Sky Commanders is a terrific case study in the state of cartoons in the 1980s. Like so many series of that era, including fan favorites G.I. Joe and Transformers, Hanna-Barbera produced Sky Commanders to tie in to and promote a line of gimmicky action figures. As shady as this business practice looks from the audience’s perspective (after all, such series often serve as little more than half-hour weekly toy commercials), it needn’t necessarily be a formula for failure. Some of the cartoons produced according to this model in the 1980s were in fact quite successful apart of their associations to lines of action figures. Take the aforementioned G.I. Joe and Transformers for example. Series such as these succeeded in capturing young viewers’ imaginations because they ultimately made interesting narrative use of the referenced products. It’s not enough that Transformers transform or that G.I. Joes shoot at bad guys. The series had to offer viewers a wholly new adventure with new stakes each week.
However, Sky Commanders suffers from an overall lack of creativity on an episode-to-episode basis. The series centers on the elite mountaineering force known as the Sky Commanders and their continuing battle against the evil forces of General Lucas Plague. Plague seeks rule the world by procuring and mastering the use of a rare and unstable element known as Phaeta-7 and it is the Sky Commanders, under the leadership of Commander Mike Summit, to stop him. The writers attempted to spice up this stale concept by setting the action on a newly-formed, monster-inhabited island in the South Pacific dominated by an endless series of mountains and craggy pillars.
Such a setting is necessary to showcase the Sky Commanders’ mountaineering equipment– the gimmick that sets the Sky Commanders action figures apart from all others. However, this uninhabited and predominantly barren landscape significantly limits the series’ narrative possibilities to the extent that one episode inevitably bleeds in to the next. In this way, the characteristics of the toy line upon which the series is based impedes the overall narrative. And yet, the series still has a lot to offer, especially if you, as I, view the series as a characteristic element of a broader trend in 1980s animation. It is, then, a piece of history, one that, through its numerous flaws, brings to light the numerous flaws inherent in the practice of adapting action figures into television series.
The thing most lacking in the series, the thing that might well have saved it from the two decades it’s spent in obscurity, is a greater focus on the series’ characters. While the characters vary highly in appearance and many of them speak in accents, they all unfortunately blend together during the endless battle sequences as the massive, laser-cable packs they each wear serve to obscure the differences between them. Moreover, the characters come off as extremely helpless in battle with their movements limited to straight lines and their bodies confined to the bulky, volatile packs. Additionally, you can’t help but notice that the so-called “Sky Commanders” don’t exactly have what I’d consider a command of the sky, which implies a freedom of movement that the unidirectional capabilities of the laser-cable packs prohibits.
And yet, despite the series’ limitations, there is something altogether captivating about Sky Commanders. Perhaps it’s the aforementioned historical significance of the thing, or maybe I just really love cartoons that much. But I couldn’t seem to pull myself away from it, and plowed through the series in a matter of a few sittings, facilitated by its totally manageable 13-episode length.
The complete series of Sky Commanders is currently available in a two-disc, MOD DVD set from Warner Archive’s Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection.