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Credit: DIC Productions

Where on Earth did Carmen Sandiego come from? How the original '90s cartoon got made

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Feb 4, 2019, 1:00 PM EST

Last month, it became a whole lot easier to answer that age-old question, where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? Because, like seemingly everything these days, the scarlet-clad master thief is on Netflix, the star of a new animated series featuring Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez as the globe-trotter. But it's not Carmen Sandiego's first world tour, as geography-wise '90s kids certainly know.

Named after Portuguese singer Carmen Miranda (and apparently a St. Bernard), the character first appeared in the 1985 Broderbund Studios computer game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Carmen, known for her Twizzler-red Cordovan hat, trench coat, and heels, would be part of over a dozen video games, and two live-action kid's television game shows (both having catchy intros). There's even an unofficial game, one where you can try to find Carmen in the afterlife.

While she has continued to appear in games — the last entry was 2015's Carmen Sandiego Returns — it has been two decades since anyone has seen the world's greatest thief on the small screen; the last time she showed up on TV was January 2, 1999, with the airing of the final episode of the now-25-year-old animated series, Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?

Where on Earth, produced by DIC Productions, premiered as part of the Fox Kids animation block on February 5, 1994. It ran for four seasons, the first three being on Fox, the last one airing on the Fox Family Channel, known today as Freeform.

The series followed a pair of ACME Detectives, Ivy and her younger brother Zack, who with the assistance of The Chief, tracked down Carmen in different locations across the world; usually with the dual goals of retrieving an important historical artifact or monument Carmen stole, then capture the arch-criminal. They always got the first part done but whiffed on the second. Each episode was bookended with Carmen exchanging sassy dialogue with The Player, an anonymous, live-action character whose presence is essential a tacit admission we were watching a computer game (a nod to the series roots).

Ivy, voiced by Jennifer Hale, was the more physical of the two detectives, a Lara Croft-type without the weaponry. Scott Menville, who voiced Zack, described the character to SYFY WIRE as being "smart, cool, cocky, optimistic, enthusiastic, capable of handling most situations, and sometimes a little too impulsive for his own good." His outfit also may remind some of Terminator 2's John Connor.

The Chief, voiced by Rodger Bumpass was a fast-speaking talking head (literally), who showed up sporadically throughout each episode to assist the gumshoes. Carmen, voiced by EGOT recipient Rita Moreno, was charming, highly composed and highly intelligent, and always on-brand — her many escape vehicle and outfits were all candy colored red.

The animated series, like the source material, focused heavily on education. Viewers were not only shown the gumshoes trying to return a priceless piece of art or national monument back to its rightful place, but also were told why what Carmen stole is so important in the first place.

Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? was what Robby London, formerly Executive Vice President of Creative Affairs at DIC described as an "edutainment" – a show that mixed both education and entertainment – program. Speaking to SYFY WIRE over the phone, London says that Earth was, "one of those shows that was really designed with the Children's Television Act in mind."

The Children's Television Act of 1990, or the CTA, was officially put into law on October 18, 1990, without the signature of then-President George H.W. Bush, who believed that the act imposed on broadcast stations First Amendment rights. The act mandated that broadcasters who showed children's programming needed to increase the number of educational shows featured on their respected stations as of 1991. Broadcasters were also forced to limit the amount of advertising shown during children's programming blocks; the FCC was directed to make judgments on whether programs that were known as "program length commercials (shows based on toys like Transformers) were permitted to air; and it set up the National Endowment for Children's Educational Television.

London said that many in the children's television industry were not happy with the passing of the CTA. "On some level, studio people and creative people, resented this legislation, he says. "People tend to resist anything that they feel puts restrictions on their freedom of expression, and freedom to tell great stories."

London and DIC saw it another way. "I would say, as a company, DIC took a somewhat contrarian point of view, in the sense that we saw it as an opportunity," he recalls.

DIC, at the time, was the largest independent producer of children's programming. London recalls that by the '90s, it was getting more difficult to sell new shows to broadcasters. So, London and DIC viewed the CTA as advantageous, as embracing it could help them stay competitive with their biggest rivals; animation studios that were already apart of what London described as "vertically integrated networks" – FOX, ABC, The WB (now the CW) – who at the same time, were producing their own animated programming.

The unique challenge posed to animation studios that attempted to produce series that fit within the requirements of the CTA was to avoid producing series only aimed at pre-schoolers or very young children, but rather kids aged 6 to 16.

By the time Carmen came on, kids had already spent all morning and part of the afternoon in school, and therefore probably wanted to kick-back and enjoy programming that was strictly entertaining, rather than, ugh, keep learning. "If kids even got a sniff that [a program] is educational, they flip the channel and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or [DIC-produced program] Real Ghostbusters," London said.

Earth was able to meet that challenge; when it debuted in 1994, it was the top children's program in its slot and in the overall top 10 children's programs on TV. Re-watching the series, it's surprising to see just how much time was dedicated each episode to the educational aspect of the series.

Multiple times through each episode, Ivy, Zack, The Chief, and sometimes Carmen would go into detail about the item stolen or the location the item is located, such as how "The Yucatán Peninsula is more than 75,000 square miles of jungle and modern cities." Whenever the detectives were transported, they would literally journey to each location on a stream of information, with different forms of animation and even historical footage being shown to offer further context to the viewer before arriving at their destination.

Perhaps the secret to why it works, though, is that the meta-game narrative, which requires players to take in information in order to achieve a goal (get back what Carmen stole), prevents the educational element from ever feeling forced.

Zack's voice actor Scott Menville also credits the writers for how they were able to maintain that balance throughout the series, praising the writers for "handling all of the educational facts so smoothly that you were onto to the next action sequence before realizing that you'd just been schooled on something."

The TV show got its own tie-in video game, which might be most notable for being the first time that Jennifer Hale ever did voice work for a game. Now, she's very well known for providing the voice of the female Commander Shepard in the very popular Mass Effect franchise.

Earth won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Animated Children's Program in 1995, DIC's first after several nominations. London, went so far as to say that DIC was "the Susan Lucci of animation," comparing the company to the All My Children actress who was nominated 18 times before finally winning an Emmy.

After sitting through multiple Emmys ceremonies and coming home empty-handed, London sat out the '95 ceremony and wasn't there when Earth won. Regardless, even to this day, where the award resides in his living room in Edmonds, Washington, he still speaks about the award and the series with pride.