If you weren't conscious of popular culture in the mid-1980s, then it's likely that you are blissfully ignorant of the He-Man craze that grappled the minds of young American children at that time. Looking back, it's kind of remarkable that the He-Man cartoon series, entitled Masters of the Universe, enjoyed such popularity. The show, which existed mainly to sell as many plastic figurines of its characters as the market would allow, was cheaply made and often poorly written. The animators, in the employ of a company called Filmation, used every trick in the book to bring down the cost of producing each show. Characters rarely moved in unexpected ways they always ran off-screen in the same series of motions, or stood still while only their mouths moved to deliver a bit of eye-rollingly goofy dialogue. Minutes-long sequences would go by during each show that were exactly the same as sequences in the show before it, most notably the series of shots in which He-Man changed from his secret identity, Prince Adam, into the thick-necked hero who, "by the power of Greyskull," defended the world of Eternia from the machinations of the evil sorcerer Skeletor.
Prince Adam, it must be said, was the worst secret identity since Superman slicked his hair back and put on those stupid spectacles. Adam looked exactly like He-Man, except for the fact that his skin was a slightly lighter tone (He-Man, presumably, got more sun) and his voice was pitched higher and whinier. He-Man never even wore a mask, and Prince Adam's rippling muscles gave the lie to his nebbish act. It's tempting to think that everyone in Eternia was in on the secret, but simply played along to preserve He-Man's dignity. Then we remembered that He-Man wears nothing but a metal harness and a hairy thong and therefore has no dignity. So everyone on Eternia must be profoundly stupid.
Orko and a couple of fetish
fantasies come to life.
At least the writers showed some creativity when it came to villains. The male characters all had the exact same physique, presumably to make the manufacture of the action figures easier. Just add some accessories, a different head, a new paint job, and voila! Yet another creature on whom to spend your parents' hard-earned dough, all in the name of being the first kid on the block to have a Man-E-Faces. The variations on that uniform torso, however, could actually be quite clever. The show's creators (or perhaps the brainstomers at Mattel) came up with nasties like Kobra Khan, Trap Jaw, Mer-Man, and Modulok, providing He-Man and his stalwart fighting buddies (including inventor "Man at Arms," athletic girlfriend "Teela," and the ferocious green tiger "Battle Cat") with an endless array of foes.
Masters of the Universe proved so popular that, after two seasons, Filmation spun off an additional series called She-Ra, Princess of Power. She-Ra, as you might expect, was a warrior princess (a full decade ahead of Xena), and her alter ego was Princess Adora, Prince Adam's fraternal twin. She-Ra came with her own animal pal, Swiftwind. Swiftwind was an amalgam of every horse fantasy poster ever to grace the wall of a pre-teen girl, which is to say he was both a winged horse and a unicorn. A young girl was probably responsible for his coloring, too: Swiftwind's coat was white, his mane orange, and his wings were rainbow-striped. Now is as good a time as any to point out that while neither He-Man nor She-Ra wore masks to protect their secret identities, both of their animal companions did.
Skeletor learns the meaning of shame.
She-Ra also had her own stable of cartoon baddies who wanted to conquer Eternia, but as boys we would never admit to watching enough episodes of She-Ra to know who they were. Besides, it largely didn't matter who the exact villains were on either show were, because all of them did the exact same thing when attacking: they fired a yellow beam. Then He-Man or She-Ra would deflect that beam with their swords. Rinse. Repeat until He-Man or She-Ra finally gets bored and punches the baddie in the jaw. (One of our favorite features of the He-Man cartoons is the way that, when He-Man delivers a particularly crushing blow, the camera moves to the point of view of the blow's recipient. He-Man simply punches into the camera imagine the cost savings of not having to animate that sequence with different characters!)
He-Man/She-Ra: A Christmas Special combines the heroes and villains of the two shows into one treacly mess. It starts out with Prince Adam and Man-At-Arms (fulfilling his only role on the show, that of giving Prince Adam someone to talk to) testing a rocket called the "Sky-Spy." The stated purpose of this rocket is to keep an eye on Skeletor, but to us this sounds like an excuse. Skeletor is a big purple guy who lumbers around starting fights. Stealth-wise he ranks up there with an offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings. The Sky-Spy's true purpose is probably the surveillance of Teela's afternoon topless sunbathing sessions.
And this is a show for kids?
He-Man's standard issue allegedly- humorous- but-actually- annoying sidekick Orko sneaks aboard the ship and starts pushing buttons. Wait a minute. Orko has pointy ears, a high pitched voice, and he stutters. Holy toy tie-in Batman, he's Porky Pig in disguise!
The ship takes off when Orko pulls the wrong lever and almost as soon as it's airborne Skeletor is chasing it in his own ship. Yep, you need sophisticated surveillance systems to find this guy. The lever breaks off in Orko's hand, which means one of two things: either Orko doesn't know his own Herculean strength, or Man-At-Arms doesn't know crap about assembling spaceships. (Never mind the logic behind putting manual controls inside an automated spy plane.) He-Man and She-Ra intercept Skeletor's ship and knock the crap out of it, but the Sky-Spy disappears into space. Well at least we've gotten rid of Orko.
But no! Orko crash-lands on good ol' planet Earth, where he causes an avalanche that nearly kills two little kids looking for a Christmas tree. These kids are Alisha and Manuel. Manuel is a somewhat surprising name for the boy, because both kids look like they could be the offspring of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, if you get our meaning. Not at all perturbed to be confronted by a floating purple Porky Pig, they tell the ignorant Eternian all about Christmas, completely omitting any pesky details about Jesus.
Back on Eternia, He-Man and She-Ra embark on a protracted quest to find a crystal to power the transporter that will return Orko to his home planet. No one thinks of building another spaceship to retrieve the imp, but then we wouldn't blame anyone smart enough to come up with such a plan for not caring if the little jerk lived or died. When his chance to return home arrives, Orko rather cavalierly takes the kids back to Eternia in the "transport beam."
"Let's go kick Gargamel's ass!"
Once on Eternia, the kids become a trouble magnet. It seems that the presence of the "Christmas Spirit" in the form of two overenthusiastic children is a mortal insult to Horde Prime, who is an enemy of whom we'd never heard before. We never see his face, just his big metal gloves. We also know that he likes giving orders to his underlings. In short, he's Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. He commands both Skeletor and She-Ra's primary nemesis, Hordak, to kidnap the children.
Meanwhile back at the palace of king and queen the children have badgered a flamboyantly gay compatriot of She-Ra's to play along with a song they've made up. It goes something like this.
(To the tune of the Whoville Christmas Song)
Love and caring
Joy of sharing
Christmas spirit in the air
Eternia and everywhere
Don't you feel it
Feel that you're a part
Christmas season is a time of
It is perhaps not that much of a mystery that when Hordak shows up in his helicopter shaped like a giant vibrator, no one puts up much of a fight to stop him from kidnapping Miguel and Alisha.
After that, the plot kicks into high gear, or at least as high a gear as Masters of the Universe ever reaches. The kids are taken from Hordak by the Monstroids, giant robots that do some lame transformations, almost as if they were inspired by some other 1980s TV show. (We're not sure which one.) Then they're rescued from their fate by the "Manchines," who look like certain little blue cartoon stars with cyborg parts attached. Hey, after all the hard work they put in coming up with names like "Ratlor" and "Modulok" you have to cut the makers of He-Man some slack if they were running out of creativity by the show's second season.
How many licks to the center
of a Skeletor? The world
may never know.
Manuel and Alisha escape certain death at the hands of the Monstroids only to be captured by Skeletor, who begins his own version of the Bataan Death March across the icy tundra that will presumably lead his youthful charges into the clutches of Horde Prime, who will dispose of them. Skeletor does not kill the children himself because he is slowly becoming infected with the Christmas spirit. Instrumental in this infection is a Manchine puppy, who licks Skeletor's face enough times to infect him with something, at any rate. The bone-headed villain defends Manuel and Alisha from an abominable snowbeast and even provides them with heavy winter coats for the journey.
Skeletor's conversion to the Christmas spirit is complete when he actually rescues the kids from Horde Prime's flagship. Horde Prime employs a big claw on a cable to try to grab the kids, but Skeletor zaps it with a yellow beam. It burns up like a fuse, and is followed by an explosion which sends the flagship flying off into space. Horde Prime screams that his engines have been hit, but he will return to exact his revenge upon Skeletor and all of Eternia. We're sorry, but if you have the engines of your flagship attached to a crane game, you don't deserve to rule the universe.
In the end of course, everything turns out all right. The kids go back home with presents that will disrupt the technological and political landscape of Earth for centuries to come, and the Eternians continue life, unaware of how lame they are. As a result of this adventure, however, they're going to dress up like Santa Claus one day of the year and reduce the planet's collective dignity by that much more. And isn't that what Christmas is all about?