In the late 1960s, Saturday morning cartoons were populated by flashy superheroes or teen sleuths, not to mention whatever animal sidekick they had on hand, but in 1967 there was one particular show created by legendary American artist Alex Toth which stood apart from the rest. For those not in the know, Alex Toth worked in and out of both comic books and cartoons to create not only amazing and original worlds but to also populate them with some of the most outlandish creations imaginable. Today we will look at one of the best examples of his work in the form of The Herculoids, a show that broke new barriers when it came to weird and wonderful heroes.
“Somewhere out in space live The Herculoids” and with that scintillating line of dialogue that opens each episode we learn about as much as we ever will about the setting for this particular cartoon which is set in a sci-fi pulp fiction world much akin to what would be found within the pages of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs as they were both full of heroes and monsters. The main protagonist for The Herculoids is Zandor (Mike Road) a space barbarian who fights alongside his wife Tara (Virginia Gregg) and their son Dorno (Ted Eccles) who is “Robin the Boy Hostage” for this show, and it is this family’s duty to protect the planet Quasar from invading robots, mad scientists and various mutants that happen along. Now, if this seems like a pretty big job for such a small family worry not for they are ably aided by a rather diverse team of amazing creatures.
The five creature characters that make up The Herculoids were not only amazing but they were downright scary as well, first, we have Zok (Mike Road) a winged dragon that can emit laser beams from both his eyes and tail as well as having the capability of interstellar travel, next we have Igoo (Mike Road) a large and powerful simian with extremely dense rocklike skin that makes him nearly invulnerable to all harm, then we have Tundro (Mike Road) a ten-legged, four-horned rhinoceros/triceratops hybrid that can shoot explosive energy rocks from his horn like a canon and he can also charge through most obstacles like an out of control tank, finally, there is Gloop and Gleep (Don Messick) two protoplasmic creatures whose incredible abilities put the rest of the Herculoids to shame. Where Igoo is “nigh-invulnerable” these two are completely indestructible as they can absorb and deflect all energy blasts with ease, as well as your more standard physical attacks, and they often use this ability to shield their friends from all sorts of harm. But that’s not all, they can also transform themselves into cushions, trampolines or parachutes so that they can save their friends from potentially fatal drops, and they can stretch themselves between tree limbs or rocks to act as slingshots or to encircle an attacker’s limbs to restrain them or even squeeze them enough to render them unconscious. Is that not terrifying enough? Well, there’s more, they also have the ability to momentarily divide their body mass into separate portions, which can then be independently controlled, and with this amazing talent, they can perform attacks on multiple targets or form a shield wall.
Despite television’s Standards and Practices doing their best to prevent excessive violence on Saturday morning cartoons, The Herculoids was a pretty damn violent cartoon because even though the violence was bloodless we still got, for example, Zandor and his gang of misfits blithely murdering a group of space pirates who had the nerve to take Dorno hostage in the very first episode, and sure, we don’t see any lifeless corpses lying around but we also don’t see people stumbling from the wreckage of their exploded or smashed vehicles, which leaves no doubt in my mind that those pirates were very much dead. A question that all this wanton violence raises is “Why is Quasar so important to all of these various alien invaders?” And with Zandor the protector of this world, a planet that doesn’t seem all that rife with resources, you’d think most villains would steer clear of this particular planet and maybe try a less challenging target like say, the planet Mongo.
• Even futuristic space pirates have the same penchant for burying their treasure in a hole in the ground, which seems very low-tech, don’t they have Cayman Island-type banking planets in this galaxy?
• In “Sarko the Arkman” an alien captures Igoo and Tundro for some unknown “evil purposes” but as in the case of the space pirates the only purpose I could see for this would be as in an easy way to commit suicide.
• Quasar is populated by flying monkeys which has me wondering if this is where the Wicked Witch of the West got her winged armada from.
• In the episode “The Gladiators of Kyanite” Tundro is captured and taken to a gladiator world and when Zandor finds out he says, “Dorno, I’ll go ahead on Zok, you follow later with the rest of the Herculoids” but how will they follow? Zok is an intergalactic flying dragon but as far as I can tell Zandor and the rest of his family don’t have a spaceship or anything else to allow space travel. Also, how exactly does Zandor survive the vacuum of space while riding on the back of Zok?
• This is a rare cartoon to feature a superhero that uses a slingshot as his primary weapon, one that fires explosive energy rocks, so take that, Dennis the Menace.
• Zandor also has an indestructible shield that he can throw and ricochet around like Captain America.
There is not what one would call “heavy plotting” in The Herculoids as each short segment dealt mostly with random alien invaders arriving on Quasar, mostly for inexplicably stupid reasons, who then find themselves being soundly trounced by Zandor and company. One of the bigger stumbling blocks the show’s writer had to overcome was trying to make each encounter seem like a challenge because the sheer strength and literal firepower of our heroes were pretty much insurmountable, adding to that, the fact that there was almost no real character depth or even a satisfying background given for Zandor and his family, other than the fact that they live “Somewhere out in space,” and we must again ask the question “What exactly is so important about protecting the planet Quasar?” I will point out that we do get a villain cackling about “The riches of Quasar will be mine” but from what I can tell this place isn’t some bountiful paradise full of jewels and precious minerals, quite the opposite, in fact.
The writers were hampered even further by each half-hour show being divided into two separate stories and with this truncated format there was simply no way to introduce the villain of the week, establish the threat and then provide any kind of reasonable plot for our heroes in the time provided, thus the show tended toward being rather simplistic and repetitive in nature with Zandor and his fellow Herculoids encountering random invaders, thrashing them rather soundly, wash, rinse and repeat. That all said, what we did end up with was a show that had some truly fun action sequences and a hero who really knew how to take out the trash.
I was a kid when this series came out and watching it now I was shocked at exactly how violent The Herculoids was and to put it in perspective if one were to watch an episode of the Superfriends you’d find that Standards and Practices of the time wouldn’t allow Batman to even punch anyone, while in The Herculoids about 80% the villains who that take up arms against our heroes do not survive the encounter, in fact, we actually see Zandor and the Herculoids hunt down and dispatch a fleeing foe, which was not something you’d normally find in an animated show that was made for children. So even if the scripting for this show was a little on the thin side it more than made up for it with badass action and some of the greatest designed monsters and aliens ever to grace a television show. Overall, if you haven’t seen this show I highly recommend you track it down as the creations of Alex Toth are a wonderful tribute to the likes of Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Conan the Barbarian.
The Herculoids (1967-1969)
Series Rank - 7.5/10
The repetitive nature of these short adventures is more than made up for by the amazing alien creations of Alex Toth not to mention the startling amount of violence and mayhem to be found on a Saturday morning cartoon.