As any child of the ’80s knows, they were the Golden Age of cartoons meant to sell toys. Transformers. He-Man. Thundercats. M.A.S.K. Inhumanoids. Perhaps the best example of ’80s toy toons, though, is the great G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. The series, which was produced as a joint effort between Marvel Comics and Sunbow Entertainment, started in 1983 and spawned two mini-series, two huge seasons of episodes and a movie, before moving to DiC Entertainment in 1989.
This first incarnation of the franchise is perhaps what a lot of fans think of when they first think “G.I. Joe,” at least as those ’80s kids get older and reflect upon their misspent youth watching machine gunners shoot lasers at opposing forces and learning that knowing is always half the battle. With so many episodes in its past, there’s little wonder that the franchise has its share of “WTH” moments. This is especially true when we force ourselves to remember that this cartoon was aimed at children to sell toys. The series got dark, silly, poignant, and downright creepy at points. Join us as we take a trip down Memory Lane and list the 15 most head-scratching moments to appear during the G.I. Joe franchise’s first swing through 1980s animation history.
15. DUKE GOES GLADIATOR IN THE ARENA OF SPORT
The first entry on our list features a common trope of the franchise: mind control. If you look through an episode list, it seems like people are always getting their minds controlled (there’s more mind control ahead in our list, too). This episode showcases Duke having his mind controlled and his body taken over like a video game avatar in the “Arena of Sport.”
Duke is forced to face-off against Ramar, a giant whose people are being mistreated by Cobra. Using mind-control headbands, Ramar and Duke are piloted using joysticks by Cobra Commander and Destro. The are plenty of head-scratching moments, but Duke and Rama being piloted to fight each other is deeply disturbing. It’s also oddly prescient. This episode appeared in 1983, long before most of the video game technology we know today was invented, and long before the sort of virtual reality this episode predicts.
14. SNAKE-EYES ADOPTS TIMBER
The early ’80s were a good time for heroes heading into deadly radiation in order to save the people they care about. Spock completes his calculus, understanding that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few in 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and in this episode from 1983, Snake-Eyes makes a similar sacrifice. In “The Worms of Death,” Snake-Eyes captures a supply of radioactive power crystals for the M.A.S.S. device, then stumbles out in the snow, glowing, presumably to die.
He’s found by a blind hermit, who senses the innate goodness in Snake-Eyes and nurses him to health. The hermit is assisted by a wolf Snake-Eyes eventually adopts as a pet and names Timber. It’s no secret that soldiers in combat often adopt animals while on the tours of duty, but Snake-Eyes was literally glowing with radiation.
13. SHIPWRECK AND SNAKE-EYES TEAM WITH SATIN
In “The Pyramid of Darkness, Part 3: Three Cubes to Darkness” from 1985, Snake-Eyes and Shipwreck find themselves surrounded by Cobra agents behind enemy lines. In the face of all this impending danger, they do what all good soldiers in their situation would do: they head to the night club!
While at the Snake Cafe, the two Joes encounter and solicit the help of the lounge singer Satin. She’s your typical lounge-singing lady. To keep up appearances, Shipwreck and Snake-Eyes eventually wind up on stage. This episode features this awesome dialogue from Shipwreck: “You heard the lady, Snake-Eyes. Here, you take the dress.” The final result of the Joes’ deception doesn’t get revealed until the next episode, though, but you can imagine how Snake-Eyes looks in a dress.
12. ROADBLOCK’S AUNT AND UNCLE ALMOST HELP COBRA
Fast food is going to be the death of you and Cobra wants to make sure that death sticks. After a mission in the jungle, Roadblock and Recondo are on the road enjoying some leave. Hungry, they pass up several Red Rocket diners, a fast food franchise that has been sprouting up, in favor of a nearby diner owned by Roadblock’s aunt and uncle. When they arrive, however, the Joes discover that the diner has also been converted into a Red Rocket.
Of course, the giant rocket signage atop each of these diners is an actual rocket, and Cobra is behind all the franchises being harassed by a biker gang arms with ray guns. The biggest head-scratching moment of the episode is when Roadblock and Recondo, essentially in their civilian identities and wearing Hawaiian shirts, shout “Yo Joe!” before their donnybrook with the biker gang.
11. JOES’ STUFF STOLEN BY ROBOTS
This episode, the last of the show’s second season, deserves a place on our list merely for its title. Remember, this is supposed to be a kids’ show. Here’s the title: “Into Your Tent I Will Silently Creep.” Yikes. Turns out, a terrifying robot-jackal-lizard-thing is infiltrating Joe HQ and stealing the Joes’ personal items. Joe agent Cross-Country tracks down his stolen tape deck and uncovers a movement by Cobra Commander to retake leadership of the Cobra organization.
The most head-scratching moment comes early in the episode, when Cross-Country barges into the HQ mess hall, complaining that he’s been picked on by the Joes before, but someone taking away his country/western music is going too far. Apparently, G.I. Joe has bullies, and they don’t like Willie Nelson.
10. SGT. SLAUGHTER GOES TO A SCI-FI CONVENTION
So much discomfort in this episode. Dr. Mindbender needs to recruit a scientist, Dr. Jeremy Penser, so he meets him at a sci-fi convention. Dr. Penser is in a wheelchair, and Dr. Mindbender tells him that if the scientist will help perfect Cobra’s latest weapon of world domination, Dr. Mindmender can help him walk again.
Of course, a fight ensues between Joes Sgt. Slaughter and Sci-Fi and Cobra agents the Dreadlocks in the midst of the convention, and convention-goers mistake the fight for a convention performance. Dr. Penser’s younger brother tries to “save” the scientist, but he doesn’t want saving. Still, he stows-away with Sci-Fi and Sgt. Slaughter, hoping to help. In the episode’s most head-scratching moment, the Joes — purportedly highly trained deadly operatives — just let the kid tag along.
9. COBRA HOLDS A TELETHON
Being a terrorist organization determined to rule the world doesn’t come cheaply. In this episode, we learn that Cobra has several legitimate business that it uses to finance its operations, including a mail-order service. Still, Serpentor doesn’t have the funds it will take to pay for a new computer virus that will short-circuit the INTERPOL system. Then, Tomax and Xamot suggest they run a telethon — a Cobrathon! — to raise money from other worldwide criminals.
The 12th episode of the second series then gets a little silly. Baroness dons a slinky dress, and Destro tries stand up comedy. Cobra stages other games for the entertainment of the home audience, all of which involve potential death and injury to some captured Joes. The Joes are successful in their efforts to thwart the Cobrathon, and the episode ends with the Cobra tote board changing from bragging “We did it!” to “Yo Joe!”
8. JOES AND THE OKTOBER GUARD ARE CAPTURED BY COSSACKS
Fans of all things Russian will appreciate this episode, number 52 from the first season. As the story goes, whoever possesses the Seal of Alaska actually owns Alaska, so G.I. Joe, Cobra, and the Russian analog of G.I. Joe, The Oktober Guard, are all trying to get it. All sorts of “famous” Russian names are dropped, if you’re paying close enough attention.
The head-scratching moment comes when both the Joes and The Oktober Guard are captured by the ancestors of some Cossacks who don’t realize what’s happened in modern history. This, of course, forces the Joes and their Russian counterparts to work together, setting the stage for several future team-ups. This episode is a good example of popular culture suggesting that there could be partnerships between the two Cold War enemies, like the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact, released one year earlier.
7. COBRA CLONES DINOSAURS
Cobra sure loves brainwashing. There must be some psychological reason why they’re so intent on mind control. This time, though, Cobra is set upon the idea of brainwashing recently cloned dinosaurs in order to do their dirty work for them. In the first season episode “Primordial Plot,” Destro and the Crimson Guard Commanders commandeer the research of a biologist who’s developed a method of cloning dinosaurs. He’s successful, though the brainwashing technique used on the animals is not.
If you’ve seen any of the Jurassic Park movies, then you know what happens when scientists try to mess with Mother Nature. Of course, the dinosaurs go all pre-medieval on everyone, and the Joes have to rescue the scientists while avoiding harming the innocent creatures. The episode wraps up with alligator-wrestler Gung-Ho sharing a meal with the dinos.
6. COBRA GETS A GYPSY TO SUMMON GHOSTS FOR THEM
The agents of Cobra always seemed drawn to the supernatural and the mystic. “The Phantom Brigade” from season one visits this proclivity, and reveals the really dark underbelly of what Cobra Commander was willing to do in order to achieve world domination.
In this episode, Cobra Commander has a gypsy summon three warriors from the past who died before they could fulfill their lives’ missions. Despite the Baroness’s warning about the unpredictable nature of gypsy magic, Cobra Commander insists, and the gypsy uses the spirits’ personal objects to rip them back to the land of the living. Cobra was always supposed to be evil, but mostly stayed evil in the context of a kid’s cartoon. Bringing people back from the dead to do your bidding is a new kind of low, even for a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.
5. BARONESS USES THE SIRENS’ SONG
When the Baroness gains possession of a magical conch shell that allows her to control men’s minds (again with the mind control!), her plan is to take leadership of Cobra for herself. When the Joes intervene, the Baroness uses the conch to bring the male Joes under her control. Luckily for us, Scarlett, Lady Jaye, and Cover Girl are on the scene and unaffected by the shell’s powers. Two things are noteworthy from this episode.
First, Xamot shows his mixed loyalties when he saves Lady Jaye from being shot. The Crimson Commanders always did seem to have priorities that didn’t sync with all their Cobra allies. Second, this episode was co-written by comic book legend Gerry Conway. He wrote five episodes of G.I. Joe, but the prolific author might be best-known for writing the death of Gwen Stacy and co-creating the Punisher in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man.
4. WILD BILL LEADS A RAID ON A DUDE RANCH
This Wild Bill-centric episode from the first season is good fun as the chopper pilot hosts a posse of Joes at a dude ranch. Of course, the ranch has recently been purchased by Cobra through one of their shell companies as part of an intricate plan to take over the world. The Joes go undercover at the El Loco Toro Dude Ranch, where Wild Bill lets everyone know he feels right at home.
“Where the Reptiles Roam” ends with Bill sharing a quiet moment with Timber, lamenting that his lady love was actually a Cobra agent. “Aw, heck, Timber,” Bill says to the wolf. “I should’ve known she weren’t no real Texas peach. She was just too sweet. Anyone from Texas knows we grow our peaches sassy!”
3. COBRA SHRINKS INTO TOYS
In an effort to discredit the Joes’ good name, Cobra decides to pull a Trojan Horse trick and send a group of militarized SNAKES, FANGS, and CLAWS in toys the Joes have collected to donate for Christmas. “Cobra CLAWS Are Coming to Town” is an episode that features Joes hanging from hooks in a meat locker, Polly getting both shrunk and embiggened, and Shipwreck getting totally shot down by Cover Girl.
But what makes this episode so head-scratching is the main conceit of the story at all: Cobra thinks discrediting the Joes in the public’s eye is the best use of their shrinking technology. As anyone who’s read Marvel’s Irredeemable Ant-Man knows, there are many other, far more evil things you can do once you get tiny. The episode ends the way every good Christmas special should: with a sailor mumbling “Bah, Humbug” to his giant pet parrot.
2. THE JOES AND COBRA FIGHT GIANT TOYS
In this first season episode, “The Gamesmaster,” the series really reveals its comic book lineage. The villain is a combination of Marvel’s Arcade and DC’s Toyman, with a little bit of “Candyland” thrown in for good measure. It’s a decidedly silly set of circumstances that ensue as the Gamesmaster kidnaps a collection of Joe and Cobra agents while they’re in the middle of leading normal lives.
And if you ever doubted who was behind the series, or who the series was targeting, consider this: the Baroness is taken from a hot tub and spends a lot of the episode in a bikini, and Lady Jaye is taken while in a changing room trying on dresses. After the villain is defeated, the Joes and Cobra agents stand around trying to figure who should go home first, because both are worried the other will shoot them in the back as they go!
1. COBRA CREATES A LOVE POTION
The final episode on our list has a plot that reads like a bad ’80s rom-com. Destro concocts a perfume made from Cleopatra’s perfume, and gives it to the Baroness so she can use it to make a tycoon fall win love with her, thus securing his influence and fortune for the glories of Cobra. It goes awry when Joe agent Lady Jaye sprays herself with the perfume, too. What ensues is a mess, with neither woman exerting enough control over the target tycoon.
“Eau De Cobra” is one of the episodes that overtly includes reference to the series’s female characters’ sexuality and desirability. Given all the testosterone that undoubtedly flowed through the ranks of both Cobra and G.I. Joe, it’s unlikely that a love potion would be necessary to get the boys to fall in line. Baroness was the Smurfette of Cobra, until Zarana showed up.
What other moments from G.I. Joe stood out to you? Tell us in the comments!
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