Science + Pop Culture, writing

Does the Magic School Bus really Ride Again?

As someone who was alive for the entirety of the 1990s, PBS’s The Magic School Bus (1994-1997) was a fundamental part of my childhood education. It’s been quite some time since I watched any of the 52 episodes, though I think I remember binging them on YouTube to procrastinate during an undergrad exam week. But when I was young and my family had old, boxy PCs (one Macintosh, one Windows), I played most of the MSB computer games; thinking about it now brings back memories of that horribly difficult Saturn mini-game in The Magic School Bus Explores the Solar System, collecting and identifying rock samples in The Magic School Bus Explores Inside the Earth, and at least the existence of ones about dinosaurs, the ocean, and the rainforest. Also, I was subscribed to a monthly book + activity kit through those flimsy Scholastic magazines.

What I’m saying is The Magic School Bus franchise was the (bleep).1

I am not the only one for whom the MSB is a source of nostalgia, so Netflix decided to go and make a sequel that dropped at the end of September. I watched all thirteen 25-minute episodes (or 23 if you skip the theme song and the too-long ‘phone call’ segment intro) over the course of two days to answer the following question:

Is The Magic School Bus Rides Again fun for all ages, including us nostalgic old folks, or just another show to plop your kids in front of a screen for some number of half hours that happens to be mildly educational?

Admittedly, the first time I saw the trailer for the new series, I had qualms. The animation style immediately looked…how should I say this…crappy. As someone who hasn’t watched a cartoon made in the last 5 years, I can’t say if this new design is merely a sign of the times, or due to budget restraints, or both. There was also the choice of replacing the Ms. (Valerie) Frizzle with her younger sister, Fiona Felicity Frizzle. Swapping Frizzles made little sense to me, given that the students and Liz – the classroom pet – were the same (and obviously voiced by new people…except, you know, the lizard).

But those were surface-level complaints. The real reason anyone watches the MSB is for the story and the science lessons embedded within. So unlike a lot of people complaining on the Internet (Like ya do…) I never wasn’t going to actually watch it.

So here are some general thoughts. Do with them what you will.

Notes on the Science

For anyone worrying about whether or not Netflix would pack enough science content into this sequel series, you can rest easy. Obviously, it’s presented at a level for children, but – like all good science communication – not in a way that dumbs it down. It’s simplified so that someone who has no knowledge of the topic can understand it. In order, the 13 episodes cover the following (And, for extra info, I’ve identified which student gets the ‘spotlight’):

  • invasive species (Arnold)
  • aerodynamics in architecture (Keesha)
  • how schools of fish work (Wanda)
  • the rock cycle (Tim)
  • magnetic fields at the atomic level (Ralphie)
  • allergies and the immune system (Carlos)
  • methods of camouflage, including mimicry (?)
  • phases of matter at the molecular level (Jyoti)
  • space debris and satellite orbits (Keesha)
  • climate change (DA)
  • the nervous systems (sympathetic & parasympathetic) (Ralphie)
  • green, alternative fuel sources (wind and water only) (Arnold)
  • ocean zones (DA)

A couple episodes into my binge, I was wondering if tMSBRA would tackle a climate change episode. They did. And they did it in a couple of interesting ways. First, the scientific evidence is presented by exploring a glacier and looking at how bubbles of air trapped during various period in time are how scientists can track how carbon dioxide levels have risen super fast only in the last couple hundred years (i.e. since the industrial revolution) compared to the previous hundred thousand.

Second, DA learns that trying to inform the public about climate change by merely reporting a bunch of numbers (e.g. the exact concentrations of carbon dioxide over time and exact temperature values) isn’t engaging. The show is actually giving a lesson in science communication, not just being a piece of science communication itself.

I’d argue that this episode does a better job talking about climate change than the premiere episode of Bill Nye Saves the World. And climate change is, like, Bill’s thing.

I’d also argue that the series presents the science at a level appropriate for adults who haven’t had a science lesson in a decade or two.

Without asking my 7-year-old niece for confirmation, I give it a thumbs up for the target audience.

Notes on the Stories

If you remember way too much about the original series, you’ll notice that while the sequel never repeats a topic, it does steal some plot elements for its own purposes. For example,

  • Keesha is bossy about directing a 3 Little Pigs play instead of an ant documentary (MSB Season 1, Episode 12); Jack and the Beanstalk was a play performed in the old series (MSB Season 3, Episode 10).
  • Wanda gets worried about protecting an ocean animal that doesn’t need her help, like Phoebe did in the desert (MSB s1e7), and she names it Becca instead of Bella, which was the name of her runaway pet frog (MSB s1e5).
  • They travel inside Carlos to explore the immune response to allergens, instead of Ralphie to explore the immune response to actual pathogens (MSB s1e3).2 
  • Ralphie learns about the nervous system when he builds a robot cheerleader, instead of learning about the muscular system when he builds a robot to do his chores (MSB s2e2).
  • Weatherman’s back in an episode about the rock cycle, showing weather’s role in creating sedimentary rocks, as opposed to being in an episode about how weather works (MSB s1e13). Though this time he’s an actual comic book character, not one Ralphie made up. And no one says “Shikka shikka kaboom!”

Would this matter to a child who has never seen the original? Of course not. Would it matter to them if they went back and watched the original after finishing the sequel? Maybe? It’s not something that would go in a “Con” column, but I did occasionally wonder if the students forgot everything they learned or experienced previously (e.g. why did no one mention having travelled inside Ralphie to learn about germs?).

I’d be interested to know what other people my age noticed about this quasi-repetition, or if they noticed it at all.

Notes on Animation

It sucks.

Notes on Animation, Take II

It’s tolerable, but will probably make some people stop watching. It wasn’t so bad I was one of them. But I did find myself starting to multitask about halfway through my binge, listening to everything that was being said and watching the show with peripheral vision. That may have helped things.

Most of the internet complainers haven’t seen the old MSB in 15 years or so, so they don’t remember the actual animation. I just watched 5 minutes of a random episode so I could make the following comment: it’s not Disney Renaissance quality, guys. It was okay for a mid-90s weekly cartoon.

Would I have preferred the new showmakers put more money/effort into the animation quality? (bleep) yes. Do I miss hand drawn animation? (bleep) yes. Is the visual quality of tMSBRA so terrible it makes it unworthy of watching? If you’re an adult who can learn the science topics covered by another medium, then sure, you got me.

At least they got rid of DA’s really dumb pigtails.

Notes on Stuff that Only Matters to MSB ‘Fans’

It’s explained at the start of the first episode that the kids are back from summer break. In a later episode they’re referred to as 5th graders, while they were 3rd graders in the original. So, clearly, the grade schools in Walkerville work unlike any I’m aware of in the real world, where the kids keep the same teacher year after year.3 Ms. Frizzle is now Professor Frizzle, PhD, and shows up at the end of each episode (voiced once again by Lily Tomlin) to answer calls from fictional viewers about the show they just watched, replacing the two ‘producers’ who performed that role in the old series.

All but one student return. Phoebe – whose most memorable schtick was that she was a transfer student – went back to her old school. Her spot of 4th girl/8th4 kid is filled by Jyoti, who “does machines” for the TMNT fans among you. Most of the kids retain their personalities – some might argue Tim gets an upgrade to actually having one – but I think to a certain extent they’re amplified. One obvious change is the new show takes Phoebe’s obsession with protecting all the animals and gives it to Wanda, who loses her ‘tough girl’ persona and never ever says “Come on, you weasely wimps”.5

In fact, almost none of the kids ever say their old series catchphrases. Dorothy Ann is the only one who regularly says hers, though she says “According to my RE-search” instead of “According to my re-SEARCH”. Arnold sometimes says, “I knew I should have stayed ______ today”, though what used to be “home” changes from episode to episode.

Oh, I guess everyone does the “Carlos” moan, but IMHO his puns are worse this go around. And by worse I don’t mean in the way puns are supposed to be bad. They’re lesser quality.

Basically all the costumes/color schemes change, too. I’d go so far as to say there are no color schemes for each kid, anymore. Or, rather, it wasn’t obvious to me that they had them. If I went back and watched the series again, maybe there would be something for me to pick up on. But I have other things I need to do with my time…


Nostalgia-fueled me prefers the OG MSB. The voice acting, Frizzle’s crazy outfits, Little Richard’s theme song, and so on. There isn’t one thing I can point at in tMSBRA as something that’s so obviously better than what I grew up with.

But that doesn’t mean it’s terrible. All those people shouting about how Netflix is ruining their childhood were probably never going to watch the sequel, anyway, because the target audience is grade-schoolers. And I think grade-schoolers like my niece will be fine with it, because they’re not anchored down by 90s nostalgia like their parents are.

At the end of the day, the Magic School Bus and its successor are meant to educate their audience, and I think this project does continue that mission. So if you’ve been out of school for a while, or you’ve got a young child just starting it, you should definitely check it.

Or to paraphrase my good friend Valerie, take a chance. Maybe make a mistake. (You don’t really need to get messy for this one.)

1. This is a kid’s show. I’m censoring myself.
2. I’d like to throw in that I knew it was going to be about allergies as soon as Carlos sneezed for the first time, though they did throw in the twist that he was allergic to pollen, not the red-herring pet rat he had just bought.
3. Though this runs counter to an episode from the old series where we’re briefly introduced to a kid who says at the very end of the episode that he was in Ms. Frizzle’s class “last year” (MSB s3e2).
4. More evidence that Walkerville isn’t normal – a classroom with only 8 kids. (The original books featured 19 students in Frizzle’s class, which is slightly more reasonable, but still much less than the ~30 I grew up in).  
5. Keesha also comes across as way more of a selfish jerk, and loses her verbally combative relationship with Ralphie.

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