In 1964, Hanna-Barbera decided to try an action-adventure based animated television series, and asked comic-book writer and illustrator Doug Wyldie to give them a treatment of an animated version of Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, a popular radio drama from the 30s through 1951. As it turned out, they couldn't get the rights to Armstrong and asked Wyldie if he could create a similar show treatment with original characters. Wyldie took the basic idea of the old Jack Armstrong adventures – a young boy and his friend or relative on globetrotting adventures with a father or father-figure – and added in flavoring from other adventure sources up to and including James Bond.
The result was Jonny Quest, an animated prime-time adventure series following Jonny and his friend/adopted brother Hadji as they travelled around the world with Jonny's father Dr. Benton Quest and bodyguard Race Bannon, encountering everything from modern-day pirates to undersea monsters, extradimensional creatures, and a super-science criminal mastermind in the mold of Dr. Fu Manchu.
The series lasted only one season, the 1964-65 season on ABC, and by any ordinary standard would have disappeared into obscurity, never to be seen again; it hardly had enough episodes for syndication (usually that required at least three full seasons or about 78 episodes), didn't have spectacularly good animation (although parts of it were surprisingly detailed), and hadn't been around long enough to have a serious following.
But there was nothing ordinary about Jonny Quest.
A great deal of Jonny Quest's strength comes from the characters and, especially, the fact that they are not just one hero (Jonny) surrounded by supporting cast, but are in fact a group of people who are stronger together than separately. Jonny may be the headliner, but in actuality his father Benton Quest tends to drive the plot more than anyone else. Race Bannon is by far the most physically capable of the group, while Hadji is clearly just as smart as Jonny and often more cautious and forward-thinking.
In many ways, this is strongly similar to one of my favorite childrens' book series, the Danny Dunn books. Adults and children are not divided, not seen as adversaries or obstacles to each other, but as people with different strengths and weaknesses but each equally valuable and often with something to contribute to the current problems.
While Jonny Quest lacked a main female member of the cast (in the original; the 1990s reboot The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest added Jessie, a character who was probably Race Bannon's daughter through his opposite number Jade (but never absolutely proven to be, as far as I know), it did feature Hadji, a native of India who was adopted early on by the Quests and who – while having a stereotypical accent and jeweled turban – was rarely if ever played for laughs and was always treated as an equal by Jonny and his family. Hadji, in fact, was just about as likely to save the day as Jonny himself.
This was typical of the original series; amid all the cringingly-bad stereotypes of American animation (and they were often very, very bad) the show would at the same time ignore these differences as being irrelevant to the story itself. Okay, these people spoke funny and acted different, but Jonny didn't do more than remark on it once before he'd just talk to them the same as he would to his father or his friends. This doesn't negate the stereotypes, of course, and a modern viewer has to be able to re-set their perceptions to get past the depictions of Native Americans, African or South American natives, and of course the classically Yellow Peril Doctor Zin. Despite his Ming the Merciless appearance, though, Zin is shown as fully Benton Quest's equal and while defeated is never, as far as I can recall, successfully captured.
Jonny Quest got a lot of crap past the radar, in the days in which the radar was fairly serious about stopping things (as opposed to today, when the radar has simply given up). The Comics Code was in full force during the time of Jonny Quest, and the same basic restrictions were certainly applied to cartoons. But the combination of its adult (8pm) timeslot and very clever writers managed to give it the chance to do a lot of things.
The most obvious was the death toll. Not many years later, cartoons in general were reduced to "no deaths, no serious injuries" rules (to the point that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be fighting world-conquering madmen with swords, nunchaku, etc., and somehow no one really got hurt), but during Jonny Quest, not only were there deaths, but often it was Jonny or Hadji – kids – arranging the deaths of people trying to kill or capture them. While it wasn't graphic, the actions left no doubt what happened to the victims. In one particularly blatant sequence, Race Bannon – invading a compound where he knows the Quests are being held – tosses a hand grenade into a jeep filled with bad guys, steps back around the corner… BOOM. Bad guys no more. It was, in fact, Jonny Quest that triggered protests by some watchdog groups that led to many of the restrictions being tightened.
There were more subtle things, too. In the 1960s, here you had two young boys under the guardianship of a single father and his constant, handsome, male companion. Neither of them were seen in the company of a female for more than a fleeting moment. And at times when traveling, they would be shown getting up in the morning… from the same bed. When there were TWO BEDS in the room. I remember noticing that as an adult – decades after I'd first watched the show – and coming to a sudden realization of just what the animators had gotten away with.
The real focus of the series, though, was on super-science adventures, and it delivered. Doctor Benton Quest was a classic space opera or comic-book scientist, a master of SCIENCE!!! who could invent something for almost any purpose. This allowed him to be called in to assist or consult on almost any pretext – downed satellites, mysterious freezing episodes in the ocean, strange creatures being sighted, etc. – and it was clear that he also made a lot of money from his inventions, giving the opportunity to have a wide variety of modes of transport that could be used to bring him and his family wherever they needed to go.
There were a lot of excellent episodes in the original series; my favorite is still probably The Invisible Monster, in which an accident with a dimensional energy machine creates a living energy being that seeks to consume all energy sources it encounters; as the title indicates, the creature is invisible, at least until Dr. Quest and company figure out how to make it visible. The monster is one of the most creepy and frightening things ever from American animation, at least up until the more recent era; it was clearly taking much of its inspiration from the Monster From the Id in Forbidden Planet, and successfully so.
There was a short revival of the series in the 80s which was generally somewhat inferior to the original, being produced at the height of the "Kid-Friendly" movement. In the 1990s, a new series, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, tried to update the series to a more modern setting and with somewhat older characters – instead of being about 12, Jonny and company were about 16. This was a variable success; the first season of the reboot was weak, with some indifferent voice actors and an attempt to cash in on the then-new computer graphics craze by setting a lot of adventures in the virtual-reality "Questworld". However, in the second season there were some recastings (most notably, John DeLancie – best known as "Q" from Star Trek: The Next Generation – as Doctor Benton Quest) and a refocusing on real-world super-science adventures. Quite a few of these were worthy updatings and additions to the mythos.
There have been persistent rumors that a live-action Jonny Quest movie would be made. Alas, I haven't see any indication that it will ever happen, and to be honest I'm doubtful of seeing anyone do it right even if they get the chance. It would be a very tall order.
My viewing Jonny Quest in my formative years has had one quirky, lasting effect on me: when I was a kid, our family went on several trips by air, and of course I used to pretend the plane was the Quest Jet. To this day, I cannot sit in a plane taking off without humming the Jonny Quest theme. It's almost a superstition by this time; it would feel wrong not to do so!
I obviously remember Jonny Quest fondly, and my kids all enjoyed it when I obtained the original series on DVD some years ago. It's one of the finest examples of American animation; I highly recommend it!