“It is a time when magic is more powerful than science, and only those who control the magic control destiny. They are the Visionaries...”
With a short lifespan and limited range of associated toys, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light is nevertheless fondly remembered by many of the original Transformers generation, due mostly to the strength of the cartoon and uniqueness of the concept.
The action figures had the unusual gimmick of holograms, but far from riding on the back of this selling point, the accompanying television series was one of real quality, with more intelligent dialogue and more consistently good animation than rival shows.
First airing on September 21st 1987 (a day after a show with an starkly opposite storyline started, Starcom: The U.S. Space Force), the Visionaries cartoon lasted thirteen episodes and a second season was never produced.
The scenario was unusual and quite different from the other animated series around at the time.
Far away in a distant galaxy, the people of Prysmos (a planet bearing more than a passing resemblance to Earth) lived in an age of great technology. It is portrayed onscreen as a stereotypical vision of the future, with sprawling, shiny cities and sleek monorails, and emcompassed 7000 years of easy, comfortable living. Unfortunately, the three suns of Prysmos realigned, causing machines to mysteriously stop working, and rendering all the technology useless. As the realignment occurs, the sky becomes dark and stormy (perhaps... scorched?), and 'all of the electrical energy is soon depleted', signalling the start of The Age of Magic. Naturally, men didn't realise this straight away, considering magic to be a little bit hokey. A 'new, more primitive order' arises; basically a medieval society with all the requisite castles, armour, catapults and damsels.
There are two domains; New Valarak (pronounced 'vol-arr-ic'), peaceful under the leadership of the wise and courageous Leoric, and another ruled by the evil and tyrannical Darkstorm, whose singular drive is to overthrow Leoric.
Knowing that both parties are always looking to gain a military advantage, a wizard named Merklynn approaches first Darkstorm and then Leoric with a promise of enough magical power to defeat their enemies once and for all. Both are sceptical, but where Darkstorm merely attempts to throw the wizard in the dungeon, Leoric feels it might at least be worth a look, and so gathers volunteers to quest for Merklynn's shrine, atop Iron Mountain. Seeing this, Darkstorm decides he'd better see what it was all about after all, so musters his own band of knights and sets off to reach the shrine first. On the way up, both sides encounter various challenges and booby traps, and also duel with each other, with certain knights displaying particular special skills to get out of tricky situations.
A handful of brave warriors have vision enough to reach the shrine, and each individual is rewarded with an appropriate animal totem; a magical representation of their true inner self which they can transform into at will. Some of the Visionaries are also given staffs imbued with powerful magic, and each staff is activated with a wonderful little rhyme (as outlined in the 'Characters' section below). Everyone is generally quite chuffed with their new party piece, although all is not as simple as it seems, because in return for the excellent gifts, Merklynn expects the knights to carry out tasks for him, or face the penalty of not being able to recharge their power staffs in his magic pool.
The seven 'good' knights rewarded with Merklynn's magic find themselves in a spot of bother in the second episode, and on the spur of the moment form a brotherhood called the Spectral Knights, with the rather dandy catchphrase "May the light shine forever!" (say it in unison now...). All are loyal to New Valarak, and have a weakness for strangers in need.
The fearless leader, Leoric is given the totem of the Lion (never saw it coming...), and his armour is predominantly turquiose. Very heroic.
He carries the staff of Wisdom, represented by an owl who gives extremely cryptic clues as to how to foil the Darkling Lords, and is called into action by the following line:
"Whispered secrets of a shattered age, I summon you; renew this sage!"
Leoric has a whip, and a moustache too. Which of these is the more potent is undetermined.
Token 'big, strong, kind' guy, Cryotek's totem is the Bear and his armour is red with light blue bits. Has a bit of a thing for Galadria. His staff has the power of Strength, a great archer who fires huge magical arrows, and comes to life when these words are uttered:
"Three suns aligned, pour forth their light, and fill the archer's bow wih might!"
Well-educated and polite, but just as brave as everyone else, Arzon possesses the Eagle totem, and wears navy blue and purple, a much more subtle colour scheme than most. Knowledge is his staff's speciality, called upon by the following phrase:
"A whim, a thought, and more is sought; awake my mind, thy will be wrought!"
Already a close companion of Leoric's before the quest for the shrine, Feryl is a marvellous tracker and so can transform into a Wolf, and he sports a mustard yellow outfit. He is the youngest of the knights, and does doubt his usefulness as the series progresses. This may be something to do with the fact that he (along with three other knights) doesn't receive a power staff in the shrine. However, he is promised a hidden magical talent, and this soon manifests itself; he is able to infuse obsolete vehicles left over from the age of science with magic, and so pilot and control them. Another of the Spectral Knights also finds himself bearing this skill...
With a sense for danger, he earns the totem of the Fox. He was also a friend of Leoric before the first quest, and wears fairly conspicuous blue and white armour.
Never one to retreat, Witterquick displays an immense speed while making his way to the shrine, and so his is the Cheetah totem. His suit of armour comes in fetching red and grey, and this quick and impulsive knight retains the power of Light Speed in his staff:
"Sheathe these feet in the driving gale, make swift these legs; o'er land I sail!"
Rounding off the roster of heroes is the duty beautiful woman, who really didn't get the best deal in general. Name, um, 'heavily inspired' by The Lord of the Rings, not made into an action figure, and ended up with the totem of the Dolphin because she fell into a lake during the first quest and fought a giant octopus intelligently. She wasn't even given a power staff or the ability to control vehicles (although in the comics she had a magic healing shield doodah, but that's hardly the same). Hence, no poem, just the occasional flirting with Cryotek.
During the quest, Darkstorm comes across a few vaguely nasty people hanging from the ceiling, begging to be let down. Never one to miss an opportunity, he agrees to free them on the condition that they all swear loyalty to him. Later on, during a bit of a melee, Ectar refers to Darkstorm and his followers as 'Darkling Lords', which to be fair has a nice ring to it, so the name sticks.
Ruthlessly evil and untrustworthy, he is a fantastic bad guy and has the Mollusc totem, transmogrifying into a kind of giant spiny snail. He wears a suitably dark suit of murky green and indigo, and uses a staff with the terrifying power of Decay:
"By what creeps, what crawls, by what does not; let all that grows recede and rot!"
Nicely, he can reverse this process, in case his victim pledges their allegiance before they shrivel away completely :
"Power of rot, obscuring truth, what once was old return to youth"
It could be argued that facial hair is an essential part of a villain's portfolio, and though it's rarely seen in 80s animation, the Darkling Lords seem to have a limited supply of razors in the castle. Darkstorm has an exemplary baddie-beard, a style emulated by many of his cohorts.
Voiced by Peter 'Optimus' Cullen (but sounding more like Grimlock), Cindarr is the oldest of the main characters (yep, his beard is grey), and plays directly opposite Cryotek by being a brute with a Gorilla totem, albeit a slow, impressionable brute who likes small animals. He wears rusty red and dark grey, and wields the staff of Destruction, embodied by a magical giant who smashes things uncontrollably:
"By nature's hand, by craft, by art, what once was one now fly apart!"
With a voice provided by Chris Latta, Cravex IS Starscream transported back to the Dark Ages, complete with the desire to overthrow
Megatron Darkstorm, and an incredibly short temper. His totem is the fictional Phylot, a flying dragon apparently fairly common on Prysmos, and with his snazzy red and black armour Cravex is the natural adversary of Arzon, allowing aerial battles and countless hi-jinks. He has Wolverine hair, a lovely beard, and his staff holds the power of Fear:
"O, mist filled pits, dark, dank, unclear; touch all before me with frost-fingered fear!"
The first of Darkstorm's pre-magic minions, Reekon carries the Lizard totem, being stealthy and pretty lizardy. His brown and yellow armour is particularly eye-catching, and he uses his power to drive the Dagger Assault vehicle, which has an in-built 'magical dungeon' that the Darkling Lords use to steal the Spectral Knights' totems. Has a tidy brown beard.
'Snivelling' doesn't cover half of it. For "bootlicking above and beyond the call of duty" Mortdred is awarded the totem of the Beetle. He is Darkstorm's absolute servant to the point of being a willing slave, and dares not refuse his master's bidding, however ridiculous. He can pilot vehicles, keeps his facial hair in good order, and wears what can only be described as 'plum-pudding and sky blue' coloured armour.
For turning cowardice into a defensive art, Lexor gains the Armadillo totem. He wears a black and red suit that isn't as nice as Cravex's, and has a handy staff of Invulnerability that creates a temporary shield around himself and whomever he wishes to protect:
"The arrows turn, the swords repel; may nothing pierce this mortal shell!"
He rounds off the list of knights with beards, but six in one cartoon is a fair amount by anyone's standard, especially if you consider Leoric's 'tache and the ever-present wizard-beards.
Really just in there because of Galadria, she finds herself in a similar position; no special power, and only any use when there's swimming to be done. Having fallen into the pond with Galadria, she ended up with the Shark totem, and is actually pretty vicious, also being most fearless of the Darkling Lords when it comes to challenging Darkstorm's plans and leadership.
The show as a whole
Aside from Merklynn (who is fairly pivotal in that he is playing the Visionaries like pawns to accomplish his goals), there are simply not enough episodes to introduce any other recurring characters.
Over the span of a few short shows, however, the various knights are developed very well, with individual character traits being cemented and various relationships explored as far as the storylines permit.
Functional villagers and troubled peoples pop up now and again, but only to highlight the principles and balance of power between the two factions.
The series definitely sits in the upper tier of 80s animation, and the medieval setting facilitates the moving of the dialogue into a slightly more intellectual plane, but perhaps making it less penetrable and enjoyable for the young target audience. Nonetheless, there are a lot of good lines to enjoy.
Darkstorm: Somebody has found a shortcut... Mortdred, do something treacherous that I might put those knights behind me...
Darkstorm: Divide the booty?? What insolence! I am your lord and ruler; you swore loyalty to me! The spoils are mine, all mine!
Reekon: One moment- swearing loyalty is one thing; turning over all my money to you is quite another!
Darkstorm (unimpressed): Apologize now and I will not subject you to my wrath.
Cravex (furious): You coward! You expect to enrage me into doing your dirty work?? Well, you half succeeded; you enraged me! Greedy swine! What gives you the right to lay claim to the fruits of out labour?!
Certainly, the increased vocabulary used allows for a lot of classically villainous statements, as well as gallant posturing and extravagant banter.
The quality of the show extends throughout the whole run, with none of the colouring errors that plagued the early Transformers episodes, and only one instance of a character speaking with the wrong voice. The cast is varied and talented, the scripts remain snappy, and the human/animal battling provides a nice range of action. The title sequence in particular is a sight to behold, with slightly better drawing and shading than the episodes themselves, and the giant, glowing, magical incarnations provide a cracking spectacle, unlike any other.
Like most other children's cartoons at the time, Visionaries was made to promote its toy line, manufactured by Hasbro. It consisted of 8 separate action figures (Leoric, Cryotek, Arzon and Witterquick for the Spectral Knights, Darkstorm, Cindarr, Cravex and Lexor for the Darkling Lords) and 4 vehicles.
The figures were of the 3 3/4" pin-jointed elastic-band-waist type, much like the popular Action Force (G.I. Joe) figures, but the animal totems on the characters chestplates were represented by brilliant holograms. The motifs on the power staffs used two-image holograms which shifted as you tilted them back and forth.
The vehicles produced were like the ones heavily featured in the show: a Lancer Cycle with Ectar figure and the larger Capture Chariot with Feryl, and a Sky Claw vehicle with Mortdred and the larger Dagger Assault with Reekon. These also featured holograms on many surfaces, representing the magical weaponry and shielding.
Though all of the figures were knights, the shape and detailing of the armour is unique for each character, as were the facial moulds (beards included)
It is known that this first wave was to be followed up by a second line of 16 new figures and 6 new vehicles in 1988, with amazing names like 'Lazorslash' and 'Braxe'. The moulds were created and catalogue pictures made (see them at http://www.stratosmacca.com/visionaries/afigures/vcatalog1.jpg and http://www.stratosmacca.com/visionaries/afigures/vcatalog2.jpg), but, devastatingly, the first series was not successful enough, so both the show and toys were cancelled.
As much as it is a shame that more episodes were never made, and new toys were never released, it probably served to preserve the status of Visionaries as an excellent standalone mini-series. The quality of the show could never have been maintained, especially with nigh-on twenty new characters being thrust into the mix, and so it lives on as a fond memory rather than as a Hasbro cash cow that disintegrated under the weight of its own success.
For everyone in the UK or with multi-region players, there is an excellent 2-disc DVD containing all 13 episodes plus the original scripts, available from most DVD retailers
Mostly my own videos and memories, plus a little bit of help from