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By Thomas Wheeler

With all of the various pop-culture concepts from the 80's that have undergone one manner of resurgence or another over the past several years -- G.I.Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, Robotech, Battle of the Planets -- there are any number which are also conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps one of the more undeservedly obscure ones is SPIRAL ZONE.

And that's really a shame, because in both toy and cartoon form, this concept had a lot going for it, and in many respects was heads above much of what was out there then or now.

In Tucson, the SPIRAL ZONE animated series aired on Channel 40. This was a very small independent station that didn't last very long, and was best known for a handful of generally decent animated series and a stable of movies that were so obscure I can't even recall the title of a single one of them. That and the long-gone World Class Championship Wrestling...

The concept behind SPIRAL ZONE was this: In the not too distant future, a brilliant but twisted scientist named Dr. James Bent, invented devices called Zone Generators. Bent commandeered a new type of military space shuttle, and sent it on a spiral course over the Earth, dropping pod-like objects that expanded into the Zone Generators. The shuttle was on its second course when it was shot down. Thus the Earth was half free, half "Zoned".

The primary effect of the Zone Generators, which emitted an energy field laced with certain chemicals, was to fog the minds of anyone within the affected region, turning them into slaves without will. Other effects of the Zone included eerie, murky skies, strange reddish lesions and yellow eyes on its victims, including animals as well as people, and strange, lesion-like decay in architectural structures.

Even those who were made immune to the effects of the Zone, which included the scientist, who had taken the name Overlord, and his followers, wound up scarred and with yellowish eyes, although their minds remained clear, thanks to a device called the Widow Maker.

Thus began a war between Overlord and his followers, who called themselves the Black Widows, and the uncontaminated half of the planet. Unfortunately, stepping into the Zone meant that you would be "zoned". The only area where the Zone did not extend was underwater. Overlord was interested in ruling the populated regions of the Earth, so this was not generally a concern for him.

The other Black Widows included Bandit, a one-time terrorist of Middle Eastern origin; Duchess Dire, the Spiral Zone's equivalent of G.I.Joe's Baroness; and Razorback and Reaper, basically a couple of run-of-the-mill criminals who saw an opportunity for power.

On the side of the heroes were the Zone Riders. Gathered from military forces around the world, these five brave individuals included Commander Dirk Courage, Lt. Hiro Taka, Tank Schmidt, Max Jones, and Katarina Anastasia. A scientist had discovered a compound, called Neutron-90, that he could coat uniforms and helmets with, providing immunity to the Zone, and without the scarring that Overlord's forces endured. Unfortunately, it was such a rare and difficult compound to make, that only five outfits could be treated.

There was something of a technological standoff between the Zone Riders and the Black Widows. Zone Generators were fairly easy to destroy, and yet they were impossible to capture. The darn things were inevitably booby-trapped, and no one on the side of the heroes really understood how they worked. In contrast, the Black Widows were completely unable to find a way to counteract the effects of the protective uniforms the Zone Riders wore, so except for pitched battles, there was no real way to stop them from entering the Zone and destroying generators.

A secondary sort of standoff springing from this was the fact that Overlord was constantly dropping more Zone Generators, generally in strategic areas that he wanted under his control, and these, of course, took precedence for the Zone Riders to dispose of, instead of trying to clean up the mess that had been made in the initial attack that had "zoned" half the world.

The show, which ran for 65 episodes in late 1987, was amazingly well done, and in my opinion the overall concept was astoundingly well thought-out. I've seen less effort and less credibility put into live-action prime-time series that purported to be decent science-fiction. You could do a live-action Spiral Zone series today and it'd be interesting and worth watching.

As well, the animation was realistic and superbly executed, heads above a lot of what was being played at the time, and probably good enough to stand up to a lot of what's around today. Equally impressive were the intelligent storylines of individual episodes. SPIRAL ZONE had no problem pulling a few fairly mature emotional strings here and there, especially for a show that was designed to market a toy. Everything from claustrophobia to battle fatigue was dealt with in the storylines, and even family members on both sides. Overlord's ex-wife was once used as bait to try to capture him, and Tank Schmidt had an 11-year-old son trapped within the Zone.

A little past midway through the series, several new characters were introduced. The Zone Riders picked up Australian member Ned Tucker, a superb soldier with a bit of a rebellious streak, and Benjamin Davis Franklin, a nerdy lab assistant who was not especially qualified for field duty, but comported himself admirably nonetheless. They were brought in because, it was explained, enough residual Neutron-90 compound from the five existing protective uniforms had been extracted to create two more suits.

The Black Widows also enlisted two new members. There was the Frenchman named Crook (make your own jokes about putting a Frenchman on the side of the bad guys alongside a Middle Eastern terrorist these days...), and Raw Meat, a massive redneck hillbilly with a mean streak a mile long and a penchant for eating -- you guessed it -- uncooked meat in his sandwiches. Even the other Black Widows found this guy pretty repulsive. It was Bandit himself who gave this character his name. "You are what you eat, my friend..."

But, of course, there were the TOYS, which I suppose I'd better get around to reviewing. The toys were made, very curiously, by TONKA, before they became part of Kenner which later became part of Hasbro. Tonka, back then, was known almost solely as the maker of very sturdy large-scale metal trucks and related vehicles, which tended to find their way into the sandboxes and backyards of homes across the country. For them to do an action figure line was highly unusual. Almost as unusual is how good a job they did. But the Spiral Zone figures were decidedly different from what was generally available in the late 80's.

These days, we're used to seeing a rather wide variety of sizes, scales, and types of action figures on the store shelves. Some have fabric costumes, others are all plastic. Anything from four inches to twelve or so is fairly commonplace. But in 1987, the order of the day was all-plastic, no fabric costumes to speak of, and the most common scale was 3-3/4", with very little getting much above 5".

The Spiral Zone figures stood nearly seven inches in height, featured cloth uniforms with plastic snap-on armor, helmets, and boots, spring-loaded missile launchers (another VERY unusual feature in 1987, although in a few years it would become fairly common), and were very well detailed and articulated.

There were nine figures available. The female Zone Rider, Katarina, got booted out of the first assortment for some reason. Probably the usual bias against female action figures. Curiously, though, Duchess Dire did make it into the toy line-up, which meant that you could get all five of the initial Black Widows, but only four of the Zone Riders. Weird. In fairness, I've learned that had the Spiral Zone line continued into a second year, Katarina would have been made, along with the two new Zone Riders, Ben and Ned, as well as the two new Black Widows, Crook and Raw Meat.

And, of course, there were vehicles -- which also appeared in the show. Commander Dirk Courage rode a strange contraption called the Rimfire Cannon. This was a giant wheel with a cannon attached to it. Courage rode within the wheel. The remaining Zone Riders rode what can best be described as heavily armed one-wheeled motorcycles, called -- imaginatively -- Zone Rider Cycles. In contrast, the Black Widows tended to ride what looked like heavily-armed tank-treaded wheelchairs, called Sledge Hammer Tanks. Overlord's vehicle was probably the most plausible of the entire lot, a multi-wheeled and rather long vehicle that could probably be called a "stretch tank" (as opposed to a stretch limo), called the Bullwhip Cannon.

All four of these vehicles were turned into toys, of course. The opposing forces also had their own transport aircraft on the show. The Zone Riders' aircraft was called the Eagle, and the Black Widows' was known as the Intruder. Although these were not in the works for 1988 to my knowledge, there WERE plans to do a Zone Generator Playset.

There were a few items in the toy collection that were a little implausible from the standpoint of the concept. These included several uniform-and-accessory sets for the Zone Riders. Now, unless these uniforms were also treated with the same compound that their regular uniforms were, which seemed highly unlikely, they wouldn't be of much use within the primary point of the concept itself. This was probably one aspect of the collection that Tonka should have given more thought to before manufacture.

Ultimately, the toy line -- and the animated series -- lasted only a season, (and a very mediocre comic from DC I don't think lasted more than five issues), and then vanished into far greater obscurity than they deserved. I don't know of a lot of people that even recall the concept. People remember other concepts, such as MASK, Centurions, SilverHawks, and others that have yet to be allowed on the nostalgia bandwagon for one reason or another, and I have no problem with any of those concepts -- they're cool. But so was Spiral Zone, and it deserves more respect than it's getting. I couldn't even find a Web Site specifically designated to it.

I doubt it will ever return, though. One note: thanks to various mergers, buyouts, and what-have-you in the ensuing years, if anyone would be doing Spiral Zone, it would be Hasbro. That could prove -- interesting.

(Special thanks to Mark Lungo for providing much needed details and information!)