Before we bring our Super Sunday tribute to a close, we thought we'd sneak in one last treat. No, Robo Force was not a part of Super Sunday, nor was it even a Sunbow production, but it's a one-shot pilot episode written by Flint Dille, and since we've already covered the rest of his work which is applicable to this blog's format, we decided this would be a good send off for the entertainment he's inspired us to write about. Mr. Dille, thank you for the wild inventiveness that is you!
It's night. Shadowy, armed figures tailed by bulky robots are sneaking through foliage towards a home on the outskirts of the opulent, futuristic city of Celestia. In a laboratory inside the home, a professor named Dr. Fury is working on the speech program of Coptor, a propellered robot of his construction. Hearing a noise, they turn as the door is smashed in. The shadowy figures pour in, then are passed by the group of menacing robots, Hun-Dred at their lead. They've come for Fury. Coptor tries to fight them off, but he's overpowered and fried. When the voice of Fury's young son, Mark, calls from upstairs, Hun-Dred makes a threat against the child. When the boy enters the lab, no one is there. A ship takes off just over the hill, and Mark again calls out for his father.
Cut to ten years later.
At the heart of the city, a council of elected officials is in session. Speaking is Deena Strong, a young but fiery and sharp councilwoman. She warns of Hun-Dred and his Cult of Dred, which is dedicated to following what was started by Nazgar, a dictator who unleashed horrific devastation upon the world 2,000 years ago. She presents recorded evidence that Nazgar preserved his brain and set in motion plans to one day resurrect himself, using three Memory Crystals, of which she has one. This is all dismissed as legends by the slithery Councilman Frost. He leads the council to veto her plans and instead charges her with hunting down the menace known as Mark Fury.
Mark, now a young man, and his robot partner Maxx Steele are currently in the act of working over goons in a night club. Mark corners the proprietor, demanding the promised information about his father's whereabouts.
In his quarters, Councilman Frost contacts Hun-Dred, telling the robot of the Memory Crystal. While walking home that night, Deena finds herself surrounded by Hun-Dred's fellow robots, who whisk her away to a cell in a submerged castle, where Hun-Dred promises to let her witness the destruction of Celestia.
Approaching the same submerged castle is a submersible craft, inside which Mark and Maxx check over the other mechanical members of Robo Force: SOTA, Sentinel, Wrecker, Blazer, and even his father's old robot, Coptor. Staying behind on the sub is Jason Fury, an infant at the time his father was kidnapped, now the same age Mark was that fateful day.
Robo Force pounds their way into the castle, triggering the alarms and keeping the guards busy while Mark searches for his dad. Instead, he finds Deena Strong. They're held at gunpoint by Hun-Dred's human lackey, but he's knocked out quick and the duo are off and running, the goon tossed over Mark's shoulder. There's a momentary standoff where Deena, who now has the gun, questions Mark's intentions, but is surprised to learn how far off the real man is from his roguish reputation as he fills her in on his father, whose main study was a technique of inserting human brains into robot bodies. Deena suddenly realizes Hun-Dred's plans for Nazgar, and she and Mark form an alliance.
After a big shootout, our heroes escape and watch the castle implode from the damage. They all head to Deena's place to regroup and plan. The lackey of Hun-Dred awakens to a mouthful of laser barrel and squeals that the villains are at the Cliffs of the Lost. Then he jumps out a window and flees.
At the Cliffs, Hun-Dred and his robots confront a native priestess. She doesn't know the location of the second Memory Crystal, until Hun-Dred utters the phrase "Nazgar lives!", which triggers a post-hypnotic recollection. The crystal contains another recording of Nazgar, pointing them towards the Isle of Doom.
On route to the Cliffs, Robo Force picks up signals from Hun-Dred's cult and follow him to the Isle of Doom, a poisonous, volcanic atoll upon which Mark and Deena will be unable to set foot. In the caves beneath, Hun-Dred has found the third Crystal, conjuring a figure of Death who points towards Nazgar's grave on the peak of Mount Agony. They're suddenly attacked by Robo Force... who are quickly knocked into a pit of bubbling, gooey muck while Hun-Dred makes his escape.
Deflated, the heroes eventually free themselves and meet up with Mark and Deena at the Fortress of Steele, their headquarters. After cleaning out the goop in their systems, Robo Force take flight in their crafts and search for anything they can find.
At Mount Agony, Hun-Dred finds the grave of Nazgar and answers the questions of a guardian computer. He's gifted with a container housing the dictator's brain. The mountain starts to quake, catching the attention of the scouting Robo Force. They watch as the mountain shatters, revealing Nazgar's fortress was burried within. Inside, Nazgar lords over Hun-Dred and the robots from a central throne room. He's pleased with the robot body designed - by an aged and defeated Dr. Fury - to house his sinister brain. He orders the robots to start activating a periscoping death ray that rises high above the fortress and targets Celestia. Robo Force is gathered outside, but they're holding back so Mark can have a chance to slip in and find his father. Which he quickly does.
The death ray is tested on the nearby forest, forcing Deena and Robo Force to make their charge. Despite heavy outer defenses, Robo Force gets in. Coptor is tasked with flying Dr. Fury to safety while the others rush the control room to stop the death ray, which is now being used to slice Celestia to pieces. In their way, unfortunately, is Hun-Dred.
Maxx Steele takes him out with a single punch.
Nazgar's throne turns into an escape pod. When he refuses to take Councilman Frost to safety, as well, the politician squeals to Robo Force where the pod is and they blast it to pieces as a group, Nazgar howling from within. When the smoke clears, there's no trace of Nazgar in the wreckage, and the heroes hope he's gone for good. They can't find a way to stop the pre-programmed death ray, but Maxx has made his way up to the ray itself, which he also takes out with a single punch.
Back at the Fortress of Steele, the heroes raise a toast. While Deena still has her concerns about Nazgar, Mark assures her that Frost is in jail, she's the new star of the council, and the day has been saved.
The 80s are often thought to have been the halcyon days of cartoon/toy line synergy, but we often forget that most of those ventures failed miserably. For every Masters of the Universe, there were half a dozen Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light. Case in point: Robo Force.
In 1984, the boys of Robo Force swaggered into the dance with a fairly substantial merchandising push behind them, only to discover that they’d been beaten there by a group of better looking and more interesting toy robots. After spending a few months standing awkwardly by the punch bowl as kids waited in line for a chance to dance with Optimus Prime, Voltron, and even Leader-1(!?), Maxx Steele and his plastic compatriots were finally put out of their misery when the Discounting DJ announced “You don’t have to go home, but ya gotta get the heck up outta here!” It was then off to the clearance bin, where they traded horror stories with the surviving members of Sectaurs, Crystar, and Chuck Norris’ Karate Kommandos, until some unlucky kid’s cheap Aunt came along and bought them as a Christmas gift.
Nearly thirty years later, Robo Force has fallen into pop culture obscurity. The figures still turn up on eBay from time to time. Less so the various tie-in merchandise. None of it generates much interest from collectors. I guess some things never change. Perhaps most obscure of all is the one-shot cartoon produced by the titans of tie-in, Ruby-Spears. I had several Robo Force toys as a kid, but I have no memory of this ever airing. Needless to say, I was curious to check it out.
"The Revenge of Nazgar" is an origin story in the same spirit of many of the cartoons we’ve reviewed these past few months. The difference is that, here, the entire story is crammed into less than thirty minutes. As a result, it feels rushed; kinda like you’re watching it on fast forward. At times I felt dragged, rather than pulled, along. I’m sure they were under various constraints, but to pull this off properly, they needed at least a full broadcast hour. Better if they could’ve had a five-part mini series ala G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (aka The M.A.S.S. Device). That said, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
The moment our heroes get into a bar brawl, I knew I was going to like this cartoon. Yeah, there’s a bunch of hard to swallow and poorly thought out mumbo jumbo about essence transference and the like, but moments like this give it all a grounded, two-fisted spirit missing from our previous Showcase, Robotix. In short, it felt... well, human. The episode also gets surprisingly dark at times. At one point, Blazer (one of the good robots) puts the barrel of his gun-flame-shooter-thingy into the bad guy's mouth as he’s being interrogated. Let me say that again. One of the good guys sticks the barrel of his weapon into the mouth of a guy he’s interrogating. Commonplace on 24, not so much in an animated children’s show.
As you might imagine, the biggest victims of the compacted storytelling are character and world building. The robots all have essentially the same shape, but the details and color schemes are distinct enough to make it easy to tell them apart when it’s hitting the fan - which is does often in this episode. Unfortunately, we only get the vaguest sense of their personalities. Same with Celestia. It’s not unlike a futuristic Earth, but what are the rules, the politics, and the geography? We see a large Council of some sort, but nothing is really explained. I don’t hold any of this against the show, however. What we get is enough to navigate our way through the plot.
I guess it’s time to ask the question “Did this have the potential to become a series?” My answer would be “It depends on who was in charge.” There’s really nothing fresh about the premise, but the execution is such that, had Flint Dille remained behind the keyboard, Robo Force likely would’ve been a pretty entertaining half hour of rock ‘em sock ‘em robots. And it probably would’ve sold a few more toys as well.
I'm gonna go out on a limb here. We've covered quite a bit of Flint Dille in the last year, and I sang the praises of much of it, even while admitting to his flaws. Inhumanoids was garish and sloppy, but in a self-aware way that make for some very inspired and hilarious storytelling. Visionaries had a boring batch of leads, but inventive world-building and a clever spin on the classical ballads of knights and their quests. Bigfoot had a weak foe, but was otherwise a unique and charming ode to Americana. Even Dragonstrike was a winking hoot of zany personalities and green-screen cheese. None of these shows are classics, but I loved them all. I loved their originality, their odd-ball humor, their occasional dips into darkness, and the way they seemed to openly challenge the tropes most others of their ilk so easily and so often relied on.
So what's the limb? I think this episode here is the strongest single half-hour of programming from Dille that we've reviewed on this blog.
Robo Force, as a line, is a tough sell. Looking at it with modern eyes, I like their bulky designs, with an almost industrial functionality reminiscent of Daleks or the robot from Lost in Space. Looking back with kid eyes, the early 80s was an era where robots could transform and conjoin. What did Robo Force offer? Hunks of plastic with suction cups. Yes, suction cups. They fly throughout the episode, but that turbine vent on their bottom was, in toy form, a suction cup that let them stick to things. That's it. That's their gimmick. Get a robot, stick it to a window, and wait for it to fall. Some of them had spring-loaded punching arms and little missile shooters, too, but if you were a kid back then, would you rather have the toys that could link up and fold into new shapes, or a fancied up suction cup?
In the show, however, the bulky design of the robots is great, lending a weight and a power to their presence as they smash and blast their way through situations. There's elements reminiscent of what we got from the power suits in Inhumanoids and the title characters in Robotix, but I find these figures superior to both. There's a realism to their designs, a practicality to their non-bipedal shapes and unique tools, as though they were all designed for various construction purposes only to be drafted in this little war of theirs. Also, I found there to be just enough distinction - at least on the good guy side - to start telling one from the other, and I imagine that would start becoming pretty easy had a season been greenlit and these characters gotten a few more episodes under their belt.
Tony's right that the characterizations are thin, but they are what they needed to be to set the stage for the future. Maxx Steele has the can-do spirit of the Kool-Aid man, and I love how Dille makes use of the toyline's punching feature by having Maxx take out two key elements of his enemies with a single knockout blow to each. Hun-Dred (I find myself charmed by that name) is pretty much your typical Episode IV Darth Vader villain, with his deep voice and looming obedience to his master, but it works here as he cuts through stage after stage in bringing Nazgar to life. Other than them, you don't need to explore the other characters in what's meant to be a first episode. That's what a full season would be for. As it is, I like that they still bring a lot of personality out through their banter, and like Copter getting a little arc where he's finally reunited with his long lost creator.
As for the humans, they're fine. Frost is your typical traitor, and kinda just re-appears there at the end (no, the goon they interrogated wasn't him), but I like how completely dismissive he is of factual, certifiable evidence standing right in front of him. Deena is a great post-Leia heroine, standing strong and poised whether she's delivering a speech at a podium or blasting through robotic guards with a pistol. More could have been done with her being tasked to hunt Mark down, but I like her initial distrust which is quickly broken through in a nice sequence of revelations. As for Mark, I think he's a great lead. I love how we cut from him as an abandoned child to a driven young man punching his way through any obstacle keeping him from reuniting with his father. There's a devotion there bordering on the reckless (imagine how much of Celestia wouldn't have been destroyed had Robo Force not held back for Mark in the climax) so I can see why his daring do has branded him a menace by those who don't understand, and I would have loved to see this build out over the course of a broader series.
And Nazgar. I love Nazgar. Not so much the persona of Nazgar, as we only get brief glimpses, but the mythos of this ancient conqueror so thirsty to rule the world that he'll set the stage for his own rebirth thousands of years later, preserving his brain and placing clues in spots named Cliff of the Lost, Isle of Doom, and Mount Agony. Sometimes it gets a bit much, like the specter of Death himself appearing at one point, but there's something so very Visionaries in his elaborate and whimsical setup. Also, love that his robot body is capped by a jar with his brain visible.
Tony's not wrong in this being an extremely dense episode. Read that synopsis I wrote above and tell me it doesn't feel like a full-length motion picture. I disagree with him, though, in that I think it works. Unlike the equally dense Inhumanoids, which was often cluttered with so much randomness that it became exhausting to follow, this is very tightly and intelligently structured, keeping the pace perfectly balanced between action, exposition, and just enough character development so that we feel moments like Mark reuniting with his dad. You have Mark's hunt for justice, Hun-Dred's quest for his leader, the political squabbling of Celestia, the misadventures of Deena, then a massive Bond-film climax with a death ray. It's all beautifully fit together and moves with a constant flow that pushes enough to keep my excitement driving, but not so much that I feel overwhelmed.
So, would this have worked as a series? Absolutely. Dille sets one hell of a stage in this one-shot outing. I think it's unfair to expect more than the primary elements - like the various team members and the broader cityscape itself - to be delved into without the room of future entries, but he suggests just enough that the potential for such development is apparent. And I would have been along for the ride all the way. The question then is what Dille would we have gotten? Would we have the Dille of Inhumanoids, where it becomes a cluttered mess that gradually turns in on itself and starts amusing us with balloon animals made from its own entrails? Or would we have gotten the Dille of Visionaries, or the years he oversaw Transformers, where a few stiff and clumsy moments are more than made up for by gradually unfolding plots set amidst colorful characters and intricate world-building? Given the strength of his start this time around, I'd like to hope we would've gotten the latter.
- Seriously, I couldn't believe they pulled a Jack Bauer in a kids show with the "gun barrel in his mouth" interrogation technique. Bravo, Dille.
- One of the heads of the show is Doug Wildey, a great illustrator and comic book artist from the 40s-50s, who went on to create, design, and supervise one of my favorite cartoons of all time: Jonny Quest.
- Hun-Dred wouldn't have existed at the time of Nazgar, so he isn't a pre-existing servant bringing his old master back to life. Since Hun-Dred's crew is labelled a cult, does that mean a group of this world's robotic population have reached a level of sapience where they've developed the concept of religion? And the deified figure they rally their faith around is a brutal, ancient dictator who promised to return one day? Pretty heady food for thought for a kids show pilot. I wonder if Dille kept it just vague enough to slip past the networks, because I doubt he'd get away with otherwise fleshing out such concepts.
Tune in next week as we wrap up our special Sunday series with a look at the toylines and comics for Bigfoot, Robotix, and, yes, even Robo Force.