Sunday, October 12, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Gone But Not Forgotten

It was with real sadness that I read a few days ago that the era of Saturday morning cartoons was officially over — October 4th was the first Saturday in more than 40 years with no cartoons in the morning lineup. To borrow from Kevin Smith, growing up, Saturday morning cartoons were my religion, and to know they're relegated to memory and reruns on YouTube and specialty cable back channels has caused a bit of my soul to wither.

Saturday morning cartoons were an important part of growing up in the mid-late 70s and the 80s. They were a common language in the schoolyard — didn't matter whether you were a sporty kid who went to hockey practice at 6am, or one of the bookish ones who stayed home — at some point we all watched at least a few shows, and so we had a common frame of reference for storytelling and play in the school yard. And the word "storytelling" is important, because, while these shows were often part of larger marketing schemes to sell toys and other merchandise, or vehicles to ensure you'd watch the commercials for sugary breakfast cereals that were just as slick as the cartoons themselves and also designed to make you want to buy things (the cereals), these shows actually had a talent for telling stories. They had plots, and differentiated (sometimes multidimensional - in terms of psychology and emotions, as well as corporeal existence) characters. There was also (aside from the toy- and video game-driven marketing fare) a no-holds-barred approach to the stories in these series, showing us endless worlds of fantasy and science fiction, from the very childish to the occasionally mature, and illustrated with texture and depth. That's a far cry from a lot of the kid-oriented animation today: the endless, static-imaged, flashing colour background, brain-hemorraged-eyed, gap-mouthed parade of Yu-Gi-O-type shows where the "adventures" of each episode are more or less interchangeable, as are the characters and action, and nothing is learned (insert image of Old Man Bloginhood sitting on his porch waving his cane petulantly and shouting "In my day-"). Even if the animation back then was a little clunky compared to today's computer-enhanced stuff, they were still a treat to watch.

We also benefitted back then from a mix of shows from different decades — a veritable intertidal zone of cartoon eras — from vintage series of the 60s re-run for new audiences, to the expanding variety of the 70s, to newer ideas in the 80s (focussing even more heavily on product marketing). This let us see animation and storytelling styles evolve in front of our eyes. It also gave the networks more stories to run, especially in years (or seasons, because the programming wasn't always the same in the spring and fall) when the studios weren't producing as many shows. Of course, by the 80s, the kid audience was so important that the networks were airing prime time specials on weekday evenings at the start of the fall season to promote their new Saturday morning cartoon lineups.

And that's just the animated fiction. Saturday mornings were also interspersed with educational shows like In the News, and the animated School House Rock, as well as live-action fluff like Bigfoot and Wildboy, The Ghost Busters, Wonderbug, Jason of Star Command, and, the king of them all, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Hell, I remember one of the networks up here in Canada even tried to rerun The Starlost at one point.

So, to keep the memorial candle burning, I'm going to start a new feature here on the blog: every Saturday (or sometimes late Friday night, or maybe belatedly on Sunday, because I can be remarkably lazy), I'll link to a couple of my cartoon favourites from the 70s or 80s (as culled from various sources on YouTube). Where possible, I'll link to a full episode, but, if those aren't available, you'll at least get the intro sequence.

It should be noted that there are some big-name shows you may remember from the old days that won't make this feature (like Battle of the Planets (G-Force), Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato, Transformers, or Gobots) on the technicality that they weren't run on Saturday (at least, not in my neck of the woods, where they were after-school shows). Others may not make it because I didn't like them.

To start things off, one of the longest-running cartoons of that era (having a couple of varying but similar titles over the years), and also one of my favourites: The Superfriends (a set of intros).

Now run into the kitchen to get a bowl of your favourite sugary cereal (complete with stale, dehydrated marshmallows), and get comfortable for Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (a full episode).

And let's not forget Godzilla (intro).

And lastly, a one-off feature from CBS Storybreak: Dragon's Blood, based (very loosely, apparently) on the Jane Yolen book of the same name. As a kid, I loved this one because, first and foremost, it had dragons in it, and secondly because the story was pretty good. As an adult, having just rewatched it, I can say the story holds up reasonably well, and the feel of artwork is interesting, somewhat reminiscent of a kids' version of Heavy Metal — without the gore, the zombies, the boobies, or the Loc-Nar wreaking havoc. Bonus points because it's also introduced by Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan. (full episode)

Tune in next week for more Saturday morning cartoons (well, I'd hope you come by before then to read some of the other blog posts, but, you know, if cartoons are your thing, that's cool).

Meantime, what were some of your favourite Saturday morning cartoons?

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