With today’s Cartoon Commentary!, wherein I take a look at the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, episode #7, Prison Without Walls, I may start showing my weirdly anal fanboy side a bit as I try and get some facts straight on this episode’s writer, Steve Gerber. See, part of the reason I started this column was to start connecting the dots, creator/producer/writer-wise for a bunch of the shows I grew up loving, but in order to do so all I have to go on is a few sources of information, namely IMDB, the DVDs themselves, Wiki, and the handful of people involved who have personal websites/blogs, or fans that have put up websites, all of which can be questioned to one degree or another on how accurate the information provided is. Lets take IMDB for instance. How many times have you done a search on say a television writer and some of the entries for a particular series list one episode written when you know for a fact that they wrote at least 12 or something.
There are similar inconsistencies with Wiki, and the reason for both is that a lot of this information is largely user supplied, and not by the actual writers/what-have-you. Personal and fan sites are great, but again, there are often inconsistencies or a lack of information. Of course there are also the credits on the cartoons themselves, but these are often not nearly in depth or specific enough, and seem to cover the entire season (if not the series) instead of crediting episode by episode (for instance, it’s common to see like 30 or so voice actors listed when there were only maybe 10 different characters or creatures in an episode.)
I’m bringing this up because I’m not positive on a few of the things Gerber is credited with. So lets start with some concrete stuff, shall we? Prison Without Walls originally aired on October 29th, 1983, was written by Steve Gerber, and is the only episode in the series where he received a writing credit. Gerber is the creator of Howard the Duck and has written a lot of stuff for TV and comics (including story editing the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, as well as a run on the Man-Thing comic, which will come up in a bit.)
According to his website, he also served as chief story editor on Dungeons and Dragons, though it didn’t mention if it was for a particular season or the entire series. Hank Saroyan is the only guy I know for sure who was a story editor on the series according to the DVD set, but I’m also not sure exactly how writing for or being a story editor in a cartoon series really works. One the one hand it seems like some writers go off by themselves and bang out episodes, while at other times (based on interviews and stuff) it seems like it’s more of s team effort with the editor serving as a captain.
Either way, this episode certainly benefits from his years writing comics, as it’s one of the few to feature past continuity (if only for a minor detail.) Gerber also continued the theme of showcasing enslaved little people, though in this episode’s case, gnomes are playing the part instead of red haired dwarves.
The basic gist of this episode involves the gang questing to free a village of enslaved gnomes from Venger, who is using them to mine mystical gemstones for him. The kids quickly learn that they must track down Lukion, a spellbinder who has the power to free the gnomes from Venger’s grasp, but who is also himself a prisoner of Venger. By freeing Lukion, they believe that he will also be able to point the way home.
In the opening sequence, there is a slight animation error. After the gang hears a strange noise, Presto makes a statement, but both his and Eric’s mouths are moving to the voice work.
When the kids first stumble upon the gnome mining camp we get our first glimpse of the (more or less) obligatory dragon for this episode in the form of a giant stone statue.
Bobby, noticing how badly the gnomes are being treated by their orc captors, runs blindly into the camp to help them, which kicks off one of the more impressive fight sequences of the series, which also happens to be the first honest to goodness club on sword fight.
Also in this segment you can see that there must have been different animation houses working on the series as a lot of the quick moving or background stuff has a very classic anime appearance to it, which is more or less lacking from a lot of the shots in the series.
The rest of the gang follows Bobby’s lead, and even though Hank doesn’t connect with his shots, it still feels like he was trying to in the animation.
Even Diana gets a little more connective, as she vaults up and smashes some swords with her staff. All in all it’s a really dynamic fight scene that feels very honest to the world and for once doesn’t feel like it was creatively written around the interests of parents groups or any other standards and practices issues.
Heck, even Eric jumps in, protecting others with his shield, a very out of character though brave moment for him. It’s not until Presto tries his hand that we sort of see the action pulled back a bit, but then again it is Presto we’re talking about.
To round things out in the fight sequence, even Sheila takes down an Orc leader instead of her typical disappearing act that simple keeps her out of the way. I hate to dwell on this fight, but it really is a shining moment for the cartoon, and perhaps another benefit of having had a writer that is used to writing action in super hero comics.
In a nice establishing shot, we once again get to see Venger’s castle, this one a variation on the first, though much more streamlined which leads me to believe that it’s a separate castle (though obviously it could just be a side effect of a different animation house.) We also get to see that the realm (or planet) has four suns, each of a different color (which again, could be background info worked into the show, though it does play a specific role in this episode so who knows.) I like that they stuck with the hanging castle design, though I believe this is the last time we see a castle like this.
As far as Dungeon Master appearances go, this episode takes the cake with four separate scenes. There’s also a weird trend set up where DM sort of appears from out of nowhere when the kids aren’t paying attention (which could be a way of showing the audience that he’s always there with them, as sort of a comfort buffer; it’s also weirdly described in the series bible as him "popping up out of nowhere, or maybe he doesn’t…"; it keeps describing him doing something one way, than countering with "…maybe he doesn’t…"), and for once this is done very effectively as he begins talking to the gang and then emerges out from inside a log that Eric is sitting on. So far the writers have handled his disappearances much better than his appearances, but this one was pretty cool.
Speaking of Dungeon Master, the animators really upped his Yoda-ish influence in this episode, to a point where he even sort of waddles around like the master Jedi. Actually, his movements also sort of reminded me a little of E.T. with his hands sort of limp out in from of him and all. I wonder if this was in the animation notes, or what?
As far as new creatures go, the first thing we’re introduced to in this episode are some pretty strange and vicious violet mushroom-like things with freakish red tentacles. They’re actually very violent little fungi.
We’re also introduced to a second more impressive creature who comes to the gang’s aid; a giant lumbering plant-like monster who bears a striking resemblance to Marvel Comic’s Man-Thing…
So, on the DVD there is a small trivia section that accompanies each episode (in the select a scene menu), and this one mentions that Steve Gerber created Man-Thing for Marvel, which makes this creature kind of an in joke of sorts. When looking up the character on wiki though, I found that he wasn’t created by Gerber (instead he’s credited as being the creation of Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and artist Gray Morrow as he appeared in Savage Tales #1 in 1971), though Gerber would begin writing for the character in Adventure into Fear #11 (through #19) and would go on to writer his 22 issue solo series after that (becoming his most prominent writer.) Here’s a picture of the Marvel comics character for comparison to the creature in the episode…
There’s a much more obvious bend in the anime direction of the animation in this sequence where Hank ends up mistakenly ‘feeding’ the creature. Specifically in the top screen shot, Eric has a very classic anime appearance.
Though the kids aren’t all that sure about the monster as it seems to be just as likely to help them as to attack them, they are reassured that they’re on the right track by yet another appearance of Dungeon Master.
So, as promised in the Warduke episode, here are more sweet ZOMBIES! This sequence was more like an early 80s horror film than a fantasy adventure show as the gang finds an abandoned cabin in the swamps while looking for Lukion, the savior of the gnomes. While inside the cabin, zombies begin bursting forth from every imaginable hiding place (from behind curtains, from holes in the floor, from underneath the bed even), grabbing the kids, and I imagine frightening the bejesus out of all the kids watching at home. I especially love the shot of the Bobby-stalking zombie in this last screengrab…
Just as the kids think their number is up, Man-Thi…I mean miscellaneous swamp monster comes to their aid, knocking down the cabin and presumably destroying the zombies with it. Sadly, this is the last we see of any zombies in the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, but heck if they weren’t awesome while they lasted. You know, now that I’m thinking about it I think the proposed third Ghostbusters movie (that’s reportedly being shopped around Hollywood as an animated feature) could do with a New York zombie infestation that the GBs have to take down.
There’s another pretty transformation sequence as the kids realize that the swamp monster is Lukion, trapped in a form where he can’t speak or perform magic (i.e the Prison Without Walls.)
From here on out the episode sort of takes a down turn for me as the gang and Lukion race back to the slave-mining camp to free the gnomes. Lukion places the heart of the dragon (a pulsating violet crystal gem) into the giant stone dragon right as the realm’s four suns align into what looks like the cross section of a giant glowing gobstopper. The suns cast a ray of magical light down upon the heart of the dragon, which in turn separates the ray into many beams with again reflect off of the gemstones in the mining camp. What we don’t realize at the time is that at every beam crossing there are directions to a portal into another place or world, one of which is the way for the gang to get home.
Of course, this is just as Venger pops up, throwing an energy bolt that destroys the junction at which the portal to the kids home world is. The battle that ensues is kind of wacky, with Presto providing most of the solutions.
Gerber also uses some of the giant golems in this episode (like in the last one), as a battle breaks out…
During the fracas one of the golems scoops up Uni, at which point Bobby urges her to teleport (a small, yet very nice bit of continuity carried over from the Valley of the Unicorns episode.) I’m wondering if Gerber read some of the previous scripts, or if this teleportation deal was written into the model of the character? It sure wasn’t in the series bible, so I’m thinking it was either a notation on the character after the Valley of the Unicorns episode, or the writers had access to other writer’s scripts. Either way it was pretty cool.
After the battle, and after the kids are told about the destruction of the junction that would point to their portal home, the kids seem more depressed than usual. Of course there is the last appearance by Dungeon Master to try and pep them up, but it really doesn’t seem to work this time as the kids leave the camp dejected with heads hanging. I’m not positive, but I believe this episode holds the record for the number of times DM pops up (four, and not considering the episode where he’s kidnapped, as that’s not fair.)
Though I joked around about the Man-Thing-like creature, it was a pretty cool addition to the show, as was Gerber’s script for this episode. Actually, I guess I’m glad that it was a variation on Man-Thing rather than Howard the Duck that ended up in the show. Gerber also manages to make Hank, who is the leader by default, actually act a little more like a leader, as he’s giving commands and trying to solve the situations more like a commander than just the guy with the bow.
Next time on Cartoon Commentary!, we’ll take a look at episode #8 of Dungeons and Dragons, Servant of Evil.