The Lady in Red
If you were in elementary school during the 1990s, you more than likely have chased your share of villains around the world, ultimately pursuing one in particular.
If you haven’t filled in the blank yet, you might as well stop reading. Otherwise, Rockapella just started singing in your mind.
Brøderbund Software’s (in)famous diva of crime first appeared on computer screens in 1985, stealing the spotlight (and several dozen world landmarks) in the process. By early 1990, she had her own TV game show, in which contestants used their knowledge of world geography to track her down, with the help of Greg Lee, Rockapella, and the iconic Lynn Thigpen as “The Chief.” Yet by 1995, the canonized world of Carmen Sandiego had begun to fracture.
As for me, I have completed every Carmen game from 1995 to 2001, most of them several dozen times. I’ve practically memorized all three television incarnations. I KNOW where in the world Carmen Sandiego is. So I thought I’d answer an even more difficult question: Who Is Carmen Sandiego?
Master thief. Sure, we got that part. Who didn’t? But, as I mentioned, the canonization fractured back in 1995. So, I guess the answer to that question depends on which Carmen you’re talking about.
A few things are consistent about Carmen Sandiego. First of all, she’s a former ACME agent who found that chasing crooks was not enough of a challenge for her. She loves the thrill of pulling off impossible heists. She is also responsible for the Villains International League of Evil (VILE).
The storyline continuum from the original Brøderbund games carries right over into the PBS game show, “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego.” And this is where things get murky, because when the sequal game show, “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego,” Carmen’s personality is beginning to emerge, and it isn’t pretty.
In the words of Kevin Shinick: “We’re being sucked into a parallel univerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrse!”
The Where in Time Carmen and the Thigpin Universe
Brenda Burke’s portrayal of the Lady in Red is cold, calculating, and outright sadistic. This Carmen knows she’s messing up history and, frankly, delights in that knowledge. I loved the show as a kid, and I still have a soft spot for it, but now, I have to admit that Carmen is quite chilling here. She’s not just stealing artifacts – she’s knowingly erasing people.
In the parallel computer game (my all-time favorite, I might add), Carmen’s personality is not much different, though her motivations are perhaps less disturbing. She admits at the end that she was simply trying to “erase her own embarrassing history” as a former ACME agent. That said, it isn’t hard to tell that is merely an excuse, since the Egyptian Book of the Dead (and everything else she took) has NOTHING to do with her own personal history.
Carmen’s total disregard for everyone and everything but herself and her own crooked ambitions are equally evident in the other two games in what I call the “Thigpin Universe,” marked by Lynn Thigpin’s iconic role as the Chief of ACME. Case-and-point, Carmen attempts to lift the Declaration of Independence in Where in the U.S.A. The opening cutscene reveals she is already in possession of Lincoln’s hat, Franklin’s kite, Betsy Ross’ flag, and Babe Ruth’s bat.
But, what would you expect from a master thief?
The Chase Devineaux Universe
A short hop away is the “Chase Devineaux” universe, which one could argue is an extension of the Thigpin universe. I only categorize it separately because of the Chief’s absense. That said, ACME’s team is largely the same, with agents like Rock Solid, Ann Tickwitee, Renee Santz, and Ivan Idea. Chase is never assigned the role of Chief. It is instead suggested that he is one of ACME’s top agents, and Carmen’s former partner.
Carmen is actually MORE disturbing in her personality in the Chase Devineaux universe in my opinion. She isn’t just stealing landmarks and rewriting history – she is stealing language (Word Detective) and knowledge (ThinkQuick) itself! You get the sense from the frequent attacks by VILE operatives that Carmen Sandiego would not hesitate to order bodily harm on an ACME agent.
It is revealed that Devineaux was Carmen’s former partner at ACME, and many fans have theorized that the two had feelings for one another. Whether they still do is completely unclear, though there are a few nonverbal cues to that extent in some of the cutscenes.
The Zach and Ivy Universe
A long way from the Thigpin/Devineaux universe is the DiC television series, Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego. This universe only saw a single actual game: Carmen Sandiego Junior Detective, which wasn’t exactly heavy on the storyline. The TV series, on the other hand, saw some pretty masterful storytelling, in my humble opinion. While we’re on the topic, this is also my favorite incarnation of Miss Sandiego.
One of the biggest differences in this universe from the others is the absence of Lynn Thigpin as the Chief, or at least one inspired by her. Instead, ACME is run by a digital C.H.I.E.F, a la Max Headroom, which also happens to be Carmen’s former investigation robot, later upgraded to run the entire agency.
This Carmen Sandiego, played by the incomparable Rita Moreno, has a code of ethics. As per canon, Sandiego used to be an ACME agent, and turned to a life of crime because catching thieves was too easy for her. That said, greed doesn’t drive this Carmen – sheer intellectual boredom does. She really is in this for the challenge, whether she gets to keep the goods or not. She chooses her crimes, not on the value of the loot, but for the difficulty in acquiring it. Then, she will leave clues for Zach and Ivy, so that they can recover the loot, and she can get away again. With her penchant for escape, it is obvious that she could get away with the stolen goods with little effort…simply put, she doesn’t want to most of the time. She was never in it for the goods.
The most significant difference with this Carmen Sandiego is that she has a strict code of ethics. Granted, theft is theft, by any other name, but this is only a game to Carmen, and she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt in her game. She has a strict non-violence policy. Multiple times in the series, she called off promising heists and fired talented VILE operatives for breaches of this policy.
Even more surprising, Carmen will actually work with ACME to stop legitimately dangerous criminals…usually her own former henchmen, go figure.
SPOILER ALERT: In the end of this series, Carmen Sandiego actually turned herself in with hopes that her father, whom she only recently discovered was alive, would accept her back as his daughter. There’s more, but rest assured, it was an AMAZING ending. Go watch the last two episodes if you haven’t yet.
No wonder they won an Emmy.
The Jules Argent Universe
Right smack between all the Carmen Sandiego universes is the Jules Argent Universe. This is probably the most interesting realm – by all evidence, this Carmen is close to the Zach and Ivy version, but it contains a Chief modelled heavily after the iconic Lynn Thigpin version.
In this realm, Jules Argent is Carmen’s former partner. Same story as before: Carmen left ACME for the intellectual challenge. The main difference now, however, is that Carmen’s motives are more unclear than ever.
SPOILER ALERT: In “Treasures of Knowledge,” she steals eight valuable treasures, only to give them to ACME and escape, leaving Jules wondering if that was Carmen’s plan all along. She risks capture to save the life of a young ACME operative in another game.
SPOILER ALERT: Arguably, her most unexpected appearance belongs in this universe: in “Cluefinders: The Mystery Mansion Arcade,” she reveals herself as the mastermind and imprisons the other villains, leaving the kid detectives wondering if she was trying to capture them or their arch enemies.
We may never actually know who Carmen Sandiego is. The series never did achieve canonization again. Every time the intellectual property changes hands, the story does as well.