After The Transformers and He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, Thundercats ranks as one of the best animated series ever to be tied directly to a line of children's merchandise. In the 1980s, it dished up the required amounts of mindless violence justified by a shaky moral delivered at the end of each episode along with the cast laughing like fools at a joke that always escaped the viewer. The series ran for a good few seasons and even spawned the obligatory animated 'movie' (ie, hour long episode). Even today the legacy of the Thundercats, like all good children's franchises, lives on in numerous pop-culture references and retrospective nostalgia.
Coming after the He-Man series, the setting for Thundercats was a similarly bizarre blending of loincloth, heavy sword and sorcery, and highly advanced technology which nobody seems to find in the slightest bit odd. Again, like the He-Man series, you have your basic muscle-bound hero with a sword and a bunch of similarly heroic cohorts living in a large stronghold and opposed by a supremely evil and malevolent bad guy and his incompetent lackeys who are bent on ruling and/or destroying the world for no discernible reason.
But the original element of the Thundercats series was that the good guys were all humanoids descended from feline stock, hence the name 'Thundercats' as opposed to 'Thunderblokes' had they been human. Now this race of cat people (who were nothing like the humanoid that evolved from a domestic cat in the sci-fi series Red Dwarf, by the way) had lived on their home planet of Thundera (see a pattern emerging here?) for as long as the viewer needed to be concerned, but had been forced to flee the planet as it is about to be destroyed in a global cataclysm. On top of this the Thundercats are involved in an ongoing war with their mortal enemies the 'Mutants' who seem to have issues with anyone not as ugly as they are.
As a result of the imminent implosion of their home, the Thundercats quite wisely decide to evacuate en masse and flee the doomed planet in the hope of finding a new one on which to reside. Unfortunately for them they are followed by the Mutants and hassled even in the vacuum of space.
The series centres around one elite group of Thundercats and their figurehead leader who passes away on their long journey in suspended animation towards the planet known as 'Third Earth' which they have picked out as their new home. Alone on an alien world they are forced to reconcile their proud heritage with the realities of survival among the environment and cultures of their new home.
A tightly knit group of individuals (though only two are in fact related), the Thundercats strive to preserve their ideals of good, justice and general pleasantness in the face of the adversity they face seemingly every day of their lives. There are often vague references made to tribes, which may explain the reason different characters resembled different big cats, but nothing is ever confirmed regarding this. Nevertheless, they are a diverse group - just what species they were based on is evident from their names.
The group is led by Liono, the heir to their now departed spiritual mentor Jagar and wielder of the mystical Sword of Omens. The only problem is that Liono has spent the whole trip to Third Earth, which takes well over a decade, in suspended animation and by time they thaw him out at the other end they find that while his body has aged his mind is still that of an adolescent boy due to a malfunction in his stasis pod. As a result the kindest thing that can be said about Liono, at least at the start of the series, is that he is a well meaning but naive oaf. Consequently the largest ongoing plot line is his quest to marry his mind with his body and prove himself a worthy leader through trial and error.
The mature and private intellectual niche is filled by Tigra, a brooding older male who favours a more subtle approach than many of the others and is a source of sound council for the headstrong Liono. There are hints given that Tigra's tribe has mystical and possibly even psionic abilities (hinted at, but never explored in any great depth). Tigra also demonstrates the ability to become invisible with an adept twist and crack of his whip.
Panthro was the muscle of the operation with his bald head and Mr T demeanour. He was also the mechanical expert of the group and was responsible for maintaining their hardware and it was probably as a direct result of this that he usually got to drive the very impressive Thundertank that was the primary mode of transport used by the group. Panthro fought with a pair of nun-chuks, one blue and one red that were tipped with a rather natty pair of claws.
Cheetara stepped up as the token female and was a bit of an Amazon to boot. Amazingly considering her name, Cheetara's primary talent was the ability to run faster than a speeding bullet. But she also had a rarely used ability to see into the future by running very fast in a tight circle, which apparently left her physically drained as she had to have nice sit down afterwards. She utilised a quarterstaff as both a weapon and a pole with which to vault over obstacles in her path.
Wileykit and Wileykat were children when they left Thundara and unlike Liono, stayed that way. Depending on how you looked at it they were either very mischievous or very annoying and inevitably often served as a means by which the rest of the Thundercats could be embroiled in situations as a result of their meddling. Too young to stand a real chance in open combat, they relied upon hover boards (imagine anti-gravity surfboards) to stay out of danger.
Jagar was the elderly and noble leader who did not survive the trip to Third Earth. Supposedly wise and worldly beyond compare, he popped up in the role of spiritual mentor quite a bit in the series through flashbacks and fleeting contact with the spirit world.
There was also the comedy-relief character in the shape of Snarf, an odd creature that seemed like a cross between a komodo dragon, a chimpanzee and a domestic cat. Snarf was apparently Liono's nursemaid back on Thundara and as a consequence woke up on Third Earth to find that he was out of a job. Apart from wallowing in self-pity and eating, Snarf seemed to do little else of any worth.
The bad guys were a right motley crew of ugly bugs and resembled various undesirable creatures such as vermin and scavengers. They included the leader named Slythe who was reptilian, Jackalman (guess the association there), Monkian, a simian throwback, and various other inept types who tried desperately to defeat the Thundercats and please the new master that they had found on Third Earth. The reason that these folks were called mutants and the grudge that they had against the Thundercats was never really explained in any great detail. It seemed to be enough that they were crude, stupid and evil. The mutants were supplemented constantly by guest villains who would be driven off in the space of an episode in most cases.
Then there was the big bad Mum-Ra - the everliving, the show's principal bad guy. Mum-Ra dwelt inside a mysterious old pyramid in the middle of a desert, but his reach spread out across the world. A dessicated mummy wrapped up in a red cloak most of the time, Mum-Ra could call upon the forces of darkness to empower him with the memorable line:
Ancient spirits of evil, transform this decayed from, into Mum-Ra the everliving...
... accompanied by atmospheric shots of the creepy statues in his crypt, their eyes glowing red with malevolence. In this strapping form, Mum-Ra would regularly fly off to tussle with the Thundercats before being driven back to his sarcophagus just in time for the end of the episode. Like many of the other characters, little was given away about who or what Mum-Ra was apart from the fact that he was very old and very evil.
The Thundercats resided in a fortress shaped like a huge cat and drove around in the Thundertank, but the focus was placed on the Sword of Omens as an artifact of the past. The sword usually shrank down to the size of a dagger but grew to its full length when called upon to right wrongs. It bore an eye in the centre of the hilt that could give the wielder a magical insight into the situation that he faced such as revealing enemies laying in wait or the true course of events when there was great confusion. Apart from all that it looked quite impressive and kicked a lot of ass whether in the hands of Liono or Jagar.
Like many things in the series, the actual specific details of the planet on which the Thundercats found themselves were never pinned down. Exactly why this was the Third Earth was never explained, neither was what happened to the two previous ones either. For the most part it was a world of natural extremes populated by various tribal and often very violent peoples. The deep forests were home to tribes of Amazons, while another part of the world was populated by a race of robotic bears known as the Burbles. At one point there was even a Samurai warrior named Hachiman after the Japanese god of war (probably better described as a Ronin under the circumstances) wandering around and getting into all sorts of scrapes with the regular cast. All in all it was a strange and often confusing place and the dark overtones of the setting left the viewer with many unanswered questions.
The Thundercats series went through the usual run of repeats and eventually stopped being shown. But a quick trawl of the Internet will reveal collectors sites for the toys, the logo is available on t-shirts and the images still stick in the minds of those that watched the series as a child. As the kids that once bought the action figures are now adults with disposable incomes and a yearning for nostalgia you can expect to see more of the Thundercats in the near future.