Archives on TV: Codename: Kids Next Door,"Operation A.R.C.H.I.V.E."
Updated: Aug 20
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I'll admit, it's been a long time since I've seen any Kids Next Door, though I remember liking the concept of the show back in the day. Who doesn't like the idea of a secret, technologically advanced micro-war between children and adults? That's like half of your make believe on the playground.
If you've never heard of or seen the show, Codename: Kids Next Door (KND) was created for Cartoon Network by Mr. Warburton, airing from 2002 to 2008 and follows the missions/adventures of a group of fifth graders operating out of their tech-advanced tree house. The children (Numbuhs 1,2, 3, 4, and 5) are in fact special operatives of the global network known as the Kids Next Door tasked with fighting back against the heinous crimes inflicted on children by adults and teens, like homework and flossing.
Operation A.R.C.H.I.V.E., the first segment of the sixth season's third episode, presents itself as a straightforward, benign documentary of the origin of adults. Given the premise of KND as a show, the "archival footage" is gloriously ridiculous as Numbuh One narrates over a children's utopia of tree houses and curfew free play time that's quickly sullied by the creation of the first adults. There is some blame placed on children for their complacency and hubris that led to their eventual "family" compromise with adults, but the story breaks down entirely when Numbuh One takes a sharp left turn into conspiracy theory territory, revealing that the "origin story" was supposed to be a report on the Declaration of Independence for his history class. Though, in Numbuh One's defense, it was about independence of a sort.
From an archival perspective, I imagine the acronym was created after the premise of the segment was pitched. Nothing that happens within the segment is related to archives except for the idea of accessing an historical file from a database, but that proves to be a fiction set up by the episode until the reveal at the end. Or is it?
However, there's something to be gleaned from the concept of the unreliable narrator as it pertains to documentaries, history, and archives based on the events of the episode. There are a lot of documentaries that try to present themselves as unbiased, neutral observers of an event or subject matter, but, as you might've guessed, that's rarely ever the case. Every documentary has a point of view, usually that of the director, that gives you some insight into their biases for or against the subject matter. Whether the bias is conscious or not is debatable, but once that perspective is established, they back it up with footage, interviews, or select passages of written works that confirm that perspective. It's essentially an argument with a quasi three act structure. So, by the end of the documentary, the result is an audience swayed towards their opinion or, at the very least, a discussion of the film itself and whether or not it succeeded in swaying the audience.
Archival footage and documentation as evidence in documentaries or historically based properties are always subject to the bias of those in charge of the project. How filmmakers or historians choose to contextualize the archival materials affects how the audience views the finished product. Unfortunately, archivists have no more control over how the materials are used than they do the final cut of the film. That's not to say archives or archivists lack narrative control over their materials either. Prior to its use by a filmmaker or historian, archival materials are collected, arranged, and described based on arbitrarily agreed upon rules that carry heavy biases depending on when, where, and who was in charge of the archives at the time. Nobody's innocent in the process, but "truth" as dictated by a film is more likely to reach a wider audience than the piecemeal use of an archives.
Turning back to the cartoon, the unreliable narrator trope is there from the beginning as Numbuh One centers the story on kids as the "heroes" or the heroic subject matter. He does this as a means of justifying his own conspiratorial agenda that, for all intents and purposes, tracks with his job as an operative of a global spy network. He knows the truth and he's trying in his own, albeit theatrical, way to tell the other kids who think the current status quo was always the norm.
The treatment of Numbuh One's report on a meta level by the show is interesting in that there are two ways to read it. On the one hand, the opening sequence where the audience is shown the database containing archival records is real and Numbuh One is reporting on what he's already seen as proof. On the other hand, it's presenting his report as factual before pulling the one-eighty on the audience to reveal the "joke" of it devolving into conspiracy theories and delusions of grandeur. Honestly, the second option comes off as a little mean spirited towards one of the main characters, but I'm also not as well versed in the show enough to know if that's always how Numbuh One is treated. It's more likely the first option given the history teacher's last line.
I could also be reading way too much into a fifteen minute cartoon. Not the first time that's happened, nor will it be the last.