When I was a spry, young lad, I could still wake up every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn. Filled with exuberance for a block of time that would soon be lost to the ages with the popularization of children’s programming on basic cable, I would arise to make sure I wouldn’t miss a second of what was to be broadcast. Fox Kids, One Saturday Morning, Kids WB, even the not-aimed-at-me TNBC block…from local programming to the last remnants of syndicated tales involving the Hardy Boys, my elementary years were spent absorbing half hour after half hour of useless information.
On this day twenty years ago – September 18th, 1993 for those who aren’t paying attention – my focus was once again squarely on the television. Sitting in bed like I did every Saturday, my eyes glazed over watching my tiny moving picture box, the same one that I had played hours upon hours of the original Sonic the Hedgehog titles. But that day was something special. Something tremendously exciting. What was it? Well, the cast of Hanging With Mr. Cooper kindly told me the night before during T.G.I.F…
Yes. Sonic the Hedgehog was now on the airwaves.
For years, ABC would have a special the Friday before the new Saturday morning block, advertising their latest wares for childhood consumption. Among the shows they were pushing was an animated version of Tales From The Crypt, toned down from what they could show on HBO, along with something called CityKids (that I remember nothing about) and Cro (which I only recall the intro to). What was to air at 9:00 A.M., though, was when I really began to care. I was eight years old, and I couldn’t get enough of Sonic the Hedgehog. At the time, I didn’t question the fact that it looked different from the other Sonic television series that had premiered not even two weeks before. The more Sonic I could get my hands on, the happier I’d be.
To be fair, I don’t remember when I first began caring that these various interpretations of Sonic were wildly different from each other. I knew Adventures of and Sonic the Hedgehog were beasts unto themselves early on, but I didn’t spend hours trying to reconcile the two into some master overarching storyline that involved the games and Dr. Ovi Kintobor as well. No, as a child, all I really cared about was making sure I didn’t miss an episode. Which wasn’t always an easy task. Over the coming months, more than once an episode would be preempted for something I just didn’t care about, be it a non-local sports team or the most dreaded of all: world news.
Looking at the 1993-94 Saturday morning schedule, I do wonder how many people passed over Sonic to continue watching Garfield and Friends. Everyone loves to talk about how Power Rangers killed the ratings, but really. Look at your book shelf. If you were alive at any point in the late 80′s/early 90′s, it was almost a requirement to own at least seven different Garfield comic strip compilations, even if the show was far superior to whatever Jim Davis did or did not churn out on a daily basis. But we’re talking about Sonic the Hedgehog, not Garfield.
There was a time, especially when I first logged onto the Internet back in 1997, that I was quite the proponent of the Saturday morning animated series. Even before the show was cancelled, I would run to the local comic book store, and to supplement my superhero addiction, would purchase month in and month out the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog comic book, reveling in the continuing adventures of Sonic, Tails, Princess Sally, Antoine, Rotor and Bunnie Rabbot. I know I’ve said much about the Archie comic on this page before, but there was a time when I was addicted to it. Even if I somehow completely missed when Endgame was originally published…
There was something about that world the Saturday morning series presented which drew me in, which only expanded when the second season began. The final days of Mobotropolis. The usurping of King Acorn. The fall and rise of Uncle Chuck. The madness of Dr. Robotnik. Knothole, the Great Forrest, Robotropolis, Snively, The Wolf Pack, Nagus, Ari, Griff, and even Dulcy the Dragon. The team behind the show were ambitious, especially when you consider all they were doing was making a glorified advertisement for a series of games you could buy on your Sega Genesis.
As a child, I didn’t know about any of the behind the scenes dealings. I didn’t know about how Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog was the original concept for what was to air on ABC, or that the network demanded something darker to go up against the newest wave of animated programming airing on rival networks, led by Batman: The Animated Series. There weren’t any articles in Disney Adventures explaining that originally the show was going to have Dr. Robotnik turn evil from a rotten egg just like the western mythology explained, or that they were even toying with the idea of having Sonic and Robotnik grow up together as orphans, raised by the kindly Uncle Chuck. Why would I pay attention to the credits and see Len Janson was the story editor of the show, who had developed the concepts that would allow various writers to tell so many stand alone tales in the first season? Why would it click that the second season was suddenly so much different, primarily written by a pair who had only done a single episode before?
Ben Hurst and Pat Allee, the two names that have become synonymous with the series, only wrote the episode Sonic and Sally for the first season, containing a surprising amount of heart for a show that wanted to focus on action and adventure. It was the strength of this episode that made Len call upon the pair to help plot out the entire second season, the trio sharing very strong thoughts on what they wanted the show to be. Wanting the entire season to be viewed as a long-form movie in one sitting, it was something not really attempted in children’s animation up to this point. Sure, having TV shows tell long-form stories over the course of a season is nothing unique now, but back then? All the while still making sure that almost every episode could be viewed on its own and not confuse the viewer? That’s a feat in itself, something the show doesn’t get enough credit for.
The cliffhanger and unproduced third season have long since become the stuff of legend, and in the years prior to his death, Ben Hurst was interviewed time and again about what he would have done if the plug hadn’t been pulled on the show. In the back of his mind, Ben always hoped that he could complete his story in some fashion. His brief return to hedgehog-dom writing for Sonic Underground was not exactly what he wanted, but it was work, and probably made that show far better than what it deserved to be. Apparently, even Ken Penders tried to get the third season to appear on the printed page, wanting to get Ben Hurst to write for Archie’s 48-page specials, though timing and other factors would never let it happen. We do know much of what was to occur plot-wise in that third season, but with Hurst’s death in 2010, any pipedream of seeing the story finished disappeared, for even if the notes were eventually turned into a direct-to-DVD feature with the help of Pat, it still wouldn’t be exactly what Ben would have done.
In 1995, I was a very confused ten year old when Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t return to the air. In my mind, Sonic was still the biggest thing ever, even though Sonic & Knuckles would be the hedgehog’s last hurrah until his return on the Dreamcast with Sonic Adventure. “If the show was done,” I thought to myself, “why would they end things with the promise of more to come?” I thought that maybe it was just delayed, and would show up again in the spring. Of course, this was before I realized far more acclaimed series had succumbed to the same fate, never able to finish their long term goals because of a fickle watching audience. Perhaps this at-the-time unexplained cancellation is what fueled my arguments, where I would fight with people and explain why the show was vastly superior to its syndicated counterpart, its attempt at continuity-fueled serialized storytelling with a dark edge making it feel like more than a kids show.
As it happens to most people, I couldn’t stay a child forever, and as I went through my awkward teenage years into the world of adulthood, my adoration of the series has transformed into a love-hate relationship. Flaws that I wouldn’t have dared to admit to when I was eight I can now see quite plainly. There are times the show didn’t know exactly what it wanted to do, jumping from comedy to drama in an awkward fashion. There’s the inexplicable redesign of Rotor from season one to two. The embarrassing, network-dictated Antoine-centric episodes. And even way back when, I was never all that fond of Dulcy. But there are also those moments that the drama and comedy are able to meld seamlessly, moments where you can see the show was one of the better offerings in the early-to-mid 90′s, with a heart that went beyond simple commercialism. And I’m a sucker for time travel stories, so it’s hard for me to dislike Blast to the Past in any regard.
Even still, when discussing it, I can say that while I still love the show from a nostalgic standpoint, it’s hard for me to say that the show is a good Sonic cartoon. In many respects, Adventures of held onto the spirit of the original games far more than the story of a rag-tag band of Freedom Fighters trying to save the world from a global despot that already conquered the world ten years before. I can respect what the Saturday morning series did, but when Ben Hurst admitted that all he ever did was watch footage from the first level of Sonic 2 and cared not to look into the games beyond that, interested in building onto the mythology that Len had started up in the series bible? Mythology that really had nothing to do with the games, in a series that shied away from using any of the fantastical locations that even the first two Mega Drive titles offered? A villainous Robotnik that only hinted at the eccentric nature of Dr. Eggman?
Looking at it now, the cast of the Saturday morning series might seem out of place with what Sonic the Hedgehog has become, and even out of place with what was being done with Sonic in his games. But regardless if you love or hate the series, you can’t deny that the show still has an important place in the overall narrative of what Sonic is. There’s a reason fansites to the show still exist. There’s a reason the Archie comics still use Princess Sally, Antoine D’Coolette, Rotor Walrus and Bunnie Rabbot, especially in an era where current writer Ian Flynn could have easily written them out. What could have been a simple footnote in the history of videogame-based animation has instead become a standard that many other franchises still have yet to reach.
I can still remember when the second season began, my loyalty to the show being tested as I had also become quite the fan of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers over that summer. Not knowing what to do because both shows aired at the exact same time, I would check to see if a new episode on either channel was airing, and on those days when both were new, I would have two televisions on, running from one room to the other like a crazy person, trying to catch everything I could. Of course, things were made easier when I realized I could just record the other channel on a VHS tape, having the Power Rangers be what I watched later because I needed to see Sonic first. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that I was a very strange child.
Now here we are, 20 years later. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since Jaleel White’s voice came through my speakers without that Urkel pitch but instead of a character that embodied what was cool in the early 90′s, at least if you were still a kid. I find it hard to believe that if an adult was acting like the animated Sonic in the 90′s they would be considered cool, but hey. You never know.
So let’s have a toast. A toast to the men and woman responsible for creating a show we both love and hate. Fire up those grills one final time before summer officially ends, make some official Sonic the Hedgehog chili dogs, and reminisce about a time when all a theme song needed to tell you was that the main character was the fastest thing alive.
Happy Anniversary, Sonic the Hedgehog!
Oh, be sure to read Barry the Nomad’s reflections on the other Sonic cartoon, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, over at SEGABits. Because sometimes after dealing with Antoine being tortured with margarine, you need some Scratch and Grounder in your life.