In 1994, my parents made me change schools, which came with all the typical challenges — and, from my sixth grade perspective, just two benefits.
The first was that I could talk to my classmates about my media interests without worrying about being pulled out of class. Both teachers and staff members at my old school had brought me to the chapel for lengthy discussions over whether Magic: The Gathering, pogs, and Exosquad were sufficiently Christian. I was therefore at least able to make new friends over our shared enthusiasm for two TV programs that debuted that year: Reboot and Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad.
The second was my new school’s computer lab: 35 Mac PowerPCs monitor-to-monitor in a double horseshoe formation inside an enclosed section of the library. Though my dad had just brought a similar computer home, the computer lab offered so much more. It offered opportunities for me and my friends to share Kid Pix art, work out networking problems with the lab technician, and, most importantly, enjoy consistent and fast internet access.
In retrospect, I should have recognized how intertwined these two aspects of my new school actually were.
Part of what drew me to Reboot and Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad is how they depict computers and networks as living ecosystems — as places where beings live, like in 1982’s Tron, the most notable prior representation of the digital world. That two shows coming out in the same year chose that specific setting was perhaps just a sign of how much digital technology was in the zeitgeist. But they both share a similar vision of computers and the internet that departs from that of Tron.
Though Tron’s opening and closing shots — in which computer-generated lines and dots evocative of circuit boards resolve into city streets and skyscrapers — suggest parallels between programs and users, the actual digital world of the movie is fantastical. Its canyons, flickering oceans, and impossible towers have more in common with the later Neverending Story than they do our world. This strangeness is in service of the film’s technological enthusiasm: its reassurance that evils like the Master Control Program cannot stop an amazing world from manifesting through the union of users and programs. We should be excited that the future is the innovation promised by Flynn’s chaotic and empowering creativity, it tells us, and not Dillinger’s colonization of the digital frontier.
Reboot also takes place within a computer system, this one named Mainframe. But while Bob, the show’s protagonist, comes from the Supercomputer — a networked location referred to with the awe and envy typically reserved for major metropolises — Mainframe is positively suburban in comparison: full of skyscrapers and highways that suggest city amenities, but with the urban subtracted through extensive terraced greenery that seems intentionally integrated to give the impression of space and population sparsity. And while Tron’s programs engage in barely recognizable activities — perhaps the most familiar being the mortal-combat jai alai — Reboot’s characters occupy themselves with appropriately suburban pursuits: fixing classic cars, attending school, or running a diner. The show thus signals that one should view its setting not as strange, but rather as similar to our world. And that, in turn, makes the show readable as a reflection of our world’s values.
There are three threats to Mainframe’s quotidian. The first is Megabyte, a scheming, super-strong virus whose articulate British accent and patient demeanor belie animalistic capabilities. When viewers first see inside Megabyte’s lair, he leads a fleet of color-coordinated floating armored vehicles and an army of Mainframers he’s infected, a military force that easily rivals its Mainframe counterpart, the Central Police Unit, with its police cars and Chips-style uniforms. But when his self-control slips, Megabyte turns into an instinctual creature: running on all fours, with roars replacing speech, capable of cutting through defenses with sharp claws and generally pursuing what he desires with a single-mindedness that is as much asset as liability since it leaves him open to manipulation and without his intellect.
Megabyte’s sister, Hexadecimal, is the second threat. As a chaotic creature whose face shifts without transition between various versions of the white comedy and tragedy masks in line with her emotions, she is the raw power and capriciousness to Megabyte’s manpower and planning. She can fly, teleport, and generate overwhelming energy beams, but her power set shifts as much as her motives, which are less explicitly malicious and more simply out of control. These two aspects of her are linked; her fickleness is an expression of the energy that would lead her to explode if not for the containment offered by her masks.
The third danger to Mainframe comes from the user in the form of games, which manifest as giant flickering purple cubes that descend from the sky to occupy sectors of Mainframe. It is fun to see copyright-skirting versions of Mortal Kombat and Mad Max on screen, but one of Bob’s primary functions is to serve as an NPC in games because they threaten ecological disaster. Whenever the user wins, a sector is devastated; its buildings rubble, its denizens reduced to wormlike creatures of questionable sentience.
Together, these threats warn against indulgence and exploitation of digital power. The viruses transgress through their actions by seeking too much, which you could write off as the status quo for villains in a hero show. But Reboot goes beyond this archetype by equating virality with excessiveness. To be a virus is to be so powerful that you need to take measures to constrain that power; to do otherwise is to risk self-destruction. Digital capability, then, is not the power of the fantasy hero that Flynn wields in Tron; it is instead inherently a threat to a reigning order that might be boring, but works. Conversely, Reboot values moderation: enjoying the mundane and actively worrying about the consequences of doing too much. The user — and therefore the audience — is best when providing modest updates and even the occasional game for the sake of variety, but is warned that playing too many games can hurt others.
This ethos becomes urgent when the show introduces the internet, or the “web,” portrayed as a Lovecraftian version of outer space that most cannot even survive contact with without special shielding. When a “web creature” stores Mainframers in cocoons to harvest them for energy to grow, its ability to open a portal to the web is considered so dangerous that the Guardian Council follows its standard procedure for such cases: bombing the afflicted system to protect the local network. When Bob stops this threat at the expense of an open portal to the web, the connection has none of the hopefulness or excitement of space-exploration science fiction. The portal appears as a mass of writhing tentacles that harbingers an invasion by flying dark squids with round, tooth-filled mouths. The newness that led to such excitement over the internet is reframed into the novelty of horror, something that, like the viruses, calls for restraint, not indulgence.
Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad
Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad is a far simpler show than Reboot, emulous of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — which successfully debuted the previous year — but with a main cast and setting that better resembles Saved by the Bell. Each episode begins with the same opening summary:
The evil Kilokahn lives inside computer circuits! With the help of Malcolm Frink, he creates megavirus monsters to attack electronic systems! Meanwhile, a freak accident turns Sam Collins into Servo! His friends join forces in their Samuraized attack vehicles! Together, they transform into… the Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad!
The battles between the SSSS and megaviruses take place within a digital realm that echoes Tokyo because, like in Power Rangers, SSSS’s fight scenes come from a Japanese tokusatsu show, the genre from which we get kaiju/giant robot combat. But like Reboot, SSSS takes place in a suburb; every episode opens with either a shot of Sam’s two-story single-family home where the SSSS hangs out, or the exterior of North Valley High School, which they all attend.
In this domesticated landscape, computer technology is constantly referenced to establish its integration into our everyday life. The SSSS uses Compaqs (a sponsor of the show) to mix CDs of its rock music. The internet and network technology supplement schoolwork, class scheduling, and even climate control systems. Computers are so mundane that when Sam — who shows no preexisting martial arts training — defeats a monster in the computer world for the first time, he demonstrates no shock at the revelation of this new reality. Instead, his immediate reaction is dread, and the desire to keep his digital adventures a secret because, as he says, “I don’t want people to think I’m a computer geek! […] I don’t want Jennifer ever knowing about this; she’ll never go out with me!”
But this integration also makes our world horrifically vulnerable. The entire reason Malcolm Frink — playing hard into the brooding artist stereotype — allies with “evil Kilokahn” is because he witnesses Sam trick his crush into providing her phone number. While bemoaning Sam’s eventual call to “his” girl from his dark room — again, stereotypically illuminated only by twin computer monitors — Kilokahn (whose gravitas is enhanced by Tim Curry’s voice work) offers to help Malcolm in exchange for a steady supply of drawn monsters to turn into megaviruses. In the first episode, Kilokahn fulfills Malcolm’s wish — to interrupt Sam’s phone call — with a megavirus that our networked world allows to disrupt global communications. This sets up the show’s formula: Malcolm has some local grievance he wants resolved by manipulating computer records or functions, and the resulting virus ends up threatening all of humanity. Like Reboot, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad treats the digital revolution and network technology as perfectly useful, so long as users avoid immoderate actions that inevitably harm everyone.
A moment in time
These shows serve as a snapshot of a moment as far from the end of the Cold War as the widespread market release of the 56k modem and the file-sharing revolution that would accompany it. It was a moment when we started to shift away from seeing computer technology as a means for explosive achievement, and toward something closer to homeostasis: from a paradigm in line with Cold War competitiveness to one more in line with the values of a single reigning superpower. Reboot’s Bob doesn’t proactively seek to eliminate Megabyte or Hexadecimal; viruses could be a part of Mainframe so long as they moderate their desires to fit into its social rhythm. Sam and his Syber-Squad teammates actively balk at suggestions to use their digital powers for anything but combating megaviruses. Both shows suggest that, since things are good now, it is better to limit computer use to gently supplement our everyday lives, and avoid dynamic actions that are far more likely to have unintended and significant consequences.
But just as Reboot showed the deleterious effects of something as seemingly harmless as games, it is easy to imagine new computer and internet users making understandable but devastating mistakes. These shows thus posit expertise as the heroic trait to counter this innocence/ignorance. Bob is not more powerful than Megabyte or Hexadecimal; he’s the show’s hero by virtue of his knowledge of games and his adaptability. The SSSS is utterly dependent on its computer-expert teammate who takes the time to understand Sam’s new capabilities and run the Compaq computers that send him, armaments, and other squad members into the digital realm.
The computer lab in its heyday neatly aligned with the values of these two shows. Though the lab may have offered a fun and empowering alternative to my everyday classwork, those benefits came at the cost of regulation. The lab was only available when staffed by someone who dictated what we could do with computers locked down to specific programs and websites. And while we could all feel those restrictions, the capabilities of what we could access and the expertise of those lab workers reassured us that our gingerly digital interactions were proper. Better to have a landscape — both digital and actual — that is managed than one untamed with slow connections, disconnections, and the unfamiliar.