Wow, it’s been some field trip so far, hasn’t it? I’ve discussed the best and worst parts about The Magic School Bus franchise, but I’m about to add on something else relating to my discussion that may provide some interesting insight as to how The Magic School Bus even got something that could truly be defined as its “worst”…
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is the final part of a three-part post of which I have been attempting to unite the Magic School Bus fanbase back together in the aftermath of the release of the recent soft reboot of the fantastic 1994 PBS Kids Magic School Bus television series, The Magic School Bus Rides Again. In the first part, I reflected on some of the history of the franchise prior to the release of Rides Again, and gave a reminder of what makes the books and the original television series great. In the second part, I explained what works and what doesn’t work about Rides Again and why it ultimately fails, using the first part to provide a deeper analysis into the second part by comparing the differences between the quality of the characters, stories, and other aspects in both shows.
This final part will discuss the story of how we even got into this mess in the first place: exactly how Rides Again came to existence, what went wrong during the development of the reboot and the possible options that are next for the franchise to fix its current state. And in doing so, I hope to have succeeded in using Part One to make us realize what gave us this passion to fight, Part Two to make us realize our differences and the things we can agree on to stop fighting each other, and Part Three to make us realize who we should really be fighting.
Like it or not, this field trip is almost over (I know, Arnold), so without farther ado…to the bus once more!
So What Did Go Wrong?
It all started in June 2014. Scholastic and Netflix jointly announced plans for a reboot of The Magic School Bus, titled The Magic School Bus 360°, or The Magic School Bus 360 Degrees. It was going to be computer animated, with Scholastic veteran Deborah Forte at the forefront. Based on her comments, the vision for the franchise’s future was clear.
The Magic School Bus’ revolutionized kids’ television through a unique and powerful blend of entertainment and science information. We’re proud that it’s become an evergreen show that children and parents continue to watch together. Our new rendition ‘The Magic School Bus 360 degrees’ is a similarly compelling addition to the current landscape of children’s programming and on Netflix is bound to reach more families around the world than ever before who will now be able to watch the show anytime, anywhere they want.
The series was going to have an initial release of 26 episodes, which were scheduled to stream on Netflix sometime in 2016. Like what came of Rides Again, 360 Degrees also planned on updating the franchise and placing more of an emphasis on technology. The difference was that it would feature a modernized Ms. Frizzle that would use robotics, wearables and camera technology. The idea was to help motivate children’s interest in the sciences, specifically STEM education, which is a grouping of the educational disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Not only that, but two images of concept art for the series were released, which gave an idea of what the new series was going to look like.
The whole thing was just so promising. Being computer animated would’ve been MILES better than the cheap Flash animation we got at the end of the day with Rides Again. Computer animation is just as popular as Flash, and not because its easier to animate, but because things can appear more real. Because of this, the characters likely would’ve been more true to life than even the original series. And while an initial release of 26 episodes sounded too ambitious to stick to, especially for the show they planned to make, it was still ambition, which was respectable in and of itself. The show would’ve been a hard reboot, and wouldn’t bear the burden of adding onto and acknowledging the continuity of the original series. Valerie was going to stay in the classroom, and it was likely that Fiona wasn’t even created yet at the time. The emphasis on technology was even more specific in its purpose; for all the ways Rides Again did it, I feel like it could’ve done it just a little bit better.
The fact that these two pieces of art look better than the entire animation style of Rides Again speaks volumes to the injustice done on this franchise. Now, I’d like to make it clear that this is just concept art, thus it was subject to change, especially being concept art for a computer animated series. But that doesn’t mean that an image can’t be better than an entire TV show. These images show a lot of detail in the colors, and the Bus’s design is closer to that of the original series and the books. Valerie appears to be younger or have a shorter face, but nothing too drastic or notable to garner any criticism. Most notably though, the images show expressive faces and implied movements in the characters that are on par with the original series, and nothing like in Rides Again. Some of these are hard to see in the first image, but try zooming into it, and you’ll see what I mean. The most notable example is where Liz gets smacked into the window in the second one, likely due to Valerie hitting the break too fast. Good luck seeing that statue in Rides Again doing that.
I can identify Carlos, Wanda and Keesha (with glasses?) in the first image, while Carlos appears to the right of the second. The student in the front seat in the first image and the student to the left of the second may be Ralphie, but if so, he is still redesigned quite a bit here. But again, this is concept art, so perhaps his design would’ve been more accurate to the books in the final show. Also, the name “360 Degrees” was definitely odd and admittedly not as good as Rides Again‘s name. But given everything else about this planned series, chances are that the show was going to be good enough to explain why it was going to call itself “360 Degrees”.
So what happened? Well, that initial announcement ended up becoming the only announcement regarding the series in the months and even years since. 2016 came around without a single official update, increasingly leading to curiosity on what Scholastic was up to. But by September of that year, it was discovered that the series was quietly pushed back to 2017, which really got everyone curious and suggested that either the project was just too ambitious to meet up to the 2016 release date, or something went horribly wrong.
And that’s when things went horribly wrong. In February 2017, Scholastic finally spoke up and stated that Kate McKinnon would be voicing Valerie in the series. It was also stated that the series was changing its name to The Magic School Bus Rides Again, which suggested that the series may have taken a radically different direction. Because this and McKinnon’s true role was not cleared up, everyone falsely believed that McKinnon would indeed be voicing Valerie, which upset quite a lot of fans for taking the role from Lily Tomlin. The bad reporting was strike one.
Then came the release of the trailer in September of that year, and everything finally made sense. Lily Tomlin was still returning as Valerie, but McKinnon would be playing new character Fiona, who would be taking Valerie’s place. And of course, all the other changes I discussed in Part Two, and the subsequent crack that opened right down the middle of the Magic School Bus fanbase. It was a tragic day for fandom.
With everything about the series revealed, things were now ripe for an investigation as to why the show took such an atrocious course. At first glance of the names and production companies, it’s tough to place blame on any specific party. The key is to see who returned from the original series, who didn’t return from the original series, and who replaced those that didn’t return.
And after figuring that out, one party in particular sticks out like a sore thumb.
9 Story Media. Now, I know what some of you may be thinking: 9 Story? The same award-winning 9 Story that is known for such productions and programs as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Wild Kratts, Nature Cat and Peg + Cat?
Don’t worry, I initially couldn’t accept it myself. But that was until I researched the rest of their library, and that’s when you realize that they’re not so award-winning as you think. For every good show that 9 Story produces, they make two more shows that either get mixed or negative reception. Among such shows include updates to iconic series that degrade its quality.
As it turns out, Rides Again is not the first time they have put a stain on an existing IP or even a children’s book IP. When I found out that they were given the reins for Seasons 16 through 19 of Arthur and hindered its animation style with Flash in the process, it blew my mind. 🤯 Notably, Flash animation is a huge part of 9 Story’s shows, even among the good ones, which is fine, but it only hurts the shows more when they are bad.
And of course, there are the other embarrassments of their library. One such show that particularly caught my attention is Almost Naked Animals, as I came across it during its heyday. If you haven’t heard of it, yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like, and curiosity will kill the cat in you if you watch it. There’s also Survive This, a rare live-action show of theirs that aired on Cartoon Network during a time when the channel was experimenting with live-action content. Granted, no one liked the idea of a network with “Cartoon” in the title doing such a thing, so make that of what you will.
But what made Scholastic decide to bring such a hit-and-miss production company on board? That the producers of Almost Naked Animals among other trash had any right to be near the mere feet of Frizzle and Co.? Thankfully, I figured that out as well, after doing an extensive rundown of the credits of the first episodes of both the original series and Rides Again. That way, I could see exactly who left and who stayed, and determine if any recognizable names were only on one of the credit sequences. It also allowed for some interesting insight into the exact way Rides Again ended up as it did. It is important to note that for the purposes of post length, I left out names that likely wouldn’t have much of an impact on the show’s direction, and stuck to those in charge of the main roles such as writers, directors and producers.
Original Series Credits (First Episode, “Gets Lost In Space”)
- Executive Producers: Jane Startz, Alison Blank
- Supervising Producer: Kristin Laskas Martin
- Coordinating Producer: Karen Stevens
- Executive Project Director: Cheryl Gotthelf
- Executives in Charge of Production: Deborah Forte, Marty Keltz
- Producer: Hasmi Giakoumis
- Assistant Producer: Steve Schnier
- Director: Lawrence Jacobs
- Assistant Directors: Scott Glynn, Paul Bouchard
- Head Writer: Jocelyn Stevenson
- Associate Producer: Geanne Finney
- Director Project Outreach: Jenny Lam
- Creative Consultant: Yvette Kaplan
- Production Executive: Robin Grey
- Production Accountants: Nellie Morell Evans, Ginny Reilly
- Production Assistants: Mia Katoh, Carmina Marcial, Sue Rosenthal
Rides Again Credits (First Episode, “Frizzle of the Future”)
- Directed By: Richard Weston
- Written By: John May and Suzanne Bolch
- Storyboard by: Dimitri Kostic
- Executive Producers: Vince Commisso, Steve Jarosz, Iole Lucchese, Tamara Rothenberg, Jocelyn Stevenson, Andy Yeatman
- Executive Story Editors: John May and Suzanne Bolch
- Supervising Producer: Tanya Green
- Producers: Michelle Awad, Brenda Wall
- Associate Producer: Caitlin Friedman
According to my research, 🤓 it appears that some of those that did return were put in lower positions of production. Jocelyn Stevenson is among them, who was head writer in the original series but reduced to executive producer in Rides Again. John May and Suzanne Bolch are not featured in the original series credits, who were the writers of Rides Again‘s pilot. Notably, Vince Commisso, the President and CEO of 9 Story, is also executive producer, which puts him in the same place as Stevenson, though he’s still credited, which is too much power for comfort.
But Commisso’s involvement isn’t even the most striking part about the two sets of credits. That honor goes to a previous name I stated earlier: Deborah Forte. If you remember earlier, Forte was front and center at the initial announcement of 360 Degrees, yet she isn’t featured in the Rides Again credits. While I obviously wasn’t at Scholastic during the time this drama was taking place, it seems to appear as if during the time from June 2014 to September 2016, there must’ve been some falling out with Forte, or Forte walked out, which caused someone else to take her place in development. We can only imagine who that person was, but whoever it was, he or she somehow thought that getting 9 Story on board was a brilliant idea.
Forte’s vision of 360 Degrees as “a similarly compelling addition to the current landscape of children’s programming” was ruined. My explanation in Part One of how to make good edutainment, to properly merge the nonfictional and the fictional together, was ruined. Scholastic took chances, made mistakes, and got a little too messy. Instead of fighting each other over whether or not Rides Again is good or bad, we should be fighting 9 Story for putting a stain on what was such a spotless franchise in the first place.
And Where Will This Bus Drive Next?
Well, let’s first state the obvious: Rides Again has got to go. As long as this franchise has the weight of this series holding it down, it will never bounce back up to its former glory. It’s true that the second season was an improvement over the first in terms of writing, but the premise, art style and animation all still need to change. This is even despite the fact that Nelvana was involved, who of course animated the original series. But because these things make up the show’s identity, that’s unlikely to happen, though not impossible. Because of this, even if a third season improves the writing to the point that its quality is just like the original series, it’s not going to be respected like the original series was. After all, it was those things that caused the negative reaction of the first trailer to start with.
With that being said, it will be interesting to see if Rides Again even gets a third season. The first season was released in September 2017, and the second season was released in April 2018. If we go by the seven months it took to put out Season Two, Season Three would likely be out by November if it happens. Regardless of the quality, nearly every show on Netflix gets a second season, that’s just the way they work. And while Netflix doesn’t release the ratings of their shows, the release of a third season onwards suggests that the ratings were high enough to be considered a success.
If a third season happens, then that proves that not enough kids have been clicking on the original series; remember that it is also on Netflix. It could also be that they are aware of the original, but they finished watching it and are just hungry for more Magic School Bus media, even if it’s inferior. Or that the “success” is a result of hate-watching the show enough for Netflix to think it deserves a third season, and apologies if you have nightmares tonight, a Season Four. That of course would put the episode count on equal footing with the original series, which Rides Again definitely doesn’t deserve.
When Rides Again does end, it is definitely interesting to think about, though: where will that bus drive next? Sadly, I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to shut its gas off for a while to help get Rides Again out of the popular memory; we can only hope that Scholastic doesn’t wait too long on that. Though depending on what the next Magic School Bus production looks like, they might have to make the franchise sit for a while. The first obvious path they could take is another reboot, preferably a hard one. Another soft reboot that retcons Rides Again would be amazing though, even if it’s pretty risky. I hate to say it, but we may have to face the possibility that the current continuity can’t be saved. 😔
Another feasible route could be a film adaptation of some kind, preferably also in its own continuity, though a retcon can also apply, with the same risks. But given the formulaic approach to the books, the franchise should probably stick to television, as the hypothetical film would have to adapt only one book in the series like the upcoming Magic Tree House film to prevent it from getting too convoluted, or go a route somewhat in the vein of the first Goosebumps film.
And while both of those have been envisioned as live-action projects, that brings up the most interesting route of all: what about a live-action iteration?
I know what some of you may already be thinking: even Valerie isn’t that crazy. But let’s just entertain the idea for a moment. Given advancements in CGI and VFX, the prospect of a live-action Magic School Bus TV series is not as insane as it was, say, at the time the original series first aired in the 90’s. It would definitely stand out among the previous productions, rather than being just another animated reboot, and when you think about it, the original computer animated approach for 360 Degrees was not far off.
Of course, something like that would require TONS of money to make, probably reaching a production budget of the tens of millions per episode and ranking it among the most expensive television series ever made. But if done right, it would be definitely worth it, making a far greater impact on popular culture than Rides Again could ever hope to achieve. It makes perfect sense why it isn’t feasible for Scholastic though, at least right now. Because such a project would have similar problems as the Animorphs film: it would likely be a Silvertongue production, which is still a relatively new creation of Scholastic’s, and that studio has yet to have the power and recognition to get the proper budget.
As I said earlier, I wasn’t at Scholastic when Rides Again was getting cooked up in the wrong pot, and we may never know what exactly happened with 360 Degrees. It is also without say that Scholastic isn’t exactly the powerhouse they used to be in the 90’s, even if they still make generally solid content nowadays. As much as I love Deborah Forte, I’m not even asking for her to be involved in absolutely everything they produce, but I’m definitely not asking for the Vince Commissos of the world to be involved either. Now that I think about it, everything, from the slow development of Silvertounge to the mixed reception of The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants, may be simply attributed to the fact that Scholastic is currently in a time of transition and change.
Because remember when I talked about their headquarters relocating in Part One? Well, after passing by it enough times, I can finally confirm that they’ve moved around the block to 130 Mercer Street.
It’s going to take time to restore everything at headquarters to suit the new arrangement of the interior, but once it’s all said and done, I’m willing to believe that Scholastic will be in a position to reenter that glory age they enjoyed nearly three decades ago. Rides Again may have ended by then, or at least be on its way out. From there, even if these three posts haven’t united us, once Valerie honks that horn again, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll all be at that door together once more, as we had been all those years ago.
Okay, everyone except maybe Arnold. And yes, Arnold, this field trip is officially over, or at least until a potential next one. I hope I made you realize who we should really be fighting, and shed some light on the dark tunnel we’re currently in as a fanbase. I’m perfectly fine if my posts haven’t really changed things among us fans. After all, we are all entitled to our own opinions, and that’s great. I just felt that I could find a solution to the problem with the Magic School Bus franchise. And if I did find that solution and change some things, then that’s just as great. 🙂
As for me? Well, I recovered from getting run over by Fiona’s wheels back in Part Two, and am just sitting here, waiting on this curb until the bus comes back with Valerie inside. And hopefully, I can take Pheobe back with me, and I wouldn’t mind Jyoti coming along for the ride as well. You can keep enjoying Rides Again if you want, but if not, who is willing to join me early in the wait for that pickup?
Until that bus comes our way, folks. 🚌 👩🏫 🦎