Last week, Lost in Translation took a look at animated adaptations with a high level view. It’s time to delve into a specific one to get a better view of how such things turn out.
Thanks to the success of Star Wars merchandise in 1977, toys and toy licensing became another way to make money from a movie. Sure, prior to Star Wars, there were toys made for some franchises, but not to the same extent and success. However, many of the most toyetic movies were also R-rated, meaning that the target audience for the toys were not likely to have seen the movie except in ads. However, the reduction of FCC regulations against using children’s entertainment as advertising presented a new way to introduce the characters to the new audience – cartoons. Thus, among other animated adaptations, RoboCop the Animated Series.
The original RoboCop was a violent, over-the-top satire of the Reagan era. Everyone has a gun. Automation destroys jobs. Detroit is bankrupt. The Detroit police get privatized, bought up by Omni-Consumer Products, who saw the city as a test bed for automating law enforcement. The movie wasn’t subtle. Officer Alex Murphy is shot with the symbolism of the Crucifixion. Scenes had to be trimmed to avoid the dreaded X rating, preventing the movie from getting into any theatre. Blood was shed by the barrels.
The perfect movie to adapt for children.
The 2014 remake, with its PG-13 rating, had its violence toned down. No more graphic deaths. No one getting shot with hundreds of rounds by a robot still in beta. It was one of the problems fans of the original movie would cite about the remake. The violence was reigned in. There still was violence. Drones got destroyed. Murphy got shot and burned. But the gore was gone. The remake’s satire hit closer to home, but the violence of the original allowed audiences to take a step back. The PG-13 rating was seen as the problem by fans of the original, not allowing for the over the top violence of the original.
With that in mind, if there was a backlash against the 2014 remake, how do things shake out for 1988’s RoboCop: The Animated Series? If a PG-13 rating forced the 2014 remake to focus the violence on drones, how much is lost for a weekly cartoon? Repeatable violence isn’t allowed. Shooting a gun is repeatable. Punching is repeatable. Running someone over is repeatable. And forget language. Even in syndication, there are words not allowed anywhere near children’s entertainment. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” won’t be heard.
How well did RoboCop survive the translater to animation? First, a look at the the characters themselves. While Orion could license the characters, the studio couldn’t license the appearances of the actors. The actors own their looks. It’s the same reason why the character design for The Real Ghostbusters changed so much. However, the costume for RoboCop hid most of Peter Weller, so the character could be animated as accurately as the production could. Likewise, the ED-260, the upgraded version of the ED-209 from the movie, was accurate, with the new number allowing for differences due to animation.
For characters like Officer Anne Lewis and Sergeant Ross, the animation tries to be close to their looks without necessarily copying their actors. Lewis lost her curls, but the costume – body armour and a helmet with a visor – is close enough. Other characters, like the Old Man, have more extensive changes. However, Clarence Boddicker, the man responsible for killing RoboCop in both the movie and the series, has only minor changes. Boddicker appears in the opening credits and in the episode “Menace of the Mind”.
Animation helps with showing RoboCop’s abilities. The original movie used practical effects and stop-motion; the suit Weller wore slowed him down just from mass. An animated character doesn’t have that limitation, so having RoboCop lift a van by its bumper or run after a perp is easier to show. The technology of the future of Old Detroit changed, too. RoboCop and the rest of the police force use lasers. Some of the criminals still used guns, but since they were shooting RoboCop, there were no bullet wounds, no arterial sprays, nothing to worry parents about what their children were seeing.
Characterization of the characters was off. RoboCop comes off as his RoboCop 2 incarnation after community input forces several hundred new directives installed. Murphy acts more as Murphy’s cheerleader. However, the focus of the series is on action; dialogue is kept to a minimum. Bursts of dialogue aren’t much to build a character on. A few characters do change. SWAT commander Lt. Roger Hedgecock gets promoted from being a minor character in the original to a rival. Hedgecock isn’t a fan of automation and is trying to outshine Murphy. Casey Wong returns as the talking head of “Media Break”, the three-minute news segment that appeared in the movie.
A few characters were added. Dr. McNamara, an OCP designer working on the ED-260 project, wants RoboCop shelved in favour of his Enforcement Drone, and is the mastermind behind the plot in several episodes. The Vandals were a gang that caused problems in Old Detroit until stopped by RoboCop.
The series did try to work with some themes from the movie. Biting satire is out, but some still slipped in. A section of Old Detroit was called “Trickledown Town” and was where the old abandoned factories were. One episode, “No News Is Good News”, had a Geraldo Riviera parody, chasing non-stories until he focused on destroying RoboCop’s reputation. Even the idea of automating jobs came up for satire with ED-260 being pressed into traffic duty and causing collateral damage after an illegal lane change. Outside the satire, Murphy still had to come to terms with his humanity. While Lewis still saw Murphy as Murphy, others, including Hedgecock and McNamara, saw him as a machine or as a product.
RoboCop is a tough movie to turn into an animated series, especially one aimed at an younger audience. What is allowed in an R rated movie doesn’t get on television in prime time, let alone weekend afternoon for kids. RoboCop: The Animated Series had its fangs pulled because of the the new format. It tries, but the focus is more science fiction action, not violent biting satire of the Eighties. If it was a standalone work; it would be an entertaining series on its own. Tied to the RoboCop movie, the series is sanitized.
Lost in Translation as taken a look at a number of animated adaptations over the past few years, most recently with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Sherlock Gnomes. Saturday mornings were filled with cartoons, some of them adaptations of other works. Nothing appears to be off-limits when it comes to animated adaptations. Some are well done; others, not so much.
With the deregulation of American television in the Eighties, toy manufacturers were allowed to create what were essentially thirty minute toy ads disguised as cartoons. While networks still had requirements, including non-violence, another frontier opened in the Eighties – syndication. Since the cartoons were being sold directly to the station, bypassing any network involvement, the rules were looser. Toss in a one to two minute public service announcement and the series can be sold as educational, even with lasers blazing and robots throwing each other around.
However, ads don’t work if no one watches them and writers rooms tend to have creative people in them who want to be more than ad copywriters. The result in the Eighties was a number of cartoon series based on toys that had complex storylines, character development, and ongoing plots instead of standalone episodes. Autobots may have stopped Decepticon plots, G.I. Joe may have prevented Cobra from World Domination, and She-Ra may have foiled Hordak but each series always returned to the baseline. A win by any of the factions meant the series ending. Jem may have had the most gains; her goal was to fund the Starlight Girls and make it big in the music industry. Ruining Pizzazz’s schemes was a side benefit.
The catch with cartoons based on toys is that the money for the series depends heavily on how well the merchandise is selling. While not an animated adaptation, Captain Planet and the Soldiers of the Future is a good example of what happens when a series is more popular than the toy. Captain Power ended on a sour note with the death of Pilot, a plot hook for a second season that never materialized. On the flip side, a popular toy gets more of its line released. Kids need only so many of Bumblebee, Man-At-Arms, or Kimber, even with new light-up features. The new action figure, doll, or playset needs to appear in the cartoon. Ultimately, the cartoon exists to sell toys.
Prior to deregulation, the typical animated adaptation was a cartoon based on a comic book character. DC Comics’ go-to for licensing was Superman, with cartoons featuring the character made in 1941-1943, 1966-1970, 1988, and 1996-2000. Marvel’s choice of character was The Amazing Spider-Man, with cartoons made in 1967-1970, 1981-1982, 1981-1983 (with Iceman and Firestar), 1994-1998, 1999-2001, 2003, 2008-2009, 2012-2017, and 2017 (ongoing), and appearances on The Electric Company in the Seventies. Even the third of the Big Three American comics publishers had their own series with Archie in 1968-1970, 1971-1973, 1974-1977, 1987, and 1999-2000 and Josie and the Pussycats from 1970-1972. Given the popularity of the characters, the adaptations were meant to draw an audience and sell advertising time. As other characters gained prominence, they, too, were adapted into cartoons. The X-Men has had several, in 1989, 1992-1997, 2000-2003, 2009, and 2011, and the DC Animated Universe, starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 through to Justice League Unlimited ending in 2006 maintained quality through the run.
While comic and cartoon seldom interacted, there were times when the adaptation influenced the original. Batman: The Animated Series had several characters created for it that made the jump back to the main continuity, including Renée Montoya. The episode “Heart of Ice” introduced a background for the villain Mr. Freeze, one that turned him into a tragic figure, that was accepted as canon in the comics. After deregulation, though, the cartoon also became a way to sell action figures of the characters, an added bonus for the companies involved.
Animated adaptations of movies is where things get weird. While there are some films that do lend themselves to a continuation, such as Back to the Future, some movies adapted were aimed at a completely new audience. In most of those cases, the goal was to sell toys, but many of the adaptations were of movies that the cartoon’s target audience couldn’t see due to an R-rating. Rambo: The Force of Freedom (1986, a year after Rambo: First Blood Part II hit theatres) and Robocop the Animated Series (1988) are notable but also just the surface. The Rambo series features a Vietnam War veteran who decades later is still living the war. Robocop was a violent satire of the Reagan-era, over the top to the point of almost being rated X. Robocop could be turned into a police procedural, the violence toned down or even removed, though that does miss the point of the original movie. Rambo: The Force of Freedom turned John Rambo into a ecological warrior, fighting against polluters.
Other R-rated adaptations came out including The Toxic Crusaders, based on /The Toxic Avenger/. Even raunchy comedies aimed at younger adults got adaptations; Police Academy tried to bring the humour of the movies to a format for children. Some of the adaptations were to get a toy line out and sold; the adult market wasn’t and isn’t as lucrative as the general toy market. At the same time, the target audience only knows the characters through home video, edited televised showings of the films, or just pop culture osmosis.
With Back to the Future, the aim was an educational series. The draw of the film would be enough to get advertisers interested in buying airtime during the show, and the educational portions added to the sales value to networks. The Real Ghostbusters, while taking advantage of a PG-rated film* with potential for more stories, also had its own toyline. Both series had strong writing; The Real Ghostbusters even answered the question, “What would happen if someone hit Cthulhu with a beam from an unlicensed nuclear accelerator?” (The answer: He’d be very annoyed.) Animated adaptations of movies vary widely; some make sense, others are headscratchers.
With video games, the draw again came from the popularity of the game, especially in the Eighties. Video arcades could be found in every mall and Pac-Man Fever could only be cured with massive amounts of quarters. Home video game consoles came out, though with a slight dip in popularity around 1983 when Atari overestimated just how many people would buy an E.T the Extraterrestrial video game. Many of the early video games really didn’t lend themselves to any sort of adaptation, yet they were made. Pac-Man and related games were all about a yellow blob eating dots and running from ghosts; the Pac-Man cartoon had to create plots and give personalities to the games’ characters.
The explosion of the Nintendo Entertainment System on the market led to the North American audience being re-introduced to the Mario Brothers and a cartoon featuring them. This time, there was a bit more to hang plots on; after all, there was always another castle. With the NES and later systems capable of running games with more plot than “eat dots” or “don’t crash”, adaptations had more to build from. Some game studios took advantage of animated adaptations to add more details to their setting and characters; Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and Mass Effect: Paragon Lost are good examples. Quality varied. Some cartoons were made to take advantage of the popularity of the video game, others managed to take advantage of the new format.
Animated adaptations of literary works were done mainly for educational purposes, introducing classic works to children. As a result, since the work would be one and done, the animation was a higher quality than that of a weekly series; there was time to do things properly. Not every animated film was for educational purposes; no one will argue that Gnomeo & Juliet‘s primary purpose is to educate children on Shakespeare. At the same time, cartoons of literary work aimed at children bring forward the characters and main themes in accessible chunks. The main requirement was that the original had to have something that was visually stimulating. The ghosts in A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s redemption arc can make for compelling storytelling. A proper Victorian romance, or even an improper one, doesn’t make the cut. Sometimes, a studio just wanted to animate a favourite story, like Watership Down.
Not all animation is for children, though. In the Eighties, Nelvana released fare that was geared for an older audience. Rock & Rule, a take on Faust, featured popular rock musicians including Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop. The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Nelvana’s version of The Devil and Daniel Webster wasn’t as trippy, but was still aiming at an older audience, much like Heavy Metal had. Both films, being made by a Canadian studio, were aired on the CBC, which was available over the air and on basic cable.
Finally, there’s tabletop games. Animated adaptations of these fell under the same restrictions as ones for toys. Once the restrictions were removed in the Eighties, not many board games were turned into cartoons. Most board games are competitive, lending themselves to be licensed as game shows instead of cartoons. Even roleplaying games weren’t adapted, in part because of being a niche industry, in part from the “Satanic panic” of the Eighties. Dungeons & Dragons did get an animated series, but being the best known RPG will get attention from studios. It is telling that only two other RPGs, BattleTech and Heavy Gear, had animated adaptations. The built-in audience is small; each series relied on visuals, that of mecha combat.
The animated adaptation is not going away. It serves a purpose, most often to sell merchandise. Yet, the potential of the adaptation to go beyond just being an extended ad will keep an audience tuned in.
* Probably would have been PG-13 if the rating existed at the time.
Sherlock Holmes is a character that has lasted in the imaginations of readers for well over 130 years. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson, solved many a mystery. Each of Holmes’ adventures were written from Watson’s point of view, a filter through which Holmes could explain his deductions to readers. Over time, Holmes has been adapted in many ways from theatre to television, the most recent being Elementary. It was only a matter of time before he was adapted as a garden gnome.
Watson wasn’t the only character that remained in the pop subconscious. Other of Doyle’s creations are as well known, including Irene Adler, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. An equal match to Holmes’ intellect, Moriarty appeared in the story, “The Adventure of the Final Problem”, published December 1893 in Strand Magazine and with the collection of short stories, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in the same year. In it, Holmes had already deduced who the Napoleon of Crime was and had plans to arrest him and key members of his gang. Moriarty, though, worked out who was behind all his recent setbacks and promised Holmes mutual destruction if the detective continued to work against him. Holmes sees no problem with that, with a career of detective work behind him that bettered London. The chase is afoot, and Holmes and Moriarty meet again at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. After a fight, both tumble into the Reichenbach Falls, never to be seen again.
Doyle meant for “The Final Solution” to be the last Sherlock Holmes adventure. He was getting tired of writing about the character. Fans, though, demanded more, despite the apparent death. Doyle obliged with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902. Professor Moriarity returned in The Valley of Fear, published in 1915 as a lead up to the events in “The Final Solution”.
Moriarty intrigued fans of Sherlock Holmes. Despite having just the two appearances, Moriarty challenged Holmes on a intellectual level, an equal match for the detective where their final meeting resulted in their demise. Not just a villain, but a foil, a nemesis. One that can be expected to appear in an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Even one where the detective is a garden gnome.
When Gnomeo & Juliet was released in 2011, the movie exceeded box office expectations. When a movie does that well, sequels are expected. Since Shakespeare never wrote a Romeo & Juliet: Part II, mostly because the titular characters died in the original play, there’s not much to build from there. However, low-hanging puns are easy to build upon, leading to Sherlock Gnomes. Gnomeo & Juliet managed to hit most of the beats of the Shakespearean play, changing only near the end. Could the creative team do the same with Sherlock Gnomes?
Most of the cast of Gnomeo & Juliet returned, the main exception being Jason Stathem as Tybalt. Joining the cast are Johnny Depp as Sherlock Gnomes, Chiewetel Ejiofor as Dr. Watson, Mary J. Blige as Irene, and Jamie Demitriou as Moriarty. Once again, the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin form the bulk of the soundtrack, with the exception of a piece by Jacques Offenbach. The crew comprised of people from Gnomeo & Juliet who weren’t otherwise busy with other projects.
The movie opens with Sherlock Gnomes and Watson foiling the plans of Moriarty to smash some helpless garden gnomes at the museum. Gnomes and Moriarty have been matching wits for some time, with the villain leaving clues to taunt and test the detective. This time, though, it appears that Moriarty himself is smashed.
Elsewhere, Ms Montague and Mr. Capulet move together from 2B and Not 2B Verona Drive in Stratford-upon-Avon to a brownstone on Baker Street in London. The garden gnomes are put out in the small garden. Once alone, they animate once again. Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) announce they will retire once the new garden is properly set up, with Juliet (Emily Blunt) and Gnomeo (James McAvoy) appointed the new gnome leaders. The scene lets audiences familiar with the first movie catch up on the characters, with Benny (Matt Lucas) having his hat repaired between movies. As the garden work goes on, Juliet is spending less time with Gnomeo. Feeling neglected, he decides to go on an adventure to find the flower that brought him and Juliet together in the first place, the purple Cupid’s Arrow Orchid.
Juliet discovers Gnomeo’s foolish adventure and goes out to save his butt. She is not impressed; she wants the garden in top shape. As they argue, they hear Benny call for help. When they return to the garden, the rest of the gnomes have disappeared. However, Gnomes and Watson are on the scene. With very little explanation, Gnomes begins searching for clues on the disappearance, ignoring questions from Gnomeo and Juliet. The detectives find Moriarty’s calling card and leave, with Juliet and Gnomeo on their heels.
Gnomes may not want meddlesome assistants with him, but he’s stuck with the newcomers. The clues lead through London, meeting a variety of ornaments from Chinatown to a toy store where Irene is in charge. All leads to a final encounter with Moriarty, who managed to escape his apparent smashing with just minor, reparable damage, at the Tower Bridge. The final battle sees Sherlock and Moriarty fighting then falling from the Bridge much like the illustration shown at the beginning of the movie.
Sherlock Gnomes takes a few liberties with “The Final Solution”, though the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the story, just the characters in it. Still, key beats from the story show up, such as Gnomes travelling to various locations to keep a step ahead of Moriarty. Much like Holmes, Sherlock Gnomes is brusque and lacking in social skills. In the literature, Watson acts as the filter between Holmes and the reader. In the movie, Watson fills the same role, not just to the audience but also with the gnomes the two meet. Gnomes is also a master of disguise, much like his progenitor, including disguising himself and Juliet as a squirrel in order to retrieve one of Moriarty’s calling card from the cutest Hound of the Baskervilles to be on screen. Being a family film, Sherlock Gnomes elides Holmes’ addictions, though as a garden gnome, it’d be hard to show his heroin habit.
The movie borrows an idea from the Robert Downey, Jr. in showing how Sherlock’s thought processes work. Instead of slowing down the action, Sherlock Gnomes uses black and white animation, showing how the detective works out problems. The processes aren’t that easy to understand, being meant more for comedy than actual problem solving tips. Gnomes also has Holmes’ eye for detail and observation, able to tell that Gnomeo and Juliet are having a lovers’ quarrel within seconds of meeting them.
With the basic premise of telling an adventure of Sherlock Holmes as a garden gnome, the movie could have taken an easy route of having just a gnome that looks like Holmes solve a mystery set to the music of Elton John and be done with it. Instead, Sherlock Gnomes brings in Holmes as he is in Doyle’s stories, intelligent, arrogant, and dismissive, and still highlights what would have been his last adventure if Doyle had his way while turning the character into a ceramic ornament. Gnomeo & Juliet demonstrated that the creative team could keep to the beats of a tragedy while still making a feature for the entire family. Sherlock Gnomes follows in the same footsteps.
In the tabletop role-playing game industry, Dungeons & Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, the game that the general population knows by name. The game has had a cinematic adaptation that didn’t work as either a movie or an adaptation. However, the movie wasn’t the first adaptation of the game. In 1985, an animated series based on the game began airing on CBS. The series would last two seasons, with animation by Toei.
The 80s were an odd time for the game. Dungeons & Dragons had managed to break away from specialty game stores to appear in toy stores and book shops. At the same time, parent groups appeared to counter the game’s popularity, accusing the game and its publisher, TSR, of being satanic. One group, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons headed by Patricia Pulling, managed to make some headway with law enforcement despite dubious research and math and even appeared on 60 Minutes in 1985. The D&D cartoon thus had some extra restrictions on it beyond the usual Saturday morning ones.
The opening credits of the cartoon told how the characters got involved. A ride at an amusement park deposits a group of friends into a fantasy world, where they’re immediately set upon by two villains, Venger and Tiamat. However, with the intervention of Dungeon Master, the group gains magic items that helps them escape. Each of the main characters represented a different character class. Hank became a Ranger, receiving a magical bow. Sheila, with her cloak of invisibility, became a Thief. Presto received a magic hat to become a Magic-User, the term used for wizards in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ first edition. With the Unearthed Arcana also being released in 1985, character classes from that supplement were also used. Sheila’s younger brother Bobby became a Barbarian with a magic club. Diana received a magical staff, letting her become a Thief-Acrobat. And, finally, Eric became a Cavalier upon receiving a magic shield. After arriving in the world, Bobby befriended a young unicorn colt, Uni. Making a noticeable absence is the Cleric, but given the Satanic Panic around the game, leaving the class out meant feidling fewer calls from angry special interest groups.
Over the course of the series, the group of young intrepid adventurers sought to find a way back to their home. Dungeon Master would appear to provide guidance in the form of riddles, leading the adventurers into situations where they would use their abilities to help others in need. Meanwhile, Venger would appear to try to get the group’s magic items or Tiamat, former Babylonian goddess turned five-headed ruler of the evil dragons, would appear to menace. Dungeon Master was well-meaning but capricious, dangling hope in front of the adventurers, much like some actual DMs. Each of the main characters showed elements of their representative classes, from Sheila’s sneaking to Presto’s magic, though not exactly to the rules. Eric, on the other hand, didn’t show the Cavalier’s valour, though that was a decision made thanks to executive meddling. The rule at the time was to have teamwork, and anyone who went against the group was thought to be in the wrong. Eric was designated the one to be in the wrong, even if his idea, typically running away, was a viable choice.
The mechanics of AD&D were hidden, meant to be more the physics of the fantasy world than anything else. Monsters that did appear did come from the game. No one rolled a die to determine hit or miss, but such a scene would break immersion. Instead, the setting came from the rules, though not specifically Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home campaign. The adventures were aimed at a younger audience, the extreme low end of the “For ages 12 and up” range. However, some of the episodes wouldn’t be odd to have as an evening’s play session, even with D&D‘s fifth edition. Having Dungeon Master be a character in the series was an odd choice, but the role worked and showed potential players how to be a DM and still allow the players to have fun while working through a challenge.
The D&D cartoon was an odd duck in a decade that was defined by odd ducks. Few popular media ever faced a strong challenge by special interest groups as /D&D/ did, and, yet, the game remained popular. The cartoon followed in the game’s footsteps, creating its own niche and presenting a setting usable with the game without getting too bogged down in details.
Adaptations of games are an iffy prospect. There have been major failures along the way, from Super Mario Bros through Dungeons & Dragons to Battleship. Yet, studios keep trying, because the recognition factor of the names involved should pull in an audience, as seen with the announcement of the Tetris movie. With D&D, Battleship, and Tetris, there isn’t a proper setting as would be used in fiction. Maybe movies aren’t the best vehicle for game adaptations. World building takes effort, and movies don’t provide enough time to get the details down. Also a good idea is to pick a game that has a setting. D&D has several, but using them would mean making the movie using the setting’s name*, not the game’s. Yet, the animated D&D series was able to create a setting and a conflict that came from the game’s mechanics. An animated series also has the advantage of needing to be short and to the point without having to worry about the effects budget. Time to look at a game that has a developed setting and see how it was adapted. For this, let’s look at BattleTech, a game of mecha combat in the far future.
BattleTech started as BattleDroids, produced by FASA in 1984. The change in the name came after some legal pressure from Lucasfilm over the term, “droid”. Becoming BattleTech didn’t change the core idea of the wargame – two sides fielding walking mecha called BattleMechs to claim dominence of the battlefield. FASA licensed mecha designs from several anime, including Macross**, giving them their own attributes for the game. As the game grew, different factions were developed, and a history came about explaining why these interstellar empires were at war. The five nations of the Inner Sphere*** eventually received a supplement each, detailing their culture, economy, and interstellar relations – the Lyran Commonwealth headed by House Steiner, with German influences; the Draconis Combine headed by House Kurira, with Japanese influences; the Federated Suns headed by House Davion, with French and English influences; the Capellan Confederation headed by House Liao, with Chinese influences; and the Free Worlds League headed by House Marik, with Greek and Balkan influence.
As the setting expanded, the years progressed from 3025, detailing the Succession Wars to see who would form the new Star League. The Houses could barely keep their technology base, with many technicians performing rituals that were learned by rote instead of proper study. In 3049, a new threat appeared from beyond known space. The Clans, the return of the descendants of Star League forces that fled the Inner Sphere after the the revolt from one of the Periphery states resulted in the death of the First Lord of the Star League in 2766. The goal of the invaders was to restore the Star League and retake Earth. The Clan invasion forced the major Houses to research technology and upgrade to survive. Ultimately, the Clan invasion was stopped in 3052 after a coalition of forces fought a proxy battle for control of Earth. The major Houses then formed a new Star League in 3060 to pre-empt a second Clan invasion, but internal fighting inside the Federated Commonwealth, made of Houses Davion and Steiner, erupted as a civil war. In the aftermath, Houses Steiner, Davion, and Liao pulled out of the Star League, ending it. BattleTech grew from the basic box set to encompass published missions, a related role-playing game (MechWarrior), tie-in novels, video games, and even an animated adaptation.
BattleTech: The Animated Series aired in 1994. Produced by Saban, the fourteen episode series melded traditional animation with CGI and detailed the exploits of the 1st Somerset Strikers, an ad hoc team created by Major Adam Steiner, and instructor at the famed Nagelring Military Academy of the Federated Commonwealth Armed Forces (FCAF). Adam’s goal was to find out who attacked his homeworld of Somerset; at first, he believed the Draconis Combine was involved, but learns that a new invader was responsible. With the tacet permission of Archon Melissa Steiner-Davion, he commandeers a Draconis JumpShip to take investigate further. With him are Lieutenant Rachel Specter, Adam’s best friend and tactical officer; Lieutenant Ciro Ramierez, Adam’s assistant instructor at the Nagelring; Cadet Katiara Kylie, aerospace pilot and fellow Somerset native; Captain “Hawk” Hawkins of the FCAF; “Captain” Valten Ryder, mercenary picked up on Dustball; Franklin Sakamoto, Draconis smuggler and illegitimate son of the Combine’s ruler; Doctor Deirdre Nakamura, shipmate of Franklin’s; and “Patch” McGuire, mechanic.
The 1st Somerset Strikers soon learn that the new foe they face is Clan Jade Falcon, one of the invading Clans returning to take back Earth. The Jade Falcons forces in the area of operations are led by Star Colonel Nicholai Malthus and Star Colonel Kristen Redmond. Both have a technology introduced for the cartoon, an Enhanced Imaging implant that allows them to get a broader picture of the battlefield through virtual reality. At first, the ragtag Strikers spend almost as much time infighting as they do battling Malthus’s forces, but as Adam gains intelligence, the Jade Falcon commanders become rivals as Nicholai tries to defeat Steiner. It’s not easy for the Strikers; they lose Ciro to the Jade Falcons, where he is turned into a bondsman and becomes a ‘Mech pilot with an EI implant. In the final episode, the Strikers battle Nicholai and his forces over the fate of Somerset.
The EI implant allowed the studio to switch to CGI, showing ‘Mech battles via virtual reality. The characters are given ties to the setting, through relations, like Adam and Franklin, and through position, like Nicholai and Kristen. Ciro first appeared in Michael A. Stackpole’s BattleTech novel, Lethal Heritage. Franklin’s storyline began in Robert Charette’s novel, Heir to the Dragon. Distinctive BattleMechs were used, from Adam’s Axeman and Kristen’s Vulture to Valten’s Bushwacker, making its first appearance in the setting. Jordan K. Weisman, one of the series’ creators, also was a developer on the game. The production team took pains to bring in as many elements of the setting that they could fit, from having characters of both the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine working together to the choice of the Jade Falcons as the antagonists. Keeping the focus on the 1st Somerset Strikers helped the writers create their own stories while still using the decade of work already produced for the game as background.
There were some issues. As a cartoon, the animated series was aimed at the lower age of BattleTech players. The series couldn’t get into a lot of detail; a 22 minute episode doesn’t provide enough time to get into the depth of the setting while still providing an ongoing story arc and ‘Mech versus ‘Mech action. To get some of the ‘Mechs, the Technical Readouts were ignored. Hawk’s Mauler was originally a Draconis Combine-only design, yet the Fed-Com pilot has one. For the casual viewer, one interested in the series with little or no knowledge of the existing canon, this isn’t a problem.
Unlike the D&D movie, the problem with adapting BattleTech is the sheer amount of world building that has been done since 1984. Even in 1994, just ten years after the game’s first release, the Inner Sphere saw two Successor Wars, one that resulted in two of the nations becoming one through marriage and conquest, and the return of the descendants of the Star League. The political maneuverings between the wars were hinted at in the animated series, but could use more time to expand. A Game of Thrones does show it is possible, but a 22 minute episode requires a focus on the core characters without getting into too much detail of events beyond..
FASA did release a sourcebook based on the series, 1st Somerset Strikers, which served three purposes. The first was to act as an intro for new players brought in through the cartoon, explaining the different factions shown in the series. The second was to let existing players replay events in the series to see if things could go differently. The third was to bring the characters into the BattleTech canon. Star Commander Pytor, one of Malthus’ ‘Mech pilots, appeared in the Robert Thurston novel, I Am Jade Falcon while Adam became the Archon of the post-civil war Lyran Alliance, to name but two characters. However, the animated series is now considered an in-universe series detailing a fictionalized account of events that happened.
BattleTech: The Animated Series was an ambitious undertaking by FASA. The designer notes in 1st Somerset Strikers shows the efforts being taken to ensure that new viewers wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the setting while still getting key elements in, a challenging task, especially when different products and novels could show any given House as both savior and destroyer of mankind. The chosen format required liberties taken through necessity. Overall, the series makes an effort to adapt the game, even if it’s not perfect.
* For example, Dragonlance, though that adaptation had issues related to time needed.
** These ‘Mechs would later become “the Unseen” after a legal proceedings by Harmony Gold led FASA to remove their images. The conflict came about because of how each company had licensed the images; Harmony Gold had the Macross license, leading to Robotech, while FASA had approached the design studio instead of the animation studio.
*** There are minor nations outside the Inner Sphere, collectively known as the Periphery. They, too, have BattleMechs, but their capacity for warfare is limited compared to the major Houses. Some of the Periphery states still do have a role to play in interstellar politics.