For the last decade and then some, The Octonauts has been one of the best shows on TV for young kids. There are a bunch of reasons for this: gorgeous animation, strong writing, endearing and memorable characters, and an educational mission that feels genuine and not smarmy.
But the thing that always sticks out for me when I think of The Octonauts is that, more than any other show for young kids, it consistently puts its characters in danger. In all their adventures exploring the ocean, there’s quite a lot of rescuing and protecting the animals they encounter — as well as each other. The Octonauts regularly face drowning, freezing, suffocation, shipwreck, shark attack and a multitude of other nautical disasters. It’s all very cute and cuddly in its presentation, of course, and things are always neatly resolved within 11 minutes (not counting the feature-length specials). But thanks to the quality of the production and characters we actually care about, adults who are watching along may find themselves feeling an unusual amount of suspense.
A new series in the franchise, Octonauts: Above & Beyond, just hit Netflix a few weeks ago. For the first time, there are significant changes in the format of the show. It’s now primarily focused on land-based adventures, with the Octonauts rescuing and protecting terrestrial animals instead of sea creatures. This allows the animators to apply their unique and highly recognizable style — which has always come across as a hybrid of Thunderbirds and Hello Kitty — to a whole new set of creatures such as tigers, kangaroos and elephants. There are a bunch of new characters, as the Octonauts assemble a global ground support team called the Octo-Agents, and a new emphasis on the female characters. There are also some awesome new Gup vehicles — including one that looks like a flying manta ray, one that walks and flies like a beetle, and one that can either walk or roll into a ball like a pangolin.
But the most striking thing about the new series is the way it ramps up that sense of danger and, in a surprising and marvellous new development, adds a sense of global and systemic alarm. There’s no way to downplay this: Octonauts: Above & Beyond is all about the climate emergency.
In case you don’t have kids or have otherwise missed out: The Octonauts first aired on the BBC in 2010, and is based on a series of books by authors Vicki Wong and Michael C. Murphy, who work under the pen name Meomi. They follow the adventures of a team of anthropomorphic animals who live and work on a futuristic mobile ocean-exploration base called the Octopod. The vibe of the franchise is much like a kids’ version of Star Trek — with the Octopod correlating to the starship Enterprise, roving the ocean on a peaceful mission of science and rescue, and an ensemble of characters with colorful and contrasting personalities making up the brave and loyal crew. They include a stern but kindly captain (Barnacles Bear), an irascible Cockney ex-pirate (Kwazii Cat), a by-the-book computer programmer (Dashi Dog), a big-hearted medic (Peso Penguin), a brilliant Scottish scientist (Shellington Sea Otter), and a carrot-chomping engineer with a Southern accent (Tweak Bunny, my favorite character). There’s also the elderly professor (Inkling Octopus) who originally assembled the team and who rarely leaves the Octopod; and the Vegimals, a tribe of freaky fish-vegetable hybrid creatures who grow the Octopod’s food and run its galley.
The books are wonderful (my son loves them). Meomi’s beautiful artwork established the manga-for-preschoolers look of the franchise, and the splendid designs of the Octopod and the Gup vehicles — all based on sea creatures, as if they were Playskool toys designed by Hayao Miyazaki. Each book includes lots of charts and infographics that make some pages look like a cross between a DK educational book and a Wes Anderson film (for example a fold-out page with a labelled cross-section of the Octopod, showing what each character is doing in their cabins). There are lots of funny details for sharp-eyed adults, such as a panel that shows the characters playing a tabletop game called Oceans & Ogres; and another in which Professor Inkling is reading a book called Reef Madness.
But honestly, the series is better than the books. Whereas the books’ adventures are more whimsical and dreamlike, featuring elements like a coral reef that looks like a city complete with shops and apartment buildings, or a pod of whales dressed like Vikings, the series is focused more on science and education. Each episode has the Octonauts involved in a rescue of a different species of marine animal, and they are depicted more realistically than in the books, though still with some anthropomorphic traits. Normally I would favor the surreal, but in this case, the show’s extra bit of realism has the effect of grounding it, making it more lifelike — and more exciting — whereas the books’ stories are a bit random and all over the place.
I love the rendering of all the characters, each episode’s “guest” creature, and their environments — the animation is ingenious, with its graphic shapes, clean textures and brightly-lit, desaturated colors. It has the subtle feel of claymation — though digitally generated, the characters and objects look solid and somehow tangible. I love the characters’ eyes; they look like dolls’ eyes, but if you look closely, the way they blink and the irises move around is really clever. I also love the use of light, especially when the Octonauts venture into the deep ocean and the artificial lights on their gear illuminate the surroundings, or when they encounter bioluminescent creatures. It’s not Pixar, obviously, and if you’re just glancing at the screen while you cook dinner, it may seem like pretty standard CGI for young kids, but the more you watch, the more it rewards you with detail; it can be surprisingly beautiful.
This may sound basic but The Octonauts is really good at teaching kids (and parents) about marine biology and geology. Our family has learned a lot from it, especially as we often follow up with our own research about sea pigs, cone snails, long-armed squid and the many other unusual creatures that are featured.
The characters on the series are stronger than in the books — and indeed, stronger than in most other kids’ shows. Once you’ve seen a few episodes with a binging preschooler, despite the cuteness factor and the narrative limitations of fiction aimed at young viewers, you feel you know the Octonauts as people. There’s even a certain amount of gentle conflict — for instance, Kwazii’s mischievousness and his reckless driving often get him in trouble with Tweak, who is believably passionate about her vehicles and machinery. The show is well-written enough that it effectively functions for adults as a satire of its influences. The characters’ taglines (“Right away Cap, I’ll have that fixed before you can say buncha munchy crunchy carrots!”) are somehow more funny and charming the more they’re repeated, whereas such taglines often grate in other kids’ shows.
The characters even learn and grow. In The Octonauts and the Caves of Sac Actun, one of the feature-length specials on Netflix, Captain Barnacles and Peso find themselves trapped in a cenote — an underground network of caves in the Yucatan Peninsula. When Peso notices that Barnacles is not doing so well, the captain has to admit that he’s terrified of enclosed spaces, based on childhood trauma, and asks Peso for support. When Peso marvels that Barnacles has always seemed so brave, he replies, “You can’t be brave if you’re not afraid first.” (It helps that Simon Greenall, who voices Barnacles, is so good at what he does.) As someone with chronic anxiety myself, I find Barnacles’s frank admission of his anxiety and Peso’s acceptance of it so well-written and compassionate — exactly the kind of lesson I want my son to learn.
The new series changes up quite a lot more than just opening the stories up to adventures on land. Each 11-minute episode of Above & Beyond still features a new species of animal in need of rescue, but the work is no longer done strictly by the Octopod crew. Instead the new team of eight land-based Octo-Agents are roped in to help.
The Octo-Agent most featured is Paani, a macaque with an Indian accent (voiced by Antonio Aakeel), adding diversity to the cast in a low-key way. Paani is a hydrologist who’s into adventure sports and who gets a bit too excited by danger. When we’re introduced to him, in the extended first episode, he’s actually stealing water from the Octopod, which has shipwrecked on a drought-stricken coast in West Africa. If you ask me the screenplay doesn’t convincingly explain why he wouldn’t simply ask for help, but it’s also kind of cool that Paani is so resolute — willing to set aside social morality in order to redistribute water to desperately thirsty animals — and that impression sticks with us.
Since the Octopod can’t reach trouble spots on land, most episodes of Above & Beyond feature the Octo-Ray, the new and ridiculously cool manta-shaped amphibious flying machine. (My son loves manta rays, and so do I, so this was big for us. If they’re just trying to sell us toys, I’m here for it.) The Octo-Ray transports one or two crew members to their rendezvous with the local agent who sounded the Octo-Alert, and it serves as a mobile base.
The pilot of the Octo-Ray is almost always Dashi (voiced by Jenny Yokobori); the other Octonauts take turns accompanying her. While Captain Barnacles, who generally stays behind on the Octopod, is still in command of each mission, Dashi now gets more screentime than any other Octonaut — she’s now more or less the star of the show.
There’s a clear feminist imperative behind this story decision — making up for the fact that in the earlier series, the male Octonauts outnumbered the female ones five to two, and were featured a lot more. It can only be good for young viewers to see a female character with “a steady paw” running the new missions; and the way it’s handled is so unassuming and genuine. At one point, when Barnacles dispatches Dashi on a dangerous mission to Antarctica, he takes her aside to tell her how confident he is in her; they both run out of things to say, and he gives her an awkward fist bump. It’s a wonderful little moment that’s worthy of a show for adults — an example of the unnecessarily rich detail that makes Above & Beyond so worthwhile for families.
The action in the new series is as solid as ever. The action sequence involving the pangolin-shaped Terra-Gup 2, a rockslide and some mountain goats is one of the best I’ve seen in the entire franchise, or in any kids’ show. It practically had me on the edge of my seat, as if it was an Avengers movie. A similarly thrilling sequence in another episode sees Dashi airlifting Kwazii and his injured granddad as a tornado bears down on them.
One thing I could live without is the Octo-Report — the new version of the Creature Report, the musical recap of each show’s “lesson,” which I never liked. True, it’s interesting that the music now has more of a Bollywood feel — in line with the creators’ efforts to reach a larger global audience, I imagine. It’s still distracting and doesn’t add much (my son doesn’t like it either).
I just want to point out that Professor Inkling’s cold-weather outfit in one episode is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!
The biggest change in Above & Beyond is not something you’re going to see in a trailer or an episode summary, or even in most quick reviews on parenting websites. Some reviews seem to go out of their way to avoid mentioning it, and I’m sure there are parents out there who would prefer not to think about it. But the writers have made things too obvious to deny it: the show’s overarching theme is global climate breakdown.
More than half of the new episodes concern the impact of climate change in different regions around the world — drought in West Africa, melting permafrost in Siberia, increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes in Florida — and the devastating effect it has on local wildlife. Elephants wander in search of dwindling water supplies, wild ducks lose their nesting grounds to coastal erosion, bombardier beetles are forced to migrate when their island habitats sink into the rising sea.
In some cases the situations are kind of hardcore. In one episode set in Australia, Dashi and Peso desperately try to keep a mother and baby flying fox (large fruit bats) from dying of thirst during a climate-induced heatwave. Like I said, the element of danger is one reason I like the franchise, but I’ve never seen such a life-or-death situation in a show for young kids; the suffering of the mother bat is unusually wrenching.
The show isn’t polemical about climate: you never hear the phrases “climate emergency” or “climate change.” The focus is always on helping small groups of animals survive changed local conditions, rather than addressing the big picture.
But the writers leave little doubt that they intend to educate kids about climate issues. “Temperatures have been rising all over the world,” Dashi says in the early episode set in Siberia. “It may just not be cold enough for the the ground to stay frozen anymore.” This made me sit up and do a double take, startling my son — I was so surprised and excited by how explicit it was. But as the series progressed, I lost track of how many of these overt references there are in the dialogue. The more you watch, the more you realize that climate defines the series.
In one episode, a passage of dialogue between Peso, Shellington and Inkling explains why even a one-degree change in ocean temperature can endanger animals such as eels and puffins — a brilliant way of teaching kids about subtle but devastating tipping points that many adults have difficulty grasping (or accepting).
The fact that the star Octo-Agent is a hydrologist is another clue to the creators’ intent, I think. Paani’s knowledge of the water cycle is key to educating kids about water scarcity, melting ice and changing weather patterns. Even the episodes that don’t directly mention rising temperatures or collapsing ecosystems tend to be about extreme weather or other indirect aspects of climate change.
It’s a bit of a shame that the writers don’t address the larger causes of the climate emergency, but at the same time it’s not like I expect them to attack Big Coal. And I just appreciate how the tone is so surprisingly dire, and the stakes so high, given the format and audience.
Anyway it’s by far the most engagement on the climate emergency I’ve seen in a kids’ series. I’m struggling to remember any shows on ABC Kids mentioning climate at all; the most you get is lectures about recycling — typical narratives about individual responsibility. Octonauts: Above & Beyond at least gives kids some idea that there are larger forces at work besides their own individual roles, and that climate breakdown is a thing that is happening now.
Sure it would be ideal if they would take that extra step and get into why and who (and yes, there is a who). But we’re talking about TV for kids — entertainment, not a textbook. By simply talking about the problem, and making it a primary story point in this incredibly charming fictional world, they are doing a lot of good I think — especially in the current political climate of conservative denial and liberal deflection.
The rest of it — you know, capitalism and all — my son can get from me when he’s old enough. It’s interesting to think that as he grows up, this kind of apocalyptic vibe is probably going to be more and more common in his art and entertainment.