Nerding Day: Insektors 🌭

In the early ’90s, computer animation was still in its infancy. Shows like Transformers: Beast Wars and ReBoot by Mainframe Entertainment and the decidedly more Christ-like Veggietales from this period have managed to stick in the public consciousness, but one CGI TV series from the era seems to have slipped out of history: Insektors. Produced by French studio Fantome in 1993, Insektors features all of the classic themes of early ’90s children’s entertainment: bugs, environmentalism, and the forcible conversion of your ideological enemies to your — the only correct — world view.

Starring a walking stick insect named Fulgor (David Gasman, who also voiced Goku in a bunch of Dragon Ball Z movies and has somehow appeared in every game by Quantic Dream), Insektors is the tale of the sunny, color-loving Joyces and their struggle against the villainous Yuks. It was a pretty standard set-up. The Yuks are industrialist bugs who have mined all of the coal out of their side of the planet and are now turning their sights on the abundant flower stalks in Joyce territory. It was very evil, and the exact same business model as most of the show’s sponsors.

What do they need all of these resources for? Building giant war machines to collect more resources, for one, but more importantly to throw into a giant furnace to keep their Queen warm. Is Insektors thus a metaphor for the real-world colonialist adventures that have fed the insatiable desires of the metropole through history? I’m going to say that yes, yes it is. Americans want low gas prices and the big insect Queen wants to stay warm. Same thing. Anyone telling you differently is about to throw you into an oven to keep their Queen warm. The oven knows it’s the bad guy by the way:

One might ask why the Queen doesn’t simply move someplace warmer than the Yuk’s frigid swamp. First off, maybe she likes it in the swamp. Maybe the swamp has good schools or it’s really walkable or something. Second, it’s implied that the Queen is in fact so cold because of how evil she is. This suggests that, were the Queen to cease in her quest for domination and destruction, she would be relieved of the very conditions which make it necessary in the first place. Oh, the irony! The cruel, probably not intended, Shakespearean irony!

Meanwhile, the Joyces are sustained by The Great Prism, a magical entity that can spontaneously grow plants. As it turns out, it’s rather easy to be pacifistic naturalists when all of your needs are supplied by an omnipotent crystal god. 

The Joyces spend their days embodying Marx’s adage of the man in communist society who spends the morning gardening, the afternoon making music, and the evening gathering pollen for the semi-sentient terraforming prism at the center of their culture. And we should follow their example. Let’s all work together and worship the prism.

It may seem like the Joyces are carefree layabouts who look like characters from a local exterminator commercial, but they aren’t idiots or cowards. When the Yuks start encroaching on their land and cutting down their flower forests to fuel their furnaces, they square up against the invaders with a ferocity that belies their beneficent image, like a drunk guy at Santacon.

Given how Insektors was aimed at young audiences and that it was developed well after the heyday of violent ’80s cartoons, Fantome seems to have been interested in portraying conflict in a way that didn’t rely on fisticuffs or laser battles. Thus, the Joyces resist the Yuks through technology like Fulgor’s Kolor Guitar. Behold:

When strummed, this instrument produces blasts of colorful energy which are harmless to Joyces, yet send Yuks into laughing fits. Rather than kill or maim, these weapons seem to literally convert their targets into peace-loving Joyces. An ethnic bioweapon, yes, but one where you can sincerely add the words, “wait let me explain.”

We should really stop to think about this for a minute. Mind controlling weapons were pretty common in ’90s cartoons, but they were typically wielded by villains. For one thing, it’s dramatic when a hero is turned against their allies. For another, bending the very will and identity of a living being is usually understood as pretty fucking evil. While plenty of kids’ stories end with the villains seeing the errors of their ways and recanting, few of these come to Jesus moments happen because the characters in question got hit by a personality-warping rainbow money shot. I hope. I actually don’t remember how Care Bear tummies worked.

The Yuks, those miserable bastards, don’t take this subversion of their free will sitting down. They have their own weapons called Koal Juice Guns, which cause depression in any Joyces they hit. Additionally, they’ve got a machine called the Dark Box they toss their incapacitated goons into to turn them back into sad industrialists. Presumably, they could also use it on Joyces to make them into Yuks. Again, the show was just acting out the best-case scenario for its advertisers.

So we have two civilizations — one industrialized and militaristic, the other nature-loving and peaceful. And both of them are armed with weapons that don’t outright annihilate their foes, but rather strip them of their very being and make them more like their wielders. Imagine living in this world, where in every conflict with your enemy you risk not just injury or death but the complete reversal of your personality. In their effort to make Insektors less violent, Fantome inadvertently created a vision of a hellish existence where the self is as fragile as the petals of a flower. It seems like something Philip K. Dick would come up with, not Saturday morning cartoon fodder.

Insektors isn’t all psychological horror, though — it’s also got some interesting worldbuilding. In the episode “Planet Karbon,” for instance, Prince Acylius of the Yuks has run away to live with the Joyces, preferring their music and color to his people’s… toil and misery, I guess. And yes, okay, that’s the exact same thing the show always does, but when he’s shown the Great Prism, Prince Acylius touches it and triggers a giant sky beam and booming voice that tells the story of the planet. 

Once upon a time, it seems, the only living things in the world were the Yuks. Then the Great Prism fell from space and introduced color and plants. While most were disturbed by this new presence, a few overcame their fears and were rewarded with the “awakening of their souls.” Which looked like the loading screen for a 1995 CD-ROM encyclopedia.

They developed a new way of life and became the Joyces. This is a fun kind of inversion of the typical “advanced” industrialist society versus the “primitive” hunter-gatherers. It suggests that the Yuks are the backwards ones, sticking as they do to their timeless plan of burning stuff for fuel until there isn’t any left.

That said, what exactly is the message here? That you should embrace novelty? That mysterious and incomprehensible sky shapes are to be trusted without question? Or is the Great Prism meant to stand in for clean nuclear power, perhaps? Was Insektors propaganda meant to get children onboard with fission reactors? Admittedly, probably not. But like all good art, it makes you wonder, right?

Lacking the brand recognition of Beast Wars and the on-trend computer theming of ReBoot, Insektors isn’t as well-remembered as its contemporaries. Maybe that’s because of how little of it there was — Fantome only produced 26 episodes, each of which is 12 minutes long. Maybe it’s because the characters look like first drafts of the cast of A Bug’s Life. Or maybe it’s because “Insektors” sounds like the name of a toy line of insect-themed superheroes sold exclusively at K-Mart for a few months in 1990 that six undiagnosed bug fetishists on the Internet are absolutely obsessed with to this day.

Insektors was released outside of its native France in both the UK and North America, and received two different English dubs. I grew up with the North American version, but watching it on YouTube it does seem that the UK version is the superior one even though it’s a little less faithful to the original. The voice acting is generally higher quality, and there are a lot of fun little bits that didn’t make it to the North American dub. 

For instance, in the NA dub a character complains that he’s allergic to flowers when caught in some rapidly-growing plants. In the UK, the line is “I’m in the Day of the wretched Triffids!” It’s truly a sad indictment of the state of American education that children of the ’90s wouldn’t get a John Wyndham joke.

And it isn’t just the voices or tenor of the humor that changed across the two versions — each region got different names for all of the show’s characters and locations, making the Wikipedia page for the series a real mess. Most of the differences aren’t especially notable — the Yuks become Kruds in the UK dub, and Fulgor is named Flynn — but there’s one crucial difference. 

In the UK, the evil Queen Bakrakra was named after a certain medical device. She isn’t Queen Krutch, or Queen Kannula, or Queen Kautery. Her name is Queen Katheter. In their effort to make Insektors more amusing to an audience of wry and sardonic children, the UK was, quite literally, taking the piss.

This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Yossarian, who brainwashes squares with a guitar the old fashioned way: By fuckin’ shreddin’ it.