Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: An Act of Nobility

Now, before I get to AIO’s coverage of social and political issues, I’m going into the second meta-moralizing episode. Last time, I talked about how their standard format can lead to some spectacularly bland storytelling, and rather confusing messages, because they are often unwilling to break the mold when the story demands it. This time, I’m going to talk about a dissonance between their confidence and their understanding.

The episode opens with Isaac moping at Whit’s End about surprise homework. Seems that, in history class, his teacher asked if anybody knew what nobility meant, and Isaac said it was kings and dukes and lords and so on. Whit immediately thinks he knows the problem.

“Let me guess. She said there was a lot more to nobility than rank and title.”

No, Whit, it’s a fucking history class, not an ethics or philosophy class. The word may have multiple meanings but in this context she is clearly looking for a description of the feudal system… oh wait. That’s exactly what she said?

Well, that’s a plot twist.

She then made Isaac write a report on the true meaning of nobility, even though he apparently still doesn’t have a clue what she meant. Okay then.

So Whit offers to- No, hang on. I’m still not over this. You mean to tell me that she brought up the topic of nobility, in a history class, told the first kid who answered that he was wrong, and then just moved on? What did she bring nobility up for if it wasn’t going to be integral to the lesson? And what the hell was with the random punishment homework?

Maybe she actually asked the class for a definition of mobility, and when Isaac piped up she thought, “oh, a derailing smartass, I’ll show him,” then continued her lesson on early capitalism and the opportunities brought by re-emergence of the merchant middle class in medieval Europe.

Anyway, Whit offers to tell a story to help Isaac understand the true meaning of nobility. He has one stipulation though; Isaac can’t use the story in his report. You’d think this is because plagiarism is a bad habit to start this young, but you’d only think that because you haven’t heard other AIO episodes. Whit does this all the time. He tells stories to kids who can’t think of ideas for their biography paper or history report, and at the end they’re all, “gee whiz, Mr. Whitaker, what a great story! I’ll sit down and write up those things you said right now!” Apparently teachers in Odyssey accept, “the nice old man from the ice cream shop told me” as a cited reference. Which leaves Whit’s refusal to let Isaac use the story in his paper as mysteerrriiiooouuussss.

Whit’s story centers around an American named James Armer, who is vacationing in the quaint little Slavic nation of Muldavia. He’s out for a walk one day when he sees a plane in trouble. When it crashes in a nearby field, he runs out to help, but a pair of men appear and yell at him to get away. As soon as they set eyes on him, they are stunned, and he barks at them to help the pilot. The three of them get the pilot out and into James’ cabin, and the reason for their reaction becomes plain. James and the pilot look identical; what’s more the pilot is none other than Crown Prince Roderick of Muldavia.

Now’s as good a time as any to reveal that Whit is basically retelling The Prisoner of Zenda.

The two men are General Farnam and Dr. Monroe, two trusted advisers (with weirdly non-Slavic names) to the royal family, and the prince ran off to enjoy a bit of freedom before the coronation. They had been following him on foot because they were concerned… They mention that luckily his plane isn’t very fast, so this was possible, but it still bothered me. I mean, they weren’t just keeping it in sight. They were on it, immediately, the moment it crashed. I did a little research, and the slowest planes are still in the 30-45 mph range. Slower than that and they physically can’t stay airborne. Plus, this one is the private toy of a crown prince. I can buy that with a little country he can’t afford the biggest, fastest one in existence, but he’s got to have one at least a notch above the slowest in the world. Old timey-ness isn’t an excuse either. Even the Wright brother’s second flight went 37 mph, and we got to 100 mph planes within the first decade of manned aircraft… I’m spending way too much time on this. Sorry guys.

So, it turns out the crash was no accident. Dr. Monroe recovers a wine bottle from the wreckage, which he says was drugged. He and General Farnam pour over the label that says Von Warburg sellers, while James, to his credit, freaks out over the fact that this motherfucker was drinking and flying at the same time!

They’re all, “yes, yes, we’re very concerned, he’s so irresponsible, but still. The real issue is that he’s rightful heir to the throne, while Baron Von Warburg is an illegitimate cousin, so that’s where our moral priorities lie.” Furthermore, Prince Roderick refuses to listen to his adviser’s info on how corrupt and evil Von Warburg is. If Roderick doesn’t make it to the coronation, and thanks to his drugged state he won’t, he forfeits the crown and the evil cousin can take over.

James, having now been convinced of the rightfulness of this hereditary monarchy, offers to dress up as Roderick for the coronation and switch back once Roderick recovers.

So the next day he gets crowned while Baron Von Warburg bemoans the failure of his evil plan, in an extra slimy voice to prove that he’s a villain. The trio head back to the cabin, where the Prince has woken up and is totally incapable of grasping that this scheme was devised to help him. He insists that clearly James the imposter is out to take his throne permanently, with the two advisers’ aide… or possibly just fooling them… he’s fuzzy on the details. This particular part isn’t bad writing. They are intentionally establishing Prince Roderick as entitled and too dumb to come up with a decent conspiracy plot to justify his own knee-jerk suspicions. So, he’s not only a thrill-seeking alcoholic but also utterly devoid of common sense. Are we sure we don’t want Von Warburg to take over? He isn’t a swell guy either, but his only definite crime is the attempted assassination, I could see that being the act of a morally grey character trying to avert a greater catastrophe. Hardly unprecedented; Catherine the Great’s husband died of a mysterious and convenient illness shortly after she got sneaky-coronated, and she was one of Russia’s less sucky rulers.

And speaking of Von Warburg, he was suspicious of the failure of his brilliant attempt and followed the trio after the ceremony. He and his henchmen burst in with a gun, announce that A. yes they are totally evil, and were from the beginning B. they figure they will just shoot everybody and stage it like they killed each other off. And as the only armed people in the room, they can do this quite easily, right now. Too easily for the plot, so instead Von Warburg tells his henchman to go tie them up first. Now Von Warburg can’t shoot into the crowd without risking hitting his own man, and they’re both already outnumbered two to one, so the heroes have the advantage back. James plays the hero by tackling the henchmen, there’s a scuffle, and unsurprisingly the villains do not come out well.

A few days after everything goes down, Roderick and James are taking a walk and having a heart to heart. Roderick apologizes for being a dick… well, he’s still a clueless reckless irresponsible dolt, but he owns it when he is proven wrong, so he’s at least one qualification better than the dude pretending to run my country.

Obviously James can’t have any special recognition, as that will ruin the whole deception, but Roderick insists on giving him something. James says he lost his watch on the way over, and Roderick gives him a lovely pocket watch that plays a tune when you open it. They part ways, after some reflections about how interesting it is that James acted more kingly than the guy who was technically king.

Whit triumphantly announces that he has now illustrated what true nobility is all about. So, I guess, being brave and doing things for the good of others and stuff. Not wrong, but a little vague. Really what’s going on here is that we went on expecting good behavior from nobles for so many generations, cause clearly God would only have rewarded them with such power and status if they were good, and after a while the world “nobility” came to mean both “not a peasant” and “generally being a swell kind of person.” Whit could have saved himself a lot of time.

Isaac walks off, with a parting line about how it’s too bad that stories like that don’t ever happen in real life, then another kid asks Whit what time it is. Whit opens up a pocket watch that plays the same music as the one Roderick gives to James. So clearly the real reason Whit didn’t want Isaac to tell it is because it’s a super secret real adventure he had, and if it ever gets out, say in a shitty homework assignment from one kid, then the political stability of the kingdom of Muldavia would be destroyed!

Wait, it’s still a hereditary monarchy? Did the USSR just go, “comrades, this place is too tiny for even us to give a shit about,” or what?

In my regular sections, I hold AIO to a high standard. I don’t just criticize them for bad messages and messages poorly conveyed. I point out what they never bring up, and I do that because AIO markets itself as such a great and comprehensive moral authority. I thought it was important to review an episode that illustrates this. Normally this emphasis comes from Chris’s intros and outros, but as I said last time, they are pretty bland and I don’t want to go into them every time. But they are there. They do give an impressionable kid the sense that these are stories you should be paying attention to, because they know everything. To be honest, little kid me loved this episode because it had castles and fights in it, but I didn’t really get the point about nobility. But I assumed they knew what they were talking about, because this is Adventures in Odyssey! They are so confident about how much they know all the things!

Yet when you break it down, we don’t even get a clear idea of what the moral sense of nobility is. On the one hand, we clearly have James being brave and self-sacrificing, but in ways that the average person will never get a chance to be. So we have to see these actions as a sort of synecdoche. He’s using a small example of moral action as a stand in for generally holding oneself to a high standard and being willing to do what’s right at a high personal cost. Also, is the point that we shouldn’t worry about NOT being royalty, since we can already be noble in our behavior? Or that hierarchy is meaningless without right behavior to back it up? Either way, it’s  not a very meaningful point to their audience of modern American children. We told the nobility to stuff it back in 1776.

There’s nothing wrong with putting out a meh episode every now and then. There is something wrong with building yourself up as the moral authority when some days you can’t even get your own message straight.

Final Ratings

Best Bit: The fight scene was pretty exciting to me when I was a kid. The sheer stupidity of the villains’ action brings it down a few notches, but the narration is still well done. Plus, there’s not a lot of competition, so by process of elimination… yeah.

Worst Bit: Oh god. Do I pick the watch thing? The history teacher? The bit where they followed a plane on foot? It’s a hard call, but since the history homework frame device sets up so many problems in the rest of the story, I have to go with that. Close call though.

Story Rating: All they did was rip off The Prisoner of Zenda, and they weren’t even that creative about it. Hell, even their choice of which book to rip off is uncreative. Everybody has done a Prisoner of Zenda. Doctor Who’s version had androids. D

Moral Rating: Yes yes, it’s very good to be a good person, as opposed to a not-good one. C

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