Where’s the Captain When We Need Him?


For people of a certain age, his visage is an enduring childhood memory – a pop-culture icon, no less. How could he be anything less, with his facial features holding a distinct resemblance to Tom Cruise; skin glossy enough to give Vogue‘s paper vendors a run for their money; and the hair. Oh, the hair.

The retina-searing green mullet was memorable. But still it surprised me when in a chat with a colleague over the many environmental issues today which receive little or no mainstream coverage, she observed, "As superficial as it sounds, Captain Planet did wonders." Wonders indeed, for exactly the same thought was working itself through my head at the time.

A product of the eco-aware early 1990s and brainchild of Ted Turner, Captain Planet and the Planeteers was an environmentally-minded cartoon. Five youths, traversing ethnic boundaries (which conservative critics liked to reference as a mark of the show’s snivelling political correctness), are brought together as the ‘Planeteers’ by a Mother Earth figure, Gaia, who entrusts each of them with a special ring.

Four controlled the classical elements of nature (Earth, Water, Wind and Fire), with the fifth ring, Heart, giving critics a further lightning rod to label the show ultra-bleeding-heart-liberal. Combining the power of their rings, they could call upon the noble friend of all things environmentally friendly, Captain Planet, who came complete with piercing puns and a Superman-like ability to summon forth the specific superpower needed at any given time to sort out the Bad Guys.

Was it cheesy? Of course. Yet call me an undiscerning, gullible six-year-old – for some inexplicable reason, this didn’t seem terribly relevant at the time.

Like Turner himself, the show was no stranger to controversy, particularly in the United States, where it was variously accused of being liberal brainwashing propaganda, anti-American, and even anti-Christian, on the grounds that Gaia’s presence had ‘pagan overtones’.

But let’s leave aside the dubious prospect that your average first-grader is going to be all that clued-up about Greek mythology and its inferences regarding the question of God’s existence. Turner certainly never shied from the fact that the show promoted an overtly environmentalist agenda. He observed in 2002 that, "If humanity somehow does turn [environmental degradation]around, partly [the credit]will go to Captain Planet."

Running for a total of 113 episodes, Captain Planet dealt with a wide variety of environmental problems, ranging from conservation and the importance of recycling, to a relatively early awareness of climate change. The wonders of hindsight have highlighted the fact that the delivery of the messages was about as subtle as an impact drill, but again, somehow, this didn’t seem an issue.

I might not be able to remember individual plots (although even at age six, I could tell that there was ‘something’ between Wheeler and Linka) but the overarching theme, of living within the limits of one’s environment, made its presence felt. Quite why this was felt to be a bad thing in certain quarters is still something of a mystery to me, but presumably that’s the brainwashing at work.

That said, the series is showing its age in more ways than one. For instance, one early episode is set in "an Australian city with one of the best mass transit systems in the world".

Criticism could also legitimately be levelled at the storylines, which trod a sometimes blurred path between simple and simplistic. Some critics made the point that the depiction of villains in some episodes as polluting seemingly for the sake of it was unrealistic, and sent the wrong message. Insofar as it sometimes bypassed the crucial element of profit, this was a valid observation; whether it detracted from the show’s overall message, however, is debatable.

In any case, it’s not like implausible scripts and naff dialogue have ever stopped Hollywood before.

Get past the fact that the animation isn’t going to keep Pixar’s nerds awake, and it’s evident that Captain Planet was ahead of its time. I am only slightly ashamed to admit that my environmental consciousness was shaped, to a far greater extent than I realised, by a sky-blue superhero with appalling hair.

As that well-known pinko liberal Plato observed in The Republic: the direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.

Effective environmentalism cannot be a minority effort, yet a deep understanding of the significance and scope of virtually any environmental problem is limited to a minority. The sheer quantity of information and conflicting viewpoints on offer make it a challenge for most people to separate wheat from chaff.

Beyond the most elemental and visceral grasp of the notion that, indeed, pollution is bad, I suggest that this incredible abundance of information is a cause of apathy in itself. Such a base understanding is at once a help and a hindrance: although there is a certain level of awareness of existing problems, there is also minimal impetus underlying that awareness to drive behavioural changes.

It is in precisely this context that the messages processed in youth take on an added importance, because for many they fail to be supplemented by rigorous renewal in later life. And while repeats of Captain Planet continue to cater for the brainwashing needs of pre-teens, there is a gap in the market for a like-minded program to sustain those impressionable young things as they form their own identities in those pivotal teenage years.

Just imagine – an intelligently-written teen soap, focusing on the issues brought to attention by Captain Planet in a more considered and detailed way. It shouldn’t be too hard to envisage storylines, some of them even vaguely plausible, carrying solid messages. Who knows, if the producer takes enough brave pills, they might even be tempted to try a really revolutionary concept – an attempt to accurately depict reality, for instance…

I know, I know – it’s an optimistic wish-list. But it’s either that or another round of the captain’s mullet.

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