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On Smurf Turf: Remembering the Snorks

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In 1958, Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, who went by the name Peyo, illustrated a comic in the magazine Spirou that featured a diminutive supporting character with blue skin that assisted the hero Johan in his quest for a magic flute. Johan was soon overshadowed, with readers demanding more of the curious sidekick and his friends. By 1959, Culliford had a strip focused exclusively on Les Schtroumpfs, or The Smurfs. A little over two decades later, his creation became an international sensation with Hanna-Barbera’s animated series. Debuting in 1981, it ran for nine seasons.

Like any children’s commodity, it wasn’t long before similar works began to spring up. In the case of The Smurfs, both Hanna-Barbera and producer Freddy Monnickendam decided that if anyone was going to emulate their success, it might as well be them. Accordingly, Snorks—essentially the story of underwater-dwelling Smurfs with breathing tubes—premiered on NBC on September 15, 1984.

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Snorks may be the best-remembered of The Smurfs knock-offs, but they were hardly the first. The fall 1981 season also brought Trollkins, a bizarre hybrid that existed somewhere between The Dukes of Hazzard and The Smurfs, about a society of tiny creatures imperiled by outside forces; an adaptation of the video game Pac-Man, airing in 1982, picked up on this narrative thread, with Pac-Land under duress. So did Monchhichis, about tree-dwelling monkeys threatened by the Glumpkins.

Each of these stories revolved around pint-sized creatures who wished to live in peace, while larger, belligerent persecutors attempted to exploit or destroy their existence—a framework used to great success with Smurf village and its problems with the human villain Gargamel.

By virtue of being more crassly imitative, Snorks was something different. Like The Smurfs, the characters enjoyed using their own noun to season their speech, “snorking around” their undersea kingdom or commenting on “totally snorky” incidents. While they came in different colors, their body type was generally the same: bulbous.

Brought to Hanna-Barbera by Smurfs production house SEPP International, producer Freddy Monnickendam, and his collaborator Nic Broca, the Snorks had an unusually elaborate backstory. According to their lore: In 1643, a ship was overtaken by pirates and began to capsize, though the captain managed to save himself from drowning by finding an air pocket. As he struggled to stay afloat, he took notice of a tiny sea kingdom in the water that appeared filled with humanoids, but with odd features—including a snorkel protruding from their heads. When he got back to dry land, he implored people to believe his story; the Snorks, in turn, told their descendants about the giant they had once encountered.

The Snorks series appears to be set in contemporary times. In the series, Snorkland occupants Allstar Seaworthy and Casey Kelp eat kelp burgers, use sand dollars for currency, ride seahorses for transport, and try to avoid the wrath of Governor Wetworth, a salty saltwater politician. Tooter Shellby, the Urkel of the ensemble, could only communicate via sound effects, which often sounded like he was operating a whoopie cushion.

Critics, who usually had nothing but contempt for the Saturday morning lineup of the 1980s, didn’t expend much venom on Snorks. Writing for the Tallahassee Democrat, Ellen Klein noted that the snorkel-spouting creations did an admirable job of educating preschoolers on the benefits of cooperation.

“The Snorks don’t drive fast cars or get involved in cosmic battles between good and evil,” Klein wrote. “The cartoons are non-violent and non-sexist, and simple enough for a toddler to understand.” The series itself was “not brilliant,” but “inoffensive.”

On the heels of such high praise, Snorks stuck around for a total of 65 episodes, airing on NBC and in syndication from 1984 until 1988.

Despite Monnickendam’s involvement with both the Snorks and The Smurfs, the obvious crossover event never materialized. The closest Hanna-Barbera ever came was a 1984 Saturday morning preview special titled Laugh Busters, which featured a number of their established and debuting animated series. While both groups of little people were featured, they didn’t share any scenes together. Viewers did, however, get a consolation prize: Mr. T met Alvin and the Chipmunks.

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The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
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On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

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August 1996: A Game of Thrones Debuts

George R.R. Martin spent a decade in television before realizing he wanted nothing more to do with it. The fantasy author, who had won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards for his fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s, had grown tired of having budgetary restrictions limit the scope of his work. And if there was money, there was little time: As a staff writer and producer for the CBS series Beauty and the Beast, Martin knew he had 46 minutes to tell a cogent story. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Calling it a “reaction” to his 10 years in TV, in 1991 Martin began to sketch out a series of fantasy novels that would feature hundreds of characters, sprawling scope, and no network ceiling. When the 704-page A Game of Thrones hit shelves on August 1, 1996, it received positive notices and respectable sales, but there was little hint of the hysteria that would follow. 

Born in 1948, Martin attended Northwestern University and pursued degrees in journalism. At 21, he sold his first piece of fiction to the anthology magazine Galaxy; a novel, Dying of the Light, followed in 1977. His fantasy was wide in scope, but had elements of the mundane to ground his stories. Other writers, Martin once observed, embraced the bigger tropes but didn’t "have the dogs in the halls of the castles scrapping under the table.” Martin preferred a lived-in approach.

In 1985, Martin was engaged as a staff writer for the CBS revival of The Twilight Zone and got his first taste of the compromises of television. Adapting a Roger Zelazny story titled “The Last Defender of Camelot,” Martin had scripted a faithful recreation of the climax where a swordsman is fighting against an enchanted, empty suit of armor near Stonehenge.

“Then the line producer calls me in and says, you can have Stonehenge or you can have horses, but you cannot have horses and Stonehenge,” Martin told TIME in 2011, “because there is no Stonehenge around here and we’re going to have to build that out of papier-mâché on the sound stage. And if we bring horses there, when they start galloping around, the rocks will shake and fall down.”

The practical demands of TV eventually wore on Martin’s nerves—even worse was the fact that he could toil on a project and then not even see it produced. On the development deals following his work on Beauty and the Beast, Martin told January magazine that “nothing ever got made … It was one of the things that ultimately frustrated me and drove me back to books.”

In 1991, Martin was beginning work on an unrelated science-fiction title, Avalon, when an idea popped into his head: dire wolf puppies in a summer snow. An entire chapter followed, and Martin was soon working on the book every spare moment he could. In 1993, he wrote a letter to his agent updating him on what he was now calling A Game of Thrones:

“The enmity between the great houses of Lannister and Stark [will play] out in a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder, and revenge, with the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the ultimate prize … a second and greater threat … where the Dothraki horselords mass their barbarian hordes for a great invasion of the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fierce and beautiful Daenerys Stormborn … where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn.”

At the time, Martin thought a trilogy would be sufficient to tell his story, which is how the project was shopped. Of the four publishers interested, Bantam Books made the best offer, assigning editor Anne Groell to the series. Groell, who had seen some of Martin’s work while it was in circulation, found that even non-fantasy fans working at the publishing house were talking about it. A Game of Thrones seemed like a sure thing. And if it wasn't, Martin figured it wouldn't take much time to complete. "I ought to finish ... by 1998," he told an Omni Visions chat room in 1996.

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While sales were respectable for Bantam’s first printing—known by collectors for its silver-foil cover—A Game of Thrones was not a commercial hit. When Martin showed up for book signings, some stores would be virtually empty. At one Dallas location, Martin perked up when he saw hundreds of people lining up. But he soon realized they were after a new title in the Clifford, the Big Red Dog series.

Readers and independent booksellers continued to pass around copies to friends, and those friends handed them over to others in a kind of literary proselytizing. As Martin added to the saga—three books became five, then a plan for seven—the audience grew. By 2011, more than 15 million copies of A Song of Ice and Fire, the blanket name for the series, had been sold. For the 20th anniversary, Martin announced on his blog that a special illustrated edition would be released October 18.

In 2000, Martin was asked if the reason he returned to books—the spotty predictability of film and television—might one day lead him back by offering to adapt Thrones. “I have had some interest in the book, yes,” he answered. “I don't know if anything is going to come of it.”

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