As a kid, there were few things I enjoyed more than to be wrapped in the ambient cacophony of a video arcade going full tilt. For me, the arcade was like a portal to a hundred worlds where adventure was just a quarter away. And it wasn’t just me. Video games went mainstream in the early 80s, and soon they were a part of our pop culture fabric. From top-40 hits like Buckner and Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” to R-rated movies like Joysticks, adults as well as kids got swept up in the hysteria.
Obviously, the networks wanted to cash in on the phenomenon, and it wasn’t long before you could follow the adventures of your favorite video game heroes every Saturday morning on your TV. Naturally, there was a Pac-Man cartoon, as well as The Saturday Supercade, which was comprised of animated segments that featured such popular characters as Frogger, Q*Bert, and Pitfall Harry. Given that few of these video games actually had much of a storyline, the people behind the cartoons had to fill in a lot of blanks. And that brings us to our next Showcase: Pole Position.
For those of you too young to remember - which, sadly, is most of you - Pole Position was a racing game where you controlled a Formula-1 style car in a series of qualifying runs and races. It was one of the more popular games of its era, particularly the cockpit version, which allowed the player to sit down and featured a gearshift, accelerator, and brake pedal. The high octane world of Formula 1 racing would seem to be the perfect backdrop for a cartoon, so of course the producers chose to ignore that and create something totally unrelated.
I watched Pole Position religiously during its original run, but the only thing I remember about it is its absurdly catchy theme song. Even in the cartoon theme halcyon days of the 80s, it was a standout. The rest was a blur until I re-watched the opening a few minutes ago. Kids, talking cars. Yeah, yeah, I remember now. But what is behind their stunt show? Let’s find out together.
Way back when Tony and I began our pen pal buddyship (it's going on 5-6 years by now, isn't it Tony?), one of the first ways we got to know one another was by exchanging our favorite cartoon openings from the 80s (mostly old Tony) and 90s (mostly young me). One that stuck with me was the intro for Pole Position, a show I'd never seen, loosely "based on" a plotless Atari racing game I'd never played.
The song is a rocking number of simple lyrics produced to perfection, and would be perfectly at home on an album alongside other classic Haim Saban and Shuki Levy hits like M.A.S.K. and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. It's not quite as catchy as those two, but it's got a strong Euro rock beat and a great soar to the chorus. Shame they stuck some crapy dialogue over it instead of just letting the song play, but oh well.
The visuals are just as bright and and catchy, showing off the strong designs and instantly distinctive cast typical of a show by DiC co-founder Jean Chalopin. You have a brother and sister of around the same age, equally matched with suped up racing cars that come complete with 8-bit smiley faced A.I. computers and limited transformational abilities. Well, I say equal, but the woman is given a back seat so she can be the one to cart around a hyperactive little girl in pigtails and some kind of cat/monkey/squirrel hybrid creature, the two of which are likely the comic relief. Chalopin casts usually have an older mentor figure, and we briefly glimpse him here as a stuffy looking guy in a pencil moustache and grey suit, who contacts the kids on a monitor to remind them of who they are for our benefit, and reveals they're following in the footsteps of their parents, the tragic or mysterious absence of whom will likely come up during things.
It's all a wonderful bag of candy, complete with the woman's hair magically poofing out into a perfect 80s do when she removes her helmet (safety first, kids!), but what the opening lacks is any form of opposition. It tells us who our leads are, but not who they'll be fighting and/or racing against with each episode. Those characters are usually just as colorful an element as the heroes in a Chalopin show, so their absence is surprising.
This is the first time I've watch the end credits for the series, just to get a sense of who's involved, and a couple names jumped out at me. The first is Michael Reaves, the show's head writer and co-developer. Reaves is a legend in my book, one of the best of the 80s/early 90s Saturday morning cartoon writers, with freelance credits on half the shows out there, who made a name for himself as story editor of the first few seasons of Batman: The Animated Series and as producer and co-creator of Disney's Gargoyles. As a fan of his tv work and novels (often co-written with Steve Perry, another ace writer of the era), his name alone is enough to instantly shoot up my interest in a show.
The second name is Shinji Aramaki, a massive name in anime fandom for his mech designs on shows like Bubblegum Crisis, Gasaraki, Megazone 23, Genesis Climber Mospeda (released over here as the "New Generation" section of Robotech), Wolf's Rain, and Madox-01, the last of which he also wrote and directed. In recent years, he's continued making a name for himself as the overall designer of Fullmetal Alchemist and as a pioneer in the field of Japanese CG animation with his design and direction of both blockbuster Appleseed movies, and the recently released internation co-production Starship Troopers: Invasion. Which was written by none other than our blog's figure of worship, Mister Flint Dille!
So with Aramaki on the vehicle designs, Reaves supervising the scripts, Saban/Levy dancing those keyboard keys, and Jean Chalopin keeping it all colorful and fun, I'm absolutely eager to give this show a try and figure out why it only stuck around for 13 installments before veering down Short-Lived road.
Tune in this Saturday as we race towards our first Pole Position with "The Code".
If you'd like to watch along with us, the complete series of Pole Position is available on DVD through Amazon or other online retailers.