Oh, I wish I was blowing up Prince Edward Island,
And going on to bomb Ontario!
The destruction of Canada and all of its culture,
Is by far my favorite scenario!
— Tom Servo, The Canada Song
Mystery Science Theater 3000
The Final Sacrifice
It is September 1, 1988, probably. Peter Gabriel tops the charts with “Monkey”. Super Mario Bros. 2 is released in the US. A momentary lull in world events makes this a slow news day. Nothing much is going on in the world, especially Seattle, which is in the second day of a blackout that’s going to last until Sunday. Nothing much is going on on TV, what with the strike.
In Canada, as usual, things are weird. Canada, of course, isn’t quite a real place for most Americans. We have some basic understanding that it exists, and that it’s distinct from the United States, primarily in ways that seem slightly silly to us. But mostly it’s a kind of abstraction: a place that seems like nowhere in particular, but still somehow familiar, and we kinda understand that its cities look like every major US city we see on TV, and its forests look like every alien planet on Stargate SG-1, and its hospitals look like every spooky hospital on The X-Files, and people pronounce “About” funny and are suspiciously polite, and that they didn’t think that being independent of the rule of a tax-raising, gun-grabbing, insane tyrant was a big enough deal to be worth fighting a war over. We know it as the semimythical land of origin for characters who seem like they could not be so mundane as to have come from any real place anyway, like Alanis Morisette, William Shatner, Drake, Pamela Anderson, the Barenaked Ladies, Keanu Reeves, Ryan Reynolds, Avril Lavigne, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Justin Bieber, Peter Cullen, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We know it as a place we can describe someone as being from to excuse them being just a bit peculiar, as in Sliders, where they’d frequently claim to be Canadian to justify their ignorance about the local customs. We know it as a place that produces dimes which treacherously hide themselves in our change, waiting to foil our attempts to use a vending machine. But I kid, of course, which is a thing we know we can do because Canada’s a tremendously polite sort of country with an unbounded capacity to just sit back and listen to people say absolute crazy bullshit and remain polite to them without flying off the handle even if they’re clearly asking for it. They’re sort of the Jon Stewart of countries.
About twenty-five years ago now, my sister had to write a report about Canada for a grade school class, the angle of which was something along the lines of explaining the pros and cons of being forcibly relocated there from the US (I have no idea). In helping her to do her research, my mother was shocked to discover such factoids as that Canadians enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free assembly, an elected government, [herein was meant to be a reference to freedom from the quartering of troops in peacetime, but none of the Canadians I talked to knew whether or not that was actually legal in Canada], and private property. She was doubly shocked to discover that being transplanted unexpectedly from the US to Canada basically had no downside, at least, not if you already speak a little bit of French.
But Canada is not merely a convenient place for American television makers to send a camera crew to record some footage on the cheap. In fact, Canada produces a great deal of its own media, the Canadian government recognizing the value of maintaining and reinforcing their own cultural identity in the face of being right next door to a gigantic superpower whose only remaining export is massively popular pop culture artifacts.
And a result of that is that Canada produces a lot of TV which is, in Canada, entirely mainstream, entirely respectable, non-marginal programming that could never possibly get made in the US with Hollywood’s cultural imperative to never do anything that might make less than the absolute maximum amount of money by not doing anything too weird or alienating like including fantastical elements in a show that is primarily a straight drama. So you get shows like Being Erica, about a young woman trying to make her way in the publishing industry. Whose therapist has the power of time travel. Or The Listener, about an EMT who consults for the Canadian equivalent of the FBI. Using his power to hear the thoughts of others.
Your standard Canadian shows don’t get a lot of time on US broadcast TV, of course, since that’s time that could be more profitably devoted to Law and Order spin-offs and reality shows. But there’s one big exception. Children’s television, particularly in the 1980s, is infamous for being made and distributed by people who gave zero fucks. As I’ve repeatedly said, quality in children’s shows of the 1980s was largely accidental, the result of writers who happened to be talented allowed to do whatever they wanted because the people in charge didn’t care. And if there happened to be a nearby country that was producing a bunch of children’s television on the cheap that fulfilled network standards for educational programming, heck, they’d take it. And thus did American children of the 1980s and 1990s learn the wonders of such programs as Arthur (A series in which Dudley Moore played a loveably alcoholic anteater), Read All About It! (A rather amazing series about three kids who learn English and Canadian history from ghosts while fighting an intergalactic warlord who plots to take over the Earth through subverting local zoning ordinances), Today’s Special (A long-running series about the cursed existence of a department store mannequin who’s been granted sentience but only during the nighttime hours and so long as he never sets foot outside the store), Inspector Gadget (A fusion of The Pink Panther, Get Smart! and Robocop, featuring hilariously criminal child endangerment), The Magic Schoolbus (A political tract opposing tenure for teachers by chronicling the history of child endangerment by an unfirable grade school teacher with satanic powers), Are You Afraid of the Dark? (In retrospect, the least scary show on this list), and ReBoot (A weaponized form of motion sickness), or as they call it in Canada, “Rebout”.
Today, we’re going to talk about one that did not, as far as I know, ever get any airplay south of the border. You’ll recall that back in our discussion of “Loving the Alien“, we were introduced to Canadian actor/singer/writer/director/producer Keram Malicki-Sánchez, who played the alien boy Ceeto. Already an established child actor since at least 1984, Keram had just recently starred in an educational series for TVOntario that would allegedly garner a cult following over the years as VHS copies became a regular fixture in grade school health classes for years afterward.
I say “allegedly” because for a “cult” show, there’s remarkably little concrete information about it on the internet. No two sources have the same episode list. IMDb lists nine episodes, but a catalog listing from an educational resources company refers to it as a twenty-part series. I haven’t found exact airdates. There’s no fansites I’ve been able to locate or capsule summaries of the episodes. It’s technically possible the whole thing is a complicated hoax.
Except for what does exist. Which is two episodes of the series that were uploaded by Constant Change Media, Keram’s media group. They’re out of context, and seem like they might be part of a continuing storyline, but who can tell? The two episodes seem intended to go back-to-back, but the one episode listing I found that had both of them placed them at opposite ends of the season.
So what exactly is Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness? Nothing less than that most obscure of television genres, Single-Topic Science Fiction Made-for-public-TV Educational Miniseries. If you’ve been hanging around long enough to remember my coverage of Tomes and Talismans, you’ll know that this sort of thing is absolutely my bag. And more than that, I sort of love in general things that have an entirely inappropriate level of detail. Like highly detailed scale models, and model railroads, and PSAs with plots, and the stop-motion/tilt-shift/cgi title sequence to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the overbleed in a pop-up book where there’s some detail under the flaps that is legitimately part of the picture but isn’t meant to be visible.
Zardip is like that, in its way. There’s a curious intersection here: this is a low-budget educational series. No one was making a lot of money for making it, and it was intended for an essentially captive audience. There is basically zero incentive to put any effort into this. But paradoxically, it’s not inherently ephemeral. Almost exactly the opposite. As an educational project, the pittance spent on its production was meant to produce a product that could be used for educational purposes for a very long time: we watched Read All About It! in my fifth grade reading class a full decade after it had originally aired.
And, as I hope I’ve made clear, you don’t get to be the sort of person who succeeds in the media industry by being inclined to halfass it. And Keram Malicki-Sánchez has a resume that makes Disney Triple Threats look like slackers. Let’s be clear here: Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness is not what one would call a “good” television show by any of the usual standards. But it is a show that is packed full of little moments which are… Well, “good” is too strong of a word. But certainly far better than this concept actually deserves.
What’s the concept? You’ll probably want to be sitting down for this. Zardip Pacific is an alien robot from a distant planet of robots. Zardip’s people are suffering from chronic mechanical breakdowns. The overmind of this robot planet, known as “The Highship”, has, I gather, discovered that the people of Earth are self-maintaining, and has Zardip transformed into some kind of human simulacrum and sent to Canada in order to learn the, ahem, secret of Healthy Wellness.
And if that does not sound like the most wonderfully bonkers setup for a TV show, I would dearly like some of what you’re drinking. Obviously, you can’t expect the content to live up to the premise, but still. Robot. Comes to Earth. To learn grade-school health and hygiene. To save his planet. Of robots.
The opening sequence is a beautiful piece of eightiestastic Video Toaster cheese. It looks like the title sequence from Blake’s Seven mated with the title sequence from Kids Incorporated. The smooth sounds of ’80s easy listening performed on a Casio SK-1 inform us that, “From a place far, far away / Comes a friend to find the way / To be healthy and be strong / Come with him, come along…” A title screen that is way too metal for this show gives way to a cast of actors who aren’t in either of these episodes (Or, for that matter, anything else. Hardly any of these performers went on to do anything else), using that old-school transition effect where each image sort of flies off into the distance leaving behind a ghostly purple trail.
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the episode “Teeth” comes first of the two. I’ve found a couple of episode lists that give it as the last episode, but that seems unlikely. We possibly start in medias res — it certainly feels like we’re following on from something earlier, as the episode opens with Zardip and his friend Peter walking through a suburban neighborhood discussing the possibility of a sleepover. Zardip is guarded, as he’ll need his father to vouch for him. Peter asks if his father is “mean”, which has some creepy implications.
The actual reason for Zardip’s reluctance is that his “father” is the disembodied voice of the Highship, which manifests to him like Mork calling Orson in the empty garage where I assume Zardip lives. When he’s speaking to the Highship, as in his inner monologues, Zardip’s voice is altered with a flange effect.
For a robot, Zardip can be a little passive-aggressive, and that’s the first amazing thing about this show. Keram Malicki-Sánchez is a young 14 in this thing — he looks quite a bit younger than the next year in War of the Worlds. But there’s a really impressive bit of nuance in his performance. When speaking to The Highship, there’s a hint of Kiff Kroker to him, a repeating sense that he’s having a hard time dealing with the fact that his boss is such a tool.
And The Highship is… Cute. He’s a disembodied croaking robot-voice who’s really stupid, but in a childlike way rather than a pointy-haired-boss sort of way. Zardip explains that he’s been invited by Peter’s mother to spend the night (Highship’s response: OH-THAT-WAS-NICE-OF-HER), but that The Highship will have to call her to grant official permission, posing as Zardip’s father, promising, “You’ll think of something, sir.”
The call is cutely awkward, with lots of confused fumbling from The Highship, who has trouble keeping track of the fact that he’s meant to be Zardip’s father and whether the answer to “Can Zardip sleep over?” is “Yes” or “No”, and responds to, “How are you?” with, “NOT-SO-GOOD. I-KEEP-BREAKING. I-MEAN. I’M-FINE.” Zardip, still using his robot voice, has to keep stage-whispering instructions to the disembodied voice through clenched teeth.
The Highship also doesn’t know what a toothbrush is, prompting an eye-roll and grimace from Zardip when his boss nearly blows their cover by asking for an explanation when Peter’s mom instructs him to “Send Zardip over with his toothbrush.” In The Highship’s defense, that does seem like an oddly specific request, since she says nothing about pajamas, a sleeping bag, a comb, or a USB Charger.
But then, this episode is titled “Teeth.” Zardip produces a toothbrush from his bookbag — if I’m right about this show having a continuing storyline, presumably he got it in the previous episode — but isn’t fully clear on how the thing works and fumbles around with it.
Cut to 9 PM at Peter’s house, where they’ve just finished a game of Electronic Talking Battleship. Zardip becomes visibly uncomfortable when Peter proposes that they move on to a rousing game of “Blast the Aliens From Outer Space.” Fortunately, he’s spared from the indignity by an of-screen voice which sounds nothing at all like the actress who played Peter’s mom in the previous scene telling them that it’s time for bed. He graciously “lets” Peter brush his teeth first, his robot-voiced inner monologue reflecting on how strange human hygene habits are — he’s a little freaked out by the bit where you shove the business end of the toothbrush in your mouth. I get that. I’ve got a three-year-old. Zardip has a little bout of anxiety about brushing his teeth with Peter watching. Peter shrugs off Zardip’s weird freak-out and gives him some privacy, which is awfully polite of him after the way Zardip ogled him during his turn.
Zardip is just about to dismiss tooth-brushing as too much work when a set of claymation teeth and gums appears unto him to explain why brushing is important. One thing I notice is that Zardip panics slightly when the California Dentures first speak, but then instantly rolls with it. I guess for all he knows, this sort of thing is perfectly normal on Earth. The other thing I notice is that Zardip keeps to his human voice even when he’s talking to himself in this scene. I don’t know if that means anything. Probably not. When he learns that plaque is full of germs, he responds with a wild take, grabbing his throat and shouting “Germs! They’re everywhere!” This has got to be a call-back to an earlier episode.
The threat of tooth decay and gum disease persuades Zardip to take a stab at brushing. Fortunately for him, this is Canada, and there’s a government-mandated poster on the wall giving instructions. We’re spared from listening to Keram try to read the chart with a toothbrush in his mouth as we cut away to a — remember, this is public TV in 1988 — computer animated music video explaining proper toothbrushing technique. And honestly, by 1988 standards, this is pretty solid computer animation. By which I mean home computer animation. Not Captain Power by any means, but this is at least 320×200 in glorious 5-bit color, at no less than 10 frames a second.
Zardip finishes brushing and leaves, whereupon the Gumby of the Gums addresses the audience directly to rat out Peter and Zardip for neglecting to floss. Peter remembers, and dutifully expositions to Zardip about how to do it. We cut to The Highship, who apparently does have a corporeal form on the homeworld, looking like… A glowing ottoman. It kinda looks like John Collicos should be sitting on it giving orders to the Cylons. It reviews the music video and complains that brushing seems like a lot of work, and also points out that robots do not have teeth. Way to point out the fundamental underlying flaw in your entire premise, Highship.
Back on Earth, Zardip asks Peter about which foods are worst for the teeth, and is not at all surprised to find out that it’s the good ones. I love how cynical Zardip has become in what I assume is a fairly short time. “That’s what I thought. Why can’t it be something like liver or spinach? … Sometimes I think we’d be better off not eating at all.” Peter points out the flaw in that plan: “We’d die.” Zardip concedes, “I guess it’s easier to just brush your teeth.”
Peter then loses a tooth at him, much to Zardip’s alarm. Peter explains about deciduous teeth, and is amazed to discover that Zardip is unfamiliar with the concept of the tooth fairy, which prompts Zardip to use his robot powers to generate a Power Point slide. Um. Did the writers forget that this was a government-subsidized educational film? Why are they teaching the concept of the Tooth Fairy with exactly the same gravitas as the talking claymation dentures that explained plaque?
Not entirely convinced, Zardip gets up about an hour later and yoinks one of his own teeth out. The Highship manifests in a column of light to ask what he’s up to, and Zardip shushes him angrily and explains that he’s testing Peter’s story. Zardip wakes promptly at eight (It’s not actually clear that Zardip was really sleeping. Maybe he’s faking it for Peter’s benefit?). Peter reveals that the tooth fairy has indeed visited in the night and left him a quarter. Only it’s a Canadian quarter, so technically that whole “leaves money” thing was an exaggeration. Honestly, I was hoping that the Canadian Tooth Fairy left you poutine or Kraft Dinner instead. When Peter runs off to tell his mother, Zardip checks under his own pillow to find that he too has been reimbursed. He reports the absolute verified reality of the Tooth Fairy to The Highship and runs off in excitement. The Highship’s voice lingers behind to chuckle to himself knowingly, a twist that is so unbearably cute that I do not care that it fails to make even the slightest bit of sense in light of what we know of the character so far.
Our second episode, “The Dentist” is clearly meant to follow directly on from the last, with Zardip and Peter still looking for Peter’s mom. She’s gone out, leaving the two home alone with a note inviting them to enjoy some tooth-healthy snacks and reminding Peter he’s got a dentist’s appointment.
As they jog through suburbia to Peter’s appointment, Zardip asks what a dentist is. Realizing that this does not sound like a normal question, he tries to play it off: “I know everyone knows what a dentist is, but what does a dentist do? Why do you have to go to one?”
The robot boy falls behind when a breathless, disembodied voice manifests a computer-rendered image of a stop sign in order to answer his question. The voice isn’t one of Zardip’s people, since it actually knows things and Zardip doesn’t address him in robot-voice. Presumably, it’s the same class of being as those claymation teeth, and it shows Zardip computer-generated Powerpoint about dentistry. Zardip does not find this at all odd, though he does advise the voice to exercise more.
Disappointed that he’s not invited along when Peter gets called back, Zardip decides to take matters into his own hands and sneaks into an examination room by the simple expedient of… Walking there when no one is looking. He declares the dental tools “frightening”, but decides that the chair is comfortable and “just like home.” I really want to know what Zardip did back on his planet before he got involved in espionage. The dental hygienist mistakes him for the patient she was expecting, a boy named Timmy, who I guess never shows up, because no one ever notices that they’re up one. Zardip wants to make a break for it, but The Highship breaks in and orders him to stay and learn about dentistry. “THIS-IS-OUR-CHANCE,” it declares. Zardip counters, “What do you mean our chance? It’s my mouth.”
The hygienist sounds vaguely familiar. She’s credited to Elizabeth Hanna. There is a fairly prolific Ontario-area voice actor of that name who was active around then. Among her credits are the Old Lady in the 1989 Babar series, the Triforce in 1989 animated adaptation of The Legend of Zelda and Servbot in the Mega Man Legends / Misadventures of Tron Bonne series. Are they they same person? Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness doesn’t appear on her IMDb page, but I kinda think maybe. The hygienist becomes visibly troubled upon examining Zardip’s mouth and declares his teeth, “strange”, though she doesn’t elaborate. Zardip panics at all the dental tools, but she reassures him, and claims that the dentist “freezes” your mouth before using the drill, which somehow sounds way more horrific than what they actually do. She finally gets tired of Zardip’s questions and tells him to shut up so she can clean his teeth. Once again, we’re spared the boring details of a tooth polishing in favor of a music video, this one a musical montage of dentist visits.
Turns out Zardip does sleep, as he nods off after his cleaning while waiting for the dentist. The Highship wakes him for a report, and warns him not to let the dentist “suspect anything.” Bang-up job: the dentist walks in just as Zardip’s saying that he won’t, and then has to explain himself, saying he’d been about to tell the dentist that, “I won’t tell lies.” And then The Highship breaks in to tattle on him for lying. And then again when Zardip claims he didn’t hear anything when the Dr. Fisher questions the presence of a disembodied robot voice.
Dr. Fisher also finds Zardip’s teeth unusual in some unspecified way, and sets up to take an X-Ray of them. Zardip, who has questioned every move everyone has made so far, is not at all concerned about the lead apron that’s just been dropped on top of him, though he does worry about the possibility that the X-Ray will reveal his true nature.
While the dentist is waiting for the X-Rays, Zardip goes robot-voiced and reflects that the dentist is important, and that if he were a human, he’d be sure to go every six months. But as he isn’t, he uses his robot super-speed to beat a hasty retreat. By which I mean, he casually jogs out of the office accompanied by a “woosh” sound effect. The hygienist notices the noise, but forgets about it when she and the dentist see Zardip’s developed X-rays, which are “amazing” and “don’t even look (dramatic music cue) human!”
Peter catches up with Zardip outside, and relates that everyone in the office was excited about the possibility of an alien named Timmy. Peter thinks “Timmy” is not a likely name for an alien. Zardip unthinkingly mentions that he knows “three zargopops” by that name. We close on Zardip looking very nervous about his slip and near-exposure, while Peter, in a tone that suggests this is meant to be the series catchphrase, declares, “There you go again, Zardip! You’re too much!”
Sadly, that seems to be all the Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness that seems to be publicly available at the moment. Among the other topics covered by the series appear to be exercise, germs, ears, eyes, growth, sleep, and feelings. There also look to be two episodes, probably the first and last, which don’t seem to cover a specific topic, but rather introduce the series and serve as a wrap-up.
This show is amazing. I mean, that much should be obvious from the premise. If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago, I’d have probably told you that Keram Malicki-Sánchez seemed like a moderately promising child actor, who did a pretty good job playing a weird otherworldly alien, but possibly that was because the role called for being stiff and uncomfortable, which is possibly easier for a child actor than emulating a human being. But one thing that comes across very clearly with Zardip is that this whole “Not quite human” thing is actually a really considered performance. There is absolutely no purpose for it in the mercenary framework of “disposable educational video”, but every scene is able to communicate that Zardip is intelligent despite the ignorance that comes from being out of his depth. And the show is so aware of its concept, with all the insanity that conveys. You expect an educational series like this to keep making Zardip ask obvious questions to prompt exposition at the audience, but, unlike most of the videos we got shown in school, Zardip is actually aware of the fact that his questions sound strange to humans. So he couches them. He justifies. He says, “Oh, yes, of course I know what soap is for, I was just wondering how you would describe it…” He has to hightail it from the dentist’s office, because his X-rays reveal that he’s not actually human — and both he and The Highship both note that, not being human, these bits of hygiene advice don’t technically apply to them. I wouldn’t actually be surprised if the punchline at the end of the series is, “Good work, Zardip, but as it turns out, hardly any of that meatbag medical science you learned is actually relevant to us robots, so we’re basically hosed.”
The character of Zardip feels very genuinely put together from first principles. Not unlike what we saw with the Users back in Tomes and Talismans, we get the constant sense that Zardip is a coherent character, but one who is radically different from us. The Users had no concept of organizing information because their brains were wired for random-access data retrieval. Zardip is a robot for whom concepts like germs and plaque are completely alien. But Zardip is altogether more consistently and subtly drawn than the characters in Tomes and Talismans. Even in just the two episodes I’ve seen, we see his repeated frustration with the scope of the maintenance human bodies require. There’s something in Keram’s performance that feels very natural in his annoyance when he learns that candy and “pop” are bad for his teeth. It’s something a parent will recognize when he’s dumbstruck by the need to brush his teeth ever single day. And heck, it’s something a lot of working stiffs will recognize when he rolls his eyes and sighs at his boss just not getting it.
By all rights, by every traditional measure, this show ought to suck. And… I mean, okay, you knew from the outset that it wasn’t. But as with pretty much everything we’ve found as we wander through the nexus, there’s little bits of greatness stirred in among the low-budget ultra-sanitized infotainment. And more than I think I’ve ever seen in a show like this, you can sense what is so often lacking not just in mass-market entertainment in general, but particularly in children’s entertainment. The people who made this gave a damn. They took their commission and their tiny budget and their captive audience, and they actually did everything within their meager means to produce the best product they could. Even though, let’s be honest, no one in the world would have blamed them if they hadn’t.
I’ll leave you with something a little more recent from Keram’s portfolio. Maybe in it’s way, you could even think of it as an ode to a simple robot who came to Earth a long time ago to learn about hygiene…