‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ hit theaters in the summer of 1977, and the world was never the same. Soon, television and theaters were flooded with science fiction projects, all hoping that theirs would be the next ‘Star Wars’. One arena that was able to adapt the fastest was Saturday morning cartoons. The fall of 1977 saw a more sci-fi based take on the ‘Super Friends’ in the form of ‘The All-New Super Friends Hour’ on ABC. CBS introduced the live-action Saturday morning series ‘Space Academy’, which starred ‘Lost In Space’s Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith). And NBC launched the new Filmation series, ‘The Young Sentinels’.
This program introduced a trio of superheroes: Astraea, Hercules, and Mercury, based on the Greek and Roman gods and demigods of the same names. The trio were once normal human teenagers, who were teleported to an alien planet where they were given eternal life and amazing abilities. Astraea could transform into animals, Hercules possessed incredible strength, and Mercury could run at super speed.
It appears that Hercules and Mercury are THE Hercules and Mercury from Roman mythology. Astraea was the name of a Greek goddess of “justice, innocence, purity, and precision,” but her animal powers are unrelated. Their appearances don’t really jibe with Greco-Romans. Hercules looks like a ’70s-era Muscle Beach hunk, with tan skin and long, flowing blond hair, Mercury is Chinese, and Astraea is Black.
Astraea was the first Black female superhero to appear in a cartoon series. That same fall, ‘The All-New Super Friends Hour’ introduced TV’s first Black male superhero, Black Vulcan. In addition to being a Black woman, Astraea was further distinguished by serving as the leader of the team.
The trio lived in a high-tech base inside of a volcano. They were overseen by Sentinel-1, a sentient computer from a race of similar wise beings, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Zordon from ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ who wouldn’t appear until over a decade later. The Sentinels are also attended by chirpy robot helper “MO” (Maintenance Operator), who is clearly modeled after R2-D2, although MO could talk. It is implied that this is just one group of Sentinels and that there are other teams out there, overseen by mentors from the same race of robotic guides as Sentinel-1.
After a few episodes aired, the show’s name was changed to ‘Space Sentinels’ to emphasize the sci-fi aspects of the show and to draw young ‘Star Wars’ fans who might be seeking a sci-fi fix on Saturday mornings. However, on the show itself, the characters are referred to as the “Young Sentinels,” as the name change came after the episodes were complete.
‘Young Sentinels’/’Space Sentinels’ only lasted for one season of 13 episodes. Each episode was a full-length story. While Filmation was responsible for many beloved classic cartoons, this one was rather lackluster. Very much like the first season of ‘Super Friends’, ‘Space Sentinels’ was very eco-conscious, and most of the antagonists were simply misguided in their attempt to create a better world through negative means.
Filmation founder Lou Scheimer is a saint. I can’t speak more highly of someone in his position. He was forward-thinking and took his position as an educator and caretaker of children very seriously. And clearly he was a big proponent of equal representation, based on the mixed ethnicity of the heroes on ‘Space Sentinels’. Not only that, but he insisted that the actors providing the characters’ voices be of the same ethnicity. Caucasian George DiCenzo voiced Hercules, while Asian American Evan C. Kim voiced Mercury, and African American Dee Timberlake voiced Astraea.
Scheimer very often lent his voice to the goofy sidekicks on his cartoons, and that is true here, as he voiced MO, who was the show’s comic relief and had a crush on Astraea. Even though it’s a bit weird for a robot to have a crush on a human woman, it was another progressive step on Filmation’s part to depict a woman of color as the object of attraction.
Even though ‘Space Sentinels’ didn’t last very long, there was some merchandising for the show. Above, it appears that Astraea and Hercules were released as Halloween costumes, or at least as masks. (If anyone has seen Mercury or the full costumes for any of them, let me know!)
There were also a few coloring books. Below, are a few cheap “rack toys”– items sold for under $1 at drug stores and the like, usually kept near the checkouts for impulse buys.
‘Space Sentinels’ was gone after its 13-episode first season, however, Hercules resurfaced the next year as part of the compilation series ‘Tarzan and the Super 7’, on a segment called ‘Freedom Force’. DiCenzo continued to provide his voice. On that series, Hercules rode on Pegasus, the winged horse also from Greco-Roman mythology.
Although ‘Space Sentinels’ came first and had 13 half-hour episodes, ‘Freedom Force’ is better remembered nowadays, because it was more recent. Despite there only being five short episodes (about 7 minutes long), those were rerun for years, while ‘Space Sentinels’ only aired on network TV for one season.
Unlike Hanna-Barbera, for whatever reason, Filmation did not take its shows and bundle them into syndication packages, so ‘Space Sentinels’ was never aired on TV after its original Saturday morning run, however it was released on VHS tapes in the ’80s.
The Filmation library has changed hands several times over the years. At one point, Hallmark owned the majority of the library, and short-sightedly transferred everything to digital PAL format, because it only planned to distribute these shows outside of the U.S. It appears that the original negatives and film reels were destroyed.
The Filmation library later became the property of Entertainment Rights, who licensed the majority to BCI Eclipse LLC to release on DVD. This led to ‘Space Sentinels’ being released in 2006. This release included the five ‘Freedom Force’ shorts as well. I will discuss that series and ‘Tarzan and the Super 7’ as a whole in an upcoming Super Saturday.
The BCI Eclipse DVDs are excellent and I highly recommend picking them up if you can find them. They are all out of print but may be found second hand. Many of these releases were later issued by budget DVD makers, without all the extras and in cheaper packaging, so be wary of that. Those releases may be worth it if you just want to see the shows again, but the BCI releases are the ones to look for.
Do you have any memories of ‘Space Sentinels’?