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Jonny Quest is an animated television series about a boy who follows his famous scientist father while he partakes in many wild adventures. Developed by Hannah-Barbara in 1964, the cartoon was far different than the usual line up of funny, exaggerated characters seen in TV cartoons and instead focused a more realistic feel, especially in the character drawings. There are four main characters with young Jonny (voiced by Tim Matheson, who went on to have a very successful film career) leading the cast, a blonde-haired 11-year-old boy with a signature black t-shirt who is highly-skilled at scuba diving, judo and even handling the occasional firearm. His best friend is Hadji (voiced by Danny Bravo) an 11-year-old adopted Indian boy who is also adept at judo and seems to possess some rather interesting “magical” powers such as hypnotism and levitation, but are probably just well-practiced illusions. He always wears a white, bejeweled turban and a tan Nehru jacket.
The adults are Jonny’s father, Dr. Benton C. Quest (voiced by John Stephenson and then Don Messick), considered one of the top scientists in the world, he is a genius who works for the U.S. government. Raising the boys as a single father, he is a kind and decent man. Last in Roger T. “Race” Bannon (voiced by Mike Road), a special agent and bodyguard for the family, mostly assigned to the Quests in order to protect Jonny from being kidnapped. The last member of the group is Bandit, a little white dog with black eyes who is pretty good at keeping up what’s being said.
In Episode 8 of Season 1, a UFO appears in the night sky. When the military gets a reading on the radar that something is approaching, they send up two jets to investigate, but the UFO dips into the sea and is unseen by the fighter pilots, who return to base.
Staying low, the ship sneaks inland and eventually lands near top secret base where Dr. Quest conducts his research. His latest project is a Para-Power Ray Cannon that in theory can drain power from any source, rendering anything unusable, including entire armies if need be. Untested at the start of the show, it’s a massive looking weapon that Quest seems hopeful could be used to save lives in a conflict.
In the dark of night, the ship opens and black ball emerges from the domes enclosure, Four spindly legs sprout from its head and it lifts out of the ship and walks around a bit before quickly returning to the ship. A guard at the Quest lab notices the lights emanating from the landing site and contacts Quest, who calls Bannon. They ride out together to investigate. But naturally, the commotion raises the attention of Jonny and Hadji, and along with Bandit, hitch a ride to the site. Once there, they retrieve the black ball and bring it back to the base, where they intend to give it a closer look in the morning. They store it under armed guard, but little do they know what evil awaits.
In Episode 5, Riddle of the Gold, we meet Dr. Zin, an Asian criminal mastermind who is revealed to be Dr. Quest’s arch nemesis. While temporarily defeated, he makes his return here, creating the ‘UFO’ and mechanical spider. From his secret lair, with camera’s acting as the spider’s eye, he plans to use the beast a spy to infiltrate and steal the plans for the Pare-Power Ray Cannon.
Quest has fallen into his trap by taking the black ball and bringing it straight to the laboratory, not suspecting it could be a spy. Unaware that Dr. Zin is behind it all, he and Bannon lock it in storage and place a soldier by the door. They move on to Quest’s office and the boys back to their room to study. Meanwhile, Zin is watching and he unleashes the spider, which gets the guard’s attention. He enters the room and is shocked to see the enormous creature, who immediately attacks the soldier with a proboscis type tentacle that attaches itself to the man’s forehead. He passes out and the spider escapes the room.
Seeking the cannon, the spider eventually finds the control panel to access the weapon and once inside the lab, begins probing the device for clues to how it works. Zin cackles with delight at his genius. Quest and Bannon decide to check the storage unit once more before turning in for the night, but only find the unconscious guard and an empty room. They soon make their way to the lab and discover the spider examining the Para-Power Ray Cannon.
Zin sees Quest and Bannon and uses the a speaker built into the spider to taunt his enemy, telling him what his scheme is (in classic villain monologue mode). Bannon calls it a ‘Trojan horse’ and opens fire with his rifle, but it has no effect. Panicked that the spider will get away with the cannon plans, Quest orders the soldiers on the base to attack with everything they’ve got. Out comes the tanks and flamethrower and machine guns.
This sequence features the giant spider stampeding through the compound as it crashes through walls and deflects round after round of tank fire and more, seemingly unstoppable. As it breaks free and heads back to its ship, it appears there is no way to bring the beast down and stop Zin from acquiring the plans to build his own ray gun. Can Quest find a way to stop his nemesis before it’s too late?
The moment (and story) are a product of its time, built on the shoulders of many classic monster movies of the 1950s and the rise of the diabolical villain trend in the 1960s, mostly from the new James Bond films that were just releasing. Dr. Zin is a by-product of the long festering and racist “Yellow Peril” attitudes that swept the Western world for centuries where Asian cultures (and other non-white races) were deemed a threat to the West. It grew again in prominence in the Cold War era, with many evil-doers taking the form of a stereotypical Asians, making its way into books, films, television and children’s cartoons. While Zin was very toned down in comparison to many of the this era (even to some of the other villains in the series), his menacing laugh and world-dominating schemes are in-line with the trope.
That said, the spider sequence itself is really fun to watch. Giant spiders have always been a proven way to terrify, as evolutionarily, we are programed to fear them as potential threats. Monster spiders and big bugs had, to this point, made appearances in a number of classic black and white movies of the 1950s, including 1955’s Tarantula. In this cartoon, it incorporates both the large insect phobia and its control by an evil villain. (Perhaps producer Jon Peters was a fan). With The Robot Spy, the giant mechanical spider taps into our deepest fears, and as a child–the target audience–generates a real sense of dread. That’s the great thing about the Jonny Quest series (which has long been rumored to become a live-action film), is its ability to inspire imagination with more grounded-looking and sounding cartoon.
The Robot Spy is a classic episode of the Jonny Quest series, an innovative and imaginative children’s television show that still entertains decades on. Look forward to more closer looks at this and other classic TV shows.
Mike Road, Tim Matheson, Don Messick, Danny Bravo