So my last post ended up turning into a nineties nostalgia trip. Most people know the nineties stuff that holds up well in modern times or was super popular at the time. Animaniacs, Power Rangers, Pokémon, Rugrats, you know the words, feel free to sing along. But the nineties, like the 80’s, were full of wonderful and weird stuff. Most of the 80’s wonderful and weird managed to endure into the present day, but the nineties shows that fall into that category have…largely been ignored by popular culture.
And that’s a damn shame.
Join me, will you, on this trip through some of the stranger parts of the nineties that have been forgotten.
In the nineties, the internet was everything. It was just then coming into our homes, and society was just then beginning to understand that it was about to transform life in ways we could not yet understand. That meant popular culture was trying to come to terms with this new technology. Some attempts at depicting life in a virtual world were groundbreaking works that revolutionized cinema – your Matrix types. Others…were still a whole lot of fun.
Maximum 90’s right there.
The show took place in a digital world, but unusually for this type of story…well, you know how so much of Pixar’s filmography could be described as “what if ___ had feelings?” A year before Pixar blew our minds with “What if toys had feelings?” ReBoot dared to ask “What if computer programs had feelings?” The protagonists were Bob, Enzo, and Dot Matrix, styled “Guardians” but essentially antivirus programs. The antagonists were Megabyte and Hexadecimal, a sibling pair of viruses. The only real human was the “User,” who functioned more as a plot device than a character.
Why it’s good
Granted, there has to be the added caveat of “for a children’s show there,” but ReBoot really was groundbreaking. In Season 1 they were finding their feet, but by the end it was doing the Pixar thing before Pixar had made it its thing. The games the user was running – and therefore sucking the characters into – provided new settings every episode back when the show was episodic.
Halfway through season 2 they shifted to long-form storytelling, and subsequently Season 3 is the absolute peak, which included much better animation and a complete shift from episodic storytelling to a long running story, and an incredibly nuanced deconstruction of the anti-hero archetype. Not just “for a children’s show,” but “especially for a children’s show,” because the way Enzo’s shift from kid sidekick to badass antihero was handled and his character act is done afterwards is something I rarely see media aimed at adults do well, let alone children’s media.
Why it was forgotten
Part of why this show was ‘lost’ was because of syndication issues. A 1994 CGI Animated show, ReBoot aired on ABC here in the states, although it was cancelled in the US after only two seasons, right when the show was finding its feet. It continued its full run in Canada on YTV, with episodes sporadically appearing in the USA in syndication.
The other reason it was forgotten was…well, the overall story arc is good, but the individual dialogue lines are not as solid. It’s not super-over-the-top nineties dialogue, but characters are prone to stating their feelings or explaining things even the target audience grasped. Also, the animation, while great for a TV show in the nineties, does not hold up – at all. The company responsible for it also made Beast Wars, a CGI transformers spin off that is much better remembered and thus overshadowed ReBoot.
ReBoot isn’t streaming anywhere right now, but you can pick it up on Amazon if you want to check it out – or if you want to go on a nostalgia trip. There’s a ‘reimagining’ of the show on Netflix that features human teenagers entering cyberspace and as such, ends up taking the nineties baggage from the original show without the charm of “computer programs having feelings.”
You know what’s awesome? Star Trek. You know what’s not awesome? When Star Trek tries to do teenage characters. I could mention Wesley Crusher, but that would mean I reminded everyone of Wesley Crusher, for which I’d have to apologize. Especially to Mr. Wheaton.
Space Cases stepped up to fill that void.
The show is focused on a ragtag group of misfits from the Space Academy – clever names were not one of the strengths of this show – that snuck about an alien ship called the Christa. The kids bonded with the ship, which is then pulled through a spatial rip to the far side of the galaxy. So basically the plot of Voyager, or Lost in Space, but with teens.
Yes, I am absolutely linking the intro to all of these shows. No, I’m not sorry.
Why it’s good
Honestly, the answer here is pretty simple – it was a perfect gateway drug for more sci-fi. Space Cases manages to cover a lot of the basic tropes of science fiction and hit the same things that makes Star Trek such an enduring franchise – episodes featuring a monster/threat/planet of the week but set with a backdrop of an overarching threat. That overarching threat takes the form of the Spung, a reptilian race of discount Klingons, led by George Takei chewing the scenery as Warlord Shank.
The acting was surprisingly solid, and the show was basically a love letter to the Sci-Fi of the 70’s and 80’s, but with a distinctly nineties style. It also drew inspiration, accidental or planned, from the DC Comic Legion of Superheroes, in that every member of the crew has a special ability that is normal for their species but make them in some way extraordinary among their peers. That doesn’t inherently make the show good, but the powers are all used to good purpose narratively to ensure everyone gets a chance to shine.
Also, the show featured Jewel Staite, best known to sci-fi nerds as Kaylee from Firefly, in her first ever main role, so that’s worth seeing.
Why it was forgotten
I’ll freely admit Space Cases is the weakest entry on this list. The show didn’t have anything that made it transcend its origins like ReBoot, and it wasn’t unique like our next entry. It was solid sci-fi aimed at a young adult audience, and while it didn’t need to be more than that to be good, it didn’t have any qualities that allowed it to transcend its origins.
Of the principal actors, only two had major careers outside of the show, with the aforementioned Jewel Staite as the female lead for season 1 having done quite well for herself, and Walter Emanuel Jones as the male lead being better remembered for his previous role as Zack Taylor on Power Rangers. The CGI holds up even worse than ReBoot, and to top it all off, the show was cancelled after only two seasons with no real resolutions to the ongoing plotlines.
As a fun side story, for about three years the theme song to this show and a moment where one of the characters reveals she has gills and can breathe in any atmospheres were stuck in my head. No one else remembered this show, and for that time I was convinced it was a dream that had stuck with me. Then I randomly stumbled across a mention of it on a forum and actually googled it to discover this was a real thing.
The show is available on YouTube. It’s the only way to watch it right now, so while I normally don’t recommend trying to watch shows for free…it seems Nickelodeon isn’t interested in offering any other way to watch it. I’d happily have given them money to relive a slice of my childhood, but they didn’t give me a way.
The Secret World of Alex Mack
Hey, have you looked at popular culture in the past decade? If you have, you’ve probably noticed that superheroes – or at least characters with superpowers – are kind of a big deal. I’ve written a few blog posts about that myself. But back in the nineties, one particular super powered show came out, ran for 72 episodes – and then was promptly forgotten.
That show was The Secret World of Alex Mack.
Doing the CW superhero narration intro before the CW even existed
Focused around the titular Alex Mack, a teenage girl exposed to a chemical known as GC-161. As a result of this exposure, she developed super powers including electrical blasts, telekinesis, and the ability to turn into a pool of liquid. It also causes her to glow when stressed, which is a hindrance more than a help. The show revolves around Alex Mack navigating the perils of school while trying to evade capture by Danielle Atron, the CEO of the Paradise Valley Chemical Plant who wants to use her as a test subject for the chemical.
Why it is good
The Secret World of Alex Mack is fairly unique among superhero shows. It was a superhero show where the main character never put on a costume or went out to fight crime, but instead navigated daily life and teen drama. You can’t even really call it a superhero show, sine Alex isn’t particularly heroic, but it sounds better than “Super powered show.”
In a way, it’s more realistic as a show than most superhero fair. Alex mostly uses her powers to solve fairly mundane problems, and because they’re unstable they often pose as much a hindrance as they provide aid. The recurring thread of the Chemical Plant trying to hunt her down gives the show a bit of a classic superhero flair, but they aren’t the focus – and there’s something inherently interesting about a kid with superpowers using them to deal with kid problems. There aren’t any world ending threats, there aren’t any villains of the week. There’s just, Alex, school problems, and the looming threat of being dissected by an evil corporation.
The show’s plots are almost all drawn straight from the classic stock plots for kids shows, but the added spice of the superpowers gives the show enough of a unique twist to stand out. I’m honestly surprised we haven’t gotten more shows in this vein – “person with superpowers doesn’t use them for fighting but in normal life” seems like it would be perfect for today’s superhero obsessed culture, but no one else has done it that I can find.
Also, Alex is one of the better written YA protagonists I’ve seen. Her character arc throughout the series is gradual, realistic, and never relies on cheap resets to the status quo so many other shows fall prey to.
Why it was forgotten
Well…the same thing that makes the show good also make it forgettable. The fact that the plotlines are mostly stock plots plus superpowers means it’s predictable, especially to an older audience. The character development happens over a glacial pace, and while the individual episodes are fine on their own, there aren’t really any episodes that “stand out” like the way other popular shows of that era have.
Also, the show’s episodic nature hampered it. The show is begging for an ongoing metaplot, probably one that revolves around the chemical plant actually doing things beyond “trying to catch Alex and sell their chemical.” It wouldn’t need to be some evil plan for Alex to thwart – the show works best without that – but something meatier for audiences to sink their teeth into would help the show stick better.
More of a reader than a TV show viewer? Why not check out a free sample of my book, Weird Theology, and see how you like it!