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On TV: Trips for Toddlers

Teletubbies. They're cute, they're cuddly, they're totally whacked on acid.

Year in Review, December 25, 1998

I'm not a parent, so I've only just caught up with the menace of Teletubbies, a bizarre British children's show that's been saturating our country since last spring. And now that I've seen it, I'm ready to sound the alarm.

Where are cultural doomsayers like William Bennett and Donald Wildmon when you really need them? How come they're not on Larry King every night denouncing this sinister subversion of American values and demanding that we break off diplomatic relations with Great Britain? It's all very well to while away the century slagging Clinton, but the 60s renegades at PBS who bought this show are the real threat to our republic.

Teletubbies is ostensibly an educational program aimed at children as young as one year old--it's shown at 9 AM and again at noon, between Mr. Rogers and Barney--but is in fact the most blatant piece of prodrug propaganda since Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. It's a half hour of bright colors, absurdist plotting, and insinuating horror. I may not know much about kiddie TV, but I know an acid trip when I see one.

The Teletubbies are four mutant stuffed animals who inhabit a peculiar sci-fi nature preserve called Teletubbyland. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po appear to be the victims of a biology experiment gone wrong: they have soft biomechanical TV antennae sprouting from their heads and video screens in their abdomens.

At unexplained intervals, the local transmitter (a giant pinwheel) begins broadcasting, and the Teletubbies stare in wonderment at the scenes playing on their stomach TVs. These are mainly silent images of various industrial processes. The rest of the time the Teletubbies bumble about aimlessly, while their needs are cared for by an assortment of high-tech gadgetry: robot gardeners tend the flower beds; a strange underground structure like a buried flying saucer, known as the Tubbytronic Superdome, dispenses food.

No other sentient beings are ever seen. Apparently the Teletubbies are wisely being kept in strict quarantine.

Most of the action is simultaneously enervated and inexplicable. A satellite descends, disgorges a toy, and reascends. An artificial lake briefly wells up, holograms of ships sail past, the lake bed dries. Periodically a laughing baby's face appears in the sun, the way Christ's does at the end of Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

But wait--it gets even more sinister. A great wind arises, and the Teletubbies are buffeted about the hillsides--"Teletubbies like to roll," a narrator says, excusing the failure of the climate-control system. Strange periscopes extrude from the flower beds to monitor the Teletubbies' every move. Harsh commands are issued by unseen loudspeakers: "Time for Teletubby bye-bye!"

No wonder the Teletubbies' dominant mood is dread. Their all-purpose response whenever they're faced with any new situation is "Uh-oh!" Sometimes they also use it for hello and good-bye. But mostly the Teletubbies are as passive and incurious as lotus-eaters; they live only for the moment when their TVs turn on--an event, like everything else in their world, that's beyond their comprehension and out of their control.

I'd hate to think this is the sort of self-image parents are eager to encourage in their children. I'm not even sure it's healthy viewing for acidheads. I prefer to regard it as a sci-fi Marxist parable, like H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, about helpless aristocrats and an unseen underclass that keeps the world running.

Maybe in the apocalyptic final episode, the Morlocks will emerge from their underground factories--and it really will be time for Teletubby bye-bye. Uh-oh!