Background: Back in the mid to late 1970's, Saturday morning cartoons were full of short lived series trying to become the next big thing. One of the production company tricks was to use pre-existing characters based on popular comic books like Super Friends while another was to heavily "borrow" from such series and provide original characters in the hopes of not only saving from paying licensing fees but in discovering new characters to exploit. One company that tried both routes was called Filmation, which started by providing a Superman cartoon in the mid 1960's, working through the 1980's with a number of highly regarded series, including the animated Star Trek series, Tarzan, Batman, Flash Gorden, and others. Two of the more obscure efforts were called The Young Sentinels, later to be changed to The Space Sentinels, and Freedom Force, gathered together in a boxed set I'm reviewing today called Space Sentinels: The Complete Series.
Series: Space Sentinels was a show that debuted on September 10, 1977 as The Young Sentinels on NBC. I remember reading about it in the then still new Starlog magazine and seeing some special show on the network the previous night (that introduced all the shows to debut on the network), thinking it looked cool. The concept was typical for the time, a small group of multi-ethnic teenagers with super powers would go around doing good deeds and fighting the forces of evil for free, lasting a full 13 episodes. The group consisted of Hercules (looking as much like a surfer as the later Kevin Sorbo version, dismissing his Greco-Roman roots), Mercury, an Asian with super speed powers, Astraea, a black woman with the ability to shape shift into any living creature (like the character Maya from Space 1999 that had been cancelled a few years prior), a small robot called M.O. (maintenance operator: though affectionately referred to as Moe by the cast), and the computer, Sentinel One.
Each of the three super powered humans could fly and their origins were explained as being transported to another world centuries prior and enhanced to give them their powers. Much like the mythology of the Green Lantern Corps, a central group of aliens commissioned the Sentinels with many such robots/teams established on other worlds (as mentioned in the episode: The Prime Sentinel). Also like the long established Green Lanterns, a central villain in the form of Morpheus, a fallen character of the enhancement program, was used to open the series in Morpheus: The Sinister Sentinel. The half hour format of the show didn't allow for much character development and the demands of a Saturday morning show was that the episodes all had to be relatively interchangeable so each stood alone as a mini-drama full of the usual morality lessons about honesty, friendship, and ecological stewardship; many borrowing from other movies in the science fiction realm like The Jupiter Spore being a tribute to The Andromeda Strain, Voyage to the Inner World giving the nod to Journey to the Center of the Earth, Commander Nemo borrowing from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, etc. Many of the villainess characters were derived from other sources too, with Fauna being a knock off of Batman's Poison Ivy as much as Morpheus was of Green Lantern's Sinestro, among others.
Admittedly, watered down concepts are standard fare for the Saturday morning crowd and the show never really stood the test of time since it didn't get a chance to break free from the standard opening season material all such shows were limited too. In the interviews on the extras section, it was pointed out that they were under tight deadlines, low budgets, and network constraints about what could be shown and what they were limited too. All three heroes were derived from a specific formula that played to the political correctness elements (disregarding character origin; Astraea is the Goddess of Justice in mythology but hardly a woman of color any more than Hermes/Mercury was Asian, or Hercules was a blond white surfer dude) and the episodes kept to the similar pattern of: showing some moral tidbit, bad guy violates rule addressed, and then the team makes it right after some minimal struggle where they are caught at a disadvantage. If you're selling the format to a young child, you could do worse. Here are the episodes in order as they were broadcast:
1) Morpheus: The Sinister Sentinel
2) Space Giants
3) The Time Traveler
4) The Sorceress
5) The Return of Anubis
6) The Wizard of OD
7) The Prime Sentinel
8) Commander Nemo
9) Voyage To The Inner World
12) The Jupiter Spore
13) The World Ship
As far as light Saturday morning entertainment goes, the idea behind Space Sentinels was okay but the one dimensional attributes of the characters weighed heavily upon them even after only a baker's dozen of episodes so it really would've taken some better writing to elevate the show out of the hole they were written into on these episodes but I have a soft spot in my heart for nostalgic looks at the past and considering the show is nearly 30 years old, I can't be too harsh on it as reminiscent of a time when it fit right in to the mold of the day (sadly enough, the formula is followed to this day by most shows, making the better ones stand out by comparison).
Okay, with the 1977 season over with, what about the following year you ask? Well, Space Sentinels failed to really catch on against the competition so the folks at Filmation tried something new. They were working on several projects at the time and this resulted in them trying to breathe new life into a few of their moderately established projects airing the previous year. One of their more successful efforts was Tarzan and the expansion of the concept led to a new segment called The Freedom Force being made to help flesh out the show into an hour time slot. The name of the actual anthology was Tarzan and the Super 7 with other groups vying for space in the hour each week, allowing for any of them that didn't click to get dumped in favor of the higher rated ones. The Freedom Force was set in a timeless valley (technically, in "The Valley of Time") with five heroes as the focal points of the show; Hercules was brought back (sans the ability to fly independently, requiring him to use Pegasus the flying horse), Isis (patterned after the live action version from a few years earlier starring a white female in the role), Merlin the magician, Sinbad the sailor, and Super Samurai.
The problem with this segment of the show was that it was limited to about 11 minutes (including the credits) so the usual formula had to be sped up even faster, greatly reducing any storylines that could be developed for the expanded team. This meant that some of the characters got the short end of the stick, with Sinbad appearing twice in the entire five episode run of the show and most of the time only one of the team focused on in terms of screen time. In the interviews portion of the extras section, network constraints were mentioned even more this time with religious material edited To be fair, the comment was that only mainstream religions were truncated as an episode needing to mention a Catholic priest translating a Latin passage needed to be dumped while several references to "the gods" were allowed to be kept intact; apparently monotheism was considered unacceptable but ancient gods like Hercules, Isis, and more generic references were okay.
The Saturday morning cartoon dilemma was even more apparent here given the short length of time given to each story with the same formula as mentioned above adhered to. The morality play reduced to its basic elements doesn't make for great television, even when this one debuted on September 9, 1978, and the effect clearly weakened the CBS broadcast to the point where it couldn't last. Still, five episodes is kind of light in terms of giving a show a chance, making me wonder why it wasn't mentioned by ANY of those interviewed (unless their comments were edited like those of Joss Whedon on the commentary tracks of Firefly were). The episodes were:
1) The Dragon Riders
2) The Scarlet Samurai
3) The Plant Soldiers
4) Morgana's Revenge
5) The Robot
The interviewer's again stumbled with the facts about contemporary programming of the time with forgetting that the internet and reviewer geeks with good memories recall such shows as Shogun Warriors, Battle of the Planets, Gigantor, and others that had similar elements when they claimed to be first with computers, giant robots (which was also done in the contemporary Superfriends), multi-ethnic characters, and the like. The themes were similar with ecology being a major focal point, the limitations of technology (kind of silly to be relying on magic over technology but this was an elitist show), and friendship conquering all for peace & harmony with nature. I wonder if Anne McCaffrey was asked about the opening episode, The Dragon Riders, but the short stories were far too short to allow for any major ripping off to occur. Again, it was still kind of fun at the time even if I distinctly remember why the voice of Isis was different then on the live action version (which starred hotty Joanna Cameron) and whether Hercules had a cold compared to his voice on the previous show (different voices always bug me, even now with shows like Saiyuki when they switched production companies).
As a slice of yesteryear, and given that there were some decent extras as well as a complete run of both shows for such a low cost, I can suggest these as a Rent It or better although Filmation has a number of shows I'd rather see on DVD right now. The budget for Space Sentinels was a lot larger by the looks of the animation and the way it has held up over the years but given what they had to work with, the company did a decent job nonetheless. The world of animation has taken huge strides in the past 30 years yet even now you'll find shows that remind one of The Space Sentinels and Freedom Force offered up on any given Saturday morning so your mileage may vary considerably with regard to picking this one up.
Picture: Space Sentinels: The Complete Series was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in 29 years ago for broadcast on network television on Saturday mornings. The animation seemed to provide at least limited rotoscoping, a then-popular technique at the company, to make the animation look more fluid but much of the time, the cels were simply moved along a repeating background to provide the illusion of movement. The picture was reasonably clear for the show though it should be noted that there were a host of minor issues with bleeding, pattern noise, and grain; even if it looked much cleaner than Freedom Force by comparison. Considering the age of the elements and how unlikely it was to find better source material to work with, it wasn't bad looking even if I remember it looking cleaner (which may be due to the improvements in technology that amplify imperfections significantly). The 35mm film used to capture the frames appears to have been cleaned up at least a little for the DVD release and using a double sided, double layered disc approach seems to have lessened any compression problems with the primary show at least.
Sound: The audio appeared to be the usual Dolby Digital monaural with some cleaning up done but the same limited vocals, music score, and effects as the show had nearly 30 years ago. I didn't hear any significant imperfections and unlike the varying quality of the visual elements, the audio was all about the same with neither series sounding that much better than the other. There was also a Spanish language dubbed track but even my limited skills with the language led me to believe it took some liberal translations during the parts I spot checked.
Extras: Whereas most series of this nature would be distributed without any extras worth noting, this was an exception with a series of spotlight interviews by the producer Lou Scheimer; some of the creative staff including writers Buzz Dixon, David Wise, and Michael Reaves; designer Robert Kline, and artist Darrell McNeil. Most of them were viewing the two series through rose colored glasses and stuck to the most positive things they could say (McNeil's plug for his book about the company was left in) but it was clear that they were either truly forgetful of where they were borrowing material from or just hopeful that no one would mention it. Dismissing criticism of this area since the shows were "just cartoons" is akin to saying all of a genre is crappy and disrespectful of the audience so hopefully if they read this, they'll understand that better writing might have saved the shows from obscurity. The interviews totaled around a half hour and did bring some insight to the shows, albeit in a limited fashion, making them decent extras to add in. A few audio commentaries by the voice actors might've been cool too but that was probably asking too much. There was also a documentary called The Magic of Filmation where the history of the company was given an overview, a couple of art galleries from the two series, a animated presentation pilot for The Young Sentinels that helped get the show made by network executives, there was also a short test pilot casting session for a live action version of The Young Sentinels worth watching, and DVD ROM scripts in PDF format for ALL of the episodes (a cool extra that other shows should consider following more often). Of special merit too, was the foldout paper insert that added descriptions of the episodes and trivia, complete with who wrote the shows and the voice actor credits for the main roles.
Final Thoughts: Space Sentinels: The Complete Series was a walk down memory lane for a very reasonable price. Both The Space Sentinels and Freedom Force had some potential to succeed but using generic problems that had been beaten to death already and a lack of marketing made each of them slide off into obscurity before either had a chance to become something greater. Nowadays, most shows have all kinds of marketing used to boost the bottom line and a syndicated market that helps provide funding to keep shows alive longer but that wasn't the case back then. The way some concepts and ideas seemed lifted from other popular shows (M.O. looked like the robots from Silent Running and came across as a cheap R2-D2 clone, for example) weakened the efforts but on DVD, collectors will see a better version of the two shows than you'll find available in bootleg form or online. If you like this type of show or want to find something for the kids to watch, Space Sentinels: The Complete Series was a pretty good selection in some ways, despite the limitations for an older audience.
If you enjoy animation, take a look at some of the recommendations of anime by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.