I don't remember watching Astro Boy as a child. Osamu Tezuka's most beloved character was well represented on Delaware Valley TV, to be sure, as one of the featured stars of WPHL-17's Wee Willie Webber's Colorful Cartoon Club. (Ironic title, since a number of the anime imports on Webber's multi-hour show, including Astro Boy, were black and white.) But I don't have one memory of Astro Boy that sticks in my mind in the manner of the dramatic swoop-in shot of the despairing Kimba on the tree limb in "Jungle Thief." The first Astro Boy ep that I can positively say that I remember watching is Episode 77 (of 104), "The Terrible Time Gun," which I got on a two-episode VHS tape some 20 years ago, in the first flush of my renewed love affair with Kimba. With the purchase of the second ULTIMATE set, I was able to view a remastered version of the ep, and it was a pleasant reunion -- not least because "Time Gun" bears distinct similarities to one of the best DuckTales episodes, "Sir Gyro de Gearloose."
By the time "Time Gun" was made and debuted in 1964, Astro Boy's success upon its American debut in the Fall of 1963 had convinced NBC -- which had purchased the rights to the show on a tip from a network executive who'd seen it on the Japanese first run -- to lend Tezuka's fledgling Mushi Studios a hand in the form of financial assistance to upgrade the quality of the outfit's animation. The extra polish is evident in this episode, as is the complete ease with which the American dubbing crew (Billie Lou Watt, Ray Owens, and Gilbert Mack; later assisted by Peter Fernandez of Speed Racer fame) were now handling the characters. Billie Lou's voice for Astro, originally a bit higher and more childlike, had now modulated into something very close to what Kimba's voice would eventually be. Aside from the obvious "drawback" of a lack of color -- which really shouldn't be considered a drawback, and probably isn't at this point in our cultural history (whatever became of the colorization fad, anyway?) -- and somewhat slower-moving and stiffer animation, the major areas in which Astro Boy fell short of Kimba by '64 were the use of stock musical accompaniments and sound effects. These didn't become quite as cliched as they did at, say, Hanna-Barbera, but they do reek a little bit more of the assembly line. The long periods of time during which we hear no background music or sounds at all are also quite noticeable after listening to the grand orchestral accompaniments of Kimba. In all thematic essentials, though, the Astro Boy of "Time Gun" is a mature, highly confident, and very intelligent series.
Obviously, there is a big difference between Gyro Gearloose wanting to go back in time to a simpler era in which he can hone his "romantic, anti-gadgetary" side and Dr. Tempo (Gil Mack) sending Astro and Astro's mentor Dr. Elefun (Ray Owens) back in time as part of a nefarious plot. But both Astro and Gyro react to the situation in believable ways -- Astro, by gently besting Sir Swingle (Mack) and quickly making friends; Gyro, by attempting, in his clumsy way, to fit into King Artie's kingdom of Quackalot, even as Artie's subjects (most of them, anyway) are wowed by his "magic."
I find the relationship between Astro and King Canute's (Owens) daughter Philomena (Watt) to be quite charming -- not to mention unique. Astro getting involved with a human female in this way is something I've not seen in any other Astro ep. At one point, you even see Astro with his arm around the princess!
The arrival of the conniving Sir Shifty (Mack) and Marvin the Magician (Owens) provides the ep with its "on-site" villains but also represents something of a downtick in complexity from the character dynamics in "Sir Gyro." Moorloon, Quackalot's wizard, does not start out as a baddie but falls victim to a combination of the villainous Lesdred's blandishments and his own jealousy at Gyro's "gadgets" upstaging his magic. Marvin, by contrast, is in cahoots with Shifty from the very start. "Time Gun," however, makes a more out of the direct conflict between science and magic than "Sir Gyro" did, thanks to Shifty's challenge of Dr. Elefun and the ensuing contest. Elefun, of course, isn't really manipulating scientific principles in the way Gyro demonstrated magnetism and the like to Artie's court; he's simply taking advantage of Astro's inherent powers (on Astro's suggestion, notice; an indication of how Astro was learning to take the initiative by this time). But the effect on the crowd is the same.
I just love the little hop-step that Astro does before vaulting into flight. The series' cruder animation of earlier eps wouldn't have permitted that sort of character-driven bit, and it would even have been notable in a Kimba episode.
With Elefun's attempt to recreate the "atomic crystals" and make his own Time Gun, we see the use of science paralleling that of magic, rather than being intimately tied in with it as seen in "Sir Gyro." Mark Zaslove's script for the DuckTales episode was one of the series' very best, so it's a rather unfair comparison, but the fact that the two episodes can even be compared in a serious manner is a tribute to how well Astro Boy was being written by this time (by Fred Ladd, I do believe, though the voice actors were probably adding a lot of their own material by now).
The sudden appearance of the "army of robots" is the one aspect of the script that I can't really understand. Or, perhaps I DO understand it; it provides Astro with metal minions to mash during the battle at the end of this segment. But I don't get why Dr. Tempo would want to send back all of these buildings and gear. If someone, ANYONE, could unlock the secrets of the robots and their accompanying machines, then wouldn't that "tear" the proverbial "hole" in "the fabric of time" and irretrievably influence the future? Even the clueless Shifty finds it easy enough to direct the robots to attack Canute's castle. Dr. Tempo is mad, I get it, but, as the saying goes, he's not stupid. (BTW, I didn't realize that robots could feel pain in their posteriors like that.)
Marvin's funny attempt to hypnotize Astro provides the last direct conflict between science and magic... and, as before, science doesn't exactly win. All that knocks Marvin out of the game is a simple principle of reflection. A clever climax, but not really on a par with Gyro and Moorloon "making up" and combining their abilities to stop Lesdred's invasion of Quackalot.
Another bit of marvelous animation: Elefun and Astro's return to the present through a wormhole, or through the auspices of LSD, or something. You can see the same animation when Dr. Tempo sends the duo back in time. Rather ambitious and effective for a mid-60s b&w series, wouldn't you say?
I wonder how Dr. Tempo managed to cow all the other employees of the Institute of Science into letting him have the director's chair. Perhaps it's everyone's day off and he's simply pretending to run the show in his own bubbly little world? Yes, that would fit his loony m.o., all right. The confrontation with Tempo is over a little quickly and the ending is rather weak, but this episode holds up exceptionally well... as do a large number of the other Astro Boy eps I've watched, including some of the more crudely animated ones. I'll try to bring some of the more notable Astro's to you from time to time as I progress through the Kimba oeuvre.
Next time: Back to "Kimba" with Episode 11, "Catch 'Em if You Can."