Screenplays: Marty Isenberg, Robert N. Skir, Martha Moran, Dennis O'Flaherty, Doug Booth, Bob Forward, Diane M. Fresco, Steve Gerber, Eric Luke and Richard Mueller
(Voice) Cast: Andrew Jackson as Prime; Alyson Court as Pixx; Catherine Disher as Topaz; Janet-Laine Green as Contrary; Rino Romano as Prototype; Peter Wildman as Ghoul; Rod Wilson as Hardcase
Synopsis: In a world where vampires, fire people living underground, Jack O-Lantern headed maniacs and evil doers in general threaten the world, a team of super powered "Ultras" form Ultraforce to stop them.
[Spoiler for a Major Plot End in the first three episodes]
A memory, from childhood when I fed on nineties children's animation and live action programming over multiple channels, from the BBC to American ones like Fox Kids to Nickelodeon, had lingered in my mind as has happened for many. An image without a context, little else known as is the case for many in such a circumstance, maybe something even you the reader can appreciate with a likewise image from a work you have no idea of the origins of; in my case, in which a boy develops a goo-like substance from his body and, when it swallows him up, turns him into Superman on steroids.
Looking on Amazon Prime1 finally revealed this image came from Ultraforce, an attempt at spreading the word on the characters of Malibu Comics that was kneecapped the moment the thirteen episode length series was released, cancelled soon after. Part of the growth of comic books culture into the nineties, Malibu was founded in the eighties and were growing, introducing the Ultraverse concept in 1993 to put together all their characters into one shared series, of importance as Ultraforce and the characters even making cameos here would be tied to it. Unfortunately, the comic books industry in 1994 took a sizable impact and Malibu's properties were bought up by Marvel Comics. Marvel attempted to reboot the Ultraverse, even bringing in their own characters like Black Knight and Juggernaut into the world, but many problems came to be. Marvel's own flagging work and creative decisions that went against the original Malibu fans didn't help. By 1995, when the Ultraforce series started, there were enough tensions and issues that it would be cancelled after those thirteen episodes, also the cause of the two season adaptation of Night Man (1997-9). By 1996/7 the Ultraverse was effectively killed off, and as the 2010s the only Malibu character who has actually appeared in a Marvel source is Topaz; once in the 1995 series an intergalactic Amazon who's abruptly introduced in the series dropping through an intergalactic warp hole at a sports stadium and confuses American football players as warring soldiers, as of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) a tiny role played by New Zealand actress Rachel House.
All of this admittedly is coming from someone whose knowledge of comic books in general could easily be replaced by a wiser expert, but at least in the small research I've done, the tale of Malibu Comics is a tragedy, Ultraforce for all the ways I'll count how bad the series is at least giving me a fascination for this company and their creations. Any creation, no matter how ridiculous, can be redeemed and the nineties are the same even if it was the era of comical amounts of pouches on characters, and too many holographic and gimmick issues inflating the market until it collapsed. For all the criticisms I'm going to level on the series I'd gladly own the toys (which did exist) and have them on my shelf even if second hand, my love for the gaudy bright coloured forms of nineties pop culture also marked by a sense of respect for any creator even of bad ideas, that no idea is too bad or stupid if the right version can be created, and that whilst a couple of these particular characters have ridiculous names or dangerously verge on copyright infringement, they actually have a lot that would be awesome to see in a better context.
Ultraforce itself was an attempt to celebrate the titular group - in 1993 Malibu, doing well just before 1994, wanted to capitalise on their existing characters by enforcing a collected, interconnected world by way of a comic where they teamed together, the exact idea as the Justice League for DC Comics or the Avengers (or various groups) have been for Marvel. Throughout the series characters, villains and heroes alike who had their own comics, cameo in one episode roles, and the success of the nineties X-Men animated series is visible at least in the beginning credits, mimicry in the heroes standing next to their own names for introduction and the strangely catchy techno theme where the only lyric is "Ultraforce!" screamed over and over again. If anything, whilst a peculiar bunch, Ultraforce has the right sense of the ridiculous in terms of heroes, though one of the sloppier traits of the series is that, whilst some character might have to be in the background for some stories, characters can disappear completely off-screen for whole episodes without rhyme or reason, a shame as they are a fascinating bunch to work with for stories.
Prime, the poster boy for Malibu, the figure I had remembered who is a young boy who can turn into a muscled giant, someone who gets the most storylines and, honestly, is an interesting character as he's an immature young teenager living with his family, the threat to his family jarring against him trying to keep his secret from his mother as one of the episode stories show, whilst playing up how his naivety makes him incredibly cocky and misguided, the worst thing possible when he's over-muscled giant in Prime form who can obliterate things by punching them. Hardcase, generic super strong hero whose ability to fly or not varies wildly per episode, is interesting at least as he's a leader of the team that were mostly killed or left in a coma, producing a hardening of him opinions, alongside also being an actor as a day job who uses his abilities for his fame. Topaz, a generic Amazon who, alongside the Professor Xavier of the group, a woman named Contrary, unfortunately leave the series with a nasty case of underwriting its female cast. Prototype, effectively Iron Man even in design only with a cocky youth being paid by a major company to helm a super armoured suit, and Ghoul the undead sidekick who I openly admit is useless, barring being invulnerable and being telepathic to the point he can communicate to the dead and even the entire Moon, but was one of my favourite characters for being the sardonic corpse who makes terrible puns, even making a Grateful Dead reference at one point. They are, for all the stereotypes, figures you could easily wring a good story from if anything.
I haven't described any of the episodes and won't even try to because, honestly, they're pedantic. Ultraforce the series is terrible; growing up with DiC Entertainment animated shows, I suspect that if I went back to some of the programmes of theirs I did watch properly many of the worst aspects of this superhero show would also be found in them, even the likes of Inspector Gadget which made a cultural impact. Whilst the plots vary in ideas, they eventually are what would happen if you had the action figures and bashed them together at the end over and over again; a lot of comic books usually end in good heroes punching evil villains, but even if I wasn't spoilt by Japanese television anime, this is not a well structure show in terms of scripts and animation. The scripts feel rushed here at points and the animation can be shocking especially in the later episodes, even something an illiterate in animation technique like me can witness seeing fighter planes literally being moved as slides across the screen. The stories, only over twenty minutes per episode, do not have breathing room or well plotted. I give Ultraforce some credit as some of the episodes are stories split over multiple episodes; especially the first three episodes where, follow a single plot involving the fire people under the Earth's surface stealing nukes, it kills off a young heroine named Pixx, a really brave move for a children's show as she sacrifices herself to save the day, brave regardless of the sloppiness of the plot and complete disregard even in superhero logic of how nuclear radiation works. However, after that, you have very simplistic plots; many not well thought out at all, many which waste time on explaining obvious things for no particularly good reason or just bad ideas.
It's entirely due to the charisma of the characters themselves, even when unintentional or calling each other nouns for names, that any claim to entertainment can be found. The episodes vary in who is used, and the cameos add more to this. The Strangers, another superhero team, appear in the final two part arch among a reoccurring plot thread of a mysterious bold of blue electricity striking a tram cart and turning many into heroes. One such figure, the aforementioned Night Man, appears in episode 7, a saxophone player (sadly with his music done in awful bedroom MIDI) becoming a body armoured vigilante with natural night vision, a cameo who ends said episode on top of a skyscraper in full costume playing a saxophone in one of the series' most (unintentionally) memorable moments.
The villains are also from various Malibu properties - an energy vampire named Rune (who appears twice) had his own comic, as did Sludge, a minor henchman here who was actually by all accounts a tragic figure like Man-Thing/Swamp Thing for Malibu in his own series. And then there's the character who steals the show for me, right from the sight of him in the opening credits animation, by the name of Lord Pumpkin, a giant Jack O'Lantern headed figure in a purple suit and magical powers whose voice actor was clearly enjoying himself, investing more in the lines by chewing the walls of the recording booth, and the bizarre introduction of being in a gang war over a fantastical narcotic with a regular gang, as mad as a plot as you could get.
The idiosyncratic and weird juxtapositions, a few mentioned above, are where any fun comes into Ultraforce when frankly most of the time it panders to a child audience way too much and feels like the screenwriters weren't reading the original Malibu comics to properly depict the characters. Even for all my jokes, these characters deserved better. Characters like this, even if looked down on as was the case here even if by proxy, deserved better than a really slap dashed production this poor. It's a strange case of having utter admiration for the materials, the accomplishment of finally figuring out what that strange image stuck in my head since childhood was, and being proud to say I saw all thirteen episodes, but openly admitting Ultraforce was a terrible viewing experience.
1) Although it wasn't appreciated when the show was pulled off in the middle of me viewing it, forcing me to look elsewhere; moments like that are what drive people to horde shiny discs and bootleg material, which helps no one.