Western Animation / Spiral Zone


Aboriginal Leader: The world has been destroyed before, and will be again.
Dirk Courage: Not if I can help it.
—from "Back to the Stone Age"

A syndicated 65-Episode Cartoon from 1987, based on Tonka Toys' Americanization of a Japanese action figure line by Bandai. Spiral Zone has an unusually dark storyline for an 80s Merchandise-Driven action cartoon, complete with nods to the After the End and Zombie Apocalypse genres.

Exty Years from Now (specifically, the far-flung future of 2007), a Diabolical Mastermind code-named Overlord covers much of the planet with his Spiral Zone, a dense, fog-like atmosphere which envelops about half the Earth in a spiral pattern. Inside the Zone, any unprotected person becomes a yellow-eyed, disfigured "Zoner" with no free will. Overlord and his enforcers, a motley crew of hardened criminals called the Black Widows, effectively control the minds of millions of Zoners, and they won't stop until they've enslaved the entire world.

The heroes of this bleak future are the Zone Riders, an elite team of "Earth's most powerful soldiers" led by Colonel Dirk Courage. The Zone Riders are sent on dangerous missions around the world to engage Overlord and the Black Widows in battle, destroy their existing Zone Generators (thus automatically freeing every Zoner in the vicinity), and prevent them from conquering any more territory. However, both sides are waging a desperate war of attrition, with no end in sight.

Most notable nowadays for having a theme song that freakin' kicks.

"Earth's most powerful tropers fight the Spiral Zone!":

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The show still looks like this, even though its setting is now in the recent past.
  • 65-Episode Cartoon
  • Action Figure File Card: The American toys had them in the form of small pamphlets packaged with the figures.
  • The Ahnold: "Tank" Schmidt of the Zone Riders is an Expy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • All There in the Manual: Parts of Overlord's past and Freudian Excuse are only revealed in the Comic-Book Adaptation.
  • Animation Bump: By AKOM of all companies as per Word of God (aka Peter DeCelles)
  • Animesque: A borderline example, because the show originated with the Americanized version of a Japanese action figure line.
  • Apocalypse Day Planner: 22 June 2007, the day the Spiral Zone was created—which makes the series Alternate History.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The Zone Riders and the Black Widows use differing methods to protect themselves from the Spiral Zone's Mind Control effect.
  • Assimilation Plot: Overlord's high concept behind the Spiral Zone.
  • A-Team Firing: Partially justified since the Zoners (the zombies produced by the Zone Generators) are mainly civilians armed with military-grade weapons by the Black Widows, who regard them as Cannon Fodder.
    • Occasionally Zoners who are trained combatants appear, usually displaying competent fighting abilities. Particularly, in "The Best Fighting Men in the World", Overlord zones a Green Berets base, forcing the Zone Riders to fight on his own terms.
  • Audio Play: Each American action figure came with an audio cassette that had a story featuring that particular character. And yes, the tapes used the voice actors from the TV series.
  • Awesome Aussie: Ned Tucker of the Zone Riders.
  • "Awesome McCool" Name: The main character went by the name of Dirk Courage, which is seriously Rated M for Manly.
  • Bad Future: By now, it's Alternate History.
  • Badass Bookworm/Nerd Action Hero: Ben Davis of the Zone Riders.
  • Catch-Phrase: Two: Dirk Courage's "Zone Riders, hit it!" and Overlord's "Black Widows, withdraw!", much to his consternation.
  • Chicago: The home of Max Jones of the Zone Riders, and setting of "Zone with Big Shoulders".
  • Clip Show: Five of them.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: It was published by DC Comics while the show was still in production.
  • Company Cross References: In one episode, Tank gives a hospitalized girl a Pound Puppies doll. At the time, both the Spiral Zone and Pound Puppies toy lines were made by Tonka.
  • Cool Bike: The Zone Rider, a One-Wheeled Wonder motorcycle used by the Zone Riders.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: One of the Black Widows is captured but appears to be organizing his fellow inmates. The Zone Riders plan to send someone undercover to learn what he's up to, and Katarina volunteers. Dirk appreciates her enthusiasm but has to gently explain to her that American prisons aren't coed.
  • Darker and Edgier: This show wasn't afraid to be scary. A couple episodes mentioned that some people would rather enter the zone and lose their free will rather than starve or some such.
  • Dragon Lady: The titular gangster in "Lair of the Jade Scorpion".
  • EMP: The Black Widows use one to disable the Zone Riders' equipment in "Back to the Stone Age."
    • Rock Beats Laser: The Zone Riders still save the day, thanks to a group of Australian aborigines who teach them how to use primitive weaponry. However, they ended up doing so with a fresh allotment of working weapons and vehicles.
  • Emperor Scientist: Overlord.
  • Especially Zoidberg: Used in "Small Packages".
  • Evil Brit: Duchess Dire.
  • Expository Theme Tune: The series begins In Medias Res with no proper introduction to the setting, so the entire premise is laid out in the show's theme song; the terrorist attack which resulted in the creation of the titular "Spiral Zone" and led to the events of the cartoon isn't depicted until 54 episodes into the series, shortly before the end.
  • Exty Years from Now
  • Famous Ancestor: According to a character bio from the DC comic, "Recent evidence of family genealogy reveals that [Dirk] Courage is directly descended from Tecumseh, the renowned Indian leader and battle tactician."
  • Fog of Doom: The Spiral Zone itself.
  • French Jerk: Crook of the Black Widows.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Dr. Lawrence, the British inventor who provides the Zone Riders' equipment.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: It's the early 21st century, but the Soviet Union still exists. However, they're working with the Western powers in an Enemy Mine setup to destroy the Spiral Zone.
  • Helicopter Pack: The Zone Riders' Kopterpack.
  • Hot Scientist: Katerina Anastasia of the Zone Riders.
  • Humble Hero: In the Clip Show episode "Profiles in Courage", a reporter tries to get each of the Zone Riders to describe his/her own heroism. Instead, they praise their teammates and the brave civilians who have helped them out. Lampshaded when the frustrated reporter asks Dirk "Don't you people ever talk about yourselves?"; Dirk responds with a Little "No", then takes off his mic and walks out of the room to go back on duty.
  • It's Personal: Two of the Zone Riders, Max and Tank, have family trapped in the Zone. Also, several episodes feature friends and relatives of both the Zone Riders and the Black Widows getting caught up in the conflict.
  • J. Michael Straczynski: He wrote the pilot episode, "Mission Into Evil", then left the show after a dispute with the producers. "Mission Into Evil" was credited to the pseudonym "Fettes Gray".
  • Knife Nut: Razorback of the Black Widows.
  • Land Down Under: The Australian outback is the setting of "Back to the Stone Age", and homeland of Ned Tucker of the Zone Riders.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: Promotional material strongly implies that the Black Widow "Bandit" is actually notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal. In 1987, Carlos was believed to be a criminal mastermind; when he was finally arrested in 1994, he turned out to be just a poser.
  • Limited Animation: The majority of the series falls into this. Largely due to poor outsourcing.
  • Master of Disguise: Bandit of the Black Widows.
  • Merchandise-Driven
  • Mind Control: The entire premise of the series.
  • Mirrored Confrontation Shot: On the cover of the DC comic's fourth issue. Later reused for the unofficial DVD box set shown above.
  • Monowheel Mayhem: The Zone Riders' "Rimfire" (usually piloted by Colonel Dirk Courage), a monowheel with a BFG on top.
  • Multinational Team: Both the Zone Riders and the Black Widows.
  • My Greatest Failure: Tank deeply regrets losing his son to the Zone.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Ben Davis' full name is Benjamin Franklin Davis.
  • Never Say "Die": Resulted in dialogue such as Reaper exclaiming that the Zone Riders are "as good as done for!"
  • New York City: The Black Widows' headquarters are in the Chrysler Building.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Because he lost his son Josef when the Zone went up, Tank has a hard time leaving children behind if he can help it.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Once a Zoner is removed from the Spiral Zone, s/he quickly returns to normal with no lasting effects. The worst they seem to get is needing to be hospitalized for a couple of days.
  • Non-Lethal Warfare: A Justified Trope because the Zone Riders don't want to hurt the victimized Zoners, and the Black Widows need Life Energy to power their Zone Generators.
  • One-Word Title: "Breakout", "Behemoth", "Seachase", "Oversight" and "Countdown".
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The Zoners are essentially mindless zombie slaves at the service of Overlord and his Black Widows.
  • Philadelphia: Setting of "Overlord's Mystery Woman".
  • Plaguemaster: Overlord is a high-tech variation of this trope.
  • Power at a Price: The Black Widows' "Widow Maker" device immunizes them from the Spiral Zone's Mind Control effect—at the cost of leaving them hideously disfigured.
  • Power Pincers: The Black Widows' Snapper Claws backpack has them.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: While the Black Widows are serious villains, it's amusing to watch them continually insult and betray each other as they curry Overlord's favor.
  • St. Louis: Setting of "Island in the Zone".
  • Sixth Ranger: Ned Tucker and Ben Davis for the Zone Riders, Crook and Rawmeat for the Black Widows.
  • The Smurfette Principle: The Zone Riders and the Black Widows have one female member each. Naturally, the heroic Zone Rider, Katerina Anastasia, is a Russian hottie (with a science degree to boot) because Beauty Equals Goodness. Meanwhile, evil Black Widow Duchess Dire is grotesquely disfigured by a patch of red chitinous carapace covering half her skull (and sports an ominous "zoner" yellow eye as well), although her male teammates are equally ugly.
  • Spiders Are Scary: Presumably why the villains call themselves the Black Widows.
  • The Squad: The Zone Riders.
  • Synthetic Plague: What the Spiral Zone boils down to.
  • There Are No Global Consequences: Oh, there are. Aside from the obvious, in one episode it's a big deal when it's mentioned they might be able to get a baseball league going again with four whole teams.
  • Two-Faced: All the Black Widows have their faces partially deformed by The Plague, but Duchess Dire is probably the most classic example.
  • Unobtainium: Neutron-90, the rare material that the Zone Riders' uniforms are made from; it protects the soldiers from the Spiral Zone's Mind Control effect.
  • Villain Exclusivity Clause: Overlord trying to Take Over the World.
  • Villain Protagonist: The show occasionally attempts to depict Overlord as a sympathetic villain who only wants to rule the world so he can bring peace and order to it, but he's such a horrible villain that this isn't pulled off very well.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Colonel Conrad in "Zone of Darkness".
  • You Can't Make an Omelette...: Ned uses this exact phrase in "Oversight".