As 1980s children’s cartoons go, you could call ThunderCats a bit of an also-ran. Made by Rankin/Bass (the guys who made all those stop-motion Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), ThunderCats isn’t as fondly remembered as Masters of the Universe and certainly isn’t as well made as the Marvel/Hasbro/Sunbow productions, most notably Transformers and GI Joe. Despite the swift cancellation of the 2011 revival, however, we’re still nostalgic for the original 1980s ThunderCats. The series ran from 1985 to 1989, and it had some truly weird touches that read differently to adult eyes. Here are ten things about ThunderCats that we didn’t notice, or pay attention to, when we were kids.
Everyone just sort of forgets that Lion-O is a child
This is dealt with very directly in the first couple of episodes, but the thing about 1980s TV is that, with these daily "strip shows," most kids didn’t watch every day, and Thundercats took a while before it was considered a must-watch by kids getting home from school (and you couldn’t catch up via Netflix). Nevertheless, when the series began, Lion-O is a young boy, the same size as Wilykat and Wilykit. When the Thundercats leave their home planet of Thundera, they have to spend time in suspended animation on the way to their new home. When they arrive on Third Earth, Lion-O finds that his body has grown into that of a muscular adult man, but his mind is the same. Even though the team includes three actual adults, Lion-O is still the team leader because he’s the hereditary "Lord of the Thundercats." In those early episodes, Lion-O’s immaturity and naivete is a story point, but before long that aspect mostly falls by the wayside. There are moments when Lion-O’s behavior makes more sense if he’s a kid, but it’s almost never made explicit.
It’s Jaga’s fault Thundera blew up
The series begins with the destruction of Thundera, and the escape of the central Thundercats characters under the leadership of their wise old leader, Jaga. Jaga doesn’t live to see their new home on Third Earth, but he frequently returns as a very Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque shimmering blue ghost. No really specific explanation for the death of Thundera is given in that first episode. It’s just a sort of Krypton-esque "we have to evacuate our home planet because it’s about to blow up" scenario. It’s only much later, in the episode "Thunder Cubs," that we learn the reason for the planet’s destruction.
Years earlier, when Jaga was a much younger man, he defeats a mutant leader named Ratilla. Ratilla had carried a double-bladed magical weapon, the Sword of Plun-Darr, an evil equivalent to the Thundercats’ own Sword of Omens. Upon defeating Ratilla, Jaga is seen throwing the Sword of Plun-Darr into a volcanic canyon, reassured as it sinks into molten lava that no mutant will wield it again. However, he clearly underestimates the sword’s evil magic, and the Sword of Plun-Darr works its way to the core of Thundera, eventually splitting the planet apart.
Thus, the show reveals, although surprisingly little is made of it, the wise adviser who has guided the Thundercats all this time actually made the mistake that cost them everything.
Third Earth is our Earth in the far future
This is the sort of thing a child will miss even when it’s basically stated, but an adult will see long before it’s directly said. ThunderCats takes place on a planet called Third Earth. To a kid, that sounds like it can’t be our Earth. We live on the first one, the third one must be out in space somewhere. However, if you pay attention, the show quickly makes clear that "Third" is a matter of time, not space. This is Earth in its Third Age, when humans are no longer the dominant species and in fact many of the planet’s inhabitants are alien colonists and refugees from across the cosmos. This fact is made especially clear in the episode "Excalibur," when Merlin makes a guest appearance and reveals that the King Arthur stories took place on the same planet where the Thundercats now live.
Mumm-Ra is the only Earthling in the cast
Obviously, Merlin isn’t the only ancient immortal who’s survived from First Earth to Third. The show’s main villain, Mumm-Ra, falls into the same category. With his glowing red eyes, deathly gray pallor, and twisted face, Mumm-Ra is quite terrifying as ’80s cartoon villains go. That’s all the more reason that it would never occur to most kids that Mumm-Ra is the only human being in the main cast of ThunderCats. At least, Mumm-Ra used to be a human being, although it’s hard to say for sure if he still meets the definition. In any case, he’s an ancient Egyptian sorcerer who was granted immortality by his patron gods, who he calls the Ancient Spirits of Evil.
Egyptian history is avoided on ThunderCats, as is the name "Egypt" for that matter, but it’s hard to miss that Mumm-Ra is a mummy who lives in a pyramid, and the Ancient Spirits of Evil have human bodies and animal heads, just like many gods of Egyptian mythology. Mumm-Ra’s name—obviously derived from "mummy," also incorporates the name of the sun god Ra. So while the ThunderCats escaped from Thundera, and the mutants characters who serve Mumm-Ra come from the planet Plun-Darr, and even the Ewok-like Berbils are said to have arrived on Third Earth in a spaceship, Mumm-Ra has been here all along. Of all the ThunderCats characters, he’s the one with whom we share DNA.
The ThunderCats are naked in the first episode
It’s hard to imagine missing this as a kid, but it definitely seems weird when you’ve gotten a bit older. When the ThunderCats escape from Thundera in the first episode, all of them—male and female, kids and adults—are naked. At least, they seem to be at first glance. They’re wearing boots, and some of them are wearing belts. Also, they have lines around their thighs that imply that maybe they’re wearing leotards with the same colors and patterns as their fur, except that doesn’t really make sense either, because there are no matching seams at their necks. Their nudity is specifically addressed by Jaga, who’s already dressed, when he comments that on Thundera they had no need for "protective clothing." He then gives them the outfits they wear for the rest of the series.
To be clear, there’s nothing that’s actually bad about this. The Thundercats are nonhuman aliens with fur all over their bodies, and it’s clear in these scenes that they have no visible private parts. So it’s not "dirty" or scandalous that they start out naked. It’s just very, very weird to actually see, when you’re used to the clothes they normally wear.
The Thundercats’ costumes are a little too sexy
Of course, even when the ThunderCats get dressed, most of them aren’t all that covered up. Tygra‘s fully covered, to be fair. Cheetara‘s wearing a leotard, but she has tights under it. Then there’s Panthro and Lion-O, who drew the short end of the clothing stick. Not only is Lion-O wearing a sort of one-piece sleeveless bodysuit that leaves his arms and legs bare, it has a cutout to show his abs. Panthro is even less covered, wearing a spiked harness that would fit right in among, say, the leather daddies at the Folsom Street Fair. Meanwhile Wilykit and Wilykat, the two young Thundercats members, are both wearing short outfits, he a tunic and she a miniskirt. When Pumyra, a second adult female Thundercat, is introduced in Season Two, she wears an off-the-shoulder thing that’s also pretty skimpy.
A big part of why this feels strange is that the show, for the most part, is devoid of sexuality. While it occasionally deals with teen Lion-O in an adult body, the show’s school-day-afternoon timidity on such subjects is appropriate for its target demographic. As such, the fact that there is an apparent overt sexuality to several character designs is jarring, especially to a viewer old enough to pick up on it.
The Sword of Omens’ powers make no sense
Early on, the powers of the Thundercats’ mystical Sword of Omens seem pretty clear. It magically extends from dagger-length into a full sword. It casts a big red cat signal into the sky to summon the other Thundercats. It allows Lion-O to see across great distances when he holds it in front of his face and asks for "sight beyond sight." It also fires red energy beams. As the series goes on, however, the Sword of Omens is used more and more as a deus ex machina, possessing whatever powers it needs to have to resolve a particular plot. It’s seen to project both fire and ice at various moments. It also behaves like a Green Lantern ring when needed, projecting solid objects like walls and bridges. It flies, and even allows its bearer to fly, whenever that’s convenient. In the "Return to Thundera" story, it even prevents the Thundercats’ home planet from exploding for a second time, drawing the explosive energy into itself and channeling them to reshape the planet to be more stable.
A magical sword with many uses is fine, but as an adult viewer its pretty glaring how the writers would just give the Sword of Omens a new power anytime they needed a way out of a problem with no other solution.
Snarf is annoying because his life is pointless
For most of the series, Snarf is just another in a long line of annoying little squeaky-voiced characters who don’t quite fit in their cartoons, a lineage stretching from Scrappy Doo to Orko to Spike the Baby Dragon. In a couple of episodes, however, he has a very specific job: He’s Lion-O’s nanny. As discussed above, Lion-O was a kid, and Snarf was meant to watch over him and keep him safe. Once he has an adult body, Lion-O tells Snarf he doesn’t need that anymore (even though he’s obviously become even more prone to getting into danger), and Snarf’s entire existence is pretty much rendered pointless. Snarf is a chronic worrier, which makes him suited to babysitting, but when he doesn’t have that job anymore, the same quality is what makes him incredibly annoying.
It’s really obvious when a character is introduced just to sell a toy
Cartoons in the 1980s were meant to sell toys, everybody knows that. When you watch as an adult, though, it can be particularly glaring, and ThunderCats is one of the worst in that regard. Their headquarters, the Cat’s Lair, white and blue and shaped like a giant panther, could not look any more like a plastic playset. The same goes for the ThunderTank, an open-cockpit vehicle that scoots around Third Earth like it’s being pushed by a giant invisible child. And when, for example, a space pirate named Hammerhand is introduced, and he has a big and very easy-to-pose robotic arm, you immediately have a pretty good idea why he’s there.