The intended audience for Cyberchase is children, and its primary intent is to teach math and science lessons to children. It is also a wonderful television show that I loved and watched intensively in its prime. Those intents aside, this show is still a story with fantastical characters and a wacky sci-fi plot. This, like any piece of literature, is open to criticism and speculation.
The following is a critical analysis of the PBS series Cyberchase’s pilot episode, “Lost My Marbles.” For those who need a refresher, here's the episode.
The episode begins with Hacker, the show’s primary antagonist, watching video footage of the three characters that are later revealed to be Jackie, Matt, and Inez. This exposition alone raises a few questions. The first is the connection between the “real world” and Cyberspace. How is it that The Hacker is viewing them? Is he looking at security camera footage? How are the inhabitants of Cyberspace aware of this “real world,” and how are they able to access information from it? Is it special knowledge to know about this, or is it common knowledge? Many of these points go widely unexplained.
The first line is delivered by Hacker. Watching the screen he says “At last: the moment I’ve been waiting for. It’s absolutely perfect,” as the three kids (later the "Cybersquad") crowd around a map in what appears to be a school (it contains a “library,” “research room,” and an entire section titled “mythology”). The three kids touch buttons on this map and then weird things happen. Later, Motherboard reports that “when the three of you touched the map, a breach in Cyberspace allowed a nasty computer virus to reach me.” It seems odd that something so simple in the real world would create something so drastic in Cyberspace. This absurdity, Hacker’s odd fixation on these three children in particular, and his line “those earth kids are the key to my plan,” suggest an unexplained preexisting connection between these kids and Hacker.
Motherboard’s choice to recruit these children is odd for a few reasons. First, how does she even know who they are and where they are? Hacker is the only one shown watching the kids. If Motherboard is watching Hacker, then why didn’t she do anything to prevent the virus? Did she intend to get infected? Secondly the kids catalyzed the virus. They indirectly aided Hacker, Motherboard’s sworn enemy, yet for some unexplained reason, Motherboard recruits them for her aid. It is also odd that Motherboard chooses three children. Later in the episode these characters take extended screen time figuring out how to use basic map reading skills. Reasons for this could be that children would be more likely to accept the adventure, ignoring the dangers of the task. Adults have schedules to follow, whereas children tend to be freer. Ultimately, it still remains odd that Motherboard chooses these three special children, ringing back to the possibility that these children were predestined to take on these roles.
When Motherboard pointedly calls Jackie by her first name, Jackie’s response is, appropriately, “You know my name?” It is odd that Motherboard knows the names of children unless she has been observing them previously. They do not say their names at any time, and Motherboard’s announcement of their names is even how the audience learns what the kids are named. Motherboard’s realm of knowledge remains undefined and unexplained.
The kid’s travel through a “transportal” and fall into Motherboard Central (from a great height, uninjured, suggesting the physics work differently in this universe (which is intended to teach children about math and science)). Motherboard informs them that “Hacker has captured [her] chief technician Dr. Marbles [...] [her] strength is limited” and that it is their job to “find [Dr.] Marbles [and] bring him back.” Continuing the informational exposition, Digit tells the kids that “without Motherboard everything and everyone in cyberspace is doomed!” It is made clear that Motherboard is an incredibly important character in Cyberspace, which makes it all the more unbelievable that she does not have any form of staff or protection. All that she is shown having is Digit and Dr. Marbles. She is referred to as both the “ruler of” and the “protector of” Cyberspace, but she has absolutely no protection. This is a giant governmental flaw in Cyberspace.
Motherboard creates a portal to the island where Dr. Marbles is being held and the Cybersquad goes through, followed shortly by Digit. When the kids are established, Digit comes tumbling out of the portal and comedically states “sorry I’m late, took a wrong turn at Mobius.” While this is humorous, it suggest that when in a portal, there is personal control of where one can go. If this is so, it is confusing how the three kids have been properly navigating these portals as amateurs, when Digit, a native of Cyberspace, is having issues.
Digit reveals that he had worked for Hacker at a previous time, to the shock and horror of the Cybersquad. He says “I’m not proud of it, okay. If Mother B hadn’t rescued me and set me straight, I’d still be wreaking havoc.” The first question this brings up is how Motherboard managed to help Digit and why. Throughout the series Cyberspace is shown to be a vast world and Digit is just one, seemingly unimportant being. If the importance was his dedication to Hacker, why hasn’t Motherboard attempted to save Buzz or Delete, Hacker’s other henchmen? Also, how did this physically happen? Did Motherboard verbally coach Digit through this? She couldn’t have physically rescued him if she needs random children from the “real world” to do her bidding. Perhaps this is just the virus working on her, and in the past she could take a less constricted physical form. Secondly, this brings up the theme of redemption. If Digit could turn good, can Hacker? Is there a point of no return with evil where a person cannot be turned back?
Further into ethics comes the debate of Hacker’s willingness to kill. Later in the episode, Buzz and Delete attempt to cut down the ropes to a bridge that the Cybersquad is on. There is no shown bottom to the pit it bridges over, and death appears to be imminent. While the kids miraculously survive, their heavy-handedness suggest that the Hacker is not above sparing lives when it comes to his Cyberspace domination. When the Cybersquad find Dr. Marbles, he has been placed at the bottom of a pit with the intent to be swallowed up by the island when it reverses. Hacker says “I alone decide who comes and who goes” jeering, “you [Dr. Marbles,] are about to be permanently deleted.” With deletion being similar to murder in the “real world” Hacker appears to be completely okay with killing others that come in his way.
Dr. Marbles is saved and Hacker is distracted with a rock slide Ex Machina and they come across a one seat ship. Dr. Marbles is valued as most important and escapes without any discussion over whether or not others could ride along. It is at this point that Motherboard’s power becomes confusing. Motherboard is able to make a total of three exit portals to save the Cybersquad and Digit. Unfortunately she is unable to make them close to the kids. While her inability to put the portals in a proper location may be due to her virus, Motherboard is shown to be able to make a portal that bridges the realm of Cyberspace and the “real world” while still being infected. She was also able to make a portal conveniently in Motherboard Central for the kids to leave for the island. Motherboard’s power remains yet again arbitrary and undefined.
As the Cybersquad and Digit flee to the portal, Hacker pursues them, free from the rocks and says “I may have lost my marbles, but I’ll get those blasted brats. Motherboard will pay dearly to get them back.” Hacker assumes that Motherboard values the lives of these kids when Dr. Marbles was valued higher when he took the coop. This oddity again makes it seem that the kids and their connection to both Hacker, Motherboard, and Cyberspace is more important than explained.
Lastly, when the Cybersquad is spit back into the “real world,” Jackie exclaims “look, hardly any time passed.” There is a clock that she is looking at, so there is no guessing involved, Jackie has quantitative proof of this time passing. It is odd and unique compared to other realm travel fiction works that just a little time passes. Typically equal time will pass, or no time will pass at all, but in this canon, a fraction of the time passes.
Despite various logic flaws and many other odd nuances, this episode proves to be highly entertaining, and offers up a vast amount of content on which to speculate. From the possible predestination of the Cybersquad, to the ethical and moral questions brought up, this pilot episode is just one of many episodes that contain more than just a few math and science lessons.
(This article originally appeared on Odyssey on January 4th, 2016 back when I wrote for that tragedy)