Thursday, 28 May 2015

[Flashback] Spiral Zone

The art of a good cartoon series introduction was something that was lost during the early 90s. The formula was pretty simple: a catchy tune, images of all the characters and a man shouting out the basic plot of the series so that no-one was left in any doubt as to what the show could possibly be about. The art of the iconic intro has made a slight return in recent years, though in no way as strong a thing across the board as it was in the eighties.

Why is this important though? Let's look at Spiral Zone. "What's Spiral Zone?" you ask.


Spiral Zone is one of a series of pretty generic mid-to-late eighties cartoons about a team in futuristic armour who run about fighting evil villains. There's the typical eighties attempt at inclusion with the good guys including a woman (who doubles as 'the Russian one') and a Japanese man, who (of course) is really good at karate, as all Japanese people are. They're led by a blonde-haired, blue eyed man called 'Commander Courage' which really sets out the level of what you're watching.

Cartoon legend J. Michael Straczynski developed the show, but apparently quit after only one script citing that his concept was too dramatically altered and took his name off, replacing it with the pseudonym 'Fettes Grey' which was rather hilariously taken from the names of the grave robbers in the film 'The Body Snatcher'. Again, this knowledge pretty much sets out the level of what to expect.

What doesn't set it out is the intro. Spiral Zone is one of those rare cases where the introduction, whilst really catchy, tells the audience absolutely nothing about what's going on. Let's have a look:

It looks and sounds great, but here's a quiz: what does it actually tell you?

There's a guy on a motorbike who is clearly evil as he has face paint and sounds like Chris Latta. The Earth's most powerful soldiers are apparently our last chance against the dreaded 'Spiral Zone'. This 'Zone' is apparently really bad, and we see someone pick up a zombie. Then the lyrics tell us "Fight the Zone! Zone Riders!"

The first episode launches straight into the plot, assuming the audience already knows exactly what is going on. At a mission briefing scene, which is clearly set up for exposition, Commander Dirk Courage just rambles on about how they "need to stop the Zone to protect shipping lanes" without stopping to mention what it actually was. (To be fair, the pilot episode was 'Mission into Evil' which was episode 4 of the show, though that doesn't distract from the fact that each episode should be able to put across the core concept of the show)

This was the job of the introduction. That's how these shows worked - the intro exposits the high concept of the show, and then the individual episodes can get on with telling the stories in 22 minutes without needing to go over the plot for new viewers. The plot of Spiral Zone isn't even particularly complex.

In the futuristic space year 2007, an evil scientist calling himself Overlord and who looks like an evil biker (this is always a good clue in the 80s that someone's a villain) sets up 'Zone generators' which turn people into his zombie slaves. A small group of heroes must venture into the Spiral Zone using their high-tech suits and stop him before he takes over the Earth!

The bad guy rules over an army of zombies, and futuristic soldiers have to stop him before he makes more! What a setup!

That could easily be in the form of a song. I will leave you to compose your own verses below.
It may sound like a churlish complaint, but it's more that it's symptomatic of the show itself. It isn't bad by any means and shows a decent amount of promise, but is pretty much just another way to fill thirty minutes in the schedules. Great song though. Meaningless, but a great song!

There's a further twist to this tale though: there was a toyline! Or rather, two toylines.

Bandai Spiral Zone (from CollectionDX)

Spiral Zone was originally the name of a well-regarded Bandai line which featured highly articulated 6-inch figures with cloth uniforms. Whilst a short-lived line, it is seen as being pretty revolutionary for the time, especially how each figure had 30 points of articulation. There was also a very cool bike called the 'Monoseed' which will set you back a good few hundred today. There's more pictures on this site, and well worth a look.

Tonka Spiral Zone

It was decided to import Spiral Zone to the US, and in a strange decision, Tonka made completely new toys, along the same lines as the Japanese original but nowhere near as detailed or complex, and so pretty much missed the point of why the line was interesting in the first place. Why go to the trouble of importing a toyline if you're just going to make new designs? Perhaps someone at Tonka really liked the hats. We'll never know...

Is it worth watching? Maybe. It's not particularly bad, just not particularly good either. The JM Straczynski episode "Mission into Evil" which was originally the pilot is probably worth a view just out of curiosity, though it's nothing special. One wonders what the show would have been like if he hadn't felt forced to walk off it.


  1. I know at least one person who remembers Spiral Zone! (And it's not meee.)

    1. Clearly you must know of it to be in the position of replying to talk about it. WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS.

  2. I used to watch it every day before school! Loved the images of them racing through the streets of manhattan. It's rare to find someone else who remembers this show. I think it was on right after GI Joe.