Politics & Policy

Revisiting the 1980s G.I. Joe Cartoon

For viewers young and old, the U.S. special-forces team still delivers the goods.

The G.I. Joe cartoon that aired from 1983 to 1986 recently became “instantly playable” on Netflix. For readers unfamiliar with G.I. Joe, it’s a fictitious U.S. special-forces team featured in comic books, toys, video games, cartoons, and, recently, a live-action movie series, all owned by Hasbro. The “Joes” spend most of their time fighting against Cobra, a power-hungry terrorist organization.

When I saw that the show was available to watch, my eyes lit up — my brother and I had taken to videotaping it when it was relegated to early-morning syndication in the late 1980s. But life intervened, and even though it’s long been available on DVD, I haven’t seen the show in years.

But it’s a kids’ show, right? Nothing for a 35-year-old to get too excited about? Still, I was curious to see how the show held up. Nor is this an idle concern: With five kids of my own now, age 7 and younger, I am constantly looking for wholesome entertainment for those times when we let the kids in front of the TV.

Let me assure the reader, the show is worth a gander. It is indeed meant for children — there’s no blood or sex, and the plots are simplified. But it also emphasizes key virtues such as duty, honor, and patriotism. On the technical side, the animation is dated, but the voice acting is top-notch, the art is serviceable, and the music has a catchy martial quality that tends to capture the mood well, from tense to stirring.

G.I. Joe also features strong male role models, at a time when many Hollywood action stars are female, such as Angelina Jolie in lots of movies or Merida in Disney-Pixar’s just-released Brave.

That doesn’t mean G.I. Joe doesn’t have strong female leads; two in particular form the show’s core cast. In fact, the show is unquestionably “liberal” in its depiction of women in combat alongside men. In retrospect, this is no surprise; perhaps this Eighties show was leading a female-warrior trend. After all, a majority of 2012 Republican-presidential-primary candidates favored an increase in women’s participation in military-combat operations.

The show also offers tantalizing hints of genres for more mature viewers: the political potboiler, the sci-fi odyssey, and the military thriller. My brother and I, aged 7 and 10, feasted on these nuggets as we tried to understand them and would stay up late talking them over and building them into our own make-believe adventures.

“The Great Alaskan Land Rush” (season 1, episode 62) is essentially a Tom Clancy novel boiled down to 22 minutes. It features a land dispute that starts with the original 1867 deal by Secretary of State William H. Seward to buy Alaska from imperial Russia; a three-way tug of war ensues in 1985 between the U.S., the USSR, and Cobra. Following a sneak attack by Red October (the Joe team’s Soviet counterpart), one of the Joes comments: “When I get my hands on those Red October whackos, I’ll make ’em wish Karl Marx was Groucho’s brother.”

Some other greats:

“The Synthoid Conspiracy” (season 1, episodes 26–27): In this two-episode stretch, Cobra clones top military-brass supporters of team Joe and passes them off as draconian budget-cutters who aim to kill the team’s funding. Kind of like if Sam Nunn or Joe Lieberman clones spouted Ted Kennedy rhetoric. (This would seem more farfetched if the Pentagon weren’t facing a $55 billion sequester this January.)

“The Germ” (season 1, episode 38): Internal bureaucratic squabbles at Cobra lead to a firefight and then to a bio-weapons disaster, upon which the rest of the Michael Crichton-ish episode pivots.

“The Viper Is Coming” (season 1, episode 39): Marvelous dramatic tension. Someone named the Viper is tipping off the Joes to Cobra operations. But who is the Viper?

“Worlds without End” (season 1, episodes 46–47): The Joes are transported to an alternate universe where Cobra controls the world. Most of the G.I. Joe team has been killed, but a few survivors have formed a resistance with a secret ally — the Baroness, a top Cobra lieutenant. The closing moment of this story is a personal all-time favorite. Some of the Joes elect to stay in the alternate universe to help the resistance, and those who return to the present are greeted by Joe team leader Duke: “But where are the others? Steeler, Grunt, Clutch?”

Lady Jaye, staring wistfully at the permanently sealed portal, responds: “They’re someplace where brave men are needed — badly.” The Joes stand lost in thought as the closing theme song builds. As a child, I didn’t know why that moment gave me chills, but now I do: That was real heroism by the volunteers, and it was right for the other Joes to honor their sacrifice.

“There’s No Place Like Springfield” (season 1, episodes 64–65): One of the Joes, Shipwreck, is injured during a mission. He comes to six years later, suffering amnesia. He no longer remembers that the Joe team was victorious over Cobra and that the team has retired. Shipwreck now lives with his wife and two young children in Springfield, Ill. Or does he?

Little touches of realism are another great feature of the cartoon. Serpentor, upon taking command of Cobra in the “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!” story sequence (season 2, episodes 1–5), decides to launch a typically unrealistic frontal assault on Washington, D.C. Tomax and Xamot, the leaders of Cobra’s corporate-front operation, appeal to him: “With all due respect, O mighty Serpentor, we beg you to reconsider. Invasion is easy . . . but holding U.S. territory . . . is all but impossible!”

The Joes justify their enemies’ cautious attitude, winning a pitched battle across D.C. locales including the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol, K Street, and the Potomac River. After Serpentor and other Cobra bigwigs have fled, Sgt. Slaughter delivers the closing line: “We’ll have to keep on our toes . . . the price of liberty is always eternal vigilance!”

A good lesson for our kids. I urge readers to give consideration to the show as entertainment they can enjoy alongside children. Sadly, my brother passed away a few years ago, but I like to think he’s hanging around while I introduce my own kids to the show, and to those same concepts of duty, honor, and sacrifice.

— Loren A. Smith Jr. is a research analyst for Capital Alpha Partners, LLC.


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