Ah, the fabulous, freewheeling 1980s, a time when nothing was off limits, a time when a company could take a decades-old toy and give it new life by creating a cartoon to promote the toy. Throw in a few public service announcements about avoiding strangers, getting out of the water during a thunderstorm, and the right way to escape from a burning home and you could almost call the series educational and acting towards the betterment of humanity. Sly? Maybe. Misleading? Perhaps. Pure marketing genius? Absolutely. Plus, the show could be just plain good fun, as it was with G.I. Joe, a series which is now being released – at least in part – to DVD. Currently available for purchase is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero Season 1.1, a four-DVD set which features the first 22 episodes (some of which were originally broadcast as three different multi-episode story arcs).
The storylines in the series tend to be relatively simplistic – Cobra, led by Cobra Commander, has come up with a nefarious and deadly plot for world domination. The one group that can stand up to Cobra is "America's daring, highly trained, special mission force," G.I. Joe. The good guys, led by Duke, appear poised to fail, allowing Cobra to win, right up until the Joes manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, save the world, and send Cobra scurrying away with their tails between their legs. It's an age-old story, but it's a good one and it works here, especially as the audience it's geared towards is a young one.
The real standout in the series isn't the stories, it's the characters, and it ought to be, as the show was designed to sell the characters. Each one is distinctive and colorful, particularly Cobra's bad guys – Cobra Commander himself, Destro, Baroness, Major Bludd, Zartan (granted, he's semi-freelance, but he's a bad guy), The Crimson Twins, and Storm Shadow among others. It's not that there aren't a load of fun good guys with over-the-top personalities – perhaps Roadblock and Shipwreck chief among them – but the bad guys are just more fun, even if one is just rooting against them.
While those looking for Serpentor or Sgt. Slaughter may be disappointed to find that they're not present in the set (those characters didn't appear until season two of the series, and the full series is due out on DVD soon), there is still plenty of enjoyment to be culled from this season. Of the multi-episode arcs, the best may be the "Pyramid of Darkness" plotline, which features a Cobra plan to put massive cubes in the four corners of the Earth which, when combined with a laser in outer space, form an pyramid under which nothing electrical will work. It is a completely typical plot – Duke even gets captured in it (Duke seems to get captured on a regular basis) – but the inclusion of the Star Trek Tribble-esque Fatal Fluffies really puts it over the top.
The animation in the series is typical 1980s cartoon – bright and colorful and none too detailed or complicated. The prints that appear on the DVDs themselves are good but not perfect – some bits of noise are certainly present. The multi-episode arcs are each watchable as single pieces so the credits don't have to be watched again, but every episode still includes all the to- and from-commercial bumpers which, while fun in a nostalgic sort of way at first, quickly become old.
In terms of special features, the discs include the ever-famous "Knowing is Half the Battle" PSAs, a multi-part discussion with writer Ron Friedman, Hasbro G.I. Joe toy commercials, a presentation from the 1963 Toy Fair (where G.I. Joe was introduced), and a printable script for one episode.
Is it just my being nostalgic for the days I used to race home to watch G.I. Joe or does this 20-plus year old series still have some life in it? The storylines are easy to follow, the good versus evil battle absolutely classic, and the characters colorful. Nostalgia may play a small factor in my enjoying the series, but even those with no prior experience (if they're of the right age) should find a lot to like in this series. And, with the new movie on its way, there are probably even semi-related toys that can be purchased easily again.