes, so I’m surprised that this episode wasn’t one with the quest for different elements in different locations. On the upside, it means something is going on all the time. On the downside, some chances for some depth and character study are missed. In a bit of a shocker for a show of this era, some characters face some Star Wars endings that make it more edgy than a lot of cartoons of the era.
The Men of Frost (by Kathryn M. Drennan)
Ming used his Men of Frost throughout the show, who were humans encased in ice who were unable to act under their free will. Ming wants to make EVERYONE on Earth his Men (and Women) of Frost with a crystal that belongs to Mandrake. Two try to steal it from him but are thwarted and captured. Loren Lester, later the voice of Robin on Batman: The Animated Series, gets to show his versatility as not just Rick but also the androgynous robot Octon and Zicree, one of the Men of Frost. The Phantom gets to go for a flight in his cool Skull Copter in search of another fragment of the crystal that Ming wants. The music in the show is really punchy and energetic as well as being creepy too when it needs to be. There’s an “I’m not the traitor, HE is the traitor!” plot as well that’s pretty straightforward and could’ve been presented in a more interesting way. It’s also noticeable in these two episodes how the show isn’t Flash Gordon and His Friends Nobody Can Remember and that Flash is no bigger a star than anyone else and the others do get a chance to shine, even if they make the mistake of having all the characters in the show rather than small groups, which is something Transformers realised by the second season.
The Panther Peril (by Paul Davids)
Professor Andrew Huxley aims to explore for a mystical panther tooth that allows the possessor to control all panthers. Huxley is a bit of a dick for an academic and voyager, not respecting the tribal traditions of the Bandar people. Ming actually enters the field alongside his soldiers to get the tooth himself. Flash and Lothar are off planet, so Mandrake and the Phantom go to help. Kshin is given the responsibility of keeping Phantom’s panther companion Kisa behind bars and manages to fuck it up, meaning a Ming-controlled Kisa menaces the young Defenders, although Jedda is just as much to blame for bullying him into giving her the key to release Kisa. The jungle and ancient civilisation makes for an excellent locale, with a giant spider inside the tooth temple in particular being depicted as threatening. I liked the dynamic with the adult heroes battling Ming but not so much the flawed story with the children. We also get the Phantom getting to use his cool invocation “By jungle law, the Ghost Who Walks calls forth the power of TEN TIGERS!” in this episode with his power-up scene. The show had a pretty good cast across the board, but Peter Mark Richman with his silky tones had the best voice.
Conclusion: It’s not the best show or most remembered, but worth checking out. NECA unveiled some DOTE figures (the main four, plus Ming) at Toy Fair earlier this year, would be great to see those actually get released. For now, give at least these episodes a look.