Saturday, June 2, 2007

Thundarr the Barbarian

On an occasional Saturday morning I’ll share some of my favorite kids’ television shows. Today, we start with Thundarr the Barbarian. The show only lasted 21 episodes over two seasons (1980-82), but many of my friends still remember this being the coolest cartoon of that era.

Thundarr is set on post-apocalyptic Earth still suffering the ravages wrought by a “runaway planet” in the distant time of 1994. Two thousand years later, wizards employ sorcery and “super science” to terrorize the descendants of the catastrophe. Fortunately Thundarr the Barbarian and his friends Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel (who looks pretty hot in her swimsuit) enjoy nothing more than helping strangers and fighting those awful wizards. So they ride horses across the burned and desolate world, having adventures and seeing the sights.

The show was a fairly blatant rip-off hybrid of Star Wars and a host of sword-and-sorcery stories like Conan the Barbarian, but I didn’t mind. Thundarr made up for that sacrilege through its clever conceit of showing bits and pieces of the old world as appearing strange and mystical to our heroes. Thus Manhattan is called “Manhat,” a poster for Jaws is confused for navigational marker, and even the name “Ookla” comes from an ancient citadel of learning: UCLA. As Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla journey from place to place, viewers are rewarded with tantalizing hints to their locations: Isn’t that Mount Rushmore? Doesn’t that resemble LA? I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being introduced to a kind of historical perspective later named by William Gibson as the search for “semiotic ghosts.”

The interpersonal dynamic between Princess Ariel and Thundarr the Barbarian always intrigued me too. Even though Ariel seemed so much smarter than Thundarr, she still always followed his headlong charges into battle:
Thundarr: What’s wrong Ariel?

Ariel: You mean you’re not wondering about . . . what kind of danger we may be riding into?

Thundarr: Why wonder? When the danger comes, we will face it!

Ariel: Can’t argue with that. My mind is now at ease.
Sounds like sarcasm, right? But you wouldn't have thought that by listening to the show. 80s-era gender roles were rarely challenged by this cartoon. Thundarr, dumb as a rock, always had to save Ariel. And both she and Ookla had no problem heading the commands of the muscled man and his “fabulous sunsword.” Watching the show at such a young age, I must admit their relationship made perfect sense to me.

I suppose my favorite part of Thundarr was its introduction that depicted volcanoes and tidal waves wrecking the cities of earth. To a twelve-year old boy, those scenes were pretty cool. I remember thinking they were a little scary too: “Can they show that on children’s television?” I wondered. Check it out for yourself. Oh, and if you happen to be chatting with someone in their late thirties, try out one of these phrases -- “Lords of light!,” “Demon Dogs!,” or “Ariel, Ookla, Ride!” If you then see a broad dopey smile, you’ve just met another fan of Thundarr the Barbarian.



Learn More:

Under the Broken Moon role-playing game: a frighteningly detailed overview of Thundarr's world.

3 comments:

Zaki said...

Wow, what are the odds? Literally JUST YESTERDAY I was on YouTube and thought to myself, "Hmm, I wonder if they've got THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN on here..."

They did, naturally, and I saw the show for the first time in more than twenty years. I gotta admit, for all the hackneyed and hijacked elements, it really took me back, and kinda made me wish there were more shows like this today. Scary and a little challenging.

Then again, maybe that's just me looking through those rose-colored glasses. Still, you gotta love the trademark designs for the show by the legendary Jack Kirby.

Regardless, I really enjoyed this write-up. It couldn't have been more perfectly-timed if you'd planned it that way.

Andrew Wood said...

Wow, that IS pretty freaky timing! I'm glad you enjoyed the write-up.

Dan M said...

I was wondering about old 80's cartoons and there it was "Thundarr the Barbarian"
and I watched one and just like that I was almost 30 years younger sitting on a big gold couch in my pj's with a monster bowl of fruit loops watching saturday morning cartoons. Wow what a cool thing I used to look forward to all week.