A Very Special EpisodeA single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.  

“If we’re going to have toys to teach our children about war, why not have them really true to life? Why not have a G.I. Joe who bleeds when his body is punctured by shrapnel, or screams when anyone of his 21 movable parts are blown off, or vomits at the smell of burning flesh after a napalm attack?” -a concerned mother, quoted in The New York Times Magazine, 1970.

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On November 29, 1985, TV stations around the United States aired the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero episode “The Invaders,” the 50th installment of a season that had just begun a few months earlier, in September. If G.I. Joe’s creative team was concerned about burning through ideas too quickly, “The Invaders” certainly didn’t show it. In the opening minutes, America’s daring, highly trained “special missions force” tracks two members of the terrorist organization Cobra through the desert, where the unit runs into Joe’s Soviet counterpart, The Oktober Guard. As three squads of mutual enemies converge between the dunes, suddenly a spaceship descends, destroying a Cobra base before flying off, promising further devastation for the Earth.

So, 50 episodes in, G.I. Joe was throwing space aliens, elite Russian soldiers, and technologically advanced super-terrorists into the mix, in a single episode. Was the show just aping the “constant crisis” storytelling mode of 1980s comic books? Or was the G.I. Joe franchise’s TV division loading up on extreme threats to justify making a children’s show that was, in essence, pro-war?

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The answer to those questions goes back to February 9th, 1964: the day that The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the day that the Hasbro booth at The American Toy Fair in Manhattan introduced a product that had been in development for a year. Larry Reiner, a game and toy inventor then working at Ideal, saw an untapped market in the millions of American boys who had no interest in Barbie and Ken. When his bosses passed on the idea of an articulated soldier doll, Reiner took the concept to independent agent Stan Weston, who sold it to Hasbro’s creative director Don Levine. The “doll for boys” pitch didn’t initially impress the industry, but at the Fair in ’64, a 10-minute demo reel and a display filled with clothes and accessories made the commercial potential obvious. This wasn’t just about selling a posable 12-inch-high dogface. It was about the hundreds of pieces of weaponry, uniforms, and gear—all sold separately—that this American hero would need.

The G.I. Joe Action Soldiers (along with the Action Sailors, Marines, and Pilots) made it to market by Christmas, and became an immediate sensation. Over the next several years, the line continued to grow. Hasbro added a black soldier, a talking soldier, an astronaut, and a Green Beret. But as Vietnam War protesters changed the conversation about the military, G.I. Joe changed too. In 1964, the toy came with dog-tags and field manuals. By the end of the decade and into the 1970s, the G.I. Joe dolls became part of an “adventure team,” downplaying the original connection to the U.S. armed services. The adventurers grew beards, and learned kung fu—like New Age hippies. Eventually, the line dropped the “G.I.” altogether and, inspired by The Six Million Dollar Man and the 1970s science-fiction boom, became “Super Joe,” featuring superheroes fighting alien monsters from outer space.

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Even this more fantastical Joe couldn’t compete with Star Wars though, so in 1981—after a couple of years where no new G.I. Joe toys were produced—new consumer trends inspired an entirely new line of three-and-three-quarter inch action figures. (The rise in oil prices also prompted the shrinkage, since plastic was at a premium.) Though this revamped “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” series had plenty of vehicles and play sets, one of Hasbro’s biggest concessions to the way Star Wars had changed the industry manifested in an exponential proliferation of characters.

(Image courtesy of 3DJoes.com)

The company drew up rough sketches for dozens of new soldiers, inspired by actual military specialists; then it consulted with Marvel Comics to fill in those sketches. Writer-artist Larry Hama—who on his own had been brainstorming a new comic based on Nick Fury’s covert operation S.H.I.E.L.D.—took what Hasbro had roughed out and added his own ideas, inspired by his military service and a decade in comics. He gave each character a name, and a backstory that moved them more in line with superheroes than combat veterans. Hama also pushed for more women and more villains in the line, intending the make the G.I. Joe universe both more complex and more broadly accessible.

The result was that for the first time, the G.I. Joe toys had a story—even if at first it was only parceled out on the “file cards” included with the action figures’ packaging. Soon, the new line was supported by a Marvel comic, written by Hama; and then by a syndicated cartoon, which began as a five-part one-week special-event miniseries in 1983 and then became a regular series in 1985.

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The miniseries (and its two sequels) were written by Ron Friedman, a veteran TV scribe and comics nostalgist who picked up from what Hama started and wrote a show with clear good guys and bad guys, with individually distinct qualities. When G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero became a daily syndicated series, Friedman gave way to a succession of freelancers, many of whom were drawn from the ranks of well-respected comic book writers. Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Martin Pasko, Roy Thomas… These men and women were responsible for some of the most influential and respected superhero comics of the ’70s.

But many of them were also left-leaning progressives, which made them an odd fit for a show that that was so hawkish. According to Friedman, the overt point of his G.I. Joe was to promote democracy. It may only have been coincidental that the G.I. Joe toy line was revived during the middle of President Reagan’s first term, but regardless, its success was due in part to emerging into a culture ripe for entertainment that celebrated the military.

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For those writers who just contributed to an episode or two, the goal was to get as weird as possible with their scripts, before pulling back to something more simplistic by the third act. They too followed the lead of Hama, who always said of his G.I. Joe comics that he didn’t know what was going to happen on page 22 until he’d written page 21. The cartoon frequently opened with something grabby—something bizarre and inexplicable—and then circled back later with an explanation that fit the reality of the show.

Hence “The Invaders,” where the aliens in the first act are revealed by the end to have been part of an elaborate Cobra ruse. The terrorists’ plan? To tell the world’s two biggest superpowers that flying saucers were planning to blow up Vladivostok and San Francisco, and then to send Cobra operatives to take out the Kremlin and the White House instead. G.I. Joe and The Oktober Guard reluctantly join forces to confront the interplanetary threat; but Joe’s silent ninja Snake Eyes (the most badass character in the entire franchise) realizes the aliens are phony after seeing their “leader” drinking an ordinary carton of milk.

So the plotting in “The Invaders” isn’t incredibly clever. Neither is the grunting dialogue, or the stiff animation. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was always primarily a triumph of design, with each episode packing in dozens of cool-looking characters—each with their own personalities.

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Yet while the writing was rudimentary, it was still more ambitious than any of the other half-hour toy commercials proliferating on TV in the ’80s—perhaps because it was directly influenced by what had been happening in comics over the previous two decades. The good guys and bad guys alike sometimes squabbled with each other, and were often shown in moments of downtime, just casually chatting. They were at least two-dimensional, if not quite three.

“The Invaders” was written by Dennis O’Neil, who only ever penned this one G.I. Joe episode. O’Neil established his place in comics history in the early ’70s via his collaborations with artist Neal Adams on a string of Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories that confronted poverty, injustice, drug abuse, and prejudice. It’s probably best not to think about how someone with O’Neil’s liberal bonafides ended up writing a cartoon where a heroic American soldier refers to an Arab—even one who turns out later to have been a disguised Cobra agent—as “a camel jockey.”

But then there was always a lot of “strange bedfellow”-ing going on in G.I. Joe. By using the ambiguously evil, culturally diverse Cobra as the show’s main enemy, the writers made sure not to single out any nationality as inherently villainous. The Joes and the Oktober Guard disliked and distrusted each other, but they nearly always worked together when they had to. The stories were anti-“terrorist,” but the terrorists weren’t anything like the ones who were on the news every night in the mid-’80s. If not for the title of the show and the theme song, a kid could easily see G.I. Joe as the adventures of any old superhero team—like Super Friends, but with guns.

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The subtext of the cartoon, comic, and toys, though, was hard to miss, even if the creators tried like heck to mitigate it. There’s a reason why G.I. Joe action figures and play sets were best-sellers in 1985, and it had a lot to do with the patriotic fervor sweeping through the United States by the middle of the Reagan administration. In the early years of the Joe line, the toys were made to be as realistic as possible, to help little boys play war. And no matter how much Hasbro and its franchise partners tried to be sensitive to the concerns of anxious parents by guiding their customers’ imaginations—by suggesting “adventures” instead of “combat”—the option to play “America vs. the commies” was always implied.

In “The Invaders,” the G.I. Joe team takes pains to shoot at their enemies’ tires, not the enemy themselves. In the privacy of their own bedrooms and backyards though, kids were free to be as savage as they wanted to be, to strip away the layers of disguise between what they were supposed to be playing and what was actually happening. Just as the aliens in “The Invaders” were really Cobra, so Cobra could really be the Russians. All the masquerades were easily foiled.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Quincy M.E., “Next Stop, Nowhere”

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