Thursday, April 20, 2017

It Came from Saturday Mornings - Godzilla

By Jerry Chandler

“Up from the depths, thirty stories high. Breathing fire, his head in the sky. Godzilla! Godzilla! Godzilla! And Godzookie...”

Back in the bygone and ancient days of the 1970s, ABC, CBS, and NBC still had entire blocks of programming, both animated and live action, aimed at children. These blocks were commonly referred to as “The Saturday Morning Cartoons” by adults and kids alike, and over the years they provided kids with a wide variety of colorful programs as weekly entertainment. One of the goofier ones was Godzilla.

It was 1978, and Hanna-Barbera Productions and Toho Ltd. joined together to give America an animated taste of Godzilla greatness every Saturday morning on NBC. Somewhere along the way during the production of the thing, they sort have left out a few cups of “greatness” when pulling together the ingredients. It was originally launched as part of The Godzilla Power Hour with Jana of the Jungle, but became part of such packages as The Godzilla/Globetrotters Adventure Hour and The Godzilla/Hong Kong Phooey Hour before being spun off into its own solo slot and canceled in 1981. Considering the obstacles the show had to face once it went into production, it’s actually amazing that they managed to pull of a series that did have any level of kaiju quality at all. 

Hanna-Barbera would learn something that Marvel and others would later learn when making deals with Toho for the rights to use Godzilla. You can pay top dollar to license Godzilla, but none of that top dollar buys you a single other Godzilla monster, character, or specifically created for Godzilla canon setting. That means no use of Anguirus, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, or MechaGodzilla without paying out a lot of extra licensing cash. Hell, you couldn’t even use King Caesar, Gigan, Megalon, Jet Jaguar, or Minilla without dropping more cash than you would want to. It also meant no recognizable fictional settings like Monster Island or characters like Dr. Serizawa or (if you were insane) Steve Martin. This meant that Hanna-Barbera would have to create everything other than Godzilla from scratch.

This actually wasn’t that major of an issue for them outside of having everyone watching wondering where in the heck all of the great Godzilla friend and foe monsters were. In order to flesh out the series, they created a crew of scientists who traveled the world onboard a scientific research ship named the Calico. This crew was-

Captain Carl Majors as voiced by Jeff David.
Dr. Quinn Darien as voiced by Brenda Thompson.
Brock Borden as voiced by Hill Hicks.
Pete Darien as voiced by Al Eisenmann.

Then you had the two main creature cast members in Godzilla (voiced by Ted Cassidy) and Godzooky (voiced by Don Messick).

If you’re wondering why Ted Cassidy- he of Addams Family fame -was doing voice work as Godzilla in the series, it was because Hanna-Barbera had also apparently not read the fine print in the deal. On top of getting to use no known Toho monsters, characters, or fictional setting from Godzilla canon, they also couldn’t use the roar fans were used to hearing in the classic Toho films. For some odd reason that I’ve never seen the actual explanation for, Godzilla’s radioactive breath was also changed to a basic fire breath like a classical dragon. To make up for this depowering, they did give him something akin to Superman’s heat vision. He also (just through simple artistic carelessness) acquired the power to increase and decrease his size at will. It was not at all uncommon to see Godzilla easily pick up a large boat or small ship in one hand while later just fitting the crew of the Calico in his hand with little room to spare in the same episode.

Hey, at least they didn’t have him use his breath to fly or have him start doing a jig in the middle of a fight.

For the series, Godzilla’s role as Earth’s defender got stretched a bit from the films and more into Mothra or Gamera territory. He would in every episode be called forth by the team using a special sonic signal device that Captain Majors wore on his belt in order to fight that week’s big bad threat. In a pinch, Godzooky could belt out a special howl that would also summon the big guy. Some of the threats even managed to look just a little familiar.

The first episode of Godzilla featured a threat called the Fire Bird. It was obviously an attempt to try and mimic Rodan as close as possible without either paying extra money or getting sued. A later monster was a stylized, giant, superpowered sea turtle that could have almost passed as Gamera if you didn’t know any better. They even went up against a fictional terrorist group armed with nuclear weapons technology who went by the name COBRA. No relation to the G.I. Joe villains in any way, but something I’d find funny in later years.

The rest of the monsters that appeared over the show’s 26 episode run were either the generic creature feature variety of monsters such as giant insects and dinosaurs, stylized concept creatures like guardian statues that came to life, science fiction based creations like the robot guardian of Atlantis, or myth based creatures such as the Minotaur or the Sirens. Overall, the absence of classic Toho villains should not have been and weren’t a great issue for them so long as they could think up a reasonable monster concept from week to week and made sure the formula remained as simple as the Toho films. All you had to do was introduce your monster, have Godzilla meet up with him, sit back, and watch the monsters destroy the town. Unfortunately, there were other forces at work that would remove some needed ingredients from that list.

Godzilla was in his cartoon form faced with a formidable monster unlike any that had vexed him during his decades of trashing huge swaths of Japanese real estate. This dark creation was NBC’s Standards and Practices. They let Hanna-Barbera know that Godzilla was not to contain anything that might be frightening or harmful to (but we must think of) the children. They were told to keep the violence down to an absolute minimum, flame could not be shot directly at any human character, buildings depicted in use could not be destroyed, and monsters could not be shown stepping on- even if it was a fake out in the case of the last item -cars, buildings, or people.

So, basically, you could have Godzilla meet up with monsters every week, you just couldn’t have them get “too violent” in the battle or actually cause any noticeable damage and destruction during their fight. This resulted in a lot of monster combat in big, open areas with little manmade structures or throw downs that involved a lot of splashing about in the surf.

The creative staff did the best they could when dealing with the many restrictions that they had. Some of the monsters were genuinely creative and would have formed the basis for some good Toho, men in rubber suits kaiju in the real Godzilla films. The stories were largely paint by number with only a few breaking out of the formula the series established early on, but that did make the rare episodes that did this stand out all the more. A few episodes dealt with things like time travel and lost civilizations, and at least one played with its own version of Monster Island by having the crew and Godzilla discover and then get stuck in a lost valley full of giant insects. They even gave a nod to science fiction classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man by having Godzilla pass through a mysterious fog and start shrinking even as a common housefly that went through it with him began growing to gigantic proportions.

The major strike against the series with kids who weren’t quite as young as the desired target audience as well as older Godzilla fans was the creative decision to take Minilla/Minya (the son of Godzilla) and reimagining him into an even more obnoxiously cloying creation- Godzooky. There are people out there who claim to hate the entire series just on the annoyance level of Godzooky’s presence in the episodes. Still, there are some people out there who love the silly thing. North Carolina filmmakers Paul Cardullo and Bill Mulligan for example rate Godzooky in their personal top five kaiju ever created lists.

That last bit isn’t the least bit true. But, hey, where’s the fun in life if you can’t use your column to start scurrilous rumors about your friends?

It’s probably Godzooky that most keeps many fans from giving this series a better rating when looking back at the shows they grew up with than it is any of its other shortcomings. Godzooky was a part of a larger problem that plagued more than a few cartoons from the late 1970s and the 1980s- the cute character that kids could “relate” to or the cute monster that kids would want as their friend. Pretty much none of the creations were greatly loved by the majority of the kids watching the shows at the time, and they became downright despised by many people in later years. Godzooky is no exception when it comes to this type of character.

All in all, this version of Godzilla is barely Godzilla. It had its moments of fun monster bashing action, but it could just have easily been an original creation given how far from Toho’s Godzilla it strayed in every way. Still, it was saved from being known as the worst American Godzilla to be unleashed on fans when less than two decades after it was canceled Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin gave us their 1998 remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and chose to call it Godzilla as apparently some sort of weird joke.

Not surprisingly, this version of Godzilla had only a limited release over the years when it came to home video. Only a few episodes ever made it to VHS or DVD. It has however become a semi-regular show over the years on cable channels like Boomerang. But no matter what some adult fans think of the show these days, it kept the name “Godzilla” alive in America in the early 1980s, and it likely helped to introduce a lot of young children to the world of Godzilla.

Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

No comments:

Post a Comment