Back in 2007, TV2 aired The Amazing Extraordinary Friends – a charming superhero show and potential cult hit. Twelve years later, it’s nowhere to be found. Felix Walton looks at the changing landscape of archiving our local TV.
The Amazing Extraordinary Friends tells the story of Ben Wilson, an unassuming Kiwi teen who finds an insignia that gives him superpowers. Eventually Ben assembles a ragtag group of amateur superheroes, including his grandfather, his best friend, and a child they found in a shed. It’s a cliched premise, but one that leads into a bizarre, memorable show.
In one episode, the Amazing Extraordinary Friends battle with a 50-foot “super babe” named Dominic Brioche. In the next, Captain X has to battle with the emotional return of his estranged father. Somehow this complete reversal of tone felt completely natural. In fact, it wasn’t until writing it down that I understood just how insane it sounds. The (objectively) best episode of season one ends with a rap battle, and it’s simultaneously the best and worst superhero fight I’ve ever witnessed. No matter how wild the concept, AEF manages to stick the landing every single time.
These days, AEF exists only as a memory. TVNZ’s OnDemand service, which previously uploaded episodes as they aired, has long since wiped the show from its servers. Its old website is functionally useless, with nothing but a single celebratory blog post that somehow survived deletion. Even AEF’s Wikipedia page has been abandoned by time, with the entirety written in the present tense as if the show never ended. With how few traces are left, you would be forgiven for thinking the show was just a mass hallucination.
These echoes of the past called to me, and I quickly felt compelled to watch the entire show as soon as I possibly could. There was just one snag – in the era of instant streaming, the only way to watch The Amazing Extraordinary Friends is through a pile of second-hand DVDs. Foraging through TradeMe auctions bore no fruit, and it became clear that copies of the show aren’t exactly easy to come by. Fortunately, a friend of mine hoards DVDs and happened to have the first two seasons for me to borrow. Unfortunately, not everyone is that lucky – not even the show’s creator.
I got in touch with Stephen J Campbell, the creator and lead writer of The Amazing Extraordinary Friends, as well as TVNZ’s recent teen drama series The Cul de Sac. “I bought copies of AEF on DVD when it was first released, but kept giving them away to friends and family,” said Campbell, “so unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the show.” I was shocked to hear that he didn’t have access to his own series, but the knowledge that other copies were out there was reassuring.
As streaming becomes the norm, it’s hard to believe that anything could have a limited number of copies. But if it weren’t for the diligent hoarding of my friend’s disc-obsessed household, The Amazing Extraordinary Friends could have simply slipped through my fingertips. Media preservation is a complicated problem – the never-ending battle for licensing and distribution rights has made platforms like Netflix incredibly volatile.
Back in 2017, Disney began pulling all of its properties from Netflix as it prepared to launch its own service, Disney+. Until that launches later this year, several Disney movies are simply unavailable to stream. It’s safe to say that Disney movies will always be available somewhere – you can still buy or rent them individually through iTunes – but what does this mean for the little fish?
Cheesy superhero shows from New Zealand don’t get the same insurance as a Disney movie. When it comes time to renew a licence, it’s more likely that it’ll just get dropped entirely. A representative from TVNZ told me that “we typically license content rights for three to five years – as was the case with The Amazing Extraordinary Friends. After this time the ownership rights revert to the content producer. If we were to put the programme OnDemand again, we’d need to renegotiate rights.” In a case like this, where TVNZ OnDemand is the only place where a show exists, not renewing the licence means death for that series – at least until it’s picked up elsewhere.
There are some organisations that keep shows like The Amazing Extraordinary Friends alive, however. Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision is an archival trust that preserves New Zealand’s TV and film exploits. Its role in our national history is far more critical than its humble appearance might suggest, with a lot of its archives being made up of media that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The Amazing Extraordinary Friends is just one of the countless shows and movies it keeps in its multiple vaults across Wellington.
AEF may be safely protected within a vault, but what’s the point in media if we don’t get to experience it? An unfortunate reality of archiving these shows is that licensing is still required to distribute them to the public. For a charitable trust like Ngā Taonga, this is simply out of reach. Tight budgets already place a lot of strain on these organisations; to pay for distribution on top of that would be impossible.
NZ On Screen presents an alternative, an online showcase of New Zealand’s screen heritage. It has an episode of The Amazing Extraordinary Friends available to stream, all on its lonesome. NZ On Screen says that sacrificing depth was necessary. “Our prime motivation is to create awareness of our screen history among New Zealanders, and to do that we need breadth of content rather than having entire full-length titles and series.” Licensing costs make it too hard to keep an entire show when the aim is to showcase variety.
Organisations like NZ On Screen and Ngā Taonga are pivotal in protecting New Zealand’s media heritage, but they aren’t streaming services. It’s impossible for them to make everything freely available for new people to discover.
A representative from Ngā Taonga told me about how much they value stories of people rediscovering old content they hadn’t seen in years, but they also stressed the magic of discovering something they’ve never seen before. “It’s amazing to see something new that we didn’t know about. We’re constantly learning new things about our history, and it helps build a picture of the country as a whole: a collective memory,” they told me.
While I had seen episodes of AEF before, watching the show from the beginning gave me that very same magical feeling of discovery. Interestingly, the fact that I had seen the show as a child played no role in how I look at it now. The Amazing Extraordinary Friends actually had little significance to me as a child – it wasn’t until I watched it years later that I understood just how valuable the show is.
Media should be available to the people it’s most important to, and New Zealand media is important to New Zealanders. As Ngā Taonga puts it, this is our collective memory – our heritage. The Amazing Extraordinary Friends is just one out of thousands of shows that deserve to be loved and shared.
As it stands, our media is disappointingly temporary. AEF was a flash in the pan, just like countless shows before it. But none of them have to be. If we still had access to this media to share with each other, they could build up the cultural significance they deserve to have. Captain Extraordinary could be our Superman, our James Bond, our… Crocodile Dundee. We’re holding him back, maybe.
While I initially remembered The Amazing Extraordinary Friends as a schlocky kids show, watching it again a decade later reveals a much more engaging story than I ever could have expected. It’s a shame the show isn’t available for more people to experience the same revelation I did. It’s an even greater shame that there are countless more shows out there, not just locally, but internationally, that other people feel the same way about. Without the ability to revisit these shows, we lose the chance for people to discover something that might’ve been meaningful to them.
Think of your favourite show, movie, book or game. Imagine your life if you never discovered it, if it was lost to time and forgotten by the world. There are probably plenty of favourites you’ve missed out on for that exact reason. When I spoke to AEF’s creator, Stephen Campbell, he said, “It would be wonderful if the show contributes on some level to the popular culture and is remembered fondly”. I disagree. Why should it settle for being remembered, when it could be experienced by so many more people?