M.A.S.K. Unmasked - The Complete Series
By Hervé St-Louis
July 28, 2011 - 00:45
Running Time: 1430 minutes
Release Date: August 9, 2011
Distributors: Shout Factory
M.A.S.K. was one of the core series of 1980s toy-based animated cartoon series on television. Just like G.I. Joes and Transformers, syndicated series was part of a multi-layered campaign that included commercials, comic books and animated television series to get boys to force their loved ones to buy the toys. For fans, M.A.S.K. was about Knight Rider types of secret agents that rode everyday vehicles that transformed into battle vehicles. They fought the evil V.E.N.O.M., which had similar vehicles and special helmets that endowed its owner with super powers.
M.A.S.K. was found by multimillionaire Matt Tracker who somehow recruited other like-minded adventurers who took to fighting V.E.N.O.M., foiling the villains’ ploys every episode. M.A.S.K. was broadcasted between 1985 and 1988. Airplay must have differed because I don’t recall seeing M.A.S.K. play weekday afternoons as is mentioned in the press material. I only recall watching it on Saturday mornings.
I’ve written a lot about 1980s cartoons series in the past. Without them there probably would not be a whole genre of comic books dedicated to nostalgia material and blockbuster films like the Transformers. These cartoons broke the mould from the 1970s and before. The syndicated parts meant that they were probably not financed by television networks. Their costs were completely absorbed by advertising companies and toy makers. In the 1980s several toy companies fought each other in various segments covering preschoolers all the way to tweens. Hasbro was one of the largest sponsor of toys-based animated series. They made G.I. Joes, The Transformers, My Little Pony, Inhumanoids, Jem and the Holograms and Strawberry Shortcake. Kenner was not to be undone with toy adaptations to Knight Rider, the SilverHawks, Sky Commanders, and of course M.A.S.K.
1980s toys and cartoons were interesting in that they frequently had characters, such as supporting and female leads, that were featured in the cartoons, but that did not have toys of their own. M.A.S.K. was no stranger to that, and the two female characters, one on the good guys’ team, one on the bad guys had no vehicles of their own (Gloria Baker and Vanessa Warfield gained toys in latter seasons). However, the non-toy characters were not the only one to not have vehicles. In M.A.S.K., several characters shared the same vehicles or playset. Finally M.A.S.K. had the ever annoying sidekick Scot Trakker, son of Matt Trakker. Scott’s buddy was T-Bob, a robot that could transform into a scooter that was afraid of everything and very annoying.
Towards the end of the first season, corresponding with the release of new action figures and playsets, M.A.S.K. gained new characters that I call the Super Friends’s Village People’s clones. They were all “ethnic” to represent each kid watching the show. We already had the token black guy – Hondo McClean and the token Asian who spoke like Confucius and was very wise – Bruce Sato (They should have just called him Bruce Kato). There was the native one – he looked like a cross between the Super Friends’ Apache Chief and G.I.Joe’s Spirit. There was the Latino guy with a moustache like Geraldo. There was the one guy Calhoun Burns that was either Scottish or Irish. There was even an Indian guy for all the Simpsons' Apu and Johnny Quest's Hadji Singh fans. Finally they covered the one “ethnic” no other toy line had ever covered, just to keep their ass safe (and perhaps because the series was co-produced by a Canadian studio) Jacques LeFleur, the French Canadian lumberjack. Yes there was a Canadian lumberjack called Jacques LeFleur. His name was mix of Canadian hockey player Guy Lafleur and Formula One race car driver Jacques Villeneuve. I’ve never ever seen a toy line-based so politically correct to include a French Canadian in its line up. I don’t know if I should be grateful or annoyed (I'm a French Canadian).
But the real question you’re asking yourself by now, is was the show any good and as it aged well? Here’s the diplomatic answer. There’s a reason we don’t recall M.A.S.K. and that a child of the 1980s I can’t even recall ever seeing Jacques LeFleur anywhere. The show was not good. The animation by DIC, the same guys who gave us Inspector Gadget, the Mysterious Cities of Gold and much more was inferior to what one would see in the Sunbow-produced G.I. Joes cartoon. Then, the cartoon was made to be safe so that no child psychologist could write a scathing essay on how it was detrimental to kids. No one ever got really hurt and tons of people firing lasers could not hit anything. Because the show was so safe, it quickly fell into a formula. V.E.N.O.M. was looking for a new source of power or something. M.A.S.K. was coincidentally in the area. Matt Trakker tells his son to not wander around. Scott invariably wandered around with his pet robot T-Bob, stumbled into an important clue. Meanwhile, Trakker asked his computer to assemble the best team for the given rescue mission and at least 2 minutes of good cartoon time (out of a 22 minutes show) were wasted showing how the helmets were energized by some machine which was never explained in the series. All the M.A.S.K. present around the table were interrupted mid-way between activities in their personal lives. They assembled and went out to kick some V.E.N.O.M. ass. V.E.N.O.M. failed to complete their mission and retreated after having been humiliated by a series of jokes and spoofs made to render the villains idiotic and to make them less threatening to the impressionable minds of kids. There is no changed to this formula at all. All 65 episodes are exactly the same and to tell the truth, I fell asleep in every single episode I watched. This stuff is not good.
I hate saying that M.A.S.K. was a bad television series because part of me really wanted it to be as iconic and fun as G.I. Joes, Transformers or the Thundercats. It’s not. It’s sub-par animation and sub-par storytelling. If you've ever watched Sailor Moon, He-Man or Pokemon, you know how they trick kids into believing they are watching 22 minutes worth of adventure by using the same transformation sequence in every single episode. Even He-Man which had a high level or reused animation did not seem so formulaic. M.A.S.K. is not a good series and it could have been one of those classics, had the producers, writers and animators decided to make it so. Instead, they took a job which was to create a cartoon series to sell an action figure toy line that would not offend anyone, but then that did not matter. The concept of the transforming vehicles and the cool design of the characters and playsets demanded more than the poor job the guys had DIC delivered decades ago. There is nothing to celebrate about the revival of this series. If you have fond memories of it from watching it as a kid, skip it as it will not keep your memories intact.
To add to the injury there are two DVD extras that normally I would have enjoyed. First, we get to see the writers that gave us poor entertainment value when were kids. Although they seemed very disconnected from the show and you ask yourself if they even remembered writing the episodes. Then, there are the comments from kids of the 1980s, just like me, trying to convince the viewer that M.A.S.K. mattered and that it was as cool as G.I. Joes. They did not sound convincing at all. They kept trying to find arguments to make M.A.S.K. seem as cool as the other series, but it felt hollow. There was no real critical look at what worked and what did not work.
The collection itself is well done. The restoration was decent. At the time, M.A.S.K. benefited from the best musical scores by Haim Saban and Shuki Levi. It added tons of quality to the series which would have been poorer without them. For fans who would like to see the return of M.A.S.K. That could very well happen and maybe this release is closely monitored by Hasbro who now owns Kenner. If it's well received, maybe it will translate into an updated toyline or even a live action film. There is a petition by a group of hardcore fans on Twitter that want this to happen (@maskmovie). I would like to join them, but if I based my vote only on the actual episodes in the collected DVD, I would withhold it.
M.A.S.K. had the toy aspect of G.I. Joes and Transformers making it a cool action toy line and a great premise upon which to build a memorable television series. However, the pandering to various ethnic groups and the blind compulsion to make the cartoon as safe and clean as possible doomed it. The bland personality of the main hero Matt Trakker made him as good looking and as boring as Roger Bannon. The annoying Scott Trakker was more annoying than all those scenes with G.I.Joes’ Shipwreck, the Transformer’s Wheelie or Johnny Quest’s Bandit.
Finally, the series is billed as the complete series, but season two's material is owned by another copyrights holder and therefore, about 10 episodes were not included in the set.
M.A.S.K. Unmasked - The Complete Series
M.A.S.K.: The Complete Original Series- on DVD 8/9/11!