I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The River Styx is No Worse than a Great Swarm of Butterflies: Ulysses 31

by Stephanie Carlson
Feb. 19, 2012

I was born after Ulysses 31’s 1981 debut in the United States. If I had been a child of the 80’s, however, I am at least 92% certain I would have been all about this show.

There is a part of me that really digs the narrative style of the Odyssey tale, because it allows for that kind of “not all those who wander are lost” sort of adventure. Undoubtedly, people will always be attracted to this kind of tale, which explains the countless re-interpretations throughout the ages. From Ulysses 31 to O Brother Where Art Thou?, the tale of wayward Odysseus (otherwise known as Ulysses) inspires us to think about how we would fare when beset with adventures in foreign lands.

Here are some things that are critical to your survival when navigating the realm of 31st century space with Ulysses and the gang.

Things Ulysses 31, or the 1980’s, would have us believe about space:

Spaceships will be controlled by a central computer with just enough personality to be kind of interesting but not really.

Sure, Shirka seems to be the only one competent enough for this space voyage. Sure, she knows exactly how many seconds away the ship is from danger. She even apologizes for a slightly turbulent landing that was totally not her fault. But you don’t see her making any clever quips or inserting any punchy comic relief, now do you? Certainly not. Computers might run the shit, but it’s only their lively human commanders that could ever be in anyway interesting or pivotal to the story.

Space creatures can easily be thwarted with a little country know-how.

Butterflies in space? Oh, Shirka. How could you have lead us into the hands of such a fate? But wait, are they really butterflies? Certainly not; they’re not cute enough. Must be moths. And how does anyone get a moth to lose interest? Turn out the lights. Success in space requires quick thinking and common sense. It’s good to see that the creators of Ulysses 31 took pains to incorporate the Greek hero’s legendary resourcefulness. No amount of technology can top that. Stupid Shirka.

People will evolve so that you don’t have to worry about imploding or any of those other grisly effects space can have on your health.

You won’t find a space helmet in Ulysses 31. By the 31st century, we won’t need them. Surely, we will evolve rapidly to meet the demands of space, regardless of where we are in the universe. Our bodies will become self-regulatory, leaving us so many more stylish options. That said, if you’re the leader of the ship, you’ll probably want to be like Ulysses and wear a helmet, just to show the crew who wears the pants. It’s not Shirka.

Calm space sounds like whale song 

Just stick your head out of the ship and have a listen. Hauntingly ethereal? Beautifully austere? Perhaps. But maybe it deserves a few points deducted for being self-consciously derivative and too heavy-handed with the Mellotron.

Dangerous space sounds like Parliament Funkadelic

When things are about to get funky in space, just bust out a heavy bass line and groove your way through Cerberus’ grasp into the Kingdom of Hades.


The previous examples are the basic bits of knowledge you will really need to appreciate Ulysses 31. Regardless, it can only behoove you to dig deeper. Since this is just one episode in a 26 part series, you probably would benefit from playing catch up regarding the plot of both TV series and Greek myth. Or you could watch this episode first, then revisit the rest of the series. After all, the Greek epic begins in media res, so why not?


Ulysses as TV Series

After killing the giant Cyclops to save his son Telemachus (the tow-headed kid that sounds like Gumby), Ulysses is cursed by the gods to wander space until he arrives at the Kingdom of Hades. Until he arrives in Hades, Ulysses’ crew is irreversibly frozen.

The following link will take you to a fantastic website. Watch the "Intro Theme" and it will catch you up to date much like I just did, except with the inclusion of tubular ‘80’s rock and a few explosions.


Ulysses as Greek Myth

“Ulysses” is the Roman name of the Greek “Odysseus,” the hero of Homer’s Odyssey circa 800 BCE. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is waylaid on his return home from the Trojan War due to storms that scatter his ships. He is involved in a scuffle with the Cyclops Polyphemus and blinds him, poking out his good (only) eye with a stick. Polyphemus reports the abuse to his father Poseiden, god of the Seas. Poseiden gives Odysseus a bag of wind as punishment. When Odysseus’ greedy crew opens it, hoping to find gold, the winds (all but the homeward West wind) scatter them across the world and lead to ten years of adventure filled wandering. Finally, Odysseus returns home; slays his wife’s 108 suitors; kills a pig; throws a party and lives happily ever after.

As you can see, this 1981 Franco-Japanese anime series* somewhat deviates from the original tale. Which is, perhaps, to be expected.

The myth of Greek hero Orpheus, although never mentioned by Homer, overlaps the story of Odysseus in Ulysses 31. Orpheus follows his wife, Eurydice, into the depths of Hades’ Kingdom in an attempt to save her with his beautiful music. Hades, overcome by the power of the lyre of Orpheus allows Eurydice to return to earth, with the exception that Orpheus doesn’t turn around to look at her on the way back. He fails; she is lost forever.


As with most re-worked mythic tales, this anime series ends on a much happier, familiar, Christ-the-Redeemer tone: “May the peace of Space be with you always and forever.” The crew blesses Ulysess after he personally sacrifices himself for their salvation from Hades (the ultimate “test” before the crew is saved).

Some might scoff at such an interpretation, but for the reasons mentioned above – notably the sounds of space and intergalactic moth battles – this series still manages to be both funky and kick-ass at the same time. George Clinton approved.

* The pilot for this show, which went straight to VHS in 1980, featured a typical Japanese anime style. When released for a wider audience the following year, the characters returned with a much more Western style.



Stephanie Carlson is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan's undergraduate English program.  She is a native Detroiter, which is where she currently resides, wishing that one day her city will have a train that moves people, which is not, currently, the People Mover.  Stephanie often takes to exuberantly dancing about the streets with her new English degree, hoping employers will notice and/or care.  She likes a very specific shade of mint green paired with red-orange and Hefeweiss beer. She dislikes Kraft American Singles and wearing socks to bed.