In preparing for this week’s Cartoon Commentary! post I think I may have bitten off more that I can chew in terms of the ground I’d like to cover. As I stated in the CC! preamble, I’d live to go through a cartoon series one DVD set at a time, which means covering about 30 episodes. At an episode a week this will take forever, so I figured I’d group them together, which seemed like a great idea at the time. Unfortunately I think it might mean some pretty long, picture intensive columns and I’m not sure how I, or more importantly the readers will feel about that. I guess I’m going to run with it for awhile though and we’ll just see how we can make it work.
So without wasting any more space, lets get back into Dungeons and Dragons. The cartoon debuted in the fall of 1983 on CBS alongside other shows such as the Saturday Supercade (with Q*Bert, Space Ace and Donkey Kong), Pole Position, the Muppet Babies, and the Get Along Gang.
The pilot episode, The Night of No Tomorrow, was written by Mark Evanier (who was hired to revamp the pitch and write the show bible), who jumped right into the story with no pauses for explanation or backstory, most of which was covered in the shows opening credits.
In fact, Evanier does an awesome job of setting up both the world and the characters in just the first few moments of the episode as the camera pans across a desolate mountain range with floating plateaus of earth, and then hovers over the group climbing a cliff. We get a nice shot of their costumes which firmly sets us in a fantasy environment, all of which is over dubbed by Hank saying the following, "Keep going; from up here we may be able to see which way to get home." This is pretty much all the info the audience needs to know that there is a group of kids trapped in a fantasy world and they’re searching for the way out. Pretty good for 20 seconds of footage.
The basic gist of this episode is that Dungeon Master sends the gang on a quest to find the town of Helix to attend a local celebration, but along the way they get side tracked when they discover Merlin’s castle floating in the sky. The group decides to drop in on the Arthurian wizard for assistance in finding a way home, but instead of helping them, Merlin offers to teach Presto all his knowledge of magic with the promise that he’ll stay with him forever.
The first inhabitant of the realm the kids come into contact with in this episode and the series is Tiamat the dragon, a five-headed female red dragon that is as much Venger’s enemy as she is of the gang.
In the ensuing fight we’re introduced to a concept that will continue throughout the series, which is that of side stepping battle with enemies and creatures by utilizing the gifted weapons the gang has as tools to avoid fighting. In this scene Hank uses his energy bow in a pretty straightforward manner to push Bobby out of the way of Tiamat. I’m not sure, but this sort of feels like a concession on the writer’s part to appease parents groups by limiting the number of times the kids resort to violence to solve problems, even when it’s defending themselves from attacking creatures in a strange land.
It’s also interesting that for the first onscreen usage of Shelia’s invisibility cloak Evanier made sure to focus attention on her foot impressions so that the audience would realize that she was invisible and not teleporting. I don’t think they do this again in the rest of the series.
Similarly, when Dungeon Master shows up to guide the gang on a new adventure he doles out some advice in being weary of Venger, which isn’t something he does in the rest of the series even though Venger pops up as the villain in the majority of the episodes.
Even though the pilot episode sides steps any sort of back-story for the series, it does manage to set up a number of repetitive occurrences, for instance the obligatory dragons. Once again, I’m not all that familiar with the role-playing game, but even though it’s called Dungeons and Dragons I doubt there are dragons hiding behind every corner in a campaign, but for the purposes of this series the various writers made sure to include a dragon in practically every episode in the series. In this episode, Evanier introduces us to the bane of the town of Helix, which is a plague of dragons set upon the town by Venger that is eventually dispatched by the wizard Merlin.
Another possible convention of the show also introduced in the pilot is Presto’s bumbling magic spells. He is the only character that can’t seem to get a grip on his weapon, his trusty magic cap, which is evidenced in this episode as he tries to produce food for the group and ends up summoning a milk cow. As the series progresses though this is dropped in favor of a similar convention where Presto’s magic appears to fail each time yet what ever he manages to produce from the cap eventually helps out the group in the intended manner (e.g. he’ll summon a birthday cake with candles alight when they need a torch or something.)
Though Dungeons and Dragons was an American made show, I believe Marvel Productions outsourced the actual animation to Asia, which resulted in a mixed bag of quality as the series progresses. From watching special features on other cartoon series it’s been made said that when you outsource the animation you have to be pretty damn specific in stage direction and such or else there will be a ton of errors. D&D has its share, one of the first popping up in this episode. As the gang is leaving to make their way to the town of Helix and Hank is giving his pep talk, both his and Eric’s mouths are moving in time to the dialogue.
I thought it was pretty smart of Evanier to introduce the character of Merlin in this first episode, as he is a pretty recognizable wizard with a broad written and filmed history, so the young audience would probably be pretty comfortable with the character. It’s just a sly way of getting the audience comfortable with the show and not alienating them off the bat with strange faces.
At first I was also impressed with the riddle/warning that Evanier wrote for the Dungeon Master to impart upon the kids warning them of Venger, and being able to recognize him by his white hair. That is until the gag was basically beat over the audience’s head with both a red herring (Merlin is wearing a white wig attached to his hat for some strange reason; well it’s not really strange, just a horrible way of stealing the focus from a character that is obviously Venger in disguise), not to mention the fact that Merlin is holding a white rabbit, or hare if you prefer. Honestly I don’t think there were too many kids fooled by this as Merlin/Venger himself even corrects Shelia by telling her that his rabbit is a hare. For all of the awesome shorthand of the opening title sequence and opening shot in the show, this was a pretty obvious little riddle that went on for way too long.
Another interesting aspect of the children’s weapons is that even though they tend not to use them as such, when they do they aren’t very effective. Though Tiamat is described as being invincible, it makes Hank’s energy bow seem pretty pointless as he fires volley after volley at the dragon with no effect what-so-ever.
I thought it was also neat in this episode that Eric straps on his shield like a backpack while running away from Tiamat, something that is very natural but it’s also something that you never see him do again in the rest of the series. I love little touches like this in cartoons, just because it lets you in on the writer/animator thinking about the scene more closely than just enough to get the story across. It’s also little touches like these that make the characters seem more real if only because they’re subtle, as cartoon are rarely subtle.
As the plot unfolds and Venger shows himself to Presto (who has since abandoned the group to study with ‘Merlin’) there is an awesome animation sequence with Venger morphing from Merlin into his more imposing appearance. This is certainly a benefit of having a show like this on DVD where you can pause and step through a quick sequence like this to see some great artwork.
Yet another aspect of the show that is introduced in this first episode (and only really explored in the first season of the show) is Venger actually getting his hands on one of the gang’s weapons of power (a goal that we are lead to believe will solidify Venger’s stranglehold on the realm and make him invincible.) This is actually a dynamic that doesn’t get bandied around all that much in the fiction that I’m familiar with. I’m more used to super hero stories or fantasy stories where a character’s special abilities are ingrained within them and even though the characters may be overwhelmed from time to time, they don’t actually lose their special powers. I suppose this is more common in role-playing games, or fiction that is heavy with mystical items (come to think of it, I guess the one ring from the LOTR series would be a great example of this.)
Speaking of the overseas animators, I think it’s funny how they chose to animate some key scenes in the series when characters were falling or jumping. In the below sequence as the gang is jumping on horseback to ride to Presto’s aid, there is a weird shot of Sheila jumping up onto a horse with her derriere pointed towards the audience. Since she’s wearing a skirt, and since I’m sure this wasn’t addressed in on the character model sheets, the animators chose to draw in a pair of white granny panties to cover Sheila’s woman parts. Later in the series they made sure to have her jumping and falling with her butt away from camera.
A little later as Bobby and Diana ride by, there is a weird paint error as Bobby’s vest flickers between it’s normal tan and the gray of his helmet.
The episode ends with an odd turn of events as Presto has lost his cap to Venger, and even though the evil villain is dispatched/chased off by Tiamat, the whereabouts of the cap remain a mystery. As the group is lamenting Dungeon Master appears with a new hat for Presto. I was kind of bummed out by this as this sort of goes against DM’s lack of hands on involvement with the adventures the kids are going on, and it raises questions about what he’d be willing to do to help the characters along. In the series bible DM is described as being like Yoda, who when you get right down to it doesn’t do much of anything in the original trilogy besides teaching Luke to concentrate and lift crap with his mind. Sure he doles out some nuggets of wisdom here and there, but that’s about the extent of it as he never goes mano-e-mano with the emperor or anything. So when DM produces a replacement hat for Presto it seems like he’s stepping out of his boundaries a bit too much and it begs the question, could he just zap these kids home if he wanted to?
I think I’m going to break this week’s column into three separate posts, so come back tomorrow for a look into the second episode of the Dungeons and Dragons series, The Eye of the Beholder.