Human memory is famously unreliable.
For example: shortly after we visited Disneyland, my mom told me about a dream she’d had where she’d watched one of the park’s character actors sit down at a bar, remove only the head of his Jafar costume, and start drinking. A year later, Mom told this story to me again-- only this time, as if it were something she actually remembered happening at Disneyland.
The ability to differentiate reality from fantasy is even worse when you’re a very young child. After all, when you’re a toddler, you tend to have trouble with basic concepts like tying shoes, the difference between being asleep and being awake, and not mistaking your ear for your mouth.
Thus, as an adult, it made sense that the vague memories I had of a group of magical children trapped in a library were something I’d dreamed as a kid. After all, the elements that I remembered made no sense: the kids were somehow from the future? And somehow had to escape the library using both a precious ruby and the Dewey Decimal system?
So you can imagine my shock when the Internet revealed that I was remembering an actual TV show: Tomes and Talismans, a Mississippi-produced educational TV show set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have achieved teleportation but still keep their records on microfilm. The synopsis contains this sentence: "The library team leader Ms. Bookhart, played by Niki Wood, is stranded in her bookmobile and is suddenly metabolically suspended for 100 years by a being known only as 'The Universal Being'." Magic School Bus this ain’t.
To get a real sense of the show was like, you really need to watch the intro for the first episode. All that creepily warped music, Mad Max-style world-building, and the teleporting puppy is just bait so you’ll listen to a monologue about the Dewey Decimal system.
Let’s face it: late 80s/early 90s children’s TV was weird. Here, in no particular order, are the shows that fucked me up the most:
MYSTERY SHOW NO. 1
WHAT I REMEMBER: An otherwise-normal train station is haunted by a six-inch high man, dressed as a conductor, who had the uncanny ability to disappear and reappear. This seemed to inspire confusion in the other characters, including a greasy haired person called Schemer. Schemer would inexplicably shout strange catchphrases (“GENIUS TIME”), wore weirder clothes, and would cry at inappropriate moments. Perhaps the tiny man had driven him mad?
WHAT THE SHOW WAS ACTUALLY CALLED: Shining Times Station
This was, apparently, a live-action filler between episodes of the American version of Thomas & Friends. I have absolutely no memory of seeing Thomas the Tank Engine between these shorts, though that would perhaps explain the conductor’s small statue: he was sized to fit inside toy-sized engines. (Let’s not think too hard about why toy engines would then pull up to a station big enough for full-sized humans…)
As a toddler, I was also entirely unable to appreciate the fact that the conductor was played by none other than George Carlin. Ringo Starr was also a regular. Actor Brian O’Connor played Schemer, and according to the Shining Times Station wiki, he still makes appearances as the character. I find this horrifying.
MYSTERY SHOW NO. 2
WHAT I REMEMBER: When I was an uncultured teen, I went on a completely overwhelming trip to NYC with my dad (we tried to see the entirety of the Met in one day). In the section dedicated to Egyptian art, I found myself wandering around thinking “This looks strangely familiar.” I could have been having a very bad case of deja vu… except why did I feel like I should be with Snuffleupagus?
WHAT THE SHOW WAS ACTUALLY CALLED: Sesame Street. In particular, an episode called “Don’t Eat the Pictures”.
It’s almost impossible for me to describe the depth of this episode’s awesomeness and strangeness within the constraints of this article. Fortunately, scott_lynch has done it for me in a Livejournal post that deserves to be a classic.
I mean, just look at this summary: “There are too many Sesame Street specials to count, and most of them have climactic revelations along the lines of, ‘Oscar learns that not everyone likes a grouch’ or ‘Elmo learns the real value of sharing.’ Yet once, just once, a bunch of writers at the Children's Television Workshop actually decided to run with ‘Big Bird overpowers the will of gods and demons in a quest for celestial justice.’"
Scott_lynch also brings up a very important point: what exactly did that kid DO? If I watch the episode again as an adult, will I see a subplot hinting that he was the baby version of Hannibal Lecter?
MYSTERY SHOW NO. 3
WHAT I REMEMBER: A woman falls into the sewers by accident, and is met by an enormous talking tomato. The tomato has arms, legs, a mouth, eyes, and is wearing a cape. It tells her it loves her.
I have a distinct memory of the eyes not being very well affixed to the tomato (somewhat like a Mr. Potato Head). At one point one of its eyeballs falls out and the tomato shoves it back in like it ain’t no thang.
WHAT THE SHOW WAS ACTUALLY CALLED: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. This particular episode was called “The Phantomato of the Opera”.
To fully understand the horror this episode inspired in me, you have to realize that I’d never heard of the original 50s movie, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, or The Phantom of the Opera. I thought that they were being serious.
This show also inspired a very strange conversation with my mom, where she somehow managed to figure out that the episode was spoofing The Phantom of the Opera from my inevitably tomato-based hints. We then watched an only slightly more accurate B-movie version, and I felt like I had learned something.
I have many more weird TV memories (what was the deal with that giant, book-obsessed fox that would come on between episodes of She-Ra?) but now it’s your turn to tell me about the inexplicable things your parents let you watch when you were too young to formulate questions about them. Together, we can finally put these ghosts of TV past to rest.