The best way to look at the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon "Blackstar" is that it allowed the folks at Filmation to give a few things a bit of a test run before putting them into effect a few years later in their highly popular series "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." The worst way to look at the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon "Blackstar" is that is was a really bad show that deserved to be cancelled after a brief thirteen episode run, which it was.
The series, which began premiered on CBS in the fall of 1981, was one of the animation company's only TV shows to not be based on a property created and/or owned by someone outside the studio. Filmation had previously produced such varied works as "The Archies," "Fat Albert," "Gilligan's Planet," "The Brady Kids," "The New Adventures of Flash Gordon," "Zorro," and "Tarzan." "Blackstar" was a chance for the company to own its own characters, its own stories, its own show.
Of course, that doesn't mean they weren't going to go completely fresh. Our hero of the series, astronaut John Blackstar, is a cross of sorts between John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon, while his design was slightly reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian. The backstory of the show finds him sucked through a wormhole and landing on a distant world swarming with fantasy elements, most notably a group of dwarvish types known as Trobbits (the creators proudly admit the name to mean "tree hobbits," and the only reason they're all pink is because Smurfs are blue, so they legally couldn't go with that color). The villain of the series, a dark wizard type called the Overlord, seems to borrow from every possible bad guy character ever.
The most memorable thing about "Blackstar" is the idea of the "Powerstar," a magical sword broken in two, with the hero receiving one half, the villain receiving the other. The animation makes the half-swords look unwieldy and the scripts allow the magic provide easy outs for any tough corner, but at its core, it's a decent concept, one remembered rather fondly from my youth.
Sadly, the series does very little with this idea of massive power split between good and evil. It also does even less with the idea of a modern day astronaut adventurer trapped on a distant world. We don't even get a proper pilot episode (the show's opening credits sequence provides a swift rundown of the backstory, but we never see Blackstar's full arrival in detail), so we never get to see just what brought our leading man to become the famous, powerful rebel he is in these few stories. Heck, you could drop the intro completely, making Blackstar a native of the planet, and it wouldn't change a single thing here. What good is the premise, then?
As for the episodes themselves, not one of them ever clicks. By the turn of the decade, Filmation had found its groove as an assembly line studio, with stories rushed through production, and it shows. Each script tosses us a few mediocre sci-fi/fantasy elements, some quickie action, a few horrible puns (Blackstar is prone to idiotic one-liners: when fighting the Lord of Time, for example, every quip is a cheap play on "You're out of TIME!" or "Not this TIME!" Ugh.), and some fairly obnoxious wrap-up where Blackstar shares a laugh or two with the Trobbits. Each story feels like it was written in a day, which is probably true. This may explain such lame-brained ideas as Shark-Bats (flying sharks), Air Whales (flying whales), or Mermanites (mermaids). I'm reminded of the more unimpressive comic books of the 1950s, the kind whose stories were churned out in a few measly hours, the only thing holding them together being a bizarre alien name or a some thinly-detailed superpower. Designed to be disposable Saturday morning entertainment, there's nothing to make the "Blackstar" episodes remotely memorable, and as such, everything (even the action sequences) becomes pretty darn boring.
Worse, "Blackstar" was produced at the height of Filmation's "stock system" of animation. To save both money and time, animators produced a series of generic footage - Blackstar swinging a sword, Trobbits running, the Overlord grimacing, etc. - that could be used repeatedly, often throughout a single scene. Sometimes, stock animation was borrowed from other series as well, which is why so many characters happen to look alike from show to show. What new animation was produced to glue the stock footage together was often done all too cheaply. And too often, scripts were designed to stick within what was available in stock. As such, "Blackstar" is a poorly animated and weakly written adventure.
And that's a shame, because there's so much that could have been done with this show. As usual with Filmation, many of the backgrounds are gorgeously animated, carefully hand-painted flights of fancy. The basic character designs themselves are rather attractive, and the general premise of the series has great potential. And yet cheap, rushed production ruins it all, and "Blackstar" winds up as an instantly forgettable cartoon, a throwaway bridge between better shows from the studio.
Here's what I like about BCI: they're willing to put the effort into even the weakest of their properties. Their collection of "Blackstar: The Complete Series" is pretty darn impressive, knowing that the show's cult following deserves more than a sloppy bare-bones package. If you're coming to this set as a lifelong fan or as someone looking for some serious nostalgia, you'll be quite pleased. (And remember, this is coming from someone who didn't like the show!)
BCI has collected all thirteen episodes onto two discs. The discs come in a double-sized keep case, which is housed in a spiffy cardboard slipcover. The episodes included here are:
Disc One: "City of the Ancient Ones," "Search for the Starsword," "The Lord of Time," "The Mermaid of Serpent Sea," "The Quest," "Spacewrecked," "Lightning City of the Clouds."
Disc Two: "Kingdom of Neptul," "Tree of Evil," "The Air Whales of Anchar," "The Overlord's Big Spell," "The Crown of the Sorceress," "The Zombie Masters."
For a 25-year-old cartoon made on the cheap, "Blackstar" looks really good here. The only flaws (which are few) are with the source animation itself. The transfer is impressive, getting the most out of these fantasy worlds. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo tracks for each episode are clean and crisp, yet another aspect of a commendable transfer. Less notable are the alternate Spanish soundtracks, which haven't aged quite as well. No subtitles are available.
Individual interviews with the various writers, artists, and producers behind "Blackstar" give an admirable chunk of behind-the-scenes information; even an executive from CBS pops in so say a few kind words. You can choose to play them all in one long 48-minute stretch, or you can access them one at a time. Be warned, though: each interview starts off with the complete cartoon opening, so if you go at these all at once, you'll grow plenty sick of hearing "I… am John Blackstar!" over and over again.
"The Magic of Filmation" is a half-hour documentary detailing the history of the company, from its origins as a rinky-dink operation that conned its way into nabbing rights to a Superman series to its heyday as a major player on the cartoon scene in the 1970s and early 80s. Through it all, Filmation remained something of a family operation, the little studio that could. Disappointingly, the documentary never fully discusses the reasons for the studio's closing in the late 1980s, and it glosses over all too quickly almost all of its series (including the more interesting live action ventures). Perhaps rights issues kept many of the series unseen here? It's an hour's worth of information whittled down to thirty-some minutes. Good thing Filmation honcho Lou Scheimer is such an engaging presence with such interesting stories to tell.
Speaking of interesting stories, we get two very colorful commentaries: one on "Search For the Starsword" (featuring Scheimer, animator Micke Bennett, and "host" Andy Mangels), the other on "The Zombie Masters" (Mangels with creators Michael Reaves, Marc Scott Zicree, and Michael Swanigan). Both reveal plenty of extra dirt on the series' creation, although Scheimer seems to contradict himself - in the commentary, he tells us that CBS nixed the idea of making the hero a black man, while in the interviews, he tells us that the idea was nixed by nobody in general. Either way, listening to this stuff is still way better than watching the show itself.
An art gallery reveals character sketches, presentation artwork, and backgrounds.
For those with DVD-ROM access and a fondness for PDF files, scripts for all thirteen episodes and storyboards for five of them are included.
Finally, the enclosed booklet with episode descriptions also includes bite-sized trivia nuggets for your reading pleasure.
My vague happy memories of the series proved to be worth very little, as the show wound up being a major dud. But BCI's very impressive presentation pushes me to say Rent It anyway, just for those dandy bonus features. As for those of you who actually do love the show, this set is just what you wanted it to be, and maybe a little more.