Despite the fact that it aired on Saturday mornings, Saved by the Bell never shied away from addressing the most pressing issues of the time. Indeed, in the prescient episode “Pipe Dreams,” originally airing on October 26, 1991, SBTB directly addresses ecological and environmental issues before ultimately arriving at a more implicit, and utterly remarkable, conclusion. Indeed, the episode foreshadows the no blood for oil movement that would rise more than a decade later. Not surprisingly, “Pipe Dreams” resonates even more powerfully seventeen years later.
Overtly, “Pipe Dreams” is a cautionary tale about the ecological dangers of drilling for oil. Coming in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster, environmental and ecological issues were ripe for commentary and exploration. Here, SBTB’s writers address these issues in a powerful way that deeply resonates with the viewer. Importantly, however, and as in many SBTB episodes, “Pipe Dreams” contains a deeper, more cutting statement in its subtext. This reviewer has previously praised director Don Barnhart’s work in this regard and in “Pipe Dreams” he once again lives up to his lofty reputation. Here, with the episode filming soon after the first Gulf War, Mr. Barnhart’s commentary includes the geopolitical issues related to the control of the oil supply. Mr. Barnhart does not just tell the audience that this control is directly related to greed, but shows the viewer the severe consequences and ramifications of that greed. This reviewer does not have to explain how prophetic Mr. Barnhart’s message has proven to be.
The action opens in biology class with Dr. Phelps passing out animals that he retrieved from the pond behind the football field. The class will be studying the ecosystem of the pond through an examination of these animal friends. Zack enters carrying a white duck and, after apologizing for his tardiness, explains that the duck was struck by an errant baseball. After a brief examination, Dr. Phelps determines that the duck will be fine and that the class can look after the duck until it feels better. Because it is Friday, Zack volunteers to take the duck home over the weekend. After class, Zack has the duck in a cage when Mr. Belding stops him. Mr. Belding reveals a deep bond with the duck, whom he has named Becky, and states that he feeds the duck everyday. The circle of those who care about Becky grows.
During a lunch at the Max, Slater rushes in and tells the gang that while digging a hole for the new goal post on the football field, the workers hit an oil pipe. In an alarming scene, the gang engages in a joint dream about what it would be like if the school actually hit oil. In the vision, they are all rich. The Bayside classroom now has wood paneling and leather chairs. The gang is dressed in the trappings of wealth. Zack reclines in a leather chair in a suit and glasses. Slater is dressed for a fox hunt. Strangely, Mr. Belding acts as the students' butler. When Mrs. Kearns attempts to teach the class, Zack has Mr. Belding send her away. Apparently the gang is too wealthy to be bothered with schoolwork. Mr. Belding sends her on her way, stating, “If you want to teach, go to a cheap school.” Importantly, it is not explained how the gang becomes rich as individuals or why Mr. Belding, who works for the now wealthy school district, must act as their butler. The message is obvious. The gang is blinded by their greed. Their hunger for wealth is insatiable. As the vision ends, Screech charges into the scene and reveals that the workers did not hit a pipeline, but indeed the school has struck oil. It seems that the gang’s dreams of wealth will come true. The question remains, at what cost?
In the next scene, the representative from Cal-Star oil, Mr. Grayson, is sharing the plans for the new Bayside. It will be a state of the art learning center with “visual aids and computers in every classroom.” Jessie is the lone dissenter among the student body. Despite the promise of a better school, Jessie is concerned about the environment. Grayson explains that until alternative energy becomes cost efficient, oil is the best energy source. The rest of the gang approves of their new business arrangement. As long as oil remains the most cost-effective energy source, they reap the benefits. Once again, the gang’s greed blinds them to the potential dangers of the venture and prevents them from seeing the bigger picture.
Later, Jessie comes to Zack’s room where he is taking care of Becky and tries to convince him that the oil drilling is a bad idea. Jessie presents Zack with a petition to stop the drilling. Sadly, Jessie is the only name on it. Zack tells her that he will think about it but he can only see how the oil will help the entire student body. Zack is unable to see the looming danger. The scene ends with Zack talking to Becky, his beloved pet. The scene foreshadows tragedy.
The next day in class, the students return their animals to the pond. Jessie, Kelly, and Franklin the nerd have chained themselves to a model oil derrick in the hallway in order to protest the impending drilling. The protest, however, is too late as Lisa runs in, shouting about an oil spill. News soon spreads to the locker room, where Slater tells Zack and the inappropriately dressed Screech about the spill. Though briefly distracted by Screech’s spandex one-piece outfit, the three quickly realize that the pond where they have returned their animals is in danger and they rush out to save them.
In the next scene, Zack, covered in oil, enters the biology class carrying a cardboard box. He asks Dr. Phelps to save Becky. As he lifts the duck out of the box, the audience is finally confronted with the magnitude of the tragedy. Becky’s white feathers are covered in oil. Dr. Phelps tells Zack that there is nothing he can do. Becky is dead. Though Jessie tells Zack that it is not his fault, the scene conveys the opposite message. Tellingly, Mr. Barnhart has Zack wearing a red hooded sweatshirt. Figuratively speaking, Zack is shrouded in Becky’s blood. While SBTB had addressed death before, “Pipe Dreams” is the first time where one of the characters is at fault. Zack’s greed and inability to escape the oil industry’s group-think directly contributes to his beloved duck’s death. Mark-Paul Gosselaar gives a powerful performance, clearly tormented by Becky’s demise. He is left only with Screech’s words to comfort his tortured soul: “Don't worry about Becky, Zack. She's where the oil can't hurt her now.”
Notably, the duck, being at home on land, water or in the air, symbolizes the balance between the physical, emotional and spiritual worlds. Ducks are also a Celtic animal symbol of honesty and simplicity. As the gang’s joint vision proves, simplicity was not on the gang’s mind when they initially heard about the oil discovery. Instead, they were driven by materialism. In the greater context of the episode’s message, the duck symbolizes not only the earth, but indeed those people forced to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of the oil companies’ ambitions. Considering that this episode is seventeen years old, it is chilling in its foresight.
Likely driven by the network to concoct a happy ending, Zack confronts Mr. Belding. The rest of the gang joins him carrying ziplock bags filled with their dead animals. “We can’t let these animals die for nothing,” they implore Mr. Belding. Mr. Belding tells the gang that the school board will need more than some dead animals to stop the drilling. Later, at a meeting with Mr. Grayson, the Cal-Star representative, the school board is addressing questions related to the drilling and the exciting new Bayside. The board is delighted that the improvements will be tax-free. As Mr. Belding gives Zack the floor, however, he and the gang reveal the true cost of the new Bayside. Zack tells a tale of destruction and death. He then begins to spray oil all over Cal-Star’s Bayside scale model. When Mr. Grayson tries to stop him, Zack accidentally sprays him with oil. As Zack apologizes, Kelly sagely asserts, “But at least you’ll be alive when you clean it off.” It is a poignant moment. The school board instantly, and this reviewer daresays improbably, sways and decides to stop the drilling. The gang has learned a valuable lesson, but at a steep price.
Finally, this reviewer feels that he would be remiss if he did not address Screech’s role in the gang’s joint vision. Screech enters the scene as an Arabian sheik. He speaks with what is apparently Dustin Diamond’s feeble attempt at a Middle Eastern accent. He also plays the part cross-eyed and accompanied by two belly dancers. It is unclear whether this overt racism is intended as a pointed commentary on American’s attitudes towards the Middle East or if this portrayal was meant as a source of humor. If the latter is true, than it severely undermines the credibility of the episode and its otherwise laudable message. Indeed, such a portrayal is akin to a minstrel show. If this episode is to continue to air as part of the series’ syndication schedule, this reviewer insists that the FCC determine the true intentions of this scene and take appropriate action. There is no place for this kind of disgusting racism on television today. In fact, this investigation is now seventeen years overdue.