Background and History
There is a very popular rumor that the original idea behind He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was to create a line of toys for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian movies. This is why He-Man wears furry underwear and Skeletor looks like Thulsa Doom. The violence and sexuality of the movie was deemed inappropriate, however, and production changed direction at the last minute to become the Filmation / Mattel cartoon series known to a generation of kids who grew up in 1980s America. Whether or not this is true is unknown.
MotU takes place in the planet, or perhaps kingdom, of Eternia (it's kind of vague, and possible that the planet and kingdom have the same name although the kingdom doesn't encompass the whole planet), ruled over by King Randor and Queen Marlena. It was stated in one or two episodes that Queen Marlena was originally from Earth but I don't think the writers really thought that one through.
Eternia held an odd combination of old and new technology alongside powerful magic. According to the mini-comics, the original premise was apparently to set Eternia in the aftermath of a great war that reduced the civilization to barbarism with only scraps of high technology remaining. Once the series really got rolling however, this idea seems to have been dropped. Swords and crossbows fought alongside laser weapons and robots, and the villain of the series, Skeletor, had a tendency to combine technology and magic to power his schemes to take over the kingdom. The capital city of Eternia was peaceful enough, but anyone straying too far from home would have to contend with any number of giant monsters that inhabited the world. Eternia held every kind of environment found on Earth, from temperate forests to desert to swampland to vast oceans, and adventures aplenty could be found in any of them.
Besides the capital city, there are two other places of important note in Eternia. The first is Castle Grayskull. Castle Grayskull is a stone castle with a skull motif built into the facade, with the drawbridge approximating a mouth. Grayskull was a source of incredible magical power on Eternia, and was guarded over by the benevolent Sorceress, a powerful and possibly supernatural woman with vaguely defined magical powers and the ability to transform into a falcon, a form she used whenever traveling outside the castle walls. Whoever owned Castle Grayskull commanded its powerful magic, and Skeletor had his sights set on it for the entire series.
The other place of note was Snake Mountain, poorly lit stronghold of the forces of evil on Eternia. Skeletor built his fortress right into the mountain itself, and the inside looked like a series of caves. On the outside, a huge stone snake was coiled around the mountain. Skeletor and his regular henchmen used it as their base of operations, building their war machines and plotting to take over Eternia. Apparently, King Randor didn't have enough troops or supplies to hold a siege so He-Man was usually the one to break in, fighting his way past guards and rescuing whoever was kidnapped that episode. With the villains humiliated and defeated, he would then, for some reason, leave without doing anything else, allowing the forces of evil to recuperate and attack again next time.
Even for the 80s, the writing was terrible and the animation was cheap. The basic format was rarely strayed from: Skeletor gets a new henchman or builds a new machine, this time certain he will defeat He-Man, and cackles evilly about it. He attacks the capital or Castle Grayskull, and one of He-Man's friends gets turned into a statue or captured. He-Man then goes on a quest to find some mystical gemstone or other magical artifact that can reverse the effects of Skeletor's weapon. Commercial break, usually with cliffhanger that is resolved in an unsatisfying manner. Then He-Man, sometimes teamed with a new hero for which they coincidentally had just come out with an action figure, would return to defeat Skeletor until the next episode. Commercial break, then a moral lesson using the episode as an allegory, followed by the ending credits. Repeat ad nauseam.
Violence was kept to an absolute minimum, and the only hitting that was be done was to shatter stone golems or robots. Living creatures were usually picked up and thrown. Swords existed only to clang against each other until one of them broke or was knocked from the wielder's hand, with the exception of He-Man's Sword of Power which could also deflect lasers and magical beams. Magical fireballs and energy beams usually missed, and when they hit they would either turn the victim to stone or otherwise incapacitate the target.
The animation was on par with Hanna-Barbera's efforts with Scooby-Doo, except with less cartoonish art and more muscles. Animation cells were reused as often as possible, just with different backgrounds. Characters running, He-Man throwing a punch, Skeletor blasting Beast-Man to reprimand him, Orko casting a spell... all reused so many times that even its eight year old target audience realized what was going on. To make matters worse, the animators knew that these animations would be reused so they put extra effort into them, making them smoother and nicer than the rest of the animation in the episode, which had the effect of bringing extra attention to what they did. The backgrounds were typically painstakingly detailed, in striking contrast to the animated cells over them, so whenever a character was, for example, climbing up a cliff, it was a safe bet that off-colored rock with less detail was going to break off when the character grabbed it for his next support.
The toys connected with the series were the fun part. Mattel obviously intended the cartoon to act as a half hour commercial for the toys, but I doubt many kids would have watched the cartoon if the toys hadn't been so popular in the first place. In contrast to the old realistically proportioned 3-3/4" Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures, MotU action figures were a stocky 5" tall, with bulky muscles and plastic weapons, harnesses, belts, and other accessories that could be snapped on.
Like the scripts and the animation cells, though, the molds for the body parts were reused as often as possible. There were essentially only three kinds of legs: ending in normal boots, ending in clawed feet, and women's. Pretty much all the men had the same musculature, just repainted and sometimes with an extra bit of plastic molded in. Hands came in two varieties: in a fist to hold a sword or gun and open palmed to hold a shield. Most figures were only distinguishable by the coloration and the head, which was the only part uniquely molded for every new character. Most characters did have some special characteristic (read: gimmick) though, such as a huge claw for a hand, fur, or a tail, so only 4 of the 5 molds were exactly the same for them. Even so, the toys were a huge hit and toy stores kept them well stocked. Each toy came packaged with a mini-comic featuring that toy's character, but these comics existed outside the continuity of the TV show.
Mattel made dozens of toys, far too many to list here, but only a handful were regulars on the show. Some of the toys had a single episode to show them off, others just appeared in the background from time to time and were lucky to have one line of dialogue. Naming for the characters was straightforward: Take a noun or adjective that describes them, and add -or or -Man to the end of it. Ram-Man (bashed things with his head), Moss-Man (camouflaged himself as foliage), Stinkor (smelled so bad he made his enemies too sick to fight), Spikor (covered in spiky armor), Fakor (fake android He-Man)... the pattern was rarely broken. When it was, the results were rarely any more creative, Buzz-Off was a giant bee, Fisto (not Fistor!) had a giant metal hand, and so forth.
- Prince Adam, heir to the throne of Eternia, was given the Sword of Power by the Sorceress, and by holding it over his head and shouting "By the power of Grayskull! I have the power!", he would be enveloped in a shimmering magical aura which transformed him into He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. If Cringer was nearby, and he usually was, he would point his sword at him, extending the aura out to envelop him as well, transforming him into Battle Cat. If not, the animation (reused every episode of course) would just cut off before the sword pointing part. Although he would shout this at the top of his lungs, and the magical aura gave off enough light to cast shadows in the middle of the day, nobody ever noticed this happening.
Which was convenient, because for no particular reason, Prince Adam kept his identity as He-Man a secret known only to the Sorceress, Man-at-Arms, and Orko (why Orko?). Usually secret identities are used to protect one's friends and loved ones from retaliation by the bad guys, but Prince Adam's friends were all mighty heroes in their own right, and his family were the King and Queen who were in danger every episode anyway.
He-Man's main attribute was that he was the most powerful man in the universe, giving him a strength level that fluctuated widely from episode to episode as the plot required. At his strongest, he picked up Castle Grayskull and threw it into a dimensional portal a few hundred feet into the air. He was also a skilled swordsman, able to deflect laser blasts and magic bolts with his indestructible Sword of Power. He was only ever hit once, in the crossover movie that introduced She-Ra: Princess of Power, due to the sheer overwhelming number of Hordak's robot soldiers who were shooting at him.
- The villain of the show and probably the most popular character, Skeletor was a powerful magician with a hooded skull for a head, wielding a staff topped with a ram's skull. He would often fire mystical energy blasts from his hands or more powerful ones from the staff. He was the most occult villain of the 80's, and we loved him and his diabolical cackle for it. Years later, the show's writers would reveal that they received fan mail asking that Skeletor could win just one episode, but the studio wouldn't allow it.
Skeletor usually started off the episode by inventing some hybrid of science and magic to use as a weapon against the forces of good, or hiring on a new henchman with some special power. He-Man would then spend the remainder of the episode trying to figure out how to stop him, and then stopping him. Skeletor himself was a pretty competent villain, but his own bumbling henchmen would often ruin his plans at a critical moment and allow He-Man to gain the upper hand.
His ultimate goal was, of course, domination of Eternia. Sometimes he would attack the Eternian capital directly, and other times he would assault Castle Grayskull to gain control over its immense magical powers. Once in a while he would plot specifically against He-Man to get him out of the way. However he went about it, he was always stopped by the forces of good at the last minute.
Other Good Guys
- Duncan is He-Man's best friend and Teela's father. Ostensibly captain of the royal guard or something like that, Man-at-Arms didn't have any special powers, usually staying at the capital of Eternia and building machines (such as the Attack Trak) that Mattel would later sell to millions of children. Man-at-Arms was usually the one turned into a statue when Skeletor attacked, leading a lot of fans to believe he was pretty worthless. However it should be noted that it was implied many times in the cartoon, mini-comics, and full sized comics that Teela's mother was Castle Grayskull's Sorceress. You may draw your own conclusions.
- Warrior woman and Man-at-Arms' daughter, Teela usually tagged along on He-Man's adventures. Surprisingly, there was never any implication of a budding relationship between Teela and He-Man, although she never liked how Prince Adam would duck out of harm's way whenever evil would strike. Teela was sometimes used in the damsel in distress role, but not often enough to imply she was helpless. Teela's action figure came with a cobra-themed staff and armor that she never used in the cartoon.
- Alien wizard from the planet Trolla, Orko was a bumbling comic relief character that very rarely got a spell to work out right, usually backfiring on Man-at-Arms. He wore a red robe with a black letter O on it, and a wide brimmed pointy hat and scarf that hid his face except for his eyes. He had blue skin and no legs, floating in the air to get around.
Thanks to momomom for reminding me that Orko would announce the commercial interruptions, vanishing to introduce the commercials and reappearing, starting with the O on his robe, when the show came back on.
- The Sorceress:
- Powerful magical being and guardian of Castle Grayskull's secrets, the Sorceress sometimes started off an episode by telepathically contacting Prince Adam, telling him He-Man was needed to right a great wrong. She wore a feathered outfit and rarely ventured outside Castle Grayskull, transforming into a falcon when it was necessary to do so.
- Battle Cat:
- Cringer was Prince Adam's cowardly, sniveling green tiger-like pet with orange stripes. Cringer was afraid of everything, including becoming Battle Cat, but Battle Cat was a violent, rough-and-ready attack beast only too willing to leap into the heat of battle. Why nobody noticed Prince Adam and He-Man were the only two people on Eternia with talking green tigers was left unexplained. Battle Cat had an armored helmet and saddle which He-Man could ride into battle.
Other Bad Guys
- Appearing in nearly every episode, Beast-Man was an orange ape-like creature who could telepathically control animals and monsters. Extremely stupid, Beast-Man usually took the blame for screwing up Skeletor's plans, and with good reason.
- Not very useful aquatic creature who could control sea monsters, Mer-Man saw limited action because very few episodes took place in the ocean. He did appear in a number of episodes though and had a lot of speaking parts, always sounding like he was gargling water when he talked.
- Possibly the third most powerful magic user on Eternia after The Sorceress and Skeletor (although who was more powerful of those two is up for debate), Evil-Lyn was a treacherous, backstabbing woman who even the bad guys couldn't trust. She made no secret of her desire for power, and openly plotted to overthrow Skeletor on a number of occasions. Skeletor obviously only put up with her because she was his only competent help.
- Tri-Klops, Trap-Jaw, Whiplash, Clawful:
- Usually appearing in the background, having few lines of dialogue, and acting mostly as cannon fodder, these were the most often occurring non-regular villains of the series. Tri-Klops had three eyes positioned around his head, giving him 360 degrees of view with no blind spots. Sometimes he could fire lasers out of the front eye. Trap-Jaw was a cyborg with interchangeable weapon arms. Whiplash was a reptilian creature with a powerful tail he used as a weapon. Clawful was a crab-like creature with one big claw and one little claw.
Thanks to mkb for reminding me that each of Tri-Klops' eyes had a different power. According to http://www.he-man.org his triangular eye had x-ray vision, his circular eye had telescopic vision, and the square eye had some vague, unclear power. His visor rotated around to bring the eye he wanted to use to the front.
- The Evil Horde:
- Led by Hordak, Skeletor's old teacher, The Evil Horde were really the villains in She-Ra: Princess of Power, but their mini-comics almost always featured them fighting He-Man because they really weren't your stereotypical girl's toys. Hordak and Skeletor neither trusted nor liked one another, and they fought each other almost as often as they fought He-Man. She-Ra's mini-comics featured her against the women in the Horde (usually Catra), who were almost completely overlooked in the boy-marketed areas. In He-Man's continuity they were just another group of villains trying to take over Eternia, but in the She-Ra continuity they ruled their world, Etheria, with an iron fist and the good guys were rebels trying to bring down their evil Empire.
There were dozens of other toys, accessories, playsets, vehicles, and anything else Mattel could make kids beg their parents for. He-Man was one of the most successful toy lines of the 80s, right up there with G.I. Joe and The Transformers (both by Hasbro, not Mattel, and having vastly superior cartoon shows).
He-Man in this incarnation ran from 1983-1990, spinning off She-Ra: Princess of Power in 1985-1987. 1987 gave us the Masters of the Universe live-action movie starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man. The New Adventures of He-Man premiered in 1990, taking the show in a more sci-fi direction with He-Man and Skeletor being whisked away to another planet, but wasn't very popular and was cancelled quickly. 2002 saw a new He-Man cartoon released with an updated, more detailed toy line, that was cancelled in early 2004.
Of course, the 1983 cartoon was the real He-Man.