Inspector Gadget: Building a Better Hero
The media industry has been taken over by the geeks. The rise of the internet has allowed more and more adults to indulge in their love for cartoons, sci-fi and fantasy. This has in turn led to a rise in producers investing in nostalgic franchises, with revivals of classic series such as My Little Pony, The Muppets and Transformers proving to be big hits, and many more in the works.
One of the classic shows due for a revival is Inspector Gadget, with a new series confirmed to début sometime in 2013 . The original show, produced in 1983 by DiC Entertainment, was a major success during its original syndication, lasting 86 episodes and is still shown in reruns around the world. Little is known about the alleged new series at the time of writing, but this isn't the first time that the franchise has been revived, with previous attempts including two live-action films, three animated specials, and two spin-off series. However, these various adaptations have for one reason or another failed to have made the same sort of impact that was made by the original series, and a reboot planned for release in 2009 was ultimately cancelled. As a result, this sheds doubt on whether this alleged new adaptation will be a success, if it is even released at all.
If any attempt of reviving the franchise is to succeed, we need to answer some important questions. Firstly, what made the original series such a success? Second, what key components were missing from later adaptations? And third, if the original series had been produced as is in today's media market, would it manage to succeed?
The Original Series
The first question is surprisingly tricky to answer. The formula of the original series was simple – the clownish Gadget, despite all his bionic tools, was actually pretty inept as a detective. So, when Gadget was sent on a mission against the sinister MAD organization and its mysterious leader Dr Claw, he was secretly followed by his intelligent ten-year-old niece Penny and her faithful dog Brain. Penny would sneak around and solve the crime, while Brain would keep Gadget safe from MAD agents and his own incompetence. When the case was over, Penny would be sure to keep her and Brain's involvement a secret and ensuring Gadget got all the credit.
Most would argue that Gadget's appeal lay purely in its physical comedy and the ineptitude of its lead character. But Inspector Gadget was hardly the only comedy series of its kind during this period, and yet it was one of the few that had a real and lasting impact on its fans. Perhaps a better answer lies in analysing and comparing other shows being shown around the same period. Prior to the 80s, America's television animation had been dominated by the low-budget comedies produced by Hanna-Babera. Just about everything was either a spin-off or an adaptation of another franchise, with Hanna-Babera focusing on revivals of its popular franchises such as Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones, while other studios made animated adaptations of popular comic books and live-action television shows and movies, such as Happy Days, Spiderman, Robo-Cop or even based around celebrities such as Mr T and Chuck Norris.
The majority of original material was what was to be the defining trait of animated series of the 80s – a heavy focus on merchandise promotion and a very noticeable gender divide. For the male demographic, there were the action-packed adventures of He-Man, GI Joe and Transformers. The characters in these shows were hyper-masculine and armed with powerful weaponry. The heroes were expert warriors, easily able to take down even the most threatening of enemies with relative ease. Shows such Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears and My Little Pony, on the other hand, were sugary fantasies aimed primarily at young girls, focused on friendships and tea parties. But in both cases, while these shows were new franchises, they were still basically advertisements made to promote merchandise to their young viewers. The majority of original shows without attached merchandising came from outside America, mostly from Japan and the UK.
Thus, Gadget is an oddity in the atmosphere of 80s entertainment. Although he was conceived as a parody/tribute to spy fiction, the Pink Panther films and the Get Smart television series, Gadget wasn't a spin-off or adaptation of any previous series. Gadget, as a character, was very much an original concept. There was merchandise produced, but it was not the amount of variety or amount of other franchise, and most of it wasn't produced until after the series initial run.
But perhaps most telling were the characters and their adventures. Gadget wasn't at all like the hyper-masculine, hyper-competent leads in GI Joe or He-Man. His gadgets were glitch-ridden and goofy, hardly the sophisticated high-grade tech carried by the Transformers. And he was old-fashioned and square. But Gadget wasn't a complete idiot – although he was rather oblivious and clumsy, when Gadget realized there was trouble he could prove surprisingly effective. The best example is probably in the episode Haunted House, when Gadget's car ends up hanging over a cliff, with Penny and Brain trapped inside. Somehow, Gadget is able to overcome his usual glitches and silliness, jumping into action to pull Penny and Brain to safety. One could imagine a young, awkward child, seeing shows like He-Man and wishing he could live up to those impossible standards. But watching Gadget, he mightiness found a hero he could relate to – someone as awkward and ungainly as himself, a born failure. And yet Gadget was, by some sort of miracle, able to overcome his enemies and overcome the respect of his peers. Gadget was a misfit, an unlikely hero. It can be speculated that the young Gadget fan might have gained hope from the series, hoping that someday he'd overcome he own lack of grace and become someone worthy of respect.
Gadget's co-stars are also rather special in their own right. Penny in particular deserves special analysis – although she was part of a growing trend to portray female characters as more than just damsels in distress, Penny is still unique to female protagonists of the 80s. Most female characters of this period were either bad-ass Amazonian warriors akin to She-Ra, or sweet and ultra-feminine young girls like Strawberry Shortcake. Penny was neither – although only ten years old, Penny showed no interest in dolls, tea-parties or dress-ups. Penny was something of a tomboy, but not an action-orientated tomboy. In fact, Penny had more in common with kid detectives like Nancy Drew, relying almost solely on her wits to solve her uncle's cases and get herself and her friends out of trouble. Even when Penny used her high-tech computer book or watch, these were still only tools that required on Penny's own capabilities in order to be effective. And even when Penny was captured, she didn't always call on the help of others to escape. Young girls looking for an alternative to the frilly fantasies, but finding the boys adventures too meat-headed, must've been pleased to find a role model in Penny.
Penny was also admirable for what can only be described as unwavering loyalty to her beloved uncle. Despite all the effort she put into solving cases, often getting into life-threatening situations in the process, Penny was more than happy to keep quiet about her involvement, preferring to see her uncle take all the praise for cracking the case. Brain, too, can be admired for his fidelity, perhaps more so than Penny. Brain suffered much pain and indignity at Gadget's hands, and yet he was always willing to follow Penny's instructions, following Gadget around to ensure he was kept safe. Even through Gadget made Brain's life a misery, Brain would never abandon Gadget, because he knew that Penny cared about Gadget and needed him in her life. While it was never explicitly stated within the show proper, fans felt they were able to pick up on little details that showed how much Gadget, Penny and Brain cared for each other.
Finally we come to the series main villain, Dr Claw. All that was ever seen of Dr Claw was his gloved hand, his face never shown to the audience. Sharp film fans will recognize this as a parody of James Bond villain Ernst Starvo Blofeld, but Dr Claw was rather intimidating in his own right. MAD might have been made up comedic buffoons, and some of Dr Claw's plots were the usual comedic fare common to cartoons of the period, but there were moments when Claw came across as a genuine threat. Agents who failed him but avoided arrest were still never again seen on the show, leading fans to speculate that Claw killed them off as punishment. Among his more frightening plots include launching a nuclear weapon, germ warfare and destroying a reservoir in order to flood a major city. Even if you never saw his face, it was clear that Dr Claw meant business. In fact, Dr Claw was part of an interesting paradox common to 80s cartoon villains. The villains of He-Man, GI Joe, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seemed threatening at first, but as these series went on they became more and more comical. The villains of Care Bears, My Little Pony and Teddy Ruxpin, on the other hand, could only be described as pure nightmare fuel in contrast to their show's sugary premise. Of course, Gadget wasn't an outright sugary show, but it wasn't one of the 'serious' action series either.
Gadget is also interesting due to its origin and influences. The show was created primarily for sale in the United States, but at the time DiC still had its main headquarters located in France. Even then, a lot of the actual animation was outsourced to studios in Taiwan and Japan. Outsourcing animation production was and still is common in television animation, but this triad of influences – USA, France and Japan – coincidently mirrors the three major producers of comics and graphic novels. Appearance-wise, the show does bear some semblance to Japanese anime, especially in the later seasons when the amount of outsourcing to Asia was increased. But the writing and design of the show shows a stronger influence of bandes dessinées or stripverhalen, Franco-Belgian comics. Penny's adventures mirrored the heroic exploits of Blake and Mortimer, Tintin and Gil Jourdan. Gadget and Brain's comedic misadventures, on the other hand, owe more to Asterix and Archie Talon. In fact, France is the country where Gadget continues to enjoy his greatest popularity today.
General fan opinion was that the series 'jumped the shark' sometime during the second season. During this season, several changes were made. Many of these changes have, for better or worse, stayed with the franchise throughout its lifetime.
The bulk of changes were made by a shift in the story's focus, moving away from the action-adventure elements towards comedy, which effected characters themselves and how they interacted with one another. Gadget had always been rather dimwitted, but now he was a complete idiot, utterly useless to the point of frustration. Penny's role was greatly reduced, no longer going out to investigate, but simply acting as 'mission control' and relaying orders to Brain. Not even Dr Claw came out unscathed, losing much of his menace to become a typical comical cartoon villain, his plots focusing on mundane crimes and trying to do away with Gadget.
Why all these changes to the series? To specific reason was ever made clear, but a little speculation never hurts. It was possible that the writers felt that Penny's hyper-competence was overshadowing her clownish uncle. Indeed, many fans would've been perfectly happy had the main focus of the series had focused to Penny. It seems that the changes were part of a misguided attempt to help Gadget 'reclaim' his status as the show's star, but in doing so Gadget lost whatever sympathy he had as a character. The second possible reason for all the changes is censorship. Back before the relative freedom of cable television, shows had to adhere to fairly strict network codes in order to stay in syndication. Penny was certainly teetering on the edge of what the networks and parents groups would've considered acceptable. She would frequently come face-to-face with certain death in the course of her adventures, nearly drowning in one episode when a MAD agent cuffed her to a rock by her ankle, so it isn't hard to imagine overprotective parents calling up the network in frenzy, worried that their own children might imitate Penny's on-screen exploits. This hypothetical outcry from the moral guardians might also be the reason why Dr Claw slowly became another clownish cartoon villain, with parents perhaps finding such a mysterious, malevolent character to simply be too frightening for their children to be watching.
Whatever the reason for these changes, they were not well received by the fans, with the second season only lasting 21 episodes in comparison to the first season's 65, and the changes have stuck with the franchise. Penny was never quite the same plucky go-getter she had been in the original series, and even Brain was replaced outright by a new set of sidekicks in Gadget and the Gadgetinis. The live-action movies were plagued with similar problems, most notably the first film featured Matthew Broderick as a very bland Gadget, and Rupert Everett woefully miscast in the role of Dr Claw, far too 'camp' to play what had been such a frightening villain.
So What Now?
This now brings us to the question of whether a revival of the series would have any success in the modern market. The most recent 2003 spin-off, Gadget and the Gadgetinis, enjoyed a modest success lasting 52 episodes, but was not aired in the States and generally failed to make the same sort of impression as the original series had, due to what some fans perceived to be continued decay in characterization.
When information of a proposed 2009 reboot surfaced, fans were eager, but unfortunately the project seems to have since been scrapped. But the existing promotional material shows a very different Gadget from the one we're familiar with, bearing an attitude similar to the hard-boiled detectives of noir films, with no hint of the happy-go-lucky obliviousness fans had come to know and love. The proposed reboot would've supposedly taken the series into 'darker and edgier' territory, much like Warner Brothers' Loonatics Unleashed, a series which turned classic Loony-Toons characters into ' bad-ass' superheroes. Initial reception of Loonatics Unleashed was divisive to say the least. In general, 'darker and edgier' reboots was popular during the 90s and early in the new millennium, but fans are starting to realize that simply slapping on violence and attitude and transferring the setting to a cyberpunk dystopian future doesn't necessarily improve the quality of a work, and these days may been viewed by fans as the writers as 'trying too hard' to impress viewers. With this in mind, one must wonder whether the 2009 Gadget series would've encountered the same problem. While the promotional material promised to maintain the slapstick comedy the series is known for, the cancelled series' mood was a drastic change from the light-hearted tone of the original.
And now, we come to the new series. Information is thin at the time of writing, although at one time the new spin-off was rumoured to be titled Son of Inspector Gadget, hinting at an entirely different lead character all together. This scenario was also case of 1993's Gadget Boy and Heather, a decision that might have alienated viewers and led to the series being the most obscure in the franchise, and if the new adaptation did take this path it is very possible it may face the same problem. But ignoring rumours and speculation, let's focus on the current media market. Generally, fans have a reputation these days as being more nit-picky over plot holes and clichés, and writers are expected to put more effort into producing a top-quality product. Also, the divide between 'comedic' and 'dramatic' shows has become far more pronounced, with comedic animation aimed at children focusing almost exclusively on ' screw-ball' elements, thanks in no small part to Nickelodeon's Ren and Stimpy and its many imitators during the early 90s. Watching the original series of Inspector Gadget, the gags are very tame by modern standards and might fail to raise a laugh. Dramatic action series allow for a little more subtlety and flexibility, but children's comedy has been taken to extremes. Given these factors, a revival of the series staying 100% true to the original formula might be likely to flounder in the modern market.
Changes may be an inevitable necessity for Gadget to survive in the modern market, but history shows that changes to a series can provoke negative reaction from fans, especially if the changes are too extreme. It's tempting to want to turn Gadget into an outrageous comedy like Spongebob Squarepants or The Amazing World of Gumball. However as already discussed, a similar move in the second series was not received well, and a more extreme version of this tactic might only make things worse. The 2009 reboot would've supposedly gone in the opposite direction, with a stronger focus on dramatic action. This might actually be a legitimate solution, although how much focus on drama is an issue that would need to be addressed. Many action series for children do maintain a balance between comedy and dramatic action, such as Ben 10 and The Last Airbender franchises. Indeed, promotional material for the 2009 reboot promised to maintain the series' famous slapstick comedy, although it can be argued that the 'grim and gritty' tone might have undermined its potential success.
So, the basic groundwork for a successful revival seems to rely on balance –between the characters, between comedy and drama, between change and tradition. Starting with the characters, one must remember that first and foremost, Gadget is the hero of the story. After all, it's his name in the title. Fans have always felt some disappointment that Gadget was never as effective a hero as he could have been, given all his fancy toys. Even if Gadget is an idiot, he should be allowed other positive attributes to balance this out. Traits like loyalty, courage, and determination, and an unwavering sense of right and wrong can do miracles for a character even if they possess all the common sense of a lima bean. Even if Gadget isn't the great detective he believes himself to be, he could be, at the very least, competent at hand-to-hand combat. Indeed, Gadget was shown to possess enough fighting prowess to defend himself against a pack of tigers in the original series episode The Ruby.
This doesn't have to undermine Penny and Brain's role, since Gadget would still need to rely on their combined smarts to help him out. Their general roles would remain the same as the original series, with Penny sneaking around finding clues and solving the case and Brain tailing Gadget and keeping him safe, and maybe even leading Gadget down the right track. However, making Gadget 'smarter' even slightly may make it harder for viewers to buy into the idea of Gadget of being completely oblivious to Penny and Brain's escapades. However, this is a problem that presents its own solution as well as an excellent opportunity for character and story development. Fans have always wanted to know how Gadget would react if he found out that Penny and Brain were helping him in secret. Perhaps Gadget suspects Penny and Brain are following him, but he's not able to prove it nor is he really aware of how much Penny and Brain actually do for him. Gadget's attempts to prevent Penny from following on his missions, as well as the gradual realization that she's the real brains behind his success, and Penny's attempts to hide the truth from Gadget, MAD and nosy civilians could be a great source of both dramatic and comedic tension. And perhaps, gradually, Gadget could come to accept Penny and Brain's assistance as vital to his cause, and the three could become a truly formidable team.
Gadget and Penny's relationship was never fully elaborated in the original series, but it's always been of great interest to the series' fans. What happened to Penny's parents? Are she and Gadget actually related? These questions could provide fodder for a series long story arc, as well as help make Gadget more sympathetic. For example, for all her courage and intelligence, Penny is still a child. It makes sense that she'd have fears and insecurities like any ten-year-old, and showing Gadget doing his best to be a good parent to her would win him points with the audience. Maybe there are times when they don't get along, perhaps Gadget feels that Penny is upstaging him, or Penny resents that her Uncle doesn't take her seriously. And then on assignments, if Penny gets into a fix that she can't get out of on her own or even with Brain's help, there may be times that it's Gadget who saves the day, even if it's through nothing more than good old-fashioned fisticuffs. By making Penny a 'stakes character', we give reason for Gadget to push himself into becoming a better hero, and make the audience have more emotional investment in him as a character.
Pushing the Envelope
This proposed scenario is basic, but if it works it could be Gadget's big comeback. Of course, the great thing about television as opposed to film is that you can have several story threads going at once. If the writers are feeling creative and daring, they don't need to stop at the basic scenario and answer the other questions that fans have been asking for decades, such as how Gadget become a cyborg in the first place. Many fans theorize he received his gadgets after suffering some sort of injury, much like Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man TV series and Officer Alex Murphy in the RoboCop films. The live-action film and mid-90s toys follow this idea; although how Gadget received his injuries differ between the two versions. This also let fans theorize that the reason that Gadget is so ineffective and absent-minded is not due to stupidity, but that Gadget is actually suffering some form of post-traumatic disorder, struggling to accept the drastic changes that have happened to his body.
And then there's the question of Dr Claw's true identity, as well as his ultimate goals. Ignoring the live-action films, some promotional material does in fact show what fans consider to be Claw's 'canonical' face, mainly in the toys and video-games. But physical appearance is only a small portion of a person's identity –- where did Dr Claw come from, what's his history? Why does he do the things he does? These days, character and story development is a huge part of entertainment, even in the children's market, and exploiting the audience's need for deeper, more engaging stories could help the reception of a new series.
And there are other questions that relate to the world that Gadget inhabits. For example, Gadget is a cyborg, a human being with mechanical devices built into his body. Likewise, many of MAD's plots relied on some sort of highly advanced scientific technology. In the original series, these technologies didn't seem to have an impact on the world at large. But why not explore that? What is the social impact of technology in Gadget's world? Is the rarity of advanced technology due to some sort of worldwide ban? And surely Gadget isn't the only person in the world who has been enhanced via technology. Are there other cyborgs out there? Mutants? Rouge AI? Do they suffer from discrimination?
Also, in the original series Gadget's missions weren't restricted to his home-town of Metro City, but took him all over the world. Now, in the real world, a cop simply doesn't have jurisdiction outside of his or her precinct. But what about in Gadget's world? Is Gadget part of some special international law-keeping organization? And how would locals really feel about handing over a criminal investigation to a foreign stranger? In the original series episode The Ruby, Gadget managed to offend a group of Hindus by manhandling a sacred cow while on assignment in India. This was only a quick gag and nothing more came of the incident, but what if Gadget had to deal with real consequences, like being kicked out country and unable to continue his investigation. Exploring and expanding on Gadget's world and the characters that inhabit it is a good way to keep viewers coming back to the series.
The Final World
Of course, all of this only works if the proper care and dedication is taken with the actual writing of the series. How many promising shows and movies have we seen flounder thanks to lazy, cliché-ridden scripts and clumsy writing, including Inspector Gadget's own offshoots? The best shows, the ones we remember and care about, are the ones where the writers and the rest of the crew put in 110% into what they were creating, because they cared. Only if the same care and effort is taken in the making of the new Inspector Gadget series can the mistakes of past franchise entries be avoided and give the new series a fighting chance of success. Gadget fans are eagerly awaiting the new series with more than a little anxiety. Fingers crossed, everyone.