There’s a Long, Long Way Ahead of You: Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors is a Frustrating Series

jayce_and_the_wheeled_warriorsSo I just picked up the full series run of Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. It cost less than half a pittance on eBay to grab all 65 eps on two cheap R1 DVDs. I’ve been interested in the series since it first ran, as I had vague positive memories of the show based on what little I remembered. As an adult, I was curious to look into it because of its position as DIC’s major production immediately prior to The Real Ghostbusters – a show about which I’ve written just a couple of times so far this month, heh- and because Larry DiTillio, Barbara Hambly and JMS were known writers for at least a full third of the series’s episodes.

Here’s the tl;dr of the series: Jayce’s dad Audric created some GMO plants that were intended to feed mankind. However, a mysterious radiation or dark energy infused the plants with evil malice, and they started running amok, becoming the Monsterminds. Jayce’s dad went into hiding, but not until after creating two pieces of a magic doodad called the Root, which, if the two halves were combined, would destroy the Monsterminds. Jayce has one half. His dad has the other. Along with Herc Stormsailor (pilot and Han Solo/Peter Venkman fusion), Flora (a living girl made from a plant), and Gillian (a Technomage and the closest thing to a breakout character in the series), Jayce has various Adventures while traversing the galaxy, stomping Monsterminds and trying to reconnect with his dad.

I powered through about the first 16 episodes but hit a major wall of frustration with the series.

Some of this frustration is on me. I know perfectly well that 1985 was The Land Before Continuity. In 1985, nobody writing shows really gave a rat’s ass if events carried over plot logic from one episode to another. Many cartoons still don’t today. I admit it’s not entirely fair to judge a show that’s that old by today’s standards – even though a year later DIC gave us Real Ghostbusters, and it holds up perfectly well today.

However, Jayce is a show clearly designed to have a beginning and an end, and which should have had at least some level of internal continuity. It does not appear to. Every episode is designed to be self-contained, and as such, features a total reboot of the plot from episode to episode. So instead of seeing any sense of character progression, we see the same character beats happening over and over again. This is particularly irritating in the case of Herc, who is swindled out of/tricked into going along with an episode’s plot for money in every goddamn episode, and who is incapable of remembering the previous 10+ times this happened before due to Writer Induced Amnesia. I think if you ran the show today, he would have kicked them off the ship at least four times (which would have made for some fun episodes, by the way) for ripping him off, and would have been totally justified in doing so.

In their episode “When Aliens Attack”, Futurama pointed out, rather aptly, that “Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared; TV audiences don’t want anything original. They wanna see the same thing they’ve seen a thousand times before.” Jayce takes the viewer’s patience to extremes on this point, particularly in a marathon context. The writer-induced amnesia leads to situations where the characters seem to say the exact same things from episode to episode – and that repeated dialogue isn’t particularly witty, either. It’s not as insipid as the 70’s SuperFriends dialogue where they’re telling us what’s happening at the same moment as we can see it happening – but there’s a bit of that vibe.

Additionally, the characters just aren’t that strong; they don’t seem to have much of an inner life. The only one who seems to is Gillian – and I’m not sure how much of that is just the voice-acting, but out of all the characters he seems the most “alive” to me, the most vivacious. I’d class him as the Ensemble Darkhorse; I found myself really wanting to have more episodes revolving around him, his backstory, and his general sparkliness. Jayce is what I’d label a pretty-but-dumb hero, Herc is a one-note mercenary, and Flora is kind of just… there.

There’s also the fact that there are at least a couple of episodes I watched where Jayce completely passively waits for someone else to do something to resolve the problem – and he’s the main character! In one ep he gets tossed into a blast furnace and… he just stands there. For three or four scenes. The danger was completely nullified to the audience by having the character simply standing still. No reaction at all. Just standing there motionless. This extremely weird, inhuman beat went on for way, way too long in the episode, straining disbelief. Sorry, even the noblest, bravest heroes start trying to climb the walls, or something, when there’s a giant pile of molten gold headed for their face. What the heck? This is where I really started to think “These guys don’t have a single thought in their head, do they?”

Again, I know, this is kind of not fair – not all cartoons are sparkling examples of the genre and not all of them are going to deserve the same kind of immortality of a Transformers or an RGB or a Mysterious Cities of Gold.

In many ways, I feel like Jayce is actually a first-draft series, based on what I’ve seen. What I mean by this is that, to me, the series feels like a dry run exercise for both RGB and Babylon 5. Herc is not just a Han Solo knockoff, he’s clearly a proto-Peter Venkman. Gillian is clearly a first draft version of both Egon Spengler and later Babylon 5 characters, especially Lennier, Draal, and the Technomages.

Several episodes feel like they’ve been strangely edited – particularly noticeable when we jump from “we’re on the ground finishing an adventure” to “hey, we’re in space now somewhere else!” with no transition between. This is a bit too far of a leap and several times throughout my viewing I found myself wondering if a scripted scene had been cut for time. There are other awkward and odd cuts and juxtapositions that increase the sense of a hastily-put-together final edit.

Another issue I have with Jayce is that there’s no real dramatic weight to anything that happens because the characters are substantially overpowered. They have a few too many magic devices, powers, and deus ex machina items. The Root necklace and the Ring of Light are both WAY too powerful to make any dangerous situation meaningful, as Jayce can use one or the other to get out of almost every situation, and that’s BEFORE adding in having the voice-controlled toyetic vehicle fleet. And then that’s all before adding in Gillian, the technomage who can a) build anything in no time and b) also has ridiculous amounts of magical power and knowledge to resolve anything all of the previous powers can’t fix. It leaves the characters basically never in any true danger. At least with the Ghostbusters, if you take their packs away there’s an immediate and significant depowering that forces the characters to start improvising on the spot, you know?  This feels like another consequence of the ‘first draft’ nature of Jayce – a little more thought might have caused some compression of powers.

The villains, too, seem incomplete, their story arcs not clarified. What exactly is the “Black Light” that Saw Boss is constantly referring to? Who are the cadre that hang around at Saw Boss’s feet, and should we be interested or care about them? How the hell did they actually get that way? The voice acting gives Saw Boss some tantalizing hints at greater depth, but the writing gives us almost nothing to go on.

All that aside, there are some things about Jayce that are fun – the show is obviously taking massive cues from Star Wars, and as a result there are moments here and there that hearken back to Wars‘ spirit of intergalactic derring-do. Some of the worlds the crew visits are interesting and have character – that’s the fun part of the series, similar to Galaxy Rangers and other space-faring shows of the time. Sadly not enough of JMS’s avowed Lensman influence comes through, and it’s a pity, because this series would have been a great place to toss in some knockoff versions of Worsel, Tregonsee or the Arisians. At times, the show even manages to show moments of Space Battleship Yamato-esque grandeur – fleeting invocations of the depth and mystery of space as the Pride moves around the very large and very pretty galaxy backgrounds.

The other fun and sort of creepy thing are the Monsterminds themselves – the things are legitimately horrific villains of a kind not really seen in cartoons at the time. Beginning as flower pods, they blop out organically in a pile of transparent, pulse-throbbing mush and grow onscreen into vehicles – complete with veins and visible internal organs – making it clear that the Monsterminds are organic machines, ending up with big eyes and grimacing grill ‘teeth’. The problem with this is not that it’s creepy (it genuinely is kind of horrific to watch, no matter how many times the animation cycle’s shown) but that it’s awfully distracting, and sets up in the adult viewer’s minds all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Do they feel pain when they fight with their living weapons and are thrown around willy-nilly? The animation implies it, with the Monstermind vehicles grimacing or blinking on impacts. How should we feel about them being flattened, frozen, turned to stone, smashed  – basically killed – right in front of us? These kinds of questions invite the sort of thinking that can just rip apart suspension of disbelief, and pretty soon you find yourself picking holes in all sorts of things about the show’s premise – because the characters aren’t really strong enough to distract you and the events that happen to them aren’t weighted enough to hold your attention. It leads to a lot of questions without answers, which is frustrating.

Another example: If the characters were learning from events, they would have redesigned the damn barge so that the four jutting-out landing rods would be retractable and thus not constantly grabbable by Monstermind space vines. Also, that solar sail bit is cute and all – what was with DIC and its obsession with solar vehicles in the 80s?- but holy hell does it not seem plausible when manuevering into planetary atmospheres or any kind of tight corners. Again, this is something that Mysterious Cities of Gold resolved easily and elegantly on screen by having THEIR solar panels retract and fold up when needed… in 1982.

See what I mean? Little irritations that pile up.

I end up smacking into the flat characters and the plot that can’t go anywhere, and it becomes a real slog to try and talk myself into progressing onward when there’s so much other stuff and so many other good things to see, write and think about.

I kind of want to see the rest of the series just to see if anything changes, if the show grows into itself a little before the end. I doubt many kids ever got to see all the way to the last episodes thanks to the whims of syndication, scheduling and afterschool activities – I certainly remembered almost nothing about the series beyond it’s highly memorable title sequence.  But is it going to be worth it? That’s the question I’m asking myself. If a show isn’t growing after 16 episodes, I’m not sure it’ll change in another 16.

In many ways, yeah, this is overthinking a children’s cartoon – something I’m incredibly good at doing – but with the pedigree of the acknowledged writers, Bernard Deyries/Jean Chalopin, and the excellent effort of the voice acting cast (all the voices are great and some are really fantastic) – I expect and have gotten more from DIC shows, both from Real Ghostbusters and Mysterious Cities of Gold. I know they can and have done better work, so Jayce comes off as a bit of a disappointment.

I wouldn’t complain if someone rebooted the series though, and gave it just that extra coat of thought and polish, because there is the nub of something really great here, but it needs more work to bring it out. I’d call Jayce a diamond in the rough, if you like that kind of thing, and can put up with the frustration of watching a bunch of inexplicable people meandering around in a road trip that never gets anywhere near home.