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My Lingering Questions After Viewing The New Magic School Bus Pilot

I've been thinking about this a lot.

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Hello! It’s me, Vanessa. You may know me as the woman who posts about her theories and problems with such shows as Frasier, Charmed, and the original Magic School Bus. Many of you have been asking my thoughts on the new Magic School Bus. Well, some of you have. A handful. Rather than make a series of dense and increasingly convoluted Facebook statues like I would usually do, I have chosen to publish my thoughts in a more comprehensive form: a community post on Buzzfeed.

Thus far I have only watched the pilot of the new MSB. As such, I would be remiss to not acknowledge that there is a chance all these ultra-specific and not at all insane queries will be answered for me later in the series. Until then, I present my lingering questions for your reading pleasure.

Is Phoebe going to be okay?

Okay, it’s fine that they replaced Phoebe. She didn’t really contribute a lot to the original show other than compulsively whining about how things were done at her old school and generally being a bit of a sad sack. I was initially happy for her that she got to return to her old school, where she can hang out with Mr. Seedplot and, I don’t know, hopefully make some friends her own age. (Missing her old friends was never a complaint of hers, but she sure did miss Mr. Seedplot.)

But then I got to thinking, hogwash! I’m expected to believe that she can just “go back” to her old school? She can never truly go back! The old Phoebe may as well be dead, because the Phoebe that’s returning has lived.

Now Phoebe is stuck in a Twilight Zone version of her perfect old school; wandering halls she once knew so well, in a waking nightmare. It is not the school that has changed, but the Phoebe. She sees a salt shaker in the cafeteria and remembers what it’s like to be the size of a salt crystal. The plant on her teacher’s desk reminds her of the time she got turned into a bean plant and almost died, just so her class could learn about photosynthesis. Mr. Seedplot giving a science lesson about lungs makes Phoebe shake with rage. For you see, at her old school, she went inside her teacher’s lungs. She has no one to talk to about that now.

Much like a traumatized ‘Nam vet returning to a changed America; Phoebe’s seen things, man. How can you go back to a life of not becoming a water droplet and experiencing the water cycle firsthand, once you know you can? How can you see a pie and not long for the time you got baked into one?

Eventually poor Phoebe could drift away from reality completely. And who would blame her? She’s seen things these classmates wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, etc. Now, the Magic School Bus school (Walkerville Elementary) is Phoebe’s “old school”. She endures an ironic and cruel existence; doomed to forever ache for a school past, and a world that can no longer be. For by her very nature, there will always be an “old school” for Phoebe Terese.

Basically, I hope they check in on Phoebe at least once, just so she knows it was all real.

What does the theme song mean now?

But Vanessa, you ask, what’s your issue with the new opening? It’s basically identical to the original! Well, dear reader, you’ve actually answered your own question right there.

It’s the same lyrics and they show either the exact same scenes, or slight variations thereof--with one key difference: Jyoti. (For those not in the know, Jyoti is the new student that replaced Phoebe.)

The original MSB theme used clips from episodes, and the lyrics describe things that the audience could count on happening to these unsuspecting children at some point in the series. Assuming the same logic applies now, wouldn’t that mean these kids are going to go on all the same adventures again with Jyoti, since she is included in the clips?

If they do eventually find themselves navigating a nostril or rafting a river of lava again, won’t that be boring for the kids who already did that? Or is there perhaps a different lesson to be found in spanking a plankton for the second time?

If I was a parent and I found out the new teacher did all the exact same stuff as last year I’d be very concerned about the curriculum. I’d also be concerned about my kid being shrunk, sent into space, jizzed on by salmon, etc; but that’s another story.

Or, does the theme song now just represent a compilation of past adventures, in which case it should be Phoebe and not Jyoti pictured? I almost don’t even want to entertain the possibility that it could be that huge of an oversight because then all this would have been for nothing!

There is also the more remote, third possibility that the theme song now represents one massive refresher field trip they all went on together to show Jyoti what she’d missed before and to acclimatize her to the fact that this is just her life now. I chose to believe this option, so that I am able to enjoy this like the VERY normal person that I am.

Anyway, in the interests of the education of these cartoon children, I hope that they learn slightly more advanced lessons, or at least not repeat the exact same ones, which the theme song led me to believe could happen.

Why have the same kids?

For me, the theme song issue highlights a greater issue still, being: why keep the same characters? Why not just have all new kids with similar characteristics, since your target audience doesn’t necessarily have any relationship to them, as opposed to ageing the same characters by one year and replacing one of them? Now you’ve limited yourself to either repeating lessons, or having to come up with elaborate ways to teach the same lessons differently. I guess this being an issue at all hinges on if you don’t want to drive the parents who might be watching it crazy. Or, more specifically, if you don’t want to drive me (a childless woman in her late 20s) crazy.

If you are going to insist on keeping the same kids, do you mind explaining to me what they were doing for the past twenty years? The last new episode of the original MSB aired in 1997. Were they cryogenically frozen? Did they live in some kind of torturous suspended animation until the Netflix gods deemed it time for their rebirth? Was their one summer between grades some kind of timeloop of the same summer over and over again that they finally escaped?

The obvious alternative would have been for them be the kids of the previous class; but I figured they didn’t do that because the ages wouldn't really line up, and it would be inherently gross to think about those kids growing up and having kids. (Would they even know how? They spent a lot of time learning about how salmon mate but zero time learning about their own reproductive systems.) But that theory was immediately dashed in the pilot when they showed them their future kids for no good reason, just to placate Arnold.

I feel obliged to mention here that I understand that this show is not for me. It is for a new generation of kids who in all likelihood do not know the storied histories of these fictional children and the adventures they already went on. I get that. Which is why it is weird that so much of the pilot was focused on reassuring audience surrogate Arnold that new things aren’t always bad. It really seemed like a metaphor for the show as a whole trying to help the audience come to terms with the changes, which then served to draw more attention to them, when I was fine with them to begin with. Taking the time to explain that having a new teacher is fine while not explaining that everything also looking completely different is also fine is weird to me.

Speaking of Arnold...

It’s weird that Arnold is really invested in everything being the same as it was before, since his whole thing was complaining literally constantly about how much he didn't want to be there. He is also considerably more extroverted, and has apparently discovered a straightening iron which I find highly suspect, as there were no episodes about hair care.

Now I’m expected to believe that Arnold would miss his old teacher (aka the architect of his nightmares) so much that he would need a whole episode to come to terms with the loss? Why didn’t the whole class miss her? To make it just Arnold was weird. As well, why did he ever think he would have the same teacher two years in a row? That’s not how schools work.

Also, I may as well throw this in here now. It’s just some food for thought about Arnold’s classic plea, “pleeease let this be a normal field trip!”. At face value, it seems poor Arnold is begging for the kind of field trip any of us has experienced. But. Every field trip Arnold’s been on with this class has been insane. Every. One. That would make insanity the norm. So by that standard, he’s actually always getting his wish for a ‘normal’ field trip.

The Issue of Witnesses

This one’s pretty straightforward. In the new pilot, Ms Frizzle straight up just turns the kids into animals right in front of Galapagos Gil (a random and useless adult character they meet for one scene.) I’m 99.9% sure the original Frizzle never blatantly did magic in front of non-students, even in other episodes where we meet an adult she’s friends with. Not even in front of her ex-lover Dr. Carmelina Skeleden! She always made a point of having other people look away from the action. Not Fiona Frizzle, though. Reckless!

Adults are supposed to look around, scratch their head, and wonder out loud where all those kids went. Or, preferably, be duped into paying attention to one of the kids while all the other kids turn into reptiles or whatever. At the very least, have them be easily distracted by something offscreen. That is my understanding of what adults are like, and also what I’ve been modeling my behaviour as one on, for years.

It makes me wonder if maybe they are trying to build a universe where everyone just talks openly about and believes in magic. Perhaps as a means of answering one of the most dumbest questions about the original series, being, how can she magic? But if magic is not only commonplace, but rashly flaunted, it certainly takes away the fun of having cool secret magic. Although, I suppose it’s good to tell kids to not have weird secrets with their teacher.

Casual Time Travel as Problem Solving

Yes, the OG Magic School Bus did have at least one instance of time travel (pretty sure it only happened once, but need to confirm), so it has been established that it is within the bus’ powers. In that case, the time travel was simply to the past and then right back to the present day, in the exact same place. While still risky, it isn’t as crazy as what happened in this pilot. This time, they go into the future to show Arnold that the school would still exist in 30 years. While there, they hear about a plant-based disaster they might have caused in the Galapagos, then they went back in time to mere moments after their past selves walked away from the plant in the Galapagos, and changing the past by preventing the bad plant from spreading. They were just asking to make like, a million paradoxes.

Also of note is that when Ms Frizzle showed everyone the classroom in thirty years, the children in the class were identified as being our class’ future children; and they look almost identical to them. Which brings up two questions. One, did they reproduce asexually? How come all their kids look so much like themselves that they could identify them as their children right away, and not like them mixed with another person? Two, does that mean this entire class stays in not only the same town, but within the same radius from their elementary school so that kids will all go to this school, for their entire lives?

Valerie Frizzle seemed to understand the gravitas with which one should wield a power so dangerous as that of time travel. She used it sparingly and only to teach about dinosaurs. I am not confident that Fiona Frizzle grasps the solemnity of the matter. She just casually traveled through time in the first episode, and it initially wasn’t even directly related to any kind of science lesson. Frivolous!

Full disclosure, I also have a problem with the time travel in the dinosaur episode, but for a different reason. In that one, Arnold brings a fossilized dinosaur egg with him on the bus.The bus travels through time and everything outside of the bus changes. Everything inside the bus is protected from the ravages of time and stays the same - except the egg. The egg ages backwards. If the egg can age backwards inside the bus, why didn’t all the kids and Ms Frizzle and Liz age backwards into oblivion as well?

If you introduce time travel this early in a series as a viable and safe means of solving any problem, it’s going to beg the question, why not just always use time travel to solve problems? I’m sure they won’t always, as I’m sure the time-bobbidowhatsit valve will be on the fritz or whatever, but still. Casual time travel is dangerous! Also, this might just be me -unlike the rest of these issues which are clearly universal- but I feel like there’s a (possibly arbitrary) difference between general magic and time travel. I just have an involuntary, almost visceral reaction to seeing it employed in a way that borders on lackadaisical.

In conclusion, if you made it this far and still wish to continue your acquaintance with me, thank you! I might watch more of this series but unless I can learn to just be entertained by it and not overthink everything it means for the characters, I may be better off staying enrolled at my old school.

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