He-Man writers: The Best and the Worst
While making this year’s He-Man Reviews, I’ve also become interested in script-writers for the show. Some of them have gone on to become industry mainstays. Originally, I thought about making a Top-5 and a Bottom-5, but instead I decided that I should write a blog about the good and bad episode authors.
The Good – They had the Power!
I recently had a look at the writers of some of my favourite He-Man episodes and also compared some of the other episodes they penned. While there were writers who penned a multitude of episodes, I also found that surprisingly many only ever produced a single or maybe two or three scripts for the show.
Now, my favourite He-Man episode is still Reign of the Monster from the first half of Season 1. It was penned by one Marc Scott Zicree who has done many a script for both cartoons (including Smurfs and The Real Ghostbusters) and live action TV shows. Naturally, I was curious of Zicree’s other work on He-Man and found rather surprisingly that Zicree penned only two other episodes for He-Man: The Curse of the Spellstone and Ordeal in the Darklands (both from Season 1). Ironically, both of these have been on my Bottom-10 He-Man episodes list. The Curse of the Spellstone, in fairness, was perhaps hampered more by its direction albeit the plotline is very basic. Ordeal in the Darklands however perhaps displayed Zicree’s biggest weakness which was the rather bad utilisation of Teela. In said episode, Teela’s meat-headed attitude leads her to being captured which kicks off the plot.
However, Zicree’s bad episodes do also include elements similar to his best episode, Reign, in that they all try to expand on the mythos of the series and Zicree seemed particularly interested in Eternia’s past, which is shown both with the inclusion of the Staff of the Ancients in Reign and the Creeping Horror from Spellstone. Also, while Ordeal wasn’t a great episode, both it and Reign share the common element of a vicious monster which serves as a major obstacle for He-Man. Zicree seemed to be largely a writer for hire as far as He-Man was concerned and I wont fault him too badly for these bad contributions, since sloppy direction has ruined other promising scripts. And again, he did write Reign of the Monster after all.
Worthy of mention in the same breath as Zicree are the writers Douglas Booth and Steve Bussard. Booth penned the episode Orko’s Favorite Uncle which introduced Orko’s Uncle Montork as well as the far better follow-up, Return of Orko’s Uncle. Booth also has great many writing credits on several cartoons, but he stuck around well into He-Man’s second season and actually penned some stand-out episodes like The Sleepers Awaken and Fisto’s Forest. Booth seemed very good with writing new characters not seen in other episodes. However, he also penned a few less impressive ones like Masks of Power (which did deal with the Eternian Ancients) and Revenge is Never Sweet, the lacklustre follow-up to Paul Dini’s The Witch and the Warrior. Bussard doesn’t have many writing credits to his name and only penned two episodes during He-Man’s second season. However, both episodes in question, The Rainbow Warrior and Trip to Morainia, were pretty awesome.
When talking about great writing talent on He-Man, it’s impossible not to mention Paul Dini, who later received acclaim as a writer on Batman: The Animated Series. Despite the fact that Dini hasn’t always been very flattering about his time spent at Filmation, his episodes are widely considered some of the best from the entire series. Dini was particularly good at exploring the characters and pasts of characters, evidenced with episodes like Teela’s Quest, Prince Adam No More and The Witch and the Warrior, which teams up Teela with Evil-Lyn to battle the evil designs of the wizard Kothos. Dini also wrote more frivolous action pieces like The Shaping Staff and Evil-Lyn’s Plot, but generally speaking, he was very good at finding interesting ways of portraying the established characters of the show. The worst episode Dini penned for He-Man is debatably The Mystery of Man-E-Faces, although in Dini’s defense, he was working with a character who was basically just a walking, talking action-figure. Dini’s scripts really helped shape the show, which is why it’s a shame that he only completed one episode for the show’s second season: To Save Skeletor (with Beth Bornstein).
Another future talent who got his start on He-Man was J. Michael Straczynski who later became acclaimed for creating the popular sci-fi show Babylon 5. Straczynski’s track-record for He-Man is impressive, considering his first script only appeared on the show’s second season: The Origin of the Sorceress. Like other writers, Straczynski struggled somewhat with the toy-characters, which culminated in his weakest episode Mistaken Identity, but he clearly had a good handle on the general themes of the show. Particularly the episodes The Magic Falls and The Games showed Straczynski’s ability to utilize characters like Kobra Khan, Fisto and Spikor in interesting ways. However, J. Michael did also write a few so-and-so episodes and he didn’t perhaps create as many timeless classics as Dini, but still maintained a fairly good standard for the show.
But of course, no blog about iconic He-Man writers would be complete without mentioning Larry DiTillio. DiTillio was hands-down the hardest working writer on He-Man with 16 episodes baring his name as writer and one as director (the lacklustre Time Corridor from Season One). DiTillio’s writing was unquestionably the most consistently good, right from the beginning of the show with The Cosmic Comet, The Dragon’s Gift, House of Shokoti Part 1 and 2 all the way to the season 2 episodes Search for the Past, Happy Birthday Roboto and The Bargain with Evil. Much like Straczynski, DiTillio worked great with original characters and was willing to take the story in unexpected directions, such as with the The House of Shokoti. DiTillio also worked great with original characters he did not create, such as in the case of the Starchild who appeared for the second time in The Bargain with Evil (the original episode was penned by J. Brynne Stephens and Arthur Browne Jr.). He also enriched the series mythos with the character of Granamyr and scripted three of his four episode appearances (Granamyr’s final appearance Battle of the Dragons was written by Straczysnki).
DiTillio’s awesomeness can also be seen in his willingness to return to his old oeuvre with the 2000s version of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. DiTillio’s few bad episodes included The Time Wheel and The Gambler, both of which he co-wrote with other writers. Beyond this, even at his weakest as a solo author (for silly affairs like Orko’s Missing Magic and City Beneath the Sea) his episodes were usually in the very least entertaining. DiTillio is without any question, the best scriptwriter from the show.
With a show I love as much as He-Man, it’s easy to see that even with writers who were guilty of penning really weak efforts usually have at least one good episode to their name. An interesting writing duo who immediately stood out for me was the pair of Ron & Sam Schultz. These two penned four episodes together on He-Man’s first season, all of them really paltry attempts which failed to establish any good story setups. Amongst these The Defection and It’s Not My Fault stand out, the latter for its complete lack of any interesting content and the former for completely ruining the lovable image of Orko for the sake of the plot. Yet, even these two writers did pen the fairly interesting She-Demon of Phantos, which only suffered from rather poor animation direction without which the episode could easily be considered the best from the Schultzes.
Another writer with a few poor He-Man episodes to his name is Antoni Zalewski, who did all his work on Season 2. Zalewski was able to break out into further animation writing after He-Man, but his first episode The Gamesman was already a pretty dumb affair, followed by the irritating Island of Fear which introduced us to the most horrific He-Man ally of all, Buzz-Off. Even his one co-op writing affair with Larry DiTillio, The Gambler, was really underwhelming. However, Zalewski did contribute to one of my favourite Season 2 episodes, The Hunt for He-Man. Not a great batting average, but at least Zalewski showed some promise.
David Wise got his start on the first season of He-Man and wrote until the beginning of Season 2. Not to be confused with seven other writers by the same name, Wise later went on to do scripts for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Unfortunately, his work on He-Man left a lot to be desired. Some of the stinkers he penned include Trouble in Arcadia and The Return of the Gryphon. The episode The Search, the second appearance by the Cosmic Guardian Zodac, actually had an interesting premise, but was ruined by some pretty horrible animation work. Wise’s best efforts included Quest for the Sword and Golden Discs of Knowledge which he co-wrote with Jeffry O’Hare (the man who never wrote alone) as well as the first season finale The Heart of a Giant with Robby London. Admittedly, Wise’s best solo work was on Teela’s Trial which was a fairly interesting episode where Teela goes into exile after thinking she’s accidentally killed her father. It might be that Wise’s story ideas just weren’t very well thought out and some of them might have been hampered by poor direction. I can’t blame Wise for a lack of effort, it just seems to me that he was a writer who didn’t really understand the essentials of the show.
Another writer who seemed to struggle with the essentials of the show was J. Brynne Stephens whose episodes seemed more concerned with moral lessons than fun action-packed content. As a result, many of them had the unfortunate quality of turning cheezy. His few more frivolous affairs, Colossar Awakes and Song of Celice were probably not the best produced episodes, but the finales of both left a lot to be desired. However, Brynne perhaps deserves credit for having a lot of daring writing choices such as in the cases of A Friend in Need (very thinly veiled episode about drug addiction), The Starchild (very thinly veiled episode about joint-custody) and Daimar the Demon. At their best, these episodes were reaching for similar character exploration as those of Paul Dini, but at their worst could be preachy, sluggish affairs. Stephens certainly deserves credit for daring, even if his hard work didn’t result in many great episodes.
Robby London conversely is a writer whom you wouldn’t associate with “bad” episodes. In fact, London has quite a few stand-out episodes to his name including Dawn of Dragoon, Double Edged Sword and Dree-Elle’s Return as well as joint-credit for the excellent early season one episode The Disappearing Act with David Chappe. London clearly possessed the ability to create fun, action-filled episodes but also did a great service in expanding the mythos around Orko with the introduction of Dree-Elle.
So why am I bringing up Robby London in collusion with bad writers? Because, London inadvertently also wrote easily the worst episode of the entire series The Royal Cousin. With his other bad episode, the series pilot Diamond Ray of Disappearance, I’m willing to forgive London’s involvement on the grounds that it was the pilot and that Filmation was still getting the conventions of the series established. However, I can’t really pin the awfulness of The Royal Cousin on director Ernie Schmidt, who has plenty of decent work to his name. The Royal Cousin is simply a sucky episode because of the annoying butt-munch Jeremy who is at the heart of the events and whose story-arc of repentance was completely unconvincing. This atrocity of an episode nearly undoes everything good London did for the series and I’m only thankful that Jeremy never came back for further appearances.
Looking for genuine stinkers in He-Man’s writing staff, one name definitely rises above the rest and that’s Richard Pardee. Pardee never seemed to get the handle on He-Man’s story-telling which can be seen in the episode A Tale of Two Cities, which apart from He-Man and Battlecat features no other series regular characters. Yet I can’t be too harsh, since the script (and some of the animation cells) were simply recycled from Filmation’s earlier Tarzan series. The end result of course was a disappointing affair. Similarly, the uninteresting Return of Evil relied on a character unfamiliar to the show and totally uninteresting in personality. And it might have not been his fault, but Pardee also wrote an entire episode around my least favourite character, Buzz-Off, called The Good Will Survive.
In this cornucopia of suckiness it’s hard to imagine that Pardee did any good for the series, yet he does have shared credit on one of the best episodes of the series: The Creatures from the Tar Swamp. Personally, I’m willing to chalk up the majority of this episode’s excellence on his co-writer Paul Dini and director Marsh Lamore, but at the same time, it might be that Pardee just wasn’t familiar enough with the format of the show which is why his original material wound up so terrible. Additionally, Pardee made the Teleplay for Creatures, so he was actually deeply involved in its production.
As you can see, with these writers who had clearly some of the worst batting averages as writers, it’s really hard to pick the absolute worst. How would you even qualify it? We don’t have grand-slam, long-distance running hack who would be the match of Larry DiTillio in the opposite criteria. David Wise and J. Brynne Stephens wrote the most and had the weakest over-all scores, but Wise co-authored good episodes and Stephens’ lack of quality can often be chalked up to some poor direction. Zalewski and the Schultzes wrote the least amount of good episodes, but they wrote very little at all. And as for Robby London, it would be more than a little unfair to say he did nothing good for the series, even if he wrote its single worst episode. Here there are no winners, only losers…