Features TV

SECOND LOOK: Sonic the Hedgehog (1993)

Written by Mark Russell

In 2014, two important things happened for children of the ‘90s – on September 27th, The CW discontinued its Saturday morning animation block, ending the tradition of Saturday Morning Cartoons that stretched all the way back to 1960. The second thing was the introduction of a brand new animated series based on iconic video game character Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Boom, which was made in an attempt to revitalise the franchise in a western market. The end result was a mixed bag. But going back to the death of Saturday morning cartoons, there was one cartoon that was literally known for being aired on the sixth day of the week – Sonic the Hedgehog, more commonly known by fans as “SatAM”.

SatAM was a show that stood out from the rest and did something that has never really been replicated with such a colourful character of Sonic. In 1993, Sonic was only two years old and had a minimum number of games so the story was equally limited. But the creative team behind SatAM took the games’ basic plot and expanded it into something with depth, heart, great characterization and a dark, edgy and exciting story It ran from 1993 to 1995 on ABC and was produced by DiC Entertainment, but like a lot of good shows, it was cancelled for numerous reasons.

The story included in the early games of Sonic was simple – the evil scientist Dr. Robotnik wanted to take over the world and imprisoned little innocent animals into robots called Badniks and it was up to Sonic and friends to save them. SatAM took that plot and made something pretty awesome. In the series, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Cummings) has already conquered the world following a coup d’état against the benevolent King Acorn (Tim Curry) and becomes a Stalin-like dictator hellbent on turning the planet Mobius into a drab, polluted mechanized world and transforms everyone into mindless robots through a terrifying process called roboticization. But every good story about oppression and freedom needs its heroes, and SatAM’s is Sonic the Hedgehog (Jaleel White) and a small band of Freedom Fighters who live in the wooded sanctuary Knothole, sneaking into Robotropolis to dismantle Robotnik’s empire.

There is a surprisingly subtle and pleasant theme here about the environment, but it is shown through the visuals and detailed backgrounds of the series rather than follow the lines of say Captain Planet. The writing in the series is top notch, handled by Len Janson, Patricia Allee, and the late Ben Hurst respectively. There was an established rule in the series that the protagonists had to have both wins and losses in their battles against Robotnik. No one technically dies, but characters are captured, roboticized, or flung into another dimension known as the Void, and the protagonists must deal with their defeats. Sonic’s Uncle Chuck (William Windom) was roboticized, and appears as a mindless drone early on in the series, and while Sonic is able to temporarily awaken his personality, it won’t last and he has to make the choice to rescue his uncle or let him go. Uncle Chuck later comes back as a spy for the Freedom Fighters, but with obvious dangers and consequences involved.

Let’s talk about the characters. Sonic steals a lot of his scenes, and while he pretty much is the personification of the “radical nineties”, he went through decent character development in the more important episodes. He is impatient and stubborn, loves his chilli dogs, and Jaleel White (better known as Steve Urkel off Family Matters) really brings the character to life, voicing him in The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Underground. Sonic is the only character able to use the Power Rings, mystical items created by Uncle Chuck, though for some reason Tails has a weird connection to them as well. Speaking of Tails (Bradley Pierce), his role is downplayed and only til to the end of the series did he start having a larger role. He idolises Sonic and has a good brotherly relationship with him, though I do wish that they had had more screentime together.

Perhaps the most iconic if not notorious character in the series is Sally Acorn (Kath Soucie), co-leader of the Freedom Fighters, daughter to the missing King Acorn, and the mature, maternal brains of the protagonists. She is notorious for being Sonic’s love interest, something that is both praised and hated by the ever fiery Sonic fanbase. I won’t go into it. Sally usually comes up with the plans and excursions into Robotnik’s domain, and is a real trooper when dealing with Sonic’s antics, often playing the straight man to his jokes and behaviour.

There is also Antoine D’Coolette, a cowardly pompous coyote who speaks with an exaggerated French accent. Stereotypes aside, Antoine is devoted to Sally and has the mirror personality to Sonic, being cautious but shrewd. While Antoine could easily become an irritating character, it is the performance of Rob Paulsen that really makes him hilarious. Other Freedom Fighters include the half-roboticized Bunnie Rabbot (Christine Cavanaugh) who was the emotional core of the group, inventor Rotor Walrus (Mark Ballou/Cam Brainard), and Dulcy the Dragon (Cree Summer) who was an overemotional girl who had a habit of crashlanding. Sally was also aided by her personal computer’s AI, Nicole, who slowly developed her own personality when around Sonic. Unfortunately, Bunnie and Rotor didn’t get much screentime when compared to the others, but I still liked them.

The most compelling character has to be Dr. Robotnik, who is a complete turnaround from his goofy portrayal in Adventures. Heartless, ruthless, cunning, and always speaking with a whispery, chilling voice delivered by the amazing Jim Cummings, Robotnik is just such a fantastic villain. In fact, he is one of the coolest villains to come out of animation, and SatAM was aired the same year Mark Hamill debuted as the Joker in Batman the Animated Series. Robotnik is a pretty intimidating villain and whenever his short fuse boiled over, he was pretty terrifying. Robotnik was aided by his assistant and nephew Snively (Charlie Adler), a sympathetic but equally cunning man.

As said before, the storytelling was very good and at times played out like a film, with strong characters driving what happened. The best episodes include “Ultra Sonic” where Sonic reunites with his roboticized Uncle Chuck, the two-parter “Blast To the Past” where Sonic and Sally went back in time to try and avert Robotnik’s takeover but may cause more problems, and “The Void” which reveals what became of the king.

The final episode, “The Doomsday Project”, was pretty epic, with Robotnik plotting to take control of Mobius using his doomsday weapon, but the Freedom Fighters rally to take him down for good. Sonic and Sally harness some magic stones called Drood Henge which allow them to destroy the weapon, Robotnik vanishes, and all seems well, until one hell of a cliffhanger revealed Snively was taking charge, and aided by a mysterious ally – actually meant to be a sorcerer named Naugus (Michael Bell) who was imprisoned in the Void by Robotnik.

However, the series then got canned by ABC after twenty-six episodes. Nothing screams frustration like a show getting cancelled on a cliffhanger. There are numerous reasons for its demise like low ratings, being passed over by ABC all the time, its competition like Power Rangers, and being canned by the then new president of ABC who wanted a clean sweep of the schedule. Despite being the best of the Blue Blur’s shows, it had the shortest lifespan compared to the others.

And while the show was gone, the characters and basic premise lived on in Archie Comic’s ongoing Sonic the Hedgehog comic series, which has been going for twenty years, introduced a vast universe mixing Sonic characters and concepts from across the medium and a number of memorable storylines. A couple of years ago, former comic writer Ken Penders kicked off a lengthy lawsuit about character licensing that ultimately forced the comic to have a literal universal reboot with many characters disappearing and the major ones gaining new designs and backstories, but the basic plot from the series has remained. Thankfully, writer Ian Flynn has done a great job with the changes and continues keeping the comic alive.

In conclusion, Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the finest animated series created for television and definitely an early highlight of Sonic’s career. The show had wonderful writing, characters, animation, superb voice acting and a catchy theme song. I give particular praise to the voice cast, the animators, and writers for their hard work. Thinking of any negatives, there are very little, aside from its unfortunate cancellation and the occasional episode that draws away from the core story and focuses on Antoine mucking about.

SatAM was one of the prime television series of the 1990s, and I’d rank it up there with the likes of legendary cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and one of the most memorable shows ever to air on a Saturday morning. This show is awesome, or as Sonic would say, it is way past cool!

What are your thoughts and opinions on SatAM? Overrated or a great series? And what are your views on the comic books? Sound off in the comment section below or drop us a comment on your Twitter page.

 

In Memoriam

Christine Cavanaugh

Christine Cavanaugh (1963-2014)

Christine Cavanaugh was a recognisable voice of our childhoods, and a beloved voice actress among her fans and peers. Among her voicework was the titular protagonist of Babe, Bunnie Rabbot in Sonic the Hedgehog, Gosalyn Mallard in Duckwing Duck, Dexter in Dexter’s Laboratory, and of course, Chuckie Finster in Rugrats. Miss Cavanaugh retired from acting in 2001 to spend time with her family, and passed away in December 2014. Rest in peace.

About the author

Mark Russell