There are things that don’t exist in the world, because no one wants them, such as an in-depth analysis of a forgotten eighties cartoon. This column sets out to answer questions that no one asked. Enjoy.
Episode 1: Valley of Shadows
Written by: Gordon Bressack
Somewhere in Africa a man with a long, white beard stumbles out of the jungle. Around his neck he wears a medallion stolen from RunDMC. This won’t be the last instance of cultural theft in this episode. This is Brent Holworth, but we don’t care yet.
We’d rather check in with the Bionic Six, or rather, the Bennett family. They sit around contemplating the flavor of their mother’s science experiments. This our first impression of the team, an impression formed by fashionable pajamas and bad dad jokes. Trouble brews and the team departs, but not before summoning their awesome bionic powers to … get dressed. With a cry of “Bionics on” and an insertion of man rings into wrist cuffs (not as inappropriate as it sounds) the Bennett family transforms into the Bionic Six, the super team with the worst design aesthetic in history.
The Professor, the second, old, white academic featured in this episode, demonstrates his most potent super-power: exposition. Holworth, it turns out, disappeared looking for the west African Shangri-la, no, not Wakanda, the Valley of Shadows. Its legendary inhabitants are said to possess the secret of immortality. The professor knows all this because Holworth sent him the amulet, seen in the teaser, then promptly got kidnapped. Five years of living in the jungle and he’s fine, but two days in civilization and he’s Lindberg-babied. Mother-1, she of edible science, expresses concern for Holworth’s kidnapping when my man, J.D., asks the all important question, “by whom?” Way to go, J.D.
Enter Scarab, the Bionic Six’s archenemy. Or so we must guess since no one’s said a word about him yet. The bulbous face of a bald man wearing a bionic monocle (a bionicle?) leans over the distressed Brent Holworth. Scarab’s head mirror doesn’t overshadow the two most luscious lips on the planet from which he demands the location of the Valley of Shadows. His threats aren’t idle. Scarab sicks his minion, Mechanic, on Holworth before he can answer the question. Just to clarify for later discussion, anyone with a job (doctor, mechanic, motorcycle mechanic, whatever Glove is, etc.) is an enemy of the Bionic Six. It’s the tyranny of the one percent.
The world’s shortest interrogation ends with a quick-cut to a dolphin. In a weird twist, dolphins appear more often in Bionic Six than in the TigerSharks. In what is likely to be a favorite scene for those who didn’t tune in for the complex dynamics of a multi-racial family made up primarily of four teenagers, the Sky Dancer makes its first appearance. The Sky Dancer is a Concord-looking supersonic jet which takes off from an underwater hanger. Back to the gleam in Holworth’s eye and his confession to Scarab that the medallion is a key to the Valley of Shadows. We briefly meet Hotep, Scarab’s pet beetle, and then back to the Sky Dancer. No swimming jet is complete without an accompanying flying van, and thus we meet the M.U.L.E.S., a flying van, in case you didn’t catch that detail the first time.
I.Q, a.k.a. my man J.D., who is not afraid of punctuation is accompanied by Sport-1, a.k.a. the boring one. In an African village, far less racistly depicted than you would expect, Sport-1 makes a fool of himself by talking slowly and making big hand gestures. J.D., meanwhile, treats the villagers like people. A flash from the medallion sends the villagers running. Hey, I didn’t say it wasn’t racist, just less than you would expect. The boys meet Lyle Cavett, who served as Holworth’s guide the day he went missing. Cavett sports a broken arm, which he attributes to an injury on that expedition, five years ago. Wow, when Africa breaks your arm, it stays broken. Despite the fact that this is the man who lost Holworth in the jungle in the first place, they accept his help.
F.L.U.F.F.I the robotic gorilla, who is not awesome as that sounds, clears the bush by wrecking untold damage on the ecosystem, the environmental equivalent of ripping the jungle’s arm off and beating it to death with it. Eventually, they come to the two peaks depicted on the medallion. The boys decide to flip a medallion to decide which mountain to climb and, luckily for them, the sun catches the donut hole of the amulet and sends a laser to reveal the secret entrance.
At that moment, Cavett performs a reverse Nazi salute (does that make him less of Nazi?). His skin turns purple and his broken arm transforms into a pretty cool laser gauntlet. He triggers an avalanche that buries F.L.U.F.F.I. and the boys, because reverse Nazis don’t kill people. Sport-1 shouts out, “Glove!” This is the purple skinned character’s name, but it’s fun to imagine that it was a feeble attempt at a poetic final statement by the most boring member of the Bionic Six. Cue commercial break.
Meanwhile back at the camp, Holworth threatens Scarab who promptly has the dim-witted Mechanic throw him into a convenient snake pit. This is our first and only indication that Holworth is actually an elderly Indiana Jones. Continuing a useful streak to which he will never return, F.L.U.F.F.I. tunnels out of the boys’ impromptu grave. Sport-1 emerges with a twisted ankle. Despite being bionic and sports-based he can’t figure a way to play through the injury. J.D. aka I.Q. and F.L.U.F.F.I. form the society of too many initials and leave him behind.
The rest of the team arrives at Scarab’s camp and massacres a group of Cyphrons, Scarab’s robot minions. Wonderful explosions and face-kicks accompany awful dialogue. Mother-1 has a vision of Holworth in the snake pit. Rock-1 and Karate-1 rescue him in a scene which features a kick to a snake’s face, and then the team heads off to save Sport-1 from his own fragile joints. Sidelined on a rock, Sport-1 recounts J.D.’s journey through the mountain door and how it closed behind him. Holworth says there is no way to open it without the medallion, so the Bionic Five ignore him and shoot a laser beam at it powered by their family’s love. It does nothing, as predicted.
J.D. emerges into daylight on the far side of the mountain, to see what he can see. Look, it’s important to remember that everyone will forget the Valley by the end of this episode. I’m not saying it’s a racist depiction of an indigenous African culture, but I probably should say that to cover my ass. Let’s just say it’s no Wakanda. The Chief takes J.D. to the Hall of Time. J.D. is impressed because they have walls that show historical powerpoint presentations. C’mon J.D., you’re ninety percent robot, don’t be awed by this. The Chief tells the story of how his tribe came to live in the Valley and how the Stone of Life grants them immortality. For some reason, the chief takes J.D.’s medallion and gives him an identical one. No one mentions why the People of the Valley of Shadows never invented apostrophes. Anyway, Scarab stole the Stone of Life.
Somewhere else, newly immortal Scarab is psyched to have the Stone of Life. Glove is doing his best Starscream, suggesting they share power. When Scarab threatens Glove the Stone of Life fires a laser at him. In Bionic Six, anything can be a laser. Scarab is pleased. Meanwhile the Bionic Five, their one plan foiled, sit uncomfortably outside the door, helpless. Luckily, J.D., my man, emerges and leads them off to confront Scarab. Scarab robs a bank because immortality is not enough and hiding is off the table for reasons(?). The Bionic Six arrive. In a gripping moment of pathos that will make you cry if you think about it too much, the confused Mechanic calls them “bad guys.” Poor Mechanic. Scarab drops the gold that the Swiss Army Stone was levitating and attacks the Bionic Six with Life lasers. The Bionic Six love for each other, the Bionic Link, fails to save them once again. Scarab puts them in a Life cage.
When Sport-1 and Bionic-1 fire uselessly against the magic cage. J.D., my man, stares into the duplicate medallion that the Chief gave him. In a moment of insight-granting flashback, J.D. realizes that the medallions undo whatever the stone does. He walks through the bars of the cage, confronts Scarab, and reflects the power of the stone against itself. Scarab is “horribly aged’ by having two more wrinkles added to his face and two teeth fall out. The Cyphrons join the battle. Bionic butt-kicking ensues. Scarab and his minions run.
The Bionic Six return the Stone of Life to the temple. The Chief promises that the Valley of Shadows will be there when they need it, then he erases their memories. It’s hard to need something you don’t know exists. Scarab is similarly memory-erased and his appearance, such as it is, is restored. A bad joke is repeated and the story ends. And so the first televised Bionic Six adventure might as well not have happened.
- When J.D. is in the Hall of Time the Chief exchanges the medallion that opened the door for an identical medallion. Why? Did the first run out of batteries?
- The Chief of the Valley of Shadows seems to dig hard on J.D., and who can blame him, but is there something else behind this infatuation? Could J.D. be a lost inhabitant of the Valley of Shadows?
Despite the chiding, the first episode of the Bionic Six does have something to recommend it. It presents a surprisingly nuanced view of Africa and, with a bit of reading into the subtext, an empowering narrative for J.D., the show’s primary, and often only, African American character. Layer on top of that the fact that he is the first character to get a highlight (this being the first episode) and its value grows, even with its shortcomings.
The major kudos for this episode surrounds the unnamed African village. Produced in the eighties, not too far from the poverty porn of Live Aid, we meet a group of Africans with a variety of clothing, both traditional and modern. They speak their own language which goes untranslated. Their village has a functional economy, enough to support a bank, which Scarab later robs. Ignoring the unfortunate moment when the medallion frightens the villagers, the presentation of this village is fair. Nothing like what the average child would have seen as depictions of Africa at the time and far closer to reality.
It may seem pandering that in the African episode the African American character gets to star. However, the episode itself never draws attention to this fact. Instead we simply see a competent character confronting and overcoming a difficult situation. When Sport-1 gets sidelined the story continues without him. J.D. finds the secret civilization, escapes his prison (when others can’t), ultimately saves the day and returns the stolen artifact. The Chief of the Valley of the Shadow only ever speaks to J.D., marginalizing the other characters. If this were the only episode to be produced you would have to call the series I.Q.
The depiction of the Valley of the Shadows is not without issues. The show presents a back-to-nature-type secret society. The chief’s traditional garments border on mimicry. Having a culture-based on magic when science/science fiction was an option feels shortsighted with the benefit of hindsight (and the worldwide box office of Black Panther to point to). Of course, a Watsonian explanation would highlight the fact that an immortal race with magic powers would have little need for scientific achievement. While it’s disappointing to miss an interaction between the logical J.D. and a potential science wizard, accepting the story on its own terms reveals a surprisingly progressive episode.
Finally, there is the last interaction between J.D. and the Chief. Read one way it’s a disappointing and racist take that relates the stereotype that all ________ know each other. The ________ in this case being Africans. Take it from another viewpoint and something else emerges. A victim of the African diaspora returning to his homeland to find himself welcomed by a man who has been there since before the slave trade. None of this is on the surface, but nothing in the narrative precludes the interpretation. Given the thoughtful depictions of Africa, up to this point, why not extend the benefit of the doubt.
The first episode features an African American character as its indisputable star. He travels to Africa which is presented with nuance and as the source of all power in the episode. J.D. ultimately uses his brain to save the day. The story manages to marry sense of wonder with a sense of identity for one of its minority characters. Overall, this is a clear success.
I wouldn’t be writing on a topic as obscure as the Bionic Six if I didn’t want some feedback. Whenever or however you’ve read this review, I’d like to know. What did you think of the episode?
Am I being too kind to the writers for their depiction of the Valley of Shadows?
Is Lyle Cavett a reference to a specific character/actor/role?
What are your thoughts on J.D./I.Q.?
Should I leave poor F.L.U.F.F.I. alone?
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Thanks for reading.