“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” sits in a weird room of my nostalgia museum. I have such fond memories of the toys, the cartoons, and summer days in my grandfather’s backyard saving the world from brightly-colored Evil. The neighbor kids and I built our own Castle Grayskull out of plywood and a disused swing set. We made swords out of Construx. We got so many wonderful hours of imaginative play that it hurts to go back and see what the show actually looks like:
With adult eyes, I am utterly embarrassed by my love of “He-Man.” The voice acting is stilted. The animation fairly limited and the writing awfully primitive. Produced at a budget (in the unkind sense), the show manly consists of stock poses like running cycles and He-Man’s famous transformation sequence. Considering the sophistication that goes into children’s animation now, I marvel at how easily we were entertained 20-odd years ago.
Now, I don’t remember the He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special at the timed it aired, but I must’ve seen it. We showed it at our last official Yulemala event a few years back and it led to at least one enduring theme in our little group. Oh, but let’s get to the plot.
Snow has fallen around the palace of Eternia and throughout the royal household, preparations are made for the first birthday Prince Adam and Princess Aurora will celebrate together since they were separated as infants. (Yeah, there’s backstory here, but that’s for another day.) Watching their children’s friends hard at work, Queen Marlena tells King Randor that it reminds her of getting ready for Christmas.
“Christmas,” says Randor, “is this one your Earth-holidays?”
She tells him its a very special Earth-Holiday. It seems the Queen was an astronaut from Earth who crashed on Eternia and got swept off of her feet by Randor. I imagine there must be a comic book that goes into greater detail, but that’s more effort than I’m willing to give “He-Man” at this point.
Meanwhile, Adam and Duncan are preparing to test the Man-at-Arms’ latest invention, a “Sky-Spy” that will allow them to monitor Skeletor’s every move. Since this is an advanced and highly sensitive piece of machinery, it means only one character could come along and ruin things. Yup, time for Orko to make his introduction.
Oh, you don’ remember Orko? Imagine if Tom Bombadil lost his hindquarters and started dressing in red. His voice is high-pitched and he gets into “comedy” situations that He-Man and the other, more serious characters inevitably have to deal with. While the writers eventually tried to round out his character, he’s most often a source of whimsy.
In this case, Orko whimsically gets access to the Sky-Spy’s cockpit, whimsically plays with the controls, and whimsically gets it to lift off. Don’t you feel enchanted by the whimsy? As it lifts off, the Sky-Spy is spotted by Skeletor and Two-Bad. They chase after it in Skeletor’s latest vehicle, The Collector.
Adam changes into He-Man and catches up to Skeletor and the Sky-Spy. Using a force belt, the powers of evil briefly capture He-Man, but is freed thanks to She-Ra’s timely arrival. The two overpowered Aryan superpeople smash The Collector to bits. That’s alright, guys, it would’ve been a terrible toy to bring to market.
Back in the Sky-Spy, Orko uses a whimsical magic spell to get the rocket to land, but since Orko’s spells never work, the rocket blasts out of the atmosphere and appears to fold space, disappearing entirely. He-Man is relieved, though, because he believes no one is in it. Returning to the guise of Prince Adam, Duncan suggests using a “finder beam” to locate the errant rocket. At that moment, the rocket lands on another planet, ejecting Orko from the cockpit. It also happens to be snowy on the alien world and–
Okay, fine, it’s Earth! Orko has landed on Earth and he didn’t even bring Dolph Lundgren with him!
I’m not going to get into it at length here, but Masters of the Universeis on the chopping block for review. It commits one of the great cinematic sins by bringing the magical characters of a favorite toy-line to Earth. Luckily, we no longer live in a world where that happens.
Orko sees a couple of children in the distance threatened by an oncoming avalanche. He once again uses his magic, this time with some success as the children float over to him. The two kids were collecting a Christmas tree, but got lost. He suggests returning to his rocket which the kids don’t questions. I guess this Earth, never identified in any period of time, is okay with space ships and weird floating troll-men abducting little kids. Inside, they tell him that Christmas as time of peace and “good will toward men,” which is one my favorite archaic turns of phrase. When Orko says he’s confused, the boy tells him the story of Jesus.
Well, I assume he does, anyway. The scenes fades out before Big Baby J is mentioned. Instead, we return to Eternia where the finder beam has locked onto the Sky-Spy. Queen Marlena immediately recognizes the grid-reference as Earth-coordinates. When Teela suggests that it might be impossible to get Orko back from the distant planet, Duncan mentions his new transport beam could do the trick … but it needs a Kerium Water Crystal from Etheria.
Back on Earth, the kids start telling Orko about Santa Claus.
She-Ra arrives on Etheria and is told by one of her allies — a mermaid — that the water crystal can be found in some ruins guarded by “The Beastmonster.” She-Ra agrees to distract the Beastmonster while the mermaid retrieves the crystal.
Can I just say I love the name “Beastmonster?” Like “KARR” — the evil talking car from “Knight Rider” — it is one of those terms you know the writers came up with under duress a few minutes before happy hour. Here’s how I imagine it went:
Paul Dini: So, She-Ra and the mermaid girl go to the ruins.
Joe Straczynski: Yeah, but they can’t just get the crystal. They have to fight some sort of … beast or monster.
Don Heckman: What if we call it “The Beastmonster?”
Bob Foward: Yeah, I can live with that.
Straczynski: Me too.
My love of “Beastmonster” runs so deep, that it became the name of my band on every variation of “Rock Band.” The characters even resemble heroes from the show. Adam is vocals, Duncan is lead guitar, She-Ra drums and Fisto plays bass.
At the ruins, She-Ra and her horse Swiftwind tussle with the Beastmonster, who ends up looking like Godzilla crossed with the Lock Ness Monster. I guess with a name like “Beastmonster” you can’t expect a compelling design. Slightly more compelling are the transforming “Monstroids” that appear as She-Ra attempts to leave the ruins.
Back on Earth, the kids teach Orko “Jingle Bells” when the transport beam appears. He leads the kids into the beam and the entire Sky-Spy returns to Eternia. The kids, now identified as Alicia and Miguel become of importance to Horde Prime. Who’s that? Who cares. He calls for Skeletor and Hordak, the shows’ villains to combat the new “spirit of goodness” that has come to Eternia. Why Horde Prime cares so much is a little beyond me.
Now in the throne room, Alicia is sad because she might miss Christmas while the water crystal recharges. Marlena assuages her fears by offering to combine Adam and Aurora’s birthday with a Christmas Party. I’m sure anyone with a December birthday knows this pain all too well.
When Hordak and Skeletor arrive at Horde Prime’s space platform, he explains that Christmas and “good will toward men” could threaten his reign of terror. He sends them both to stop Christmas with the offer of a great reward. Skeletor’s approach is to go on cable news channels and create a false hysteria about anti-Christmas intellectuals. Hordak just kidnaps the children.
Oh! But before that, Bow, the sexually ambiguous member of She-Ra’s crew, helps the kids write a new Christmas song (which starts at 6:05 of the following video):
So Hordak arrives on the scene to take the kids in a giant floating … um …
On their way back to Etheria, Hordak is intercepted by the Monstroids, who want to hand over the kids to Horde Prime and collect the reward for themselves. Once in a prison cell, the trio are introduced to the … ugh … “Manchines.” They’re like a cross between an Ewok and that transforming scooter from “Go-Bots” — that is to say they’re 100% annoying. Thankfully, the Monstroids show up to stop the whimsy. Shame He-Man and She-Ra also arrive on the scene to deliver puns and fisticuffs. The Machines offer the heroes some help while Orko and the kids hide nearby with a Manchine puppy.
Oh no! Skeletor finished his live-spot just in time to take the children!
Hordak appears and disables Skeletor’s Battle Ram, forcing it to land in a snowdrift somewhere on Etheria. The kids try to tell him about Christmas, but it makes the old skull-face gag. He does deign to make them heavy jackets for the march across the snow. In an attempt to reassert his meanness, he declares that the Manchine puppy will be left behind. The kids manage to talk him out of that and his voice starts to soften as he’s clearly been infected with “good will toward puppies.”
One thing I love: the kids keep referring to He-Man’s archfoe as “Mr. Skeletor.”
As they march, the kids continue to explain concepts like “nice” and “presents” to Mr. Skeletor while he keeps trying to add a malevolent spin to it. He thinks presents should explode and people should get into fights. Oh, that Mr. Skeletor. At one point, a snow-beast appears and the Master of Evil defends the children. When the kids thank him, he actually grins. It’s kind of terrifying.
Once out of the snowbank, He-Man, She-Ra, and Hordak catch up with them and a fight ensues. Orko once again hides the children, but the Manchine pup stays with the now unconscious Skeletor. In the midst of all of this, Horde Prime arrives for the children. He really doesn’t like them, but I can’t help wondering why Earth-children would be anymore of a threat than kids from Eternia or Etheria. Maybe its their names that stick in his craw. Maybe Horde Prime hates brown people.
When Skeletor comes to, he’s overcome by the need to save the children from Horde Prime. He uses his magic to down Horde Prime’s ship, but He-Man and She-Ra combine their strength to push him back out into space. The kids, meanwhile, shower Skeletor with affection. He-Man is as surprised as his archenemy by this turn of events.
Back on Eternia, the Christmas/birthday party is underway. Adam is dressed up as Santa. Duncan announces that the beam is ready to go and the kids offer everyone a Merry Christmas. On Duncan’s finder beam viewer, he sees the kids have been reunited with their parents, who don’t buy the wild stories about Orko and flying belts.
Well, until they see them fly by.
In the wrap-up, Adam and Orko discuss good-will and presents. Adam presses on about good-will while Orko hammers home that he would like a gift. Oh, that whimsical Orko.
Writers like Paul Dini and Joe Straczynski wax philosophical about the material they presented on the He-Man and She-Ra shows. Executive Producer Lou Scheimer is quite pleased at the uplifting messages he was able to impart into the show, but I think “A Christmas Special” illustrates just how much that notion chafes in the action format.
Since actually talking about Jesus could be seen as divisive and insulting, they fall back on the old “good will toward men” schtick. It’s unfortunate as the damned thing is a “Christmas Special.” I’m pretty sure the parents who had to watch this with us kids knew what they were in for. Sadly, the show cannot commit to its full premise — the divinity of the Lord — and therefore bring Christianity to Eternia. That’s a shame since He-Man and the Son of Man have a lot in common. One would think Prince Adam could get a lot out of the Gospel.
But I digress…
Beyond hedging its bets on the Jesus angle, the show also gives us plenty of poorly thought-out characters like the Beastmonster, the Monstroids, and the Manchines. While they get all the prime screentime, established heroes and villains like Moss Man, Man-E-Faces, Fisto, and Stinkor get the short-end of the stick. Evil-Lyn’s jaundiced visage never appears once in the entire 45 minutes of show!
Apparently, “He-Man” was not a cheap show to produce, but it often had to cut corners to keep all the work in the States. It’s certainly on display here with the usual moments of stock footage and uninspired guest creatures, but it does have one things going for it: Skeletor’s unease at being good. This is one of those story elements that I wish had more time to play out. It’s obvious, sure, but it becomes intriguing because Skeletor is a figure of menace despite his high-pitched voice and constant buffoonery. Both as a kid and as an adult, seeing him come to grips with a different philosophy is something worth seeing. I’d also like to see him revert back to his old bad self after waiting in the exchange line at the Eternia Best Buy the day after Christmas.
While I wouldn’t run to the shelf and play this on a cold December night very often, it’s not as embarrassing as early episodes of “Masters of the Universe” or She-Ra’s introductory adventure. I think that speaks more to the quality of “She-Ra” than “He-Man” as that show is just …
Also, it gave me The Beastmonster. for that, I’ll eternally be grateful.