There are certain topics of conversation that are perennial favourites around the office. What’s in the news, what books people are reading, why the tea tastes strangely chemical when I make it, you know the sort of thing. One that often comes up is nostalgia for kids’ TV from Back In The Day. A show everyone remembers from around the time Yr. Humble Chronicler was growing up is Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Pause for the recognition/reminiscence to kick in. Ah yeah, there you go.
If you aren’t familiar with the premise, basically it was that Gaia assembles a team of young people from around the world to fight pollution with the help of rings that gave them elemental powers in what would appear to be a rather literal interpretation of the Gaia Hypothesis. When things got too hot for our heroes, they could combine their powers and summon a superhero named Captain Planet, whose only weakness was pollution (following the lead of Spider-Man’s arachnophobia and Superman’s crippling vertigo). The message at the end of every episode was that, when it comes to stopping pollution, “the power is YOURS!” Although in practice, most pollution in Captain Planet’s world seemed to be caused by a few asshole supervillains, so really the power belongs to whoever has a gun.
But like so many of these cartoons that seemed wicked-awesome at the time, there are certain aspects of Captain Planet that in retrospect seem a little, how can I put this, embarrassing today. And Captain Planet had an unfortunate tendency to punch above its weight in terms of the issues it dealt with, making it extra-cringeworthy today. Let’s look at some examples, shall we?
Case Study 1: Captain Planet versus the Goiânia accident
Reality: The Goiânia accident took place in 1987 in Brazil. Two men broke into an abandoned hospital in Goiânia and took, among other things, an X-ray machine containing highly radioactive caesium. This was sold to a local scrap dealer, Devair Alves Ferreira. Ferreira, fascinated by the eerie blue glow and ignorant of the danger, took the caesium home and showed it to a number of friends and relatives. Four people, including Ferreira’s wife and six-year-old daughter, died of radiation sickness and an estimated 250 people were contaminated.
Captain Planet’s take: The episode ‘A Deadly Glow.’ In this episode, a couple of kids steal a radioactive source from, yes, a hospital. The cartoon adds a giant radioactive rock monster in a Hawaiian shirt who wants the radiation for himself for reasons I don’t quite recall. Does he eat radiation? Something like that. Also the American kid takes the piss out of a child undergoing chemotherapy.
The Message: The real enemies are negligence and ignorance. And radioactive rock monsters.
Case Study 2: Captain Planet versus The Troubles
Reality: The Troubles was a period in Northern Ireland lasting approximately from the late 1960s to the late 1990s during which there was extensive violence arising over tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities and the question of whether Ulster should remain part of Britain or join the Republic of Ireland. The roots of the conflict go back to the early 17th century and although the Troubles are generally considered to have ended with 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, violence and tension between the communities remains.
Captain Planet’s Take: A weird rat-mutant who goes around spreading hate, again for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, is selling nuclear weapons in troubled areas of the world, including the Middle East, South Africa and Belfast. Because everyone is so blinded by hatred, they don’t realise that a nuclear bomb would actually destroy the whole of Belfast. Also their rage causes their accents to leap all over Ireland and sometimes as far as Scotland. With the help of the cancer-patient-hating American kid, however, they are able to put their differences aside and work together to stop the bomb and live in perfect har-mo-ny. At the end, the Planeteers are satisfied with the fact that they have brought about the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Look, the relevant parts of the episode can be seen here.
The Message: American money may have funded the Troubles, but American know-how will resolve them. And Catholic, Protestant and Scotsman alike can find peace and understanding.
Case Study 3: Captain Planet versus the AIDS epidemic
The reality: HIV is a disease that attacks the human immune system, transmitted via blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal fluid, which causes the condition known as AIDS. Although treatable, there is no cure and it is estimated to have killed tens of millions of people worldwide.
Captain Planet’s Take: A school’s star basketball player learns that he has been infected with HIV, probably due to the heinous amounts of needle-sharing and unprotected anal intercourse he’s been having lately (I forget whether they specified the reason, actually). That fucking rat mutant thing decides to use this to spread hate, which is a bit rich coming from something that looks like it came off a Nazi propaganda poster. Somehow, telling a bunch of kids that they can get AIDS from touching a basketball player means that the rat-man can take over the world. Fortunately, the Planeteers are able to educate everyone as to the truth, and presumably they halt the AIDS epidemic.
The Message: Too much Captain Planet makes you lose the will to live.
Case Study 4: Captain Planet vs Hitler
The Reality: If you don’t already know about Adolf Hitler, then I don’t think I can help you.
Captain Planet’s Take: A mad scientist voiced by Meg Ryan travels back in time and tries to sell an atomic weapon to a Teutonic gentleman who is basically Hitler but not quite. Having established our villain as a moustachioed German dictator of the 1940s, I don’t know why they’re so squeamish about saying “and it’s Hitler.” Anyway, the Planeteers also travel back in time and, with the help of the Allied forces and Captain Mullet, they save the day. On the way back to the present day, the mad scientist drops her notebook. Captain Planet doesn’t return for it and one of the soldiers comments that it might contain useful information.
The Message: Through his negligence, Captain Planet is responsible for the creation of the atom bomb. Every night, when he goes to sleep, he sees the faces of every Hiroshima victim burned into his soul.