Everything I Learned From ‘ReBoot,’ the 90s Kids Show That Predicted the Future
With a reboot of the Canadian show on the way, it's as good a time as ever to revisit this cult classic.
If my path is forged by conscious choices and not "a throw of the dice," then saying I was "destined" for a career in computers would be disingenuous. That's something I learned before reaching my double-digits, just as I fantasized about hoverboards and assimilated words like "format" and "nano" into my vocabulary. Growing up as a Canadian kid in the 90s, shows like Arthur, Doug, Rugrats, and The Magic School Bus were mainstays (along with non-animated fixations like Art Attack). As grateful as I am for the wholesome influence these shows had on me at a young age, none have impacted my life more than ReBoot.
The Canadian-made series, which ran from 1994 to 2001, was cutting-edge for its time: the first CGI-animated show, helmed by a powerhouse studio—Mainframe Entertainment, now Rainmaker—that possessed storytelling prowess and technical wizardry. ReBoot effectively embodied its lore of city-dwellers ("Mainframers") inside the computer of an enigmatic "User," prompting me to wonder if my humble PC (Windows 95!) was also home to living data. Technically it was, but desperate to have my own Mainframe PID, I hoped the fantastical was also true.
ReBoot's core centered around three main characters: Bob the Guardian, a hero hailing from the all-mysterious "Super Computer" and armed with an advanced Keytool known as "Glitch"; Dot Matrix, business-savvy, swears-by-schedules sprite who ran the city's diner; and Enzo Matrix, Dot's younger brother and thrill-seeker with a gaming vice. Serving a pivotal role in memorable episode plots were the show's leading villains, Megabyte and Hexadecimal: one, a calculating and power-obsessed leader; the other, a wildly unpredictable and easily bored face-shifter. Even accounting for supporting characters—like Mouse, hacker extraordinaire and fearless katana wielder; and minions, Hack and Slash, who go about villainy with endearing incompetence—ReBoot had strong characterization throughout that established its maturity.
A typical episode saw Bot, Dot and Enzo thwarting viral schemes (Megabyte infiltrating the Principal Office, Hexadecimal unleashing chaos on all of Mainframe) or dealing with a personal conflict (Enzo wanting to grow his IQ), while also contending with the unplanned interruptions of Game Cubes—video game-inspired simulations with a towering, purple-coloured energy field for a physical form, which the User would load into a sectioned-off part of Mainframe. The timing of these events was often at great inconvenience to the main characters (such as during a system invasion), but games offered adversity with the threat of "nullification" (a degraded state) to further plot or character development. Moreover, it was a key tool of bringing ReBoot's rich comedic spirit to the fore.
The penchant for smart humour was remarkable: a blend of tasteful spoofs, slick tech jokes and wisecracks, and seamlessly integrated pop-culture references. It didn't talk down to its audience and regularly employed a brand of non-sarcastic subtlety, which helped the show carve its niche.
Rather brilliantly, the larger concepts explored on the show were on-pulse with then-current and even future tech developments: search engines; protected IP addresses; Photoshop as a canvas for underground artists; infectious software such as trojans; online "monsters"; gatekeepers and moderators; even the infiltration of "swag" into public consciousness.
It's because of this distinguishing depth that I learned a great deal from ReBoot—about digital systems, about cyberspace, about life. Creative liberties were taken in its terminology to ground the computer-world premise in reality. But wading deeper into technology as I got older and various technologies became ubiquitous, I repeatedly thought: "Hey, that's a ReBoot term!" Words like "command" in the days of floppy disks and MS-DOS. A "tiff" is really a double play on the file type "TIFF," much like how web surfer Ray Tracer is named after the graphics term, "ray tracing." Enzo's famous catchphrase—"Alphanumeric!"—also refers to a sequence of letters and numbers. And whenever school permission forms asked for a parent or guardian, I was tempted to put "Bob."
The show was also informative in matters of social interaction. Hex's conniving showed me that if you envelop something in enough mystery, your audience will be irresistibly compelled to investigate further—and that you should never accept an unpredictable non-friend's "invite" for tea and biscuits without an escape plan. Megabyte is also a helpful reference point for conflict resolution. When control is involved (pride and sensitive egos running close behind), sometimes the least draining approach is to let someone have their moment. He made the right call in "To Mend and Defend" (a superb episode): when things head south, ditch the temporary victory to reap long-term. I'm not a confrontational person, but I figured out early to pick my battles; for those I did choose, there were reasons worth fighting for. Like rare trading cards.
With ReBoot's propensity to pull from and poke fun at video games (that fourth-wall line in "To Mend and Defend" is perfection), I naturally derived lessons to apply as a gamer. Generous 1UPs aside, an inflated life counter that you didn't earn is incredibly cheap. Unless I'm doing a no-continues run in Super Monkey Ball 2, in which case 99 lives is perfectly kosher. Although male avatars often represented the User, the determined pilot in "Firewall" and even AndrAIa's character showed that girls can totally be threatening game-players too—and bring equally satisfying moments of defeat.
In the larger scheme, ReBoot also shaped my worldviews. I see the game crash catastrophe in one of my favourite episodes, "Racing the Clock," as metaphorical: corruption tears the world apart. When faced with the ugly version of yourself, as in another favourite ep, "Wizards, Wizards, Warriors and a Word From Our Sponsor," enlisting someone else to wage war with you is an effective strategy. And as "My Two Bobs" and "Life's a Glitch" demonstrate with the creatively frustrating plague of characters suffering from amnesia, clinging so desperately to the past can distort our view of the present. Season 4 as a whole had nature vs. nurture as a thematic undercurrent, which I've reflected on many times over the years.
Sans the constant tackling of adults, I saw so much of myself in Enzo—a boy with promising game skills and enthusiasm that got him into trouble, who grew up fast and feared becoming what he hates—and was thoroughly gripped by the calculated writing choices of Seasons 2 and 3. The overlap between his character development and my personal life has made certain episodes emotional to watch, especially in the years after the show was off the air. "Number 7" is a strange one—an episode that I, for the longest time, regarded as very off-kilter and one of my least favourites in the series, now has profound meaning for me. When we lose ourselves or forget why we began on a path, reconnecting with our back-story can help us begin course correction. The well-written "Game Over" too holds a powerful lesson: overconfidence mixed with inexperience is a dangerous melting pot that can quickly bring us face-to-face with the demons we try to outrun.
Fans of ReBoot know well the fate the show suffered: Season 4, which originally was to have a third arc, was truncated to eight episodes due to circumstances outside the control of the show's creators, resulting in an infamous cliffhanger that was never resolved. Although its premature end happened years ago (and the voice of Megabyte, the legendary Tony Jay, has since passed away), the show's crew and cast have done their part to keep the community alive through convention panels. Furthermore, its groundbreaking accomplishments have not been forgotten, and ReBoot still occupies a place in pop culture (the reference to AndrAIa in this Toy Story short was wonderfully apt). More than ten years later, Rainmaker is preparing a reboot of the show called "ReBoot: The Guardian Code," and although it won't be a continuation of where Season 4 was originally supposed to go, it will be fascinating to see how they ground it in the current realm of technology.
ReBoot wasn't something I was merely "into"; it was my world—I have the memorized dialogue, technological knack, and impaired vision to prove it. Regardless of how ReBoot's reboot turns out, it won't take away from the original's influence and the lasting connections it forged in the minds of future tech wizards and icon double-clickers. I know my CPU is better for it.