The Mask of Gorgon
Written by Romeo Muller
PUMYRA and BEN-GALI are aboard the ThunderStrike when suddenly, LYNX-O takes control of the ship. Aboard the ThunderClaw, PANTHRO and LION-O pursue the ThunderStrike and catching up to it, LION-O boards, takes control, and returns it safely to the ground. PUMYRA and BEN-GALI inform LION-O that the previous night, LYNX-O received information through his Braille Board which may be causing him to act so strangely: MA-MUTT uncovered the Book of Norvog-Noszh, the only existing history of Third Earth, and delivered it to MUMM-RA. The book depicts an historic tale of the Mask of Gorgon and the Hills of Elfshima. MUMM-RA calls upon TUG-MUG and CHILLA to steal the Mask of Gorgon form the WARRIOR MAIDENS’ Treetop Kingdom, where it is embedded and guarded in a tree’s bark. Upon stealing the Mask, they mistakenly look into its eyes—they are turned to stone. WILLA informs the ThunderCats of the Mask’s theft stressing that it must be returned to its tree back home and must not be allowed to face the Hills of Elfshima. Inviting LION-O to recapture the Mask from his pyramid, MUMM-RA tricks LION-O, PANTHRO and WILLA by transforming into NAYDA. The Mask turns the three of them to stone and MUMM-RA steals the Sword of Omens. As the Mask looks through the Sword’s eyepieces towards the Hills of Elfshima, the historic tale comes to fruition—the range of hills is brought to life in the form of a reclining giant—THE CHILDE OF GORGON. Flying in the ThunderStruke, BEN-GALI and LYNX-O maneuver the ship through the giant’s ear canal and blast the inner ear with laser canons. Losing its equilibrium, the giant’s fall causes the Mask to crash to the ground and shatter. Order is restored to Third Earth.
Mumm-Ra seeks the Mask of Gorgon whose secrets he learns from the Book of Norvog Noszh. It has the power to turn flesh into stone and he seeks to use it for evil purposes. Lynx-O, who has called into a spell caused by the intimations of the catastrophes made possible by the powers of the Mask, tries to warn Lion-O and cautions him against impetuosity. Lion-O does not listen, acting in a fit of anger and overconfident of his abilities, and is turned to stone. With the captured Sword of Omens, the Mask has the power to turn stone to flesh, and Mumm-Ra bids it awaken the sleeping giant of the Hills of Elfshima, the Childe of Gorgon. But Lynx-O, calling on his ancient wisdom, attacks the monster in its vulnerable part, its inner ear. It falls, creates an earthquake which shakes Mumm-Ra’s pyramid, breaks the Mask, and vanquishes its magic. The Childe of Gorgon becomes a range of Hills once more and all that was turned to stone by the Mask’s powers becomes flesh again.
When acting in a fit of anger, Lion-O endangered himself and all of Third Earth. He did not heed Lynx-O’s warnings or bother learning all he could about what he was about to encounter, and consider if his anger could be channeled constructively. We, too, when angry, by not taking time to cool down and consider the consequences of active in a fit of temper, often make matters worse when we act. Uncontrolled anger is not effective in accomplishing a goal. Only when we channel our anger constructively is it effective. In playing a game, if we become angry and lose control we risk playing poorly being thrown out of the game. But if we play with extra effort we are more effective players. When disputes occur among friends, often the best way of expressing anger and resolving the conflict is putting feelings into words. As Panthro says, there’s nothing heroic about losing your temper.
There were fourteen ThunderCats writers who each only penned a single episode, but none of them possessed the vast and venerable experience of Romeo Muller, writer of the standout “The Mask of Gorgon”. A Rankin/Bass veteran and team member since the 1960s, Muller is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of the studio’s holiday specials: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and so many others. The cheery, sentimental nature of these stories is at odds with the high-stakes villains-versus-heroes adventures of ThunderCats, and it’s this dissonance that others from the ThunderCats production crew—Lee Danacher and Peter Lawrence—attribute to Muller’s departure after only one Third Earth foray. But it’s not so simple as that.
More impressive among Muller’s writing credits than Christmastime stop-motion are a host of fantasy epics. He wrote the screenplays for the Rankin/Bass versions of The Hobbit, The Return of the King, The Wind in the Willows and Return to Oz, admirable adaptations all; and his original script for The Flight of Dragons shows deep reverence for and understanding of the fantasy genre. This is a man who knew what he was doing, and so characterizing him as too gentle to take on sword-and-sorcery adventures seems inaccurate. What seems more likely is that the 22-minute form was just not in his milieu, and the accelerated pacing required to tell an effective high-stakes adventure left less room for cheerful moralizing and fell outside his comfort zone.
You’d never know it. The Mask of Gorgon is a sweeping fantasy adventure, featuring some of the most impressive pacing and suspense of any episode in the series, and woven deftly with a decent moral. It begins in medias res with the ThunderStrike hurtling out of control on its Cats’ Lair approach for what Snarf suggests is the second time. BenGali and Pumyra do manage to escape the ThunderStrike, and the other Cats rush down to meet them in the Lair courtyard. The sense of urgency is very real: BenGali and Pumyra jump the closing gap of the Lair drawbridge, and they interrupt each other as they explain Lynx-O’s crazed state. Demonstrating impressive leadership and clear-headedness, Lion-O quickly formulates a plan, and they’re off to bring Lynx-O back to solid ground.
This could be considered a sign of growth on Lion-O’s part—the rescue mission is effective, after all. But it’s also extremely risky and ill-considered, and Muller is smart enough to use Lion-O’s confidence and quick decision-making as the basis for a lesson in over-confidence and impetuosity. After a quieted Lynx-O has conveyed bits of what he learned about the eponymous Mask and the Book of Norvog Noszh, Lion-O uses Sight Beyond Sight to learn more and is goaded by Mumm-Ra into a confrontation at the Pyramid. Lynx-O issues another, more specific warning: that the Mask’s terrible power will be somehow amplified by the Eye of Thundera. But Lion-O ignores these worrisome and perfectly cogent words of caution. Angered out of foolish pride and encouraged by a characteristically action-oriented Panthro, Lion-O plays directly into Mumm-Ra’s trap.
We also join Mumm-Ra in medias res. Already in his ever-living form, he skims the giant pages of the Norvog Noszh, summing up the book’s off-camera unearthing in one mammoth sentence. What could have been dull exposition (but for Earle Hammond’s spectacular delivery) is over quickly—with a shout of “Enough!”, Mumm-Ra gets down to business. He summons Tug-Mug and Chilla, and they instantly bust through a nearby wall! Chilla even pokes fun at the speed with which things are moving along: “Why this urgency, Mumm-Ra?” Because we only have 22 minutes, Chilla!
This sequence in the Pyramid, along with several others, features some standout bits of art direction and animation. As Mumm-Ra demands that the Lunataks bring him the Mask, his billowing cape obscures a camera movement: we start on a head-on medium shot and end on a gorgeous medium closeup in profile. Later, after the Mask has turned the ThunderCats to stone, Mumm-Ra grabs the Sword of Omens by the blade and jiggles it out of Lion-O’s grasp—a shot that’s both well-drawn and revealing of Mumm-Ra’s undeniable badassery. The shots of Evil Beyond Evil are especially fantastic: the Mask’s eyes peering through the Sword’s crossbars, Mumm-Ra holding the Sword aloft, the fiery blasts changing color and rocketing toward Elfshima.
Then there are the little touches: the mind’s-eye reflection of the Norvog Noszh in Lion-O’s literal eye; Lion-O’s hair whipping in the wind, and his mouth moving ever so slightly behind the Sword of Omens, as he tries to get Lynx-O to open the ThunderStrike cockpit; a momentary reflection of Pumyra’s face in the Sword’s blade; a beautiful nighttime background of the Tower of Omens with the lights on upstairs; the creepy worming of the Mask’s prehensile hair; the evil spirits of the Norvog Noszh exiting the Pyramid in a spiraling plume; Mumm-Ra with hair; a momentary transition with a hidden Cat symbol; and the final view of the Pyramid’s interior, framed by the maw of the sarcophagus chamber and lit by licking flames.
But “The Mask of Gorgon”‘s animation is hardly its highlight. Rather, the star here is Muller, whose script spins mythological tropes (the Greek myth of Medusa, Lovecraftian madness, grimoires, pure-hearted woodland guardians) into a wholly new story and maintains an air of mystery by withholding just enough information to make the final reveal immensely satisfying. Not even the Warrior Maidens who guard the Mask know its history, nor why it must face westward. But as Mumm-Ra’s plan falls into place, the tension builds to the big reveal. He opens a dedicated passageway in the Pyramid that looks out toward Elfshima. He drops a hint that the hills might be more than just hills, and then we flash to Lynx-O to reveal the rest. Not a range of hills, but a petrified giant. Not a little child, but a gigantic Childe. Not a silly name, but an anagram. It’s the perfect climax, full of the same urgency as earlier, but with the high stakes suddenly clarified.
The role the Sword of Omens plays in Mumm-Ra’s plan does raise questions. The Sword cannot be used for evil deeds, and yet the Eye’s powers of Sight Beyond Sight are somehow connected to the Mask of Gorgon. Rather than a contradiction, I find that this adds a sense of historicity to the world of the show: the Norvog Noszh, an ancient book, makes reference to a relationship between the Eye and the Mask, and the Sword has no power to resist. That’s fascinating! This ancient relationship is reinforced when you consider that the Eye issued no warnings during the whole of the episode, and even lost its vision of the Norvog Noszh when Lion-O did call upon Sight Beyond Sight. The result is a story that cannot depend on the Sword of Omens to save the day—a rare and laudable occurrence—and, more tremendous, in which the Eye of Thundera cannot be trusted. Thank you, Romeo Muller, for being the only ThunderCats writer creative enough to eschew the Crutch of Omens and devote the Eye to a unexpectedly twisted purpose.
1 ^ Chrichton, David. Hear the Roar. Denbighshire: Telos Publishing, 2011. 320.
2 ^ The Flight of Dragons is technically an adaptation, since it’s based loosely on both Peter Dickinson’s faux natural history of dragons and Gordon R. Dickson’s Dragon Knight series. But the world of the story—the four wizard brothers and their specialized natures, the conflict between magic and science—that’s all Muller.
3 ^ This is the sole example of someone speaking to Lion-O directly via Sight Beyond Sight, and it implies that, at least to Mumm-Ra, the extra-dimensional gaze of the Eye of Thundera is palpable.
4 ^ Panthro is also culpable during the episode’s most suspenseful moment. When Willa catches Mumm-Ra in his Nayda disguise, but doesn’t know enough about Mumm-Ra’s penchant for disguises to fully recognize the trap, Panthro blatantly disregards her! Footnote sidenote: Not since Gregory Gregian has Mumm-Ra assumed a disguise without our knowledge. The effect of its subtle reveal here to us (and no one else) is perfectly disturbing.
5 ^ Unusual, though not without precedent: “Mumm-Rana”, “Ravage Island”
6 ^ There are, in fact, some big animation mistakes. The Norvog Noszh is constantly appearing and disappearing from one scene to the next, the ThunderTank drives westward when Elfshima (and the Pyramid by extension) lies to the east, and Willa and Nayda swap voices in the coda.
Written by Zack (thezaxfactor)
|The ThunderStrike pods are capable of controlling the entire vehicle, but the central controls in the main cockpit can override them.|
|Panthro notes that Lynx-O is “a grand old warrior who has fought every form of evil,” indicating that his youth on Thundera was not entirely peaceful, and perhaps that he was even a known figure.|
|Like Hachiman in “Hachiman’s Honor” and Snowman in “The Mad Bubbler”, The Warrior Maidens don’t recognize the Lunataks, even though Chilla professes a familiarity with “that pack of muscle-bound brunhildes.”|
|The Mask appears to be sentient, laughing along with Mumm-Ra at one point (and making a charming metallic rattling sound). This begs the question, who was Gorgon, and how did her Mask take on a life of its own?|
|Shots and sequences from this episode—Mumm-Ra’s “Bring it to me now!” cape shot, Bengali recounting Lynx-O’s “babbling”, and two shots of Evil Beyond Evil—were featured in numerous Cartoon Network promos in the early 2000s.|
|The Childe is huge—two, maybe even three miles in height. He brushes storm clouds from his face while seated, the ThunderStrike fits in his ear canal with room to spare, and his collapse causes a local earthquake!|