Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. Dedicated miners of this fecund seam begin to notice the same names cropping up, again and again, as if their whole career was based on a principle of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. What’s more, it isn’t all one-season failures and unsold pilots, there’s genuine gold to be found amongst their hoards; these men are surely the Titans of Telephemera!
Formed as DIC Audiovisuel in France in 1971, Diffusion Information Communication began as the production arm of Radio Television Luxembourg but found Jean Chalopin had his sights set beyond Francophile Europe and made a deal in 1981 with Japanese animation studios Tokyo Studio Shinsha. They helped to produce and distribute Japanese shows to Europe such as Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold, but there were still territories to conquer and in 1982 DIC enterprises was established in Los Angeles by former Hanna-Barbera staffer Andy Heyward.
Heyward’s initial aim was to translate DIC’s products into English for sale to the US market but in 1983 they made their first cartoon primarily for American screens, Inspector Gadget. DIC partnered with companies such as Atari, Kenner, American Greetings, and Hallmark, and they soon had a string of shows filling the Saturday morning schedules, although they gained a reputation in the industry for cutting corners and enforcing anti-union policies, leading to DIC becoming shorthand for Do It Cheap. DIC’s history stretches into the 2010s but it is a story about the cartoons they produced (and the things that happened along the way), so let’s start with the studio’s incredible 1980s…
Inspector Gadget (syndication, 1983): Obviously inspired by 1960s spy show Get Smart, Inspector Gadget was the brainchild of Andy Heyward, developed in conjunction with Jean Chalopin and French animator Bruno Bianchi. The show started in media res with a pilot episode that saw Gadget stop his arch-nemesis Dr Claw and his agents of MAD from sabotaging the Winter Olympics, and which also had Gadget with a moustache, removed to see off a threatened lawsuit by MGM who felt the character was too similar to Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther movies. Gadget was an agent of a secret police organisation, sent on cases by Chief Quimby and accompanied by his niece, Penny.
Penny, of course, was the real smarts behind the Inspector, who blundered into cases that got good mileage out of his bionic adaptations but often saw him make things worse before Penny and her dog Brain saved the day without his knowledge. In season two, the cast was swelled by the addition of Corporal Capeman, a similarly inept superhero who developed a friendly antagonism with Brain, and – to be quite honest – it must have been a source of constant frustration for Dr Claw to have his schemes foiled by idiots, children, and a dog.
The first season of Inspector Gadget ran across weeknights between September and December 1983, with sixty-five episodes produced to ensure it would live forever in syndication. Don Adams, Agent Maxwell Smart in Get Smart, was cast as Gadget, with the ever-dependable Frank Welker providing the voices of Brain, Claw, and Claw’s pet, MAD Cat. The rest of the cast were Canadians local to the Nelvana studios where the voice acting was recorded but when production shifted to Los Angeles for the twenty-one-episode second season, they were replaced by LA industry regulars. After eighty-five episodes of bungling fun, no new episodes were produced, although Gadget did return in various guises over the next two decades. In 1999, Matthew Broderick starred as the bumbling fool in a big-budget movie adaptation which did well enough at the box office that it received a direct-to-video sequel four years later.
Gadget wasn’t the only DIC character bursting onto TV screens in 1983 as The Littles premiered on ABC, followed by a slew of shows in 1984 for all three networks and the syndication market. Wolf Rock TV and Kidd Video may not have been the hits they were looking for, but videogame tie-in Pole Position and The Get Along Gang on CBS certainly made a splash, with Rainbow Brite and Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats delighting young viewers in syndication. If 1984 had been a big year, then 1985 was ready to blow it right out of the water…
Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (syndication, 1985): DIC started 1985 with four new shows on the air. Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling debuted on CBS, giving grapple hungry kids a dose of the WWF superstars‘ bizarre everyday lives, and Care Bears hit the syndicated market, filling schoolyards across America with thousands of kids pretending to have superpowers in their tummies. But it was a pair of action shows, also in syndication, that began to spell out what DIC would become best known for over the next ten years, the first of them featuring a hero’s quest that somehow involved a magic plant…
Developed by future Babylon 5 creator J Michael Straczynski (in his words, “to hijack a dopey concept and turn into something more”), Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors was aptly summed up by its title, the story of a young man – Jayce – and his journey to find his missing father Audric, accompanied by the Lightning League, a group of heroic warriors inhabiting some strange vehicles.
Jayce was the possessor of one half of the Magic Root, a plant that could end the threat of the Monster Minds, mutant marauders who appeared after a nearby star went supernova, ending Audric’s attempts to solve world hunger. With Auric in possession of the other half of the root, Jayce embarks on a quest to reunite the two halves and thwart the evil mutants. The show was intended to support Mattel’s Wheeled Warriors toy line, a selection of eight vehicles with parts that could be swapped and mixed to make new combinations. By the time the show debuted, sales of the toys were already less than Mattel had hoped and Straczynski’s tinkering had the result of taking the flimsy concept further away from its initial intent
Still, sixty-five episodes were produced, airing between September and December 1985, and with hopes of a second wave of Wheeled Warriors toys – there were unproduced designs – there was no definitive end to the series, the intention being to continue it into a movie, as per GI Joe and Transformers. There was no movie, however, and Jayce’s story ended abruptly, his father still missing. Straczynski claims the plot of the movie would have seen Jayce reunited with his father, only for Audric to die. It would then be up to Jayce to join the two halves of the Magic Root, end the tyranny of the Monster Minds, and save the universe.
M.A.S.K. (syndication, 1985): DIC had better luck with MASK, although you could argue that the source material made for a much easier adaptation. Standing for Mobile Army Strike Kommand (sic), the MASK team were a special task force led by Matt Trakker, a rich philanthropist who has developed a range of transforming vehicles controlled by helmets in association with his brother, Andy, and partner Miles Mayhem. Mayhem double-crosses Trakker, causing the death of Andy and stealing some of the MASKs. He forms his own organisation, the Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem (or VENOM), and the battle to stop his evil schemes began!
Produced in association with Kenner, who released the first wave of toys to coincide with the show’s debut in the Fall of 1985, MASK combined two of the popular kids’ shows of the time in GI Joe and Transformers. Trakker and Mayhem both led teams of colourful characters, each equipped with a standard-looking vehicle that could transform to enter battle. The sixty-five-episode first season, overseen by Japanese animator Tetsuo Katayama and Ashi Productions, saw Mayhem attempt to steal a mystical arrowhead, hypnotise with the power of television, enslave Australian aborigines, plot to destroy the Panama Canal, and other wacky plans, all the while foiled by Trakker, his MASK team, and his adolescent son, Scott (who, of course, was accompanied by a cute robot scooter named T-Bob).
MASK returned for a second season in September 1986 but, inexplicably, the plot was altered to have Trakker and Mayhem do battle through a series of races, although VENOM had plenty of side-hustles on the go. A third series of toys accompanied the reboot, but it was hollow stuff and only ten episodes were made using the new status quo. MASK remained a beloved property for years after its cancellation as both a TV series and toy line, and Kenner was later purchased by Hasbro. In recent years, MASK has been referred to in episodes of Transformers: Prime and Transformers: Robots in Disguise, a Matt Trakker figure was added to the GI Joe action figure collection, and there were plans to unite the three franchises – along with Micronauts, ROM, and Visionaries – in a shared Hasbro Universe. These were put on ice in 2021 but you never know when VENOM will strike again and MASK will be called into action…
A massive 1985 was followed by an equally impressive 1986, with The Real Ghostbusters arriving on ABC, telling the further adventures of Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston from the hit 1984 movie, but with added Slimer. Circus bear show Kissyfur was also unveiled over on NBC, and a trio of syndicated shows featuring hot new toys and an American instituation hit the airwaves as Popples, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, and Dennis the Menace made their debuts. Five new shows may have seemed a lot for a fledgling studio, even one with an overseas background like DIC, but the eight new shows that followed in 1987 showed just how far the company’s resources could be stretched, especially now it was under new ownership, with Andy Heyward having purchased the company outright from Jean Chalopin. After the purchase, DIC were heavily in debt and were forced to sell the back catalogue to Saban Entertainment, who in turn sold it to Chalopin’s new company, C&D Entertainment…
Starcom: The US Space Force (syndication, 1987): Among the eight new shows that debuted in 1987, NBC’s ALF: The Animated Series and The New Archies were probably the most eagerly anticipated, given America’s continuing love affair with cat-eating aliens and 1950s teenagers, but there was also Little Clowns of Happytown on ABC and Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater for CBS, as well as Beverly Hills Teens and Lady Lovely Locks to see in syndication, for fans of clowns, non-food cats, rich kids, and American Greetings’ hirsute heroine, respectively.
Action shows, most often in conjunction with toy lines, were still the flavour of the day, however, and 1987 saw DIC unveil two new projects that satisfied the definition. Accompanying a line of action figures and vehicles from Coleco, Starcom: The US Space Force was co-produced with NASA’s Young Astronaut Council, with the intention of getting young people interested in the work of the US space agency. The toy line’s major selling point was its Magna Lock technology, which allowed the figures to stay with their vehicles without fear of falling off and also activated special features inside the vehicles.
The show was developed by Brynne Stephens, a rare woman writer in a world dominated by her male counterparts, who had cut her teeth on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, and My Little Pony, for which she also acted as story editor. Stephens created the backstories for Starcom’s characters and penned an episode of the series, which also counted her future husband Michael Reaves and comic book veteran Marv Wolfman among its writing staff. The cartoon created a narrative whereby Starcom battled Shadow Force, a collection of robots and evil humans led by Emperor Dark, both sides utilising the toy line’s gimmick to further their own ends.
Unfortunately, the toy line did not sell particularly well, as much due to its staid concept as its complicated nature, although it did take off in Europe and Asia when re-released by Mattel in 1990, although only after all national symbols had been removed. The cartoon lasted for just a thirteen-episode first season, despite some excellent animation provided by DIC’s Animation City studio which operated out of Los Angeles. Unlike many of its contemporaries, there has been little clamour for a return or reboot for Starcom, although the complete series was released on DVD by Mill Creek Entertainment in 2015
Dinosaucers (syndication, 1987): At least Starcom had a toy line to go with it, unlike its 1987 syndication partner Dinosaucers. Created by Michael E Uslan, a former comic book writer who is best known for securing the film rights to Batman in 1979 and holding them for over forty years, Dinosaucers was supposed to have been accompanied by a toy line from Galoob, intended to have been produced once the ground had been prepared by a sixty-five-episode animated series. With Uslan, his partner Benjamin Melniker, and DIC’s Andy Heyward co-producing, the show debuted in September 1987 and viewers were introduced to the Dinosaucers and their evil equivalents, the Tyrannos.
The Dinosaucers and Tyrannos both arrived on Earth to continue a battle that had begun on their homeworld of Reptilon, a planet in counter orbit to Earth. Both groups were a species of evolved dinosaurs, although only the Dinosaucers had the ability to “dinovolve” and revert back to the root species from which they had originated, retaining their intelligence and personalities. The Dinosaucers were aided in their battle against the Tyrannos by the Secret Scouts, a group of four human teenagers who are given power-imbuing rings by the Dinosaucers when they arrived on Earth. Together, the Dinosaucers and Secret Scouts prevent the Tyrannos (led by Genghis Rex) from stealing the world’s biggest diamond, forcing Dinosaucer Teryx to be Rex’s queen, and recruiting the Abominable Snowman, all while learning to be more human (and to play baseball).
The series was not well-received, falling between stools as it tried to be both a kids’ and a teens’ show, and plans for the toy line were cancelled when ratings were revealed to be some of the lowest in syndication that season. Prototypes had been produced, however, and the Brazilian company Glasslite bought the molds from Gallob, producing five of the eight figures for domestic release. These are now some of the most sought-after action figures on the collectors’ market and there is a small but vocal band of Dinosaucers fans scattered across the globe, keen to bring their favourites back. In 2018, Uslan worked with Lion Forge Comics to produce a five-part comic book mini-series, ending on a cliffhanger which still remains unresolved. Both the Dinosaucers and the Tyrannos are presumably still waging war although, if no-one is around to witness it, did it really happen?
DIC finished the eighties strongly, taking over The Chipmunks from Murakami-Wolf-Swenson for NBC in 1988 and adding ALF Tales to that network’s Melmacian adventures. ABC’s The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil and syndicated action figure cash-in C.O.P.S. rounded out 1988, with 1989 bringing a trio of new shows for NBC as The Karate Kid, Captain N: The Game Master, and Camp Candy all appeared on the Fall TV schedule. In syndication, DIC produced flimsy toy transfer Ring Raiders, the charming yet amateur The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! (with the WWF’s Captain Lou Albano and The Jeffersons’ Danny Wells as the titular plumbers), and the rebooted GI Joe: A Real American Hero!, beginning with a five-episode mini-series that tidied up the events of the GI Joe movie.
DIC shows provided thirty percent of the networks’ Saturday morning output in the 1989-90 season, despite leveraging further debt with Prudential Insurance. The nineties were just around the corner, though, and with them the promise of sharks, dragons, and mummies!
Next time on Titans of Telephemera: Into the 1990s with more DIC productions!
Check out our other Telephemera articles:
The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen
Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson
Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft
Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)