A cartoon can be cancelled for a variety of reasons. It could naturally run to the end of its lifespan, and the studio in charge is fine with keeping the show on only as reruns. It could be because the studio thinks the show’s not popular enough with viewers (however accurate that perception can be). Or it could just vanish into the ether, never officially cancelled but simply have production run out without being renewed, with no official reason given. SWAT Kats is not one of these shows.
In fact, it performed really well. It was the top syndicated show of 1994, was full of potential for action figures and toy vehicles, and its popularity has stayed at such a level that in 2015 a Kickstarter campaign to revive the cartoon met its target in a day. And Hanna-Barbera fully planned on continuing it, having renewed a second season with plans for a third, improving the animation while allowing the writers to take a different tone in the second season, and authorising a SNES game that released in 1995. Instead, the problem lay with Ted Turner. His company was the one who was producing and airing SWAT Kats, and he wasn’t happy with the amount of violence in the show, believing it would have a strong adverse effect on kids unlike the non-violent Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones. As such, merchandise was delayed, the show got cancelled, and three episodes never moved past pre-production in favour of a clip show ‘special news report’ on the SWAT Kats. As such, I’m writing this review with two questions in mind. Did the show deserve to be cancelled? And is it still good enough to warrant so much support for a follow up?
SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron is an action cartoon that aired between 1993 and 1995 for two seasons, one of thirteen episodes and another of ten and a clip show special. The show follows T-Bone and Razor, who were kicked out of the Enforcers (Megakat City’s paramilitary force) after an incident brought on by Commander Feral led to the destruction of the new Enforcer building. They were sent to work in a military junkyard until they’ve repaid what they’ve destroyed, where they use the scraps they’ve found to build a personal fighter jet. Taking on codenames, they become vigilantes, protecting the city from criminal masterminds, giant monsters, and other nefarious villains, all while causing copious amounts of property damage.
Starting off with the intro theme, it sets up the cartoon pretty well. It starts off with some giant monsters attacking the city alongside foreboding music as the Enforcers try and fail to stop them. Then the SWAT Kats get the alarm as an electric guitar kicks in, playing with all the radicalness the 90s could condense into 35 seconds, before coming in and quite handily saving the day. My main problem is that I believe it’s entirely recycled footage from the season, which is more a stylistic nitpick. This is partially fixed in season 2’s intro. While it does still use some recycled footage, it’s much less prominent with most of it being footage freshly created for the intro. It also does away with the foreboding intro and instead starts with the SWAT Kats getting the alarm, as well as gets rid of the cohesive story of our protagonists defeating the threat in favour of explicitly showing some of the recurring villains. I don’t think that’s bad, per say. I do prefer the original, but it is a matter of personal opinion. What is bad, though, is that while the intro music is great, I can never recall it or any particular melody from it. It’s all style with little substance, which is a good representation of the show overall.
For a show made for syndication, I feel that it has some decent slow burn at the beginning when it comes to revealing stuff about the main characters. This wasn’t fully intentional, with the first episode actually having been the third in production (it was brought forwards due to largely featuring dinosaur enemies and Jurassic Park being popular at this time), but it still works. The first episode has no backstory whatsoever. There’s a villain, the deputy mayor contacts the SWAT Kats to come help because she knows the Enforcers can’t do crap, they save the day with their jet and a variety of missiles. Pure SWAT Kats, nothing more, nothing less. The second episode has them reveal their secret identities as cats working in a junkyard without any respect, and simply leaves it at that until the third episode, where we’re actually told why they’re there, why they have their skills, why they’re doing what they do. But as good as I think the build up was, the way they handle exposition is very much in the same way all Saturday morning cartoons seem to. That is, with a clumsy segue, they say everything they want the viewer to know with little regard of how much sense it makes or how awkward it sounds.
With the exception of having lucked out with the opening episodes, this cartoon handles impactful plot elements very poorly. But, in my opinion, the cartoon knows this, and it doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. In every episode, they set up the threat for a good five minutes at least, they bring in the SWAT Kats, and they struggle but ultimately succeed in taking them down. While they have a general order of things, nothing ever has a lasting effect, with the only instance of such taking place in one of the unfinished episodes. It’s your standard affair for a syndicated show, and it had a short enough run that, thanks to some variety through the episodes, it doesn’t get stale to watch. This does, unfortunately, also come at the cost of many characters being pretty flat in terms of personalities, though the SWAT Kats and Commander Feral do get moments which show glimpses of a complex character. But what does strike me is that, as soon as the villain’s defeated, they very quickly cut to the end credits. Half the time, they barely have 10 seconds before this happens. Is this a bad thing? No, it actually suits a show like this to build up to the action, and as soon as that’s done to go away before kids get bored or some pesky plot comes in. But it does mean that, in today’s age where you have access to shows with both excellent action and plot, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s hard to come up with a genuine reason as to why to pick up this show.
Concerning the action itself, I can say that it doesn’t get stale over the show’s run. This is largely due to the sheer amount of missiles the Turbokat flies around with, allowing them to fight the monster of the week with bolas, buzzsaws, blinding flashes of light, and if all those fails just plain old explosive missiles. And while they’re often fighting giant monsters, they do always require some different tactic, and sometimes it’s a different type of opponent such as someone in a jet or a floating air base which prevents people from being able to fly near it. Is it too violent, though? Well, that’s always subjective, but I can say that Ted Turner does seem to have a point. While weapons did shoot what look like lasers, at times they are called and can be seen as actual bullets, there’s no instance of seriously attempting to talk down an enemy, and if capturing is too difficult the SWAT Kats are completely ok with straight up killing their foe. One early episode opening has a character practically killed on-screen. Is it stuff that kids can’t handle? No. Is it stuff that would’ve “Encouraged kids to kill each other” as Ted claimed? No. But is it something that shouldn’t be on the channel of someone talking to the US congress about reducing violence in kids media? Yes.
Oddly enough, season 2 doesn’t have quite the body count of season 1, either civilian or villainous, and bullets are taken out for consistent lasers. However, it does take on a much darker tone to the first. Most of the episodes had darker concepts, such as being trapped in an alternate universe with evil SWAT Kats and one of the SWAT Kats’ missions resulting in civilian casualties. They got rid of some of the more kiddish sections, such as T-Bone constantly watching a ‘Scaredy Cat’ cartoon that doesn’t fit in with the show to begin with. And the animation isn’t just improved, but it also used a darker colour pallet to reflect the changes. However, along with the improved animation, it also became notably…anime. In some parts, this is minor, such as the villain splashes in the opening song feeling like something out of an anime opening from the period. In others, it’s notable but doesn’t affect much overall, such as the deputy mayor gaining larger eyes and having much more anime-y expressions and mannerisms. In others, though, it feels completely against the feel of the show. This is most prominent in Commander Feral’s introduced niece, Felina, and one of the season’s villains, Turmoil. In the first season, everyone was distinctly cat-like. This is most obvious with the SWAT Kats themselves, though practically any male from the cast will show you what characters look like. The deputy mayor and news reporter, the two recurring females from the first season, are more human but still notably cats. But then come these two, who look just like a catgirl from any given anime. They have a black nose and cat ears, but that’s practically it. They’re human in all other regards. It doesn’t matter much in the long run, it doesn’t affect the plot or really my enjoyment of the show, but it still goes completely against everything that was established in the first season.
SWAT Kats is a fun show, and while there’s nothing exceptional about it, there’s certainly very little bad. But in today’s age where you can easily watch shows with as good if not better combat, usually alongside a better story with more in-depth characters if that’s your thing, I struggle to come up with a reason to watch this show in particular. I happily recommend it if you’re interested, but don’t feel obliged if it hasn’t already caught your interest.