The 8 Nerdiest Reading Rainbow Episodes

By Steven Romano in Daily Lists, TV
Friday, December 2, 2011 at 8:03 am
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There was once a time in the history of PBS -- a.k.a "The Little Television Network That Could" -- when they had television programs actually worth our youthful, and often very limited, TV time. The '70s generation was gifted with The Electric Company. The '90s edutained the masses with the smash hit game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? But from the '80s well into the new millennium, there was one that continues to hold a special place in all of our hearts, years after its termination: Reading Rainbow.

Like a latter-day Gulliver, LeVar Burton traveled the United States with tome in hand, showcasing a multitude of interesting people, objects and places that spanned a plethora of topics, from the scientific to the cultural. With one show covering so much it should really come as no surprise that there were a handful of episodes that catered to the unique interests of the nerdy few. From digging up dinosaur fossils to pondering the existence of extraterrestrial lifeforms, LeVar devoted entire shows to the things that make our geeky hearts skip a beat and define our existence. Crack open a book and read up on the 8 nerdiest episodes of Reading Rainbow. And you don't have to take my word for it...

8) Rumpelstiltskin

For a nerd, there's few better ways to spend a duty-free Saturday afternoon than driving for hours upstate to a Renaissance Fair, miles away from the confines of urban living. Not one to attend underdressed, LeVar arrives in medieval style, complete with a feathered cap and spiffy vest. Some parts of the episode, however, lean a bit on the dull side -- such as the story of Rumpelstiltskin and the riveting craft of old world garment weaving -- but once those things are kicked to the curb, LeVar cranks it into high gear and takes advantage of all the wonderful delights a Renaissance Fair has to offer: nearly getting severely clocked in the head by a pair of jugglers' pins, getting crushed by two morbidly obese cosplayers during a feast, and playing a rousing game of competitive sack tossing with a guy who takes his medieval alter ego way too seriously -- of which contains some pretty fiery ye olde talking of the smack throughout. And the whole day is finally capped off with LeVar receiving the queen's blessing, comparing him to a rainbow, obviously. (Season 5, Episode 42)

7) Digging Up Dinosaurs

"Digging Up Dinosaurs" may have been the one of the series' earliest episodes, but it was certainly one that grabbed our nerdy attention. As kids it was simple: if had anything to do with dinosaurs it was automatically awesome; the Dinobots from Transformers and Dino-Riders prove that. And this episode in particular opened up in the best way possible, with the epic clash between the triceratops and ceratosaurus from One Million Years BC -- a Ray Harryhausen special effects classic! From there LeVar takes a tour of the Dinosaur National Monument and struggles to find his footing on the dangerously steep incline of the site's famous Dinosaur Quarry (one wrong move and he -- along with the show's run -- would've been dead for sure). But before he takes his leave until next time, LeVar engages in one of the nerdiest pasttimes of all, creating and burying a time capsule for posterity. And for the future's sake he leaves behind one of his most cherished possessions: a black and white headshot of himself most likely used for the Reading Rainbow host selection process. Shut up! It's a remarkable photo that captures his intensity. (S1, Ep. 6)

6) Perfect the Pig

When we go to the library the only people we ever see are either the homeless guy whispering obscenities as he scuttles about the reading room or the old pervert watching pornography on the computers running off an outdated dial-up modem. But if you happen to be LeVar Burton, you're always sure to find some pretty high-profile celebrities browsing the shelves -- including some taking some time off from The Muppet Show. Enter Kermit the Frog and his quest for just the right book on pigs. But instead of Kermit greeting LeVar with a hearty "hello," he gets all nervous and jittery, with the whole exchange becoming remarkably similar to when Chris Hansen busts internet perverts on To Catch A Predator. Kermit turns into even more of a nervous wreck when LeVar is keen on what he's up to and starts pressuring him to admit to the world that he has an insatiable pig fetish, preferably for those of the puppet persuasion. Kermit does his best to cover up this little incriminating mess by claiming to be aficionado of swine-based literature, but the damage to his prestige had already been done. Something that no amount of carefully structured PR could ever hope to fix... (S3, Ep. 25)

5) Alistair in Outer Space

There was bound to be a time in Reading Rainbow's storied (no pun intended) legacy where LeVar would take viewers to the one place in the United States that bibliophiles look to as their Xanadu -- the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Truthfully, it's far off from being one of the series' more exciting outings (chalk it up to the lecture on the library's collection of globes), but it gets serious nerd points for the animated Conan the Librarian sequence -- predating UHF's parody by about three years and riding the popularity of 1982's Conan the Barbarian -- minus Arnold Schwarzenegger's tenuous grasp of the English language. As the title implies, Conan moonlights as a librarian when he isn't cleaving evil sorcerers and monsters in twain, and is tasked with presenting prospective children with their new library cards... granted they prove themselves worthy of such a treasure. The best thing about the cartoon is the way Conan is absolutely grilling the kid the entire time; not to mention resisting the urge to slice the boy's head clean off when he, nonchalantly and stupidly, declares he hasn't read any books on the account of summer vacation's countless distractions. But finally after cautioning the boy about the likelihood of being labeled a "bookworm" and practically getting beaten up after school, Conan presents the library card at last. By comparison, the crotchety old librarian reeking of stale perfume doesn't seem so bad now, does she? (S4, Ep. 27)

4) Space Case

There were plenty of episodes of Reading Rainbow that dealt with the subject of life on other planets beyond our solar system. But how many of them can you say showed clips from the greatest film saga of our time, Star Wars? Just the episode "Space Case." Broadcasting a special episode of Reading Rainbow tailored for extraterrestrials, this edition showcases a montage of all the people, animals and natural wonders (harvest-able natural resources for our soon-to-be Martian overlords) that aliens will find should they ever choose to visit, or subjugate, Earth -- all accompanied with a hokey, kumbaya-ish song indicative of the '80s. Next, LeVar does the one thing that -- while a delight for us nerds -- no doubt incited rage amongst alien races after viewing our insulting portrayal of them: he plays the famous cantina scene from A New Hope, and Boushh's bargain with Jabba the Hutt from Return of the Jedi (as well as the unintentionally horrifying pool scene from Cocoon). While LeVar's intentions were good, he's certainly doomed our entire species. (S4, Ep. 31)

3) June 29, 1999
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[Ed.'s note: Sorry, you'll have to go here to watch this episode.] Four years before Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction hit the airwaves in 1997, LeVar was way ahead of the game in this episode of the series, and was by far a much better host than Jonathan Frakes could ever hope to be. The episode played out in a similar format to the aforementioned show, with LeVar -- decked out in a sharp silk robe -- regales the audience at home with hard-to-believe stories of prehistoric discoveries and alien encounters acted out by actors and actresses with questionable credentials and enthusiasm. Honestly, not a bad effort for a children's program on PBS, but the episode gets even better when LeVar narrates a small segment highlighting the study and analysis of U.F.O. phenomenon, including small interviews with experts on the subject. Eerie U.F.O. photos abound, naturally. In a time before networks like History Channel and Discovery Channel aired documentaries on the topic in spades, Reading Rainbow -- I have to admit -- did a pretty good job, even if it was only for a few minutes. (S11, Ep. 100)

2) Miss Nelson Is Back

Who would've guessed that by Reading Rainbow's second episode, the producers were able to arrange a special effects make-up session with Thomas Burman, artist extraordinaire of The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Goonies fame? One thing that I found surprising in this clip is that before they show Burman doing what he does best, the camera pans his studio for a bit and showcases the various monsters and mangled zombie bodies that adorn his workspace; for a children's program, it's a miracle that the overzealous network censors at PBS didn't edit this part -- if not the entire segment -- out from the episode. After a montage detailing the intricate procedure involved in Burman's craft, children at home were most likely horrified to see their beloved host LeVar go from a benevolent bookworm to a grunting, wrinkly troll warrior... viking-thing... that sounds like a demented Yoda. If Burman did manage to cause a few kids to wet their Underoos, I'd simply call that a credit to his cinematic talent. (S1, Ep. 2)

1) The Bionic Bunny Show

The episode "The Bionic Bunny Show" aired in 1988, almost a year after Star Trek: The Next Generation made its debut to critical acclaim from critics and fans everywhere, as well as being hailed a worthy successor to the original series that preceded it. With LeVar taking on the role of Geordi La Forge -- the U.S.S. Enterprise-D's chief engineer and erstwhile helmsman -- and the filming of Reading Rainbow's sixth season running nearly concurrent with that of Star Trek: TNG's production schedule, it was a no-brainer that the two shows would eventually collaborate in some fashion. And they did just that when LeVar gave the good little nerd boys and girls everywhere a vicarious VIP tour of the entire show's set, make-up trailers and visual effects department. You really do have to give this episode some major credit because where most program's would simply give half-assed behind-the-scenes tours that skimp on the real inner workings of television shows and movies, Reading Rainbow went that extra mile and presented something that could've stood on its own as a short special feature on a DVD, had that video format been available at the time. And for PBS, a non-profit public broadcasting station, to gain access to TNG's set is a pretty amazing feat in itself. (S6, Ep. 46)

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