I love G.I.Joe. Out of every toy or cartoon from my childhood, G.I.Joe was my favourite. Back in the eighties, I watched the series religiously. Never missed an episode. When G.I.Joe: The Movie aired on television, I was glued to my couch, watching attentively. Even when the goofy legend of Cobra-La was explained and the team got augmented with a group of bug-like people and creatures, although it was a tough pill to swallow, I stayed with it. It was 1987. The movie was the pinnacle of any of the shows that Sunbow Entertainment, the animation studio which handled G.I.Joe, Transformers and a host of others, had done to that date. And then it was done. I was a child at the time, so I didn’t understand that Hasbro, the toymaker, had decided to drop one animation studio and sign with another due to the crazy deal they would be getting price-wise. All I knew was that for almost 2 years, there were no new episodes of G.I.Joe. Just re-runs. These re-runs were cool and all, with appearances by a live action Sgt. Slaughter (my childhood wrestling hero – except when he was a bad guy) doing wraparounds during the the commercial breaks. But there were no new episodes. And as a kid, that was driving me mad. So much so that I had given up. I stopped watching the re-runs and was certain that was the last I would see of the cartoon adventures of the Real American Hero.
So when G.I.Joe returned in 1989 with a brand new 5 part mini-series entitled G.I.Joe: Operation Dragonfire, I was there, in front of my t.v. screen, ready to watch NEW adventures of my favourite Joes. To say the show was different from its predecessor would be an understatement. At the time, the toyline had released a a number of old characters with either new costumes or new paint jobs of their old ones and the series attempted to reflect that. The voices I had become familiar with like they were my own family had been changed for the most part as well. With the exception of 3 characters voices – Sgt. Slaughter as himself, the late Chris Latta (credited under his real name Christopher Collins) as Cobra Commander and Morgan Lofting as The Baroness – all the others were changed. Again, I was a kid. I didn’t know how studios worked. I didn’t get that there were people providing the voices for the various Joes and Cobras. All I knew is that they didn’t sound right…or look right for that matter. But I was also a G.I.Joe fan who was hungry for new content. So I convinced myself that I was happy with the changes and embraced Operation Dragonfire like a new best friend.
This past year, G.I.Joe Series 2, Season 1 was released on DVD. The season, which didn’t really kick off officially until a year after that in 1990, also includes a disk of Operation Dragonfire. So as soon as I got the chance, I picked it up to sit down and watch this little 5-parter like it was 1989 all over again. Now it’s been over 20 years since I first watched it. So I knew that the animation would be clunky and the story a little hokey, but I had no idea that unlike the series from 85/86, it would not age gracefully.
The story begins with the Joes on a peace-keeping mission in a 3rd world country. They are helping a small village acquire electricity to power their homes with light. Video Journalist Leonard Michaels, who goes by the nickname Scoop, is there to cover the event. At first he appears to be on hand to slander the Joes in the press, but when Cobra attacks a nearby monastery that holds an ancient power known as Dragonfire, he joins in the battle and aids the Joes. After this, Sgt. Slaughter decides to add him to the team. (Apparently it’s just that easy….no military training needed. Just suit up and be a Joe. I know it happened previously with both Shipwreck and Quick-Kick, but at least those intances were better set up). What the Sarge doesn’t know is that Scoop is really a spy for Cobra and his camera transmits a signal to their home base. Meanwhile, undermined by Serpentor and dumped by Destro for a younger model (Zarana – I know. I don’t get it either), The Baroness, along with Dreaknok Gnawgahyde set out to use this Dragonfire power to restore the original Cobra Commander to human form as he was turned into a snake in the previous film. Baroness succeeds and Cobra Commander makes it his mission to harness the Dragonfire power for himself and use it to imbue the power of animals (snakes surprisingly) to soldiers and vehicles under his command. However Scoop, after finding out the truth about Cobra being responsible for the death of his parents, decides to redeem himself by taking Cobra down from the inside and giving the advantage to G.I.Joe. The remainder of the mini-series focuses on Cobra Commander retaking power in Cobra and the race between both Cobra and the Joe Team to claim all the ancient sites that have Dragonfire.
Now as a 9 year old when it first aired, I was willing to accept a lot without much explination. As a 32 year old, I feel that common sense begs me to ask a few questions. First off, what the hell is Dragonfire? That question is really never answered in the entire 5 parter. It’s some type of energy source that can be used for protection and has to be harnessed by monks chanting. It makes forcefields. It can also mutate animal DNA. That’s all I got. There was allusion to the idea that it can be harnessed as a weapon but nothing ever comes of that. So the plot of this story is just two groups fighting over force fields. There’s also inexplicable story beats that are just thrown in for an attempt at deeper character motivations that come off as superficial, even to a child. The Baroness risks her life to fix the Commander just because Destro started dating someone else? Really? Scoop joins Cobra because G.I.Joe killed his family but finds out that Destro actually killed his family and framed G.I.Joe. Why? Because Cobra needed a camera man? I think a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that Dic, the animation studio in charge, did not have the same level of talent in the writing department. The series from 85/86 had the benefit of employing great writers like Buzz Dixon, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein. These writers had experience writing comic book heroes before. Some of them even had a bit of military background or knowledge. They were able to tell stories that, while fantastical and simple to understand, had the feeling of authenticity in both dialogue and in character motivation. Although Dragonfire writer Doug Booth did write an episode from the original Joe series, most of his experience at the time was writing for a younger audience (4-7 year-olds). Because of this, he really dumbed down both the language and the characters themselves. The characters come off as one-dementional and were a step down in quality from the first series.
Also a step down from the first series was the quality of production. The animation appears more blocky. Sequences are reused six or seven times in one episode. The opening credit scene is not original, being cobbled together from bits of the mini. The opening recaps at the top of each episode keep using the same footage from the first episode with just a few lines changed here and there. The closing credits have a lackluster, generic theme playing that has no connection to G.I.Joe. If you were to show it side by side with the mid-eighties classic, you would think that this came before due to the drop in production values. But then someone would open their mouth and talk about their love of compact discs for no reason and you would realize that it’s just laziness, not age, that’s the cause of the lesser product.
I hate to say it but even with all of its faults, I still had a lot of fun watching Operation Dragonfire. It’s very much a product of its time, with the goofy bright colours and the trend of trying to loosely attach itself to eastern culture. But it was still trying to live up to the original series. When the show officially relaunched in 1990 as an on-going t.v. show, most of what was set up in Dragonfire was gone. There was a bunch of new Joes like Captain Grid-Iron, Freefall, and Red Star – none of which had any connection to what had come before. Operation Dragonfire is essentially the final chapter to the story of G.I.Joe as we knew it in the 80s. So if you’re a fan like me, it’s worth picking up the first season of the second series just to get this 5-parter. If you’re just a casual fan, I completely understand passing this one by. Regardless, if you do pick up this DVD set, do yourself a favour and watch just the first disc. Aside from a bitchin’ theme song, the second series of G.I.Joe is not worth your time. But Operation Dragonfire is as it tugs at the nostalgia heart strings something fierce. Pick it up online or where ever DVDs are sold.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!