Sometime in the late 1980s, Ted Turner came to a conclusion about Scooby-Doo: It didn’t have much of a message.
Nor did Yogi Bear, or The Flintstones, or any of Hanna-Barbera’s multiple animated properties that Turner had purchased the rights to air as part of his children’s programming blocks on the Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS). Scooby was not concerned with the environment—his friends got around in a smoke-belching van. As an environmental activist, Turner decided he wanted to use more of TBS’s airtime to explore the effects of pollution, deforestation, and the ozone layer.
In 1988, Turner summoned Barbara Pyle, his vice president of environmental concerns, and gave her two words: "Captain Planet." Pyle asked what that meant.
"Figure it out," he said, and turned away.
The rise of eco-consciousness in the 1980s had been reflected on an episode-by-episode basis on several television shows, but none had ever made it the recurring focus. With Captain Planet and the Planeteers, an animated series that ran from 1990 to 1996, Turner had ushered in the first programming of its kind: a narrative that hinged directly on the man-made hazards putting stress on the environment.
Working with producers Thom Beers and Nicholas Boxer, Pyle took Turner’s notion and beefed it up considerably: Captain Planet would be a mullet-wearing hero who materializes when summoned by the Planeteers, a group of five teenagers from across the globe who try to minimize the damage done by eco-villains like Looten Plunder and Verminous Skumm. Instead of bank robberies, the team would confront tuna fishermen entrapping dolphins and oil drillers. Pollution would weaken Captain Planet; solar energy would empower him.
Pyle ran a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter, calling on the entertainment industry to lend its talents to television’s first environmentally-aware educational program for kids. Despite having no credits in voiceover work, Tom Cruise was the first to get back to her; as an activist, Cruise appreciated the message and agreed to voice Captain Planet, who bore a passing resemblance to the actor. Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Jeff Goldblum, and several other well known actors followed suit. Pyle even got Carl Sagan and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Jacques's son) to consult on the program for no fee.
But when Captain Planet and the Planeteers premiered in September of 1990—it aired both on TBS and in syndication—Cruise was nowhere to be heard. After recording six episodes, the Days of Thunder star was reportedly insistent on having more control in how the show was merchandised and what topics it would explore. (At the time, his representatives declared it was a scheduling issue.) Rather than have a jarring vocal change during the first season, producers opted to re-record his lines.
Turner, meanwhile, had tried to convince his board of directors that the expensive series would be worthwhile. Fearing kids wouldn’t want anything to do with a "message" cartoon or that they might not even pick up on the message at all, they insisted Turner was wasting money.
Very informal polls of kids saw things differently. In a piece in The New York Times, 8-year-old critic Mollie Lief said she grasped the concept of an episode in which animal watering holes were drying up. "The elephants, the birds, the fish, they have to have water," she said. "It’s a good show to teach children."
Savvy consumer that she was, Lief also mentioned she had no desire for a Captain Planet T-shirt, declaring "that's not my style."
That sentiment might have disappointed Turner, who was dependent on the 50-plus licensees making tie-in products to help fund the Captain Planet Foundation, a firm devoted to financing environmental education programs. Unlike most shows, toys for Captain Planet had to meet a reasonable standard of sustainability. A globe bearing the Captain’s likeness was made from paperboard and stuffed with recycled clothing; toy packaging used recycled cardboard. (There was never getting around the plastic used for the action figures, which some observers cheerfully pointed out was counter-productive to the show’s aversion to wastefulness.)
By 1993, Captain Planet was a success: more than 7 million weekly viewers tuned in to see how the Planeteers would resolve ivory poaching, puppy mills, and radiation leaks. Brief 30-second spots at the end would highlight tips that could be implemented in the home, like cutting up six-pack plastic rings before disposal. Other cartoons, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, began to slip in eco-friendly messages: the Turtles reminded kids not to leave the water running while brushing.
Unlike most animated shows of the era, which typically had short production runs of two or three years, Captain Planet ran for six seasons and 113 episodes. In 1994, it even changed its name to The New Adventures of Captain Planet to remind viewers they weren’t watching reruns.
It was a large library of lecturing, and not everyone was pleased. Some critics believed the series instilled a concerning suspicion of humans in children, where man and technology were inevitably responsible for harming nature. One pundit called it the "greenwashing" of youth.
In the end, Captain Planet was in little danger of creating an environmental cult. According to Pyle, environmental consciousness ceased to be cool; Turner wound up selling TBS to Time-Warner, minimizing his input over content. The sixth and final season, which was aired internationally, was on ice for 10 years before being screened in the United States.
It wouldn’t be the Captain’s last stand, however. Laura Turner Seydel, Ted’s daughter, held fundraisers to keep the Captain Planet Foundation going, and the organization is still in operation today. The characters recently popped up in a Ford Focus commercial, and Hollywood is mulling a possible feature film. While a new wave of licensing might create new waste materials, the show really did try its best to practice what it preached: animators recycled the storyboards for each episode.