It’s the story of a strange scientist who lives inside a machine that can take him to any time or place. The only problem is, he’s really bad at making it go where it is supposed. Accompanying him are three young companions and a robot. They have adventures and meet historical figures.
Sound familiar? Sound intriguing? Prepare yourself for disappointment!
No, it’s not the lovable Doctor Who. It’s the odd religious cartoon “Flying House,” a partnership between the then fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network (owned by Pat Roberston) and Tatsunoko Productions (a japanese company that has been involved in a bunch of stuff you’ve heard of).
It all started out with Superbook, a cartoon about a sentient book that kidnaps children and hurls them into the past for the purpose of indoctrinating them into bronze age religion. As awesome as the premise of temporal child abduction is, in execution it was a lot more boring, as it mostly just consisted of the children watching Old Testament bible stories play out. And usually not the bloody ones either. The most interesting moment of that series is probably when Noah realizes that the children are from the future, which Noah says is proof that humanity survives. Noah, you fool! Don’t you realize that by knowing the future you may be altering it!?
Anyway, that show (which in Japan was called “Animated Parent and Child Theatre”) was apparently popular enough that it spawned off both a second season (in which a dog is lost so the cruel book traps a four year old in the past until the little boy can locate it) and a different series to focus exclusively on the New Testament.
And that’s where “Flying House” comes in. Ditching the absurd notion that anyone would ever deliberately travel to pre-air-conditioning Palestine, the show has its characters be thrown back two millennia due to a temporarily insane robot causing a power surge in their levitating domicile.
you heard me.
The opening theme song is nice enough to provide a quick summary of the first episode.
Apparently these kids missed “stranger danger” day, or the story of Hansel and Gretel for that matter. Theorizing that no isolated house in the middle of the woods could possibly be dangerous, Justin Casey and his friends stepped into the flying house . . . and vanished! They awoke to find themselves trapped in the past, facing a world that was not their own, and driven by an unknown force to watch religious history. Their only guide on this journey is Professor Bumble, a scientist from their own time, who is mostly useless. And so the children find themselves traveling from year to year, stripped of the illusion that their own life is within their control, and hoping each time that their next jump will be the jump home.
The professor spends the rest of the series trying to fix their eponymous living quarters in order to return them to the present. As the case may be, whenever the New Testament has a gap in its story, this just happens to be when the professor is able to lurch them forward slightly. So over the course of the show, they cover about 60 years of so-called history in the space of about one years time.
It is kind of funny that in the very first episode, the older boy (Justin Casey) is mistaken for the messiah by the local shepherds. The very same shepherds that we are then supposed to trust when they later say angels told them Jesus was the messiah. It’s almost like Arthur C. Clarke was able to get his hands on the script just long enough to make the point that maybe people don’t always know what they are looking at.
The Romans get word of this supposed messiah and arrest the children, but the day is saved by Mary (future mother of Jesus) who — I am not joking — pulls a jedi mind trick to get the guards to free them. (minute 16 of episode 1)
One thing I noticed on rewatching this is the attitude of Jesus is surprising loving and gentle for the work of an organization that was so instrumental in forming the modern evangelical right. The first time we see Jesus after his birth is a non-biblical sequence where a four year old Jesus gives his own bread to a beggar on the street after she hears a woman say “lazy good-nothings don’t get any of my bread.” The woman is basically spouting simplified Ayn Rand, and Jesus rejects this philosophy with non-vetted charity. Doesn’t even subject the man to a sermon or a tract.
Now long periods of the show are definitely your standard bible stories with no real twists or turns. The children see the birth of christ, his teaching, his death, resurrection, and the founding of the early church. But there are also a number of episodes that . . . um . . . “expand” on the biblical account. These tend to be weirder episodes and are my favorites. A prime example is episode 5 or, as I like to call it, “The Gang Drops Acid.” Ok, there is no actual drug use in this episode, but the children follow Jesus into a demonic desert.
LUCIFER CASTS SMOKESCREEN!
While Jesus battles Satan for the souls of all pokemon (or something), the children fall into a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations.
TODDLER SUMMONS THE POWER OF SATAN
First rocks turn to bread, which at least has biblical precedent. But then the synthesized sitar music kicks in (yes really) and two of the kids find themselves on a beach where the ocean is lemonade and the sand is candy. Then a giant dinosaur arises from the lemonade ocean and chases them through a forest of giant mushrooms (again, not kidding).
Then they are captured and eaten by a rock giant. Meanwhile, the other child hallucinates that she is growing into a hideous old woman with snakes for hair. No, I’m serious. This is all in a cartoon that is supposed to be about bible stories.
It turns out this was all the children’s own fault for having greed in their hearts. Even though the only “greed” they exhibited was being hungry after losing their supplies in the desert. That’s right kids, hunger induced hallucinations are a sign of moral inferiority.
If you think I’m kidding about any of this, check out the episode for yourself
episode 5 on CBN.com
Another slightly subtler WTF episode focuses on the death of John the Baptist. In the show, the kids help a young girl win a dancing contest to get whatever she wishes. Without them, she would not have won. She gives the prize to her mother, who asks for John the Baptist to be beheaded. John the Baptist was a political rebel and a prophet, in some ways more extreme than Jesus himself, but closely aligned with Jesus as well as being a relative of his. The history of the christian church would have been very different if John had stayed alive to become one of its primary early leaders. And according to the show, the reason he dies is because juvenile time travellers altered history.
TOMFOOLERY LEADS TO MURDER!
Another episode starts with Professor Bumble trying to get the house/ship back to their own time period. This is a standard opening for an episode that usually leads to them jumping only a couple of months, in order to reach the next bible story. But this time they actually make it back to modern day. The children say their goodbyes and Justin runs toward his house. Except something isn’t quite right. Exiting the forest where they landed, he finds a city of giant skyscrapers and Futurama/Jetsons tubes connecting the buildings. A nearby swingset is in ruins. His house is gone and the grass is overgrown. And then . . . abandoned and forgotten among the weeds . . . he finds HIS OWN GRAVE.
JUSTIN HAS AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS
Okay, hokey and cliched, but downright terrifying in a kids show. You are dead, kid, and everyone has forgotten you ever lived. It’s quickly revealed that it is all a dream, but not before one last freakout when Justin thinks he has become an old man. This is the second time the show has suggested that getting old is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a person. It made me realize that actually throughout the show, the older a character is the less likely he is to be a good guy. Established bible characters aside, children are always loving and kind in this show and adults are often either nasty and uncaring or simply incompetent. It’s a fascinating “don’t trust anyone over 30” kind of subtext to a show that is ostensibly about things like obeying elders and believing your parents.
Scaring children is not incidental here. This episode ends up being about how only Jesus can give you eternal life, so it is absolutely on purpose that the show is trying to instill the fear of death into kids. It’s one of the crazier things about religious children’s programming in general — rather than teach kids to be confident and able to deal with emotional issues, the shows are designed to promote a sense of helplessness over one’s own fate. It’s very clearly “death is so scary and paralyzing that the only way to live is to become a slave to whoever can keep you from having to face it.”
A lot of Flying House episodes mostly consist of the children listening to Jesus talk. The visualizations of those parables tend to be a less rigid animation style and at least once is very dark. Starting at about 7:40 of episode 22, we get a depiction of hell that is more Dante and Milton than anything found in the bible. A keyboard set to “Terminator movie mode” drones out long tones as a black screen desolves into red lava. A man cries “help me” as we swims desperately through the hot liquid. “let me out of here! no please no!” He reaches a black shore, but a skeleton with a trident pushes him back in. Formless shadows with glowing eyes dance among endless flames, each one of them crying out in agony. Three human figures with bare chests, one of them apparently a bare nippled woman, cry out for water. Meanwhile in heaven, everybody’s getting stoned.
PEOPLE IN HELL
PEOPLE IN HEAVEN
Episode 23 begins with two men creeping through a bat-infested cave in order to find treasure (the implication is that they are grave robbers). Instead, they release a demon, continuing this show’s insistence that underneath the prayers and sermons, what the New Testament is really about is ghost stories. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely some demon stuff in the New Testament. But demons being released by disturbing graves is all extra-biblical fan fiction, even if it is more interesting than watching Jesus forgive yet more sinners.
With a flash of light, the demon escapes the tomb and enters into a local farmer. The farmer sits down to dinner with his son and his son’s new friends, our heroes the Flying House children. What follows is pure hollywood demonology, as the farmer starts out friendly but grows increasingly more bizarre. He starts sweating and chows down on an uncooked pig’s leg. Then the furniture starts moving and the kids discreetly bolt, trying to stay as polite as possible. A windstorm prevents them from being able to get back home, so they return to the farmer to find him tearing up the furniture.
Later, his eyes glow like the ga’ould in SG-1 and a lightning strike activates a new voice that says “we have come to wreak vengeance.” The kids call a doctor(?) who diagnoses him as definitely possessed. So the kids call a rabbi, which doesn’t work either. The farmer-demon runs off and starts terrorizing the entire village, knocking around EVERYBODY’s furniture (apparently this is an anti-furnishing demon).
The grave-robbers, afraid that their demon-freeing ways will be discovered, try to argue that the demon is a result of the farmer’s pork-heavy diet. I’m not sure what the point is in making the bad guys argue for a relatively natural cause to the madness, but the other intriguing riddle of this episode is that the farmer’s son is named Ahkam — which is pronounced the same as Occam. It could be a coincidence, or it could be the work of the writers at some level trying to suggest that maybe we shouldn’t jump to the supernatural so fast.
Jesus shows up and the episode finally remembers this is supposed to be a bible story, not a Poltergeist rip-off. Jesus makes short work of the demons, sending them into the farmer’s pigs who immediately commit suicide in a nearby river. So with one single action, Jesus both saves the farmer and ruins his livelihood.
Episode 40 is named “Crown of Thorns” and is an episode where, in the show’s fanfictionesque tradition, the main drama of the episode is more of a political drama where the tension is between whether Jesus or the criminal Barabbas should be granted a pardon. Barabbas is presented here as a true Jewish patriot who killed a Roman guard for noble reasons. There are a ton of characters in this episode, including Barabbas’s son, the wife and daughter of the slain Roman guard, the friends of Jesus, Pontius Pilot, and the religious leaders. Of all of these, only the religious leaders are portrayed as evil. All of the others, whether on Jesus’s or Barabbas’s side, are presented as being noble in their intentions. It’s quite a nuanced characterization for any early eighties cartoon, and it would be an episode that would legitimately keep the audience guessing if the bible version wasn’t obviously so well known.
Episode 41 remembers for the first time in a while that the kids have a mother-fvcking flying time machine at their disposal, and Justin tries to convince Professor Bumble to use future tech to save Jesus. But the professor gets to do his best David Tennant impersonation, replying that he wishes he could save Jesus but that historical facts cannot be changed.
I’M SORRY. I’M SO VERY, VERY SORRY
After half-heartedly following the career of Paul, the professor and the children do finally get back home. It’s a rather anticlimatic sequence that almost looks like it was premade to be attached to the end of whatever episode ended up being the last. It’s too bad that they don’t stick around to try to visualize the book of revelation. It’s clear that the series preferred the weirder aspects of the biblical narrative, and it would’ve been interesting to seem them tackle seven headed dragons and apocalyptic horsemen.
Despite being about the New Testament, The series isn’t quite devoted to the biblical texts enough to really be effective as a tool for teaching the bible, nor could anyone who didn’t already know the bible make any sense out of it. That’s probably why unlike Superbook (which recently got a CGI reboot), this show has been mostly forgotten. In truth, “Flying House” is best described as visual fanfiction, weaving in and out of the biblical texts but generously adding on subplots and characters from a wealth of other sources. That’s not to say it’s sophisticated. It’s not. But what it is is weird and eclectic in a way perhaps only a 1980s religious show could be. Where any other cartoon would be boycotted for having stories about hell and demons, a bible cartoon can get away with not just covering those topics but fixating on them. The world of the bible really is a landscape of exotic entities and larger-than-life characters, and while it’s not exactly “good television,” Flying House was certainly able to use that canvas to make a show that at least to me is strangely compelling.