Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Blackstar (1981)


Debut: September 19, 1981
Starring:  George DiCenzo. Linda Gary, Alan Oppenheimer, Patrick Pinney, Frank Welker
Synopsis: An astronaut, swept through a black hole, is stranded on a primitive planet in another universe, and joins the fight against the tyrannical Overlord.

Trey: Blackstar was a Saturday morning, animated, fantasy series produced by Lou Schiemer and Norm Prescott for Filmation. It's original run only lasted from September to December 1981, but it was revived again in 1983. We watched Episode 13, "The Zombie Masters" on YouTube. It was written by Marc Scott Zicree and Michael Reaves (the writers responsible for most of the series) and originally aired on December 5, 1981. It was the final episode. In it, Blackstar and friends are trying to convince the leaders of Gandar to join their fight against the Overlord when the city is attacked by Marakand, the flying city of zombies. Soon Princess Luwena, Mara and Poulo are under the spell of Shaldemar the Zombie Master.

In many ways, Blackstar was a "trial run" for Filmation's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. They are both science fantasies and both feature magical swords that have been split in half. Blackstar is a bit more "Planetary Romance," however, and not as superheroic as He-Man. You could say it kind of bridges Filmation's adaptations of older characters like Flash Gordon and Tarzan and the later He-Man.

Jason: I'm not all that conversant with He-Man, but Blackstar feels like its aiming for a slightly more sophisticated audience, while still abiding by the rigid standards for children's entertainment in play in those days. This makes for a frustrating mix of relatively complex fantasy concepts and characters amidst kiddie comic relief (in the unfortunate form of Trobbits) and awesome swords that can only be used defensively (deflecting incoming magic blasts for instance) or to inflict property damage.  The problem of Chekhov's Awesome Sword would have plagued my mind as a kid. 

This episode could have sold young me had Blackstar been able to hack and slash his way through the packs of zombies* infesting the flying city rather than all the skulking around. And don't get my inner 11-year-old started on the Trobbits!

If this show had been made in the more relaxed standards of say, the Jonny Quest 1960s, it might have been a more satisfying action adventure that I would have loved in syndication while complaining that cartoons just aren't as cool as they used to be.

Trey: An interesting note on the protagonist. Original Blackstar was conceived of as Black. His ethnicity was made indeterminant (perhaps Native American like the later Bravestarr) before production, however.

Jason: An opportunity wasted while simultaneously sparing the world another Black hero with "Black" in his name. 

Trey: In summary, Blackstar has the flaws of the Filmation cost-conscience method as we discussed with Flash Gordon. Compared to modern cartoons in a similar vein, it is neither as action packed nor does it feature as much story in its run time. What it excels at though is worldbuilding or perhaps implication of worldbuilding. There is so much for the 8 year-old mind (the age I was when this aired) to latch on to. 

Jason: I agree on all points! A couple of years make a lot of difference in that age category, so it wasn't in the cards for me - I was busy with early adolescent rejection of childish things at the same time. I already loved Dungeons & Dragons, so I'm a little surprised I almost completely ignored this show, which based on this episode, might be the most D&D of the Saturday morning age including the D&D cartoon (with the possible exception of Thundarr). This episode features a veritable monster manual of fantasy species, rampant use of magic missiles and the like, soul-harvesting magic items, and an actual dungeon exploration sequence. 

And yes, the animation is weak sauce, but the character designs and background paintings do a lot of heavy lifting in the worldbuilding department and are very nice. 

My verdict, adjusted for the children's entertainment of this vintage: 3 dead Trobbits out of 5, but the unfulfilled potential is painful to contemplate. It could have been great!

*Spoiler! As it turns out, its a damn good think Blackstar didn't slay his way through the city, as each and every enslaved soul would be reunited with it's body at the end, right down to the gargoyles and other monstrous city dwellers that looked so prime for gratuitous sword-fodder earlier on.

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