Captain Planet, He’s Our Hero, Gonna Take Pollution Down to Zero (Sing it, Kids)

Captain Planet is back! brings you an exclusive Q&A; with Barbara Pyle, the show's co-producer and creator

On the roster of 1990s cartoons, Captain Planet was definitely towards the top of the list. In the show, which was the world’s first animated eco-cartoon for children, the five “Planeteers” called Captain Planet to action by combining their powers: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Heart. In a whirl of cartoonish smoke and sparkle, a caped Captain Planet would appear proclaiming in a thunderous voice, “By your powers combined, I am Captain Planet!” Powerful and environmentally-friendly, Captain Planet entertained viewers until 1996. On February 25th, Captain Planet returns on the new Mother Nature Network (MNN), at a time when the battle between the environment and pollutants is more dire than ever.

Barbara Pyle was the Co-creator & Producer of Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Since then, she has produced more than 35 films, winning over 75 awards, including the world’s most prestigious environmental honor, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Sasakawa Environment Prize. In 1988, Barbara was named one of the first United Nations GLOBAL 500 Laureates. Both awards were received “for outstanding achievements in protecting the global environment.” This is what she had to say about the return of her favorite television show and its online revival.

PopSci: How did you come up with the premise for the original Captain Planet? Talk a bit about the process of getting the show on the air and launching it.

Ted Turner [of TBS] got the idea and it was my job to figure the show out. We partnered with a production company that invited me to a getting-to-know-you meeting, which was for me to approve their creation of Captain Planet. I heard what they had to say and my reaction was, “Hold your horses!” First of all, we had to have a life force for Captain Planet; she’s called Gaia [a representation of Mother Earth]. Then came the Planeteers. I wanted the program to work all over the world and I wanted it to appeal to boys and girls. That’s why we created boys and girls in equal positions and we made it appeal across generations. For example, I bet you didn’t realize it as a kid, but all of Captain Planet’s bad jokes are relating to the pop culture of the 60s. That was something for the parents, so they would sit down and watch with their children. The hardest part about creating the show, though, was finding writers in LA. They were not up to speed on the issues. To create an animated cartoon for children that is about the most complex issues on the planet? Forget about it! You need to really know the environmental issues. A co-producer ended up having to write some of the initial stories—he has over 90 story credits. Overall, it was very difficult to produce this cartoon. The main battles were fought before it was produced, but once it was ready, the truth of it was that we had a very expensive product and there was no fight to get it on the air.

PopSci: It’s been awhile since anyone has seen the show. Refresh our memory: what kind of battles does Captain Planet wage and what type of villains does he confront? What are his greatest strengths and his biggest weaknesses?

Oooh lets see, there were loads of villains. Hoggish Greedly, who wants it all and wants it now, is played by Ed Asner. Those battles had to do with over-consumption, that’s what he represents. Verminous Scum was Jeff Goldbloom…Meg Ryan voiced Dr. Blight. She is power-crazed, one of the most wicked. Dean Stockwell is Duke Nuke Em’ and he has an insatiable energy for nuclear energy. Any sort of pollution makes Captain Planet weaker (heavy CO2 or a big blast of exhaust), and everything that is good for the earth (clean water, sunlight) makes him stronger. Everything on the show is really metaphorical, so it works at multiple levels.

PopSci: Captain Planet was on the air for six years—a great run for a cartoon. What happened towards the end?

Season Six was brilliant. That’s when we veered into the philosophical issues; it’s an intense season. I thought the show was going to go on forever, silly me. After Season Six, when we didn’t have new scripts, it was tough to keep it on the air. Environment wasn’t cool, what can I tell you? People loved it, but that doesn’t mean the corporate executives loved it. But we were “hope” before hope was cool [due to Obama]. When we lost Captain Planet on TBS, we gave nationwide affiliates first-run syndication on Saturdays and had second-run syndication on TBS on Sundays. The show was on, it was off, but it wasn’t consistent. In 1996, we were actually in the process of making a Captain Planet movie, but then suddenly, there was a merger, and the department that was making the movie just went away! After two years of making the movie. I got tons of fan mail after the show went off the air. I carry a Captain Planet bag instead of a briefcase, and I get stopped every single day by somebody who sings me the theme song.

PopSci: Do you think Captain Planet was ahead of his time, or do you think his fight will seem rather simplistic in the face of all the major environmental threats we hear about on a daily basis?

I don’t think that any of the problems that Captain Planet dealt with have been solved. Has deforestation been solved? Has water pollution? Has the greenhouse effect stopped? Do we still have smog? Is population still growing? They are hardly irrelevant issues. The show was correct then and it is correct now.

PopSci: MNN is releasing 20 full-length episodes of Captain Planet on its website. Who do you think the audience for the show will be?

The first audience is going to be the original Planeteers, now around ages 18-26. They are all over the web asking for it to come back. There’s over 170,000 fans on Facebook—check it out! The second audience, which is on Facebook and blogs, will be bloggers and fans from Brazil to Bangladesh. Captain Planet is global. It was distributed in over 150 countries worldwide in local languages. Lastly, I think what’s gonna happen is the trickle down. If 18-26 years olds think it’s cool, then the 12 year olds will, and then the 8 year olds, and so on. At a focus group recently, the kids were glued to the screen watching and afterward, during the Q&A, the room just exploded. I was blown away. Here was the next generation of Planeteers! You never know if a show will work for multiple generations, but we’re all about having another generation of Planeteers.

PopSci: How did the partnership with MNN develop? Why do you think this is the best platform for the Captain’s comeback?

I’ve known Joel Babbit [the head of MNN] for I don’t even know how long, 15? 20 years? Joel has been involved with environmental issues for a long time. About 10 years ago he went to Bill Clinton to talk about climate change in a series of hearings. That was back when no one knew about it. I called up Joel and said “You gotta do something big.” Joel made a map of the weather for USA Today for the year 3000 and I had Ted [Turner] buy a full-page ad in the paper, where we published it. Talk about a flip out. The weather is black and purple, not orange and blue. Things are underwater, half of Florida is gone. It flipped everybody out. So that’s the kind of guy Joel is. Last summer, out of the blue, Joel decided to do this Mother Nature Network. At the same time I, along with Ted Turner’s daughter, had been negotiating with TBS (who owns the copyright to Captain Planet) for years to get the rights to redistribute the show. The forces of nature came together and finally the TBS network decided to license Captain Planet to Joel. I couldn’t be happier that Joel and MNN are bringing it back. The show hasn’t been out there for 12 years, so I’m very excited about it. We’re sorting through the episodes now. We want to get the absolute best episodes out there, but it’s hard to choose just twenty!

PopSci: Many of the kids that watched Captain Planet in the 90s are in their twenties now. Do you think the show made them environmentally conscious at a young age, and if so, do you think the message stuck?

Well, I will say this: Electing this new administration was imperative. If we had had another administration like the previous one, it would have been the end. And it was that generation that Planeteers belong to that made that change happen. We have Planeteers to thank for a regime change, and I’m very grateful for that.

PopSci: You’ve had an illustrious career working as an environmentalist. Why do you choose television as your medium?

The benefits are easy to quantify. Television has been used for social change since the 70s. Do you remember Happy Days? In one episode Fonzie got a library card so then everyone went out and got a library card. All In The Family took on racism, etc. Television is a behavior changer. If you do it properly and you aren’t pedantic and you package it as entertainment and people have repeated exposure to the information, their opinion will grow. Once they become knowledgeable, their behavior changes. Why television? It’s in practically every household, everywhere, all over the world. Thousands of channels carried the programs I produced—I’m talking about reaching a billion kids. There are Planeteers all over the world. I used to say there’s no better medium then TV, but that’s changing because now it’s also computers and cell phones. But I will tell you that the vast majority of people still get the majority of their information about the environment from television. So obviously, that’s not very much information, because we’re still not doing enough. We need more environmental literacy.

PopSci: Will Captain Planet be an effective vehicle for spurring people to action?

I think it sure will. Your generation started at zero, as far as knowing about environmental issues. Now that people aren’t starting at zero, I think they’ll find the episodes funnier and more entertaining. I think it will be of more interest to more people. They’ll be curious about it, wondering, how is this cartoon “green”? How does that work? And, this is actually reality—all the good guys in the episodes are based on real people. Real people, real problems, real solutions. I think the show will create an environmental ethic and literacy among viewers so they’ll be able to understand the issues. It’s difficult to find a solution to a problem if you don’t even understand the problem to begin with.

PopSci: Do you have a favorite episode?

I do. Twelve Angry Animals, which was in season six. The guys go on vacation hiking in the Himalayas. They’re having a good time because they don’t have to work, there are no eco-emergencies. Then they see big footprints that they follow, and then they spot a snow leopard, which they also follow. Lo and behold, the footprints and the leopard lead them to the same place and then whoosh! They go sliding down into an avalanche hole. Only it’s a trap. Once the snow clears, there is Big Foot, who says, “Come with me.” They follow Big Foot and end up on trial in a courtroom where the jury is made up of endangered species. The witnesses are extinct species. For example, Woolly Mammoth takes a Planateer back to Africa, the way it was in his time. And then boom! Here comes the destruction created by man. After each character takes a Planateer back to their time, the jury pronounces them guilty. Big Foot says, “Let them live with the knowledge of what they have done.” It’s about humans causing the extinction of hundreds of species, everyday. Extinction is one of my pet peeves, it makes me very angry. There’s a quote I’ll share that’s from the book The Fate of the Earth, a very profound and intense book. It’s, “Death is only death. Extinction is the death of death.” Now that you’re older, you’ll see that “Twelve Angry Animals” is also a take on [the black and white film] Twelve Angry Men. You’ll get all the double entendres, you’ll understand why your parents were laughing.