Friday, September 10, 2010

Weekend Extra : Showtime Synergy!

This was going to be my Throwback Thursday this week, but I finished it and I'm so excited by it, I wanted to go ahead and post it. This is SO overdue! I present to you, the glamorous, gorgeous... TRULY OUTRAGEOUS...

Launched in 1985 as a joint venture between toy manufacturer Hasbro and animation studio Sunbow, the same team behind smash hits like GI Joe and Transformers, the Jem TV show chronicled the thrilling rise of up-and-coming rockers Jem & The Holograms and their struggles on the road to fame. What no one suspected was that lead singer Jem was actually the group's manager and head of their music label Starlight Music, Jerrica Benton. Standing in their way was Jerrica's seedy business rival Eric Raymond......who had his own female group to promote, the bad girls known as The Misfits!
The cartoon served as the major licensing push for Hasbro's doll line.

No one had ever really been able to challenge the reigning queen of fashion dolls, Mattel's Barbie, but Hasbro gave it their best shot. They made Jem dolls slightly larger than Barbie with more poseable joints. And unlike the more "normal" Barbie, Hasbro looked to the over-the-top world of rock music for inspiration, coming off of the disco and punk era, during the rise of telegenic music video stars like Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Madonna! These weren't your Mama's fashion dolls! In fact, at one point in development, a deal was struck to cross-promote Jem on MTV. Nothing came of this, with the exception of a doll-sized MTV jacket that was offered as a mail-in premium.Each Jem doll featured crazy colored hair and flashy trashy rock fashions, and included a cassette featuring songs from the TV show and a vibrant airbrush-style poster!The dolls were all glitter and flash (and substance!), but it was the show that hooked viewers. Jem was given a modest roll out, included as a segment on an anthology show along with a cartoon based on a motorized, building toy called Robotics and another based on... no seriously... monster trucks, Bigfoot & The Muscle Machines. But Jem broke away from the pack and Hasbro quickly gave her her own show, often airing alongside their established boy-centric hits. The story followed the adventures of Jem, secretly Jerrica Benton and her sister Kimber.
Their parents were Emmet Benton, a scientist in the field of holography and Jacqui, a singer/songwriter. After getting married and having children, the Bentons established Starlight Music, a record company so that Jacqui could return to her career and the Starlight Foundation a charity that would allow them to take in foster girls. Jacqui herself had grown up in the foster care system and wanted to give back. The first two girls they took in were Aja Leith and Shana Elmsford. In addition, they would take in 12 younger girls, however, only a handful would impact the Jem story line.

After their parents' deaths, the girls inherit both Starlight Music and the Starlight Foundation. However, half of Starlight Music went to Emmet's greedy business partner Eric. After clashing, Eric and Jerrica decide to hold a Battle of the Bands to decide who will gain full control of the company. Eric's representatives will be The Misfits.
It is then that Jerrica, Kimber, Aja and Shana learn that Emmet, in the years prior to his death, built a miraculously powerful super computer named Synergy, which could project fully realistic audio and visual holograms through a pair of "microprojectors," star-shaped earrings for Jerrica!
The level-headed, responsible Jerrica uses Synergy to become Jem, a care-free, fun-loving rocker!The girls don't realize it, and it isn't revealed until close to the end of the series, but Emmet programmed Synergy with Jacqui's voice and likeness, although being a computer, she doesn't have Jacqui's personality.Kimber is the most emotional of the Holograms, often brash and impetuous, but also loving and sensitive. She is the group's most musically proficient member and their chief songwriter. While she can play other instruments, she mainly plays keyboards for the group. On the cartoon, she plays a standard keyboard, but the doll includes a hand-held keytar. Aja is strong willed and can be pushy. She is the "tom boy" of the group and the most mechanically inclined. Whenever their car, The Rockin' Roadster or Synergy needs repair, it is she that steps up. She's also a fitness nut and keeps the girls in shape by conducting aerobics classes. (In production, Aja at one point, was named Jade.)Shana is the most quiet and introverted of the Holograms. She is very maternal and takes the lead in raising the younger Starlight Girls. In the early episodes, Shana begins dating movie director Anthony Julian and theirs is depicted as the most stable relationship on the show. She is also the resident fashionista, designing their dazzling stage costumes! In the first season, Shana is depicted as the group's drummer, however the doll always included a bass guitar. In the second season, a new drummer, Raya was added and Shana took up the bass, bringing her inline with the doll. (During production, at one point, Shana was named Aria.)Pizzazz leads The Misfits, The Holograms' rivals. Pizzazz is a spoiled bad girl. Her mother left her at a young age and her wealthy, workaholic father simply buys her everything she wants to keep her out of his hair. Once Jem upstages her, it's WAR! She uses her Daddy's money to buy her own record company Misfits Music and makes it her goal to steal Jem's thunder at every turn.Roxy is Pizzazz's right hand. A tough gal from the streets of Philadelphia. In a very special episode, it is revealed that she is illiterate. (During production, Roxy, at one point, was named Rue.)
Stormer is the "nice" Misfit. In an early episode, she disguises herself in order to clear Jem's name when she is accused of robbery. She is insecure and sensitive and feels that being a Misfit empowers her, when in reality, she is simply Pizzazz and Roxy's flunky. Like Kimber, she is the most musically proficient in her group and writes most of their songs. On the show, she is usually depicted playing a keytar, but she also plays the guitar, which is what the doll includes.
In one memorable fan-favorite episode, Kimber and Stormer get fed up with not feeling valued by their respective bands and quit, winding up working together as a duo. Kimber realizes that Jerrica and the others always have her best interest at heart, and returns to the group. The Misfits realize how much Stormer contributes and beg her to come back, which she does... but refuses to be bullied anymore.
Poor Rio is Jerrica's longtime boyfriend, who gets swept up into the whirlwind of Jem & The Holograms, acting as their producer and tour manager. However, in all the craziness, no one bothered telling Rio that Jem and Jerrica were one and the same, so he constantly finds himself being torn between two women... that are really one!
The behind-the-scenes development of Jem is crazier than their onscreen escapades! Originally, the line was pitched to Hasbro as a BOY'S action line, following the adventures of a group of male rockers with a holographic computer! At some point, it was rebranded as a female doll line, however initially Jem was to have fronted an all-male Holograms! Jem was originally named M. That's it, just M! This would have also maintained the tie to MTV, however Hasbro couldn't copyright one letter, so she became Jem. During the M phase, Jerrica's name was supposed to have been Misty, then Morgan. Perplexed fans always wondered why the Kimber doll's keytar had that M at the end of the handle. Now we knew! After the switch from M to Jem, they never bothered to correct it!
On the show, of course, Jem wins the Battle of the Bands and Jerrica took full-control of Starlight Music from Eric Raymond, who then assumed leadership at Misfits Music. As part of the winning package, Jem & The Holograms win a movie contract. While working on the movie, they become friends with Vivian "Video" Montgomery, an aspiring filmmaker. Video becomes the Holograms go-to video director and received her own doll in the line.

On the flip side, The Misfits meet their biggest fan, a trouble maker named Clash! As luck would have it, she is Video's cousin and a mistress of disguise! She uses her skills to sneak onto the sets of Jem's movies, videos and photo shoots to sabotage them! And of course, she also received a doll in the line!

A second "helper" for The Misfits was proposed, a graffiti artist named Graphix who would also design the band's tee shirts and such. This character has attained fabled status, since no drawings were ever done, nor was a prototype constructed. Nevertheless, industrious fans have made custom Graphix dolls, based on descriptions of her.
On another very special two-part episode, Jem & The Holograms befriend a talented dancer named... Danse. Danse works at Haven House, a shelter for runaway teens and wouldn't you know it? Three of Jem's Starlight Girls runaway in that very story! Danse, with her rainbow locks was a natural for the toy line!

When Jem went from being part of an anthology to its own series, the production values increased dramatically. Example, check out this early video "Like A Dream":

Compared to a later video from Season One, "Time Is Running Out":

The Jem tv show was a hit, with both boys and girls. The producers and writers had crafted the show to appeal to males by including lots of action and drama, as well as sophisticated character interaction, so that boys wouldn't change the channel after Transformers went off! The doll line... not so much.
One problem was that even though girls liked Jem, they weren't passionate about it. It wasn't the phenomenon that Hasbro was banking on. Parents and grandparents knew and had grown up with Barbie. That was the brand they were comfortable with. With her New Wave punky look, the Jem dolls were off-putting to older buyers. Some even called The Misfits "Devil Dolls!" Then there was the fact that Jem was too big to interact with Barbie or wear her clothes. It's also been argued that Jem was too much like an action figure line, with distinct characters with specific personalities, whereas Barbie has always been a blank slate upon which a girl can project her own identity.

And it certainly didn't help that Mattel decided then to make Barbie a rock star as well!
At nearly the exact moment that Jem hit store shelves, Barbie arrived with her band, "The Rockers."
Barbie & The Rockers were flashy and cool... but slightly toned down from Jem's neon over-the-top looks.
Mattel even animated Barbie for the first time, in an hour-long Barbie & The Rockers TV special, produced by animation studio DIC. The wacky storyline had the band going into outer space to perform a concert in a pink space station that converted from a giant microphone to a giant flower, before traveling backward in time to the 1950s! No really!
Nevertheless, Jem was successful enough that an animated theatrical movie was in the works. Unfortunately, after the theatrical releases of Transformers and My Little Pony bombed, Hasbro scrapped any further plans. The already completed GI Joe movie aired on tv and was released on VHS, but Jem wasn't that far into development. The storyline would have found the Holograms working on their movie, but with Jerrica increasingly becoming jealous of the attention showered upon her Jem persona, to the point that she quits! A new Hologram, a percussionist named Pepper, is found via a talent competition to fill in as the group continues without Jem. Added to the mix would be a set of brother and sister twins named The Mongrels. (Yuck!) The pair would develop and advanced synthesizer, like an evil version of Synergy, named Entropy that would mesmerize the twins and their listeners, quickly making them the biggest musical act in the world. The climax of the film would involve a concert at a conference where Entropy would use The Mongrel's music to enslave the world's leaders! Jem & The Holograms and The Misfits would have to join forces and do musical battle-- backed by Synergy going all out!-- to defeat The Mongrels and Entropy! In the end, a young deaf girl, who appears earlier in the film as a friend of the Starlight Girls, holds the key to victory. After seeing some of the killer animated sequences in Transformers and GI Joe, I know the Jem movie would have been mind-blowing! It's too bad it never happened.
Many elements from the film made their way into the series eventually. The group filmed their movie in the three-part "Star Bright" episodes. In the final episode of Season One, Jerrica has seemingly retired her identity as Jem and The Misfits have taken over as the top act in music. It isn't until a vital contest that Jem returns, sporting her new "Glitter 'N Gold" look.

In reality, Glitter 'N Gold Jem was a deluxe doll that headlined the collection's second year.

In the second year, Hasbro attempted to address some complaints about the earlier Jem doll. Some felt she looked unfriendly, so she was given a wider, open-mouth smile. The Glitter 'N Gold Jem doll was even more poseable than the original with arms that could fold and legs that could cross.
Hasbro created more new dolls, which meant new characters for the show. Second-year dolls Danse, Video and Clash had already been introduced on TV but a new full-time Hologram and Misfit didn't make their animated debut until the second season. The Holograms were joined by Raya, a Mexican-American drummer, originally conceived of as Pepper for the aborted Jem movie, also named Tympani at one point in development. Raya was shy and insecure, but Jem & The Holograms taught her to believe in herself. Literally.

The ethnic dolls are the rarest in the Jem line. The Raya doll reused Pizzazz's head mold and apparently, Hasbro was unhappy with the result, so fewer Raya dolls were produced than others. It's too bad, because with her eye catching hair and outfit, she really looks stunning! (And a lot more appealing than either Danse or Video, I must say!)

On the show, Shana temporarily leaves the Holograms to design costumes for a TV movie, so they hold a contest to find a new drummer. The contestants are narrowed down to Raya and hunky, blue-haired stud, Craig Phillips, who begins dating Aja. Secretly, however, it turns out that Craig is Stormer's brother and Eric and The Misfits attempt to use him to discover Jem's secret identity. (Something that Raya accidentally discovers after auditioning.) Rumor has it, that Hasbro planned to have viewers vote on whether they wanted Craig or Raya as the new Hologram.
After the Jem doll line ended, leftover dolls were slapped together and sold at bargain retailers as "Super Stars." These dolls mixed and matched parts from various dolls, resulting in things like African American Shana heads on Caucasian bodies. The face paint on these is sloppy and inconsistent with the real Jem line and the costume pieces are mixed and matched. However, the strangest discovery is the above male head with blue hair... attached to a female body! There have been several of these found feeding speculation that these were intended to be Craig Phillips doll heads! These are clearly in the Jem scale and are NOT Rio heads, so the logic is there. A great unsolved mystery of the Jem line!

On the flip side, Craig isn't a very exciting name and on the show, he always wore the same outfit, khakis and a purple polo shirt. Maybe there were plans to make him a bit more flashy that were scrapped after Hasbro decided simply to make Raya the new Hologram? Who knows?
As for The Misfits, originally, head writer/story editor, Christy Marx wanted to add a black member, but Hasbro balked at making a black person a villain! They offered her the alternative, "But she can be British!" Ha! So, a British Misfit was born, Jetta. Originally conceived of as a bass player, Jetta became a saxophonist at some point. It may sound like an odd choice, but watching 80s videos on Youtube, it's surprising how many bands really did have sax players back then! Jetta's colorful persona is that she's from a lower class neighborhood in London, but pretends to be an aristocrat around gullible Americans. She is more of a schemer than the thuggish Roxy, which brings them to blows frequently. But she impresses Pizzazz, so she's in!

Alas, despite the high quality of the dolls and the cartoon's successful ratings, the doll line struggled and after Hasbro presented the third year line to retailers and didn't receive enough orders, they canceled the collection. The show had already gone into production on its third season and had incorporated the dolls that would have been introduced in the third year as characters on the show.
Shana would gain something of a protoge in cocky, but talented, young designer Regine Cesare.
And The Holograms' stage productions would be enhanced by magician/illusionist Astral.

But the biggest news, would be a whole new rock band to rival both Jem & The Holograms and The Misfits... The Stingers!
This enigmatic new group roared into town and became an instant sensation!

Handsome lead singer Riot was designed by Christy Marx as a mix of "Jim Morrison, Elvis and Prince." (I would add a healthy dash of Look What The Cat Dragged In era Poison!) His charm and charisma is almost supernatural, enticing women (and some men) to do things they normally wouldn't, such as convincing Eric to give him HALF of Misfits Music (renamed Stinger Sound)! Riot sets his eyes on Jem and she finds herself struggling to resist his charms, but is suspicious when she DOESN'T feel the same charm emanating from him when she is in her Jerrica identity.

And poor Pizzazz goes from being the tough Queen Bee to a love-sick puppy, so desperate to win Riot's affections, she becomes a pawn, doing everything that Riot's band mates Minx and Rapture tell her to, even drinking a concoction including raw liver! Speaking of...
Further complicating the love... errr... pentagon... hexagon... let's see, Jem, Jerrica, Rio, Riot, Pizzazz... add Minx to the list as she sets her sights on Rio. The fact that he says no, only makes her want him more! This German seductress always seems to get what she wants! She's also something of an electronics whiz. She builds her own synthesizers and befriends The Misfits' techno geek inventor Techrat. In the Jem Bible (the series guidelines), Christy mentions that she builds a synthesizer named Entropy, which may have led to a storyline development like that planned for the Jem movie!
Rapture is the third member of The Stingers. Professed to be psychic, she uses her acting ability and fake trinkets and crystals to trick people out of their money. In one episode, she claims to channel the spirit of Harry Houdini and it's up to Jem & The Holograms and their new friend Astral to reveal the truth. Had the series progressed, Rapture and Astral's rivalry would have continued to play out.
These images from Habro's 1988 toy catalog for retailers is the only glimpse of what might have come, had the series continued.
As the Jem line struggled, Hasbro tried many things to spark interest including making more ordinary looking teen dolls based on The Starlight Girls, Jerrica's foster girls on the show. They bore little resemblance to the show characters and failed to appeal to anyone, either casual doll buyers who continued to stick with Barbie or fans of the flashy and glitzy Jem line. Interestingly enough, after scrapping the Jem line, Hasbro again attempted an ordinary teen line, Maxie.
This line was in Barbie scale and allegedly, Maxie's boyfriend Rob's head is a re-use of the aborted Riot doll's. It was later reused in the 12" GI Joe line.
Jem may not have lasted long, but the impact it had is indelible. Jem doesn't just evoke nostalgia, she invokes PASSION! Her fans aren't casual, they LOVE her, to this day! Many say that Jem inspired them to pursue music or art or animation. Many share stories of recording the catchy pop songs directly off their TV onto homemade cassettes! (Including me!) And as adults, have spent hours and ma$$ive amounts of cash scrambling to collect the stunning dolls, fashions, accessories and other Jem items. (I still occasionally take my Jem lunch box to work!)
On a personal note, not to bring the room down, but I don't think I'd have made it through middle school without Jem. Those were ROUGH years. Let's face it, I was poor. I couldn't afford cool clothes. I was weird... both in personality and looks. People made fun of me EVERY day. It SUCKED!!! I was the outcast of all outcasts at my school. If I didn't have Jem to look forward to everyday at 4:30, I don't know how I would have made it! For those thirty minutes, I had a close-knit group of fabulous friends. I could be glamorous, glittery, fashionable and famous! Jem had a song called, "She Makes An Impression."

Did she EVER! Show's over, Synergy!


  1. Great job covering Jem's history! I couldn't agree with you more about the show. It was everything a gay boy needed! Many say that the show never "jumped the shark" it started out with the same format each episode but as the series went on it just got better and better. With character development that you never expect from a cartoon show, tenderness in some episodes, action and creative video fantasies. I spent many days drawing Jem in art class. She was a needed escape from reality and yes, watching the show now is like a visit from an old friend. Thanks Jason for posting.

  2. Thank YOU for reading and commenting! You're definitely right. Jem NEVER jumped the shark! It got better and better! The last season was fantastic and sadly is the one season not available on DVD. I'm still holding out hope that it'll be released EVENTUALLY!

    PS to anyone, I slightly remixed this post. I took out the "We Can Change It" video with poor audio and replaced it with "Time Is Running Out" and added the animated "Glitter 'N Gold" video.

  3. I loved this post! I've read it twice! I totally loved Barbie and the Rockers too, and I remember that t.v. special when they go back in time - because there was also a doll line released for the 50s Rockers! I used to make my mom take me to the toy store just so I could stare at them.

  4. That was a pleasant stroll down memory lane, nice article! I was always a bigger fan of the show than the dolls. I actually bought myself one (Jetta) and got so many lowering of the eyes looks fro everyone when I got her home. She lived behind my headboard and would come out for serious hair brushing and redressing with the door shut, lol. Now I just do Jem fanart to satisfy the passion when it arises :)