He-Man and the Masters of the Universe may have been created to sell a toyline, but there is no doubting that even by itself, the show was a cultural colossus that lived up to the image of its musclebound star. The cartoon crafted many of the elements that fans associate with the character and lore behind the franchise, as it explored a fantasy world full of magic, technology, and other sci-fi elements; a land where anything felt like it could fit into the wonderful menagerie called Eternia. This version of He-Man may have been lighter, containing more levity than the creators ever imagined, but that made it more accessible to kids. The darker tones of the action figure line’s backstory would have also been thrown off somewhat by the show’s “glamor,” with the re-colored cells, recycled animations, and other shortcuts, but it’s hard not to smile at what we saw.
For those who may not know, He-Man lives on the distant planet of Eternia with his allies, Man-at-Arms, Teela, the Sorceress, along with his pet and sometimes mount, Battle Cat. They protect their world from the evil Masters of the Universe, led by the menacing Skeletor and his band of minions, Evil Lyn, Beast Man, Trap Jaw, Mer-Man, and a slew of others who seek to conquer Castle Grayskull’s power. There’s a lot more to their struggle as well, with He-Man having an alternate identity as Prince Adam, King Randor constantly being threatened, Queen Marlena revealed to be an astronaut from Earth, and I suppose we have to mention Orko as well. This is all before anyone even thinks about Etheria, She-Ra, Hordak, or any of those other quality additions. Even for people who didn’t watch the shows, read the comics, or play with the figures, some of this may still look and sound familiar.
More Than Just Conan the Barbarian
He-Man comes from a recognizable mold, having originally been crafted to bear the name of the Conan franchise. We learned from The Power of Grayskull documentary that Development Designer Mark Taylor had been asked to craft “Conan stuff,” but when Mattel learned that Schwarzenneger’s film was rated R, that fell through. But with some re-tooling and a new fantasy world later, the archetype had a life of its own. Michael Halperin was also brought in to work on the world, so he infused his love of Gilgamesh and Beowulf into the character as he helped sort the good guys from the bad and discerned what motivated them.
The company needed a way to get their story across to kids so that they’d want the toys, which the comics would help with, but for a wider reach, the toy company looked to Lou Scheimer and Filmation. He-Man was an American-made and produced show, and the costs would need to be kept low, which meant that animation had to be cheaper and the voice acting was performed by the same three-to-five people, usually talking to themselves in many scenes. Filmation agreed to use the characters but wanted complete creative control over their creation, and according to most, the relationship with Mattel was amiable. At times, they were asked to throw a new foe or vehicle in, but Mattel didn’t feel the need to interfere, as long as He-Man’s animated adventures were performing well. More than simply giving the toys another way to make money, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe blazed its own path for cartoons, exploding off of Saturdays and conquering a weekday schedule, showing many in the industry that shows meant for children had more potential than they ever considered. In more recent years, He-Man may best be known as fleeting nostalgia or a meme, but that wasn’t the case for a long time.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuted on September 5th, 1983, and there is a lot of it for a show that only ran two seasons. With 65 episodes each, there are 130 adventures to be had, not to mention the Christmas Special and episodes where he crosses over with She-Ra, like in the five-part series – also released as a movie – The Secret of the Sword. All of this content isn’t hard to find, currently, it’s free on YouTube, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tough to get through. Let’s discuss what He-Man episodes to watch for to anyone unfamiliar with the show.
He-Man Episodes to Watch Before the Netflix Show
He-Man debuted with the episode “Diamond Ray of Disappearance,” even though it wasn’t first in the production order. It’s a solid adventure for He-Man and his band, introducing many of the characters, locations, and even a vehicle, but also hints at their relationships. It was a perfect example of the show’s season one formula and demonstrated the dynamic the showrunners were going for. There are also a good number of origin episodes, tales that explain how many of the characters came to be, building the backstory further. “BattleCat” gives fans the tale of how Prince Adam met Cringer and “Origin of the Sorceress” offers more background on that mysterious character, while providing viewers with their first glimpse of the sword that would soon be wielded by She-Ra. Almost all of the adventures where He-Man and She-Ra both appear are worth the watch time, especially for how awesome Hordak is.
This was a cartoon that tried to uplift its female characters, showing their strength when She-Ra, Queen Marlena, or the Sorceress were on screen, letting their sex appeal exist without overdoing it, minus a few oddly inserted butt shots. The writers especially focused on giving Teela several quality stories. As the Captain of the Guard, Teela has a lot of responsibility and takes action when necessary, as someone who’s serious about her role within the kingdom. This doesn’t stop her from being kind, flirty, a bit humorous, or flexing her wit in some situations, but there isn’t too much about her past until she seeks out the identity of her mother in “Teela’s Quest.” The reveal is somewhat surprising and adds an interesting dynamic to the character, but like several intriguing plot points in the show, it’s rarely brought up again. Teela continues to shine in episodes like “Teela’s Triumph” and a few others where she manages to thwart Skeletor without He-Man’s help. Other than She-Ra and Skeletor, she may be one of the most well-developed characters in the cartoon.
Speaking of, we all know that a large number of fans are here just for ol’ Skull-Face himself, and there are plenty of great clips featuring him, but a few episodes to check out would be “Here, There, Skeletors Everywhere,” which as it implies, features a lot of him, and “Double Trouble,” where we see a duplicate “good” version of the villain. There is also the softer side of Skeletor in He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special, where he battles against being nice to the two kids and a dog-like creature. Some of the more entertaining episodes are also when Skeletor is forced to team up with He-Man for a common goal. Each of those is usually good for a laugh.
The creators of the toyline may have not appreciated the cartoon’s lighter touches, but there were a couple of stories that edged on more serious matters. One of the most notable is where Prince Adam tries to pull a Spider-Man and give up the superhero life, discarding his sword after Skeletor convinces the hero he killed a man. “The Problem with Power” is a downer of an episode in some ways, but it teaches a strong lesson, and it isn’t the only story that shows how even He-Man has doubts and loses faith in himself at times. Bits of writing like this slipped in shouldn’t be too surprising, as some talented individuals that went on to do other sci-fi shows and cartoons worked on many of He-Man’s episodes. Names like Paul Dini, Bob Forward, D.C. Fontana, and J. Michael Straczynski all leave their mark, but it was still a children’s television show under a strict schedule. The second season broke the mold a bit, expanding the formula, but also allowed some of the plots to become more nonsensical. We see a few bad eggs like “The Toy Maker” and “The Bitter Rose,” which isn’t just groan-worthy but also focuses on Orko. There’s no shame in selecting episodes to watch based on which characters take center stage.
Going back through this cartoon isn’t just fun for nostalgia, the new Masters of the Universe Revelations show is a direct continuation of the classic ‘80s creation. For those who want to get excited about the new He-Man series, but can’t get into how different and dated the old cartoon is, there were, of course, other more modern versions. Fans received The New Adventures of He-Man in 1990 and the more fondly remembered reboot of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in 2002, but viewer mileage may vary on both. No matter which avenue one chooses to experience He-Man in preparation for the new material, it isn’t hard to get sucked into the world of Eternia and feel the power of Grayskull.