Cartoon Graveyard: Virtual Reality Bites

September 24, 2009


Predicting the future is easy. Watch, I’ll do it right now: in fifteen years, apes will have developed the ability to move objects with their minds, but it will only work on VHS tapes and sardines. Predicting the future correctly, on the other hand, is hard. You can follow all the latest current events, pay attention to historical trends, and make an educated guess how things will work out, but whaddaya know, some nutcase in Tampa will decide he wants to be king of the world and invent an army of killer robots. I hate when that happens. Fortunately, what may be a loss for the world can be a boon for people who like to laugh at others’ misfortune, and since you’re reading the Sqlog, this probably includes you. Suppose a new technology comes along that seems exciting and revolutionary, on the verge of changing the world forever. You’d want to get in on that, or at least explore its possibilities in a sci-fi piece or two. And then suppose the shiny new gadget you got all worked up about turns out to be just a neat thing without any real significance (lookin’ at you, Twitter) and something else you hadn’t been paying attention to sneaks up on you and turns out to be the real Next Big Thing. I have in mind the epic struggle that took place about several years ago between two seemingly revolutionary new technologies: the Internet and Virtual Reality. At the time, VR seemed to be winning, and a lot of otherwise intelligent people took the bait. Today, we take a look back at a cartoon series that drank the VR Kool-Aid, and staked its future on the technological equivalent of the hula hoop.

Title: The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest

Network: Cartoon Network

Premise: Jonny Quest meets Homer³

You’re probably familiar with Jonny Quest’s basic premise, if not from the show itself than from its countless imitators and parodies, but if not here’s the rundown: Jonny Quest, the son of a famous scientist in who knows what field, goes on globetrotting adventures with his dad, their bodyguard Race Bannon, and Indian pal Hadji. They encounter gangsters, pirates, mummies, whatever the writers thought might be a fun adventure setting. The original series in the ‘60s had a very distinctive, shadow-heavy art style, which you wouldn’t expect for something made by – you guessed it – Hanna-Barbera.

Fast forward to the ‘90s. Someone has the bright idea to revive Jonny and company for a new generation, but evidently that wasn’t enough. No, what the show needed was a shallow gimmick to hook the kids in, and what better way than to do what everyone else was doing: incorporate virtual reality as a way to distinguish oneself from otherwise identical productions.

But now the question arises: how to actually represent a virtual reality onscreen? They couldn’t just do what Saban did for all their shows, which is splicing in clips from random Japanese TV shows with American characters in between, because a cartoon format wouldn’t really allow that and anyway Saban sucks. No, this called for exploiting yet another emerging technology setting the world afire: computer animation. Specifically, really crappy-looking computer animation.

That's it, Race, shove that villain.

That's it, Race, shove that villain.

So now comes The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, identical to the original but for two added elements: Race Bannon’s long-lost daughter Jessie, whose mother was abducted by aliens or something, and Questworld. Questworld, it seems, is an extensive virtual reality network invented by Dr. Benton Quest for… actually I don’t think they ever explained why he made it. I guess he just thought it would be cool. We learn this as Jonny and company explain it to paralyzed villain Dr. Jeremiah Surd, with whom they are negotiating for the release of their fathers from a trap. The deal: the dads go free, and Surd gets to play around in Questworld with a functioning virtual body. Surd agrees, and before you can say “stupid kids” he’s gone all Lawnmower Man on their asses, taking over Questworld and generally being a jerk. The kids have to enter it to stop him and bada bing bada boom, we’ve got a recurring plot device for many episodes to come.

I have to credit the people behind this show for realizing that spending all their time in Questworld would get really old really fast, not to mention expensive. So the Questworld episodes alternate with others that ignore it completely. Those episodes follow the standard Jonny Quest playbook so thoroughly as to be near pastiches. That includes all the cliches and belabored plots you would expect. The pilot episode, “The Darkest Fathoms,” plays like a straight-faced version of the Venture Brothers episode “Ghosts of the Sargasso.” It’s hard to imagine that the creators of that show didn’t watch this episode before writing the Dr. Strangelove to its Fail-Safe.

The straightforward nature of this series means I have really little to say about it. It hits the usual adventure-show notes as well as it can, so if you can stomach really bad computer animation, fake science, and predictable plots, I can see this show being genuinely entertaining. That said, I have to take the writers to task for allowing some baffling plot holes and irrational character decisions. In one scene, the kids are confronting Dr. Surd in his hideout, trying to force him to reveal his latest evil plan. Suddenly, in barges a henchman with a rifle. The kids duck behind Surd’s wheelchair and warn the gunman that he’ll have to kill his boss before he hits them. At this point Surd says “I suppose I have no choice.” This makes no sense. The kids are unarmed, facing a man with a gun who would have to physically walk around a wheelchair to shoot them, yet somehow this situation comes out in their favor. Come on, people, it’s Jonny Quest. How hard could it possibly be to write this show?

Final Judgment: Computers can’t solve everything.


One comment

  1. […] original here:  Cartoon Graveyard: Virtual Reality Bites By admin | category: virtual reality | tags: ago-between, halo, industrial-process, […]

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