Remembering Captain Planet, 30 years on

Three decades since it first emerged on our screens, Captain Planet and the Planeteers will always be remembered as the show that introduced an entire generation to corporate greed and environmental protection. 

Children of the late 1980s and early 1990s had a number of iconic cartoons to choose from: Transformers, He-Man, Gummi Bears, My Little Pony, Dangermouse, Inspector Gadget, Care Bears – the after school hours provided hours of engaging entertainment in an era before the internet and personal devices annexed our attention.

These shows were colourful, had catchy theme songs and fantastical plot lines. But there was one in particular that burst onto that crowded cartoon scene with a very, very different spirit. That show was Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

The villains, heroes and mythology

This year is the 30th anniversary of that show I remember watching as a kid all those years ago. Even back then I realised it had a different heartbeat than the others. It sought to promote a responsible approach to our environment a few decades before the idea became mainstream. But it was also ahead of its time in a number of other very interesting ways.

For example, the villains were bad in different ways to other evil characters like Megatron, Skeletor or Dr Claw. Instead, the Captain Planet characters usually represented corporate business or industry with profit driven motives who took pleasure in trashing the environment. Their greed and self-interest was portrayed as negative in an era obsessed with profits, globalism, economic booms and Wall Street success. The pollution-creating villains had names that gave them away: Looten Plunder, Hoggish Greedly and Verminous Skumm.

Hoggish Greedly (Screenshot)

The good characters, on the other hand, were a multi-ethnic group of young teenagers who foiled the villains plans, with the help of the eponymous hero Captain Planet. The diversity of the group meant everyone watching would have someone they could identify with. They came from all over the planet – North America, Eastern Europe, Asia, South America. The fact that their leader, Kwame, was from Africa showed an almost effortless progressiveness long before such inclusivity became more common and deliberate in other media.

The mythology is important to understand as it helps explain the tone: The spirit of the planet (Gaia – voiced by Whoopi Goldberg in the first seasons) brings together five young people who are each given a ring that has the power to summon the elements: earth, wind, fire, water and perhaps the most powerful, heart. The plot line was consistent every episode: the planeteers would combine their powers to summon Captain Planet and take down the villains who wanted to pollute and destroy the environment.

Perhaps the most iconic feature of the show was the theme song, which immortalised the ethos of the show in our memories: “Captain Planet, he’s our hero, gonna take pollution down to zero”. It went on to have a pseudo rapping/chanting section which went like this:

We’re the planeteers, You can be one too!
‘Cause saving our planet is the thing to do,
Looting and polluting is not the way,
Hear what Captain Planet has to say: “THE POWER IS YOURS!!”

Getting beneath the surface

The show was a relatively early example of edutainment – content that sought not just to entertain but to create awareness about important issues. For the kids that watched it, Captain Planet fostered the idea of environmentalism perhaps more than any other piece of media. But what was the story behind Captain Planet? Was it really just an environmentally-focused show with a consistent theme of “saving the day” against corporate greed? Overall, with childhood memories as my evidence, I would say yes. But as an adult, if you look behind the scenes of Captain Planet and its catchy theme song, you find what was actually the pet project of billionaire media mogul Ted Turner.

That raises some questions, such as why the many celebrity names that made cameos on the show appeared mainly in the first seasons only – did they get disillusioned with the motives of the series? Those involved included Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum, Sting, Neil Patrick Harris and Martin Sheen. A cynic might wonder if the show was an example of “green washing” – a show to entertain kids while selling advertising space, using environmentalism to appear relevant and conscientious.

Ted Turner (Photo: Ben Rose/Getty Images for UNICEF)

Turner himself appeared in an episode called “Who’s Running the Show?” as an environment-friendly media mogul inconspicuously named “Fred Lerner”. In the episode, the character became an ally for Captain Planet and dedicated TV programming to the environment.

Despite Turner’s obvious fingerprints on the show, I’d say it had a net positive impact on getting children to at least think about important issues like pollution, recycling and care for the planet.

Of course, the other flaw is the fact that while the planeteers used their rings with good intentions, every episode they ended up summoning Captain Planet – perhaps sending a detrimental message that an adult or hero has to be there to fix the problem. Perhaps it would have been more interesting, and empowering, if sometimes the young people were able to save the day on their own. It also oversimplifies the complex issues being discussed by assuming that they can be solved within a 20 minute plot line.

The legacy

The show had a fairly long life. It ran for six seasons until 1996, with Captain Planet saving the environment for a total of 113 episodes. Over the years there have been rumours that a feature length movie might emerge, some with a theory that Leonardo DiCaprio was looking at a reboot. While there are currently no plans it wouldn’t be much of a suprise to one day see a reboot along the lines of Transformers, Scooby Doo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokémon, Power Rangers or the Smurfs. Mining the nostalgia of childhood can be a lucrative business.

The show has also been featured in other pop culture like Funny or Die sketches with Don Cheadle as Captain Planet.

One of the main legacies is the Captain Planet Foundation, which was set up in 1991 and runs Ocean Heroes, Project Learning Garden and Project Hero. Its website talks about “empowering next generation changemakers” and gives out grants to programmes that get children out into the environment. The current chair is Laura Turner Seydel, Ted Turner’s daughter.

So what is the legacy of Captain Planet? Having been one of those 90s kids who watched dozens of episodes, I’d say it it had a really positive impact on many of my generation. It’s with some sadness that I remember it, though, because clearly we did not get things right; the environment is in need of even more help today. While it may have been a bit cheesy, at least the show was trying to address some of the bigger issues we face and making the point that we are all living on one planet. That message – that we should all do our part as Planeteers – is needed now more than ever.




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