Archive for April 17th, 2007

Deconstructing Cyberchase

April 17, 2007 @ 2:10 pm | Filed under:

You know, I actually like the PBS Kids show Cyberchase quite a lot. It manages to work interesting, understandable illustrations of math concepts into an entertaining framework, and my kids really have learned from it. Jane and Rose will often refer to the show when they encounter a real-life mathematical puzzle.

The other thing I like about it, and this is the reason my kids—who watch very little TV—get to curl up to Cyberchase on Saturday mornings—is that its good guy/bad guy lines are clearly drawn without being annoyingly preachy. Which is why I was so disappointed by the episode the girls watched over breakfast this weekend. I was half listening as I fed the little ones and puttered around the kitchen, and then suddenly a line of dialogue caught made me look up from a diaper change in surprise (and let me tell you, mid-diaper change is not the time you want to go getting distracted). I later wound up rewatching the entire episode to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. Sadly, I had not.

The three young heroes of the show, two girls and a boy, are on a spaceship hurrying someplace, and the bad guy, Hacker (perfectly voiced by Christopher Lloyd), is on his ship with his two unintelligent robot henchmen. Don’t ask me why anyone would bother to keep stupid robots around. For that matter, what were their programmers thinking? If you’re going to make a robot, wouldn’t you think logic and memory would be qualities you’d write into the code, as opposed to, say, dimwittedness and a tendency to bungle simple orders? Then again, maybe you have to be a truly gifted programmer to make a mechanical mind operate in an illogical fashion.

But I digress. Okay, so one of the robots has a donut stash on Hacker’s ship, but the donuts have gone stale, and he chucks one across the room, which act causes the ship to crash. (You see why donuts are bad for your health?)

As it plummets toward the nearest planet, Hacker’s ship knocks into the kids’ ship, which promptly also crashes. Fortunately, no one is hurt. Must be some seriously good shock absorbers on those ships. I’ve seen my son sustain more damage just running on sand. Oh, sure, Hacker gets accidentally zapped by a shrink ray, but technically that was a result of the robot henchman’s donut toss, not the fall from outer space onto a rocky planet. Likewise, the ships survive in surprisingly good condition, except for the scattering of various Engine Parts with Humorously Technological-Sounding Names across the purple terrain, intermingled with several dozen miraculously intact donuts.

One of these donuts is hurled at the robot henchmen by a tiny-yet-fierce Hacker, and so stale is the tasty pastry that it not only clinks when it bashes into a metal head (this will be important later), it knocks Henchman #1 into Henchman #2; the collision scrambles their circuits and now they are smart. We can tell, because they now speak with British accents.

But no one cares about that. The two ships have got to be repaired. The kids are on a mission to rescue someone! Hacker is on a mission to do some evil! Also, he want to be big again! Hurry, gather those spare parts and FIX THOSE SHIPS!

Soon the kids have amassed a heap of machine parts; ditto the robots. Ah, but one robot spies his Amusingly Labeled Machine Part in the kids’ pile. He points this out, and naturally Our Heroes say whoops, sorry, here you go. Oh, no, that’s right, they don’t do that. Instead, Matt (the boy hero) says snottily that it belongs to the kids now. Because, you know, they found it. How does the saying go? I pick up by mistake, therefore I own?

Ah, but wait. Now the kids see one of their parts in the robots’ pile. They demand its return. Fortunately for the robots, their donut-addled electronic brains perceive some leverage. They force the kids to trade the machine parts. Uh-oh, but there’s another good-guy part in the robots pile! This time the kids have nothing to trade, and they have to go look for someplace to buy a replacement. You see what happens when you’re snotty? Not that I think the show is trying to make that point; the kids’ actions are presented as entirely justifiable. Of course they aren’t going to just give the bad guys their machine parts! You can’t be NICE to bad guys! They’re baaaaad.

This is when I start to get depressed. Why do writers write this stupidly? Would someone please chuck a stale donut at them next time?

It wouldn’t annoy me so much if it weren’t so darned lazy. That’s all this is. With a modicum of effort the writers could have tweaked that scene so that the kids either (a) weren’t snotty and unethical or (b) realized that being snotty and unethical worked to their disadvantage.

And that scene isn’t even the part that got me all fired up this morning. It gets worse. See, this planet we’re on? Turns out all the shops work on the barter system, and the kids have nothing of value to the shopkeepers. What these people really value is, coincidentally, stale donuts. Stale donuts will buy you all the machine parts you want, and also lemonade.

The kids are excited. They know where there are lots and lots of stale donuts lying around. (We presume they know the donuts are stale because the one Hacker threw at the robots made that clanging sound when it hit.) So they hurry back to the crash site, but gasp! The donuts are gone! The kids search and search, and one of the girls finds them halfway up a nearby mountain, inside a giant crate.

The kids’ celebration is cut short by the arrival of the two Intelligent in Mind and Accent robots, who have also discovered the donuts’ value and have come to claim them. Oh no you don’t, say our young heroes. They’re OUR donuts now.

That’s the part that caused my mid-diaper double-take. Is that how property laws are working nowadays? If I happen upon your donuts while you aren’t around, they’re my donuts? Did I miss the announcement that two-year-olds are making legislation now?

Turns out the robots only sound smart. They don’t raise much fuss when the kids push the donut crate away. For the rest of the episode, those donuts belong to the kids. They trade them for the ship parts they need and also conveniently learn some math. And drink lemonade.

If I was surprised by the donut theft, that was nothing compared to what the "funny" ending had in store. The kids need one more thing, but oh dear, they are out of stolen donuts. Oh, wait, here’s something you’ll like, shopkeeper lady! Look, it’s a little bitty Hacker, still shrinkray-zapped and still angry. See how he shakes his tiny fists in the air when I pick him up? Adorable!

I wish I were making this up. No, I take that back; I’d be ashamed to have made this up. It’s deplorable. The kids, these heroes we have admired through countless adventures, SELL HACKER TO THE SHOPKEEPER. She calls him an action figure and puts him on a shelf. Everyone chuckles at his shrunken yet vehement outrage. The kids get their part, their ship gets fixed, the robots knock heads and once more sound as stupid as they are, and isn’t that a happy ending?

Oh, what a journey we and our heroes have made together. In under thirty minutes, we have progressed from incivility to thievery to enslavement. Nothing like a little moral relativism with our Saturday breakfast.

Of course we all had a great talk about the episode, Scott and the kids and I. The best part of the discussion was when the light bulb went off over Jane’s head and she articulated an understanding that just because you’ve been rooting for someone for a long time because he’s always been the good guy, he won’t someday be on the wrong side of an argument or an action. "Our side" can make mistakes. A history of good-guy-ness doesn’t guarantee a hero, or an ordinary person, will always act with integrity.

I loved seeing Jane work it all out in her mind. Of course the talk led to politics and party loyalty, and we have often talked about how her daddy and I never vote strictly according to party lines; we weigh each issue and candidate individually. And so a terrific conversation grew out of a lousy show.

But I’m still angry about the show, for two reasons. One: how many kids happened to watch that show with a parent or other person who was interested enough to open a dialogue about the questionable morals of the heroes? I only just barely caught wind of it myself. I bet the vast majority of young viewers just swallowed the Cyberkids’ actions as good, smart, funny. It’s a subtle message ("do what you gotta do to win, ’cause you’re on the right side") that has seriously dangerous implications for the human race.

Think I’m making too big a deal of it? This silly little half-hour episode of jokes that whisk by on a DVR? I’ve probably used more words talking about it than exist in the entire script. But that in itself is the other reason for my outrage. Someone took the trouble to write that script. Those writers didn’t have to write it that way. Why write it that way? Seriously! Why not write a better script? Someone sat at a keyboard and typed out the words that sold Hacker into slavery. I don’t get it.

People who write for children need to use their brains. Real brains, not the kind that can be scrambled with the clunk of a stale donut.