Thus far, my post-mortem reports have been on recently-expired TV shows and seasons. Today, however, I’m going a bit more post-post-mortem, for an exhumation of a much older television series. The cartoon series Ulysses 31 was released in 1981, and ran for 26 episodes. As a child of the 80s, I’ve become aware of it through various 80s nostalgia sites, but it’s not a show I ever watched myself. So, when I stumbled across a DVD of a few episodes (the “Mysteries of Time” disc pictured to the left) in a thrift store, I figured I would check it out, and see if it was any good. After all, it was only a dollar.
The disc contains four episodes of the show; three with a theme of time travel, and one bonus episode. The questions I was asking going into it were simple. Was this a forgotten classic, or something that deserved to be forgotten? Was it a good, entertaining show to watch today? And perhaps more importantly, would it have been a good show to watch when I was in the target market?
Toga-inspired costume? Check. Gold collars? Check. Tremendous hair? Double-check. Definitely looking at 1980s sci-fi here.
The concept of Ulysses 31 is fairly straightforward, as with most cartoons, and not exactly hard to guess from the title. Ulysses, the 31st century descendant of the original Greek hero Ulysses, is a space adventurer traveling the universe in his ship, the Odyssey. Like his ancestor, he too manages to anger the gods — in his case by killing a cyclops — and is cursed to not see Earth again for an unspecified period of time. His crew exists in a state of suspended animation until he finds the Kingdom of Hades to free their souls; his sole companions are his ship’s computer Shyrka, his son Telemachus, the alien child Umi, and robot companion Nono.
Right there I started having some problems with the show, and I think I would have as a kid as well. There aren’t very many characters to root for. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe always had Man-at-Arms, Teela, Ram-Man, and various recurring characters to cheer for besides He-Man himself. Transfomers had Optimus Prime as the leader, but also had Bumblebee, Wheeljack, Cliffjumper, and so on. Thundercats had a small but constant team of characters around the hero. Not to mention each of those shows had interesting, colorful recurring villains; in Ulysses 31 the major villains — the gods of Olympus — seem to be off stage most of the time. It’s a small cast cartoon, and that causes some relatability problems. Viewing it as an adult, there’s only one character who isn’t irritating, and that’s Ulysses himself.
Viewing it as the mid-1980s child me would have seen it, there’s only one character for me to play as on the playground (if you were a boy in the 1980s, you pretended to be action cartoon characters a lot; don’t bother denying it.) Sure, technically there are the kid characters and the robot sidekick, and those characters are meant to be kid appeal characters, but they run into a typical problem there. No kid wants to be the sidekick, they want to be the hero. Even playing as Robin was only by agreement as both kids couldn’t be Batman — and only that worked because Robin was fairly cool in his own right thanks to various TV shows propping him up. But in general, if a bunch of kids were playing pretend of an action cartoon, there had to be a bunch of action heroes. Not every kid could be He-Man, but kids didn’t mind being Man-at-Arms or Ram-Man. With Tigra and Panthro around, sometimes you had trouble finding a kid who did want to be Lion-O. Plus some kids could play as the villains. With Ulysses 31, the only character any kid would have wanted to play as was Ulysses himself. And since not everyone could be Ulysses, that meant nobody would want to play Ulysses 31. That may be a non-concern as an adult, but the show was meant for children… and I’m pretty sure that unless kids want to pretend they’re in your show, your action cartoon isn’t going to be successful.
Which means they’re missing out on re-enacting thrilling negotiations.
The other problem I had with the show is that it’s sometimes incoherent, and sometimes dull. I realize that viewing a selection of episodes means I don’t have the full background on everything, but these episodes look like they were meant to stand alone. They just don’t always make a lot of sense. I’m not talking about the usual nonsense logic that action cartoons have, though there’s some of that as well (such as characters aging to death through time acceleration but not starving to death). I’m just talking things like plot holes, and assorted weirdness — the third episode on the disc manages to throw Greek mythology, Incan mythology, the Biblical tale of Noah, and a healthy dose of Star Trek all together in one messy hodgepodge. The plots aren’t all that great, and the dialogue mostly consists of characters yelling out each others’ names when they’re in trouble. As much as I was hoping this would be a great animated sci-fi show, I found myself getting tired of it very quickly.
It also plays pretty fast and loose with Greek mythology — granted, that’s to be expected when it’s set in the 31st century, but sometimes it goes a few steps beyond what’s necessary. Thus we have a Circe who becomes a good guy at the drop of a hat, a Chronos who is as two-faced as the Roman Janus, and a Telemachus who is still a young child as opposed to the young man of The Odyssey. Now, that last would be excusable if I were just talking about the 31st-century Telemachus, but one of the episodes has the crew accidentally sent back to meet their ancient Greek counterparts, and that Telemachus is the same age — and, of course, identical in appearance.
Identical descendants may make no sense whatsoever, but it does allow for convenient plot scheming and reused character models.
The show does have one thing going for it, which is the animation itself. Produced in France, with Japanese animators, the show has a look that captures some of the feel of both schools of animation. It looks great. Unfortunately, looking good is all that I can really praise it for. I found the show to be dull as an adult, and I think I would have found it dull as a child as well. So either way I look at it, I have to give Ulysses 31 a poor grade.