Welcome to the third article in a series showcasing the (admittedly biased) best franchises of the 1980s! Cartoons and toy lines went hand-in-hand during the ’80s (and ever since to be totally fair). When a new cartoon was produced, you could bet there would be associated toys lining up to gouge children for their pocket money. New properties were released yearly, competing for affection and cold hard cash in a crowded marketplace. Some floundered, others soared. Now we live in a world where Michael Bay is making a fifth Transformers movie whether we want him to or not, and Hasbro is preparing us for a cinematic universe of interconnected properties. This article is dedicated to The Centurions!
The Centurions – also known as Centurions: Power Xtreme – was a franchise released in 1986 that included both a toy line and tie-in animated series. In the near future of the 21st Century, Earth is threatened by the evil cyborg Doc Terror, and his assistant, Hacker. They command an army of cyborg war machines. Standing against them are the Centurions, an elite group of three (later expanded to five) specialists who combat Doc Terror’s schemes. The Centurions use special exo-frame suits that allow them to combine with Assault Weapon Systems with unique capabilities. For some reason, despite the scale of Doc Terror’s attacks, there is apparently no conventional military or police to handle them. Probably because most of the world’s money is tied up in the Centurions program.
The Centurions are the heroes of the show. Originally there were three Centurions, but the number was expanded to five as the show progressed. The Centurions operate out of a hidden base in New York called Centrum (hidden in a bookstore, presumably because print is dead) and an orbiting space station known as Sky Vault. Every week the Centurions are called upon to thwart Doc Terror’s last plan for world domination. Assault Weapons Systems are beamed down from Sky Vault upon request and are usually tailored to the situation at hand. Each Centurion adopts an X pose and declares “Power Xtreme!” while the weapons systems are transported around the individual and lock on to special slots in the exo-frame suits in an orgy of stock footage goodness. Every Centurion had an awesome name.
Max Ray is the leader of the Centurions and the “Brilliant” Sea Operations Commander. He wears a green exo-frame suit and his Assault Weapon Systems are all based around seaborne operations. Max was apparently intentionally modeled after Tom Selleck and sports a rather spiffy mustache.
Jake Rockwell is the “Rugged” Land Operations Specialist. He wears a yellow exo-frame suit and his Assault Weapons Systems are all land-based with the exception of one which is basically an attack helicopter. Jake has a pet dog named Shadow who has his own exosuit harness that allows him to fire missiles.
Ace McCloud is the “Daring” Air Operations Expert. Clad in blue, Ace’s Assault Weapon Systems are aerial or space-based in nature. Ace is the series’ womanizer and is linked to numerous females throughout the show’s run, although he is shown to have some type of relationship with Crystal Kane.
Rex Charger is one of the new Centurion recruits added later in the show’s run and is an “Expert” Energy Programmer. He is a billionaire playboy and expert in alternative energy. Charger wears a red and pale green exo-frame suit and his Assault Weapons Systems involve redirecting energy to power his weapons. He also has a rather fine beard.
John Thunder is the other new recruit to the Centurions and is the “Specialist” Infiltration Commander. A full-blooded Chiricahua Apache and direct descendant of Geronimo, John’s exo-frame suit is dark blue and understated. His Assault Weapons Systems are the smallest of the team as he is by nature a covert operative.
Crystal Kane is the Centurions’ controller and computer expert who handles operations from Sky Vault. She alerts the team to dangers and situations needing their expertise and beams down the Assault Weapons Systems to the Centurions. She is accompanied by Lucy the orangutan.
Doc Terror is the leader of the Doom Drones who operates from a base called Dominion in the arctic. His left side has been replaced with a machine prosthetic (called Syntax) that he can swap out with a Strafer drone to allow him to fly. Doc Terror is apparently his real name as he used it before becoming a cyborg intent on world domination. Surely no one believed that a guy with a name like Doc Terror would become a family-friendly physician rather than a homicidal would-be dictator? He has a daughter, Amber, who helps out from time to time.
Never has a villain been so misnamed as Hacker. He is dumb muscle rather than a computer genius, and his right side (called Lesion) is purely mechanical. He was a petty crook who was saved from the police by Doc Terror and converted into the first cyborg as proof that machines were superior. Hacker wanted to be turned back into a human, but Doc Terror told him the process was irreversible. Freaking out, Hacker caused the accident that injured Doc Terror, leading to his own cyborg replacements.
Produced by Ruby-Spears, The Centurions cartoon lasted for 65 episodes which allowed it to be run in syndication. Comic book legends Doug Wildey (Jonny Quest), Gil Kane (Green Lantern, Atom, Spider-Man, Iron Fist), and Jack Kirby (pretty much everything) were involved with the design and concept of the show and were credited as creative consultants. Writers working on the show included sci-fi authors Michael Reaves, Marc Scott Zicree, Larry DiTillio, and Gerry Conway.
Numerous themes ran throughout the show. The creeping advent of technology and the relationship between man and machine was the main focus. Arguably, Doc Terror and Hacker showed the downsides of allowing unchecked technological advancement and the dangers of losing their humanity to it. The Centurions showed how technology could be beneficial and used by man without subjugating themselves to it. In one episode, the mechanical halves of Doc Terror and Hacker combine to form the seemingly sentient Uniborg which raised the question of how sentient artificial intelligence could be.
Other storylines focused on environmental issues that were gaining traction in the late ’80s, and some dealt with more magical and mystical adventures. Space discovery and alien lifeforms were also present in some episodes. Each episode ended with a coda similar to the PSAs found in contemporary cartoons like M.A.S.K. However, they were not used to dispense good advice or safety tips but usually educated viewers on scientific principles that were linked to the episode such as space exploration or magnetism.
Produced by Kenner, the gimmick of the Centurion toys was the interchangeable nature of the Assault Weapons Systems. Each figure had a number of holes built into the exo-frame suit across the chest, back, legs and arms. The Assault Weapons Systems would then attach to the holes via pegs. Due to the interchangeable nature of the assault weapons systems, it was conceivable to have Jake Rockwell use one of Ace McCloud’s air vehicles, or to combine different parts of sets to create a new one. The toy catalogs showcased this ability extensively.
Each Centurion figure came one of their assault weapons systems, usually their “signature” one. Max Ray came with Cruiser, Ace McCloud with Skyknight, and Jake Rockwell with Fireforce. Other assault weapons systems sets were available for purchase but none came with a figure. This meant children had to buy the initial figure set before being able to use the others. Toys of Doc Terror and Hacker were also available, as were generic Doom Drones such as the Strafer (air cyborg) and the Traumatizer (land cyborg).
Several toys – including figures of new characters Rex Charger and John Thunder – were designed and in the prototype stage but were never released commercially. Some catalog photography of the characters exists and some prototypes were produced and have found their way into the collections of private collectors. No toys were produced for the female characters of the show like Crystal or Amber, nor were the pets of Shadow and Lucy.
A four-issue miniseries was published by DC Comics in 1987. Rather than tell a single story over four issues, each issue was a self-contained story. The comics showed the Centurions in an arguably more human light as they often bickered among themselves. The writer of the comic, Bob Rozakis, also attempted to give the world of The Centurions a proper history by introducing a third World War and attempting to flesh out the histories of the Centurions and Doc Terror himself.
The Future of The Centurions
Unlike many of the ’80s franchises, The Centurions appears to have faded into obscurity, fondly remembered by fans but with no current plans for a revival. This is a shame as the premise of exploring the technological nature of the relationship between man and machine is more relevant to today’s society than it was to the original ’80s audience. While the concepts of extreme cyborg integration are still as far away from us as it was to the original audience, the creeping reliance on smarter and better technologies and their relation to the human condition has long been a debate as we move into a world where wearable tech and mechanical implants are starting to become common.