As I get older, the more I fight a perhaps futile battle not to fall into the trap of what I call militant nostalgia, where I complain bitterly about all the kids staring into their smartphones to watch the PewDiePie, and nowadays either being poor and having tons of student loan debt or hatching million-dollar startups. Thinking the best of times is completely behind you and people are getting dumber or crueler or whatever is something people have been doing literally since the days of the ancient Sumerians. The power to break the cycle is within you and me.
All that said, I genuinely do feel like the present is a poorer place without Saturday morning cartoons, which if you didn’t know officially died September 27, 2014. Sure, there’s a good case to be made that they were already made obsolete even in the mid-’90s by cable networks entirely for children’s programming, but there was something special about television as a ritual exclusively for kids. Getting to pick out your favorite shows and setting aside time just for them, making breakfast for yourself, watching while your parents were still asleep…it was a slice of cultural independence. There is something legitimately sad about children no longer being able to experience that.
I myself witnessed the passing of an age, since the time I was the target audience for most Saturday morning programming coincided with the beginning of their decline. It was still a time when the networks actually ran prime-time specials, usually drafting the poor stars of family-friendly sitcoms as shills, advertising the new season of cartoons. However, the number of shows to watch was steadily shrinking under the double threat of competition by outfits like Cartoon Network and the passing of the Children’s Television Act in 1996, which mandated more educational programming.
As is the nature of things, I’m sure there was a lot of crap I passively absorbed over my Lucky Charms that I probably won’t remember until my brain goes into synaptic convulsions on my deathbed. Yet a few shows stuck with me. In honor of the lost era of Saturday morning cartoons, let’s remember the show that was perhaps my favorite even though it lasted only season since it was a tragic casualty of the Children’s Television Act, Project G.e.e.K.e.R.
Yes, the three main protagonists are a dinosaur and a woman with a cyborg arm. That probably alone explains why this show is a beloved childhood memory for me.
Okay, I probably should go into more detail. The show was the brainchild of Doug TenNapel, who’s worked steadily as an artist for comics, album art, and cartoons but is probably still best known as the one behind the animation style of the video game “Earthworm Jim” (which itself got a Saturday morning cartoon adaptation). Taking place at any point in the future, there’s a society that’s a corporate-ocracy run without any apparent government interference by the corporate magnate Moloch (Jim Cummings). Luckily, we’ve got at least two rebels fighting against Moloch, the dinosaur Noah (Brad Garrett) and Lady Macbeth (Cree Summer!). All appearances to the contrary, though, Moloch doesn’t rule the word just yet. To do so his scientific adviser, Dr. Maston (Charles Adler), invented Project G.K.R. (Billy West!), a robot with an organic brain who has virtually omnipotent reality-warping powers. Unfortunately, “Geeker”‘s creation was something of a one-time fluke even for someone with Maston’s insane genius, and before Maston could program Geeker to help Moloch conquer the rest of the world Lady Macbeth stole him. With his programming incomplete, Geeker has a personality best described as demented but charming, but also has no idea how to control those powers of his that could overthrow Moloch’s regime single-handedly, and instead can only alter his own body at will.
What I love about the premise is how it lets the creators mix some subtle darkness with a madcap goofball hero who can turn himself into a puddle with a ring made from his own teeth and who when asked for ideas to handle a dangerous situation gives answers like, “I have an idea for a TV show! It’s about this guy in a yellow jumpsuit and he’s allergic to floors!” The backdrop is a G-rated William Gibson dystopia, where people are passive consumers of products all with the omnipresent name of Moloch on them. Moloch himself is the perfect personification of the society he runs, an almost emotionless being who craves more (in this case, the entire world!) even though he clearly has a great deal of power and wealth already. Moloch’s penchant for listlessly describing his own emotional states of joy and rage is hilarious, but still he’s voiced with low-key menace by Jim Cummings. As for our heroes, episodes make it clear that Lady Macbeth really did violently lose an arm in a gang war and retains a certain scarred survivor edge that gives her dialogue like “When I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you.” Bits of backstory that surface and Brad Garrett’s acting show that Noah is a battle-weary member of a persecuted minority. Even Geeker, while generally coming across sometimes as a Looney Tunes character who somehow ended up in Blade Runner, once in a while is exposed as a mad god who could rip the world apart if he was ever driven into a rage over anything tragic happening to Lady Macbeth and Noah.
While I’m discussing the characters, I should probably also record for posterity that one of my favorite fictional characters of all time is Dr. Maston, voiced with just the right level of insanity by Jim Adler. I’m a sucker for bizarre villain dynamics—think Shredder and Krang as a bickering old married couple in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—so it just delights me that Moloch carefully tries to never treat Maston like a subordinate in order to avoid violating Maston’s volatile narcissism, while Maston barely tolerates, much less shares in, Moloch’s dreams of world conquest since it’s all just an excuse to do the job he loves: being a mad scientist. The fact that Maston is gloriously and inexplicably a humanoid mastodon constantly flying around thanks to some anti-gravity device Baron Harkonnen-style just deepens my love for him.
Of course, as you might expect from a show like this, there’s “how did this get past the censors” moments. Like an episode about a ”haunted” theme park controlled by an AI that is explicitly said to have murdered all the park’s guests thanks to a programming glitch. Or this exchange:
GEEKER (to Maston): Daddy…
MASTON: In a way, yes, and since my genius gave you birth, I’m also your…mother.
LADY MACBETH: We are getting into a real weird area here.
Before I go too far in my nostalgia worship, I must explain that this show is very much a product of its time, long before the current golden age of children’s cartoons with The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time. I’ve talked about this before, but to recap this means that for all the show’s real edge it’s still a little unsophisticated compared to the more recent shows I mentioned. Every episode still has a clumsily telegraphed moral (the heroes need to recognize Geeker not being logical as a possible asset, Lady Macbeth needs to control her temper, Noah shouldn’t give up hope, etc.) that really doesn’t provide real character growth and change from episode to episode. There’s nothing even resembling a story arc, to the point that in most episodes Lady Macbeth and Noah have no real goals aside from stopping Moloch from getting Geeker back through the scheme of the week.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Project G.e.e.K.e.R.was in any way ahead of its time while still being a product of it; it doesn’t exactly transcend the conventions of the era, for all its bleak sci-fi grime and surreal, adult-tinged humor. Still, I’m convinced that at least the show had a premise that deserved the type of storytelling care children’s shows seem to receive now more than ever. Its universe and characters all beg for deeper backstories, the struggle between the three-person revolt and Moloch’s consumerist empire merits more depth, and the frightening potential of Geeker’s powers must have reverberations that last longer than just one episode.
Okay, Hollywood, in our age of endless nostalgia and remakes, instead of making yet another Transformers series, why not make a sequel series to or a reboot of Project G.e.e.K.e.R. but with the cartoon storytellling standards of the present day? (Well, okay, you almost certainly won’t because of stupid things like ”brand recognition,” but don’t think like Moloch for once and do it anyway!)
While my humble request surely echoes through the corridors of power, in the meantime the entire first season is up on YouTube, as of this writing. Check it out for yourself, if there’s any love in your heart for ’90s Saturday morning offerings at all.