On September 7, 1998, the first episode of the Pokémon anime aired in the United States. That was 21 years ago. Oh God.
The show’s first-ever episode, Pokémon – I Choose You!, is the beginning of the whole Pokémon universe, showing Ash’s first meeting with Pikachu. It’s all fairly pedestrian when you just watch this episode in isolation, but by reaching such a milestone, Pokémon has proven itself almost eternal, immune to the whims of kids’ ever-changing tastes and the rolling tides of popular culture.
While I Choose You is the first episode sequentially in the series, it was bizarrely shown second in the US. On September 7, 1998, the 15th episode in the first season, Battle Aboard the St. Anne, became the first ever Pokémon episode to be aired on American TV (likely because it was more action-packed), with I Choose You following on September 8. Battle Aboard the St. Anne was then shown again on September 27 in its correct place in the series.
(This is the part where I point out that the show debuted over a year earlier in Japan, in April 1997, while the first games were released even earlier, back in 1996).
Some long-running properties like Transformers and TMNT have needed breaks between periods of popularity to catch their breath, while others like Barbie are forced to constantly and completely reinvent themselves. Pokémon, on the other hand, has just kept on being Pokémon, which is a testament to how strong the central hook—some kids on an adventure with cool and weird monsters who sometimes fight—has proven.
What’s not eternal is anyone old enough to remember those first episodes, because this anniversary is a reminder that we are all made of ash and dust, and our fleeting time on this Earth can now be measured not just in years, but in Pokémon series.
If you want to reminisce and watch the whole episode, it’s up for free on Pokemon.com.
Thanks for the reminder Bulbapedia!