For our first Man v. Machine post, I wanted to look at one of my all-time favorite cartoons. Jonny Quest may not have been a spy show, strictly speaking, but it’s definitely a product of the Cold War spy era. Writers Timothy and Kevin Burke hit the nail on the head when they describe the series in their book, Saturday Morning Fever: Growing up with Cartoon Culture:
For us, the original Quest episodes, which began appearing in prime time in 1964, are as perfect a distillation of their time as the early James Bond films, a luscious cocktail of technophilia, blithe masculinity, and charmingly innocent cold war ethnocentrism. Like James Bond, the Quest team lived off of a regular diet of evil Oriental masterminds, vaguely East Bloc no-goodniks, various supersecret gadgets, and manly derring-do, though they didn’t indulge in women, martinis, or caviar.
Particularly Bond-like is the bodyguard Roger T. “Race” Bannon, an agent from Intelligence One sent to protect the scientist Dr. Benton Quest and his inventions, lest they fall into enemy hands. In fact, according to Quest creator and artist Doug Wildey, Joe Barbera wanted to specifically draw on the James Bond series to set the tone of the series:
The Barbera influence was felt there because he had gone to see a movie called Dr. No and wanted to get in stuff like “007?– numbers. Which we included, by the way, in the first Jonny Quest. It was called “Jonny Quest File 037? or something. We dropped that later; it didn’t work. But that was his father’s code name as he worked for the government as a scientist and that kind of thing. That influence was felt.
Dr. Benton’s son Jonny, his friend Hadji, and the family dog Bandit were the real heroes of the show, which premiered in prime time (following the success of The Flintstones), but quickly transitioned to Saturday morning. If Jonny Quest indeed counts as an espionage show, I’m sorely tempted to call the theme song, by Hoyt Curtin, the greatest spy theme of all time (sorry, John Barry!). Often playing the Dr. No role for the series (appearing four times in the original series and returning for updates and movies) was the villainous Dr. Zin…
Because this post focuses on Man v. Machine, I want to feature Dr. Zin’s most popular appearance, and certainly one of the best episodes of Jonny Quest: The Robot Spy. In the episode, Zin sends a new invention to spy on Quest headquarters, an invention that is one of the most recognizable robot characters ever on a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Jonny Quest was a high quality television show from a time when Hanna Barbera held high standards for the quality of their animation. If you’re interested in seeing other episodes (and I hope you are), Amazon carries The Complete First Season (quite inexpensively too, if you’re willing to take a used copy).
A memorable show is sure to spawn imitators and homages, and Jonny Quest led to one of the best: The Venture Brothers, soon to enter a fourth season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. In a second season episode called Fallen Arches, the robot spy makes an appearance as an invention of Dr. Rusty Venture, in a quite humorous send-up of comics, Quest, and Cool Hand Luke. Track it down!
This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, June 2, 2009