The Year is 1985, Back to the Future and The goonies have both hit the big screen, on the small screen HE-MAN Has a strong hold on viewing figures along with Transformers and Robotech, but there is new kid on the block vying for every 8 – 10 year olds attention (and pocket money), Matt Trakker – head of secret counter terrorism unit Mask!
Originally created by Kenner, the M.A.S.K. toy line was launched in 1985 along with an animated cartoon series that essentially served as seventy five 23 minute long adverts, a tried and tested cynical marketing ploy that had been successfully exploited by Mattel for their He man range of action figures and HASBRO for their Transformers range. Mask took the two fundamental unique selling points of these toy ranges (engaging characters and transforming vehicles) and created a toy line no 8 year old could resist. Cars that turned into boats, jets that turned into choppers, flying motorcycles and rocket launching monster trucks. With opening title music written by the two giants of 80s theme tunes -Shuki Levy and Haim Saban (also responsible for Ulysses 31, Inspector Gadget and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers among others)) a sure fire hit was always on the cards.
The Back Story
Matt along with his brother Andy worked with Miles on a secret project creating transforming vehicles, and helmets (or masks) with a wide array of useful capabilities. Shortly before the project was complete Miles double crossed the brothers, stole the technology, and left Andy to die. We guess all this was too dark to include in the cartoon so was only revealed in the comic books that were shipped with the original toy lines…in fact throughout season one of the cartoon series the Venom team are unaware who the members of the MASK team are.
The TV series ran for 2 seasons and predominantly centred around Matt Trackers band of merry men ( and one woman) all members of the Mobile Armoured Strike Kommand (M.A.S.K for short) a secret counter terrorism unit focused on thwarting the efforts of former business partner Miles Mayhem, head of the terrorist organisation Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem (VENOM for short).
Each episode opened with Miles and his team of ne’er do wells involved in some sort of caper to either steal something or destroy something of value…once the crime had been committed and we’d seen what the guys had gotten away with the action would more often than not cut to either Matt or his annoying Son Scott and his equally annoying robot Pal T-Bob, normally engaged in some routine mundane activity of no consequence to the larger plot about to unfold. Soon Matt would get wind of V.E.N.O.M’S latest escapade and pull a team together to stop their dastardly plans. To do this Matt would call upon the help of his super computer to determine the team members most suited to the mission. These team members would be contacted via a nifty little digital watch and drop everything and hurry to Boulder Hill for debriefing. Each team member had a specific set of skills and more importantly their own transforming vehicle that could be cast in plastic and shipped to every kid in the US and UK for a bargain price.
The series debuted in 1985 with Pilot Episode “The Death Stone” here we are introduced to the three main characters Miles Mayhem, Matt Tacker and his annoying kid Scott. In “ The Death Stone” Miles Mayhem interrupts a scientific expedition to retrieve a life giving meteorite and makes off with the artefact, leaving the head of the expedition Professor Stevens for dead. We then cut to Matt Trakker’s country mansion where Professor Stevens has been recovering from her ordeal – At the same time we are introduced to annoying asswipe Scott and his robot moped T Bob. Matt assembles a team of M.A.S.K members to go after V.E.N.O.M and retrieve the meteor.
This format would be repeated multiple times throughout the first season with various random McGuffins serving as the plot point for V.E.N.O.M’S nefarious deeds. A particular favourite at Cult Faction is an episode called “Dinosaur boy” In this episode Miles Mayhem is forcing an unidentified tribe of indigenous people on jungle expedition to find a breed of dinosaur-men who could hold the secret to a longer life. He kidnaps an infant dinosaur and heads back to his secret hide out. The father dinosaur goes on a bit of a rampage but as luck would have it the head of the previously mentioned tribe is friends with M.A.S.K team member Alex Sector who happens to be in the area taking in a spot of wildlife photography. He contacts Matt and soon a team is assembled to investigate.
As the series progressed new characters would be introduced presumably to coincide with the latest action figure Kenner had managed to produce. The second season switched the format to be centred around a auto racing, with various team members of M.A.S.K facing off against various team members of V.E.N.O.M, this only lasted for 10 episodes before being cancelled.
The first M.A.S.K comics were three mini comics produced by Kenner and were packaged up with the first series of toys shipped in 1985, these comics revealed the back story to the creation of M.A.S.K and V.E.N.O.M. Following the success of the franchise DC comics picked up the rights and produced a special insert which appeared in several comic books dated from September to November 1985 in order to launch a four-issue miniseries from December 1985 through to March 1986.
Soon this was followed by another insert dated from June to November 1986 and a regular nine issue series from February to October 1987. A selection of the DC strips were packaged up into Christmas annuals in the UK by Grandreams. These were released in 1986 and 1987 and also featured new original text stories.
From 1986 through to 1988 Fleetway published a M.A.S.K comic magazine in the standard, mostly black-and-white short strip format of British comics. It was initially published fortnightly before moving to a weekly format and reprinted material from its American counterpart but later went on to feature entirely new plots produced by British writers and artists. The stories were in their own continuity, not connected to either the cartoon series or DC/Grandreams comics. There was a notable difference in the comics in that V.E.N.O.M. knew the identities of M.A.S.K. agents, whereas in the first cartoon series they did not. This weekly title lasted 80 issues before merging with the second incarnation of Eagle in 1988.
As we’ve already established the Toys were the main driver for the TV show to exist in the first place and were produced from 1985 – 1988 and included four different series. In series one the toys predominately consisted of replica versions of the vehicles portrayed in the cartoon series and came with one or two action figures (depending how it was presented in the show). In addition to this you could also get your hands on your very own Boulder hill Gas station (The M.A.S.K teams secret base). Later series would introduce more vehicles (some of which weren’t even in the show). The action figures differed from most of the other action figures available at the time in so far as they were much smaller and articulation was limited – we can only assume this is due to the fact that the main focus of the toy range is the vehicles so in order to make them affordable and playable it was necessary to shrink them from the normal 3 and 3/4 inch we were used to seeing – imagine the size of boulder hill or Rhino if you had to fit a He-Man size action figure in there!!
As with all major franchises of the time, in addition to the action figures and computer games Kenner would license the M.A.S.K logo to be produced on anything and everything a child of the 80s could possibly want from lunch boxes to flasks and rucksacks to T shirts.
On top of the action figures, vehicles and lunch boxes, if you were lucky enough to own a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 you could hand over your hard-earned pocket money and purchase the computer games produced by Gremlin graphics. As you would expect from this era the game play and graphics weren’t great, so they were limited to scrolling shoot-em ups or the general puzzle solving format that made up most of the computer games of that era.
The Theme Tune
As we all know the 80’s is a golden era when it comes to opening theme tunes from cheers to Ulysses or Miami Vice to Quantum leap nothing in the modern era even comes close to setting you up to watch a show like these tunes did. M.A.S.K is no exception. Its 1985, Guitar and synth rock is riding high in the charts so what better genre of music is there to choose for a cartoon based on muscle cars and advanced technology? A synth hook, muted power chords and a subtle robotic voice in the mix and every kid is hooked.
This could have easily fitted onto Huey Lewis and the News 1986 Album Fore! or VAN Halens 1984 album (just add a bit of finger tapping). Written by TV theme heavy weights Shuki Levy and Haim Saban and recorded by vocalist Larry Leon it has to go down as one of the greatest opening titles of all time not just for a cartoon but all TV in general.