In 2005, the British TV station Channel 4 ran a poll where viewers could vote for the “100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time”. In what was a surprise to nobody, The Simpsons won.
However, at number 52 in the poll, was ThunderCats. Not a bad achievement, certainly, but what is startling is that the show was not even one of the shows on the list of nominees for viewers to choose from; it had achieved this position after people had entered it in the option under “Other (please specify)”.
Not bad for what was, at the time, a twenty year old cartoon.
First broadcast in the UK on BBC One in January of 1987 (two full years after the American debut) and followed by repeats as part of the kids’ TV show Going Live, ThunderCats trampled onto the screen and became a big hit after the first two episodes: ‘Exodus’ and ‘The Unholy Alliance’.
Within the very first episode, we’re quickly brought up to speed and given everything we need to know; we get to see the ThunderCats home planet destroyed, their fleet of spaceships virtually wiped out, a handful of escaped survivors, and with their leader Jaga sacrificing himself in order to guide the ThunderCats ship to its final destination. The ship crashes and the ThunderCats have found their new home…
One of the things viewers had to get their heads around (we’ll ignore the characters being naked for part of the first episode) was that, due to some handy cryogenic freezing and thawing, by the time they reached Third Earth and the show really got going, Lion-O actually had the mind of a twelve-year-old boy inside the body of a fully grown twenty-four-year-old man.
This goes some way to explaining his often rash decisions!
Mixing high-tech science with myths and magic, the show had a unique feel and still managed to squeeze in a little moralising each episode; like He-Man, ThunderCats always tried to remind viewers to be good by featuring a short denouement at the end of each episode that allowed the characters to recap what we’d seen and discuss the good and bad actions they had witnessed being performed. The producers were so concerned with this particular aspect of the show that they had a psychiatrist, Dr Robert Kuisis, on board to ensure each episode contained the moral positivity they were looking for. Be good, kids!
The show gave us some amazing characters and bad guys, from the heroic Lion-O and the teenage fantasy that was Cheetara to the brilliantly realised villains such as the evil mummy god Mumm-Ra to the creeping toad-like Slithe and the… er… jackal-like Jackalman. A shout out to the robotic bears the Berbils (the most irritating bear-derived sci-fi characters since the Ewoks, from which they were very clearly inspired) and nobody’s favourite furry nanny, Snarf!
The show ran for four seasons, totalling 130 episodes plus a movie-length feature, and had a fantastic theme tune that really got the adrenalin pumping in my young cartoon-crazed body! Overshadowed in the US by the all-conquering He-Man and The Masters of The Universe (still hugely popular when the ThunderCats first aired Stateside), the show had massive success in the UK and was the number one action cartoon series until some pesky teenagers in half-shells took over…
Following on from the original series, there have been various other spin-offs and reboots of the ThunderCats saga, none as good as the original.
There was a 2011 version (which my son, who was around five at the time, loved and had the toys to prove it) which gave the characters an updated and more anime-look and altered some of their backgrounds and motivations. Lion-O, for example, was at first seen as being unworthy of taking his place as leader because he was prone to flights of fancy and was the only one who believed the ancient myths and that the evil Mumm-Ra existed. Some of the original story arcs were used in the new show but it was produced to be a darker more modern take on the characters.
The show premiered on the Cartoon Network and was originally planned as having 50+ episodes. Despite getting positive ratings and good feedback, praising both the stunning visuals and the new moodier character beats, it did receive negative reviews (it was seen as harking back to the tradition of having a TV show just to advertise a toy line) and was eventually cancelled after just one season.
ThunderCats Roar, appearing on the Cartoon Network in February 2020, took a page from the book of the amazing Teen Titans Go! cartoon and changed both the character designs and mood of the original with a much lighter and comedic tone and shorter episodes.
It received a lot of negative criticism from fans of both earlier versions of the show, and although it was a bold move and the show certainly had its own identity, it only lasted one season. When you have a new show on during lockdown and still nobody wants to watch it, you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere!
Funnily enough, Teen Titans Go! featured a homage to the ThunderCats in the Halloween episode of their second season when we get a flashback to a previous year of dressing up and see the gang (including Robin, Raven and Beast Boy) dressed as various characters from the show. Cyborg dressed as Panthro is probably my favourite!
Other shows have parodied or mentioned the ThunderCats over the years too.
In one of Family Guy’s cutaway scenes, we see Lion-O use the Sword of Omens to give him ‘sight beyond sight’ so that he can watch Cheetara in the bathroom. The original voice actors reprised their roles for this, which will never fail to make me laugh. Robot Chicken has also featured the ThunderCats in several episodes, including a little girl choosing to adopt a caged Lion-O from a cat rescue centre and renaming him Mr Kitty Cat!
There is also a sneaky mention in the Rick and Morty episode ‘Never Ricking Morty” from 2020 when Jesus says “Father of omens! Give me blood beyond sight!” which is, of course, a reference to one of the mythical sword’s special powers when Lion-O’s would hold it to his face and cry out “Sword of Omens, give me sight beyond sight!”
There has often been talk of a ThunderCats live-action movie. At one point, sci-fi movie stalwart Milla Jovovich was trying to get a film off the ground but much like other attempts that fell apart. However, with a new He-Man movie on the way, we may get one someday!
There have been various other iterations from video games to comic books.
The comic books have had a spotty history but some of them are worth looking at. Particularly fun is when the series crosses over with another, such as Battle of The Planets or He-Man! Perhaps one adaptation you don’t know of is the live stage version!
ThunderCats Live! was an action-packed stage show, of 90-minutes duration, that toured across America from 1987 to 1988 and seems as gloriously eighties as you can imagine! Produced by Rankin/Bass and hosted by two roller-skating characters from another show by them, there are very few traces of it available online and that is a real shame! I’ve seen both Batman and Marvel shows live at the O2 in London and, face it, if I could see the ThunderCats live I’d be there!
I loved the show, my kid loved the show (both what I showed him of the original and the anime-tinged 2011 show… we did not like ThunderCats Roar) and most episodes are available on DVD or online. Annoyingly, there is a musician calling himself Thundercat that made researching this article far more confusing than it should have been… but he seems to be doing well so good luck to him!
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