Ah, SWAT Kats. Along with The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and The Pirates of Dark Water, it represents the darker side of Hanna-Barbera during the 90s. For those of you not in the know, here’s a basic rundown of the show’s history: the idea for the show came from Christian and Yvon Tremblay, two brothers. Originally it was going to be a comic book, but after they failed to sell the idea to Archie Comics they went instead to Hanna-Babera with the intent of turning it into a cartoon series.
The idea that they pitched concerned a pair of fighter jock cats, Chuck and Yeager, who flew around in a hi-tech jet fighting evil. They succeeded in selling the idea to Hanna-Barbera, who quickly changed the two heroes’ names to T-Bone and Razor because I guess they figured “Chuck” and “Yeager” sounded lame.
Anyway, they began production on the show and, on September 11th, 1993, this episode was broadcast on TBS. It was shortly thereafter followed by twelve more episodes before being moved to Cartoon Network for its second season. It shared many of the same cast and crew as Hanna-Barbera’s earlier foray into the realm of animation targeted at an older audience, Capital Critters. Davis Doi produced while Robert Alvarez directed. Many writers came and went over the course of the series, although the two most prominent were Glenn Leopold and Lance Falk, the former of whom did the bulk of the series. A few story ideas even came from the Tremblays themselves.
It was canned by Hanna-Barbera in 1994 with narry a word nor warning. For many years, fans didn’t know why. Many of them angrily pointed to Ted Turner for it because he owned Cartoon Network at the time. Turner would crop up as a joke villain in some fanfictions, a kind of uber-demon dubbed “tED tURNER.”
Another idea, and one which I personally subscribed to, was that SWAT Kats had very poor marketing and even poorer merchandising. Merchandising, as everyone knows, is the real key to the success of a children’s action show. At least back then. Nowadays there are plenty of successful animated series that aren’t merchandise-driven.
There’s still plenty that are, but, by and large, it sometimes seems as though the era of the kids’ show with the big line of tie-in action figures is dead, or at least on its way out. But back in 1993, it was very much in vogue, and for SWAT Kats to arrive on the scene and produce virtually nothing pretty much doomed it, as far as I’m concerned.
What little merchandise there was included four (really awful) action figures, three videotapes, each containing two episodes from the first season, and, um, some plastic handcuffs. Really creative there, merchandising department.
It has since emerged that the true reason the show was canned was indeed due to the involvement of Ted Turner, who wanted to pour more money into his pet project, Captain Planet. Yes, Captain Planet was Mr. Turner’s baby and in 1995 he was itching to give it a boost. Looking for ways to do that, he quickly settled on axing SWAT Kats. Money being spent on it was money that could be spent on Captain Planet. Besides, he’d never liked the show to begin with, apparently considering it far too violent. And so our beloved show about cartoon kitties fighting evil was sacrificed upon the altar of ecological activism and shielding our children from violence.
Production of the series was halted when they had only three episodes left to go, and, mysteriously, one of the three unfinished/unaired episodes, “Succubus” (a.k.a. “The Curse of Kataluna”) did reportedly air at some point during reruns of the series in 1995, but so far nobody’s been able to prove it.
But enough backstory. What of the show itself? It’s set in a kind of bizarre alternate universe where everyone is an anthropomorphic cat.
Megakat City, a huge metropolis, is defended from crime by a paramilitary police organization called the Enforcers. But this being an action series and the Enforcers being “the establishment,” none of their number are to be the heroes. Rather, the heroes are ex-Enforcers, the SWAT Kats, Chance Furlong and Jake Clawson, a.k.a. T-Bone and Razor, who defend Megakat City from rampaging monsters, power-mad supervillains, natural disasters, etc., with their customized jet, the Turbokat, and their seemingly endless arsenal of flashy, contrived and improbable missiles.
I’m saying all this before getting into the actual review of the episode because, although The Pastmaster Always Rings Twice” was the first episode of the series aired, we learn absolutely nothing about who the SWAT Kats are or why any of the characters are doing the things they’re doing (except for the episode’s title villain, but I’m getting ahead of myself). We’re just thrown into the middle of things and expected to be able to figure out everything for ourselves. And even though “The Pastmaster Always Rings Twice” aired first, it was actually the third episode made; even the first produced episode (and the second aired), “The Giant Bacteria,” does only a halfhearted job at properly introducing any of the characters. So there you have it, folks. It’s a series without a proper pilot episode.
We do eventually learn some of the SWAT Kats’ past, but that’s in the third episode, “The Wrath of Dark Kat,” which was the fifth produced show! Yes, they waited until making their fifth episode before they decided to bother giving us all some insight into the main characters we’re supposed to be rooting for.
To be fair, I’m told that “The Pastmaster Always Rings Twice,” when it first aired, was preceded by a short prologue of sorts in which Barry Gordon, who voiced Razor, explained the basic premise of the show over a series of clips from this episode and from “The Giant Bacteria.” Still, that seems rather half-assed to me. No wonder the show failed, when it never even started right. But don’t let my nitpicking fool you. I adore this show with a passion, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its various flaws.
Anyway, without further ado, on with the show!