Following the announcement of a new live-action film produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and their discussion on the Flickering Myth Podcast, Luke Owen looks back at the Captain Planet and the Planeteers episode “Formula for Hate”…
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, no subject was perhaps more taboo than HIV and AIDS. Though many had died previously, the disease became headline news when actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985 and it quickly became a hot topic of debate. Most media outlets were afraid to touch or broach the subject because public opinion swayed so much, mostly due to a lack of knowledge. Prolific comedian Eddie Murphy performed a routine about the fear of AIDS on his infamous Delirious show in 1983 where he says, “AIDS is scary because it kills motherfuckers… It petrifies me ‘cos girls be hanging out with them [homosexuals]. One night they could be in the club having fun with their gay-friend, give them a little kiss, and go home with AIDS on their lips!” It’s difficult to know whether Murphy was poking fun at the fear surrounding the disease, or whether he was legitimately scared and clueless about transmission (given his earlier routine about a fear of homosexuals, it would likely be the latter), but it’s a clear example of how the disease was thought of at the time.
One of the more famous cases was Ryan White, who became the poster child for HIV and AIDS after being diagnosed with the disease in 1984 aged just twelve. Scared parents and angry teachers lobbied for White to be removed from Western Middle School which was granted in early 1985. Even when the family’s appeal for White to re-attend school was agreed to in 1986, he was forced to use separate bathrooms and eat his lunch with disposal utensils. He would later admit his eighth grade year at Western Middle School was miserable and that he had no friends. Hatred was so high, that an auction held in the school gymnasium to raise money to keep him out. Many families had their children removed from the school, and people on the street would yell, “you’re a queer” to Ryan. “Because of a lack of education on AIDS, discrimination, fear, panic and lies surrounded me,” he told witnesses at a Washington hearing in 1988. “I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave, so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand.” When a bullet was fired through the window of their home, the Whites knew it was time to move. White passed away in April 1990.
A year later, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury died of AIDS after being diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980s, and a few days after his death NBA all-star Magic Johnson announced he had contracted AIDS. It was one of the first cases that provided evidence that the disease could be passed through heterosexual sex. The truth was, no one really knew the facts about AIDS, or how it was contracted. It was seen as controversial when KIIS FM held their KIIS and Unite concert in 1992 with Sega of America, featuring performances by Celine Dion, Kid N Play and Color Me Badd. Although KISS got sponsorship from Sega of America, many of the approached companies to co-sponsor turned down the offer as they didn’t want to be associated with something so taboo. As Blake J. Harris wrote in Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle That Defined a Generation, “The mention of AIDS was still intrinsically toxic, and that’s why no corporations were willing to support the concert that KIIS wanted to put on.” American lives were often governed by what they saw on TV or read in the news, and because no one was talking about it, rumours and gossip spread like wildfire.
This served as the basis for the Captain Planet and the Planeteers episode “A Formula for Hate”.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers was a Saturday morning cartoon developed by Turner Broadcasting’s head honcho Ted Turner, who wanted to use the show to spread messages about caring for the environment. It centered around a group of five teenagers from around the world, who are each given the power of the elements (earth, wind, water, fire and heart) by the Earth Spirit Gaia. When their powers are combined, they can summon Captain Planet who would help them defeat the Eco-Villains, a group of bad guys who liked nothing more than pollution, deforestation and killing defenseless animals. These Eco-Villains all had overtly evil names like Hoggish Greedly and Sly Sludge, but were also voiced by an impressive line-up of well-known actors. Verminous Skumm, for example, was voiced by Jeff Goldblum and Meg Ryan performed the voice of Dr. Blight. Dean Stockwell, Martin Sheen and even music artist Sting also provided voices for the Eco-Villains. Gaia herself was voiced by Whoppi Goldberg, and was later replaced by Margot Kidder.
While the episodes usually revolved around environmental issues, they sometimes tackled bigger topics affecting American youth at the time, not unlike PSAs such as Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. The season two opener “Mind Pollution” saw Verminous Skumm spike Planeteer Linka’s food with a new drug called Bliss, turning her into an addict. The episode saw the rest of the Planeteers attempt to break her free of her addiction, while also stopping drug-fuelled riots in the streets. In a show where one of the lead villains is called Looten Pluder, “Mind Pollution” was extremely dark for a kid’s cartoon aired in 1991 and even had an on-screen death of Linka’s cousin. In a season four episode titled “Teers in the Hood”, Captain Planet and the Planeteers infiltrate two waring gangs to help put a stop to gun violence, which also included the peace messages from Dr. Marin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.
Two years after the death of Ryan White and one year after Freddy Mercury passed away and Magic Johnson was diagnosed with AIDS, Turner Broadcasting aired the episode “Formula for Hate” in season three. The episode again used Verminous Skumm as the lead antagonist, who discovers the titular Formula for Hate after high-school basketball player Todd Andrews (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) finds out he has the HIV virus which could lead to AIDS. Skumm begins to spread rumours about the disease, which turns his classmates and team against Todd. “Once we let people know the kid has AIDS, we can panic the whole town,” the rat-like Skumm reveals in the episode. “You see, when people panic, they don’t think and when they don’t think, people stay stupid about AIDS and it gets spread. And once it spreads far enough, we can take over the earth.” The first part of Skumm’s plan works, and the town begin to riot against Andrews playing for the basketball team. In the end, Captain Planet comes down to set the record straight and, along with Todd’s supportive coach and mother (voiced by Elizabeth Taylor), convinces the town folk to let him play basketball again and Todd helps them win the big game. As with each episode, it concludes with a PSA with Gaia laying down some truths about the disease, and asks for all viewers to speak to their parents or guidance councilors. There’s also a bonus PSA with Captain Planet and the Planeteers preaching about working harder together to make the world a better place, which features a cameo from an unknown man many believe to be a tribute to Freddie Mercury.
Rod Serling’s classic television series The Twilight Zone was often praised for airing episodes that were written, ‘straight from the headlines’ and “Formula for Hate” seems no different. It’s no coincidence that Todd plays basketball like Magic Johnson, and during the final game the commentator refers to one of the players as “Johnson”. Blogger Taylor Cole Miller noted in 2014 that the show even contains homoerotic subtext saying, “While most viewers may have breezed past the conversation Andrews has with his doctor (suggesting he contracted the virus through a blood transfusion), it’s important to note that the episode never confirms this and still allows for an explicitly-queer reading. It alludes several times to an unusually-close friendship between Andrews and his friend Jeff, and a potential physical relationship between them in a way, I would argue, enables the show to show male-male casual contact (returned to again in the epilogue) without enforcing an anti-gay stance, to thus be aware of and sensitive to its gay viewers, and to avoid alienating any of its potentially proto-gay fans, myself included.” The line Miller is referring to is at the beginning of the episode when Jeff says to Todd, “thanks for bailing me Todd, next week we’re gonna do it!”, which is not unlike the hidden homoerotic subtext of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (“Something is trying to get inside my body.”, “Yeah, and she’s female, and she’s waiting for you in the cabana. And you wanna sleep with me.”).
“Formula for Hate” was a very brave episode to air at a time of uncertainty in America, and Captain Planet and the Planeteers should be praised for that. The deaths of Ryan White and the hatred surrounding his final few years were still fresh in the mind, and news stories about other children contracting HIV and AIDS were still in the news. Looking back at Captain Planet and the Planeteers, it’s easy to point out what a hokey and heavy-handed show it was, but episodes like “Formula for Hate” show that it wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries, even if it meant parents telling their children not to watch the show anymore – which I’m sure happened.
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.