Alaska Life

The wild (and completely fictitious) story of the animated ‘GI Joe’ episode set in Alaska

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Every Alaskan knows that movies and television shows about Alaska tend to stretch the truth. Some of these productions, like “Togo” or “Molly of Denali,” strive for a realistic portrayal. 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. Still, the 1985 “G.I. Joe” episode “The Great Alaskan Land Rush” might be the least accurate presentation of Alaska history in media. For a cartoon whose most memorable line was “knowing is half the battle,” there is nothing to be learned here.

A quick rundown of the G.I. Joe concept might be necessary for those who either did not grow up in the 1980s or have no affection for mediocre action movies. Though G.I. Joe began with a line of 12-inch action figures in 1963, the property did not truly embed itself within the American psyche until the 1980s rebranding as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, including smaller figures and a cartoon. The “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” cartoon began in 1982 as animated commercials promoting the eponymous line of toys. Thanks in part to ongoing federal deregulation promoted by President Ronald Reagan’s administration, including loosening restrictions on advertising that targeted children, G.I. Joe was elevated to miniseries in 1983 and 1984, followed by an ongoing show beginning in 1985.

The show itself features two opposing military organizations. The Joes themselves are the good guys, an elite force with membership drawn from every branch of the American armed forces. They are 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 average episode, Cobra tries to take over the world via some largely incomprehensible scheme, like a hypnotizing metal band, fundraising telethon, or carving their leader’s face on the moon. The Joes run at them, yelling, “Yo, Joe!” Cobra runs at the Joes, yelling, “Cobra!” They all shoot a bunch of lasers, Cobra is defeated, and everyone goes home, typically without any injuries on either side.

“The Great Alaskan Land Rush” first aired on Dec. 3, 1985. The name refers to the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, the various Alaska 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 the Declaration of Independence. However, the Cobra forces ignore those documents and successfully escape with their target, something called the “Seward File.”

Per the file, whoever possesses the “Great Seal of Alaska” owns Alaska. A seal is either the representative emblem, or the device that imprints the emblem, usually onto a document to confirm its authenticity. The episode referred to a device that imprints seals rather than the image of a seal. As illustrated, it looks like a jewel-encrusted cup.

Cobra was not attempting to steal the Alaska State Seal. In Alaska, the lieutenant governor oversees its usage, and inappropriate use carries punishments of up to a $500 fine and six months imprisonment. Instead, the episode conjures a fictional version of an Alaska seal meant to be transferred from Russia to America after the signing of the 1867 Treaty of Cession.

One of the Joes offers a helpful, if creative, monologue on the relevant history. Said Scarlett, “Secretary of State William H. Seward bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 for seven cents an acre, but to make the deal official, the Great Seal of Alaska had to be delivered to America. The tsar gave the seal to a captain Ivan Lukroff of the Romanov, a Russian warship, but the Romanov and her entire 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 residents of Alaska had any say in the matter — but the price was less than two cents an acre. The rest of that story is entirely made up. There was no steamer Romanov dispatched to America or Great Seal of Alaska.

As the cartoon’s Great Seal of Alaska is thought lost, some Cobra artisan creates a replica apparently good enough to fool the American government. Cobra installs a stooge as the ruler of Alaska, Gerky Potemkin. An American descended from Russian immigrants, 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, “the market value of the State of Alaska is close to a trillion dollars.”

As one of the Joes declares, “That maniac has complete control over the state of Alaska, and there’s no legal way to stop him.” For a ruthless group of terrorists, Cobra is surprisingly concerned about the legality of their takeover. Even more surprising, the American government seems to accept the occupation of Alaska as legitimate. Only the Joes offer anything more than a diplomatic objection.

Rather than attack Cobra or Potemkin directly, a team of Joes enters Gerkyland (Alaska), hoping to find the genuine Great Seal of Alaska. The Russian government seizes on the opportunity and also dispatches a military force. If you only knew the G.I. Joe team from this episode, you would not be impressed by their abilities. Cobra shoots down their plane after it enters Gerkyland (Alaska) airspace, and the Russians destroy the Joe’s half-track 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, depicting the people of the Russian and Ukrainian steppes as they appeared in their semi-nomadic past more than a century ago. The horsemen lead the Joes to a presumably uncharted cove where the descendants of the Romanov’s crew have established a community, which has somehow survived despite no visible women. Their leader, the great-great-great-grandson of Captain Lukroff, possesses the real seal.

A gentle reminder to the reader: At no time were there Cossack horsemen roaming Alaska, nor are there any 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 declare, “Alaska’s back where she belongs, in the good ole U.S. of A.” The episode ends with Potemkin fending off his creditors while several Joes laugh.

The “Great Alaskan Land Rush” is one of several G.I. Joe connections to Alaska. Frostbite, a G.I. Joe cold weather motor vehicle specialist, is canonically from Galena, which makes him perhaps the most famous person, real or fictional, from there. Per 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 worked briefly as a lineman on the pipeline but found the job unchallenging.” He quit, joined the Army, and eventually was selected for G.I. Joe service. Despite his connections to Alaska and the conditions they experienced in the episode, Frostbite did not appear.

Alaska has also been a setting in several G.I. Joe adventures in supporting media, such as books and comics. Most notably, in an issue of their first Marvel comic book run, the Joes prevent Cobra from putting plutonium in the Alaska Pipeline.

G.I. Joe was far from the only Saturday morning cartoon with an Alaska episode. It was a minor trope, at least for the shows not set in a different time or reality. In one episode of “Jem and the Holograms,” the villain tries to tap into the Alaska Pipeline so he can more affordably produce vinyl records. He says, “Records are made of vinyl, and vinyl is made from oil. If I can buy the land to open a refinery near the Alaskan Pipeline, I can make records more cheaply than any other record company in the world. Any investor wise enough to back me could make a fortune.” At least his idea was original.

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.