God and...Cartoon Network!
Posted on Mar 17 2010 at 09:08:53 AM in TV Shows
Hopefully you don't know me, but if you do, you know that this new children's sci fi has completely captured my heart. Why the crazy over Ben 10 and its sequel, Alien Force? Well, let's start with the sci fi.
Admittedly, the "science" part of this kid's show is somewhat lacking at times. The producers expect that throwing out the word "DNA" every few minutes and mixing it up with "turbo" will impress their audience, and since it's made up of ten-year-olds, they're probably right. The Omnitrix, the alien watch that melds itself irreversibly with the child protagonist's DNA, stores genetic information from all over the universe and then mutates the wearer into one of "ten super cool alien dudes," as Ben says. How is not explained, but the awesome transformations Ben undergoes takes our nine-year-old minds out of the realm of magic and into that elusive imaginative world of the possibilities of science. What if genetic instability and the universally horrible effect of mutation on the human body could be REVERSED? What if, in the light of the progression of gene therapy, in vitro gene transformation could go BACK AND FORTH? And, more importantly for the target audience, what if a ten year old boy can be a superhero? THAT kind of question, the wonderful what if, is why science fiction is a good thing for kids, and why it didn't hurt to throw a little more science into Ben 10.
However, after doggedly tracking Ben 10's spin-off, Ben 10 Alien Force, I have discovered why it is a good thing the original series did NOT delve TOO much into the science. Sometimes Man of Action, bless his soul, does not merely offend the intelligence of children: he stomps on the beauty of science fiction itself. I made sure to go back and put in the word "sometimes", because sometimes Man of Action very nicely hints at how the Omnitrix works by relating it to topics he/they know about, such as Wi Fi. The diverse alien creatures themselves really do form the backbone of the show, making for some terribly interesting daydreaming, especially in the first series. The danger lies in easily obvious scientific fallacies. The moment any sixth-grader with a periodic table realizes that there cannot be a Uranium isotope with as many neutrons as posited in season 3's "Fool's Gold," the flaw rips attention away from the fiction. Add to that injury the insult of watching a character bounce on Uranium deposit explosions--an absolute impossibility-- and people like this critic show up. Fiction is great, and fantasy is great, but when you're making science fiction, vague is better than pure WRONG, because it allows us, the viewers, to come up with our own explanations. Vague spurs our imaginations; wrong limits them and turns us into critics.
So what is it about this show that makes it somehow awesome, and why am I about to tell you that Christians should enjoy it? Is it the way Ben often learns how he should have listened to his grandfather? Not really. Don't get me wrong: the idea that a child should listen to an adult's loving advice is a refreshing breath of life amidst all the stale, putridly justified rebellion in children's films today. It does bother me that Ben's constant bickering with his cousin Gwen and the tone of voice Gwen uses when addressing her elders (I'm not a parent, but she really makes me cringe) counteract the entire premise of kindness and respect; parents should understand that this show, like any other, is probably not for the littlest ones who are still learning about obedience unless parents are willing to sit down and discuss things with their kids. I do adore the didactic way the bad guys' mental states are extrapolations of common childhood "badnesses", but my satisfaction with the show does not come from knowing that Dr. Animo's mutant guinea pig is showing kids how easily "I've earned it, I deserve it" goes too far.
So, if it's not in the episode lessons...do I simply love the plot? I do admit that I am a biased sucker for kids defeating the same bad guys over and over and over, and will never tire of the old squid-faced supervillian revenge spiel. This may not be your thing. The sci fi aspect of each story, however, makes it an intriguing watch for kids, and despite my harping on Uranium isotopes, I really have to hand it to these guys for talking easily with preteens about carbon dioxide exchange and cell immunity. Each episode leaves us wondering what the heck kind of demented and freaky bad guy they will come up with next and how an ordinary kid will have to deal with it.
Therein lies part of the illusive attraction. Unlike most superheroes, Ben Tennyson does not hail from a troubled childhood filled with science experiments or depressing manipulations that turned him somehow into the hero he is today. No matter how many times he violates the "10" part of the show title's as he collects over 20 new aliens to turn into, he will always be the normal kid who just happens to wear a weird watch. In the original series, Ben often ultimately defeats the "bad guy" by coming up with something clever as an ordinary kid. His powers are a tool, not who he is, and Man of Action tells us over and over that normal Ben is awesome. Christians should be all over this. The idea that every special ability is part of a gift we use to bless others, rather than part of some the search for self-expression: doesn't this sound like Jesus' tale of the talents? Jesus made a point of explaining with his parable of the widow that what you have does not matter half as much as what you do with it, and unlike Ben's genetically gifted sidekicks, Ben is a hero because he does his best with what he's given. The producers did even better when they made a hero in the audience's age range, subtly standing against the cultural obsession with Teen heroes for NON-teen kids. Like Paul to Timothy, rather than saying, "look up to the hip kids older than you," Ben Ten says, "Be someone worth looking up to."
There are so many ways this show could go wrong, but honestly, as long as Ben remains a normally growing kid and the aliens stay fresh foreign aliens, people will probably keep on watching. Writing science fiction shows for young minds is a challenge, and anyone who airs beautifully colored, decently drawn characters on a channel that has begun to produce badly animated crap like "Chowder" and "Total Drama Island" should receive support simply as a matter of artistic principle. In the name of art, God, and all that is sci fi, get with your ten-year-old in front of the TV at 8:30 Friday evenings, because as a Christian parent you can get one heck of a teaching opportunity out of that show! If you don't talk to your child about aliens, who will?
Unless, of course, you planned to go star-gazing or to valiantly defend planet earth from a giant tick--those really are better family activities than TV.
Original blog post from here. Jen Veldhuyzen likes to tell stories that make people's eyebrows raise and faces twitch. Check out the weird comparisons.