MythQuest and the Challenges of Creating Entertaining Educational Children’s Programming
Educational television programming for children and teens has historically been a risky venture. Despite the quality of information regularly presented by such shows alongside an entertaining presentation, this kind of programming is usually characterized by low viewership. Occasionally, a show will capture the attention of its target audience and achieve cultural staying power, such as Bill Nye the Science Guy or The Magic School Bus. More often than not, however, these shows are largely ignored, enjoying only a devoted following from a small yet loyal fanbase. Popularity is not the only metric by which to measure success, however, and many shows that were not successful when they aired have been found in retrospect to be successful as educational tools as well as enjoyable as entertainment. One show that exemplifies this sentiment well is the relatively little-known 2001 educational adventure MythQuest.
MythQuest, a 30-minute Canadian children’s series released by Mind’s Eye Entertainment, aired weekly on PBS from August to November of 2001. Its first and only season consisted of 13 episodes. As the name suggests, the focus of the show was to educate its audience about mythology. The idea to create a series exploring the topic of myth itself isn’t that surprising, given mythology’s influence on so much of contemporary storytelling in pop culture today; from superheroes to Star Wars, our modern myths both echo and build upon the stories of our past. What sets MythQuest apart from similar programming is the way in which it successfully conveys its educational elements while still maintaining its value as engaging teenage entertainment.
To aid in an analysis of MythQuest’s educational and entertainment aspects, it is useful to explore both the characters and plot of the series in some detail.
Alexander and Cleopatra Bellows (played by Chrisopher Jacot and Meredith Henderson, respectively) represent the typical complimentary character types that feature in much of adventure media made for children. Alex is a bit of a jock, shooting hoops or skiing on the slopes with his friend Philthy in his free time. He “doesn’t do well with books” and his grades suffer at school. Cleo, on the other hand, is bookish and focused. Her gravitation to scholarship and research, however, is perhaps embraced by necessity rather than by choice; Cleo is wheelchair-bound after an accident lost her the use of her legs. We learn late in the season that she used to be physically active as well, rock climbing and snowboarding. Cleo resents being in her chair, and the show devotes an entire episode to her struggle with her situation. Although the show begins by really leaning into these one-note characteristics, as the season progresses both siblings start to become wiser and more complex people through their exposure to different mythical stories.
To the show’s credit, Alex and Cleo are likable characters. They have a funny and endearing sibling relationship, poking at each other but sticking together when the other is in danger. In one scene late in the season, Alex, delivering a speech to a crowd as the Egyptian godking Osiris, ad-libs hilariously: “Friends, Egyptians, countrymen. I have a dream that my children will one day live in an Egypt where they will be judged by the content of their character and not by the funny looking animals they wear on their heads. We are gathered here today to witness…me.” He ends with “One small step for a god, one giant leap for Egyptiankind! I’m the king of the world!” And watching Alex and his friend Philthy try to flirt with girls at a ski resort is sufficiently painful and funny. Though they may have been tasked with a solemn and dangerous task, at the end of the day Alex and Cleo are just a couple of teenagers. The show does a good job of endearing them to its audience.
A Sacred Quest
The story of MythQuest follows Alex and Cleo as they search for their missing father, Matt. Matt Bellows is an academic who studies myths and the objects associated with them from cultures from around the world. To keep track of these, he builds a computer program called the Cyber Museum that catalogues all his objects. Scanning an artifact into the program will create a virtual copy of it in the Museum. One day, he scans a Chinese statue into the Cyber Museum and discovers there’s something hidden inside it. He opens the statue and finds a strange artifact that he recognizes as something called the Gorgos Stone.
When he scans it into the Museum, several things happen. The Stone vanishes into the computer, and the Cyber Museum’s entries become much more lifelike. Surprisingly, a figure also appears in the Cyber Museum who Matt recognizes as the trickster god Gorgos himself, and talks about taking revenge on the gods who trapped him in his Stone. Matt then reaches out to touch the picture of the Stone and vanishes.
The rest of the series follows Alex and Cleo as they try to find and rescue their father from the virtual world of the Cyber Museum as well as stopping Gorgos from escaping into the real world.
Each episode has the same basic format. After some introduction into the personal lives of Alex and Cleo, the siblings will log in to the Cyber Museum and single out a digital artifact. In the first episode, they learn (accidentally) that touching the artifact on screen actually transports them into the Cyber Museum itself. Whosever touches the artifact finds themselves in the role of the main character of a myth associated with the artifact.
Alex is the first to discover this. Once he touches the screen, he becomes the Greek hero Theseus in the Museum while Cleo watches him onscreen. Everyone in the myth sees him as Thesus, and even looking in a mirror shows a face different than Alex’s. Alex, however, can still hear Cleo from outside.
They logically conclude that the only way for Alex to escape the Cyber Museum must be to complete the story, in this case by slaying the Minotaur as Theseus did. But the danger here is real, and the siblings aren’t sure what happens if you die in the Cyber Museum. Luckily Alex is able to kill the beast. Only afterward does he find the same artifact inside the myth that he touched in the real world. Once the artifact is touched in the Museum, Alex is returned to the real world. At the end of each episode, the siblings then learn a lesson to relate to their personal lives as well as get a step closer to finding their father.
The Devil Within
As the show goes on, Alex goes back into the Cyber Museum multiple times. Cleo also goes into the Cyber Museum, as she finds that she regains the use of her legs when she embodies someone else. Whenever one sibling is in the Museum, the other sits watching and advises how to complete the myth.
But their adventures into the Cyber Museum aren’t just focused on retelling myths. There are multiple times where the siblings run into Gorgos, the series’ antagonist. Gorgos usually takes the form of a character from the myth and tries to stop Alex or Cleo from completing it in the way the story intends. We learn that in antiquity, Gorgos was jealous that he had no myths of his own and caused havoc in the other gods’ stories to the point that they imprisoned him. He now wishes to escape the Cyber Museum by finding the Gorgos Stone that Matt scanned in, and take revenge on the other gods by destroying their myths and erasing them from history.
Alex and Cleo also constantly look for their father to get him out of his virtual prison. We learn that Matt is still alive and being kept prisoner by Gorgos, and can see his children in their adventures even though they cannot see him thanks to Gorgos’ magic.
With the twin goals of finding their father and keeping the world safe from Gorgos, Alex and Cleo seem to have their work cut out for them.
The Power of Myth
But MythQuest isn’t a teenage drama; it’s also an educational program. And despite the difficult nature of its subject, the show goes above and beyond in its presentation mythology and the role it plays in our lives.
MythQuest definitely succeeds as a piece of educational entertainment. A large part of this success has to do with the show’s focus on mythology itself. While myths certainly have a surface-level value as entertaining stories full of magic and colorful characters, the deeper value of myths comes from their ability to teach those listening to them. It’s no surprise then that an educational TV show would be well-suited to a subject which is essentially “entertaining stories that teach lessons.”
Of course, MythQuest isn’t the only attempt to combine entertainment and education. As mentioned earlier, educational children’s entertainment features a wide variety of TV shows and films aimed at sparking children’s interest. While shows such as The Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Zoboomafoo which focus on STEM subjects have generally maintained a large cultural presence, the language arts have had plenty of shows as well. Some, such as Jim Henson’s The Storyteller or Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, are live-actions reenactments of famous stories; others, like Adventures from the Book of Virtues or even VeggieTales are traditionally or computer animated. These and similar shows usually focused on retellings of various stories from literature and myth, often followed by summations of the moral or meaning contained within them. They also usually feature some sort of framing device, such as an omniscient storyteller speaking directly to the audience or a cast of characters finding solutions for modern-day problems in the featured story.
Perhaps the most famous of the language arts shows is Wishbone, a show in which a dog fittingly named Wishbone relates famous stories from history and literature while participating in live reenactments as one of the story’s characters. He does this in order to address some modern-day issue faced by his owner and their family, and by extension an issue potentially faced by the show’s young viewers. It remains a popular example of successful educational programming, in part largely because of the fondness with which it is remembered by those who grew up watching it.
One aspect that sets MythQuest apart from these other shows lies in its framing device. For the majority of educational children’s entertainment, its series structure is episodic. A teacher can pop in any episode of The Magic School Bus without having to provide a backstory of the characters or the episode’s order in the show’s timeline. Each adventure is self-contained, and by the end everyone is back where they were before (albeit hopefully a little more educated about the water cycle or bats or whatever).
MythQuest, however, borrows from mainstream entertainment-focused TV shows by making its framing device into its own story which build upon itself for the entire season. Alex and Cleo’s adventures in the Cyber Museum change how they approach future adventures as well as increase their knowledge about how to find their father and stop Gorgos from escaping. The status quo changes from episode to episode, building to a season finale that is a culmination of the story to that point. This is unlike the last episode of a season of Wishbone, for example, which is only really a “season finale” in that it was placed last on that season’s episode list.
On the one hand, this decision helps make MythQuest a more engaging show compared to its contemporaries in the educational genre. Viewers have a more vested interest in returning next week to see what happens to Alex and Cleo, and as their characters become more emotionally complex their interactions with the myths they reenact similarly become more complex. Compare the first episode in which brave yet simple Alex bravely yet simply slays the Minotaur in a straightforward “Hero’s Journey” myth, to the final two episode in which Cleo and Alex individually experience inward changes in how they view their world outside the myths. By the midpoint of the season, audiences are invested in more than just the formal presentation of educational information. Viewers want to learn what Loki did to the Norse gods to deserve his punishment, of course, but there are more pressing questions. When will the kids find Matt in the Cyber Museum? Why is Matt’s research partner at the museum so interested in getting the Cyber Museum for herself? Why is their mother going out with the detective investigating her husband’s disappearance? The focus is on more than just the educational.
The similarity to the season-long structure of entertainment-based TV also helps to attract and maintain older viewers. Educational programming between teen and preteen audiences faces different challenges when it comes to its presentation of information and keeping its audience hooked. Aside from nostalgia, most teenagers won’t be as willing to keep watching a show like “Wishbone” aimed at younger audiences. Shows featuring characters closer in age to them and more complicated situations are much more likely to keep a teenager’s attention.
On the other hand, MythQuest’s departure from the genre’s norms results in some drawbacks as well. While an episodic format like Wishbone is less dramatically engaging then a season-long story, it doesn’t require the same level of continual commitment to fully experience the story of the show. If you don’t watch episode 7 of MythQuest, then you won’t know where the starting point of episode 8 begins. If you want to teach students about the basics of the myth of Orpheus, showing episode 4 of MythQuest would not necessarily be the best way to do this. It would require catching the audience up with a “Previously On”- style introduction.
Asking Critical Questions
MythQuest asks critical questions about myths and stories in general, which also sets it apart from similar educational programs. Some of these include: Are “bad” or “evil” gods always completely evil? Are punishments handed down by the gods sometimes unfair, and what does that say about the gods who hand them out? Are ancient myths still relevant today? One exchange between Cleo and Alex addresses the general question of the veracity of myths in general. When Cleo chastises Alex for trying to change one of the myths based on his personal feelings for a doomed character and tells him “There’s no such thing as a myth!” Alex replies, “There is in there!” Myths, asserts the show, are both real and not real. They don’t have to describe a true, physical event to have a profound impact on the way we live our lives and be treated as “real.”
A Variety of Sources
One of the show’s strengths is the variety of myths it draws from. Granted, this is only a 13-episode season, so there’s no way to cover all the various mythologies and religions of the world. But the show admirably tries to be diverse, featuring Greek, Norse, Native American, Japanese, Arthurian, Italian, Egyptian, Welsh, Swahili, and Mayan stories. With more episodes, it seems likely that show would have continued to bring many other belief systems into their story. This can be especially eye-opening to a someone only casually familiar with the subject of mythology. Most of this show’s audience most likely would only be familiar with a limited selection of contemporary retellings of myths, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, or) mythology-inspired programming like Percy Jackson or Marvel’s Thor. The diverse exposure is refreshing.
The myths featured in the show are not all simply “hero slays the monster” myths, either. They start with the Theseus myth to reel in viewers, certainly, but other stories are very different. “Blodeuwedd” is a courtroom drama about whether or not Cleo (as the titular princess) killed her husband the king. “The Doppelganger” has Alex trying to stop his evil double when it escapes the Cyber Museum and begins slowly draining his life away. “Minokichi” takes place over many years, where Alex (as Minokichi) tries to figure out his spouse’s deadly secret. Even in its first season, the show tries hard to show varying types of stories.
MythQuest also features some critique of the male-centric view of mythology in the show. Cleo goes on several important adventures that arguably progress the search for her father Matt more than Alex’s sessions. Cleo inhabits the Oracle at Delphi in “The Oracle” and uses her prophetic powers to locate where their father will appear in the Cyber Museum, and then actually finds Matt and works with him in Part 2 of “Isis and Osiris.”
One of the best episodes in this critique is “Blodeuwedd,” the retelling of a Celtic myth. In the myth, a Welsh king was once told he would be invincible in battle as long as he never married a mortal woman, so his court wizards created a woman out of flowers for him named Blodeuwedd. But Blodeuwedd fell in love with another man and ended up tricking the king into making himself vulnerable to being killed, leading to his death. Cleo enters the titular role after the murder. At the ensuing trial, damning testimony is given by the ghost of the king himself and Blodeuwedd is found guilty. Before her sentencing, the king ruefully tells Blodeuwedd “You were the only woman for me.” Blodeuwedd replies “I was the only woman you could have…Even a woman of flowers has to be thought of as a woman.”
This is driven even further home in the episode, “The Blessing.” Cleo inhabits a Swahili woman in a story commonly known as The One-Handed Girl. Cleo lives a life of many hardships, including starvation, having all her possessions stolen by her jealous brother, being cast out of multiple homes, and even losing her hand to her brother’s wrath. She is treated badly and denied happiness multiple times due to her gender. Each time she makes happiness for herself, fate seems to rip it away. Yet because of her perseverance, courage, and faith. Cleo is able to turn each sorrow into a blessing. In the end, Cleo is able to overcome the obstacles of her life and remain true to herself, living happily ever after. Though this particular story would be considered more a parable than a myth, it is nevertheless an inspiring story that imparts wisdom to those who hear it. The message of these and other episodes is clear: Women aren’t simply a prize to won or an obstacle to be conquered, and their stories and struggles are just as valid as anyone else’s.
In short, MythQuest doesn’t just retell stories. It wraps them in the ongoing struggle of the Bellows and helps show the relevance of myths and stories as Alex and Cleo grow due to their exposure to them.
Changing the Myths
One of the strongest aspects of this show is how Alex and Cleo sometimes struggle with maintaining their roles in the myths they are reenacting. Often the sibling actually in the Cyber Museum will be told the ending of their character’s story beforehand by the other sibling watching from the real world. While it may be useful to know what to expect, Alex and Cleo don’t always find content in this foresight. Instead, it more often makes them reluctant to finish the myth the way it was written because of some unfavorable outcome. In the Japanese myth on Minokichi, for example, Alex “lives” many years in the life of the titular Minokichi, finding contentment first in a wife then in two children. Once he learns that the myth’s ending will cause Alex/Minokichi to lose this happiness, he tries everything to make it so he can stay and nothing will change. “I’m happy here,” he tells Cleo. It’s only reluctantly that he finishes the myth and returns, somberly, to the real world.
This struggle comes to a head during the episode on “Sir Caradoc at the Round Table.” Alex becomes the titular Sir Caradoc at King Aurthur’s court of Camelot. He of course knows the story of Camelot and its tragic fall thanks to Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair. He decides that he is going to try and stop their relationship from betraying Arthur and the kingdom, and actually finds an unlikely ally in Merlin who recognizes him as Alex Bellows. At first, Alex is shocked that a character in a myth would know his true identity. Cleo reminds him that Merlin is a figure who lived backward through time, however, and would therefore be more likely to know things outside his own story. Alex is further convinced that he can save Camelot and does everything he can to keep Guinevere and Lancelot apart.
Instead of ensuring the survival of Camelot, though, Alex instead succeeds on the changing the myth so much that the effects spill over into the real world. A book of Arthurian legends physically changes in Cleo’s hands outside the Cyber Museum, and neither Cleo nor their mentor, the mythologist Max Asher, can remember the myth ever having played out another way. Importantly for Alex, now they don’t know how the myth will end or what dangers Alex must avoid in order to get home. In the end, Lancelot and Guinevere are caught by Arthur anyway, and Sir Caradoc/Alex ends up getting arrested for his part in the conspiracy. It’s at this point that Merlin reveals himself to be Gorgos, preying on Alex’s noble nature in order to irrevocably change the myth for his own ends. Alex eventually sets the myth right, returning honor to Camelot and setting the story straight.
The show even offers a cautionary example of the dangers of changing the myths. In one of the show’s most interesting moments, Alex briefly enters a myth from the pre-Egyptian Avia culture, Their scholar friend Max explains the story concerns two brothers and their eternal struggle for kingship. When Alex enters the myth, however, the world is empty and white save for a solitary figure on a throne and a few objects. The figure is one of the brothers, and he explains that he finally was able to overcome his brother in battle. Once he did, however, the world started disappearing. Instead of constantly fighting, the myth was changed, and so it and its influence on the world are disappearing forever. When Alex barely makes it back out, he asks Asher to explain the myth to them. Asher, however, suddenly can’t remember what he had been able to recall mere moments ago, and the objects in the Avia room have disappeared forever.
In this way, the show explores the ways in which myths are viewed and honored (or not) by different people. Both Gorgos and the Bellows feel the need to alter the myths, albeit for different reasons. However, in the universe of MythQuest the myths absolutely cannot be altered. If they are, terrible consequences are felt in the real world: a massive earthquake rocks the world when Alex tries to free Loki before Ragnarök, and the book of Arthurian myths physically changes along with memories of the stories’ previous telling. The series tries to rationalize this by arguing that these myths have shaped their respective cultures and by extension the world in which we live. The more well-known the myth, the more foundation it is. If the myths and their lessons are changed, then the world as we know it would cease to exist.
That’s a lesson that’s not always easy for the Bellows and the audience to accept, especially the more personally one associate with these stories. In the second episode “Hammer of the Gods,” Alex embodies the Norse god Loki’s son Vali right after Loki has been imprisoned by the other gods for his misdeeds. Even after learning why Loki deserves his punishment, Alex fights to free the trickster god, going so far as to steal Thor’s hammer. But Alex isn’t especially attached to Loki; he feels that if he lets down his “father” in the myth, then he’ll be letting down his real father Matt by not finding him in the Cyber Museum in time.
In another myth, Alex portrays Orpheus traveling to the Underworld to rescue his dead bride Eurydice. As the myth goes, Hades agrees to let her be led back to the world above, under the condition that Orpheus cannot look back at her until they are out in the sun. Alex knows the myths is meant to end tragically with Orpheus looking back at the last moment and losing Eurydice forever. As Alex and Eurydice ascend, however, Alex begins to feel more and more sympathetic for her and for Orpheus. In the end, he almost can’t look back. Many times in the show, both Alex and Cleo begrudgingly accept the endings of the myths, despite the gods and their judgements on mortals often being “not fair” to the siblings.
Even Gorgos, for all his conniving and evil plotting, seems to be slightly sympathetic as well. His backstory is kept intentionally vague in this first season, most likely to build suspense and leave room for future character development. All we know is that he was jealous that he had no myths about him and the gods punished him to be eternally trapped in a stone for it. But the difference in motivations end up being the key factor distinguishing Gorgos from the Bellows. Gorgos is a villain who is changing stories for malicious reasons, and so of course he must be stopped. Alex and Cleo try to make changes from a good place, but don’t understand the importance of maintaining the status quo; once they learn about this importance, they stop trying to change the myths. Life isn’t always fair, unfortunately, and the purpose of myths (especially poignant myths with staying power) is to teach and prepare their listeners for changes in their lives.
And the myths DO change them. Cleo’s experience in “The Blessing” gives her a fresh outlook on her life in a wheelchair, teaching her that her disabilities can’t stop her from living a full life as long as she appreciates what she has. In the series finale “Quetzalcoatl,” Alex, who hates school, is inspired by the titular Mayan teacher. He is touched more by a myth than by any real-life teacher he has ever had. Some of the last lines of the series are of Alex advocating for the need to dive into research to prepare for the road ahead instead of jumping in blindly. A far cry from the rash, “swing sword and ask questions later” Alex from the series’ beginning. And as a tool to educate young people about the role of mythology and stories in the 21st century, showing how myths can change these relatable characters is how “MythQuest” most succeeds.
A Never-ending Quest
As mentioned before, “MythQuest” only had one season of 13 episodes. The last of these episodes introduced plot elements that promised more adventures to come with greater stakes. Cleo, Alex, and their allies have learned how to navigate the Cyber Museum and nailed down what their purpose is: to find the Gorgos Stone before Gorgos does and seal him away again, and to rescue their dad. A mysterious stranger even appears in the last episode to help them, revealing that he possesses a piece of the Gorgos Stone in the real world that was entrusted to him by an ancient order of guardians in the event Gorgos ever escaped. It seems like there’s actually a chance they’ll succeed.
The show’s future looked bright as well. Articles written at the time of its release as well as statements from Mind’s Eye Productions both talk about the future plans for the show.
But despite these articles and the show’s cliffhanger ending, the series wasn’t renewed. For 20 years, the only new media released are a few novelizations of 4 of the 13 episodes. Matt is still trapped in the Cyber Museum, and Alex and Cleo are still looking for a way to free him. Gorgos is still searching for his Stone and plotting his revenge on the gods and our world. For the moment, there is no conclusion in sight.
Nevertheless, MythQuest remains a rare example of the successful marriage between educational programming and enjoyable entertainment. Like any good myth, the show keeps its audience hooked while passing on its wisdom. Although there is currently no official release of the show in either physical or digital media, uploads by viewers exist on various streaming services such as YouTube. With its manageable episode count, MythQuest is worth revisiting for any fan of mythology, 1990s/2000s television, or just a good show in general (as long as an open-ended story is acceptable to you). Perhaps some day this excellent show will receive the conclusion it deserves. Until then, the quest goes on.
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