Welcome to the second part in a series of articles about the classic cartoon franchises of the 1980s. Cartoons and their associated toys and merchandise were a staple of the eighties with new properties vying for space in a crowded market. Every year children were encouraged to part with their hard-earned pocket money and exasperated parents threw up their hands in despair as yet another toy craze swept through a generation of kids. Some franchises prospered, others stumbled, yet more are dimly recalled memories. Some properties like G.I. Joe and Transformers were fueled by nostalgia and erupted onto cinema screens into commercially successful if not critically acclaimed films.
This article is dedicated to Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light!
Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Knight tells the story of the planet Prysmos, a world at a technological zenith which is plunged into chaos when a rare celestial alignment causes all electronics and technology to fail. The Age of Science is ended and an Age of Magic is ushered in. Reduced to a feudal level, the people of Prysmos strive to rebuild civilization as best they can from the ruins of the old world. Independent city-states emerged including the city of New Valarak under the leadership of Leoric, and a domain ruled by his main rival, Darkstorm.
The ancient wizard
Merlin Merklynn – who has patiently waited for magic to return to Prysmos for thousands of years – offers magical powers to those who survive a competition to reach his lair on top of Iron Mountain. Dozens of knights vie for the power, including contingents led by Leoric and Darkstorm. Only fourteen make it to Merklynn’s magical shrine and were granted magical abilities based on their personalities and experiences while surviving the wizard’s trap-infested mountain. Each knight is imbued with a magical animal totem that allowed them to transform into their animal counterparts. Some knights carried staffs which were also infused with magical powers (which were unleashed by reciting some really catchy spells), and others were given the ability to power vehicles (now useless without technological power) the use of magic. The recipients of Merklynn’s gifts split into two camps: the heroic Spectral Knights under the leadership of Leroic, and the villainous Darkling Lords led by Darkstorm.
The Spectral Knights were led by Leoric and were based out of the city of New Valarak. Leoric was the only Spectral Knight to rock any kind of facial hair, wearing the kind of mustache that was popularized by Magnum, P.I. His animal totem was the lion (unoriginal given his name) and he wielded the Power of Wisdom. Leoric’s chief lieutenants were Ectar (fox) and Feryl (wolf), both of whom were capable of piloting the vehicles Capture Chariot and Sky Lancer. Joining the Spectral Knights after receiving their magic were Arzon (eagle, Power of Knowledge), Cryotek (bear, Power of Strength), Witterquick (cheetah, Power of Lightspeed), and Galadria (dolphin).
Darkstorm led the Darkling Lords from his castle and domain which he ruled over with an iron fist and saw nothing wrong with slavery and oppression. His animal totem was the mollusk which, in hindsight is a strange choice for the bad guy leader until you realize it was a huge two armed, energy firing mollusk. Darkstorm was granted the Power of Decay. His original lackeys were Mortdred (beetle) and Reekon (lizard) and they were able to pilot the Dagger Assault and Sky Claw. During the quest for magic Darkstorm found four knights trapped and released them only in exchange for their fealty; Cravex (fictitious Prysmos scavenger known as a phylot, Power of Fear), Cindarr (gorilla, Power of Destruction), Lexor (armadillo, Power of Invulnerability), and Virulina (shark). Notably, all the Darkling Lords were bearded, apart from Virulina, obviously.
Like any great eighties franchise, the Visionaries had a cartoon series. Unlike many series, it only lasted for a single thirteen-episode season. Produced by frequent Hasbro cartoon collaborators Sunbow, the series was released in 1987 and included the one feature all eighties cartoons were mandated to include – a catchy theme tune.
Notable Transformers voice alumni included Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) as Cindarr, Chris Latta (Starscream) as both Darkstorm and Cravex, and Susan Blu (Arcee) as Galadria. The real coup for the series, however, was the casting of Jonathan Harris as Mortdred. Harris was a character actor probably best known for the role of the cowardly Doctor Zachary Smith on the series Lost in Space. His portrayal of the sycophantic lackey was a masterclass in voice acting and characterization.
Unlike many cartoons produced in the eighties, Visionaries maintained a sense of continuity between the episodes. The first three episodes were essentially one story which introduced the viewers to the world of Prysmos and its inhabitants, the main characters and their magical abilities, and set up the series premise going forward. The Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lords were rivals for power, while Merklynn was more of a neutral force favoring neither side but using them both to achieve his own goals. One of the rules of magical use in the show was that the magic in the power staffs was depleted after a single use requiring it to be recharged in Merklynn’s shrine – which he only agreed to do in exchange for the knights questing for him. Staffs that had been depleted in previous episodes were shown to be blank in following episodes until the knight had a chance to recharge it. While Visionaries wasn’t the only cartoon in the eighties to employ a sense of continuity, it was uncommon. Most cartoons produced episodes that could be watched in any order to allow broadcasters to air episodes out of order.
In terms of action figures, Visionaries were well constructed and articulated, akin to their G.I. Joe brethren . The main gimmick of the toys – because all toy lines have to have a gimmick – was their large chest piece that was emblazoned with a hologram that displayed each individual character’s animal totem. Similar holograms were used on character’s power staffs and on the vehicle playsets. The holograms proved to be the toyline’s downfall however. The high cost of production due to the holograms, coupled with low sales led to the cancellation of the toyline after only a single wave. A second proposed wave of figures and vehicles had protoypes made and catalog photography was released, along with a proposed Iron Mountain playset but the line was canceled before any were released. Only the names of the second wave of figures and vehicles were revealed, with no hints as to characterization or animal totem for any of them.
Like many franchises, Visionaries introduced a single female character into both teams – and never made an action figure of either. Even the proposed second wave of figures did not rectify this oversight. It seemed to be an unfortunate trend of eighties cartoons to feature a limited number of women in franchises “aimed” at a male demographic and then either not produce action figures of that character, or produce them later in the line than their original companions.
Visionaries translated to the comic format but like its television and toyline companions did not fare well. Only six comics were produced with the first two issues released under Marvel Comics‘ imprint, Star Comics, and the final four being released by Marvel themselves. The final three issues were scripted by industry veteran Gerry Conway. The series was canceled in the middle of a four-part story arc that was never resolved and was announced on the letters page of the final issue. The editors and creators of the comic blamed the powers-that-be for the cancellation and implied that they were in league with the Darkling Lords.
The comic deviated from the established lore of the cartoon series in several aspects. Most notably was that in the cartoon, the knights with power staffs could only use their magical power once before needing to recharge it at Iron Mountain. In the comics however, the usage of the staffs was unlimited. The characters of Galadria and Virulina, both without power staffs or their own assigned vehicle, were given buckler shields in issue 5 that were imbued with their own magical powers – Healing and Disease, respectively. One of the themes of the comic series was also the notion that the knights were afraid of losing their humanity to their animal totems and they found it harder and harder to reassert control after becoming their animal counterparts.
The future of Visionaries
For a long time, Visionaries was one of the few eighties franchises that was seemingly consigned to history and fondly remembered by its fans. Hasbro did allow references to Prysmos and the Darkling Lords in the AllSpark Almanac, a supplemental book series that delved deeper into the world of Transformers Animated, but these were included alongside references to nearly all of Hasbro’s owned properties and other pop-culture franchises and whether or not it implied that the Visionaries existed in the same universe as the Transformers was debatable.
Last year, Hasbro announced that they planned to create a shared cinematic universe since Marvel proved that companies could make a metric ton of money with interconnected films based on different properties. Building on the release of the first two G.I. Joe films, Hasbro plans to construct a cinematic universe which will include the Visionaries alongside other properties it owns including Micronauts, M.A.S.K., and Rom. Just quite how they intend to integrate a series like Visionaries into an integrated canon with the other properties is a question that I’m looking forward to seeing answered.
Do you remember Visionaries? Or is this your first time hearing about the awesome Knights of the Magical Light?