Interview with Joel Barkow

In the 90s, Fox Kids Network was a staple in many children’s homes. Shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and X-Men: The Animated Series dominated airwaves and enchanted young imaginations. However, there were two other shows that briefly frequented the channel before fading into obscurity: Big Bad Beetleborgs and Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog.

Similar to the format of Power Rangers, which borrowed action scenes from Super Sentai, Beetleborgs utilized footage from Japanese tokusatsu series Juukou B-Fighter. With its mix of comic books, horror and comedy, Beetleborgs was a diverse mash-up that ran for two seasons before meeting it’s cancellation. 

In contrast, Mystic Knights was a more serious, character driven show that included elements of Irish folklore. Rather than relying on Japanese footage, the show was an entirely original production. Preceding the early 2000s fantasy craze spawned by Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Mystic Knights was perhaps too ahead of its time and only lasted for one season before being canceled. 

While the shows didn’t achieve the longevity of Power Rangers, Beetleborgs and Mystic Knights certainly made a unique mark in the minds of 90s kids. Andrew got to chat with writer Joel Barkow about his work on both shows, as well as other projects from his career in television. Check it out below!

What inspired you to pursue a career in TV/film?

It really just came from a love of movies. My father was big into movies and he shared his love of them with me, so growing up I just wanted to get involved with the business, but I wasn’t sure how. I grew up in Michigan so it was a bit of a stretch to think that I was going to be coming out to Los Angeles and working, but I did undergrad at Michigan State and then went to law school. I was practicing law for a couple of years back in Michigan and I decided, “I really gotta head out there.” So I applied to a graduate program in motion picture and television production. It was an MFA program at USC.  I applied to that, got accepted, and that’s what brought me out here and got me involved with the industry.

Was Beetleborgs your first professional writing gig?

Yes, it was.

How did that come about?

I had a writing partner at the time [Louis J. Zivot] who had been in the program with me and we always read each other’s spec scripts and gave each other notes and at one point he said, “Why don’t we try writing something together?”

I think both of us thought the same thing: “Let’s just do a half hour.” That way, if we can’t stand each other, it’s over pretty quickly. So we wrote a couple of half hour specs, sent them out and signed with an agent. We were looking more for adult primetime and we’re still not quite sure how, but our specs ended up getting passed to Bob Hughes, who was the executive producer on Beetleborgs and he called us in for a meeting. They were already in production on the first season, so he had us watch some of the early episodes and said, “Do you have any ideas?”

We said, “Well… let us get back to you.” And so we got back to him with some ideas. He signed off on one which was our first episode, “Bye Bye Frankie,” the Halloween episode in season one. There were a couple processes we had to go through. After he’d sign off on the idea, you would send in a rough treatment of the three act structure. Then he would sign off on that and then you would do a step outline. Then he’d sign off on that and then you’d do a script.

Once we got an okay on the script, we turned that around in about forty eight hours. They were up in Valencia shooting so instead of just faxing it up or emailing or whatever, we drove it up. We asked if Bob was available and he came out of his office and we handed it to him. We said, “Here’s the first one. We’ve got ideas for a second one.” He’s like, “You’re done?” He wasn’t ready to take a pitch until he knew we could actually produce something. 

So he goes, “Well, give me a few minutes.” He went into his office, and he never said this, but I’m sure he just quickly went through it. He came back and said, “What do you got for a second one?” Then we pitched a couple more and I think he bit on the second idea and we started the process again. 

Beetleborgs really had a lot of interesting components to it between the comic books, the Universal Monsters, etc. What was your impression of the show when it was first explained to you? 

Well, it was kind of a mash up. You had the phasm of Flabber, kind of like the Jay Leno look alike who was our genie basically and he had been trapped in the pipe organ. Then you had the kids interacting with basically the classic Universal Monster characters which was pretty cool actually. For copyright and legal purposes, they had to have different names obviously, but it was still fun to be writing for those characters. You can call em whatever you want, but it’s Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula. So that was fun.

The interesting part was incorporating the Japanese footage. I didn’t find it that difficult and I know some people found it to be creatively limiting, but the most difficult thing was at that time we didn’t have DVDs. It was all VHS. So we’d pop in the tape of the footage and we’d have to write versus the time code that’s on it and include the in-point and out-point in the script. It wasn’t all that difficult, but it was just kind of an odd thing, but you needed to do it for the editing. So the footage was really… what’s the monster going to be? What’s the battle going to be? How were you going to incorporate that into the story? We never had a problem with it even though it was really pushing the episode and pushing what’s going to happen. I think we had enough creative leeway with what we thought were fun and interesting stories and stories where we tried to pay homage to- if you’re familiar with our episodes, we did one that was kind of like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. We did another one that was a very clear tip of the hat to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard [“Sunset Boo-Levard”], which was probably my favorite episode just because it was a really fun one to do. 

Do you know why Beetleborgs never got a third season?

With Beetleborgs… unlike Power Rangers, which was taking footage from a long established Japanese show, Beetleborgs was taking footage from a more recent show. That’s why we were able to get our hands on the monster suits and really kind of integrate it more seamlessly into the story because we were able to get all of that. We used up two seasons of that show and then when it came to season three, they sent over the footage and there had been a real change in the target audience they had for the show. It had gone to really kind of a Teletubbies audience. It wasn’t really anything we could use. Ours was a kid’s show, but it was an action packed kid’s show so you couldn’t use that footage.

It’s unfortunate because the toys were selling great, it was a popular show, it was getting good numbers for its time slot. It would have gotten a third season if we had the footage. But if we had gone to a third season, we might not have gotten Mystic Knights. So you take the good with the bad. 

You were pretty heavily involved with the writing on Mystic Knights. What was it like getting that show off the ground?

That was a lot of fun. Creatively, it was a lot of fun. Once we got the greenlight for it… you probably know this, but the force behind kid’s shows is really the toys. So Bandai, the Japanese toy company that was doing a lot of the financing, they had toys that they wanted to push. Bob came up with the idea of doing something Celtic, like fourth, fifth century. They started coming up with their toy ideas, some of which appeared in the show and some of which didn’t appear in the show, but the driving force was always the toys.

In terms of the story, Bob came to us early on and was like, “We’re going to go to Ireland, we’re going to shoot this.” He showed us the characters because they had already come up with the toy designs. He basically said, “See what you can do with this.” And so, we were reading Joseph Campbell, we were reading Celtic mythology and history and folktales. I even took out the Disney movie The Gnome-Mobile, just for fun as part of the research process. You can tell. There’s even the whole Lord of the Rings element at work there, especially in the pilot. 

There was a lot of back and forth trying to figure out what the hero’s journey was going to be. Knowing at the end that we were going to have the battle between good and evil on the island… Temra and Kells. It was interesting. A lot of back and forth, but it was creatively a lot of fun because we didn’t have to incorporate previously shot footage. We were doing a lot of CGI and shooting background plates of where we were going to put our creatures. 

Since it was the first Saban action show to stray from using Japanese footage, was there more pressure to succeed? 

I mean, there’s always pressure to succeed. There’s always budgetary consideration. Bob had it down pretty pat on how to shoot these, just like how he started shooting Power Rangers and carried on to VR Troopers and then Beetleborgs. We would shoot in clusters. Unlike other shows where you just shoot one episode over six, seven days, we were shooting three episodes at a time which can be challenging for the actors as well as the art departments and everybody else. But it makes sense budget wise.

Since we weren’t pulling footage for Mystic Knights, the shooting schedule was longer. We added about two days because a lot of the pulled footage was the action and action just takes a while. You have to get it right. You’ve gotta get coverage and you just gotta keep doing those set ups. It all worked out though and we stayed on schedule.

Were there any episodes that you enjoyed writing most?

I liked the one where Angus went to trial. That was probably the lawyer in me enjoying that one. I specifically remember writing that.

There’s a lot of them. The pilot was a lot of fun. Pilots are always fun because you set the tone for the show. Bringing Garret on- he came on about what, episode twenty? The idea that he had been betrothed to Deirdre was just a lot of fun because she had no idea she was getting married. He had some pretty solid chops in some of the action scenes as well as you may have noticed. 

Similar to my earlier question about Beetleborgs, why was there not a second season of Mystic Knights? 

As I mentioned- with kid’s programs, it’s all toy driven. Pressure was coming to incorporate more toys because kids just weren’t buying the toys. It became challenging because they had toys on the shelf that weren’t part of the show. If they aren’t part of the show, the kids who are playing and imitating what they’re seeing don’t know how to use them. If they don’t know how to use it, the parents aren’t going to shell out money for it. There was back and forth toward the last ten-fifteen episodes between the network and Bandai to put in more action. One of the notes we actually got back on the trial one was that it should start with a battle scene. And it’s like, “Apropo to what? I’m not sure how that would work with the story.” “Well we don’t care, we want a battle scene.” 

There was back and forth and finally… at the end of the day, if the toys don’t sell, you don’t have a show. So the toys weren’t selling, we were putting in what we could in terms of the toys and what they requested, but I guess maybe it was too little, too late. We had an order for season two, which was going to be called Mystic Knights: Battle Thunder, but the order was only for fifteen episodes. So it becomes challenging for a budget and a cost to advertise over fifteen episodes versus the first season of fifty episodes. So finally they pulled the plug on it.

Do you remember if there were any plans for stories you wanted to tell in season two?

It’s interesting. Maeve was going to be banished and Lugad was going to be the sorceress that they battle. Fin Varra did not have the powers to give them that they needed to fight the new evil ones and so they were going to go underwater to the land of the Silkies and gather new powers and new weapons. When we were gearing up for the second season, my second daughter had just been born and we were staying overnight in the hospital and I was working on the pilot. I stayed in the room with my wife. I was working on the pilot, writing it with my wife in the bed, our youngest daughter in the bassinet next to the bed, me on my laptop when the call came in that we had been cancelled. It was like, “Wow, this is horrible timing.” 

The show has never gotten a wide DVD release and isn’t available on any streaming services. Why is it so hard to find nowadays?

I’m not exactly sure why. I’ve tried to figure out who exactly owns the rights to it and it went back and forth between Saban owning it and owning the Family Channel and then Disney buying the Family Channel. So Disney bought the show, but they weren’t going to do anything with it. I think Saban bought the IP back, but I just don’t think… Power Rangers had a life of its own. Power Rangers stands apart. I know Beetleborgs went on DVD, but I think for Mystic Knights, it’s kind of viewed as a good show, but a failure. I don’t think there’s been any real interest in putting it out for streaming or something. I know you can find some on Youtube, but it’s all German dubbed.

In 2006, you wrote an episode for Arthur. What was that experience like? 

Yeah, that was a one off and I’m not even sure how that came about. My agent just asked me if I was interested in pitching an episode for Arthur. I said, “Sure.” At that point, my kids were younger and I had watched Arthur with them and read the books so I thought, you know, it’s kind of an iconic character so that would be fun. I was on board so I said yes.

That was another episode that I enjoyed because that was my Antiques Roadshow episode. Also, there was a scene in there- this is the fun thing about being a writer. You can write in fun things that are really meaningful to you that no one else gets. There’s a scene in there where the sister is playing librarian and she had a little giraffe next to her and that’s taken straight from my kids toys. It was my oldest daughter’s gift from my writing partner Louie on her first birthday. She used to like to play like she was a librarian and she would take a little telephone receiver and run it across books like she was checking out a barcode or something.  

But going back to the question, it was just fun to write. I’ve written other animations and we can go into that in a second. Animation is different from writing live action in that you also get to be the director as well because you get to call the shots and angles within the script which is a lot of fun. So that was all part and parcel of why I was interested in doing that.

Do you have a favorite animated project you’ve worked on? 

Yeah, there was a Disney movie… Michael J. Fox did a voice in it. Oh, Atlantis!

I didn’t see that listed in your credits online!

It’s not in the credits and I’ll tell you why. I was hired onto that show and Disney Television planned to release the series around the same time the movie came out. So we were in the process of putting scripts together and I think we had about thirty scripts in the can and so they started doing the voicing for them- they do the voicing before the animation. The movie came out and it did okay, but in Disney’s eyes it bombed on the first weekend and so they just scrapped it and scrapped the show. It would have been a fun show. It was kind of like an X-Files for kids.

Disney had already storyboarded the first two episodes and had started animation on the first three. They took the first three episodes, wrote some bridging material for them, and released them as a direct to video movie. Unfortunately, my first episode was number four and they hadn’t started on it yet. They gave me copies of the storyboards though and it had already been recorded so they gave me a CD of that as well which was pretty cool. 

It’s too bad that never got to see the light of day.

I know. They had put a lot of money into it and we had a full staff of writers. I think it would have been successful on it’s own. I think it actually would have been more successful than the feature. 

What projects are you currently working on? 

I did a six episode mini series last year that was for online. I took that idea and made it into a short film which is making the festival circuit now. I’ve been kind of playing in the reality television realm as well. I haven’t done anything kid wise in a while, but never say never. 
I’d also like to mention that my youngest daughter Anastasia is playing Chelsea Clinton in American Crime Story: Impeachment. She was in three episodes. My oldest daughter Talitha also did a two season web series called Pardon Our Garden with her sister. Talitha went to USC, Anastasia went to NYU and they both found themselves back at home with the pandemic. Talitha creatively wanted to do something so she wrote, directed, edited, scored and shot this series that her sister Anastasia starred in. It’s a fun series. You can find it on her Youtube channel.

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