Part of a pursuit weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage’s history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Every Alaskan knows that movies and TV shows about Alaska tend to stretch the truth. Some of these productions, like “Togo” or “Molly of Denali”, strive for realistic representation. Others, like “30 Days of Night” or “Balto”, have different priorities. Picking the worst movie or show set in Alaska is an exercise in opinion. Yet the 1985 episode of GI Joe’s “The Great Alaskan Land Rush” might be the least accurate portrayal of Alaskan history in the media. For a cartoon whose most memorable line was “knowledge is half the battle,” there’s nothing to learn here.
A brief overview of the GI Joe concept might be in order for those who didn’t grow up in the 1980s or have no fondness for mediocre action movies. Although GI Joe started with a line of 12-inch action figures in 1963, the property didn’t really become part of the American psyche until the 1980s when it renamed GI Joe: A Real American Hero, including figures smaller and a cartoon. The GI Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon debuted in 1982 as animated commercials promoting the eponymous toy line. Thanks in part to ongoing federal deregulation promoted by President Ronald Reagan’s administration, including the easing of restrictions on advertising targeting children, GI Joe was elevated to miniseries in 1983 and 1984, followed by of an ongoing broadcast from 1985.
The show itself features two opposing military organizations. The Joes themselves are the good guys, an elite force whose members come from all branches of the United States Armed Forces. It’s a hodgepodge team where everyone has a different specialty and wears a different uniform. Their nemesis is Cobra, a terrorist organization bent on world domination.
In the middle episode, Cobra tries to take over the world via a largely incomprehensible scheme, like a hypnotizing metal band, fundraising telethon, or carving their leader’s face on the moon. The Joes run towards them shouting, “Yo, Joe! Cobra runs towards the Joes shouting “Cobra!” They all fire a bunch of lasers, Cobra is defeated, and everyone goes home, usually without any injuries on either side.
“The Great Alaskan Land Rush” first aired on December 3, 1985. The name refers to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, the various Alaskan gold rushes, or both. The action opens with, of all things, a Cobra assault on a convoy of historical artifacts that includes original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. However, the Cobra forces ignore these documents and manage to escape with their target, something called the “Seward dossier”.
According to the record, whoever possesses the “Great Seal of Alaska” possesses Alaska. A seal is either the representative emblem or the device that imprints the emblem, usually on a document to confirm its authenticity. The episode referenced a device that prints seals rather than an image of a seal. As pictured, it looks like a jewel encrusted mug.
Cobra wasn’t trying to steal the Alaska state seal. In Alaska, the lieutenant governor oversees its use, and improper use carries penalties of up to $500 in fines and six months in jail. Instead, the episode evokes a fictionalized version of an Alaskan seal intended to be transferred from Russia to America after the signing of the 1867 surrender treaty.
One of the Joes offers a helpful, if creative, monologue on the relevant story. Scarlett said, “Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for seven cents an acre, but to make the agreement official the Great Seal of Alaska had to be delivered in America. The Tsar gave the seal to a Captain Ivan Lukroff of the Romanov, a Russian warship, but the Romanov and all of her crew disappeared somewhere in the Arctic.
[Togo was the true hero dog of the serum run; it’s about time he got his due]
William H. Seward indeed oversaw the purchase of Alaska from Russia—not that the Alaskans had any say in it—but the price was less than two cents an acre. The rest of this story is entirely made up. There was no Romanov steamer sent to America or to the Great Seal of Alaska.
As the Great Seal of Alaska from the cartoon is considered lost, a Cobra craftsman creates a replica seemingly good enough to fool the U.S. government. Cobra sets up a puppet as Alaskan ruler Gerky Potemkin. An American of Russian immigrant origin, he claims to have inherited the seal. With Cobra representatives as backup, he renames the state Gerkyland, orders all residents to leave, and prepares to sell Gerkyland, Alaska to the highest bidder. Cobra estimates that “the market value of the state of Alaska is close to a trillion dollars”.
As one of the Joes states, “This maniac has total control over the state of Alaska, and there’s no legal way to stop him.” For a group of ruthless terrorists, Cobra is surprisingly concerned about the legality of their takeover. Even more surprisingly, the US government seems to accept the occupation of Alaska as legitimate. Only the Joes offer anything other than a diplomatic objection.
Rather than attacking Cobra or Potemkin directly, a team of Joes enter Gerkyland, Alaska, hoping to find the true Great Seal of Alaska. The Russian government seizes the opportunity and also sends a military force. If you only knew the GI Joe team from this episode, you wouldn’t be impressed with their abilities. Cobra shoots down their plane after it enters Gerkyland, Alaska airspace, and the Russians destroy Joe’s half-tracked snow vehicles. To add insult to injury, they are then captured by a group of sword-wielding Cossack warriors on horseback.
The Cossacks are anachronistic, representing the peoples of the Russian and Ukrainian steppes as they appeared in their semi-nomadic past more than a century ago. The Riders lead the Joes to a presumably unexplored cove where the descendants of the Romanovs’ crew established a community, which has somehow survived despite having no visible women. Their leader, Captain Lukroff’s great-great-great-grandson, possesses the true seal.
A gentle reminder to the reader: at no time were there Cossack horsemen roaming Alaska, or hidden Russian settlements.
While the Joes rot in jail, Cobra attacks the town and steals the seal. The Joes team up with the also captured Russian forces, defeat Cobra, and use the Seal to reclaim Alaska (formerly Gerkyland). Since this is a cartoon set in Alaska, there is naturally a sled dog scene. As the Joes state, “Alaska is back where it belongs, in the good old US of A.” The episode ends with Potemkin fending off his creditors while several Joes laugh.
The “Great Alaskan Land Rush” is one of many GI Joe connections to Alaska. Frostbite, a GI Joe cold-weather motor vehicle specialist, is canonically from Galena, making him perhaps the most famous person, real or fictional, from there. According to the biography on the back of his 1980s action figure, he “was born in a place where summer is a myth and a crowd consists of two people standing on the same acre. He briefly worked as a lineman in line on the pipeline, but found the job unchallenged.” He resigned, joined the army, and was eventually selected for GI Joe service. Despite his ties to Alaska and the conditions they experienced in the episode, Frostbite did not appear.
Alaska has also been the setting for several GI Joe adventures in supporting media, such as books and comics. Most notably, in an issue of their first Marvel comic, the Joes stop Cobra from putting plutonium in the Alaska pipeline.
GI Joe was far from the only Saturday morning cartoon with an Alaskan episode. It was a minor trope, at least for shows that aren’t set in a different time or reality. In an episode of “Jem and the Holograms”, the villain tries to tap into the Alaskan pipeline so he can produce vinyl records cheaply. He says, “Records are made from vinyl, and vinyl is made from petroleum. If I can buy the land to open a refinery near the Alaska pipeline, I can make records for less than any other record company in the world. Any investor savvy enough to support me could make a fortune. At least his idea was original.