Well, you see, danger and evil are everywhere. Nature thought that we didn’t care. Who can help the world survive? Who can keep a dream alive?
Widget The World Watcher is one of your basic cartoons of the era, which is, in this case, the environmentally conscious 1990s. Each episode is self contained – it was made for syndication. Your premise is Widget, basically a plucky kid alien, from an planet full of people who help planets with their environmental problems, came to earth to help fix things, and he brought with him a super-intelligent AI in the form of an immense idiot known as his Megabrain unit, and his shapeshifting superpower that
Should have solved a lot more problems more easily than you think, but again, it’s built for the imagination of kids. A pair of human kids help him out and try and devise solutions.
Your basic premise is still ‘environmental issue creates immediate problem, Widget and human kids fly over and fix the problem in a twenty minute episode.’ Along the way, Widget needs things about human culture explained to him, and then Megabrain can explain some environmental thing as well. You get comedy from kids being stupid, and Widget being stupid by their standard, and then you get some solution that involves, I dunno, shapeshifting into a deer and kicking over a barrel or something.
It isn’t a smart series, don’t get me wrong.
It was strangely morose thoughts that drew me towards writing about Widget The World Watcher. It was the news that Russi Taylor had passed away. Of course, Russi Taylor was mentioned by name in headlines framed as Simpsons Voice Actress Russi Taylor, passes away, aged 75. It was a name that didn’t mean that much to me at the time, so I made a foolish mistake of looking at her body of work.
And that’s when this one stood out to me.
Widget has a really distinct voice. It’s got a raspy, bubbly quality to it, and while he’s always gendered ‘he’, it’s a gendering that borrows from the assumed default of the masculine. The voice is almost reminiscent of fishlike characters, or like Seaspray from Transformers, a voice with well, an affect.
That put me looking at the cast of Widget. It wasn’t a Planeteers style job where every one of Ted Turner’s friends showed up for a bit part. It was a much smaller organisation, with four core voice talent providing the major cast. There was Russi Taylor, Jim Cummings, Dana Hill, and Kath Soucie. Dana Hill passed away a few years after the show ended, from complications with her diabetes, in her thirties, tragically young. It was the loss of Russi as well that made me reflect on the series again.
It’s going to keep happening. The 80s and 90s were shaped by people, and those people are made out of meat, they’re humans and they were adults doing a job when I was a kid and they’re retired in many cases now I’m an adult, and they’re going to go. We’ve lost some of them already, some tragically young, and now we’re just going to lose people with long, storied, amazing careers, and all we’ll have left is to miss them.
And we’ll miss them by going back and hearing their voices and looking at the things they thought were worth their time, when they could make those choices.
I hope that Russi Taylor was proud of Widget The World Watcher.
I said a long time ago I’d much rather be embarrassing and trying than cool and hopeless. The 1990s were filled to the brim with this sort of edutainment, this sort of clear and deliberate focus on how the media presented to children gave people a meaningful set of tools and ideas to approach the world. The strategies, the ideas presented in Widget the World Watcher was not meaningfully useful, or even appropriate at the time. After all, what’s the buying potential of a god damn child when it came to CFC Aerosols? Nothing. Not a tiny bit. You could maybe get a few kids who were proactive enough to approach their parents and tell them ‘please don’t use hairspray any more’ and I guess back in 1990, that was something legitimately hard. But it wasn’t like kids had lobbying power, not like kids had structural power.
Instead, the show wound up forwarding the idea that the environment was a thing. That there was a reason to pay attention to it. That the environment merited protection, and there’s a causal reason for these things to exist the way they are.
I was raised to believe the world was going to be thrown away. That it existed for use and disposal. That everything that I thought mattered was a shadow and it didn’t matter because the real show was coming along later, and every single human concern up to that point was going to be literally burned forever.
And Widget The World Watcher said don’t destroy the thing you live on, idiot.