The third act in the play that is Lion-O's Anointment Trials, "The Trial of Cunning" sees Lion-O competing against the Thunderkittens, Wilykat and Wilykit, in a battle of wits that tests a unique facet of Lion-O's personality, his cunning and ability to outsmart opponents rather than using physical prowess such as strength, speed or combat skill. As such, this episode effectively complements the other four parts of this "mini-series".
Although it is a debateable point, arguably this episode is the least interesting of the five Anointment Trials episodes. "The Trial of Strength" benefited from being the first part, containing much interesting exposition as well as soul-searching from Lion-O, and "The Trial of Speed" benefited from the unique challenge of Lion-O having to beat Cheetara in a race - equally, in the case of the two Trials episodes that follow this one, "The Trial of Mind Power" reveals a unique and rarely seen ability of Tygra's, putting Lion-O through several psychological hurdles, and "The Trial of Evil" features the exciting premise of Lion-O facing off against Mumm-Ra unarmed, whilst at the same time giving us an in-depth look at the interior of Mumm-Ra's pyramid. To be truthful, this episode features none of those elements, and as such there is a slight sense of going through the motions with this tale - as per the previous Trial episode, this one basically involves Lion-O and his ThunderCat opponent (or, in this case, opponents) trying to best each other whilst the Mutants provide a distracting backdrop and an additional sense of danger.
Despite these shortcomings, however, this episode offers an enjoyable insight into the relationship between Lion-O and the Thunderkittens. Although not blatantly displayed, for the most part the interaction between Lion-O and the 'Kittens seen in this episode is the interaction of equals rather than that of an elder and two kids, and this subtle piece of writing actually makes a big difference to this episode. Something that is often forgotten throughout the course of the series is that Lion-O and the Thunderkittens were roughly the same age prior to the ThunderCats' arrival on Third Earth, and it is only Lion-O's accelerated aging that created any sort of age difference. Whilst Lion-O does mature faster than the Thunderkittens as the series wears on (largely through necessity), nonetheless it's not difficult to imagine the Thunderkittens not looking up to Lion-O as an "elder" in perhaps the way they otherwise might, because in Lion-O they would see a former playmate, someone who was their age and size not so long ago. Again, some episodes choose to completely overlook this, but it is interesting to note that more than one of Leonard Starr's scripts (another notable example being "The Tower of Traps") subtly display and explore the unique relationship between Lion-O and the Thunderkittens.
This episode is also a great showcase for Wilykit and Wilykat themselves. Whilst the Thunderkittens are often present in the ThunderCats' battles with their enemies, often they are shown more as irritants to their foes rather than as a genuine force to be reckoned with, yet this episode allows them to properly display just what an effective weapon cunning and quick-thinking can be. Whilst some later episodes would show the Thunderkittens as being somewhat immature, this episode instead shows them as smart and enthusiastic young ThunderCats, focussed and more than capable of handling themselves. Only at the very end of the episode, where the Thunderkittens fall foul of a giant snake and find themselves on the brink of a molten doom, do they revert slightly to type, yet even this is done in a way that does not automatically discredit their competence. Setting the episode's events in a maze is actually another clever move, as this is the perfect location to show off Wilykat and Wilykit's talents and personalities.
Arguably the other most interesting element of this episode is the introduction of the mysterious and anonymous race of creatures generally referred to by fans as the "Underearth People". These creatures initially look like evil beings, seeking to enslave Lion-O, but in fact they are merely bitter at the cruel treatment that was meted out to them by those on Third Earth who "feared their books", driving them underground and thus robbing them of their vision, the most essential component for reading the books that are the storehouse of their knowledge. This backstory is interesting in several ways because of the mysterious origins of the beings in question - no explanation is ever given as to why their books were feared or who drove them underground. One possible explanation is that, in the early post-apocalyptic days of Second or Third Earth, these creatures and their books were feared because their knowledge was considered to give them power over other, more primitive, races on the planet, and thus were persecuted out of fear that their knowledge could lead them to becoming the dominant species on Third Earth. Another possibility is that their books contain something altogether more sinister than knowledge, perhaps spells for working dark magic or other such forbidden secrets - however, this theory is debunked somewhat by the brave, noble and fair-minded actions of the Underearth People in their rescue of Lion-O and the Thunderkittens, risking further damage to their eyes in the process. It is a shame that the origins and backstory of these creatures were not explored in greater detail, if only in a later episode, as their story could have leant itself to an interesting tale about wisdom, books, and persecution.
Whilst "The Trial of Cunning"serves more as an appetizer rather than the main course when compared to the episodes that follow it, nonetheless these elements mark it out as an enjoyable story with some great character moments and a variety of interesting and exciting scenes, and as such it is still one of the stronger episodes of ThunderCats' season 1.
Written by Chris (He-Fan)