‘Exosquad’ Is the Best War Animation You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Easily the greatest animated series of the 1990s that doesn’t come from Japan
This story originally appeared on June 21, 2016.
A product of Universal Cartoon Studios, Exosquad stood apart from Western cartoons because its plot was a sophisticated combination of interplanetary space battles with conventional and guerrilla warfare on the ground.
Not to mention an encounter with alien technology, and most importantly, characters who mostly had bad haircuts and garish outfits but well realized personalities — plus they flew really awesome mecha known as E-frames.
Set in the 22nd century, Exosquad depicts a war between humans — always called “Terrans” — and Neo Sapiens, a race of blue-skinned, genetically engineered humanoids who mankind originally created as slaves to perform high risk labor during the colonization of Mars and Venus.
The war in Exosquad is actually the second time Neos are attempting — this time successfully — to overthrow human domination.
The first time the Neos rebelled half a century earlier, they were defeated largely because the Terrans possessed e-frames, short for “exoframes” — armed walkers controlled by the operator’s mind through a neural cable link which outfought the Neo Sapien rebels who only had small arms and conventionally operated vehicles and aircraft.
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While the Neos were emancipated from slavery and given self government of Mars as part of the peace settlement, their thirst for justice — or revenge— remained. Following a clandestine rearmament program, Neo Sapien governor Phaeton launches a surprise attack on Earth and Venus while the Terrans’ interstellar navy, the Exofleet, is away pursuing troublemaking Space Pirates.
The narrative focuses on Able Squad, a tight group of eight e-frame pilots headed by J.T. Marsh. Voiced by Robby Benson — who played the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — Marsh typifies the strict but compassionate commander who makes bringing his squad back alive his overriding aspiration.
His closest confidant in the squad is Marsala, one of the very few Neo Sapiens who fights for the Exofleet against his brethren. Notable characters outside of the squad’s circle include Sean Napier, a former cop turned resistance leader in Neo-occupied Phaeton City, formerly Chicago, the benevolent Exofleet supreme commander Admiral Winfield and his deputy, the aggressive but fantastically incompetent Captain Marcus.
Of the Neo Sapien antagonists, Governor Phaeton ostensibly seeks to avenge injustice inflicted on his people but his rule turns into a dictatorship of fear — eventually, he descends into madness while struggling against auto mutation syndrome, a horrifying disease which randomly liquefies Neo Sapien bodies into blue heaving puddles.
Exosquad’s intended audience was primary schoolchildren — it was tied in with a huge range of toy e-frames, star fighters and action figures produced by Playmates. However, unlike the majority of Western cartoons with self-contained single-story episodes, Exosquad was a continuous epic about the Terrans fighting to liberate their worlds from Neo Sapien occupation — which made it appealing to older viewers who knew about it.
Cunning tactics and deception are just as crucial to winning battles as brute force and firepower.
In the opening episodes, when the Space Pirate fleet is overmatched by the Exofleet in numbers and firepower, their leader Jonas Simbacca lures his enemies into an ambush in which anti-starship artillery platforms hidden in their moon bases around Saturn pick off the Exofleet warships.
Unable to effectively retaliate against such small targets with orbital bombardment, the Exofleet is forced to deploy e-frames and jump troops — the equivalent of Halo’s Orbital Drop Shock Troopers — onto the surface to eliminate them at close range.
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The Neo Sapien seizure of Venus and Mars is an overwhelming rout of the feeble Terran forces left behind while the Exofleet is away on its Space Pirate expedition. Human farming colonies are razed to the ground on Venus while famous real-life landmarks on Earth are set ablaze by rampaging Neo air and ground assaults.
In a darker aspect of the series, civilians are rounded up for concentration camps and used as slave labor. On Venus, the Neos confiscate livestock to starve any Terrans who have escaped internment. Various Terrans around Earth and Venus gradually form resistance cells to wage an insurgency against the Neos, starting with small arms before progressing to salvaged Exofleet e-frames or capturing Neo issued machines.
Morality and relationships in Exosquad were far more sophisticated than other animated action series in the West. In Masters of the Universe, He Man and his comrades were all heroic friends who rarely experienced internal conflicts while Skeletor’s minions were simplistic cackling henchmen. While we are meant to feel for the members of Able Squad and the Exofleet, the Terrans’ past creation of an intelligent species for slavery is a historical wrong that has resulted in disaster for them.
The good guys don’t always get along — inter-service rivalry within the Exofleet is portrayed in the season-two episode The Last Man, when jump troops express irritation at e-frame pilots who are seen as show-offs. The Resistance are resentful at being abandoned by the Exofleet and cooperate grudgingly when Able Squad infiltrates Neo occupied Earth and Venus.
Espionage features almost as much as epic space and ground shootouts. All of the factions have informants and saboteurs who work to the detriment of their comrades for personal gain, principle or because of coercion.
Universal Studios capture
On the Neo Sapien side, General Shiva is introduced as a ruthless overlord of occupied Earth but evolves as a loyal soldier who won’t betray his commander Phaeton when the Resistance capture him and offer amnesty if he defects. Thrax, a Neo ace pilot whose star fighter is painted red in a reference to Manfred von Richthofen, has many Terran kills to his name but grows tired of the loss of lives in war, choosing to spare Able Squad member Kaz Takagi rather than finish him off.
And lives are certainly snuffed out in this series in massive quantities. In G.I. Joe, vehicle crewmen always parachute or jump out safely from their doomed mounts in battle. Space and ground battles in Exosquad usually end up with dozens of extras being immolated when their e-frames, star fighters or ground vehicles detonate spectacularly under fire — the body count is even higher when fleets of starships are ruptured. Escape pods are rarely depicted.
Outside of the United States, Exosquad was shown in several countries including Argentina, Australia, Malaysia, Russia and Singapore. The first season of 13 episodes was sold on a seven-volume VHS set and Laser Disc in 1994. A Region 1 DVD and iTunes release followed in 2009 and 2015 respectively; Universal Studios have so far neglected to place the 39 episode second season on any media.
While Exosquad’s storyline, characters and the toy line were highly regarded by those who watched it, the series was doomed by the acquisition of T.V. networks by larger companies that preferred to fill the afternoon schedules with their own in-house cartoon products or cheap-to-produce talk shows.
In the pre-Internet age, Exosquad could not compensate for being relegated to 4:00 a.m. time slots since online T.V. catch up channels and fan pages which could have widened its audiences simply did not exist.
Mauled by the consequent drop in viewing figures, the show was unceremoniously axed in 1995 on a cliffhanger finale introducing an invasion of mysterious aliens from outside the solar system.