A Look Back At "The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay"
It's almost difficult to believe that The Venture Bros. has been on the air for over ten years given that we've only seen four seasons of the show thus far (with a fifth shortly on the way). If you look at the evolution of the series you can see something that evolved from what was nearly a pure Jonny Quest parody into a world of super heroes, bureaucratic crime fighting and crime supplying agencies, super science and nearly anything else you can think of.
The Venture Bros. pilot episode is "The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay" and it aired on February 15th back in 2003, though its production dates back much further than that. The original script was written sometime around the year 2000 and the pilot itself was produced in the fall of 2002, according the DVD commentary. As the first ever episode of the show and the series pilot it naturally keeps its Jonny Quest parody roots much closer to the chest than almost any other episode in the series. Pilot episodes are sometimes just simply the first episodes of a series, but in the case of Venture Bros. "Turtle Bay" was more of a test run for what the series wanted to do.
The episode is unique in many ways compared to all the others. Most notable is that the animation is done in Adobe Flash instead of the traditional way the series is currently animated. While many of the major characters from the series are also present, many have different looks or are not quite in their role for the overall series. Additionally, beyond Dr. Venture (James Urbaniak), Dean (Mike Sinterniklaas) and Brock (Patrick Warburton), most of the voices are provided by Jackson and his brother, Peter McCulloch.
From a design perspective the biggest revision from pilot to full series is the Monarch, his Henchmen and Dr. Girlfriend. Dr. Girlfriend only appears for a single line delivery and while her pink Jackie Onassis costume is present her face went through some pretty major changes. However her gruff voice remains (voiced by Jackson in this episode) for her only line. The Monarch's costume is completely different from today's version, and while Jackson has mentioned that this episode isn't canonical, many nods have been made throughout the series that this was actually one of the earlier versions of the Monarch's costume. Finally the henchmen have much fuzzier and striped costumes. In the DVD commentary Jackson notes that it's difficult to animate fuzzy costumes for thirteen episodes, which may have been the reason for this revision. Still, the pilot-style henchmen costumes make an appearance in the season two finale "Showdown At Cremation Creek".
This episode is naturally at the forefront of showcasing Jackson and Doc's propensity for bringing background characters into major roles. Not only do we see the core Venture family and the Monarch but we also get glimpses of Pete White and Billy Quizboy (as "Albino Scientist" and "Hydrocephalic Child Scientist") along with General Manhowers and Professor Impossible (as "Solar-powered Car Scientist"). While it's difficult to say how much of the universe was crafted by this point (for example the Guild of Calamitous Intent was invented by Doc Hammer during season one) we see glimpses that this world may be more than just a simple Jonny Quest parody. Professor Impossible uses his stretching ability, hinting at the existence of other super scientists, and we see the Bizzy Bee logo throughout Times Square and on Hank and Dean's stolen wallets.
In the cold open we're introduced to Otaku Senzuri, one of the few characters in the pilot to never return to the series in any sort of major role. Senzuri himself is an odd villain for the episode, mostly serving to deliver the final punchline of the episode and as a way to get the boys lost in New York for most of the second act. The plot, overall, is somewhat unfocused but the primary idea of showcasing on the more mundane parts of this family's life between their globe trotting adventures fits with the series as a whole. We see a "mummy" and a crocodile that have stowed away on the X-1 during one of their adventures, but we never actually see or hear much about the adventure itself. Instead we're following them on a trip to the UN so Dr. Venture can showcase an invention.
Of particular interest is the characterization of the core Venture family. Hank and Dean are in an even more naive version of their season one form, where they're essentially just doe eyed and ready for adventure. The idea of this not being an entirely healthy upbringing isn't really a focus, though we do get some sense that there is something "not right" with Hank and Dean. Hank's proclamation that "Ma Venture didn't raise no fools" followed by Dean's sad reminder that they don't have a mother is a fairly large red flag. However, for the pilot it seems that Hank and Dean are willing boy adventurers, which carried through somewhat during season one but was mostly dropped in favor of them coping with it in various ways ranging from frustration to rage.
Dr. Venture retains his disdain for his own children as an homage to Benton Quest's own apparent disinterest for Jonny and Hadji. The focus on his pill popping is also front and center (he very visibly eats them three or four times) though that was a concept that was mostly forgotten after season one anyway. Doc's interactions with Brock are the biggest change from the rest of the series, with his words possibly taken as evidence of unrequited love for Brock, though not necessarily of a sexual nature but possibly more of a platonic crush. Thankfully this narrative was dropped in favor of giving them a much more friendly relationship and focusing more on Brock being the boys' primary father figure while Dr. Venture does whatever it is he does. Dr. Venture also seems at least competent at super science in this episode, compared to being wildly inconsistent with it in the rest of the series. His inability to understand that the Oo-Ray is a weapon is likely mostly for comedy purposes, but thankfully he's not quite that naive in the rest of the series (and willingly courts the government for weapon sales).
Also noteworthy in the category of unlocking which parts of Venture-verse were planned, when Dr. Venture is introduced at the UN the science director notes that Dr. Venture's father was a big deal and hopefully Dr. Venture will wow them as his father did. This is a major theme of the series, particularly with Dr. Venture's character, in that Doc has an impossibly large pair of shoes to fill and his upbringing essentially ensures that he will never have any hope of filling them. However since the entire Venture Bros. body of work that exists prior to the pilot is of course zero, we can only speculate here on who Dr. Venture's father was to be at this point. While the original intent of the series is to be a Jonny Quest parody, with Dr. Venture as Benton Quest, the series layers on top of that the fact that Dr. Venture was also the Jonny Quest of his day (an even more analogous Jonny than his sons) which helps to explain not only why Dr. Venture's life is how it is, but also why he's such a terrible parent. That's a discussion for another time, however.
Perhaps the biggest character change from the pilot to the overall series is Brock. Naturally Brock has evolved quite a bit during the series but here he is reduced to his earliest form: disinterested, psychotic and single minded. Brock doesn't seem to care very much about the boys (beyond ensuring their safety on some level) and he doesn't seem to want anything to do with Dr. Venture. Whereas even in the first episode of season one he relentlessly pursues the boys when they're kidnapped, here he seems to give up once he's sufficiently beat up enough people and found a woman to sleep with. In fact the boys literally find their way back to their father by accident after spending a night sleeping on the street and a day wandering around New York City.
Brock also seems more overtly eager to murder things than at any other point in the series. He's certainly an interesting character to have on the show, but the sort of visceral nature of this Brock is less present during season one and has almost vanished at the current time in the series. Where in the pilot Brock just hangs around to occasionally kill someone (or something), now he's become someone who actually cares about Hank and Dean and wants them to stay safe. The arc of Brock's character is really quite a remarkable one, and arguably the most complete of any character in the series. In the pilot he's distilled down to being an almost literal Swedish Murder Machine, whereas now he's certainly formidable but definitely has a human side. Compare his reactions in this episode to his acts in "The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together" to see just exactly where Brock has gone as a character. This is a good thing, because pilot Brock is impossible to relate to whereas Brock as we know him today is highly likable and even relatable in a lot of ways.
Ten years is quite a long time to iterate on something, and given that much time writers will improve, production values will go up and a Jonny Quest parody series can take on a life of its own. Where Venture Bros. primarily started out as a way to point out the absurdities of a world with boy adventurers and super scientists it evolved into so much more than that. The show naturally has found its own legs, but still manages to stay true to its roots. Those roots can be seen very clearly in "Turtle Bay" and while a lot of the nuances in the series didn't surface until future seasons, the pilot certainly serves as a look back at the show's origins. From generic, always eager boy adventurers to Hank and Dean, teenagers trying to figure out their place in a world they were never properly exposed to. From their disinterested father to Dr. Venture, a former child adventurer who realistically never had a chance to be normal in any sense of the word. From a psychotic, murderous bodyguard to a Brock Samson, a man who took a job because he had no choice but ended up genuinely caring for the family he protects. This is the evolution of the Venture Bros. and it all begins with the pilot. For a show with a primary theme of failure, it's noteworthy that the series itself can't be considered anything but a complete success.