ReBoot’s First Two Seasons: The Birth of Computer Animation on Television

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by Andrew Bloom

in Television

Toy Story, the first fully CGI feature film, would still have worked without its groundbreaking, digitally-rendered aesthetic. The film’s visuals were certainly eye-popping in 1995, and Pixar’s decision to feature toys as the main characters was partly motivated by an aim to mask the limitations of computer animation at the time. But at its core, Toy Story is a universal tale about jealousy and acceptance than transcends the particular style employed by its creators. It could have been a traditionally animated film or a comic book or even a puppet show, and while some of its elements would certainly have been lost or changed in translation, the heart of the film would still work just as effectively.

ReBoot, on the other hand, the first fully CGI television show (which, incidentally, predates Toy Story by about a year), may very well be inextricable from the medium in which it was expressed. The show’s premise is inherently tied to technology. Set in Mainframe, an electronic metropolis that represents the inner workings of a computer, the world of ReBoot is replete with a series of anthropomorphic “sprites”, “binomes”, and “viruses” who deal with reality-altering games input by a mysterious “User”, unruly visitors from “The Supercomputer”, and vague whispers about “The Web.”

As with Toy Story, the artificiality of ReBoot’s setting helped the show to overcome the fact that full photorealism was beyond the reach of computer animation in the early 90s. But that same digital aesthetic also proved to be the perfect medium for depicting this sort of world, to the point that it’s hard to imagine the series working apart from the computer-generated imagery that made the show stand out among its Saturday morning brethren. That’s why I’m more than a little leery of the upcoming, inevitable reimagining of the series. Part of what made ReBoot so inseparable from its computer-animated style is the fact that the show was not merely closely connected to technology; it was closely connected to a conception of technology as it existed in 1994.

This may be a case of confusing which came first, the chicken or the egg, but when I watched the series as a child, ReBoot’s Mainframe was more or less what I imagined the inner-workings of a PC to look like. Clarke’s Third Law is especially true for children, where the wonders of the modern world are hard to distinguish from the magic described in fairy tales and picture books. In many ways, each journey to the computerized world of ReBoot felt akin to visiting The North Pole and getting to see how the toys were made. The show’s setting worked as a fantastical metaphor for the way that modern computers functioned that was very much of its time, and its computer-generated graphics drove that point home.

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Those graphics and that sensibility, however, can also make the series seem a bit dated when looking back on its early outings. Several moments in the show resemble cutscenes from a Nintendo 64 game. And yet that’s also the charm of ReBoot.

Twenty years hence, there’s not the same widely-held fondness for the blockier, low-texture trappings of gaming’s first forays into 3D graphics that there is for the industry’s initial 8-bit aesthetic. But there’s something nevertheless very nostalgic in that style, employed with gusto by ReBoot, for a certain generation of viewers. It calls to mind the first Bambi-like steps into the three-dimensional gaming world of Super Mario 64, the outsized fun of NFL Blitz, and the epic scope of Ocarina of Time. A child today could easily look at an old episode of ReBoot and be thrown by the now-primitive, then-pioneering graphics; the series is very much a product of the age in which it was produced, both in terms of its graphics and the show’s concept for what computers, games, and “The Net” were like at the time. But that’s what makes the now-rudimentary look of the series in its early years so endearing and appropriate.

ReBoot needs that type of charm because its various plots are, at best, a mixed bag. Few episodes in the show’s first two seasons (the ones I originally watched as a child) are out-and-out bad. Most are simply paint-by-numbers parables that manage to muster a little extra spark for their taking place amid the hum of a working computer. The show generally takes advantage of its digital setting, but its stories hew toward age-appropriate lessons and well-worn narratives, with ample helpings of clunky exposition.

To the point, the personalities of its three main characters are all fairly standard issue. Guardian Bob is a run-of-the-mill hero and all-around good guy. His job title gives him the responsibility to “mend and defend”: mend assorted “tears” that threaten Mainframe and defend the city against The User in various games where losing means that all participants become “nullified”. Bob’s compatriot Dot is a sharp-witted entrepreneur and part-time freedom fighter. She often joins  Bob in protecting Mainframe, and her more button-down, deliberate style occasionally clashes with his rough-and-tumble attitude. Finally, Enzo, Dot’s precocious little brother, idolizes Bob and has the typical, Disney-esque “I want to go out and see the world” mentality, with the corresponding lack of appreciation for danger and the propensity to get into messes that Bob and Dot have to clean up.

A few more minor characters show up throughout the series to keep things interesting. Phong is the sprite nominally in charge of Mainframe. He resembles a cross between Yoda and a desk lamp, and offers sage, if sometimes mystifying advice to the main trio. Enzo’s dog Frisket is the group’s mascot, and he sporadically functions as a canis ex machina solution to the crisis of the week. Mike the TV is, true to his name, a walking television, whose pop cultural riffs and impressions feel of a piece with The Genie’s in Aladdin.

But the most entertaining characters in ReBoot’s early seasons are its two main villains, a pair of viruses who make up the yin and yang of evil in Mainframe. The first, Megabyte, is some combination of Darth Vader, Scar from The Lion King, and Sideshow Bob. Voice actor Tony Jay’s oily baritone helps imbue Megabyte with the slimy, intimidating presence that lets him both pose a credible threat to our heroes and bask in the megolamanianical delights of his villainy. He’s rarely outright scary (despite the few occasions where he bares his claws and chases after our heroes like a jungle cat), but he’s Mainframe’s most persistent threat, and the moments where he chews scenery or barks at his underlings (including Hack and Slash, his two primary, bumbling henchmen) are some of the show’s most enjoyable.

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The most indelible villain of ReBoot, however, is Mainframe’s own one-woman lunatic fringe — Hexadecimal, an axe-crazy Ophelia-type, decked out in a Venetian mask and ostentatious, theatrical garb, all the better to accent her flair for the dramatic. Whereas Megabyte’s plans are generally cold and calculated, Hexadecimal’s tend more toward Joker-esque improvisational mayhem — wreaking her particular brand of havoc simply to vitiate her own deranged desires rather than to achieve any larger goal. She’s one of the most compelling parts of these early episodes, and the source of the show’s few legitimately chilling scenes, with a hint of eldritch horror behind her interchangeable masks and mercurial temper.

Combining all of these elements, the best episodes of ReBoot’s first couple of seasons fit into one of two categories: they either lean wholeheartedly into weightless comedy so as to give the audience nothing but light entertainment, or they commit fully to action and spectacle to show off the high points and potential of the series’s aesthetic.

The former approach succeeds despite the fact that the show’s humor is not especially clever. It mostly relies on mildly cute computer-related plays on words and Looney Tunes-esque slapstick. But it’s often goofy and light-hearted enough that the show can coast on the easy fun of it all.

This method works best in low-stakes stories where, for instance, Dot may defuse an attack from a ship full of comical pirates using her knowledge of good accounting practices. One of the show’s most memorable episodes has little in the way or story or conflict, focusing instead on a series of mostly silly acts in a talent show for Enzo’s birthday. That episode features a parody of The Village People (who perform a song poking fun at the show’s clashes with network censors), a cameo by the CGI characters from the “Money for Nothing” music video (which was created by the people behind ReBoot), and ends with a rock and roll guitar battle between Bob and Megabyte.

Those types of references and homages are par for the course for ReBoot, which uses them both for comedy and for drama. A random episode of the show may feature a thinly-veiled pastiche of William Shatner performing “Rocket Man”, borrow motifs from works like Aliens and The X-Files (with Gillian Anderson herself voicing her Mainframe counterpart “Nully”), or even put together full, episode-length parodies of the Power Rangers T.V. show or the Mad Max film series.

The show’s Mad Max homage (creatively titled “Bad Bob”), is a great example of the all-killer-no-filler action approach that makes the most of the malleability of the series’s computerized setting. Borrowing that film’s visual style and premise and giving our heroes a straightforward problem to solve offers the folks behind ReBoot the freedom to move from setpiece to setpiece without having to dig too deeply into the narrative or characterization elements the show was less adept at, and it puts the creativity of its animators front and center.

And sometimes, all of these elements come together in an episode like “Painted Windows”, where Hexadecimal gains control of Mainframe’s paint protocol, leading to any number of enjoyable references to classic art, fun visual gags using perspective and composition, creative action sequences where Dot races through digitized chaos, and even frightening scenes in Hexadecimal’s lair after Bob removes Hex’s mask.

But amid the tech-drenched fables, broad comedy, and rip-roaring action sequences, there was a slow but steady undercurrent of worldbuilding. It’s rarely subtle, with various characters providing clunky, piecemeal explanations to Enzo (and by proxy, the audience) as to how Mainframe operates, with hints of the world beyond the city’s digital walls. Much is made of how The User’s games function, the existence of other sprites, guardians, and mercenaries, and the untold mysteries in the multitude of other, similar systems out there. The show had neither the time nor the budget to robustly explore these concepts in its first two seasons, but they were promised as lying just beyond the horizon, occasionally peeking into Enzo’s otherwise provincial life. With the show’s eventual move toward gradual serialization, more of these elements were tied together and brought into play, but most of the show’s first two seasons is essentially episodic, with hints here and there of greater forces at work. It’s a vibe that suited the tip-of-the-iceberg promise held by the first computer animated show on television.

Nostalgia tints our view of the works that gripped us as children. ReBoot was thrilling in the mid-90s in no small measure because it looked and felt so novel and so different from any other show on television. In the present day, CGI television shows are a dime a dozen, and that fact threatens to make ReBoot nothing but a footnote in the history of computer animation.

And yet, in its first two seasons, ReBoot is more than that. While graphically limited compared to the breathtaking worlds depicted in works like Inside Out, or even Star Wars: Rebels, ReBoot’s visuals have a retro-charm to them that persists long after the initial novelty has worn off. And while the show might not work as well were its CGI-accoutrement stripped away, the show’s creators used their talents to construct an imaginative ecosystem, one that evinced both a visual inventiveness and a sense of fun and adventure that make the series both a product of its time, and yet also enjoyable as a throwback to a time when television took its first digital steps and the possibilities were endless.

 

Andrew Bloom (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He imagines that in another twenty years or so, kids will be waxing poetic about the first Oculus Rift television show, and he’ll be yelling at them to get off of his lawn.

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