The children of Thundercats

Posted by CB Droege

Thundercats is just a few episodes in, but the show is likely losing most of its adult audience. It’s a great shame because the new series started out so well.

The first episode, a double-length pilot was dramatic, engaging, almost intense.

It provided a glimpse of compelling situations for the characters, and of fun adventures to come for the audience.

Lion-O was a troubled youth. His father dead, and a broken kingdom lay at his feet. He is king, yes, but king of what?

A pile of occupied ruins and a handful of surviving Thundercats. The impetuous youth still had some humility and caution to learn, but he also has an ancient evil to defeat, and a great relic to hunt. His story was only beginning.

Then, in the next episode (technically the third due to the double pilot), the characters find themselves captured by an obvious trap in a strange landscape, a loose desert carries a sailing ship crewed by fishmen.

The setting remains compelling, and the mythology is curious, but unlike the pilot, the characters seem to lose themselves. Their identities blur and become less defined. The characters who were so well developed in the fall of Thundara are now muddy and loose.

Meanwhile, Lion-O is just a stereotypical youth, and his team all seem to have the same general personality, which is to say: no personality a tall, just flotsam for Lion-O to look after, points in the plot, the loss of which will be the punishment if Lion-O fails to learn his lesson about priorities and proper leadership.

The Captain of the Fishmen ship is an Ahab figure, hunting a sand monster who has kept his people from their oasis home for years. From this captain’s losses, Lion-O learns that revenge cannot be his sole driving motivator. 

That’s all well and good, and the mythology here is still intellectually engaging, but the humor attempts ruin the episode. The kittens are supposed to be the comic relief, and that’s fine, it works. This was established well in the pilot, but now, all of the characters have become goofy shadows of themselves, their characters lost in the brief exchanges.

The fourth episode is only marginally better. Again, a new race of people is discovered, one which has a lesson to teach Lion-O and his team. This time it is the Petalars, a race of flower people who life their entire life cycle in only one day. Their racial memory, a few generations long only extends back a few days, and thus they clearly serve as a symbol for the impermanence of our actions, the brevity of our lives.

Lion-O must see in them the opposite lesson from the one he learned out on the desert with the Fishmen. Here he is required to see that while blind rushing is not appropriate, falling back too often, and biding too much time can be just as deadly.

As with the Fishmen, however, the mythology is the only strength of the episode. I found myself wanting to know more about the Petalars, and trying to imagine how a life spent only in one day could possibly work from a practical standpoint. The writers did not handle it properly, however. It was almost as if the concept of the episode was not explained properly to the ones actually writing it, because the Petalars just didn't work.

Lion-O befriends one of them at the begining of the episode, and over the course of the day, watches him grow old and die, but the aging occurs in strange spurts, both physically and mentally. Lion-O and the Petalr may have a conversation of several minutes, with the insinuation that they have even been talking for longer.

When Lion-O turns his back, and then looks to find his friend, the Petalar is suddenly visibly and mentally older, seemingly in a burst of a few seconds. This may be nitpicking, over critiquing that I may not even be doing if it weren’t for the failure of the episode previous, but it still broke the immersion of the tale. It also still has a problem with the support characters, none of who seem to have any action here other than to follow Lion-O around. 

The fifth episode was a bit of a return to the quality of the pilot. The characters are introduced to Panthro, a grey Thundercat of great strength and arrogance. Lion-O must earn Panthro’s trust and loyalty during an adventure to the lair of Thundara’s betrayer, Grune, a bulky Sabertoothed Thundercat working as the second in command under the villain Mumm-ra.

The character development and tone of the episode is similar to the events of the attack on Thundara, and they are intermixed with some great badckground storytelling for Panthro and Grune, showing their lost friendship and creating an interesting dynamic between the group and the secondary villain.

Across all of these post-pilot episodes, the result is essentially the same: the mythology and world-building is very interesting. The series developer has done an excellent job creating a compelling setting out of what was once a long-form toy advert, but something of the characters is falling through the cracks in the individual episodes. It would be easy to blame the episode length, because, sure, it’s difficult to fit real character development into a 20 minute piece, but other shows manage to do it.

If there is anything we’ve learned from successful adventure cartoons of the past, they need strong characters to appeal to a wider audience.

Still, I’m willing to give Thundercats a few more episodes before I give up on it, but I have a feeling the show has already lost most of its adult audience. 30-somethings who tuned in for nostalgia have been turned away by a lack of real story-telling, and if the show fails for such a simple - and easily remedied - lack, it will be a sad thing.

Thundercats airs Friday evenings on Cartoon Network.