Earth Day Special: Nostalgia, Applicability and Captain Planet

21 Apr

Every so often I go off on a massive nostalgia kick. This seems to be a common affliction with people in my generation. Growing up, as we were, in a bit of a Renaissance of animation, video games and literature, we’re lucky to have much to be nostalgic about.

But, nostalgia, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “is like stuffing your cheeks with cocaine-infused marbles in that it makes you say stupid things.”

In the early nineties media overlord Ted Turner got a bee in his bonnet about corporate responsibility and commanded his underlings to create a program about environmental superheroes. Said underlings went to the cartoon stables and decided to crossbreed Power Rangers with Care Bears and thus was born Captain Planet and the Planeteers.


By your powers combined…

Gaia, the spirit of the Earth (resembling the Greek Titan in name only) shakes her head at humanity’s polluting ways and recruits five young people, one from each major continent (Australia goes overlooked for some reason) and gives them each a ring that allows them to call on one or another Classical element, plus ‘Heart’ which allowed telepathy with animals, among other things. When the Planeteers (as they become known) are, inevitably, confronted with a situation that their wits and individual powers can’t overcome, they activate them all in sequence summoning, a ridiculously powerful genie-like superhero who mops up the villainous polluting plot of the day.

The premises of the show are that a whole is stronger than the sum of its parts, if you need me to figure that out for you, and that we should all give peace a chance and save the world and that nature is inviolate etc. etc. It also drew in a startling number of celebrity voices, including Sting, Malcolm MacDowell, Martin Sheen, Vanna White and Elizabeth Taylor, plus a lot of the iconic voice actors of the time, like Jim Cummings, Frank Welker and Ed Asner.

Okay so you can sort of see how we’re off to a good start here. Now try actually watching it…

A half-hour program does have to streamline the content, but ‘streamline‘ isn‘t the same thing as ‘dumb down.’ Captain Planet does dumb down and sends the quality down through the floor. The writing gives the impression that the creators have heard of environmental crises, but they don’t genuinely understand what they’re talking about, and they have a similar relationship with anything outside the white-middle-class-American experience. Whatever region of the world is the setting du jour tends to get a massive injection of stereotype. The episode “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belfast” lives on in especial infamy for this reason.
Amerindian cultures (from which Ma-Ti, the South America/Heart Planeteer, originates) get this particularly badly, being all mystical, morally superior nature-communers.
The main characters themselves are dreadfully one-dimensional. Kwame (Planeteer of Africa/Earth) comes the closest to seeming well-rounded, and I’m not sure that that isn’t a just product of having the voice of LeVar Burton, who can make stereo instructions sound profound. Wheeler (North America/Fire) serves the same function as Doctor Who’s companions, to ask the audience’s questions, but he’s portrayed as arrogant, complaining and constantly wrong about everything. Compare him to Sokka of Avatar: the Last Airbender, who is frequently obnoxious and contrary but is still intelligent and allowed to be right every so often.

The show is often mocked for villains who are into ‘pollution for pollution’s sake.’ Most of them are technically in it for money or ideology or insanity of some sort but the cackling glee they take in doing as much damage as possible is headache-inducing. Example: the episode ‘Fare Thee Whale’ covers the real-life practice of getting around international whaling bans by throwing up a façade of scientific research; the evil scientist villainess uses it as a chance to refine her ‘concentrated pollution formula.’

Speaking of which, the dialogue is atrocious, with characters giving lectures to each other and speaking in terms so pedantic it’s like a bad radio play.

The show is, in all the wrong ways, a spiritual successor to Generation 1 Transformers: it’s created to push something (albeit a bit more honourable than toys) and the stories are just vehicles for that with no soul of their own. The show actually broke some pretty impressive ground in a few cases, highlighting social issues like AIDS, family planning and gang violence, but the problems above rob them of gravitas. The morality is absurdly black-and-white, never admitting to the concept of doing a bad thing for the greater good or vice- versa.

The episode ‘The Dream Machine’ demonstrates this. It was attempting to show the negative impact of runaway consumerism by presenting one of the villains springing it on a remote, rural South American community. But since this comes out of the USA it comes across as saying ‘We already have this, but NOT FOR YOU OR YOU WILL DESTROY YOURSELVES!’ As they say on TV Tropes, their Aesops are Broken.

Some would say this is because it’s a kid’s show, but its contemporaries like Batman: the Animated Series and Gargoyles proved that kids are not this dense, and can handle some actual subtlety and grey areas in the name of a good story well-told. Everything in Captain Planet has to be saccharine and morally clean, which just ends up making a show for kids sound like it was written by kids.

So why does anyone remember this fondly? It was an insult to our intelligence and ideologically a lot of what left-leaning people and organizations are stereotyped and sneered at as being. Oh, and I might add the theme song was horrendous.

There are at least three possible explanations. One of these is that its hackneyed-sounding motto of “the Power is Yours” actually counted for something.
I’m fairly sure that it’s the nucleus of the fact that I care about the environment in the first place. I once stumbled across an interview from the mid-nineties with LeVar Burton (who, between Star Trek, Captain Planet and Reading Rainbow was something of a fixture in my childhood) wherein he said that kids responded overwhelmingly to its message.

The second one is that, as I and others of that generation have grown up, the issues dealt with so ham-fistedly in the show have not gone away. Some of them, like Climate Change, sectarian conflict and economic inequality have actually gotten worse. So those of us from that generation use it to remember when we got to be idealistic about this kind of thing.

The third is that we recognize how good and effective it could have been. We love it for all the things it had the potential to be. It wouldn‘t have a fan fiction community otherwise. Watching as an adult you can see glimpses of the right ideas. If they’d made the show arc-based and character-driven instead of episodic and plot-driven, or the writers done enough research to lend some authenticity to the content, some good things could have happened. Given the show-stopping power of the Captain’s abilities, removing Captain Planet himself and making it just about the Planeteers‘ characters, or placing some strict limits on the circumstances where they can summon him would have been a massive improvement.

Every so often they got it almost right between lesson and story: the episode ‘Bitter Waters’ managed to deal sensibly with big business’s relationship with low-income communities, and call itself out on the double standards discussed earlier, but then blew it on the ‘stereotyped Native Americans’ front. Likewise the episode “’Teers in the Hood” dared to take the characters down a morally difficult path, but yet again, you can tell the writers had only ever heard of street gang violence without understanding it, and they only gave themselves 20-odd minutes to work in.

It would be nice if we could have such media with real-world applicability for kids without the preaching from the pulpit of privelige. Lots of shows have good and positive themes, but seldom actually arm your social conscience the way this one tried to. This and His Dark Materials conspire to make me wonder: is it literally impossible to make a clear statement and tell a good story at the same time?

I decided to do this retro review in honour of Earth Day, and like the show itself, it is rather weak. This is not merely because I’m a nerd in denial or a preachy soppy liberal (although both of those happen to be true) but because I and many of my friends still remember this show fondly and yet aren’t sure what to do with it. All I can say is that, as I make little gestures like picking up litter or turning off lights in the name of being an environmentally conscious citizen, and agonize over whether (and where) to go into activism, those five kids and their blue buddy are in the back of my head, reminding me that the power is ours…

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Posted by on April 21, 2013 in Television


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