In the 1930s, when animated shorts first appeared in movie theaters, the form was a riot of metamorphic, satirical, violent or vaguely amorous action. Today, that tradition continues in mass-market animation, though for the most part, in a milder form. That’s because, on average, commercial animation now targets children and early teens.
All the same, while the exquisite joy of watching Bugs Bunny drop a piano on Yosemite Sam is gone forever, adults need not go hungry for animation’s inherent, quicksilver wit. If none of it reaches the sublime age-neutrality of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, an adult with an active imagination can still satisfy the craving that only a half-hour of raucous unreality can satisfy.
As I see it, a form of that same craving is what drives many readers to science fiction. Like lovers of animation, they get a kick out of contemplating worlds in which “normal” has been replaced by action that plays fast and loose with everyday reality. It only makes sense. Even in its dystopian subgenre, science fiction is a realm of possibility. Whether readers want to teleport to exotic worlds, meet an alien, alter their genome, or save the universe from heartless corporate demons, there’s a storyline for that.
So perhaps it’s only natural that animation studios now produce a steady stream of science fiction film and video. What’s more, if you look beneath the cels and the cgi, you can see a reflection of how many people “receive” science fiction. So out of curiosity, I did a little of what I will charitably call “research” at Google University to explore the past and present of top-rated sci-fi animations.
My down to Earth ground rules.
In making my selection, I made a distinction between storylines with science fiction at their core and those whose relationship to sci-fi is superficial. Excluded are all superhero stories and anything either based on, or analogous to, the Star Wars universe. Here’s why.
For my money, a superhero is no different from a traditional, mythological character. I see Superman as a latter day Heracles, whose saga is only tangentially related to science. His recent incarnations, replete with details about his high-tech birth world, change nothing. Besides, there’s no science to support the idea of a humanoid head that can generate “heat vision” without exploding or, “x-ray vision” without radiation sickness, cancer and, of course, singed eyeballs.
While the X-men franchise includes sciencey talk about “mutation” it presents a fantasy of mutation. A man “blasted by gamma rays” won’t turn into the Hulk. He’ll turn into a horribly disfigured corpse. Bruce Banner’s transformation is therefore, magical and not scientific.
By the same token, Star Wars and its imitators also offer fantasy instead of science. Darth Vader is the Prince of Darkness with a fiery sword. Luke Skywalker is the Fairy Prince out to return the world to its Golden Age. No science was harmed in the making of the films or their animated spinoffs. In a similar way, though the superb series, Samurai Jack, has time-travel as a central plot element, the show is also, essentially, a hero’s quest.
Also excluded are Voltron, ThunderCats and other “Space Force” cartoons, which are, essentially, Westerns, written from the point of view of the cavalry. In this same category, regrettably, are far too many episodes from the Star Trek franchises, where science runs a distant fourth to adventurism, pop-psychology and pop-sociology. Finally, even well-produced series like Gravity Falls, which hovers at the edge of science fiction, are too wrapped up in occult phenomena for my purposes.
Here, in chronological order, is a narrow slice of the science fiction cartoon repertoire. The many ways these shows reflect both the values of science fiction, and the values of their time, are kind of fascinating.
The Adventures of Colonel Bleep (1957 – 1960)
Created by Fran Noack, Sondac Studios
This is reputed to be the first color cartoon broadcast on TV, in a limited number of markets. Aimed at, I assume, children between the ages of six and nine, it has the tone, pacing and simplicity of a true children’s show. Many episodes contain brief didactic asides, and any plot tension is appropriately mild.
Nevertheless, this is true science fiction, down to the show’s premise, as stated in the first episode. An alien species, the Futurans, detect nuclear explosions on primitive little Planet Earth and become concerned. They send their top agent, Colonel Bleep, to keep an eye on the humans. The Colonel, always astride a cosmic unicycle, travels through space and time with only a clear helmet, complete with antennas, to protect his stick-figure body.
He has, for reasons not explained, two companions. Squeak, is a wooden puppet, dressed in a cowboy suit, whom we later discover is a robot built by the Colonel himself. The second is Scratch, a “caveman” who was blasted to the present from the deep past by Earth’s first atomic blasts.
In the sense that an advanced alien travels with two mismatched companions, you might say Colonel Bleep is a forerunner of Doctor Who. And, like the Doctor, the Colonel has several nemeses, including Doctor Destructo, who’s always just clever enough to become ensnared in his own traps.
The show is very much of its times. There are, for one thing, no female characters. For another, the beings the trio encounter on other worlds are always “strange,” “mysterious,” or “curious.” Stranger still, however, is Colonel Bleep’s visit to “The Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo)” complete with cringe-worthy socio-economic commentary.
Yet the world of the show is also a world where progress-through-technology triumphs over dark forces. Throughout, however, the dangers of nuclear war loom in the background — as if nuclear war weren’t itself an outgrowth of “progress.”
For a children’s show, The Adventures of Colonel Bleep covers a lot of ground. Included are an episode in which evil creatures erode the local economy and ecosystem for profit, an episode in which living beings are subjugated to robots and an exploration of a regime dominated by totalitarian termites. Despite the simplified plot lines, these stories describe the impact of scientific advancements on contemporary society.
The 1960s – The Jetsons
The Jetsons (1962 – 1963 / 1985 – 1987)
Created by Hanna-Barbera
Flush with the success of The Flintstones, Hanna-Barbera Studios created The Jetsons. Instead of an anachronistic past with humans and dinosaurs, they created an anachronistic future with social values from the 1950s.
Hence George Jetson, the harried breadwinner, is outfoxed by “Jane, his wife,” who raids his wallet and runs to the mall in the opening credits. Yet in many ways, The Jetsons exemplifies the predictive subgenre of science fiction. Fifty years later, its video phones, artificial intelligence and robots are commonplace. Sadly, George’s bubble-domed flying car appears still out of reach.
Meanwhile, George and Jane’s two kids, Judy and Elroy, sound as if two characters from the contemporaneous Leave it to Beaver had stepped into a time machine. By corollary, many of the other characters’ attitudes are depressingly “retro.” It’s almost impossible to find an episode that’s PC enough for our ears all the way through.
Other aspects of the show align more easily with today’s thinking. George’s boss admonishes him not to think, which is a job for computers only. Sound familiar? Though the world of the series contains virtually no aliens, there’s a general sense of a wider universe just out of reach.
So much for the show’s first launch, in the early 1960s. When it was relaunched for two more seasons in the mid-1980s, an effort was made to update the characters. Jane, for example, now worked for NASA, though you’d hardly have known it — and a few of the peripheral characters weren’t as white as the Milky Way. In fact, in the original series, you have the sense that people of color were far more alien to George than beings from another galaxy.
All the same, the relaunch is as pale an imitation of the original as The Jetsons itself is of The Flintstones. And on that score, it’s worth mentioning Fred’s abduction by aliens in one Flintstones episode (https://tinyurl.com/ufo-flintstone). Also noteworthy are the eleven Flintstones episodes that featured “The Great Gazoo,” an alien who was banished to Earth’s deep past for developing a doomsday weapon. In many respects, that storyline leans farther into real science fiction than many an episode of The Jetsons, plenty of which could have been set in our century with only a few modifications.
Nevertheless, as a portrait of a future technology, the Jetsons reflects much of the anxiety of its time, regarding the advance of science. As a result of its long run in syndication, the show’s technology-tinged slapstick, puns, sight gags and riffs on family life, succeeded in worming its way into our consciousness — though not nearly enough as a cautionary tale.
Cowboy Bebop (1998 – 1999, 2001)
Created by Hajime Yatate, Sunrise Studios
Cowboy Bebop, is a universe apart from the previous two examples. For starters, it’s infused with the spirit of Japanese manga and anime, and targeted to an older teen audience. I can’t imagine anyone younger than eleven getting much out of it beyond the broadest brushstrokes or its stylized graphic design. Its film noir ambience also requires viewers to enter a dark world in which the cynical, jaded and emotionally wounded main characters reluctantly do the right thing.
One of the best features of the series is the characters’ relationship to their far-future world. Unlike George Jetson’s cozy mainstream attitudes toward “modern” life, the ensemble protagonists of Cowboy Bebop live on the fringe of their interplanetary society. Spike, Jet and, later, Faye, are bounty hunters, more at ease with hand guns, hand-to-hand combat and hands of poker than the conventions of polite society.
Always just a few light years away from achieving their dream of immense wealth, the trio are eternally frustrated. Though dogged by chronic bad luck, it’s the unacknowledged ethical side of their natures that most often trips them up at the last minute. Typically, the object of their bounty hunt is a villain who has stolen a valuable piece of tech, a dangerous weapon, or is “simply” a ruthless killer. Among their targets is Vicious, whose past connection to Spike remains ambiguous for much of the series. The eccentric boy- genius Edward and a genetically enhanced Corgi named Einstein round out the cast.
In look and feel, the show shares many elements with the dystopian subgenre of science fiction. In fact, it’s more of a depressing extrapolation of trends you can observe every night on the news, played out on a galactic scale.
Because 2-D animation plays fast and loose with both perspective and scale, everything on screen looks “ultra-cool.” Spike’s improbable fighting prowess is therefore a thousand times more believable than the interminable fight-scenes in The Matrix. In a similar way, the pile-driving power of the spaceships makes you long to venture out into the stars.
Yet it’s the impact of advanced tech, this time to bring out the worst in human civilization, that makes Cowboy Bebop more than just Miami Vice with a star drive. It depicts a world twisted by science in a way only science can warp.
Futurama (1999-2002, 2008-2013)
Created by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, 20th Century Fox
After The Simpsons, Matt Groening and company played the same gambit with Futurama that Hanna-Barbera did with The Jetsons. Like The Simpsons, Futurama sprawls against a broad satirical canvas. And like Cowboy Bebop, but in a different way, the show depicts the vastness of space as both a bountiful treasure and the root of all evil.
The series features Fry, whose enthusiasm for eating, drinking and sleeping is matched only by his lack of ambition. As such, he’s an archetypal product of the late twentieth century, during which a cryogenic accident preserves him in ice for a thousand years. When he thaws in the thirty-first century, he meets the only force in the cosmos that could possibly elevate his soul: Leela, the cyclopsian mutant orphan female with whom he falls hopelessly in love.
Fry’s unrequited love is one of many fictional tropes woven into Futurama’s, narrative world, where impossibly advanced technology magnifies humanity’s every toxic quality. Along for the ride is mad- scientist Professor Farnsworth, whose perpetual dance along the border between genius and dementia drives much of the action. And contrary to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot paradigm, Groening gives us Bender, a robot-at-large and consummate grifter, whose power source is cheap beer.
The manic Dr. Zoidberg, a likable alien fraud who’s perpetually hungry, rounds out the most notable characters. Others, like Hermes, Amy, and the alien Kif, also contribute to the show’s satirical take on sci-fi conventions and pretentions. Captain Zak Braff, for instance, a lecherous, ignorant, arrogant and cowardly bore, sends up the macho space force stereotype to hilarious effect.
Zaniness aside, I attribute the show’s relative longevity to its distinctive characters’ undeniable affection for each other. Just as important, they are exemplars of our struggle to maintain our sanity in the face of unlimited technological power. While the show’s tired visual gags sometimes wear thin, it’s one of the few series that depicts alien species as neither gods nor demons, but as products of natural selection.
For the aliens in Futurama have also developed in response to environmental pressures and are subject to the same underlying anxieties. They, too, are as capable of deadly sins as they are of reaching for the stars. In my latest novel, Probability Shadow, I also depict alien species riddled with ambition, wracked by unrequited love, searching for universal principles and capable of unspeakable crimes. Sentience, in a word, is sentience, and I believe our first encounter with an alien species will surprise us more by how familiar it feels than by how extraordinary it seems.
Another endearing feature of Futurama is the inventive way it tortures scientific concepts for comedic effect. Time-travel paradoxes turn up on a regular basis and Professor Farnsworth’s inventions, including a “smell-o-scope,” which enables him to catch the odor coming off Mars, are a significant part of Futurama’s antic satire of the sci-fi universe.
The new century
Invader Zim (2001, 2006 + film in 8/15/2019)
Created by Jhonen Vasquez, Nickelodeon Animation
Also in a satirical vein, though pitched at a younger audience, Invader Zim traces the adventures of an incompetent, middle school-age alien, whose conquest of Earth is always behind the eight ball. Though set up for failure by his superiors, Zim’s confidence never wavers. Hobbled by his own ego and a malfunctioning robot named Grr, Zim is locked in an existential battle with Dib, the one human kid who realizes the threat Zim poses.
Zim is another example of a fully fleshed-out alien character, whose sole function isn’t to say “Klaatu Barada Nickto” or attempt to slime us to death. As such, he’d fit right in with the teenage alien who dominates my YA series The Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek. That is, with the exception that Ixdahan, far from wishing to conquer Earth, wants only to save it. Like Ixdahan, Zim’s attempt to masquerade as a human nearly comes to grief at every turn.
While much of the series’ focus is on Zim’s constant scrapes with death and boredom, the full panoply of science-fiction tropes is on display. The action, though tinged with kid-friendly gross-out humor, is not as simplistic as you might expect. In one episode, a pair of planet-napping pirates tries to steal the Earth out from under Zim, thereby depriving him of glory and, he hopes, redemption from his homeworld’s overlords.
Both the pirates’ tactics and Zim’s counter measures are wickedly clever. Yet while Zim narrowly succeeds in retrieving “his” planet, his only reward is to be right back where he started. The funny thing is, our inferior species refuses to cooperate with his plan to destroy us. So it’s fitting that his continual failure is not due to a lack of technological superiority. Instead, Zim trips over his ignorance of human culture. Here again, at the intersection of science, technology, culture and societal norms, we find true science fiction.
Rick & Morty (2013 – ongoing)
Created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, Warner Brothers Distribution (Available at adultswim.com)
Definitely not suited for young children and utterly NSFW, Rick & Morty is, nevertheless, one of the most original entrees on the science fiction cartoon menu. It follows the adventures of a shy fourteen-year-old, Morty, and his grandfather, Rick who, aside from being a mad scientist is also the most dedicated anarchist in the known universe. His ability to jump from one metaverse or dimension to another is the starting point for many astonishing forays into space-time.
Does Rick worry that bringing his teenage grandson in contact with seductive, hedonistic, violent and/or voracious aliens might be potentially traumatizing? Not in the least. From Rick’s perspective, there’s nothing worse for a young mind than the stultifying, one-dimensional pieties of Morty’s anonymous mid-western town.
But if this scenario calls up images of an aging gentleman who introduces Morty to the wonders of the universe, you’ve got it all wrong. For Rick is the quintessential bad example. He’s usually drunk, occasionally quite priapic and always extremely foul-mouthed. Seriously, if you’re offended by “the F-word,” and especially if that’s the only way you ever refer to it, skip the entire series.
Part of what makes the series work are the emotional bonds it establishes between Rick, Morty, Morty’s older sister Summer, Beth — his veterinary surgeon mother — and his can’t-catch-a-break father, Jerry. They all hate each other in such a tender, loving way that it’s truly inspiring. If you think that’s a paradox, you haven’t yet entered into the spirit of a show, whose very substance is the inherent contradiction at the heart of our perception of reality.
That’s because, as the Laws of Physics dictate, and Rick is at pains to demonstrate, Reality is fundamentally dynamic. For starters, let’s consider that the Rick and Morty we see in the third season are actually a Rick and Morty from an alternative reality who, by surviving a series of catastrophes, have ensured the death of the original Rick and Morty in our reality and were, by extension forced to take their place.
Like the mathematical allegories at the heart of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels, this is heady stuff. At one point, Rick takes Morty to the Council of Ricks, a consortium of all of his incarnations in every possible reality. As the series progresses, Morty’s sister, Summer, is also initiated into Rick’s multiversal shenanigans as are their parents. The episode in which Beth and Jerry receive marriage counseling after being transformed into members of a different species is as rare an event as you can witness in any fictional context.
How does the series pull off its truly singular remix of narrative structure? A lot of the credit for the show’s improbable relatability goes to the distinctive approach that the voice actors take to reading their lines. There’s something in their astonished acceptance of the purest unreality — and in the context of their familial strife — that make it so easy to believe in Rick’s ability to turn himself into a sentient pickle.
The experiment continues.
All told, science fiction cartoons are both a genre unto themselves and a commentary on sci-fi as a whole. To the extent that they are aimed at children, they still effectively evoke the themes of science fiction, as they also stir up the aspirations an apprehensions those themes imply.
What might be interesting to see is a series that looks at life in the future, from the perspective of trends already emerging. A sci-fi cartoon that addressed the legacy of bias and income inequality that I doubt any sentient civilization will ever eradicate, might help its audience come to grips with certain “alien” phenomena that are now an integral part of day-to-day reality.
Mark Laporta is the acclaimed author of the Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series and the new novel, Probability Shadow, which was published in October by Chickadee Prince Books, available now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. He is also the author of the innovative science fiction noir serial, Insective, which you can read for free in Audere Magazine.