Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jonny Quest: “The Robot Spy” (Hanna-Barbera, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

With some extra time between the truncated ending of American Guerrilla in the Philippines and the beginning of Stephen Colbert’s show, Charles and I looked for other things to watch on the same flash drive as the movie and found them in an episode of the 1964-65 animated TV series Jonny Quest and half of a McGraw-Hill educational film called Life in the 30’s. Jonny Quest had been an oddball favorite of both Charles and I from our childhoods — I’d actually got to see it in its original run and he’d caught up with it in reruns — it was basically an attempt by the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio to do an action-adventure animated series with human characters and get it on in prime time (they’d already done that with The Flintstones and would do that again with The Jetsons — as a kid I always thought The Jetsons was way cooler than The Flintstones — but those were situation comedies and this was an action drama). The main characters were Professor Quest (voiced by Don Messick), his son Jonny (Tim Matheson, who later grew up to have an adult acting career, though on this show he was still using a longer version of his last name, “Matthieson”), his companion “Race” Bannon (Mike Road), Jonny’s (East) Indian friend Hadji (Danny Bravo) and his pet dog Bandit, who’s white overall but has black around his eyes that looks like he’s wearing a domino mask. In one sequence Hadji uses the magic words, “Sim-salabim!,” and levitates Bandit for no particular reason other than this is a cartoon, so he can — but for the most part this show is mostly within the bounds of 1960’s technology extrapolated just a bit to accommodate the characters of the rival scientific geniuses, the good Professor Quest and the evil Dr. Zin (Vic Perrin). 

“The Robot Spy” begins with the landing of a flying saucer in the desert near Professor Quest’s secure lab facilities. When its hatch open it reveals an inhabitant which is a black sphere, with four legs — it walks like a spider but, of course, with only half the complement of its real-life model’s legs (meaning less work for the animators), and it opens a lid to reveal a single red eye in the middle of its “head” with which it can see virtually anything. Of course, Professor Quest and Race Bannon (imagine, a guy named Bannon on TV with a decent haircut!) take it inside the lab — where it turns out its origins aren’t extraterrestrial at all: it’s really a robot spy (as if you couldn’t guess from the title!) which the evil Dr. Zin — who shows us a typical example of cartoon-villain insensitivity by batting away the food tray containing his dinner when his long-suffering servant brings it to him because he’s too lost in concentration over his experiment to want to be disturbed (being the servant of a super-villain is probably really hard work!) — is masterminding. He inserted the robot spy into a flying saucer as a Trojan horse, knowing that Quest couldn’t resist bringing it into his lab, where it’s going to download the plans for Quest’s super-weapon, the Para-Power Ray Gun, which can stop mechanical devices without injuring the humans working them. Only the robot spy can’t then upload the plans to Dr. Zin’s computer back at home base: it must physically carry them back to Dr. Zin’s redoubt, which means that the Quests (of course Jonny and Hadji tag along to the operation) and Bannon have a chance to stop it. Of course, this being a comic-adventure menace, bullets just bounce off the thing; it also resists flame-throwers and crashes through the electrified fence around the Quest lab, so the Quests have to trot out the Para-Power Ray Gun even though they haven’t tested it yet. The ending is predictable (though it is something of a surprise to see the flying saucer blow up as it lands, when the whole point of the super-weapon is to shoot things down without damaging them long-term!), but overall Jonny Quest is a fun show, at least in part because to modern eyes Professor Quest and “Race” Bannon come off as a Gay couple, presumably raising Jonny after his mother died and left the professor a widow. I barely knew anything about same-sex relationships when this show was originally aired and even I read something more than just a professional or friendship relationship between the two adult men on the show!