Celebrate Earth Day with a disturbing, prophetic episode of Captain Planet
"Two Futures" has a darkest timeline that looks too familiar.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers
"Step into the 21st century," she warns, "and see what the world will be like." She is Gaia, ethereal spirit of the Earth, one of those kindly parent-gods common to children's television who is both all-powerful and ever-threatened. Also: the only character in history ever voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Margot Kidder. This episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers first aired almost 30 years ago — late May, 1991 — so Gaia still sounds like Goldberg, herself a godly figure for any child watching back then. Her Star Trek: The Next Generation compatriot LeVar Burton was on the show too, as a main character and opening narrator — so Captain Planet had an immediately trustworthy quality, even if you were too young to connect the voice in the credits sequence to your awesome friend-host from Reading Rainbow.
Gaia's speaking to Wheeler (Joey Dedio), the brash New York teen with a fire ring to match his red hair. Wheeler has been a Planeteering for almost a year, and he's ready to stop saving the world. Gaia shows him what will happen if he gives up. Extreme weather becomes regular weather. The waters rise. The rainforests burn. You can't walk outside without protective equipment. It is a dark, terrible, unimaginable tomorrow: the 2020s.
I live in California, a sinking fireball on a good day. Last year we suffered one catastrophic blaze after another, and the sky was dark at noon. This bleak frontdrop had an even worse backdrop: global pandemic, the Amazon aflame. It was a fine cultural moment to ponder great works of apocalyptic art. I did not do that. Instead, all I could think about was "Two Futures," the two-part Captain Planet adventure from the cartoon's first season. I rewatched "Two Futures" this week, because you have to celebrate Earth Day somehow. The years have not been kind, to the show or to us.
Captain Planet was very goofy, not especially animated, and "multicultural" in a very Supercop America way that reads rather tone-deaf today. It's the rare nostalgia property un-rebooted in this century, possibly because Big Pollution won't allow a reboot, possibly because anyone working on a reboot is a human adult who can barely get through a single episode. The closing credits claim that the series was an "Original Idea by Ted Turner," and the whole operation has an undeniable Gotta please the boss! quality, hot plot nonsense propelled through a money cannon. The Planeteers are all very dependable, which is how old people often imagine young people. They join their rings together to create Captain Planet (David Coburn), who looks like what happens when the focus group insists your Superman type should be more country and more android-y and more naked. The bad guys are fun, at least, and the voices of the Polluting Perpetrators looks like Turner spinning his rolodex. In "Two Futures," the villains are Hoggish Greedly (Ed Asner), a pig-person with fuel lust, and Dr. Blight (Meg Ryan), who wears a coat so offensive I swear you see fox tails hanging off her shoulders. In fairness to Captain Planet, it was terribly right about too many things. Greedley yearns to travel back to the 1950s, "back before there were any pollution laws," when "no one worries about ecology!" Now we know Greedley could have just waited 10 years, or maybe gotten a cabinet position, or even just become president.
You can watch both parts of "Two Future" right now — for sale on Amazon, YouTube, Apple, etc. — though I recommend skipping to part 2. That propels you past a very long setup involving a time-traveling pool, the curious fact that Captain Planet is affected by radiation no humans worry about, and the embarrassing revelation that Wheeler is one of those people who loves New Year's parties. Wheeler winds up in a whole It's a Wonderful Life thing. He wants to stop being a Planeteer, to have never even been a Planeteer. Gaia sends him to a de-Wheelerized 2026 to show him the consequences of inaction. He arrives in a flooded Manhattan. "What happened to my home?" he screams. "What happened to the world?!?!"
Wheeler takes a tour of the general ruination. His fellow Planeteers are all hermits, or worse. Gi (Janice Kawaye) lives along a hurricane-wracked coastline. (The location is "Asia"; don't trust Captain Planet to get too specific.) Overfishing and pollution have driven marine life to oblivion and beyond. "It's too late for this world," she says. "It's all I can do to help a few dolphins." In Africa, Kwame (LeVar Burton!) hunkers down in "the only oasis in the region." Deforestation took away all the rainfall, and now he's tormented by land grabbers with energy rifles. The Soviet Union is still going strong, comrade, but Linka (Kath Soucie) is just a functionary handing out supplies to a struggling population. Ma-Ti (Scott Menville) lives in a sludge city that used to be his beloved rain forest. "I find life is easier if I can forget the past," he says, impotently using his Power of Heart ring to convince pedestrians to spare a little change.
Heavy stuff for the Saturday morning cartoon timeframe — or maybe I first caught "Two Futures" in after-school reruns? It left a mark on me the first time I saw it, and now I wonder if it will haunt my lifetime. Everything strident and on-message about the rest of Captain Planet runs brilliantly off the rails here. For the briefest of moments, a young viewer stares into the void, and sees what total existential defeat will someday look like in the mirror. I've never forgotten Future Linka's total horror when she sees Wheeler for the first time. "Where are your protective clothes and sunglasses?" she asks him. The atmosphere is poisonous, the sun blinding. You can't walk outside without safety gear. This was very scary 30 years ago, and sounds disappointingly normal today. The future Planeteers have used up all their idealism, and dismiss Wheeler's insistence that they have to keep working for a better world. "'Save the Earth'? You poor lunatic!" Linka declares, right before she tries to lock Wheeler in an asylum for pathological hopefulness.
Meanwhile, the Planeteer's Edenic headquarters on Hope Island now "looks like Las Vegas," overdeveloped by predatory sludgelords into metropolitan glitz. Anyone lucky enough to live there gets to spend their wasteful lives wallowing in luxury. The rest of the world burns and drowns and starves. "Two Futures" offers another possibility, a bright utopia where pollution is a distant memory. Hey, we're not in 2026 yet. It's too late for so much, but we can still help a few dolphins. You poor lunatic.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers