I had this idea of writing down my own, personal 8ack5tory. It seemed like a great idea, and then I started to write and it all came out like a big mush of vague, soft, meandering memories. And then I had this second idea that I would like to write something about old movies, games, music, and tid-bits of pop-culture from my youth… and those two ideas crashed together into a chocolate-meets-peanut-butter kind of mess that seemed too good to ignore. And thus… well… read on for another episode of my 8ack5tory.
Life, The Universe, and The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin…
The saturday morning cartoon phenomenon so gloriously romanticized by my generation was more-than-likely fueled by the corporate co-opting of medium budget animation into twenty-minute long television advertisements for toys. Iterations of this phenomenon varied widely in their results, but those that succeeded are not only still remembered fondly and used as the basis for many twenty-first century re-imaginings of their canon (think “Transformers” or “The Smurfs”) but probably sold a lot of toys in their day, too. One iteration that may not have been as widely successful, but none-the-less secured a steady foothold in the hearts of many youth of my era (including yours truly I shall sheepishly admit) was the cartoon series linked inexorably to a robotically-animated plush bear (for sale at a toy store near you!) with a cassette player in his back: Teddy Ruxpin.
Admittedly I missed this particular program when it appeared in 1986. I also was never the owner of a Teddy Ruxpin doll, probably because I was nearly, but not-quite, a teenager when it first appeared and… hey: a talking teady bear? “No thanks.” Wrong demographic, though only by a bear’s hair.
…it got inside my head…
But something (retrospectively) fortuitous occured. For at least a whole year in the early ninteen-nineties early on each weekday morning for precisely the half hour between when I had prepared for — and when I left to walk to — school, back in the days of single digit VHF channels, before the inkling of PVRs or Netflix might even be a fleeting dream, and when the weekday options for youth programming were slim-to-none, a local channel aired the entire series (in repetition) of The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin. I watched. I watched because I had nothing better to do. I watched each and every morning between breakfast and school…
…and it got inside my head.
I was a teenager by that point. The details are blurry, but I think I may have even been in high school (or at the very latest, grade nine.) And though it has taken me nigh on twenty-five years to reconcile that interest in a (seemingly) juvenile cartoon at a slightly inappropriate age, it was not until I picked up a copy of the entire boxed set of DVDs last week and started playing them for my daughter that I realized why it was that the show got into my head. And I’d like to suppose that said parasitic-like latching of the show to my brain for all these years has something to do with my current obsessions with…
…long-arc story-telling and canon:
The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin pulled something off that was both rare and precious in television of its era, and that even now is in only moderate supply. The world of this animated bear and his pals hunting for a long-lost treaure was not only consistent from episode to episode, but it was rich with a detailed and elaborate canon that drove a long-arc story across much of the duration of the show.
Short-arc stories are the typical sitcom-style stories where a kind of setting exists with characters, but because of how television shows are generally run and then syndicated (in other words, to avoid confusing viewers) each episode is self-contained. One could watch them in any order because (apart from small anomalies to this rule due to pilots or casting issues or whatever) the events of one episode don’t cross over or impact the events in the next episodes. Think: “The Simpsons” where characters rarely age, the world rarely changes, and when a major character dies or disappears it is because of some real-life actor leaving the show or dying.
Medium-arc stories are similar, relying on mostly self-contained stories on a per-episode basis, but simulataneously acknowledge that characters change, relationships come and go, and that there is generally a meta-story going on in the background universe of the show that gets tapped into routinely for side-plots or to add context to the episodic stories. Think: “Big Bang Theory” where each episode is a little story about the character lives and adventures and, while it helps to know those characters and their traits and current (inter)relationship status, it’s not tough to ‘parachute in’ to some random episode as a casual viewer and be entertained nonetheless.
…a world rich with change and growth that require investment from the viewer…
Long-arc stories are all about the big picture: long arc stories build a canon, a world rich with change and growth and long-term plots that require investment from the viewer to not only keep up to date within, but to watch each episode in order else risk missing something that happened in a prior part of the story. Think: “Lost” where the over-arching plot (though usually quickly summarized at the beginning of each episode with a”last week on…”) could leave you lost for weeks following if you missed even the fifteen second bumper during the credits that your PVR failed to record because of time-shifting.
Long-arc stories are awesome. At least I think so.
The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin pulled off a long-arc cartoon plot in a densely populated and consistent universe, and it did this in the era of cartoons based on breakfast cereals and cheap plastic toys. How is that not impressive? It impressed me. I still love it when someone can pull off that kind of scope in storytelling, and wish I had the time and energy to do it myself.
Of course a whole lot of this long-arc story revolved around a grand, technology-driven world inhabited by a sweeping variety of sentient creatures of all shapes and sizes. While not strictly steampunk, I would argue that the world of Teddy Ruxpin — and what better argument than the fact it was promoting kids to go out and buy a mechanical talking bear at Toys’R Us — laid the foundations for many science-driven mechanical universes to follow.
For the un-initiated, steampunk is a genre of fiction that romanticizes what is essentially an alternate historical fork: strictly speaking it presumes that Victorian era science of the late 1800s blossomed into a kind of technological development path that brought society (past, present or future) to world afforded similar modern conviences (such as computers, flight, and telecommunications) but rather than through electricity and electronics, this occured through a metalurgically-infused confluence of steam-powered mechancial technology. It is a non-magical kind of science fiction adorned with brass, leather, and proper manners. It is also a fairly broad and widely-encompassing sub-genre of science fiction.
I could hardly call myself a steampunk fanatic, and I certainly have never ventured into the oh-so-popular cosplay realm of this obsession, but I read and watch my fair share of said genre.
And arguably — almost certainly — a critical eye would put the world of The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin into the realm of — if not quite absolutely, then-a-precursor-to — steampunk.
…in the first episode they get advice on airship aeronautical principles from a wood sprite…
I mean, just read some of the lyrics to the opening theme: “Let’s Go, To Far Off Places; And Search For Treasure’s Bright; Come Dream With Me Tonight; Let’s Build a Giant Airship; And Sail Into The Sky.” It is a world already rife with airships, treasure seekers, sailing the skies, and the allusion to the fact these are not magical constructions, but rather the result of a kind of mad-scientist-style, tinkering hermit working within the confines of physics. Heck, in the first episode they get advice on airship aeronautical principles from a wood sprite and end up rebuilding the ship to conform to what I can only assume is meant to imply something like actual physics.
I’ve always loved both science fiction and fantasy, but if I had to choose between the two my preference would always lean strongly in favour of the sprawling technological multiverses of science fiction — and mashed in there somewhere, I’ve got a soft-spot for steampunk reaching back into my youth. Is it any wonder then that the Ruxpin would have piqued my interest then and now?
Of course, in high school — or at least in my mid-teens — I was like so many other teens at that age… in that I was something of a sponge for philosophical meaning and purpose. What’s that, you say? You’ve jumped to the conclusion that no one under the age of twenty could possibly have a complex thought in their heads about philosophy?
You obviously didn’t have friends like mine.
I did a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about ideas that hadn’t really popped into my head until that point…
My sample size is admittedly small and not exactly random: a handful of middle-class kids from small-town Canada in an advanced placement program. But I am absolutely clear on one thing about that span of my life; Amongst the puberty and the angst and the frustrations of fighting for shards of independence and the hate-filled schmozzle of a cluster-frak incubator that is also known as high school, I did a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about ideas that hadn’t really popped into my head until that point, namely philosophy. And I had lots of friends with lots of different ideas — though fleshed out in only the most trivial and shallow forms — on the subject of morality, mortality, mind, spirit, religion, ideology, culture, politics, and knowledge itself. That said, the only real difference I would argue between my sample and the reality of the school at large is that openly thinking and talking about these things was not the epitome of “cool” — a factor which didn’t really play in our situation anyhow, if you catch my drift. So we talked about this stuff.
Now? To claim that The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin made any sort of noticable impact on these discussions would be a leap of faith I’m not exactly willing to make in a article like this. It simply didn’t register.
But given, if there is one thing I have learned in the decades since about the nature of knowledge it is this: everything we do and experience forms this vast tapestry of ideas that shapes everything else we do and think. And while in my humble little life I won’t claim to have experienced some kind of beyond-extraordinary or epic-life-shaping event that has forged me into a new person, I have had time to reflect on the mosaic that makes up my philosophical viewpoint and it is heavily bent towards and shaped by existentialist philosophies (as much as no true existentialist would ever admit that!)
Teddy Ruxpin, like any wandering adventurer taking life as it comes, is possbily an existentialist, as impossible to define and pin-down as that label might be. Instead of rolling into an amateur lesson on philosophy here I’ll simply support this by stating that the character of Ruxpin himself is not only shaped by some kind of search for truth and meaning in his universe, but it occurs in an axiomatic obsession with knowledge, free will, and the choices of the self in that universe: he seeks out an adventure as a matter of defining his existence… in a way. And that this is such a complex notion I dare not dive any further into it and simply suggest you pull out your philosophy primer and figure it out on your own.
This mosaic of experience and interest — perhaps even obsession — with shows like The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin and its ilk is a patchwork-quilt-like backdrop for exploring these ideas. It’s mental fodder for philosophical thought. And it’s this backdrop that has shaped who I am today.
Though I’ve had to herein humble myself substantially to publicly admit a quiet-perhaps-inappropriate obsession with a 80s cartoon about a robot bear and his friends, I’m not ashamed to admit that a critical eye would easily find in the sixty-some episodes a bit of what I likely found as a teenager: a complex story, a cultural meme ahead of its time, and a multi-dimensional set of characters that could grab onto one’s brain like an eight-footed parasite and never let go.
Old movies, aged music, 8-bit-games, and retro-culture might not be historical touch-points for you, but they have — with over thirty-years of evidence and observation to support that claim — pushed, shaped, and altered who I think I am: and that\’s a bit of my retro-backstory. What\’s yours?