THE GLORIOUS DARKNESS!
After Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future failed to take off (which is a shame, considering it was the most ambitious children’s show OF ALL TIME), Landmark Entertainment went back to working on the great theme park attractions they’re known for while secondarily thinking up new concepts to pitch to the networks. When Gary Goddard brought his godson to see the final performance of the Conan stunt show at Universal Hollywood back in 1993, the three-year-old was enamored with the skeleton soldiers onstage. Since Goddard had fond childhood memories of Ray Harryhausen’s work in Jason And The Argonauts and similar warriors resonated with his godson who was a few generations younger, the skeleton imagery seemed timeless and powerful. Thus, Skeleton Warriors was born. Goddard and his team work endlessly on their pitch, creating tons of art and maquettes to bring to Toy Fair. During the convention, the show was picked up by CBS, and licensing rights started being snatched up left and right. The toy sculpts, as well as the giant skeleton suit that roamed around Toy Fair, created a lot of buzz for the He-Man-like property due to the amount of detail put into them (this was a Pre-Spawn world), and Playmates started production soon after.
Debuting in 1994 as part of the Action Zone hour, Skeleton Warriors was ambitious and unlike other Saturday morning programming at the time. The show had bookends featuring a floating CGI skeleton head as host who posed the moral dilemma of the episode, each of which focused on the ongoing struggle between the Legion Of Light and Baron Dark’s Skeleton Warriors over the Lightstar Crystal. Captain Power was the first children’s show to heavily incorporate CGI, and the original plan was to have Skeleton Warriors be entirely CGI. If CBS had committed to the show a few weeks earlier, the plan would have gone through but because of time constraints, the show went the traditional 2D route, with the bookends hinting at what might have been.
‘Are you part of the problem or the solution?” is the big question posed by the series, and the better than average writing staff elevated Skeleton Warriors from being normal Saturday morning fluff. The individual “lessons” posed in each episode are also handled well, but they are meant to be watched in order, as there are actual character arcs and a central storyline that runs throughout.
Sadly, the series would only last a season due to a number of reasons. CBS shuffled the show around a lot, and it never played in the same time slot more than three times in a row. Years later, Fox would pick up this habit and cancel Arrested Development. Skeleton Warriors was also really dark and violent for a children’s Saturday morning cartoon. But, the biggest factor in the show’s cancelation was the toy line. While they were highly detailed and pretty spectacular looking, Playmates decided to only release the villains in the first wave, leaving kids to only play with the bad guys. By the time three of the heroes were released, the show was ka-put. Talon, the lone female protagonist, was never released, as were several incredible designs lined up the second series. Even the Sega Saturn (WOAH!) and Playstation game came out after the series was canceled. To Goddard’s credit, him and his crew managed to wrap things up (for the most part) at the end of the season, so the story feels concluded rather than abandoned.
Skeleton Warriors was short-lived and heavily borrows from Masters Of The Universe (Guardian is practically the same character as Man-At-Arms), but it holds up surprisingly well and is a blast to watch. The character design is mind-blowing, the animation is great in that 90’s action cartoon sort of way, and the fact that the episodes need to be watched chronologically make it more satisfying than it ought to be. The copious amounts of stylized violence and cheesy one-liners – and there are A LOT – just make it that much better.
The transfer is kind of disappointing. Judging from how it looks, I imagine most of the masters were stowed away in someone’s attic, or a cabinet in a storage unit. The video quality changes between each episode, with some looking particularly crisp – especially the first episode – but most are washed out and soft in appearance, which is a shame because the character design for the show is really, really impressive. Audio, on the other hand, is very strong. The score has some haunting bits, and the theme song is about as ridiculously awesome as you remember.
Commentary – There are two commentary tracks included in the two-disc set, and both are pretty dry. Series creator Gary Goddard chats on the pilot episode, but gives little insight into the episode and instead narrates it. Co-producer Robert DeLapp talks over ‘Past Perfect, Future Tense,’ and doesn’t say anything much of interest either.
Bad To The Bone: The Making Of Skeleton Warriors (29:54) – Here’s the meat and potatoes of the bonus features. The nearly thirty minute behind-the-scenes doc starts with that fateful trip to the Conan stunt show, and goes through a lot of concept art that I wish I had hanging on my wall, including the Drew Struzan painting that adorns the DVD cover, which he has for sale on his website for $95,000. The show’s history is really interesting, and they go through a lot of the changes it had over its production. Goddard even drags out a few figures that never made it into mass-production, and chats about what would’ve happened if they aired past the first season. What really makes this doc special is that towards the end, the creative and writing teams discuss why the show didn’t work, and since more than fifteen years have passed, they’re very clear-headed about the situation and give some real insight into Skeleton Warriors’ cancellation.