Top 10 most Underrated Nostalgic Sci-Fi/Fantasy Cartoons
We who grew up in the eighties and nineties are a privileged generation, because we grew up with the most blindingly kickass cartoons that ever existed. From treasure-hunting ducks to princes who turn into tiger-riding super-men to rebel princesses riding unicorns to special forces army men with names like “Deep Six” to robots in disguise to heroes in a half shell, our cartoons rocked, and they rocked hard. A lot of them had sci-fi or fantasy aspects to them and planted the seeds for modern geekdom. We still remember and love these cartoons, and a number of them have seen recent re-releases and remakes.
But some of these cartoons seem to have faded from our collective consciousness, and I personally cannot understand why. Maybe it they didn’t get the exposure they needed, maybe they got slashed by uncaring studio execs when the toys didn’t sell, or maybe, for whatever reason, they did not connect with the audience. But I, at least, remember these shows with a lot of love. I remember intelligent storylines, kickass concepts, and some pretty awesome voice acting. While people are still humming the “Duck Tales” theme and naming their pet turtles after Renaissance painters, these cartoons seem to have sunk to the blackest depths of our memories, and I think it’s about time they resurfaced.
Number 10: “The World of David the Gnome” (Two seasons, January – June 1988)
Oh, this show. Somewhat low on the list because in some ways it seemed more an educational show than an adventure series, but this was one of the staples of my childhood, and I still remember every word of that fucking theme song. Originally developed in Spain, and based on the book The Secret Book of Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet, “The World of David the Gnome” opened kids’ eyes to a world that existed literally under their feet. A whole society of gnomes, tiny people 15 centimetres high, that made their homes beneath the roots of trees and had a civilization of their own.
The series centered around David, an elderly doctor, and his wife, Lisa. David is carried from place to place by his faithful fox, Swift, and is one of the most respected people in the gnome kingdom. David not only deals with medical emergencies in his area, but is also frequently called by the king to help deal with issues abroad.
“David the Gnome” was one of the first series I saw that created its own world. Technically, it took place in regular old Earth, but in the gnomes’ world mice are the size of large dogs, cats are deadly predators, and birds are the primary means of intercontinental travel. In addition, much of the mythos is built on European (particularly northern Europe) folklore, featuring trolls, fairies, and other creatures of myth. ”David the Gnome” was also notable for being an early venture into the environmental movement, with the gnomes living in harmony with nature and often stepping in to repair the damage that humans had caused.
In addition, David was a doctor, and numerous episodes featured him going out to help wounded animals. From pulling horsefly larva from a deer’s throat to removing broken glass from the stomach of a goat, David not only handled it, but did it realistically and unflinchingly, even providing helpful diagrams. So helpful, in fact, that many of these episodes were censored for American audiences.
Finally, when “The World of David the Gnome” was taken off the air, it did not flinch at the ending; the final episode dealt with David and Lisa turning 400 years old, and finally dying. In an era where kids were still being deeply sheltered, “The World of David the Gnome” offered an unflinching and occasionally brutal look at the natural world, and all the beauty and horror that goes along with it.
Oh, and by the way, the voice actor for David? Tom fucking Bosley.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Yes, but not officially! Best you can do is some European region-free DVDs. Check them out here.
Number 9: “Dragon Flyz” (Two seasons, 1996 – 1997)
Ah, the nineties, when adding a Z to the end of any word automatically made it cool. ”Dragon Flyz” came around a bit late for me in cartoon terms, but just right when it came to sci fi. It was Pern with some more futuristic tech and without all the weird sexual tension. Also, it had a floating city.
Like the best cartoons of the era, “Dragon Flyz” was born of a line of toys. This one was an action figure with wings attached to the arms that fitted onto a base. You pulled the string on the base, and the figure spun around and got launched into the air to (in theory) spin into a wild landing somewhere in the distance. There was a “girls’” version called Sky Dancers, but the Dragon Flyz were so much fucking cooler, and the cartoon more than proved it.
It’s the 41st century, and in the wake of a nuclear war Earth has been left uninhabitable. In desperation, humanity has taken to the skies, building a floating city called “Airlandis”. Airlandis, in turn, requires purple crystals known as amber (bit of a misnomer, there) to fuel its engines, and, of course, amber can only be found on Earth.
Luckily or unluckily, the pollution of the planet has spawned mutants, some of which are dragons. These dragons are intelligent and savvy enough to ally themselves with the people of Airlandis, thus spawning an elite group of “dragonators” called the Dragon Flyz, who fly down to Earth to collect the amber required to keep Airlandis afloat. But there’s a dark side: the mutations also resulted in reptilian humanoids who now hold dominion over the planet’s surface, and they do not intend to let the humans just take what they want…
This was the setup for “Dragon Flyz”, and I’m sorry, but if you have heard a more awesome premise behind a cartoon, I would like to hear it. It failed a bit in execution and character, but there was a surprising amount of depth in the world as a whole. The protagonists not only had to battle the mutants, but also dealt with natural forces like “Warp Winds”, which were speeding wind currents through acidic clouds, and “Wind Pits”, which were mountains that contained wind tunnels to safely carry one through the Warp Winds. In addition, there were hints that the mutants had a developed society of their own, and that there might be other humans who retreated to space stations currently in orbit. And there is just something shocking about the opening of a child’s cartoon displaying the aftermath of a nuclear war. ”Dragon Flyz” had a brilliant idea that needed some time to find its feet, and sadly, it didn’t get the time to do so.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Sadly, no, though a few episodes can be found on YouTube. If you’re really desperate, some single-episode DVDs were sold with the action figures, and they can still be found on Ebay.
Number 8: “Dino-Riders” (One season, October – December 1988)
Okay, so let’s list the various things that kids find cool. Dinosaurs, time travel, aliens, lasers…so how could a cartoon that featured them all possibly fail?
Well, somehow it did. But for the brief three month period that this show aired, it certainly had my attention. The idea is similar to that of “Transformers”, or more closely, to “Beast Wars”; two warring factions are fleeing towards Earth, but end up going through a time portal and crash-landing in prehistoric times. But these are purely organic warriors, and they decide to continue their war using the greatest weapons available: fucking DINOSAURS. The good guys tame dinosaurs gently, using telepathy and bonding with them emotionally. The bad guys, however, use cybernetic attachments to painfully force the dinosaurs to submit to their will. Add a few lasers to the saddles and you have “Dino-Riders”, the most awesome cartoon ever to fail miserably.
To be fair, the show deeply lacked when it came to characterization, but Jesus Christ DINOSAURS. WITH LASERS. I tuned in every Saturday morning, and leaving aside the awesome factor, it was also rather horrifying to see dinosaurs dragged into the Rulons’ labs and having these cybernetic masks brutally grafted to them. I also liked that the good guys struggled to free the dinosaurs and lamented the suffering that the Rulons caused them.
“Dino-Riders” was incredibly brief, but it seriously left an impression, especially for a paleontology-obsessed kid like me.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Sort of. There’s a European DVD release, but apparently it does not contain all of the episodes and is of very poor quality.
Number 7: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (Two seasons, 1987 – 1988)
I think The Wizard of Oz shaped all of us in some shape or form, no matter what your first exposure to it was. In my case, it was in the Japanese/Canadian TV adaptation “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, 52 episodes that adapted and summarized four of Frank L. Baum’s books, beginning with The Wizard of Oz and ending with The Emerald City of Oz.
First, I gotta say, I love that opening theme. I still have it on my Ipod. It’s written and performed by the Canadian pop group Parachute Club, and it seriously had me mesmerized enough that I was scrawling the lyrics in the margins of my school notebooks.
Aside from that, however, this show was the first exposure many of us had to Japanese anime, even if we didn’t know it. When Cinar (now Cookie Jar Entertainment) bought the rights to this series, they substituted suitably western-sounding names in the credits, but the style and feel is still pure anime. And like with many animes, this show didn’t flinch when it came to the brutality of the real world.
I think the story arc I remember most is the last one, loosely based on The Emerald City of Oz. In it, newly-discovered princess Ozma is preparing for her coronation, but the kingdom of gnomes is planning to invade with the help of a stone-devouring worm and an insatiable giant called the Growleywog. In the ensuing battle, much of the Emerald City is captured or destroyed, and the heroes must feet against a seemingly unending barrage of foes. It’s brutal, relentless, and was fascinating to my eight-year-old brain.
That’s not to say the previous seasons didn’t have merit; quite the contrary! They proved to be a powerful adaptation of Baum’s work, one that took its own direction and maintained its own feel and identity. Also, narration by Margot Kidder and music by, not kidding, Joe fucking Hisaishi. Yes, “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” Joe Hisaishi. This was one of his earliest projects, shortly after he’d completed the soundtracks for “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” and “Castle in the Sky”.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Eh…sort of. Apparently the official DVD collection is highly edited and missing a lot of footage.
Number 6: “Blackstar” (one season, September – December 1981)
Another show with a blindingly kickass concept and an incredibly detailed world behind it. ”Blackstar” was the story of John Blackstar, an astronaut whose ship goes through a wormhole or dimensional portal or something and crash-lands on the alien world of Sagar. Soon after being nursed back to health by the hobbit like…uh…Trobbits (Amazing how two letters can make all your copyright issues fly away), John acquires the Starsword, one half of the powerful weapon called the Powerstar. The other half, the Power Sword, is held by the evil warlock known only as the Overlord. Being trapped in this world, John decides to help the people of Sagar fight back against the Overlord.
If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s very similar to “He-Man”, “She-Ra”, and “Flash Gordon”, but it actually predated all but “Flash”. Like Flash, John Blackstar is accompanied by a number of native warriors, but “Blackstar” had a number of innovations that made it quite notable. First of all, while it was never explicitly stated, John Blackstar was generally assumed to be Native American, which made him one of the first animated TV heroes to be a person of colour. Also, the vast majority of his allies were women, from the immortal sorceresses Mara and Amber, the Amazon queen Storm, the goddess Lelanna, and the dryad Delia, which at the time was very unusual. All of his allies were blindingly awesome, like Klone, the shapeshifter, and Warlock, John’s reptilian dragon-horse steed.
But it was the world of Sagar that really stood out. The entirety of the planet was mapped out for the Gorge of the Winds to the Red Crown Reef to the ruined city of Tamboriyon, and all the creatures that lived within it. I particularly loved the massive and gentle air whales, who lived in the region of Anchar amongst tribes of vampires. And oh, yes, the undead were featured in this show, from vampires to demons to zombies. It was a remarkably rich world, and additionally featured ties to our world, with John Blackstar’s girlfriend, Lieutenant Katana, planning to mount a rescue mission to bring John home.
Finally, “Blackstar” had some amazing people working on it. The writers included Michael Reaves, Marc Scott Zicree, and Martin Pasco. John Blackstar himself was voiced by George DiCenzo. Overall, “Blackstar” was a kickass sci-fi/sword and sorcery series that, in many ways, was ahead of its time.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
All 13 episodes of “Blackstar” were released on DVD in 2006, but shortly afterwards the distribution company went out of business. Ebay’s your best bet.
Number 5: “Aladdin” (two seasons, 1994 – 1995)
“Aladdin” was that rarest of beasts; a TV series that was better than the movie that spawned it. ”Aladdin” came out shortly after “The Return of Jafar”, the rather mediocre sequel to the original 1992 movie. That means Iago has joined the crew of heroes, and Aladdin is living at the palace as Princess Jasmine’s fiance. The original movie’s cast returned to reprise their roles, with the exception of Robin Williams, but in my opinion they did a great job in replacing him with Dan Castellaneta, Homer Simpson himself.
Some of the early episodes were pretty ludicrous (a giant ballet-dancing rhino?), but as the show progressed it gained some real guts. One of the things I quite liked was that they brought in different cultures and mythologies, like the Quezalcoatl-like winged serpent, Malcho, and the Chinese dragon prince Zin. But the series really kicked off in episode 36, “The Sands of Fate”, when Aladdin and his friends have to solve the mystery of a mysterious group of warriors locked in battle for eternity. This episode introduced Phasir, a blind seer who appeared to give advice, and he was the first mysterious character to be introduced, but far from the last. Also to come along was the cat-woman, Mirage, chaos incarnate, and my favourite, the ruthless necromancer Mozenrath. Mozenrath, in particular, was introduced in an episode where he kidnapped the Genie and tried to FEED HIM to a magic-devouring extra-dimensional monster. The Genie was chased through a dark, claustrophobic labyrinth by this monster, and I was riveted to the screen for every minute.
From then on, we could count on some pretty dark and risky storylines from “Aladdin”. From canine wind-spirits to mysterious black obelisks to world-smothering black sand, the plotlines in Aladdin ranged from the surreal to the horrifying. Some of my particular favourites included “Seems like Old Crimes”, in which we hear about Aladdin’s past with a gang of thieves, and how that gang was transformed into horrific monsters by a curse; “Hero with a Thousand Feathers”, in which Iago accidentally releases a monstrous giant that takes over Agrabah (watch in particular where the monster demands tribute from all the citizens and snatches a small child’s teddy bear; seriously ugly); “The Lost Ones”, where Mirage has been stealing street children and turning them into shadow-traveling monsters; “The Prophet Motive”, where the team must interpret one of Phasir’s prophecies before disaster falls; and “Two to Tangle”, where it’s revealed that Mozenrath’s magical gauntlet is slowly killing him, and he attempts to switch bodies with Aladdin to stave off death.
“Aladdin” had its ups and downs, but the characters were strong, and when it shone, it really shone. Mozenrath and Mirage were two of the darkest, most ruthless villains to ever show up on kids’ TV, and there were hints of much deeper connections that sadly never saw fruit. It brought us to an exotic location and introduced us to a new culture of myths and legends.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Not outside of Youtube, I’m afraid, though there are quite a few episodes that were successfully uploaded.
Number 4: “Conan: The Adventurer” (two seasons 1992 – 1993)
How obsessed was I with this show? I’d say it was the source of my first fanfiction, but I think The Lord of the Rings takes that prize. ”Conan: The Adventurer” was pure sword and sorcery, harkening right back to the old Robert E. Howard books. In this incarnation, Conan is a 19-year-old man who witnesses a meteor shower near his village. His father, a blacksmith, collects the meteorites, which prove to be of a new metal that he dubs “Star Metal”, and uses to forge a series of weapons, including a broadsword for his son.
Unbeknownst to them, however, the Serpent Man wizard, Wrath-Amon, is told by his deity, Set, that this Star Metal is the key to opening a dimensional portal and bringing Set back from The Abyss to the human world. For that reason, Set begins gathering Star Metal and eventually makes his way to Conan’s village. Conan returns to find that Wrath-Amon, in a fit of temper upon discovering the weapons have been sold, has turned Conan’s entire family to stone. In the ensuing battle, Conan discovers that the Star Metal has an unanticipated effect; its touch can banish the Serpent Men to The Abyss. And so, Conan departs to not only save his family, but to collect the Star Metal and use it to banish Wrath-Amon and the Serpent Men to join Set.
It was a straightforward story, but the more the series progressed, the more complicated it got. Conan was joined by many companions, including the jungle warrior Zula, the half-Serpent Man (though this was only discovered much later) acrobat Jezmine, the flying warrior Falkenar, Snagg, a Viking berseker, and Greywolf, the wizard. Conan also was accompanied by Needle, a baby phoenix who lived in his shield. Each of these characters was extremely well-developed and had their own very interesting backstories. Greywolf was my favourite; his brother and sister were transformed into wolves by the sorceress Mezmira, and it was his desperate quest to restore them to human form. Each of the characters had their own motivations and character arcs, and that was a pretty major step forward for the genre.
Although Conan was the focus, each character had episodes centered around them, including Jezmine’s gradual discovery of her Serpent Man heritage, Zula’s traitorous cousin, and the aforementioned quest to restore Greywolf’s siblings. In addition, some of the episodes were shockingly dark. A particular favourite of mine was “Once and Future Conan”, in which Conan is sucked into a possible future where Set has been brought into the human world. Most of his companions, including Falkenar, have been killed or have disappeared, and only Greywolf, Snagg, and Zula remain, but they are now old men who have been crushed under Set’s tyrannical regime. Conan has to find his way back to his time, and in doing so watches all of his friends die to try and bring him home. It was bleak, ugly, and horrifying.
One of the things I also really enjoyed was that Conan’s companions were not just generic white men. Each of Conan’s friends came from their own country and were deeply shaped by their cultures. Zula’s people, the Wasai, were based on the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, Greywolf’s home city of Xanthus was based on Moorish and Persian cultures, and Falkenar’s homeland of Kasan was definitely East Asian in inspiration. Each character had their own myths, gods, and traditions, all of which got at least some mention and exposure. It was a surprising amount of cultural richness for a children’s cartoon.
Even the villains had character arcs. Windfang, a flying reptilian warrior, was once a man who fought against Wrath-Amon. When he was captured, Wrath-Amon tortured and mutated him, turning him into a winged, lizard-like monster. Windfang at first tried to return home, but his fiancee was horrified by the sight of him, and in despair, he returned to Wrath-Amon and pledged to serve him. In a genre where many of the villains needed no more motivation than, “I’m evil,” it was startling to have a series that made them well-developed and sympathetic characters in their own right.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Yes, but only season one.
Number 3: “Sonic the Hedgehog Sat: AM” (two seasons 1993 – 1994)
This show is a bit controversial, especially among Sonic fans, because it was a departure from the video games and added a lot of new characters, but I stand by it. It’s also, sadly, an example of what can happen when a studio decides that a show is becoming too “controversial”, with the second season becoming much “cuter” and more humour-driven, but I still feel it belongs here for the power of its first season and the rather epic finale. Also, that theme song is one of my favourite cartoon themes of all time.
The premise is that Sonic and his friends live in a conquered world. Where once they lived in harmony with nature, the vicious Dr. Robotnik (who is about as far from his cartoony egg-shaped counterpart as one can get) has taken them over, turning their cities into barren, mechanical, pollution-spewing metropolises. Any people that he can catch are “roboticized”; put through a machine and turned into mechanized slaves. In fact, several of the Freedom Fighters (as they’re called), including Sonic, have friends who are now Robotnik’s minions. One of the Freedom Fighters, Bunnie, in fact was rescued in the process of being roboticized, and is now forced to live with a robotic limb. It was a startlingly dark premise of a cartoon, starting with all these stereotypical “funny animal” characters and watching their world be destroyed.
Sonic was your average wise-cracking and not terribly bright hero, but you could see a lot of depth in him. He cried over the loss of his Uncle Chuck and his pet dog, and was almost obsessed with getting them back. And the leader of the rebellion was Princess Sally, a tough and resourceful woman (woodchuck?) determined to find her lost father, and intelligent enough to strategize and hack into Robotnik’s computer systems.
This was a series that pulled no punches; it took a cheerful, cartoon world and turned it into a dystopian nightmare. It’s like if Disneyland was taken over by Cruella DeVill and Mickey and friends had to fight to win it back. In addition the rich, science-fiction inspired settings were lovingly drawn and animated, making for a world we could really get lost in.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
A DVD set of the entire series was released, but then discontinued. Try Ebay.
Number 2: “Roswell Conspiraces: Aliens, Myths, and Legends” (one season, 1999 – 2000)
So imagine “The X-Files”, except the entire FBI knows about the aliens, and oh yeah, Scully’s an alien herself, and you’ve pretty much got “Roswell Conspiracies”.
This show, holy fuck, this show. I wasn’t sure about including it at first because it aired at the very tail end of the nineties, and I’m not sure how geared to kids it was, but it made way too much of an impression on me not to add it. The premise is that aliens have been coming to our planet for centuries, and have in fact become the basis for mythological creatures like werewolves, banshees, vampires, oni, zombies, yeti, and even Egyptian and Norse gods. Nick Logan is a bounty hunter with a unique gift for seeing past aliens’ psychic disguises, and is recruited into the Global Alliance, an organization determined to keep the existence of aliens a secret and to capture and imprison all aliens on the planet. His partner is Sh’lainn Blaze, a young banshee who wants to create an alliance between her species and the humans, and who decides to work with the Alliance to help make that happen.
This show was conspiracy in every way, shape, and form. From the original Roswell conspiracy to the Alliance’s sometimes desperate attempts to keep aliens under wraps, to Nick’s own mission to find out the truth behind the disappearance of his father, the plotlines of this series just got more and more complex as time went on. Although Nick and Sh’lainn were the heroes, we were introduced to other major characters, like Simon Fitzpatrick and Nema Perrara, the Alliance’s cover-up artists, Jefferson Trueblood, their head of security, and James Rinaker, the leader of the Alliance. Again, each character had episodes centered around them, and each of them had their own detailed backstories and character arcs.
What really got me about this show, however, was just how complex it was. Nick joined the Alliance genuinely believing that what they were doing was right, but as the show progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the Alliance’s methods aren’t working, and that there is actually an alien rebellion seeking to bring the Alliance down.
It would be impossible for me to go into all the storylines here. From the Voudon alien parasites infiltrating the Alliance headquarters to Nick and Sh’Lainn attacking an alien headquarters only to discover it’s a hospital to Ti-Yet, the yeti agent, being taken by the mainstream authorities and the others having to go in to save him. One of my personal favourite episodes wasn’t centered around the main characters at all, but was told from the perspective of a civilian who happened to be at a party where aliens were present, and we get to see the entire Alliance infiltration and coverup from his perspective.
The series reached a shocking climax and came to a solid conclusion, but I still think that the cancellation was a waste of a massive amount of writing and animation talent. This series could have gone for several more seasons, or even spread the single arc over two or three seasons, and it makes me quite sad that so few people know of it now.
Awesome! Can I see it now?
Sadly, only the first 20 episodes have been released on DVD, and there are no plans to release the second half of the season any time soon.
And the number 1 underrated sci-fi/fantasy cartoon is….
“The Pirates of Dark Water” (two seasons 1991 – 1993)
I would haul myself out of bed at 8:30 every Sunday morning for this show. It was one of the richest, most detailed fantasy stories I had ever seen on television, and I was completely captivated by it.
The series is set on the planet of Mer, a world almost entirely covered by sea. The greatest city of Mer was once Octopon, but now that great metropolis has fallen into ruin. Two of the last inhabitants are Jenna, the lighthouse keeper, and her teenage ward, Ren. One stormy day, Ren finds a castaway washed up on the shore, who proves to be Primus, former king of Octopon and Ren’s father. He tells Ren that the planet is being slowly consumed by an oily black slime called Dark Water, and the only way to dispel it is by collecting the thirteen Treasures of Rule. Ren sets off to find the Treasures, acquiring allies and enemies along the way.
This show is still one of my favourites to just sit down and pore over. The world is, hands down, one of the most detailed and powerful I have encountered in all of sci fi. Mer had its own ecosystems, plants, and animals, and a wide variety of sentient species and cultures. The villains didn’t use grappling hooks, they used long-tentacled, sucker-faced molluscs. To venture under water, the characters use weird, snail-like creatures that generate air-bubbles. The villain drove a ship made entirely from the bones of sea monsters. The amount of detail and love put into the creation of this world was incredible.
And the Dark Water…the Dark Water was terrifying. It appeared as something similar to an oil slick, scudding along the surface of the sea, except that whatever touched it was drawn in and devoured. In one of the first episodes, we see a person, one of the heroes, sucked into it and consumed. The terror on the faces of all the characters was palpable, and the Dark Water was a powerful and frightening threat of the likes most of us kids had never seen before. In addition, Ren was pursued by the pirate king Bloth, who captained a ship so vast that an entire village lived unknown in its bowels, and who regularly fed incompetent crew members to a monster called the constrictus. Bloth was no silly cartoon villain; he was vicious, ugly, and threatening, and he was a genuine danger to the heroes.
As the series went on, the story became richer, with the Dark Water changing from a mindless threat to the device of an angry Lovecraftian god. The characters developed new strengths and powers, new islands and storm-tossed patches of sea were uncovered, and Ren was able to restore half of Mer to its former glory…before the series was cancelled.
This was before “Wonderfalls”, before “Firefly”…this show taught me the tragedy of a series being cancelled before its time. With an incredible team of writers, animators, and voice actors (including Tim Curry and Jim Cummings), “The Pirates of Dark Water” was an unforgettable experience, and one I relish to this day.
Awesome! Can I see it now?