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FLASHBACK REVIEW: VISIONARIES
By Thomas Wheeler

Welcome to the planet Prysmos! A world with three suns, which recently aligned for the first time in millennia, and inexplicably caused all advanced technology to stop working. Society was plunged into a feudal, medieval-like state.

Both noble and evil knights battled to govern or rule their respective regions on the planet, and ultimately, the mysterious wizard Merklynn appeared, promising great magical power to those who could enter his sanctuary on top of Iron Mountain.

Only a handful managed to accomplish this. The chestplates of their armors were gifted with the symbols of animals, which the knights could transform into at will. Those carrying battle staffs were given additional powers. Those without staffs later found they had the ability to make special vehicles operate.

Merklynn dubbed these knights -- THE VISIONARIES!

The Visionaries were a sadly short-lived toy concept in 1987, produced by Hasbro. Really, it was a very well-made toy. The figures used the same construction methods as G.I.Joe, although they were slightly taller, about 4-1/2 inches, rather than 3-3/4". But apart from that, all the basic design elements were virtually identical. The armor on the figures was highly ornate and very well detailed without exception.

The Visionaries were divided into two groups - The heroic Spectral Knights, led by Leoric, and the evil Darkling Lords, led by Darkstorm. The best way to tell the difference was that the Spectral Knights' chestplates and weapons were silver in color, the Darkling Lords' were gold.

There were a total of twelve action figures in the series, even though the animated cartoon and the short-lived comic book added two female characters, the Spectral Knight Galadria and the Darkling Lord Virulina. Excellent characters, they were predictably not made into toys, as the usual bias against female figures in a boys' toy line was in full effect.

Eight of the figures were sold on individual cards. These included the Spectral Knights Leoric, Arzon, Witterquick, and Cryotek, and the Darkling Lords Darkstorm, Lexor, Cravex, and Cindarr.

The remaining four knights were sold with vehicles. These included, for the Spectral Knights, the Lancer Cycle with Ectar, and the Capture Chariot with Feryl. The Darkling Lords received the Sky Claw, flown by Mortdred, and the massive Dagger Assault, by far the largest vehicle in the line, driven by Reekon.

 

So, what was the special feature of the Visionaries? HOLOGRAMS! And not those cheapie foil holograms that you see on credit cards. These were made on some sort of plastic polymer, and displayed a much more three-dimensional image than the "foil"-based holograms that are in such common use today. Each figure had one on his chestplate, those with staffs had larger ones on their staffs, and of course the vehicles bore these holograms as well. Some of them were quite large. All were very impressive.

(I've often thought that one reason the figures were slightly larger than the Joes was for the benefit of the holograms. Maybe they could only go so small).

The Visionaries enjoyed the usual accompanying products that many toys of the time did -- a comic book and an animated series. The comic book, a six-issue effort by Marvel Comics that annoyingly ended on a cliffhanger, was adequate. But I believe Marvel was trying some experimental printing techniques at the time, and so the overall look of the book is rather strange, and unfortunately looks pretty experimental. I'd still like to know how far along issue #7 got...

The animated series was another matter. Although only running 13 episodes, it managed a surprising amount of in-series continuity, character development, recurring characters, and a clear and concise concept. One only wishes that it had run longer and had been given a chance to develop. In some respects, it was even superior to its animated contemporaries, G.I.Joe and Transformers. The animation was top-notch, the designs colorful and interesting.

Character development tended to go more towards the villains, who could be more over the top. Darkstorm was a predictable tyrant. Cravex was a vicious, screaming nutcase, aided by the fact that he was voiced by Chris Latta, who was known for two other vicious, screaming nutcases from the Hasbro world, Cobra Commander from G.I.Joe and Starscream from Transformers. Lexor was a pathetic coward. Cindarr was dumber than a brick -- somewhat ironically voiced here by Arthur Burghardt, who provided the voice of reason within the world of Cobra for G.I.Joe, as the intelligently villainous Destro.

The voice of Reekon, who was essentially a mercenary as much as anything, was handled by longtime actor Roscoe Lee Browne, who also provided the voice for Merklynn. The real prize, however, was the bootlicking lackey Mortdred, who was granted the privilege of being voiced by Jonathan Harris, best known for his role as Dr. Smith from the original "Lost in Space".

I knew it was Harris early on in the first episode when Mortdred was flying a hang glider back to Darkstorm's castle. It malfunctioned, and he started screaming, "Please, somebody, open -- a -- window!" There was no questioning THAT voice.

The Spectral Knights, as one might expect, were somewhat more subdued, both in character and in voice, but they still managed to shine in their own ways. Leoric, the team leader, was given a dashing, heroic, Errol-Flynn like personality. The figure and the animated character even managed to look the part. Both Arzon and Feryl, especially Feryl, came across as comparatively young, eager for adventure, and sometimes a little too quick to act and not think. Witterquick, as befit his personality and the animal symbol he received -- the cheetah -- was a rather impatient sort, and was always the first to rush ahead. He generally got away with it, though. Ectar, commander of the Lancer Cycle, was a former police officer in the previous Age of Technology, and he still acted like a lawman -- very straightforward and orderly. You could have dumped him into Hasbro's later COPS concept and he would've been right at home.

Finally, there was Cryotek, who was the "big oaf" of the team. Needless to say he had a rivalry with Cindarr. Fortunately, Cryotek was a lot smarter, and was even a king in his own right, in the frozen northern kingdom of Northaria.

Although the show generally tended to pit the Darkling Lords against the Spectral Knights, there were occasional divergences from this theme, surprising given the limited episode run. On more than a few occasions, the episode would focus almost entirely on the Darkling Lords, generally trying to unleash some plan for domination and then having to clean up the mess lest the world (or themselves, anyway), be destroyed. There were also a few occasions where the Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lord had to team up for the benefit of both teams. They seemed a lot more willing to do this than their contemporaries in G.I.Joe or the Transformers. I can think of maybe three occasions across all the episodes of G.I.Joe where this was necessary, and maybe two for Transformers, and that one was pretty begrudging. Given the high episode runs of both shows, percentage-wise the Joes and the Transformers were at each other's throats compared to the Visionaries.

The limited cast might've been a help. There were fourteen major characters. Fifteen if you count the mysterious Merklynn, who tended not to take sides in the conflict. He freed the Darkling Lords more than once, and tended to be brusque to everyone even at the best of times, and was not above calling the whole lot of them in to undertake some quest. Really, it was a fascianting show.

Figures that the only place so far to do a DVD release of the series is the United Kingdom, and unless you've got a "zone-free" DVD player, or you're reading this in England, that's not going to do much good.

Sadly, the Visionaries only lasted a year. And it wasn't even poor sales that did it in. I learned some years later from a Hasbro executive at a G.I.Joe Convention what the real reason was for the cancellation of the line. It was those cool better-than-average holograms.

They were expensive to make, had to be outsourced, and had an unfortunate tendency to deteriorate over time. Some of my Visionaries have a few scratches on their holograms, and I certainly didn't put them there. The images are still there, and clear, but you can see these surface mars.

Visionaries was "on the fence". Sales weren't great, but they weren't bad. But the holograms were a significant factor, and ultimately, a fatal one.

And that's a colossal shame, because some years ago, I found out what the second year of Visionaries would have consisted of. Had the Visionaries continued into 1988, it would have been staggering.

There were a few clues. The final episode of the animated series involved both teams of Visionaries fighting a group of mischievous beings called the "Sun Imps". In the toy line, these would've been animated holographic characters on roving bases. But the likenesses were identical to the characters in the cartoon.

In the comic book, the Visionaries were on a quest to find a set of mystic gemstones or some such, which Merklynn had demanded. The comic ended abruptly, and in the middle of this quest, but I've often thought that had the comic continued, the result would've been the second generation of Visionaries.

The clincher was some promotional artwork on a Visionaries advertisement that a friend of mine in England sent me. The cover to this advertisement featured a huge character painting done in the style of the Visionaries package art. Except the painting showed characters that I had absolutely no idea who they were.

Never hand me a mystery like this. It'll bug the hell out of me and I will do whatever I can to solve it.

It took some doing and the help of a few friends, but I eventually acquired the necessary pages from Hasbro's early 1988 Product Catalog. Those pertaining to the planned second year of Visionaries.

For those of us who really got a kick out of the Visionaries, it was enough to make you want to cry.

Oddly enough, Virulina and Galadria were not among the products. On the other hand, it took Hasbro three years to get around to a Baroness figure for G.I.Joe even though the character appeared in both the comic and the animated series right at the outset. So maybe if there had been a third year of Visionaries... I suspect by then the line would've caught on well enough for their to have been some real fan demand for them.

But even though the two female Visionaries wouldn't've made their action figure debuts, plenty of other merchandise would have.

The Visionaries toy line would have virtually tripled in size. SIXTEEN new individual action figures were planned, in addition to the continuation of the existing eight. Not all would have staffs, either. Some would have shields which bore holographic images. Their chestplates would now not only have their individual animal images, but also the animal logos of the Spectral Knights or the Darkling Lords (it had been determined that the basic images for these teams were two different fantasy animals - a unicorn for the Spectral Knights, and a dragon for the Darkling Lords).

The photos in the catalog are truly amazing. I would love to own these figures. Added to the Spectral Knights were new characters RAMAZON, CRAGGOR, RAMAK (whose immense antlered helmet was the giveaway on the British advertisement illustration), HYDRON, LAZORLASH, MALITOR, and SLYWIRE. Added to the Darkling Lords were PYROK, CROIL, AQUARRIOR, DRACULAN, BRAXE, KABOR, LIZAR, CERATOR, and CYCLOR. I realize that's more for the Darkling Lords than for the Spectral Knights, and I might be off about one of these, possibly Aquarrior, but the lighting in the photos is a little eerie, and all I can really go by is whether the primary holographic weapon is silver or gold.

New vehicles were added, too, including two without figures. Given that it was certain characters' power that allowed the existing vehicles to work, one wonders how this would've been explained within the concept. These non-figure-specific vehicles included the Spectral Knights AIR BLADE and JOUST and the Darkling Lords' BATTLE AXXER and CROSSBOW.

There were two new figures with vehicles, however. The Darkling Lords would receive a new vehicle called the GRAPPLER, which came with driver OSTEON, and the Spectral Knights would receive the new if unfortunately-named SKY BUCKET (sounds like something you'd use for severe airsickness if you ask me -- "Stewardess, I need the Sky Bucket!"), which came with driver CYBRON!

And maybe I shouldn't make fun of its name -- I was fortunate enough to be given the prototype to this vehicle several years ago when a certain Hasbro exec cleaned out his closet or something.

Sadly, one playset didn't make it at all. And it would've been very impressive. Intended for the first year, it was called the IRON MOUNTAIN HOLODROME. An immense construct, it was intended as Merklynn's home, with all manner of traps and snares against invaders. As you might expect, it was essentially the toy version of the origin story of the Visionaries.

The reason it didn't come out was once again holographic. The Hasbro catalog for 1987 advertised that this playset featured a PROJECTED hologram of the wizard Merklynn!

Well, they couldn't quite get it to work. The catalog picture was clearly a super-imposed photo of Merklynn over the playset. To this day, I don't know if I would've liked to have been in Hasbro's Research and Development or Engineering Departments when they were trying to figure this one out or not. It would've been incredibly cool. I don't know how close they got it to working. But I'll bet it was pretty frustrating, and I can only imagine the initial reaction to the project. "You want us to design a toy that does WHAT!??!"

Alas, Iron Mountain never happened. Neither did the second year of Visionaries, and that's a real shame. Because as short-lived as it was, the VISIONARIES were a cool concept and a well-made toy, certainly moreso than a lot of the stuff hanging on the shelves even today. It's ironic, and angering, that it was essentially done in by its own technology, and that it never had the chance to build up much of a following.

But for those of us who do remember, and still have the toys, VISIONARIES was -- and is -- very cool indeed.