Category Archives: Guilty Pleasures

Demon Dogs! The Guilty Pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian

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Demon Dogs! The Guilty Pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian

Aaand tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1994.

Yes, in 1977 Star Wars blew our minds, but we also had Saturday mornings where shows were hit or miss. Many of us were a captive audience for the sake of catching the good stuff like Superfriends, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (more on that show later if you behave yourselves), and Thundarr the Barbarian.

Thundarr left the deepest imprint upon my head. Perhaps the ferocious and bold inventiveness of the show is what drew me in, but it also taught crucial lessons about loyalty, uniqueness as strength, standing up to oppression, and learning from your mistakes (without judgement). The show was also the king of the cliffhangers.

Thundarr plays marvelously with archetypes–the friendship of Thundarr-Ookla parallels with Gilgamesh-Enkindu, and the third character Princess Ariel as advisor and wisecracking sage corresponds with the powerful but independent Merlin. There was never overt sexual tension between this trio of wanderers–this was a show for tweens, after all–but the unwavering friendship between the three principal characters was encouraging for kids to see, because no matter who they ended up fighting and how insurmountable the obstacle, they left no one behind, regardless of gender or species. It was a good lesson in friendship for kids–stand up to bullies, and the struggle gives you strength.

The show is rich in still deeper thematic content–renewal. The world isn’t dying–it frickin’ died, from natural disaster (the runaway planet is a bit liberal in its hard-scientific plausibility), but two millennia later we rise phoenix-like into–well–you know (or you should know) the opening quote, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery.

The familiar sites of the old world–The Statue of Liberty, The Hollywood Sign, The New York Public Library–these also immersed the viewers, rooting them in the familiar world while also challenging us to imagine a possible future, albeit shattered, with less comforts but much higher adventure and excitement. It was a worthwhile trade-off if one could fall in with the right crowd.

I remember this show as a celebration of diversity as strength rather than  weakness, of one’s actions being the determining factor of one’s fate and growth of character, and best of all, it celebrated the underdogs–the outsiders–as the true heroes of the healing landscape, and the fight against oppression (most often on the behalf of others under siege) seemed to make Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel stronger with every viewing.

It all comes down to empathy, emotional identification. I know that sounds naive and whimsical, but in a world where willful ignorance is prized and rewarded over justice and duty, I’ll take the escapism of this show any day of the fucking week. Case closed, bring on that runaway planet and split the moon evenly in half.

 

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

Monsters.

So when my dad died I was five years old, and had precious little context to work with. I remember feeling numb, confused, unable to process the real implication of what it meant to lose a parent whom I’d barely gotten to really know. He’d been been sitting in his recliner one moment, and was gone the next, never to return. I stared out the window a lot, and watched the vultures congregate along the treeline ringing our house in Wauwinet (Nantucket, Massachusetts). I liked the vultures. They were the first birds I met. Carrion birds.

This memory stuck with me, however–my dad had told me something interesting about the image of King Kong breaking through his huge gate on Skull Island, where the natives scatter and Fay Wray, the intended sacrifice, writhes enchained, terrified by the “monster” raging in front of her. I identified with Kong immediately, because of what my dad had said: “He’s more afraid of them than they are of him.” And but hey let’s circle back to Ms. Wray a second here. The mere sight of this beauty enchants the beast, comforts him, allays his fear but does not compromise his strength (as we  see later in the jungles). This may have been the origins on my identification as female, but also the root of my blonde envy (I’m brunette). Here I took away a little something from both parties–identification with the beast, raging and powerful, and with beauty–passive, nurturing, forward-thinking, and yet somehow fateful, or even malignant. I think this is what one would call a paradox.

The recent passing of Keith Emerson (1944-2016) evoked memories of my initial gateway into a world of wonder when I needed it the most. Creature Double Feature [on Channel 56, for Boston] used the Emerson Lake & Palmer track “Toccata” [1973] as the ongoing theme song, and their creative edit of that percussive, diving synth tone made you think you were not only hearing a warning of a impending danger, but also an alien siren call, enticing you to the sticky web.

This show was the first exposure to speculative fiction for many of my generation, and I can only speak for myself when I tell you–finally it was so okay to be left alone.

Monsters became my escapism, actually a new sort of family. Monsters are outcasts but they’re also powerful as fuck, especially on a geopolitical level.

CDF tended to alternate their programming between a classic 1950s/1960s monster movie or a kaiju, a GIANT monster such as Godzilla or King Ghidorah. I was more captivated by kaiju than the “classic” monsters, perhaps because of their parallel with Kong. I must admit, many of these kaiju films don’t hold up very well anymore (often it takes forever to get the story rolling), but at least they made an impression on my young, impressionable brain.

The monsters are worth waiting for.

Best of all: combat between monsters. Sure, we’ll see the same city get squashed, but when monsters with unique, mutant characteristics and deadly biological weaponry do battle, it’s really fun to watch.

My CDF nostalgia runs deep–I’ll take the rubber suit and visible tethers over digital effects any day.