Imitatable Action

One of the big bugaboos when writing for television, especially children’s television, is what is generally termed “imitatable action.”  This can be summed up as “something cool we could have our character do that would probably get us sued if some retard out there actually did it, and you just know that somewhere, someone would.”  This is why cartoon superheroes don’t just punch the villains.  No, they pick up a car or something and throw it at the villains, or bend steel girders around them, or smash the floor out from under them.  Admittedly, for one thing it is flashier (if less efficient) and reenforces the superhero’s abilities.  But more importantly, the audience members can’t do it.  They can’t lift a car.  But punching each other — yeah, they can do that.  And they will, too, cartoons or no, but the TV executives can safely say “hey, they didn’t learn it from US!” and then promptly blame it on video games.

Which is why whenever you see a character have to “MacGyver” their way out of some situation, even in live-action adult shows like Burn Notice, you’ll generally see the production pull back a step or two from actual functionality.  Yes, you can make a small fireball effect with coffee creamer, gunpowder, and Christmas lights; and I should know.  But you cannot do it with smokeless powder, which is what was used in the show, and it most definitely will not blow the side off a house. But hey, I enjoyed that scene as much as anyone. Oh, that Sam.

But in TV cartoons, you have to be even more careful.  Sure, thermite is nothing more than aluminum and iron oxide, and iron oxide is just rust, right?  So if your brilliant (but not superpowered) hero has to break out of a villain’s prison, he might decide to use thermite to melt the lock, stating all this in a proper Scientific Tone.

Except — in the above paragraph — I cleverly left out a couple of important details.  The aluminum has to be a powder, and a pretty fine powder at that, at least if you want a sustained reaction.  You’ll need quite a lot of rust.  And finally, thermite takes some serious heat to ignite.

So what we’d do in a cartoon is make a big deal about thermite as though we were being Educational, but what the hero would actually assemble is rust scraped from the bars of his cell into a sheet of aluminum foil from his lunch, which he would carefully mold around the lock.  And then, just to even take it one step further back, he’d probably be shown igniting it by focusing the sun’s rays through his reading glasses.  WHOOM!  Wowsers, that door just blew wide open!  But good luck making that actually work, kids.

In the back of my mind though, there would always be a few kids in the audience who would get intrigued, do some research, and actually figure out how to make thermite for real.  It would take work and effort and a lot of failed attempts, and of course no chance of getting any help from their schools these days, since schools are afraid of litigation too.

But there might be one or two who actually pull it off, and get to see that spectacular shower of fire and sparks and the resultant blob of red-hot iron.  And as a result, a cartoon nerd (after he’d been grounded for a month) might blossom into a budding scientist, despite all the injunctions against “imitatable action.”

Yep.  Meet Dr. Emil Madison.

My work here is done.