Back in March of this year it occurred to me just how much children’s television programming I was actually absorbing on a daily basis. I don’t have the accurate numbers – unless my iPhone’s Health app has begun monitoring my sedentary behaviour with more detailed analytics – but the approximate amount is ‘a lot’.
It should be offered up by way of explanation that I do, in fact, have a child. I have not suffered some terrible brain injury and am now working my way back to adult viewing and solid foods. When the reliably dreich Scottish weather leaves my son and I housebound, you can more or less rest assured that the television will be locked from sun-up to sundown (or ‘son’ up to ‘son’ down, if I may be so trite) on either CBeebies or some Netflix marathon binge. I know my situation is far from unique. Most of the Owners of Small Dictators that I know of are now intimately acquainted with the complex fantasy worlds of half a dozen of their Small Dictator’s favourite shows, and from what I was able to gather from speaking to a few friends on Facebook we all have fairly strong opinions.
Hell, you can strike up conversations with complete strangers (provided you have qualified that they are Owners of Small Dictators) and have animated discussions in parks and soft play areas about how much they hate the entitled precociousness of Peppa Pig, or how they have slowly warmed over time to that forty-something cretin Justin Fletcher, MBE. Some mums even confess to an unhealthy tingle in their mummy regions when they see Mr Bloom. It’s an entire sub-culture of adults who have succumbed to some form of televisual Stockholm Syndrome: we have been capture bonded to brightly-coloured sing-song shows and animated adventures for pre-schoolers who still aren’t toilet trained.
On March 2nd I collapsed into my familiar buttock-groove on the couch after trying, and failing, to educate my son – The Rookie – as to how lucky he was to have such an amazing amount of television on demand. I try to make all of our father/son interactions didactic, and to date the results have been less than satisfactory:
Me: You know, when I was little I had to wait seven whole days to see the next episode of my favourite show –
Rookie: Paw Patrol. Want Paw Patrol.
Me: And you know, when shows finished their run you had to wait months for them to be repeated, and that’s if they ever repeated them at all –
Rookie: Paw Patrol. Dad, Paw Patrol.
Me: I never did see the last episodes of The Galaxy Rangers or The Bionic 6, they just never caught on and –
Rookie: Paw . . .
Me: Maybe we could watch something that isn’t . . ?
Rookie: . . . Patrol.
And so, needless to say, we continued watching the adventures of the rescue dogs of Adventure Bay. Lying there as each episode unfolded along its familiar course, I began to ask some questions about the kind of world that not only relied upon dogs in modified vehicles for everything from mountain rescues to beehive removal, but in almost all respects actually deferred to “Ryder and his team of pups” in almost all things. This led to some speculation about other shows The Rookie watched, and the deeper I dug the more unhappy I became.
Let’s stick with Paw Patrol for a moment. Ryder, who appears to be some form of boy genius, builds specialised vehicles for his talking dogs: these vehicles are doghouses which transform into helicopters, fire engines and so forth. They reside in a tower which overlooks the entirety of Adventure Bay, and when anything goes wrong members of the local population (mostly adults ranging from a local scientist to the Mayor) call on Ryder and the Paw Patrol to save the day.
I have so many problems with this show. Mayor Goodway carries a pet chicken in her handbag. The scientist, Cap’n Turbot, has a linguistic tick that allows him to speak only in alliteration. The owner of the ski resort, Jake, seems permanently high on his herbal supply. All of the adults are singularly incapable of dealing with the most minor inconveniences, despite ostensibly running successful dairy farms and shops (the pups are also seen helping out in the day-to-day running of those businesses between emergencies).
The more I watch it, the more convinced I am that young Ryder has either rounded up the capable adults and executed them, or has poisoned the water supply so successfully that the entire population has been dumbed down. The reason that the pups are so omnipresent is that they are ruthlessly policing the populace, monitoring them at all times. It’s no mistake, then, that Chase is promoted between Series One and Series Two from ‘Police Dog’ to ‘Super Spy’: more like ‘Chief of Police’ being rebranded to ‘Spymaster General’. There is rarely even a wholesome moral at the end of each episode, just Ryder repeating that same, sinister, hypnotic command: “Whenever you’re in trouble, just yelp for help!” Or in other words: “Don’t try to fix anything, sheeple. Call us. The Pups are your Lords and Masters.” There has been some form of bloodless coup in Adventure Bay.
The Go Jetters seem to be some form of insane students on their gap year. They travel the world with the disco-dancing unicorn called Ubercorn (which is awfully close to Übermensch for my liking), supposedly under the remit of the Go Jet Academy. They cross paths in every single episode with Grandmaster Glitch, who always seems to be damaging/altering/stealing the historical geographical landmark that the Go Jetters are there to see. They then deploy ‘Click-Ons’ (advanced mobile platforms reminiscent of The Centurions: more on them later) and undo whatever damage the Grandmaster has wrought or, as they say, “fix that Glitch”.
What kind of lunatic Academy entrusts weapons like force-fields and mech-suits to students? What is the backstory with Grandmaster Glitch, who is obviously a former cadet? Where do they get the authorisation to fly over so many landmarks in so many countries? They shoot over international waters and into foreign airspace without even so much as a by-your-leave from any governments. Is there an oversight committee for when a genuine historical landmark is permanently damaged? Because there is no way the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Colosseum of Rome were safe after their visits, uh-uh, no way no how. Who funds their Jet Pad and the Vroomster? These are literally billions of pounds worth of military-spec technology.
Where do any of them get their funding? The Octonauts operate in deep sea conditions that are as hostile to life as an alien world, at depths human beings have yet to explore. That is some serious Jacques Cousteau stuff, and it’s being carried out by primarily by a polar bear, a penguin and a tiger (who have a staff of anthropomorphic . . . parsnips?).
Don’t get me wrong, the shows do present children with a few good messages. The survivors of the Adventure Bay Puprising are a racially diverse bunch, and the Go Jetters are a variety of shades with generic accents. There is a paucity of strong female characters (only one Go Jetter, two Paw Patrollers if you count the later addition of Everest, and the Octonauts have a female rabbit who stays behind for most missions). But the adventures are all bright and loud and they treat everything seriously, whether it be a child’s missing school bag or a crisis in the Mariana Trench. But where are the morals? And why, in most cases, are the kids running the show?
I am a product of the 1980s, when almost all of the big cartoons were thinly veiled efforts to sell toys and nothing else. All of the best cartoons of that era would nowadays be compared to Michael Bay films (it is of very little surprise that he has cornered the modern day cinematic output of the Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). We are talking about a high ratio of explosions per episode, some very cringeworthy racial stereotyping, and everything being tied to a simple concept that could usually be described as “rad” or “to the max”. But crucially, the majority of these shows featured adults (or supervised youths) working within a set of parameters. The heroes were either government-backed, or they were the government, or they were self-funded inventor millionaires with a strong sense of civic duty.
Let’s tick off a few examples. A disclaimer applies for my poor memory:
M.A.S.K (Mobile Armoured Strike Kommand, because K instead of C is Kool)
So M.A.S.K. was a special task force led by Matt Trakker, and they went head-to-head with the equally clumsy V.E.N.O.M (Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem). V.E.N.O.M’s main crimes seemed to be robbery, theft of antiquities, that sort of thing. So M.A.S.K. were effectively a specialist organisation who dealt with a unique form of crime. Putting aside the escalating arms race of transforming vehicles and super-powered masks, they were basically a high-tech set of good guys out to stop a high-tech set of bad guys. The show never asked deeper questions (if V.E.N.O.M. were stopped for good, what would Matt and co. do with their garage-based arsenal housed in their Boulder Hill fortress), but that was acceptable in the Eighties, right?
A group of refugees flee their dying home planet, but are pursued by their enemies (The Mutants) to a new home on Third Earth. There they attempt to rebuild their lives and forge new alliances as settlers in a strange place but are continuously hounded by enemies both old and new. This show did suffer from the Lord of the ThunderCats, Lion-O, being a young boy in an artificially aged body, so technically this was a kid leading the grown-ups. Several episodes attempted to address this, but by-and-large it was a team of adults deferring to an impulsive youth. There is also the slight subtext that the ThunderCats are some form of Thunderean nobility, and all of their people (in the ThunderFleet) are sacrificed in the first episode so that the lords may live. And, when the ThunderCats arrive they waste no time in pressing the local populace into helping build a new palace/headquarters (Cat’s Lair) so maybe don’t watch this back if you aren’t a fan of monarchy, I guess.
Ah, we’re on a more straightforward premise here. The Centurions were out to stop Doc Terror, a full-on evil genius who wanted to enslave the human race as cyborgs. They hovered over the earth in a satellite weapons platform called Sky Vault, and they used exo-frames to teleport various themed weapon arrays onto their bodies. So yeah, okay, the three original Centurions were all white males, but later on they added . . . a black guy. And an Apache. And the girl member of the team was basically a glorified satellite secretary. And the blue Centurion, Ace McCloud, was a hardcore 1980s womaniser. So we had a bunch of privileged white males in an orbital death ship, one of whom was almost certainly a sex offender the more I think about it, and their equal opportunities employment policies reeked of someone at the Centurion Academy trying to avoid a P.R. disaster, but still . . . XTREME!
They can’t all have been that bad, can they? Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light was a dystopian future where technology has failed and the world is plunged into an old fashioned feudal system where only the Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lords can harness the old magics that are once again abroad in the land (and rather than using said magics for, say, agriculture, they mainly use them to form kick-ass giant spiders and enormous holographic archers). He-Man & The Masters of the Universe was again formed around the royal elite being the only ones empowered enough to fight the forces of evil. BraveStarr was a Native American hero with a white guy’s voice, a mish-mash of science fiction and Western tropes and some very conveniently Apache-sounding superpowers. There was also the implication that New Texas had been colonised to mine it for a fuel called kerium, but seemingly only the native population (the Prairie People) worked the mines.
Upon further reflection, maybe kids today don’t have it so bad. Sure, kids rule the world in today’s shows, but that’s only because when you add adults you can – if you’re as warped as me – imply adult values which, as we’ve seen, include racism, misogyny and a class system straight out of medieval Europe.
And in closing, I will never, ever hear a discouraging word said about Hey, Duggee. That show is rad, to THE MAX.