Review: Prep for G.I. Joe with The Complete Collector's Set

As the release date for Stephen Sommers' live-action G.I. Joe film grows ever closer, it seems only fitting—if not commercially necessary—to revisit the original animated series to see just what it was that captured the imagination of so many.

Having myself collected countless action figures and vehicles, I can personally attest to the impact the series had on kids during the 1980s; but like many so-called benchmark cartoons and characters of one generation or another, what lives on in hearts and minds of fans often exceeds the actual quality of the episodes that were actually watched.

In which case, Shout! Factory's G.I. Joe: The Complete Collector's Set (MSRP $145) is a truly terrific, encyclopedic collection for anyone interested in the show, but let buyers beware that its inconsistent proficiency and dubious sophistication may leave even the longest of longtime fans feeling like deserting a series in which they at one time would have willingly enlisted in.

While the 17-disc Collector's Set is currently only available through Shout!'s website (and scheduled for retail release later this year), the distributor recently released Season 1.1 on DVD, and that set is a terrific barometer for one's appetite for the show. At least for this fan, the earliest episodes are the most memorable, particularly the multi-part series such as "The M.A.S.S. Device" and "The Revenge of COBRA," but what the complete collection does is provide context, specifically, highlighting the wildly inconsistent quality of individual episodes. At the same time, looking at not only a narrative but marketing trajectory for the series via the seasons as a whole offers a more complete and meaningful portrait of the show's merits than through analyzing just one (or even part of one) season.

For example, the multi-part episodes that anchored Season One are generally terrific stories for kids because they introduce a wide range of different characters and expose them to a broad spectrum of exciting experiences. The original five-part miniseries "The M.A.S.S. Device" cemented the formula that would define both the show's stories and the characters' details: each member of the Joe team has a specialty that is tested or otherwise employed in the service of stopping COBRA, a group that was indefatigable when it came to creating conflicts in exotic locations. This meant that whether you were captivated by an individual plot line, such as Duke's capture and submission to COBRA's video game-like gladiator arena, there was always a secondary or even tertiary character like Torpedo to arouse one's interest, especially since the characters were in his particular element such as, say, the depths of the ocean looking for something called "heavy water."

That said, perhaps the best aspect of this show in retrospect is the sense of nostalgia it generates, especially if you were lucky enough to own the accompanying toys. For example, watching the set reminded me that I once drew a picture of Rip Cord as a representation of my grandfather in WWII for a high school term paper; but in general the entertainment value of many episodes comes from looking back and remembering which characters you bought, played with or just cared about the most. There's an undeniable and worthwhile cache of memories unlocked by watching a show from one's childhood, but they don't necessarily compensate for that show's deficiencies, and some 20 or 25 years on can often seem considerably more glaring and disappointing.

Much humor has been mined from the show's unwillingness to kill off any of the characters, or even be perceived to show physical harm; from the first episode to the last, no matter how much damage was done to a character or the vehicle they were travelling in, a survivor would always emerge unharmed. But while this feels like an understandable choice given the series' kid-friendly origins, there are other story choices that just don't work, and in fact drag down the show into a repetitive series of very, very similar conflicts.

At the same time, the writers' seeming desperation to try new or different things didn't necessarily work any better; to this day I remember Episode 39, "The Viper Is Coming," as the moment the show jumped the shark (admittedly before I could quite recognize such a moment consciously), because it wasn't about Joe or COBRA fighting, or even some new adversary, but an ongoing misunderstanding between team member Barbeque and a heavily-accented window wiper (or "viper") who put their entire squad on international alert.

Notwithstanding one's feelings about the show itself, be it at the time of its release, looking back decades later, or exploring it for the first time today, the boxed set is pretty spectacular, and it's one of those things that will sit proudly on one's collector's shelf whether you love, like or hate it. Looking like a foot locker complete with a metal latch, the set opens to reveal a molded-plastic monitor screen that features images of General Hawk and Storm Shadow and which houses two book-sized collections of DVDs. The discs are divided roughly in half according to order, and beneath them rests a 60-page booklet as well as a 1GB "dog tag" flash drive that contains two installments of the G.I. Joe comic book. Purely in terms of presentation, there's almost nothing better released this year that surpasses this set.

Thankfully, the quality of the episodes also looks great: restored and remastered from tape masters wherever possible, the color and clarity of the images has been preserved and enhanced to keep the show looking as vivid as they day it first aired. (Rhino's earlier editions restored and sometimes augmented original cel animation, which produced a sharper picture quality, but one less consistently authentic with both the original broadcast and the color and design of the characters themselves.) Meanwhile, simple but clean and effective audio presentation further maintains the show's original design.

In terms of extras, most of the bonus materials are collected according to ether existing or future season-specific editions; each disc of the Season 1.1 set is the same as Discs One through Four in the Complete Collector's Set, and subsequent extras are compiled at appropriate stopping points between seasons or at the completion of a specific narrative arc. These extras include PSA, toy commercials, interviews and more, and all of them sort of take that sense of nostalgia and turbocharge it with a specificity that becomes surprisingly powerful.

For example, Disc 12 includes the featurette "Voices Of a Real American Hero," which reunites eight members of the voice cast for a series of recollections about the experience of working on the show. While many of the voice actors aren't immediately recognizable in person, as soon as they indicate which characters they played it's impossible not to hear them beneath their actual voices, whether they're talking about playing against a co-star or simply revealing a personal anecdote about the process. At the same time, other extras talk about the show's origins, its design and its goals, which were to engineer a series that would be substantive enough to validate the characters and toys for which it provided a foundation.

But even if the sum total of its episodes, presentation and extras failed to legitimize G.I. Joe's legacy, the DVDs nevertheless succeed in qualifying it as a bona fide cultural phenomenon, even if it was only at a certain time for a certain age group. But then again, with the release of G.I. Joe imminent, it appears that the show and its characters will continue to live on. Ultimately, The Complete Collector's Set may just offer an extended trip down memory lane for folks still eager to embrace their childhood obsessions, but at the very least, it's a start-to-finish, comprehensive experience. In other words, it gives you more than enough information to know whether or not you should still love the show, and if nothing else, knowing is—well, you remember the rest, or at least you will after watching the series.

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