Welcome back to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which I watch and review TV episodes from the 1980s. Today’s entry is M.A.S.K. (1985-1986), a show about people who have access to transforming vehicles and want to use them against each other. Also, they wear super bulky masks.
For a TV show that was only on for two years, M.A.S.K. really made a deep imprint on myself and a lot of my friends. It was kind of a wonderful fusion of G.I. Joe and Transformers, taking the former’s “good guy task force vs. evil organization” and the latter’s penchant for transforming one thing into another. We all wanted these toys, and my Rhino semi became one of my big birthday gifts in 1986 for my 10th birthday. Yes, it was a shameless show that was created just to sell toys, but that didn’t mean it lacked some really cool touches.
But as vividly as I remember the toys, I don’t recall much about the show itself other than the fact that everyone wore what looked like the most uncomfortable bulky masks for some reason. So I figured, why not, let’s check it out for this series!
We’ll take a look at the pilot episode, “The Deathstone.”
One thing I’ve noticed is that the ’80s rarely did origin stories; they elected to plunk the audience down in an established setup and go with that. So it is here, where the episode begins with a meteor crashing to the non-specific American southwestern desert where this show takes place (the desert makes it possible for all of the off-roading and casualty-free combat that needs to happen). A news lady is gushing over how this radioactive meteor will help us with… energy? Or something? I think she’s jumping to conclusions too quickly here, but the bad guys are already showing up to take the rock and silence her.
Cue a chase scene where the news lady escapes in a disappointingly non-transforming jeep while the bad guys blast her right into a river. It’s all decently animated with those trademark GI Joe lasers that look flashy but never hurt nobody.
She wakes up in the mansion of Matt Tracker, some bigshot hero who “helps people in trouble.” As a kid, I always saw these generic do-good adventure organizations on TV and thought that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I think we were lied to by MacGuyver and company. Anyway, “Professor Stevens” was apparently found in a ravine, brought back to the mansion, and dressed up in very formal clothes. She doesn’t seem quite as alarmed about all of this as a sane person would be, and hands Tracker the tape about the meteor incident.
We also see Tracker’s kid, who has a robot pal because who DIDN’T have a sentient robo buddy in the ’80s? I kind of assumed everyone else did, at least.
Tracker then tells the professor through a two-way mirror (?) that he’ll take the case and retrieve the radioactive sample. Cue a quick “team dossier” rundown, suggesting that either this is the first time he’s pulled these guys together for a mission or his memory is slipping and he has to remind himself of who anyone is on a daily basis.
Each of the MASK team mates are shown abandoning their current activity — common stuff, like headlining a rock concert or handling the biggest snake you’ve ever seen — to dash for the base. My favorite is what looks to be a high school teacher who, you know, just leaves the classroom and a whole bunch of bewildered teens in his wake.
Cut to the villains, VENOM, and their leader, a chubby general guy named Wolf. He sort of looks like he could be the friendly police chief in a neighboring cartoon, but when he puts on that outfit, he’s all power mad like any other good ’80s bad guy. Having discovered that the outside of the meteor makes things grow but the inside melts anything to slag, he orders his henchmen to auction off slices to world leaders, with the bids starting at $15 million. That’s not a bad price for a deathstone, you know?
Tell me this isn’t how you always envisioned Kyle!
At the MASK headquarters, which is a gas station sidled right next to a large hill, the team suits up and rolls out. This being a Japanese cartoon, it has to be far more dramatic than walking into a locker room, grabbing a helmet, and giving a guy nod to your pals. No, they have to sit on a huge platform that’s lifted like 60 feet into the air, then a helmet dispenser comes down and charges the masks with a bit of a light show. Of course, once they’re in their vehicles, nobody’s wearing the helmets, so it’s a bit of a wasted moment.
But we didn’t come here for the great acting or the dorky headwear — we came for the transforming vehicles! And MASK has these in spades, with one normal vehicle transforming into a far less safe and stable second vehicle at a moment’s notice. For instance, this sports car’s gull wings come up and now it’s a plane with no doors to keep the pilot from falling out. Bug your parents about buying these toys, kids! GO NOW.
Cue an action sequence where everyone gets to clearly demonstrate what their car/helicopter/boat can do as well as the capabilities of each of their masks. That’s right, those unwieldy head-buckets each had a special ability, such as this guy being able to make holograms that somehow fool heat-seeking rockets.
Holograms in the ’80s — there was NOTHING they couldn’t do.
Hondo, the negligent teacher, gets hurt while protecting Tracker’s stowaway kid, so the kid rushes off on his robo-unicycle to find the life-saving meteor. Naturally, he finds the bad guys in about two seconds and radios in the coordinates to MASK. “Go back to the house,” Tracker tells him. “Ask directions if you have to.”
If you have to.
The kid then tries to take off in Wolf’s helicopter, hilariously crashes it, and then has his robot drive one of the meteor trucks out of the area. So far, he’s the most effective person in this entire show.
Things I learned from this show: You can actually drive a motorcycle past Mach 1. It looks really spiffy, too.
And we’re off on another round of vehicle vs. vehicle combat in this apparently neverending paved desert region.
That’s me, waving goodbye to any chances I might have had to date girls in high school.
This guy’s jeep spits out a little boat that has a freeze ray, which he uses to outright murder two bad guys. Well, I assume they’re dead, since he completely covers them — head and all — in a shell of ice that doesn’t look like it’ll be melting anytime soon.
To this show’s credit, it does action pretty well. It’s about at the Transformers/GI Joe level, as to be expected, but there’s a reason why we were so in love with these Japanese-made shows back then. They really put most other cartoons to shame.
Eventually, the MASK team gets all three pieces of the meteor and reassemble them to douse Hondo with happy healing rays. And then, as to forestall any questions from the audience about what a literal life-saving meteor could do for world health, the thing powers down and becomes a lifeless rock.
The episode ends with one of those super-brief helpful tips — “Always look both ways before running out into the street to get a ball!” — that ’80s cartoons included to get moral censors off their backs.
And that’s it! It’s as obvious a toy commercial as there ever was, but at least we got some pretty eye candy to go with our overpriced plastic purchases.