It has long been my favorite Saturday morning kids’ cartoon show, except it didn’t start life on Saturday mornings. Jonny Quest actually started life as a prime time animated series for a general audience. I didn’t see it when it originally aired. I was a little too young then. In fact, I wasn’t even born until the series was halfway through its original run, so I first saw it when it made its way to Saturday mornings.
This is going to a bit on the morbid side, but the main difference between the original series (which is the only version I’ll talk about, because I hated all of the other incarnations of the show) and other kids’ cartoon shows was that people died in Jonny Quest’s world. That just isn’t allowed in cartoons for kids. In fact, I recall an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian in which the “barbarian” and his team were battling several knights in shining armor. One of the enemies was punched hard enough to fall apart revealing it to be a robot. Realizing they weren’t living beings, Thundarr let his team know it was OK to stop pulling their punches. Man! I thought barbarians were always set to kill.
So, in Jonny Quest, if a jet plane blew up, we wouldn’t see the pilot parachuting to safety. If there was a gun fight, people got shot and died. There was even one episode in which Race Bannon used the plow of a bulldozer to ricochet his shot around a corner to kill a bad guy. And we know Race got him, because the fellow fell into sight having been the recipient of an incredible shot. That Race Bannon. What couldn’t he do?
Jonny Quest was also the first prime time animated series in which the characters were rendered to look like actual people. Not stylized the way the characters in its predecessor The Flintstones were depicted. The Quest characters were simplified, sure, but they had hands with five digits instead of the typical cartoon four. And they looked like people. The overall design was terrifically done by illustrator Doug Wildey. Wildey gave the series a comic book illustration style, using lots of black and varying line weight. Most animated series use a thin unvarying line, which isn’t as interesting to this viewer.
It was produced by the giants of television animation Hanna-Barbera, who had pioneered a style of animation that limited the amount of drawing that needed to be done, making a weekly animated series economically possible. And Hanna-Barbera had several series, some in prime time, others on Saturday mornings. Even with that process there would still be time crunches and at times the animation suffered.
What never suffered in the original series was the score. It was excellent. Hoyt Curtin was the composer and his musical score is among the best ever for any adventure series. It enhanced the action and set the tone so perfectly for each scene. And the opening theme is perfect.
Watch your mouth, Race!
The series was not without its flaws. It was produced in the 1960s and wasn’t terribly sensitive in its portrayals of people who weren’t of the Western world or white. When depicting more primitive societies or Asians or Egyptians, etc. the languages spoken would just be gibberish. When issuing the series on DVD at least one line of dialogue was removed from the episode titled Pursuit of the Po-Ho. Bannon had painted himself purple in order to impersonate a god of the primitive Po-Ho people. He was attempting to instill the natives with fear. In doing so, Race called them “heathen monkeys.” That line was removed.
As an adventure series, Jonny Quest really captured my interest. The design and music were great. I loved the characters, although their dog Bandit would get rather tiring at times. All that barking. Which, incidentally, was provided by Don Messick, who was also the voice of Dr. Benton Quest for most of the series.
So, here are my Top Three Favorite Episodes:
3) The Robot Spy (Originally aired November 6, 1964) This episode wasn’t a favorite when I was a kid, but as I got older I grew to appreciate it. It features Dr. Quest’s arch-nemesis the mysterious Dr. Zin. Zin really has it in for Quest and he wants to steal the secret of a powerful ray gun Quest is developing, so he sends in an unusual spy. It’s a robot designed so simply, it’s essentially just a large black metallic ball, that it is treated as a curiosity, which Quest brings into the secret military compound. It turns out the black ball has an eye and legs and tentacles that, when they strike the guards, can render them unconscious.
Dr. Zin was a recurring villain. This episode was his second of three appearances and I’m certain that, had there been a second season, there would have been more Zin. My research tells me that later versions of the series featured Dr. Zin very prominently, but I don’t care about those shows. Those were made for kids.
2) The Curse Of Anubis (Originally aired October 2, 1964) Jonny and his crew have been invited to Egypt by archeologist Ahmed Kareem, an old friend of Dr. Quest’s. Unknown to Quest, Kareem had become a radical Arab nationalist and he plans to frame Quest for the theft of ancient Egyptian treasures, which Kareem had in fact stolen. The radical believes this deception will unite the Arab nations against the Western world. However, in stealing a sculpture of the god Anubis, Kareem unknowingly causes a mummy to return from the beyond to punish those who had violated an ancient tomb.
What I really like about this episode is the ever encroaching threat of the mummy. However, no one is aware that the mummy has been reanimated and is on their trail. In the end, when things seem most desperate for our heroes, the mummy arrives to exact justice.
This one uses Curtin’s score particularly well when building the tension of the stalking undead avenger.
1) The Invisible Monster (Originally aired January 28, 1965) This is a popular favorite and it’s easy to understand why. Dr. Quest gets an urgent call from a scientist friend whose experiment had gone terribly wrong. Somehow he had created an invisible creature that feeds of electrical energy.
The Quest team head to the remote tropical island where Dr. Quest’s colleague had been running his experiment. But they are too late. The scientist’s lab has been destroyed and he has disappeared and is feared dead. Something has left footprints and a path of destruction in its wake. Part of that destruction is a local village of island natives.
There is so much that is cool about this episode. The invisible menace, the sounds it makes, and, when Jonny gets an idea how to make the creature visible, it looks great. A giant hump of a creature with one eye and a gaping mouth. Such a good episode.
That first season had plenty to like: Admirable heroes, interesting villains and monsters, great futuristic gadgets, exotic locations, and plenty of adventure. All with fantastic music, great sound effects, terrific design, and people who would actually die.
If you would like to hear me and a couple friends go on about how great this series is, you can download my friend’s podcast The Assault of the Two-Headed Space Mules episode #29.
Update 5/25/18: It occurred to me I ought to link to the source of much of the information I related here. It’s from a fan produced YouTube documentary about the original series. It’s in three parts and filled with lots of interesting insights. Click here to see part one.
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Images used under fair use.