As with The Characters That Time Forgot (which you can find here) and The Pilots That Time Forgot (which you can find here), this affectionate look at some of the most memorable inadvisable extra-curricular characters added in to animated spinoffs from well-known franchises was originally written for a sci-fi/fantasy fan news site. Unfortunately the site closed before it could be published, and it eventually ended up sneaking out almost unnoticed on my old website, ultimately drawing about as much attention as The Invisible Girl. Even when she was stood next to H.E.R.B.I.E..
Although this is a reasonably light-hearted piece, there is also a fairly serious argument behind it. Like it or not, entire generations grew up thinking that these now-detested characters and so many more, from Scrappy-Doo to that talking green rabbit in the Star Wars comic strips, were a legitimate part of whatever beloved franchise everyone is getting all uppity and pernickety about now; in fact for many, these spinoffs will have been their first and most formative exposure to it all. Few things irritate me more than the race to discard, belittle and sneer at silly but harmless ancillary elements introduced in the days before ‘branding’ was even a vague thought at the back of the mind of someone tasked with making more millions on top of even more millions in a bid to pointlessly prove you are somehow better or ‘purer’ at liking something than everyone else. Seven year olds watching BBC1 in 1979 had no idea that Battle Of The Planets was edited down from a more serious and adult Anime series and that the comedy robots had been inserted to cover for the removal of less savoury material (and they didn’t always succeed at that anyway; you can hear much more about that here); no matter how much it may have been reworked to suit the post-Star Wars sensibilities of Western audiences, it was still a thrilling glimpse of a whole other style of animation and science fiction that there was otherwise pretty much no access to. Bat-Mite, Orko and Mr. Cool were simply funny characters that got things wrong. Extremely young Marvel obsessives were frankly just happy to see their favourite characters on screen, and if they’d brought an unfamiliar robot and a literally hot woman with them then that was all the better; at the end of the day, it’s more Fantastic Four. It doesn’t just end with animated spinoffs aimed at children either – whether it’s the Star Wars Holiday Special or The Laughing Gnome, or even the pre-WandaVision Marvel Cinematic Universe television series (which you can hear me getting very exercised about here), none of this is in any way preventing you from enjoying whatever it is you like about whatever it is, and snorting at other people for not minding it is not quite the ‘cool’ look that so many seem to imagine it is. A lot of this is really not worth thinking too deeply about, and it’s a fair bet that those shouting the loudest about how The Darkhold in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Runaways and Cloak And Dagger can’t be the one that Agatha Harkness has because x and y and blah would snigger at the idea of anyone fretting over why the spelling on the scrapyard gates changed between An Unearthly Child and Remembrance Of The Daleks, let alone trying to figure out whether Prince Harry’s First Quiz Book is a legitimate part of Not The Nine O’Clock News canon. Much like how some will have discovered The Smiths when they had five members – which I’m going to get bloody ‘corrections’ about now of course – this is how some are always going to see the ‘Expanded Universe’ and there’s really not much that anyone can do about it. They either like 7-Zark-7 and 1-Rover-1 and don’t really care, or just don’t care full stop. Oh and it’s called Boss Cat. So there.
As long as there have been animated spinoffs, there have been performers or writers that wouldn’t play ball, rights complications that required an entire battalion of irons to iron out, interfering network executives who insisted that a cutesy semi-invisible tiger cub was essential for appealing to ‘the kids’, and many, many other unspeakably tedious factors that necessitated the removal of a popular established character and their replacement with someone – or, crucially, something – else. Here’s ten of the most… well, they’re just ten of them really, aren’t they?
Lieutenant M’Ress from Star Trek: The Animated Adventures
Frequently overlooked in the ever-expanding ‘Trek Universe’, Star Trek: The Animated Series was the first follow-on of them all, produced for NBC by Filmation. Remember that name, you’ll be hearing it a lot. Most of the original cast were reunited in the voiceover studio, but budgetary restrictions prevented a full complement of Enterprise crew from being brought on board, and something have to give. That ‘something’ was hapless Ensign Pavel Chekov, although Walter Koenig proved to be slightly less hapless when he arranged a deal that allowed him to write for the series instead; which presumably ended up costing them almost as much. Chekov’s replacement was the newly-invented Lieutenant M’Ress, an orange-skinned, yellow-eyed and purring-voiced Felis Sapiens from the conveniently named planet Caitia, who in a possibly Koening-precipitated spot of economic casting was voiced by doubling-up Nurse Christine Chapel actress Majel Barrett. Although occasionally called on to capitalise on her feline characteristics, notably calming the noisy cat-like fear-projecting Moauvian Waul or ripping open unattended binbags and then acting surprised when the contents spilled out all over her, M’Ress was normally to be found standing at the back doing very little. That said, she was still more fortunate than her similarly invented contemporary Lieutenant Arex; a James Doohan-voiced six-limbed oddity who did even less. M’Ress would later appear in a couple of spin-off novels and in a long-running comic strip, where she was initially reinvented as green-skinned, less lion-faced and more attractive than her small screen equivalent, alongside a blonde Uhura and a black Sulu.
N’Kima from Tarzan, Lord Of The Jungle
It wasn’t just humans that could cause contractual headaches for animation studios. When Filmation turned their attention to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle-dwelling creation a year or two later, they had little trouble getting the rights to the vine-swinger himself, but getting his most famous sidekick to play along was a different matter. Cheeta the Chimpanzee had not in fact been part of the original literary blueprint, but made his name as an integral part of the series of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan ‘yell’: uninspired), and went on to secure a further starring role in the action-packed waste-paper-basket-title-sequenced late sixties television version starring Ron Ely (Tarzan ‘yell’: getting there). By the time that Filmation came calling, though, the superannuated supporting actor had retired from showbiz; quite how he could have been coaxed into a recording studio anyway is a matter of some debate, but intellectual property rights prevented Filmation from using Cheeta in any way, shape or form if the real one wasn’t involved. Wary of invoking a lawsuit, producer Lou Schimer took the slightly less legally dubious course of using an equally intelligent monkey named N’Kima, loosely modelled on a similarly named simian that appeared in the original novels, and voiced by Schimer himself alongside star Robert Ridgely (Tarzan ‘yell’: much-imitated operatic yodel, seemingly fashioned so it would fit neatly over the bombastic closing theme without missing a beat). N’Kima’s function was much like that of some sort of K9/Sonic Screwdriver hybrid, constantly alerting his human master to hidden dangers with a startled look and a high-pitched chirrup, and forever turning up in the nick of time, often accompanied by a cavalry-esque assortment of elephants and other ‘hard mates’ to save the day at the end of the latest logic-taxing skirmish with aliens, ice monsters and giant lizards.
H.E.R.B.I.E. The Robot from The New Fantastic Four
With the success of The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (which you can hear more about here), the lack of success of Doctor Strange and the nobody’s still quite sure of how popular it was Captain America ringing in their ears and indeed tills, The Human Torch, better known as one quarter of veteran Marvel comics combo The Fantastic Four, was next on CBS’ proto-Marvel Cinematic Universe radar. There was only one drawback to this plan – it wasn’t until all the contracts had been signed that it emerged that Marvel were planning to make a Fantastic Four cartoon series in conjunction with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. As a result they were unable to use The Human Torch in the series, and – sidestepping the fact that many other characters such as She-Hulk, Medusa, Power Man and, erm, She-Thing had occasionally deputised for errant Fantastic Four-ers – the producers devised instead a cutesy maintenance robot called Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-Type, Integrated Electronics, or H.E.R.B.I.E. for short, who did little bar operate equipment and perform mildly comic household tasks with his extendable limbs. H.E.R.B.I.E. was subsumed into ‘proper’ Fantastic Four comic continuity shortly afterwards, with a storyline which ended with him self-destructing in a noble bid both to save his human cohorts and to spare television viewers from any threatened revivals. Meanwhile The Human Torch never got past the drawing board.
Firestar from Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends
The Human Torch was still supposedly ‘in development’ as late as 1981, scuppering plans for him to feature in yet another animated series. Throwing decades worth of established Marvel continuity right out of the window, Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends purported to chronicle the college days of Peter Parker, when he attended the oddly named Empire State University and ‘roomed’ with The X-Men’s Iceman Bobby Drake. The vacant room in their dorm was originally to have been occupied by none other than Johnny Storm, but due to the rights issue he was hastily replaced with Firestar. Effectively a female Human Torch in all but name, Firestar had essentially the same powers except that she was able to retain her human appearance when Flaming On. Born plain old Angelica Jones, Firestar’s powers derived from her ability to harness microwave radiation from the atmosphere, and – from the look of the transformation sequence seen in the shows – also allowed her to turn her hair a vivid shade of red and undergo a substantial increase in bra size. There was also the occasional hint that she was enjoying some sort of romantic fling with Iceman, although we’d put money on the sex being lukewarm. Unlike most of the others on this list, Firestar did go on to enjoy a successful transition to comic book form and in time became a much-loved Marvel character. Also Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends had an ace squiggly synth-festooned theme tune. Stitch that, ‘purists’!
Veenie And Marion from Partridge Family 2200 A.D.
The jury’s still out on why anyone would have considered an animated Partridge Family spinoff to be something that the universe actually needed in the first place, but consider they did, and a handful of Hanna-Barbera sponsored episodes transplanting Shirley and her overfreckled singing clan into a never-explained Jetsons-esque World Of Tomorrow did limp out before being abruptly cancelled mid-season. David Cassidy and Shirley Jones declined to become involved with their cartoon incarnations, but ‘the kids’ all lent their variable performing talents to the soundtrack, yet even with all of the original characters on board (including the dog), the producers still felt that there was something missing. Thankfully they didn’t just reach straight for Ricky Segall, the irritating squeaky-voiced sheepdog-resembling brat brought in to ‘enliven’ the later episodes of the original sitcom, and instead opted to give Keith and Laurie a couple of alien school chums, Venusian Veenie and Martian Marion. As cartoon aliens go they were pretty nondescript looking, resembling little more than recoloured human characters with antennae affixed, and indeed barring Marion’s tendency to levitate when overemotional their actual characters were little different from those of the average cartoon teenager’s pal. As such, they completely failed to add anything to a series that was in dire need of an added something, rendering the whole enterprise a pale shadow of the original. Just be glad that they never got to join in with the singing.
Bat-Mite from The New Adventures Of Batman
This is a strange one. Bat-Mite, a sort of Batman-costumed imp thing whose primary function was to try and help the Dynamic Duo out but invariably end up making things worse – and to blush when kissed by Batgirl revealing a pair of heart-festooned boxer shorts in the process – was a prominent regular in Filmation’s The New Adventures Of Batman and bore all the hallmarks of being an ill-fitting oddity that had been thought up by the producers to add a bit of comic relief. Thorough investigation of Bat-Lore, however, reveals that he did in fact have a secure grounding in the Caped Crusader’s comic strip adventures, as some sort of interdimensional Batman fan who occasionally popped up to watch his heroes at work. Thus it was that in the true tradition of Rupert Bear’s child-frightening twig-fashioned cohort Raggerty, the producers simply spotted this minor character and decided that they would work well within the confines of this new adaptation. Nonetheless, it remains the case that most people’s only contact with Batmite was through his cartoon-assisted moment in the spotlight. Where was Ace The Bat-Hound?
7-Zark-7 AND 1-Rover-1 from Battle Of The Planets
We’ve all heard the story a million times before; American distributor buys Japanese animated series originally aimed at adults and re-edits it to remove the more violent and explicit elements though you still saw Princess’ knickers in the opening titles and to disguise the fact that the main villain was a hermaphrodite and that all the stories were actually set on Earth and that the metal bird thing that the main good guy threw originally inflicted nasty slashing wounds on enemy troops rather than just making them sort of just look upwards and go ‘a-a-aaaaaa’ and whacks on a theme tune that sounds like a seventies BBC Sports theme having a fight with a disco record and millions of Anime/Manga fans pull grimacing faces for ever more (and you can hear much more about how ‘grubby’ Battle Of The Planets was in Looks Unfamiliar here). Anyway, most of those who spit and roll their eyes whenever Battle Of The Planets is mentioned didn’t have the faintest idea that Ninja Gatchaman Special Team Lucky Best Bear or whatever it was called even existed when they watched and enjoyed the adventures of G-Force as youngsters. With that in mind, please join us as we afford some long overdue respect to the one original element that the Americans did introduce. To cover for the shortfall in running time caused by the re-editing, not to mention explain some of the gaping resultant plotholes, in came R2D2-aping robot advisor 7-Zark-7 and his equally mechanical pet dog, 1-Rover-1. Although their primary function was to sound suitably grim and concerned whilst reacting to Spectra’s henchmen closing in on our heroes and knocking Keyop to the floor (occasioning him to yelp, as ever, ‘a-a-aaaaaa’), they served a neat dual purpose by being permitted to indulge in the odd spot of comedy banter, much of this deriving from 1-Rover-1’s ability to propel himself through the air by wagging his tail very quickly. They also enjoyed the occasional visit from G-Force themselves, in a rarely-seen ‘badly drawn’ incarnation. You can keep your eighty-six volumes of the ‘Akinakama Robot-Jei’ series – along with the fabled ‘Firey Phoenix’ and the brief flash of Princess’ knickers in the opening titles, the bolted-on robots were one of the main reasons for tuning in to the Buzzfax-bookended epic, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.
Orko from He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe
There were only about three or four figures seen in the original TV-am-straddling advert for Masters Of The Universe (“you’ll never win!” – “oh yes I will!”), but within a very short space of time the range increased exponentially, to the point where there were sufficient characters to spill out of Castle Grayskull and into a half-hour animated advert of their very own. Beast-Man, Ram-Man, Aqua-Man, Man-E-Faces and Hordak and The Evil Horde (about whom you can hear more in Looks Unfamiliar here) were all called into service to pad out the cast list, and even notorious ‘blue He-Man’ ripoff figure Faker put in the odd appearance here and there. There was one character, though, that had not in fact previously appeared in plastic form, and was created by Filmation to provide that all-important comedy element. A red-robed hovering wizard-type thing from the planet Trolla, Orko was gainfully employed as the resident court jester-stroke-not very good magician at Castle Grayskull, and was one of the few (along with The Sorceress and Man-At-Arms, as anyone who can recite the opening narration from memory will attest) who knew of Prince Adam’s secret identity as He-Man. Such was Orko’s unusual level of popularity – despite breaking all the rules for seamless integration of a new not-from-the-original character, he somehow seemed to catch on – that Mattel eventually gave in to public demand and released an Orko figure. Back to Snake Mountain with the lot of you.
Mr. Cool and Cupcake from Fonz And The Happy Days Gang
We could spend all day listing all of the eight million spinoffs from Happy Days, but one of the most well-remembered was this peculiar Hanna-Barbera offering which reunited the voices of all of Richie Cunningham’s diner-based gang bar Anson ‘Potsie’ Williams. For reasons best known to themselves, Arthur Fonzarelli and his pals embarked on a Wolfman Jack-narrated journey through time, trying to get back to 1950’s Milwaukee with only newly-endowed psuedo-superpowers to assist them; The Fonz with an amped-up version of his ‘click fingers to make things happen’ schtick, Richie with an ability to charm any passing female into helping them, and Ralph Malph with, erm, an inexhaustible supply of smoke bombs. Accompanying them on their travels were Mr Cool, a gruff-voiced Comedy Dog with a limited vocabulary and apparent canine speech impediment (“Right Ronzie!”), and a Girl From The Future(TM) apparently named Cupcake. How anyone could slot them into established Happy Days canon is something that, frankly, we’d pay good money to see. Mr Cool went on to join Fonzie in jumping ship towards mind-hurting cartoon-spinoff-from-a-cartoon-spinoff-from-a-live-action-spinoff Laverne And Shirley In The Army With The Fonz. No, that’s not a joke.
Stan and Ollie from Laurel And Hardy
Stan and Ollie make this list because ‘Laurel’ and ‘Hardy’ as seen in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series – as memorably and wearily recounted in Looks Unfamiliar here – bear even less relation to their cinematic inspirations than The Robonic Stooges. Wags would doubtless contend that this was because the animated versions of the bowler-sporting duo were actually funny, yet not only did the plotlines of these shorts bear little relation to Lucky Dog or Hats Off, the voices didn’t even sound like the real Stan and Ollie. More inexplicably still, the opening titles see the screen split into four boxes showing shows a variety of clips of vaguely authentic-seeming Laurel And Hardy-styled antics, such as ‘Stan’ opening a window and knocking ‘Ollie’ off a ladder, flying a collapsing biplane, being chased by a giant alligator and so on (well, that did say ‘vaguely’), along with the decidedly less explicable sight of ‘Laurel’ looking alarmed whilst ‘Hardy’ flaps his arms and flies around the room, exactly like what happened in all of their films. The cartoon’s one saving grace is that its mere existence never fails to infuriate ironically humourless hardcore fans of the duo.
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You can find lots more about non-canonical off-brand genre mayhem in my book Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Well, I’ll go halves with Firestar on one.
Battle Of The Planets – 7-Zark-7 and 1-Rover-1 and all – features in my rundown of The Sci-Fi That Time Forgot, which you can find here.
Martin Belam wearily recalled the Laurel And Hardy cartoon in Looks Unfamiliar here, while Rae Earl recoiled at the thought of ‘grubby’ Battle Of The Planets here. He-Man’s even more obscure compatriots The Evil Horde featured in Looks Unfamiliar with Pete Prodge here.
There’s more canon-confounding Spider-antics in It’s Good, Except It Sucks on The Amazing Spider-Man here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.