Sunday, October 12, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: ExoSquad -- Warfare, Bigotry, and Genocide on Weekday Mornings

ExoSquad was an animated series that lasted for 52 episodes from 1993 to 1994, which no one seems to remember today. Produced by Universal Cartoon Studies, it was a sci-fi strip at least partially inspired by Japanese anime, and despite the fact that it came wrapped in the bright colors and limited production values that typified stateside animation of the era (not to mention being primarily intended to sell toys), it managed to serve up some pretty compelling serialized storylines trafficking in themes like genetic engineering, slavery, bigotry, open warfare, and even genocide. High falutin' stuff for kidvid! Here's the intro, which lays out the premise pretty well:

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Beetlejuice -- The Ghost with the Most Gets (Re)-Animated

First conceived by creator Jeff Segal in the late '80s, it wasn't until September of 1993, after Playmates toys signed on to the create the merch, that ExoSquad finally made it to air, under the supervision of animation vet Will Meugniot. Frankly, I doubt it would've happened at all if stuff like Batman and X-Men hadn't opened the door for (slightly) more mature content the previous year. Unfortunately, it was done in by the fact that it was a brand new property with no extant fanbase, and thanks to its syndicated distribution it was often scheduled at ungodly hours at the whims of local stations, basically ensuring that the intended audience would have to actively seek it out.

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Misfits of Science -- TV's X-Men Before TV's X-Men

I know that for me, the only reason I even became aware of the cartoon was after reading about it in Wizard or one of the other comic mags of the time, and was intrigued enough by the premise to actually wake up extra early on a school day to seek it out. What I found was a series that masterfully applied a slow burn build-up. It had characters who were far more than the broad sets of stereotypes we'd come to expect (starting with team leader J.T. Marsh, voiced by Robby Benson of Ice Castles fame) and, shock of shocks, there was no guarantee the characters we'd come to know and love would actually make it out of alive.

Here's a commercial for one of the action toys (which I never did own any of, much to my regret):

For me it all harkened back to everything I dug about Robotech back in the '80s (which is appropriate, as Playmates eventually produced a line of Robotech toys under the ExoSquad umbrella). But where Robotech had a guaranteed run of 85 episodes to play its long game, ExoSquad got thirteen for its first year, thirty-nine for its second, and that was it (though 52 eps is still nothing to sneeze at). Twenty-one years later, it holds up remarkably well, which makes it even more of a shame that only the first season is available on DVD and/or streaming, meaning the likelihood of contemporary auds being able to embrace ExoSquad in its entirety is practically nil. Come on, Universal! Make it happen!

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