Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Robocop: The Animated Series - The Pilot Episode!

Because why not turn one of the goriest, anti-capitalist screeds of the 1980s into a cartoon for the kiddo consumers?

By: Jimbo X

The 1980s were a strange, strange time in American consumer culture, especially in terms of kid-targeted marketing. On one end - and keep in mind, this was well before the Disney-Marvel-Star Wars pop cultural Wehrmacht came to exist - you had stuff that was pretty straight-forward, kid-baiting capitalist claptrap, sans any real subtext, intentional or unintentional - your Smurfs, your Super Marios, your Care Bears and so on and so forth. This being the Reagan Era, of course there was a lot of pseudo-political stuff being repackaged as preteen entertainment, as well; it's no coincidence that G.I. Joe suddenly came back into vogue right around the same time America was transitioning from its post-Vietnam non-interventionist stance to today's always-battle-ready global protectorates (David Sirota's entertaining 2011 tome Back to our Future is a great read for anyone looking to see how jingoistic media in the ALF years helped create a culture of militarism in the U.S. that is still reverberating today.) 

But on the other side of the toy store aisle - across the way from all of the Glo-Worms and My Little Pony dolls and Pound Puppies - you had stuff that seemed, well, just a wee bit outside the domain of juvenalia. Right next to Atari 2600 cartridges based on properties like E.T. and The Empire Strikes Back, there were video games inspired by ultra-violent splatter films like The Evil Dead and raunchy sex comedies like Porky's. Side by side with the hula hoops and Slinkies were startlingly realistic replicas of the machine guns used by Rambo and the A-Team, with some "playsets" more closely resembling the contents of Timothy McVeigh's tool shed than an elementary schooler's toychest. Wedged in between The Karate Kid action figures and plastic WWF pro wrestlers, one could find licensed playthings celebrating everything from a cybernetic assassin cop-killer to a horribly-disfigured, mass murdering child predator. And if you think that's a little age-inappropriate, just wait until you flip on the slate of Saturday morning television programming!

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, there were, at various points in time, kid-centered cartoons based on all of the following, adult-themed licenses: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Police Academy, Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura, Highlander, Conan the Barbarian, Little Shop of Horrors and, god help us, even The Toxic Avenger. Granted, these programs couldn't replicate the gross-out humor, sexual innuendos, and occasional disembowelings of their parent I.P., but they did what they could to soften up and reserve the properties (almost always with a corresponding toyline and video games out the wazoo) to America's consumption-hungry adolescent masses ... which, naturally, makes the existence of the 1988 Robocop cartoon series all the more ironic. 

It may have taken some major liberties with
the source material, but at least they kept in
the part where Eric Foreman's dad shoots
Murphy 40-bazillion times at point blank range.
My adulation for all things Robocop is no secret. Shit, I'll even go as far as to cite Paul Verhoeven's original 1987 film as the single greatest anti-consumerist satire in history, and probably the most palatable cinematic interpretation of Das Kapital that will -- or can ever -- exist. But even if you look beyond Robocop's less kid-friendly components - the dudes being melted by toxic waste, Red Foreman having his trachea ripped open with a metal spike, "bitches, leave," etc. - the central message of the film is that brain dead consumer culture is the root of all societal evil, and that mass marketed anything just stands to make us less happy and less intellectual citizens. So why the hell not repackage that thematic into a TV program for the booger-eater set?

The first Robocop cartoon series - a joint Marvel Productions/AKOM Productions venture - ran for one season in 1988. While the general gist of the Robocop mythos was left intact - the program even began with a toned-down re-imagining of Alex Murphy's execution! - the show made quite a few tweaks here and there, primarily, to expand the toy line ... I mean, in-show universe. While the program certainly didn't live up to the lofty precedent set by its source material, for what it's worth, it wasn't that bad of a little cartoon, and a few of its ideas actually bordered on ingenious. The execution - in more ways than one - may have been flawed, but you at least have to give the writers some points for trying; all in all, had the basic storyline of the show been used as the general basis for the Robo-sequels, Parts 2 and 3 probably would've turned out as way more entertaining movies. 

The pilot episode, titled "Crime Wave," introduces us the series' primary antagonists, a gaggle of criminal mischief-makers named the Vandals who share more than a passing resemblance to the Cretins from the Class of Nuke 'Em High franchise. Their shenanigans begin with a heist of the OCP-branded blood bank - why plasma in Future Detroit is so guldarn valuable, however, the episode never tells us. Carrying laser weapons, the scoundrels tell the po-po to kiss their "big toes" and threaten to blow the building sky high. They set an I.E.D. to go off in 12 minutes (not real time, of course), and here comes Robocop and his sidekick Officer Lewis to shoot the guns out of the bad guys' hands and prevent a few of them from making a getaway in a stereotypical 1980s rape-wagon. Robocop, with eleven seconds to spare, decides to get rid of the explosives by throwing them really high in the air, where the contents safely explode overhead and totally don't send shrapnel raining down on innocent citizens below.

Believe it or not, it does look like the cartoon included the
full frontal female nudity of the source material, though.
After a still exterior jump-cut which appears to feature a poster of a topless woman lets us know we're back at the precinct, Robocop recounts his "prime directives," which irritates the station sergeant who believes OCP never should have made cyborg cops to begin with and that those no-good ruffians wouldn't have even set off the damn dynamite had that walking refrigerator powered by Peter Weller guts not intervened. From there, we hop to an OCP boardroom meeting, where the metal-fisted (literally) Dr. McNamara says that Robocop is causing too much collateral damage and it's time to bring out the old enforcement drones as replacements. Cue the all new ED-260 traffic control guards, which are basically the ED-209 sentries from the first movie, albeit with red and green lights welded onto them. As you'd expect, the unit tends to overreact when people make illegal U-turns, and before long, its rampaging down the streets of the Motor City, machine gunning people for not using their blinkers. 

Following the embarrassing incident, Dr. McNamara comes up with a pretty creative way to save face. Traveling to the local arcade - complete with coin-ops titled Rambo and Cobra - he throws down a briefcase full of cash before the Vandals (it's never explained how they got out of jail for the blood bank heist, however, nor why the fuck they have a robotic wiener dog in their gang) and tells them he'll supply them with all of the high-tech weaponry they need to embark upon a rampage across Detroit. The idea, essentially, is to convince his Omni Consumer Products higher-ups that the crime level in town is so out-of-control that Robocop alone can't handle the volume, thus necessitating the roll-out of those aforementioned ED-260 bots. 

This being a children's cartoon, their mayhem is limited to pretty PG-stuff, like driving dune buggies through department stores and setting teddy bears and Voltron action figures on fire. Still, it's more than enough tomfoolery to rouse the ire of the stereotypical black police chief, who speaks almost entirely in sports metaphors. After inquiring to the whereabouts of Robocop, we learn he is downstairs, having an "upgrade" installed by technician Dr. Tyler, who gets into a brief argument with Lewis, who accuses her firmware patches of wiping the "humanity" out of Robo's brain. 

You know what's sorely missing from today's cartoons? Sociopaths with chainsaws.

The Vandals - now equipped with all sorts of high-end weapons, including electro-shock gloves, chainsaws and even a pair of boots that can cause mini-earthquakes - are causing a ruckus at a shopping mall, and the local police are no match for their, uh, bowling balls. Thankfully, Robocop shows up and uses his expert marksmanship to shoot down a pile of twisted metal to create a makeshift kennel for a cyborg dachshund (no, really), but LOLOOPS! He ends up getting crushed under a pile of rubble, complete with his arm popping off. 

We see that damn exterior department matte painting bumper (the third time this episode!) and Dr. Tyler says Robocop may have to go offline for good. This causes Lewis to kvetch about being responsible for Murphy's second demise. For like, two seconds. 

At an OCP meeting, McNamara (boy, I wonder where that name came from?) shows the suits news clips of the Vandals royally fucking up the mall. Apparently, they've acquired jet-boosted vehicles, which kind of begs the question - couldn't the OCP auditors easily trace all of the money used to fund the crime spree back to McNamara, or is he pulling some Superman III/Office Space secret account shit on us?

Using God knows how much money from God knows what funding streams, the hoodlums have managed to build a giant bulldozer-type weapon, which they use to break into the Federal Reserve and steal gold bars. Interestingly enough, they don't encounter the mysterious oil-drum headed mastermind from The American Dream, which alone makes this cartoon a far more realistic take on central banking and fiat capital. 

A half-powered Robocop shows up, and he's immediately knocked out by a steel beam. Lewis makes the save by tossing a smoke grenade in the bulldozer, which additionally gives Robo some time to recharge his batteries. Assailed by thugs, Robocop is mercilessly set ablaze and chainsawed - which, yeah, isn't exactly something you saw happening to the protagonists in that many other late 1980s cartoons. Eventually, though, he powers up to full capacity and starts tossing thugs around like lawn darts. Using one of those handy, dandy steel beams just lying all over the place, he manages to send the bulldozer operator off-course, retrieve his handgun and with his impeccable sharpshooting skills, make the heavy machinery's gas tank explode. And in true 1980s cartoon fashion, despite all of the wanton carnage going on, not only does no one get killed, no one is even seriously injured

With the crime wave officially halted, OCP reneges on its plans to introduce the new ED-260 models, with a distraught McNamara vowing revenge and to expose Robocop as nothing more than a pile of "nuts and bolts." Back at the office, the shouty Afro-American chief keeps using sports analogies and Dr. Tyler chides Robocop for going back out into battle knowing he could have been damaged beyond repair. She orders him to hit the electro-charger chair thingy ASAP. "You can't keep a good man down," Lewis states, to which Tyler responds "or a good machine." Cue a somewhat out-of-character smirk from Robocop, and this one is all over. 

And Alex Murphy gives that sweet scientist ass his thumbs-up of approval...

All in all, the Robocop cartoon series - which lasted just one season - was somewhere between better than average and almost great. The show was certainly prone to all of the late 1980s cartoon tropes and thematic devices - with hyena-laughing villains knocking off cookie factories and slapstick humor replacing all of the psychopathic bad guys butchering police officers and satirical gore of the first flick - but it nonetheless had its moments of brilliance. Beating I, Robot to the punch by about 15 years, one episode dealt with rampant anti-robot discrimination sweeping Detroit, complete with the appearance of a hooded, cyborg-hating sect that acted, and looked, just like the Ku Klux Klan, while another dealt with Robocop going rogue to take down some politically-untouchable corporate polluters (which, as fate would have it, predicted the mass contamination of Flint, Michigan's water resources almost 30 years in advance.) The series finale even threw one of the biggest curve balls in animated TV history, when it was revealed that the leader of the Vandals was none other than Clarence goddamn Boddicker himself, who, somehow, had managed to survive having his trachea ripped out with a data spike at the tail end of the first Robo-picture. 

Granted, the short-lived 'toon was really nothing more than a shameless excuse to market tie-in action figures, but to be fair, those action figures were pretty bitchin'. I mean, those motherfuckers doubled as cap pistols, and one of the toys sported a Hitler mustache ... sigh, if only I knew where I could've bought those little translucent blocks that were in EVERY toy commercial in the 1980s, I would have been in elementary school heaven. The Robo-mania would die down for awhile, but there was no corresponding toy line or animated revival by the time the somewhat-under-appreciated Robocop 2 hit theaters in 1990. Looking back on it, the '88 series definitely would have lent itself to an awesome - if not impossibly expensive - live-action Robocop sequel. I mean, who WOULDN'T have paid good money to watch Buckaroo Banzai wearing a refrigerator shoot it out with OCP-hired techno-goons with chainsaws and electro-death gloves welded to their hands? That's right, nobody who isn't a goddamn communist, that's who.

Following the box office disaster that was Robocop 3, Alex Murphy and pals were relegated to a crappy, no-budget live-action syndicated series that was redeemed ONLY by the fact that it featured Roddy Piper played a recurring vigilante superhero. The character got a second shot at animated stardom with 1998's Robocop: Alpha Command, which lasted about 40 episodes. Alas, I've never seen any of them and good God, will my girlfriend probably leave me if I told her I needed to invest a full weekend to binge-watching something intended for latchkey children at the beginning of the dotcom boom. 

The fate of this particular Robo-toon? Well, the Wikipedia says it got a limited video release in the early, early '90s, but due to the restrictive nature of the media format, it only included three episodes. The original cartoon ultimately did get a DVD release in the mid-2000s, but it appears it was limited to the U.K. 

So - unless you were one of those rare souls that had the original-syndicated television shows taped on VHS - it was pretty much impossible for us Yanks to watch the program for a good twenty years. Alas, the same way technology saved Alex Murphy from the icy sepulcher, the Intrawebs brought this antiquated bundle of nostalgia back from the dead. Thanks to the miracle of streaming video and Google's relaxed enforcement of copyright law, you can now watch every episode of Robo '88 online for free, anytime you want...

... you know, if you are a criminal and shit. And we all know how Robocop feels about criminals, don't we?


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