In the early 90â€™s, after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles proved to be such a tremendous success, a slew of action cartoons featuring anthropomorphic animal heroes besieged the airwaves. Most of them, whether they were based on pre-existing properties or not, were pretty bad. However, a few shining examples managed to make it through, and probably the best of them all was Swat Kats: the Radical Squadron. Originally premiering in 1993, Swat Kats was one of first original shows on Cartoon Network (which was just getting its feet wet). Regrettably, Swat Kats only lasted two seasons. Yet with only 23 episodes to speak of, Swat Kats managed to create two unforgettable heroes, a slew of interesting supporting cast members, a fantastic rogueâ€™s gallery and some really damn good stories.
The summary of Swat Kats is like so: Chance and Jake were once members of the Enforcers, a military organization that protected Megakat City from danger (in case you havenâ€™t figured it out, everyone in this show is an anthropomorphic cat). However, while trying to apprehend a terrorist known as Dark Kat, the pair accidentally caused a fortune in collateral damage. Their superior, Commander Feral, punished them to work in a scrap yard as community service until their debt was paid off. The two then put their military knowledge to good use, turning weapons and vehicle scrap into their high performance jet, the Turbokat. Chance became â€œT-Boneâ€ while Jake took the codename â€œRazorâ€, and the pair donned the guise of the Swat Kats, a duo of vigilante superheroes. T-Bone is the Turbokatâ€™s ace pilot, while Razor is the gunner who creates a plethora of exotic missiles and other weaponry.
One of the strongest aspects of the Swat Kats was the supporting cast. The title duo were fantastic heroes, donâ€™t get me wrong, but the show wouldnâ€™t have been half as compelling if it werenâ€™t for the back-up players. Mayor Manx was the inept Mayor of Megakat City who often came under attack from villains. Being an oaf, his Deputy Mayor, Calico â€œCallieâ€ Briggs did all the real work. She was friends with the Swat Kats (though she wasnâ€™t privy to their true identities) and would often call them when things looked grim. And she was totally hot for a cat-person. There was Commander Feral, the no-nonsense Commander of the Enforcers who hated the Swat Katsâ€™ guts and typically tried to bring them to justice. Despite that, he was hardly ever shown as incompetent and was a genuinely talented soldier and combatant. He was more a threat to the Swat Kats than any of the villains, half the time. The second season introduced Lt. Feral, Commander Feralâ€™s niece. She was friendlier toward the Swat Kats, aiding them in fights numerous times, though she shared some of her Uncleâ€™s tough-as-nails characteristics.
While the supporting cast may have been one of the more intriguing elements of the show, my favorite thing about it was the rogueâ€™s gallery. Over two seasons they managed to create some of the best villains from any cartoon. Dark Kat was the evil overlord-type; the one with the grandest plots who rarely ever engaged the Swat Kats in one-on-one combat. He led a terrorist organization and had his own private army of loyal followers (though they werenâ€™t seen too much). Most often, he was aided by his gaggle of pink bat-monsters called â€œCreeplingsâ€. Dr. Viper is probably my favorite villain of the bunch. He was once a genetic scientist named Dr. Elron Pervis who got greedy and tried to steal a mutagenic chemical. He ended up being covered in the stuff and was mutated into a snake-like creature. Renaming himself â€œDr. Viperâ€, he was the showâ€™s mad scientist villain, with most of his plots revolving around mutating things. There was the Pastmaster, the mystical bad guy of the show. He was a diminutive zombie sorcerer from the Dark Ages who could bend time to his will using a spell book and a magic watch. He was the only villain to actually get killed off in the final season (though some question Dr. Viperâ€™s fate at the end of â€œMutation Cityâ€, too). There were the Metallikats, a husband and wife duo. They were once gangsters who, while trying to escape the island prison of Al-Kat-Traz, were killed in a storm. Their bodies washed up on the shore of a scientistâ€™s home and he put their minds inside robot bodies. Thanks a lot, random scientist guy. They were the showâ€™s techno-villains, if you canâ€™t guess. There was also Hard Drive, who was the petty criminal of the show. He used a device called a â€œSurge Suitâ€ which let him travel through electric currents and control computer systems. His aspirations rarely exceeded bank robbing. There were some good one shot villains, too, most notably Mad Kat, who was a lunatic that became possessed by a cursed jack-in-the-box which gave him demonic powers.
One thing I loved about Swat Kats was the voice acting. You had Charlie Adler (Buster Bunny from Tiny Toons) as T-Bone and Barry Gordon (Brainy Smurf and Donatello) as Razor. Tress MacNeille (Dot from Animaniacs, Babs from Tiny Toons) was Callie, the immortal Gary Owens (Space Ghost, Blue Falcon) was Commander Feral and Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh, Peg-leg Pete, Cat from Catdog) was Mayor Manx. As for villains, you had Brock Peters (Bloth from the Pirate of Dark Water) as Dark Kat, Frank Welker (possibly the greatest voice actor of all time) as Dr. Viper, Mark Hamill (the Joker from Batman the Animated Series) as various one-shot villains like the Red Lynx, Roddy McDowall (the Mad Hatter from Batman the Animated Series) as Mad Kat, Michael Dorn (Calibac from Superman the Animated Series, the Centurion Drones from Duck Dodgers) as the alien pirate Mutilor and Rob Paulson (Yakko from Animaniacs) as Hard Drive. A pretty all-star cast, at least as far as voice actors go.
The animation was provided by a studio called Mook Animation who work consistently on both Japanese and American animation. You might recognize some of their work, as they did shows like Eureka 7, Gungrave, the second season of Stripperella, I.G.P.X and lots of other stuff often as in-betweeners). The animation had a nice Japanese flare to it, especially during the action sequences. However, it was nicely stylized to appeal to American audiences, so it blended Western and Japanese tastes rather nicely. Some episodes, mostly those from the first season, were animated by Han Ho Heung Up Animation. They tended to be the less-impressive episodes, visually. They werenâ€™t awful looking, they just didnâ€™t compare to Mookâ€™s efforts.
Swat Kats surprised me with how violent it could be. While characters only died on rare occasions, they did die. In the Metallikatsâ€™ premiere episode the two title badguys kill a rival gangster by shooting him through the chest and â€œfryingâ€ him with a laser. He gets buried under a pile of crates but you see his crispy black hand jutting out. Bad guys died every now and then, too. In the pilot episode, a four-eyed villain that Dr. Viper mutates into a fungus monster eventually gets destroyed by the episodeâ€™s end. The aforementioned Pastmaster winds up taking a swim in a pool of lava in his final appearance. Some by-standers were occasionally implied to be have been killed (usually through off-screen screaming and then never seeing them again) but considering this was 1993, it was impressive.
Swat Kats had a lot of character depth, especially for T-Bone and Razor. Their origin was held off until a later episode, which was actually a good idea. When the show started the audience was just thrust into the world of the Swat Kats; you managed to pick up on various character traits and relationships rather quickly (â€œOh, they live in a scrap yardâ€, â€œOh, Commander Feral hates themâ€ etc). When the origin was finally revealed, all these various relationships and tensions between characters finally made sense (â€œOh, so thatâ€™s why they live in a scrap yardâ€, â€œOh, so thatâ€™s why Commander Feral hates themâ€ etc). Not all the villains got origins, sadly. You never learn how Hard Drive got his Surge Suit or who or what Dark Kat really was. Dr. Viper had his origin revealed toward the end of the second season in a flashback episode, while the Pastmaster had his history divulged in his second appearance.
And speaking of villains, there were unfortunately only a few instances of team-ups. The big one was the episode â€œKatastropheâ€, the season 1 finale, where Dark Kat teamed up with Dr. Viper and the Metallikats. One of the better episodes, just to see all those badguys working together. â€œNight of the Dark Katâ€ has Dark Kat hiring Hard Drive to do his bidding, which isnâ€™t really much of a team-up, since itâ€™s also Hard Driveâ€™s first appearance. Then thereâ€™s â€œA Bright and Shiny Futureâ€, where the Pastmaster reactivates the Metallikats to work for him. As you can see, the villain team-ups were few and far-between, making them feel kind of â€œspecialâ€ whenever they happened.
Swat Kats was a show that was cancelled well before its time. It had a lot of promise and with only 23 episodes managed to beat many other longer-running action cartoons in terms of story quality. It may never get a revival, but I would certainly appreciate it if Hanna Barbara would release the series on DVD.
For now, enjoy a few episodes I found on You Tube:
Mutation City part 1
Mutation City part 2