1993’s ‘Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron’ contains shredding guitar music, toxic sludge-caused mutants, dinosaurs back from the dead, cyborg criminal organizations, and of course cats flying jets fighting kaiju style monsters. So its clearly escapist fantasy operating under the rule-of-cool and has nothing to do with humanity’s coming future in the anthropocence….or does it?
If you need a primary on the show this will work.
When I re-watched the series (two seasons originally broadcast in 1993-4 and first seen by a then very little version of myself) a few years back, a thought occurred to me. This thought was sans the cartoon animal and supernatural parts, this was a vision of present trends come to life. Better yet, it was not a worse-case or best-case scenario but a pretty balanced one of what society might look like post-environmental and societal collapse. Specifically, after the recovery of the initial downsizing.
The show is not explicitly post-apocalyptic. It is also not big on world building outside of aesthetics and plot excuses. The standard of living for your average person seems normal for industrialized nations. There are few signs of significant poverty and most people’s living seem to float somewhere between late 20th century NATO and the upper echelons of the Cold War era Eastern Bloc such as Hungary. Gradually, however, the more of the show you watch the more you can’t shake that Megakat City is a giant megalopolis that grew out of a battered hellscape in the same way that Egypt’s original Nile Valley civilization grew out of the desertification of the Sahara. All shots of outdoor places outside of the city are at best arid and at worst utterly barren. There is wreckage everywhere. You might be tempted to think that the place is just a stand in for Los Angeles or something, but there is a time travel episode that clearly shows that once this same land was utterly lush green and forested. We aren’t talking about the normal tens of thousands or millions of years needed for such changes to occur naturally, as this distant past is medieval…which implies that if we are operating on a similar technological time frame for this world as our own, it can’t be more than a thousand or so years in the past.
Then there is the city itself. Its the only city we ever see directly in the show, even though other cities/countries are confirmed to exist due to the recurring trope of foreign investors visiting the city who the bumbling poltroon of a mayor is always trying to impress. These foreigners are distinctly different in accent and appearance (in perhaps a familiar way) but are still cats, implying sentient life on this world is uniformly one species. There is also a vast wasteland separating MegaKat City from its neighbors. Possibly, all such states are mega-cities scattered like oasis-es in a post-industrial desert. But at the very least this region is a confined city state. And the city is huge. Agriculture seems to only exist in its immediate proximity, much like how cities were before the industrial revolution and the shift to port-centric growth for urban places.
Within that city are tons of toxic pollutants, though most seem to be long standing problems rather than immediate present day problems. In addition to causing monsters and bizarre mutations that seem to cluster among the criminal element of society, such toxicological wonderlands are used by a large number of unethical/mad scientists for their own ends. This both implies that that the city has a barely suppressed underground to match its dark environmental history as well as a plethora of medically trained but utterly unethical people.
It is easy to piece together a rough outline of a civilization much like our own that entered a period of sustained and at least partly industrial-caused environmental decline, which unleashed resource wars (past conflicts are mentioned in at least one episode) which probably included bioweapons and chemical weapons programs. A large degree of Shiro Ishii-type super villains were created by this who then suddenly found themselves out of a job when either the populations declined enough to be sustainable or new energy/agricultural methods were developed to allow the cities to make peace. The world got much worse, then stabilized, but the cost of doing so was to later unleash a spectacular crime wave upon the city from the former mafiosos, freikorps-type displaced veterans, and bioweapons scientists who everyone just wanted to forget about.
The new peacetime regime of rebuilding Megakat City was in fact a triumph. A publicly affable and harmless seeming mayor as the front for a new era of peace and stability makes sense, but he was unprepared for the threat from within. The ‘Enforcers’ under Commander Feral are a war time organization used to dealing with threats in a certain rigid and hierarchical way that perhaps made sense during the dark era before, but is ill-equipped to deal with the new challenges of asymmetric underworld threats from within.
Enter Deputy Mayor Callie Briggs and her unofficial vigilante alliance with the SWAT Kats:
Much like how the Harding and Coolidge administrations were perfectly symbolic of the Roaring Twenties while also being utterly incompetent to the real dangers that lurked within society, Mayor Manx’s rule is inadequate to this new post-post-apocalyptic era. So Callie, the Deputy Mayor gradually seems to have usurped power from behind the scenes. By the time we meet her she has both a public persona as a hapless secretary and borderline overworked intern for the mayor’s office, but it clearly becomes apparent that it is she, through competence, connections, and guile, who actually governs the city. Perhaps she is a civic patriot with no public ambition, or perhaps its a canny game to keep all criticism and focus on a mayoral figurehead while she does her own thing in the shadows away from scrutiny, but either way it can’t be denied that MegaKat City only works against these new emergencies because of Callie.
And what better way to circumnavigate a foolish figurehead and an overly conservative and sometimes incompetent military/police force that is long entrenched in the city’s power structure? Callie also has her own shadow hard power, the Swat Kats. Two genius pilots and mechanics fired from the Enforcers due to Feral’s short-sightedness suddenly come across the resources to build an underground jet hangar, experimental weapons lab, and have a direct phone line to the *deputy* mayor? (but not the ‘actual’ mayor?). It can’t be a coincidence. And so, without changing the bland facade of peacetime governance, MegaKat City has a shadow government with a shadow military. The extreme superiority of the Turbokat jet fighter over Enforcer vehicles is made clear time and time again in almost every episode. Not to mention the clear superiority of T-Bone and Razor as special forces.
So far, you could accuse me of just wanting to talk about my favorite childhood show and make it spicy with some adult level political hot takes. You would be right. But my main point is this: SWAT Kats shows us a dark vision of the future after the apocalypse has been normalized. And any dark age eventually becomes adapted to and integrated into the experience of a culture or a civilization. In this example of MegaKat City, a full blown worst case environmental collapse occurred but the city survived and arguably thrives. Certain contemporary trends like urbanization and desertification happened to that world, but it wasn’t the permanent end of technological civilizations so much as a hard re-set. It would probably look like a crappy world to their grandparents, but the average person raised there sees it as normal and is glad that the only major problems they have now, though quite dangerous, are really just these periodic supervillian/kaiju attacks.
If we manage to head off the worst of climate change we will still have to get used to freakish weather, monstrous storms, and our continual curse of old people in government ill-equipped to handle new challenges. We will get through this process better if we change our ways, yes, but it couldn’t hurt to also staff the backrooms and facilitating logistical departments with people like Callie Briggs and the SWAT Kats, who are devoted to their civic responsibilities and commitment to adaptation, and not interested in public fame or vast wealth. Perhaps its time to consider hardening our own increasingly fragile societies with shadow organizations more up to date with the present day dangers we face. If the Covid Crisis shows anything its that the state as it currently is is not always reliable, but direct personal connections and unofficial organization can only be a net benefit for those who wish to act.
There. You can say you learned something useful from a kids cartoon cancelled by Ted Turner for being too violent.