Yesterday, we waded through a lot of painful memories talking about the awful (and mercifully forgotten) Wing Commander movie.
So let's make amends today, and cheer everybody up by talking about the awesome Wing Commander cartoon series instead.
A few years before the movie, and right about the time the game franchise was coming off its peak in popularity, Electronic Arts (who by now owned developers Origin) and Universal's animation branch began work on an animated series based on the characters and ships of Wing Commander. This series was called Wing Commander Academy.
Unlike the movie, series creator Chris Roberts had little involvement in the project. And unlike the movie, this meant the final product was amazing.
Academy serves as a prequel to the events of the game series, and introduces us to its main protagonists - like Blair (Mark Hamill in the later games) and Maniac (played by Back to the Future's Tom Wilson) - as they go through pilot training and meet the alien Kilrathi in battle for the first time. Along the way they run into other important, recurring characters in the Wing Commander universe like Admiral Tolwyn, who was played by Malcolm McDowell in later games.
What seperates the TV series from the movie is that it's a labour of love. The people involved in writing and illustrating for Academy were massive Wing Commander fans, which ensured the show remained incredibly faithful to the game series in almost every way.
See, it's faithful. That's a Scimitar.
How? For starters, the show looks just like the later games (Wing Commander III and onwards). While the appearance of some of the main characters is a little different, perhaps because of the stylised animation trends of the time, almost everything else looks just like it does in the games. The uniforms, the ships (including Wing Commander I and II's Tiger's Claw), the fighters (which are lifted straight out of the games), everything is as it should be.
Better still is the fan service provided in the battle sequences, the animators often including favourite fighters from older Wing Commander games (like Scimitars and Broadswords) as a tip of the hat for long-serving fans of the franchise.
Also helping keep the spirit of the games alive is the way many of the later game's actors reprise their roles in Academy. This means Blair is voiced by Mark Hamill himself, Tom Wilson is back as Maniac and even Malcolm McDowell could be convinced to lend his amazing voice to an animated Commodore Tolwyn.
Those were all big pluses for existing Wing Commander fans, but what really made this show shine (at least relative to the fact it was pitched at children) were its storylines. It would have been easy to either pound out repetitive story arcs or just copy material from the games, but Academy honestly tries to paint itself as a canonical prequel to the games, and for the most part succeeds.
Those interested, you can view pretty much the entire series online, which is a must if you dig the games (or great 90's animation, or Mark Hamill's voice-over work, as he does multiple characters).
As an interesting aside, Wing Commander News has a copy of the TV show's original "bible", outlining the characters, races, worlds and events of the show. Unlike the final product, which ended up a prequel to the entire franchise, it seems Academy was originally intended as a bridge between Wing Commanders II & III, as it lists characters like Hobbes, Flint and Rachel who only appear later in the series.
Sadly, despite its stellar cast, great writing and faithful adherence to what made the games so great, Wing Commander Academy just couldn't find a way into the hearts of the kids of the 90's. It lasted thirteen episodes between September and December 1996, but once episode 13 was up was never seen nor heard from again.
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