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Western Animation / Spiral Zone

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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"

Spiral Zone is a syndicated 65-Episode Cartoon from 1987 by the Kushner-Locke Groupnote , based on Tonka Toys' Americanization of a Japanese action figure line by Bandai. It 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 Publication (specifically, the far-flung future of 2007), a Mad Scientist/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 (which automatically frees 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.

Also notable for having a theme song that freakin' kicks.

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

  • 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 via series director Peter DeCelles.
  • Animesque: A borderline example, because the show originated with the Americanized version of a Japanese action figure line. Along with most of the episodes being animated by Japanese studio Visual 80.
  • Apocalypse Day Planner: 22 June 2007, the day the Spiral Zone was created — which means the series has become 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.
  • Bad Future: By now, it's Alternate History.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Besides the Black Widows controlling half the planet, there are episodes such as "Duchess' Treat", in which Duchess Dire pretends to surrender to the British government. Surprise! It's just an Evil Plan that allows her to turn 500,000 British soldiers into Zoners.
  • Badass Bookworm: Ben Davis of the Zone Riders.
  • Big Good: General Steven McFarland, the Zone Riders' Benevolent Boss.
  • Catchphrase: Two: Dirk Courage's "Zone Riders, hit it!" and Overlord's "Black Widows, withdraw!", much to his consternation.
  • Character in the Logo: It features Dirk Courage firing his futuristic weapon.
  • Chicago: The home of Max Jones of the Zone Riders, and setting of "Zone with Big Shoulders".
  • Clip Show: Five of them over a 65 episode run.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: It was published by DC Comics while the show was still in production. It was also the only medium to show Overlord's origin.
  • Company Cross References: In one episode, Tank gives a hospitalized girl a Pound Puppies plushie. 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.
  • Cool Chair: The Black Widows' Sledgehammer vehicle combines this with Cool Tank, since it's effectively a weaponized throne on tank treads.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: Razorback 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."
  • Emperor Scientist: Overlord, formerly Dr. James Bent, used to be a NASA engineer before his Faceā€“Heel Turn.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: In "Overlord's Mystery Woman", we learn that Overlord still has a (one-sided) thing for his ex-wife, which goes into unsavory territory when he attempts to Zone her.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: The Black Widows' method of keeping themselves from being zombified means developing patches of red chitin on their skin, discolored yellow eyes and in some cases hair loss.
  • Exty Years from Publication: As noted above, the show is set exactly 20 years after it was released.
  • Failed Future Forecast: 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.
  • 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."
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Dr. Lawrence, the British inventor who provides the Zone Riders' equipment.
  • Helicopter Pack: The Zone Riders' Kopterpack.
  • Heroes "R" Us: The Zone Riders and Mission Command Central, the organization they work for.
  • 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.
  • Impossibly-Compact Folding: A towering Zone Generator is produced from a pod about the size of a horse-drawn cart.
  • I Know You Know I Know: In one episode, Dirk assumes that a brainwashed member of the Zone Riders has given information about their plans to Overlord, so he changes plans...but Overlord knows what Dirk has assumed and that Dirk must have changed his plans.
  • 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.
  • 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. In various episodes, he poses as both the guy who runs the PX at Zone Rider headquarters and the President of the United States.
  • Merchandise-Driven: As noted, the franchise originated as a Japanese toy line by Bandai. Tonka (who had already worked with Bandai on Challenge of the GoBots) brought the concept to America, albeit with several changes.
  • 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 vehicle (usually piloted by Colonel Dirk Courage), consisting of a giant wheel that the rider sits inside with a BFG on top.
  • Multinational Team: Both of the major factions.
    • The Zone Riders: Dirk Courage, Max Jones and Ben Davis are American, Katerina Anastacia is Russian, Hiro Taka is Japanese, Tank Schmidt is German, and Ned Tucker is Australian.
    • The Black Widows: Overlord, Razorback, Reaper and Rawmeat are American, Duchess Dire is an Evil Brit, Crook is a French Jerk, and Bandit is from an unspecified country in The Middle East.
  • 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": Results 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 Ending: As was typical of many 80s action cartoons, the 65 episode order never wrapped up the ongoing plot so it could potentially keep running as long as it was profitable, with the final produced episode "Countdown" being another "thwart Overlord's newest scheme" plot.
    • The DC comic expansion did give an ending where Dick and Tank were able to infiltrate the Chrysler Tower and destroy the controls for the Zone Generators through the Americas. However, Overlord suggests that he'll be back since 50% of the world is under Black Widow control.
  • 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 Zoners are freed, either through the destruction of a Zone Generator or by being physically removed from the Spiral Zone, they quickly return 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 Technically Living Zombie slaves at the service of Overlord and his Black Widows, although they can still perform complex tasks. Promotional material explicitly states that Zoned humans follow the commands of anyone with a stronger will, which includes not just the Black Widows but the Zone Riders as well, as they are able command Zoned humans to get to safety during a cave-in.
  • Philadelphia: Setting of "Overlord's Mystery Woman".
  • Plaguemaster: Overlord is a high-tech variation of this trope, intending to take over the world via the Spiral Zone's mind control effect.
  • Power at a Price: The Black Widows' "Widow Maker" device immunizes them from the Spiral Zone's Mind Control effect — but it leaves them hideously disfigured, in a variation of Evil Makes You Ugly.
  • Power Pincers: The Black Widows' Snapper Claws backpack has them.
  • Psycho Knife Nut: Razorback of the Black Widows. He's an aggressive loudmouth whose specialty is bladed weapons.
  • 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.
  • Resistance Is Futile: The Title Sequence begins with Overlord looking directly at the audience and saying "Surrender, or pay the consequences!"
  • Rock Beats Laser: After the EMP attack in "Back to the Stone Age", the Zone Riders still save the day even after the Black Widows disable all their equipment, thanks to a group of Australian aborigines who teach them how to use primitive weaponry. However, they end up doing so with a fresh allotment of working weapons and vehicles.
  • Ship Tease: In the first episode. Katerina and Dirk talk about how after the Spiral Zone is no longer a threat they'll have time for "other things". There are a few hints in other episodes as well.
  • 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 characters were added to the cast roughly midway through the series and were planned as action figures for the canceled second year of the toy line.
  • 65-Episode Cartoon: As was typical of cartoons of the time. 65 episodes were produced over a single season, and after that, nothing more.
  • 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.
  • Synthetic Plague: What the Spiral Zone boils down to, as it was created by Mad Scientist Overlord.
  • 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.
  • Tron Lines: They cover the scenery in the simulated battle zone in "Holographic Zone Battle".
  • 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. The extremely limited amount of material is why the Zone Riders are such a small group.