Here's another quite good cartoon from the '80s that almost no one seems to remember -- Bionic Six.
It's about a seemingly normal family who secretly moonlight as superheroes. The backstory (as explained in flashback in Episode 10) is that the father had secretly been transformed into a bionic superhero by his scientist pal, then when the rest of the family was injured while on a skiing holiday, the father had no choice but to make them all bionic too:
Their powers can be turned on and off, and only last a certain amount of time before having to be recharged. The family consists of a father and mother, their two biological kids -- a boy jock and a girl airhead -- and their two adopted kids -- an African-American science nerd and a Japanese-born martial arts enthusiast. There's also a robot gorilla, but the less said about him the better. This was honestly never my favorite show growing up, as I always found its relentless cheerfulness somewhat cloying, but it does have its moments, and I just re-watched some of the episodes I remember most vividly, and I think I'd have to say that so far this show actually holds up better than any other old cartoons I've tried to go back and re-watch.
In one episode, Eric, the jock, gets scouted by the Yankees, and is invited to New York to compete for a baseball scholarship. Eric has always been a local sports star, but he quickly realizes that he's badly outclassed here. In particular there's a phenomenal young athlete named Corky who goes out of his way to mock Eric's ineptitude:
Eric gets angry and rationalizes to himself why it's right that he should get to use his bionics to compete, and soon he's blowing Corky out of the water. Later Eric finds Corky crying. Corky apologizes for acting like a jerk earlier, and confides that his parents have scrimped and saved their whole lives in hopes of giving him a better life, and now that he's blown his one big chance at a scholarship, he doesn't know how he'll ever face them. Eric feels terrible, and ultimately turns down the scholarship in favor of Corky. This was for me the best and most memorable story in the show. Eric had something he desperately wanted, he had to make a choice about whether to cheat or not, he rationalized his behavior in a fairly sophisticated way, then later a supposed villain was revealed to have hidden depths, and the situation became even more morally ambiguous than it had at first appeared, giving Eric an even tougher choice to make.
Speaking of this episode, I find it a little hard to believe that whoever animated this scene wasn't enjoying himself just a little too much:
Yeah, so Bunji just rescued his sister from an oncoming train. Why, what did you think was happening?
Another episode I remembered really vividly is one in which a wealthy heiress challenges the Bionic 6 to a test of wits, since she feels that their success is due entirely to their superpowers. The heroes have to navigate a mansion teeming with traps and puzzles, all of which are somehow related to Sherlock Holmes stories:
It's a fantastic premise which the episode itself unfortunately doesn't really live up to. Mostly the heroes just battle robots who have only the most tenuous connection to anything in Conan Doyle. (The "hound of the Baskervilles," for example, is a sword-wielding werewolf.) The episode is nonetheless pretty memorable, and did make me curious to read the stories whose titles were mentioned.
In one episode the family's scientist pal opens a time portal and sends them on a mission to discover the source of the radiation that wiped out the dinosaurs. (Just FYI, the dinosaurs were not actually wiped out by radiation, but it makes a good cartoon.)
So anyway, a few of the villains infiltrate the expedition, and one of them sneaks a laser gun through the portal. In the ensuing scuffle, the gun is damaged and falls to the ground. At the end of the episode, the scientist muses that they never did discover the source of the radiation that killed the dinosaurs, as the camera lingers over the forgotten laser gun, which is still beeping and sparking. I always found that immensely creepy and cool.
On that note, these old cartoons are full of directed-energy weapons. I guess it's a matter of science fiction tradition -- ray guns and all that -- as well as convenience -- you can't really show bodies being shredded by bullets in a children's cartoon, and these energy weapons all seem to do about as much damage as being slapped with a 2x4. But given the ubiquity of energy weapons in all the shows I grew up with, it was a bit of a shock for me to discover how unlikely they actually are -- even if we could harness the power of cold fusion or antimatter, it's just not clear how you could possibly generate enough energy inside a handheld object to make any sort of laser pistol feasible.
The finale of Bionic Six is called "That's All, Folks," and it's full of fun meta touches. At the beginning, the heroes are watching an awards ceremony for a retiring cartoonist. But then the cartoonist goes off script in a Kanye West sort of way and reveals that he's being forced into retirement by an uncaring studio so obsessed with focus groups that they've lost all perspective on what makes cartoons cool. (Yeah, the fact that this was the last episode of a canceled series is probably not coincidental.) The cartoonist then opens a glowing portal in the air and vanishes from the stage. The heroes eventually end up following him into an alternate dimension where everything behaves like in an old Warner Bros. cartoon:
At the end of the episode, when the heroes are all safely back in their own world, one of them muses along the lines of, "You know, all the inhabitants of that cartoon universe didn't know that they were just cartoons. It makes you wonder, how do we know that we're not just cartoons too?" They immediately dismiss this as absurd, while outside their home goofy-looking cartoons critters scamper into view and start holding up signs saying, "Goodbye!"