The show is surprisingly, if passively, educational.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been showing episodes of the 1970s Super Friends cartoon to my now four-year-old daughter. I’m a fan of the show in its various iterations dating back when I was her age. But, like all fans of my generation, I’ve tended to approach the show ironically in my adulthood. It’s hard to get past the silliness, and both Ken Begg over at Jabootu.net and Seanbaby have taken the laboring oar in making fun of the various plot holes, cheesy tropes, animation errors, and general hilarity that characterizes any given episode. It’s tempting to take the position that these cartoons were slapped together by people looking for a paycheck, and constrained by various rules created to “protect” children from cartoon violence. The surface view, is that there’s very little to recommend these cartoons, because they’re junk food for kids, and too goofy for adults to enjoy in large doses.
But when I started watching with my daughter, I realized that Super Friends actually tries pretty hard. The first thing I noticed was the function of the narrator. People my age love Ted Knight’s narration, but we also mock it relentlessly. “Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice.” The common joke is that he describes exactly what the heroes are doing on the screen. Why do you need a narrator for that?
I found out when I watched a more modern super-hero cartoon with my daughter. It turns out kids ask a lot of questions. Mostly, they ask questions about exactly what is taking place on the screen in front of them. Take this totally made-up but nonetheless true-to-life example:
“What is Superman doing?”
“He’s fighting Darkseid.”
“Why is he fighting Darkseid?”
“Because Darkseid is a bad guy and Superman needs to save the city from him.”
“Why does Superman need to save the city from him?
“Because, otherwise, people will get hurt.”
“Why…” [it goes on for a while].
If Ted Knight had narrated this hypothetical scene I just invented, Superman’s fight with Darkseid would have been accompanied by, “Meanwhile, using his super strength, Superman battles Darkseid to protect the people of Metropolis from being injured by the dark lord’s evil schemes.”
BOOM! Ted Knight is the middle man, and I can go get a sandwich. And I find that when my daughter watches Super Friends, sandwich time is far more plentiful than when she watches unnarrated super-hero fare (or Star Wars or anything else cool, but not explicitly made with children in mind).
The second thing I noticed is all the background educational and moral material that a given episode of Super Friends contains. Super Friends isn’t just cotton candy. The more I watched and listened, the more I noticed that the show goes out of its way to subtly include all manner of passive information that kids may not efficiently obtain from other places- especially kids ages 3-6. The writers may make the characters act like complete buffoons from an adult perspective, but they never dumb down their vocabulary. The Super Friends speak quite formally, even as compared to adults. They often say complete nonsense, but they sound smart saying it.
The episodes also routinely insert real-life locations from around the world, and the narrator always helpfully explains where these locations are: “Meanwhile, at the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France.” The show takes the characters to other countries, and shows the audience people in those countries.
Super Friends quietly introduces numerical quantities. And while the “science” is often mind-bogglingly goofy, it still manages to introduce real world concepts. Yes, Flash vibrating his molecules so fast he can phase through walls is ridiculous; but he never pulls that trick on Super Friends without explaining what he’s doing and saying the word “molecules” (at 12:20). Similarly, Superman once found himself chained by kryptonite chains in a tank rapidly filling with water. Was his idea (at 12:38) to combine “the excessive nitrogen in my super-breath” with “the heat of my X-ray vision” to turn the water into “kryptonic acid” and dissolve the chains (but not Superman himself) dumber than hell? Of course. But where else is a four-year old hearing about nitrogen and acid?
Most importantly, the Super Friends are heroes. Every episode shows them saving innocent people. Many episodes show them sacrificing themselves for others. Yes, the anti-violence rules prevent the writers from having the characters make really difficult moral decisions; but that’s how it should be. There’s a lot to be said for a kid seeing Batman pick up an injured ally who says, “Go on without me” and carry him out of danger while saying, “We don’t abandon our friends” (16:36). Or seeing the Super Friends forego chasing/fighting the bad guys because innocent people need help. Yes, the PSAs are awful (Batman and Robin demonstrate the Heimlich maneuver on each other, and Robert Smigel squeals with delight as Ace and Gary begin to birth themselves in his mind; or the Dynamic Duo drive to the country to teach kids that fresh farm produce is the way to go when you need a snack). But the subtle example of a character continually doing the right thing in the midst of fighting evil in a regular episode is a good thing for a 3-6 year-old to see.
I used to think these shows were written and animated by potheads. Now I genuinely think they were at least written by teachers and child psychologists. Either way, there’s a lot to praise about any given episode. Super Friends provides education, but manages not to feel educational, or like a chore.
With that out of the way, welcome to what will almost certainly be a very infrequent bit where I watch an episode of Super Friends and parse out all the educational goodness.
And make fun of the episodes some as well. I’m not Superman.
Today’s subject is from 1977, and it’s called Rokan: Enemy From Space.
Episode: Rokan: Enemy from Space.
Super Friends: Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Zan, Jayna, Gleek
Bad Guy: Rokan: Enemy from Space. Pay attention.
Plot Synopsis: Rokan, a giant bird-creature from Superman’s home planet of Krypton, comes to Earth and obtains Superman-level powers from Earth’s yellow sun. Rokan, who has no intelligence and is simply a big, dumb bird creature, wreaks all manner of ecological and property damages (but somehow manages not to kill anyone). She also lays eggs, which then hatch into baby Rokans. The Super Friends play defense for most of the episode, fighting Rokan (and losing), chasing Rokan (and not catching her), and protecting people from Rokan. The Super Friends finally think to take advantage of the Kryptonian connection; and they chase Rokan away from Earth with impossibly large kryptonite asteroids, nearly killing Superman in the process.
Vocabulary for Small Children: sinister, creature, starry, vastness, streaking, distant, immediately, havoc, notify, international, frequency, alerted, monitor, converge, unsuspected, terrible, raided, direction, powerful, prehistoric, extinct, explosion, probably, roaming, suggest, convince, impossible, budge, realize, effect, exactly, return, computer, calculations, boulder, continue, throughout, quadrant, canyon, coordinates, port, lure, position, emergency, relay, important, contact, handiwork, gondola, keen, telepathic, senses, summons, commanding, gigantic, electrified, voltage, prepare, submerge, continue, opposite, avalanche, destruction, regroup, typhoons, vulnerable, asteroid, statistics, completed, secondary, shielding, fatal, importance, collapses, activate, weld, emptiness, radiation, sensor, harpoons, protection, portions, hauling, quantity, molten, incinerators, perfect, steady, target.
Numerical concepts: A million years; a thousand calculations; dozens of giant eggs; dozens of electric eels; a 3.2 billion ton asteroid; an eighty-three percent chance; Wonder Woman counts down an approach, identifying the closing distance as “400 meters, 300 meters, 200 meters, 100 meters.”
Verbally Identified Locations: The Milky Way Galaxy, a small New England village; the Great Lakes; Niagara Falls; Canada; the Canadian Rockies; Mount Everest; the Eastern Hemisphere; the Himalayas; Tokyo, Japan; Hawaii.
People with Real Jobs: A U.S. General; a Mayor; a Canadian Mountie; a ship’s Captain.
People Who Aren’t White: The crew of a merchant vessel is Hispanic; citizens of Tokyo; Nepalese citizens in a Himalayan village. Granted, these folks serve no purpose other than to be saved from disaster by super-powered white people. But I’ll still give credit to the creators for trying to show American kids a wider ethnic world in 1977, instead of showing the Super Friends protecting White Plains, New York or Omaha, Nebraska.
Lives Saved: Batman and Robin save two skiers from baby Rokans; Aquaman lures Rokan away from attacking a merchant vessel; Superman saves the Wonder Twins from being eaten by baby Rokans; Superman saves a village full of people from an avalanche; Wonder Woman saves the Wonder Twins from being eaten by baby Rokans; Batman and Robin scare two baby Rokans off a highway bridge before they collapse it; Superman catches a large segment of a skyscraper after Rokan breaks it off and flings it through the air (granted the people inside almost certainly all died of acceleration-related injuries, but your kid doesn’t have to know that).
Scientific Concepts: “The outer reaches of space”; the force of Rokans wings is noted as being powerful enough to “change the weather conditions all over the area”; Superman remarks (somewhat vaguely) that Rokan may have been frozen/preserved in Krypton’s polar ice cap before the planet exploded; Rokan’s young hatch from eggs; Aquaman uses electric eels to generate a shock; Rokan creates an avalanche, a typhoon, and a volcanic eruption; there are asteroids in space; Superman uses his heat vision to weld something; lead is used for shielding against radiation; a volcano erupts and lava pours out.
Junk Science (Besides Super Powers): Wings don’t work in space as there’s nothing to create resistance; a complex living creature cannot survive being frozen for millennia; airplanes, even super, invisible airplanes, can’t tow billion ton asteroids; a billion ton asteroid would cause all sort of gravitational horrors on Earth; Superman’s heat vision would not actually “weld” masonry; Rokan’s wings, despite their size and power, are unlikely to cause a volcano to erupt.
Awkward Question from Your Child for Which You Can Make Up an Answer: “Where is the Daddy Rokan?” “He died on Krypton a long time ago- like the dinosaurs here on Earth.”
Awkward Questions from Your Child for Which There Is No Answer: “How did Wonder Woman fix her unbreakable magic lasso after Rokan snapped it?”
Most Embarrassing Super Friend: Aquaman, who, when faced with an attacking Rokan, screams, “ROKAN!” like a terrified child and runs away.
Most Awesome Super Friend: Superman. He singlehandedly saves a village from an avalanche. He also has a heat vision duel with Rokan. Then, he unhesitatingly volunteers to risk death so that the Super Friends can attack Rokan with kryptonite. There’s really nothing not to like about Superman in this episode, except that he gets a little whiny in his death throes.
Most Subversive Superfriend: Superman, who takes a moment to teach your child about utilitarianism when he addresses the aforementioned risk to his life by saying, “We decide the matter the way the Super Friends decide any matter of importance: the greatest good to the greatest number of people.”
Second Most Subversive Super Friend: Wonder Woman, for using the metric system to track distance.
Holy Robin-isms!: “Holy Footprints, Batman!” “Holy Brainstorms, of course!” “Holy Incinerators, Batman!”
Wonder Twin Powers…ACTIVATE!: Jayna becomes a seagull. Zan becomes an ice gondola. They get captured anyway.
Gleek shenanigans: Uses his tail like Wonder Woman’s magic lasso to pick up a banana, but then ends up in a fight with his own tail when his tail refuses to deliver the banana (?); breaks the Hall of Justice communications system so that the Wonder Twins have to venture out rather than just calling the Super Friends; uses a set of flashlight binoculars (?) to make Zan think Rokan has returned, thus generating the customary end-of-episode comic relief.
Overall Episode Rating (on a Scale of 1-10): 7. This episode has great vocabulary, a number of legitimate numerical and scientific concepts, relatively minor instances of junk science, significant geography, and a lot of heroism.