My Ten Favourite Saturday Morning Cartoons When Saturday Morning Cartoons Were Still A Thing
Growing up I looked forward to Saturday mornings all week long, especially during the school year. There was no sleeping in on Saturdays for me; I was up and fixing myself a bowl of the sugariest cereal I could get my hands on no later then 7 am. Saturday mornings were serious business and I usually had my cartoon viewing scientifically planned out so I could catch as many animated gems as I could. Saturday mornings complimented my after school viewing perfectly and my weekly ritual of eating assorted junk food in front of the TV at the wee hours every Saturday morning was shared by millions of kids across North America.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Saturday morning cartoons had become extinct. The final nail was driven into the time honoured coffin in 2013 when the CW (the lone holdout among American networks that still aired cartoons on Saturday mornings) finally threw in the towel and dedicated their Saturday morning lineup to family oriented, educational programming (yawn). And even before that, it looked like the CW’s Saturday morning lineup consisted of dubbed anime imports and decade old super hero cartoons.
It was inevitable when you think about it. Saturday morning cartoons were living on borrowed time even before the rise of specialty channels that showed cartoons 24/7, YouTube and streaming services like Netflix where you could watch whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. When the American government began mandating content in the mid 90’s (jerks), Saturday morning’s countdown to extinction began. Still, it was a little sad to see such a cherished childhood tradition surrender to the relentless march of time.
How big were Saturday morning cartoons, you ask? Let’s put it this way, before new shows debuted in September, networks often produced prime time sneak peeks using relatively well-known names from their live action shows. It wasn’t uncommon to see Betty White, Ed Asner or even ALF flogging new Saturday morning cartoons (or returning favourites) before shiny new content hit the airwaves. Because between 7 AM and noon, networks could count on a captive audience of millions they could sell toys, happy meals and candy cigarettes to.
Narrowing this list down to ten turned out to be tougher than I thought, but these were the shows that had me setting my alarm every Saturday morning. Enjoy.
10: Visionaries Knights of the Magical Light (1987): The last stab at turning a Hasbro toy line into an animated hit a la Transformers and G.I. Joe, Visionaries only lasted one 13 episode season (the Marvel comic only lasted six months) and the toys barely made it a year before Hasbro called it quits. Centered around the struggle between the heroic Spectral Knights and the villainous Darkling Lords on the planet Prysmos (where sorcery returned after technology mysteriously failed), it’s high fantasy premise appealed to the fantasy fan in me yet there was still a healthy dose of science fiction as well. The Visionaries were bestowed with mystical totems that could transform them into creatures of magical light that reflected their inner character. The Spectral Knights turned into lions, dolphins and wolves (my personal favourite was Arzon, whose totem was an eagle) while the evil Darkling Lords transformed into sharks, beetles and an assortment of mythological animals.
It would have been interesting to see what it could have done given a little more time, but fret not Visionary fans, IDW comics is resurrecting the franchise in a brand-new comic this December. So brush off that totem and get ready to kick some Darkling Lord ass.
9. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987-88): One Christmas I really cleaned up. Among my Yuletide booty that year was a brand new bike-paid for entirely with Canadian Tire money (that poor, poor cashier)-and the Captain Power Powerjet XT7, a toy that opened up a new and unlimited world of imaginative possibilities.
Taking place on a post apocalytpic Earth where humanity lost the war with the machines, this show was decades ahead of its time. It was the first fully interactive, live action entertainment I know of. Using the toys, kids could actually interact with the show, not just by shooting the bad guys (or the good ones, if you wanted to play on that side of the street), but by getting shot back at as well (three hits in a row and the pilot was ejected from your jet/gun). You could even buy training videos (with some pretty solid animation) to brush up on your marksmanship. While the tech admittedly pales in comparison to today’s app driven entertainment, you have to remember this concept was the first of its kind and it was on a kids show about fighting oppressive robots in the future. This show dealt with plenty of adult themes (it had its own version of the Hitler youth) and had some pretty heavy hitters like J Michael Stracynski handling writing duties (something that would actually contribute to its downfall).
Concerns from parental groups about the “interactive violence,” high production costs and a growing backlash against using Saturday morning fare to sell toys to kids (manufacturer Mattel was hoping Captain Power would replace the cooling He-Man franchise) combined to kill the show after a single season (though legend has it that the scripts for an entire second season had already been completed when the show got the axe). After the only season ended with a cliffhanger (a member of Captain Power’s team sacrificed herself to protect the team after the machines invaded their home base), there’s been no shortage of fans desperate for a reboot thirty years later. You can see why this show earned a spot in my Saturday Morning Hall of Fame.
8. Teknoman (1993): This show was my first taste of anime, and while I never really developed an appetite for Japanese animation, what a first helping. Even though North American audiences got a watered down version of the Japanese original (titled Tekkaman Blade), it was still miles beyond anything we had seen on this side of the Pacific. The animation was totally different (in a good way) and the stories weren’t just action packed, they were also infused with some seriously mature ideas. Self-sacrifice, betrayal and self-discovery made weekly appearances, sometimes all in the same episode. And the price the mysterious yet heroic Slade (who defended Earth from alien invasion as the super hero Teknoman) paid for ultimate victory was incredibly high. In fact the cost was so high many fans actually wondered if it might not have been better if he had died during his final battle against the forces of evil. During the final episode I went from cheering Teknoman on to being sucker punched right in the feels by Slade’s final, undeserving and unfair fate.
Looking back on it, it was pretty solid preparation for dating.
7. Bravestarr (1987-88): The final chapter in the marketing relationship between Mattel and Filmation Studios (Filmation would shutter its doors in 1989), Bravestarr was technically an afterschool school cartoon but I could only catch it on Saturday mornings in my particular neck of the woods. While I was never a fan of westerns, this show’s combination of science fiction and western themes quickly appealed to my blooming and overheated imagination (a healthy dose of aboriginal mysticism didn’t hurt either). Our hero had a number of magical, animal based powers at his disposal; he could summon the strength of the bear, the speed of the puma, the ears of the wolf or the eyes of the eagle with mere words (and every phrase became playground code for sexual innuendo overnight).
For the most part his show was about animated hijinks and selling toys, but it told some pretty ballsy stories for a cartoon based on a largely unsuccessful toy line. One episode dealt with racism and bigotry against indingenus populations while the one that told arch-villain Tex Hex’s origin portrayed him more as a tragic figure than the usual cut and dry bad guy. The first episode I ever saw was about a farm kid who got addicted to drugs and how his eventual death by overdose affected the entire community. That did more to scare me away from drugs than any lecture from my parents or anything I saw during prime time.
6. X-Men Evolution (2000-2003): I was never a fan of the 90’s X-Men cartoon. It was a pretty unpopular opinion even before you factor in the fact that I was a comic book addict and have always had a soft spot for the Children of the Atom. Try as I might (and I tried really, really hard), I just couldn’t get into it. But a few years after that show went dark, an X-Men show came along I could get into.
I found X-Men Evolution to be a superior show across the entire board. Not only was the animation, the writing and the dialogue heads and shoulders above the 90’s incarnation, but so was its grasp of the characters. Evolution de-aged the X-Men (returning many of them to high school) and while it played it fast and loose with continuity (one of the reasons a lot of X-Men fans actually hated it), it understood the characters far better than it’s predecessor. Storm didn’t sound like she was a bad Elizabethan actor constantly quoting Shakespeare, Wolverine became a legit bad ass again (I don’t think he ever won a fight in the 90’s show) and Professor X was finally something other than a frantic, emotionally needy hover dad. And there was actual growth and transformation among the characters-heroes and villains alike. While this was a polarizing show among comic book fans, it re-energized my interest in Marvel’s Merry Mutants and kept me coming back for more every week.
5. Young Justice (2011-2013): You may have noticed that I like comic books and super heroes. The themes of courage, of power often tragically balanced with reluctant responsibility and of heroes standing against the endless dark (often knowing they are doomed to eventually lose) always appealed to something deep inside me. And Young Justice was one of the few shows that plucked each and every one of those narrative nerves.
The show focused on the usually unheralded likes of Robin, Superboy and Kid Flash (among others) and it was a nice change of pace watching the icons take a back seat to their younger protégés. There was genuine pathos in watching the sidekicks struggle with teenage angst and balancing their lives as super heroes in training while trying to forge their own identities and step out of the shadows of their elders. This show was sophisticated, mature and not only did it take its subject matter seriously but it took its audience seriously as well (whether you were in elementary school, high school or university-shut up don’t judge me). I genuinely can’t wait for next year’s resurrection.
4. Dungeons and Dragons (1983-1985): CBS took a HUGE chance on this show back in the 80’s. At the time, D&D was one of the biggest scapegoats for everything that was wrong with the world. For a while it was neck and neck with heavy metal music when it came to explaining the corruption of the world’s youth and for the fist part of the decade, anything D&D related was labeled satanic on the evening news, banned from schools and demonized from the pulpit. In case you think this is mere hyperbole, the United States was gripped by a corresponding wave of Satanic paranoia so strong people were actually going to jail.
So for a major network to air a Dungeons and Dragons cartoon on Saturday mornings while Congress was trying to pass laws banning all role-playing games was pretty bold to say the least. But there I was, every Saturday morning, watching a gang of suburban teenagers trying to find a way home after being transported to the magical world of Dungeons and Dragons by an inter-dimensional roller coaster. Like plenty of other shows on this list, Dungeons and Dragons developed a cult following in the years since. Apparently a script was written for an official series finale that would have seen the kids return home after battling the evil Venger and other assorted monsters for three seasons. You can find it online if you poke around the Internet long enough but I prefer to remember Hank, Eric and the rest of the gang wielding their enchanted weapons and slinging their spells in the pursuit of justice. And for the record, this show didn’t attract to me to fantasy and role-playing games nearly as much as the hysteria it inspired in the adults around me. And I have yet to perform any ritual human sacrifice or cannibalism (as a related side note, Dungeons and Dragons was the highest rated cartoon during its time slot). Just goes to show . . .
3. Professional Wrestling: Yes, yes, I know, professional wrestling isn’t a cartoon, but technically neither was Captain Power and you let me get away with that one. And besides, when I was a kid professional wrestling was essentially a cartoon come to life. The wrestlers were all decked out in garish costumes, face paint and spandex. Half resembled real life super heroes and villains and the other half had gimmicks that revolved around jobs or professions. There were millionaires, bodyguards, psychotic clowns, morticians, televangelists, prison guards, gangsters and barbers to name a mere few. You name a profession and there was a wrestler pretending to be one every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Back in the day, you could catch professional wrestling (mostly the then WWF) virtually any time during the weekend. And when I discovered WCW was broadcast at midnight on Saturdays, my wrestling smorgasboard was complete.
Most of my favourites reflected my growing taste for the fantastic and the supernatural. There was the Undertaker, the Legion of Doom, Sting and my all time fave, The Ultimate Warrior. But while I was drawn to wrestlers with heavy fantasy overtones, there were was still plenty of room for the likes of Brett “The Hitman” Hart, Randy “The Macho Man” Savage, Lex Luger, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and The Steiner Brothers (despite being a hero only type of fan, I was never really a fan of the Hulkster). Looking back, it’s tragic how many names on that list have passed away, mostly through unnatural causes and all far too soon. As a kid, it was impossible to look beyond the shiny surface of the spectacle and see the very real toll taken on the people in the costumes.
2. Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006): This was perhaps the greatest super hero cartoon ever. This entry actually combines two shows; Justice League (which revolved around the big seven of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter) and Justice League Unlimited (which saw the roster expand to include virtually every hero in the DC universe, many of them introduced in the Justice League incarnation of the show). JLU was the ultimate evolution of the artistic and narrative style begun years early by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm with Batman: The Animated Series and we haven’t arguably seen a show of this scale and caliber since.
In fact, if actual comics could duplicate the secret to JLU’s success, they’d be much better off. This show told stories that spanned time and space, with its heroes fending off alien invasion, armies of super villains and evil gods while it also fit in plenty of small, intimate stories with humour and tenderness. Personal relationships were forged, tested and broken. But even when the good guys got some dirt on them, they never lost sight of what it meant to be a hero (did you hear that Zack Snyder?). And its Christmas episode is one of the best Yuletide themed Saturday morning cartoons ever made. Smart, sometimes snarky and always fun, JLU stands as a hallmark of quality animation and storytelling.
The Real Ghostbusters(1986-1991): Based on the movies, this show defined what Saturday morning cartoons were all about. Smart, witty and always entertaining, The Real Ghostbusters is the one show that always comes to mind when I reminice about the Saturday mornings of my youth.
One of the reasons this show appealed to me so much was because of the imagination behind it. All the shows on this list had plenty of that going for them, but The Real Ghostbusters (fun fact, the reason “Real” was in the title was to help differentiate it from and take a jab at Filmation’s much less known movie based cartoon The Ghostbusters) pushed plenty of boundaries, arguably more than Dungeons and Dragons did. Because when I think back, there was some pretty scary stuff in this show considering it was aired at 10 AM on Saturdays. The guys went up against The Boogey Man, The Sandman, the original spirit of Halloween, Trolls, demonic versions of themselves and Ebeneezer Scrooge. And that was just the first season.
And while the show could have gone the Mickey Mouse/Looney tunes route depicting demonic monsters, it went full bore instead. The Boogey Man looked like he stepped right out of the book of Revelations, an elemental demon that turned the animals of New York against the city looked like he could give the dragons in Game of Thrones nightmares and the animators spared no details when ghouls often discarded their human masks and morphed into their true form. Looking back I’m shocked they got away with half the stuff they did.
And I ate it all up.