Tag Archives: Tiamat

Cartoon Commentary! #5

Getting back into the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon this week, I’m going to pick up where I left off last time by taking a look at episode four of the series, titled Valley of the Unicorns. This was the last episode with input from Paul Dini and the first to feature a writing credit from the series producer Karl Geurs. Geurs would end up writing, co-writing, or coming up with the story for five episodes over the course of the show’s three seasons.

Valley of the Unicorns is the second episode to sort of feature a specific character (as the pilot episode featured Presto), in this case Uni, Bobby’s pet unicorn (possibly one of the least liked characters in the series as she’s voiced by Frank Welker with a sort of a high pitched braying.) The episode centers on a wizard, Kelek, who is hunting down the last herd of unicorns to steal their horns so that he can usurp their magic and become the most powerful wizard in the realm. After the gang comes to the aid of the leader of the unicorns, Sivermane, who is battling a pack of giant wolves, Kelek unicorn-naps Uni, thus leaving the gang to side with one of their greatest enemies in order to get her back.

This is the first episode which doesn’t open with the gang running away from attacking creatures; instead it opens with Silvermane being chased down by a pack of large wolves.

Uni apparently has some level of telepathic connection with the other unicorns as she reacts to the attack on Silvermane and end up leading the gang to the fray. Before that though there is a quick bit of subtly in a short scene that has Eric up on a rock cleaning out one of his boots (is it still a boot if it’s metal?) It’s little stuff like this that really adds a bunch of realism to a cartoon as there is no point in animating it, and we are talking about Saturday morning cartoons which are known for their economical storytelling, so it’s nice to see little things like this added in.

Anyway, I’m not sure if he was a character in any of the actual table top games or novels, but this episode introduces us to Kelek, one of the few characters appearing in the show that was actually part of the 1983 LJN toy line. I’m wondering if the producers of the show were given a list of the toys to possibly use in episodes as a way of cross marketing, even though the toy line was not produced off of the cartoon or vice versa.

When the gang joins the fight to help free Silvermane there are some scenes showcasing some creative usage of the kid’s weapons that don’t feature them used in a directly violent manner. For instance, instead of Bobby running up to the pack of wolves and busting some up the mangy mutts, he instead stops way shot, slams his club on the ground, which creates a mini chasm that the pups fall into.

Similarly, Hank’s aim is a little off with his energy bow and all of his shots seem to just miss the wolves, but to hit the ground at their feet causing them to fly up into the air and away from Silvermane. Diana is the one who uses her weapon the closest in a violent manner, though even she seems to sweep the wolves away more than striking at them. It’s getting a little closer to actual weapon usage, which I think is pretty cool for a Saturday morning cartoon.

In this episode we also learn that one of the focuses of the unicorn’s magic is the ability to teleport, an ability that is what draws Kelek to attack and capture them, as he wants the power for himself.

Uni hasn’t mastered the art of teleportation yet though…

This episode also features a kind of weird slight of hand where Eric manages to produce, it seems at will from out of no where, an object from his home world as he reaches behind him to pull out a note pad and pencil. Once again, I know this is certainly letting my nerd flag fly, and I do realize that stuff like this is fun to write for funny character beats, but not fun to explain in the actual episode. We end up seeing this a lot with Eric in particular as he ends up with everything from a wad of cash to comic books in future episodes. I wonder why it wasn’t written so that Presto is the one producing these items at Eric request? Maybe this is supposed to be inferred.

The one thing I really thought made Kelek a cool character was the manner in which he hides and calls forth his castle on command, raising up his arms to clear a spot in a huge briar patch, and having the castle burst forth from the ground. Really flashy, though after awhile I’m sure it would just get annoying.

There’s a sort of disturbing scene where Kelek reveals his ultimate plan for the unicorns and he ties Uni down and magically removes her horn, steal not only her magic but apparently her will to live as well. She loses all her color and is left a dull gray color. This sort of reminded me of the scenes where the Skeksis drain the life from a series of terrified Gelflings in the Dark Crystal.

Things get pretty emotional as Bobby and the rest of the gang are frozen in place, forced to watch the de-horning of Uni. I thought that this sequence was pretty intense as we watch waves of sadness and vengeance roll over Bobby, strong enough that he’s able to break through the magic that’s frozen him.

I also though that the layout of this following scene was really nicely done, as the kids are shot from afar walking to the secret area where the unicorns live, and Kelek and his wolves are show in close-up framing the right-hand side of the cel. Pretty dynamic for an 80s cartoon.

In this episode we also get to see just how powerful Eric’s shield is as it forms an energy barrier large enough to protect the whole gang from a ton of falling rocks. Makes me wonder what the extent of the powers are, and if given enough time would they have evolved at all (as say characters powers do in long running comic book series.)

This is also the first episode where Dungeon Master pops up a second time to give the gang more clues on how to achieve their goal. It’s the beginning of a short series of episodes that feature him as a more prominent character in the story, though if this was for the ease of writing (as DM is basically a walking deux ex machina) or to develop him more as a character is beyond me.

Also introduced for the first time in this episode is the concept of teaming up with Venger against a common foe, which is surprisingly quite common in this series. When I think back on all of the cartoons I watched as a kid and how repetitive all the situations and plots were, it’s sort of interesting that we’d end up seeing a team up with a villain as often as we do in D&D, as I think it was a lot rarer in other series, especially when you consider most other shows had four times the amount of episodes. I might just be remembering this wrong (which is why I’m writing these Cartoon Commentary! columns to begin with), but it seems like a much more common plot device nowadays.

There is a pretty fun wizard battle as Venger shows up in the nick of time to take down Kelek (and it also infers either a hierarchy of evil wizards or poses the idea that Kelek works for Venger), and essentially wipes the floor with him. Of course, in beating Kelek Venger also brings about the destruction of Kelek’s castle, which again furthers the idea that any large dwelling like this will ultimately be destroyed after Venger enters it.

As in the last episode, there is a brilliant display as Venger is dispatched in the crumbling ruins of the building, though this time instead of forming a giant spectral Batman symbol, it’s a tower of smoke shifts and changes into his likeness, which is forthwith blown away. I’m not sure exactly what happens to Venger in these scenes, but it sure as hell happens a lot over the course of the series and never really seems to do much other than keeping him away from the kids for a day or two. At least these displays are eye candy.

At the end of the episode as all the unicorns are returned to their mystical selves, and gather in their little colorful grotto, I was actually hoping for the gang to make a comfortable split with Uni, and not because she can be annoying. In the second episode, as the kids are on their way home the idea is brought up that Bobby won’t leave the realm without Uni, who in turn can’t leave the realm because she won’t survive outside of it. This effectively traps the kids in the D&D world as long as Bobby won’t budge on Uni and immediately puts the kibosh on them getting home in future episodes. Well with this episode there’s all of a sudden this wonderful Valley of the Unicorns that would be an awesome place to ditch the little brayer. The gang actually does leave her behind, which is sad for Bobby, but I was cheering nonetheless. Of course, adhering to the confines of the natural rhythm of a kid’s show, Uni has to burst forth from a multicolored waterfall to re-join the gang on their adventures, leaving behind her home and kind for the main characters. A touching scene to be sure, but horrible for the overall plot.

In this episode we’re also treated to a third appearance of Dungeon Master, though he stay hidden from the children to sort of gloat over what he’s accomplished. This is one of, if not the last time DM is portrayed in this manner.

Cartoon Commentary! #4

So I think I like the pacing of covering 3 episodes a week, though only 1 a day or so, pacing for the Cartoon Commentary! column. It’s also doing wonders for my ego in terms of output on Branded. Anyway, though, lets get back into the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon where we’ll be taking a look at the 3rd episode titled The Hall of Bones, which was written by a guy I’m actually a little familiar with, Paul Dini (he of Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League fame, not to mention the fact that he worked on shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Ewoks, and Jem.) He also posts regularly to his blog, King of Breakfast, which I read every now and then. Dini worked on two episodes of the D&D cartoon, this one and the 4th episode, Valley of the Unicorns, which he co-wrote with Karl Geurs.

The Hall of Bones originally aired on October 1st, 1983. The episode centers on the gang’s weapons faltering, and the quest they are set upon by Dungeon Master to recharge them in the Hall of Bones. Venger, of course, takes full advantage of the now relatively powerless kids and manages to capture all of their weapons along the way.

The episode opens with the gang under siege by a flock of winged monkey men, which at first seemed really odd. Having never read any editions of the D&D Monster Manuel I can’t say for certain, but winged monkey men don’t strike me as the type of creatures that inhabit the realm, but heck, why not. They’re pretty intense in the opening scene, and frankly I guess I can typically give anything with a monkey a pass. I think I initially balked at the idea of winged monkeys because it felt so Wizard of Oz, and that wasn’t a vibe I was getting off of this show, probably because the kids are so proactive and not as bumbling as Dorothy.

Of course then I read the D&D Cartoon series Bible that Mark Evanier wrote (which is very keenly featured in the DVD Rom content of the series on DVD by the way), and it all became a little clearer to me. In the second line describing Venger in the bible it states that,"“[Venger] … is personified in this sinister version of the Wizard of Oz." Okay, I get it, Venger (who we quickly find out is the one behind the attack of the winged monkey men), though not based on the Wicked Witch of the West, is sort of the evil doppelganger of the Wizard (or more appropriately how the wizard was portrayed before the curtain was pulled back – I’m thinking movie here, not the book by the way), so it seems as if Dini drew a little inspiration from the bible and put in the flying monkey men.

So anyway, after the monkeys attack and the kids successfully hide in a pond (with handy reeds for breathing underwater) we are treated to another moment in which the animators either goofed up, or were trying to secretly sex-up the character of Sheila. As she climbs out of the pond, lifts and begins to wring out her cloak, she is revealed as being skirt-less (and panty-less even) in some subtle, but wholly inappropriate footage.

Seeing as this was only the third episode and we’d already been treated to two oddly sexual moments, I was expecting the series to be a secret breeding ground of psuedo-porn (um, not that I’m remotely excited by that, seriously), but there is only one other scene that falls into this category and it’s not sexual at all, cross my heart, so I guess either the animators were given a talking to or it was honesly just a few mistakes.

This episode also marks the first appearance of Shadow Demon, who would pop up through out the rest of the series as the loyal, sort-of second in command to Venger, always ready to spy on the gang.

There are a couple more production errors, as Dungeon Master appears to explain the situation to the kids and to set them on the quest to recharge their weapons. The first involves an incorrect mouth animation that has Hank’s character throwing his voice out of Eric’s mouth, which is sort of common in the first season of the show. The second error is a miss-painted cel which features Dungeon Master sporting much more hair than usual…

BTW, I realize these errors are common and sort of run of the mill, but I found them interesting while watching the show, especially later on in the series when they became less frequent, so I figured they’d be worth mentioning here in the commentary.

As the gang sets out on their quest there’s a sort of interesting couple of sequences in a town, which by and large seems pretty rare in the cartoon. Actually there are quite a few towns I guess, but it seems as if the gang doesn’t really spend time in them as much as being rushed out of them, or passing through so quick that you don’t really get a feel for the other inhabitants  and places of the realm. In this episode though, they spend a decent amount of time in the town, which is actually an odd place mostly peopled by various creatures and monsters which reminded me a lot of the cantina sequence in Star Wars (a movie series which consequently had a huge effect on the production of this cartoon as we’ll see in future episodes.)

There is a plot tangent that finds Eric and Presto playing street performer, having some gold piece thrown at them, which Eric promptly collects to use in a nearby tavern (probably for food not beer or mead or anything.) The tavern is full of rough trade (ala the cantina scene) and Eric quickly finds himself on the receiving end of an angry mob of orcs and creatures that want his gold. For the most part I really liked this tangent as it helps to flesh out the world a bit, but unfortunately it ends on a sour note as Hank, trying to save Eric, produces a heavy bag of gold (actually bottle caps) to lure the monsters away.

This kind of bugged me because it isn’t explained where the bag came from, and though I could guess it was Presto, I’d rather not, seeing as it would be an example of Presto producing exactly what he wanted out of his hat, which isn’t how the character is set up. Of course this is getting kind of nit picky, I mean it is a cartoon, and there is a ton of condensed story-telling involved in writing for a 22 minute show, but like the paint errors I thought it was interesting enough to mention. This sort of thing pops up from time to time in the series, and considering the kids are supposed to be trapped in a fantasy land it sort of sticks out, like as say a sack full of bottle caps would. Also it’s the perfect example of a Deux Ex Machina, which I’m not very fond of outside of absurd comedies.

So what would make up for a bad plot device like a bag full of bottle caps you ask? Well the introduction of a badass villainess with an awesomely dynamic character design like Loth, Demon Queen of Spiders, which the kids run into after escaping the tavern.

I really dig how Loth’s design is quite complimentary to Venger’s, with the addition of a bright yellow that, depending on her form speaks to either her being alluring and possibly friendly (beautiful female form), or sickeningly poison (as in her full on spider form, much like the red hourglass markings on a black widow inform on it’s toxicity.)

This sequence of the Loth capturing the kids in her web is also the first full on successful attempt made by Venger to capture all of the weapons of power, which is a feat I believe he only manages a couple more times in the series.

As another twist in the possibly influence that parent groups might have had over either CBS or the production of the show, Loth, in spider form, spins her webbing not from spinnerets on her abdomen, but from the tips of her claws. The only reason I wonder this is because she was shown in both human and spider form and I know that there is a convention in television for productions to avoid showing anything going in or coming out of people’s butts. Seriously, I believe this even extends to language as actors can say they put something on an ass, but not up an ass.

Shortly after the kids escape Loth (and once again after they avoid actually battling her and instead wait around as she basically defeats herself, well with Uni’s help), and after Venger has stolen all of their weapons, there is a continuity error as Presto, in close up outside of Loth’s cavern, is seen sporting his wizard cap.

There’s also a voice issue, as Hank’s voicework in this scene isn’t done by Willie Aames.  According to the special features on the DVD set there was an issue with Aames being able to make all the recording sessions, to the point where he actually called into the stuidio a couple of times and had his lines recorded over the phone in Grand Central Station, so it isn;t surprising, though a little weird.

In the next scene we see another bit of background plot unfold as Tiamat suddenly attacks Venger, which is a running gag during the series. Venger, who isn’t aware that the weapons of power have run out of juice, tries to use them, as sort of a conduit for his own power I guess, against the five headed she-dragon (who also serves as this episode’s obligatory dragon as she isn’t really important to the plot.) Since the weapons failed him he very quickly and pointlessly chucks them aside as if he could care less about these weapons that more or less have been driving him as the goal to his ultimate conquest. This was a departure in the episode that felt kind of weird as the kids scramble to get them back and take them to the Hall of Bones.

Honestly, I don’t know why they couldn’t have just followed Venger to the Hall instead of him all of a sudden losing interest in them, especially when you consider the next sequence in the story where he disguises himself as Hector the halfling (who fulfills Dungeon Master’s prophecy to lead them to the Hall of Bones.)

This is also the continuation of another convention of the show in which Venger disguises himself as another character to get close to, or to capture the gang. It’s actually only used once more, but it was used enough to seem like it was part of Venger’s M.O. It’s weird in this episode though considering he just threw the weapons away so easily a moment ago, but is now in full on spy mode to once again capture the weapons. Like I said, I don’t understand why Dini even bothered to have this portion of the story play out like this as it just seems like padding.

This episode makes one last odd turn of events as the gang, lead by Hector/Venger, enters the Hall of Bones, places their weapons inside of a giant energy radiating skull, and then are urged by a bunch of ghosts in the Hall to also enter the skull after Venger reveals himself. The gang does just this and they are teleported out of the Hall of Bones to safety…

…as the ghosts fight the battle with Venger for the kids. I thought this was really odd because it seems like the gang is sort of secondary to the episode, almost serving as Fed-Ex deliverymen for Dungeon Master to transport the weapons to the Hall of Bones. I’m not sure what they’ve learned or what trials they’ve really prevailed in as they didn’t really have a hand in doing anything but looking scarred a lot.

On the other hand the battle between Venger and the ghosts is pretty cool, culminating in an awesome sequence where the Hall of Bones is destroyed (a common theme with buildings that Venger enters) and the spirit/what-have-you of Venger emerges from the rubble in a most impressive manner (even mimicking the Batman comics logo a little.)

Next week we’ll take a look at the next three episodes in the series which will introduce us to the writing of Jeffrey Scott, a mainstay on Dungeons and Dragons and the guy who wrote the book on the subject of writing for animation.

Cartoon Commentary! #3

So jumping back into Dungeons and Dragons today, we’ll take a look at the second episode which first aired on September 24th, 1983 and was titled The Eye of the Beholder.

This episode was co-written by Mark Evanier (who was providing his last bit of input into the series as he did not stay on after the initial launch of the show), with help from Hank Saroyan, who also served as the Story Editor and the Voice Director on the cartoon, and Kimmer Ringwald, who is probably most known for his producorial (yeah I know that’s not a word, but I like it anyway) work on the Baywatch series. This is also the only episode credited to either Saroyan or Ringwald, though I’m sure Saroyan had plenty of input on further episodes since he was a Story Editor.

In this episode, the gang meets a wandering knight, Sir John, who boasts of great deeds though in reality he’s a coward grasping for his last chance at being an honorable knight. The kids are sent by Dungeon Master to find a creature called the Beholder, who when defeated will provide a portal back to their home-world, so they enlist the help of Sir John, who has some dubious ulterior motives of his own.

This episode sets the tone for the majority of the series by opening with a bang as the kids are immediately fleeing for their lives as a giant multicolored scorpion chases after them (after being woken by a annoyingly curious Uni.) As in a lot of the future episodes openings, the gang chooses to flee instead of holding their ground to fight, which makes me wonder if this is rooted in story structure or pressure from parents groups. It smacks of the Scooby Doo syndrome, just will less bubblegum pop music and much larger creatures.

Very soon we’re also introduced to the obligatory dragon for this episode, an imposing bipedal blue dragon that seems to be more interested in the scorpion than the kids.

In the scuffle we’re also introduced to Sir John who is obviously a coward as he curls up into a ball, butt in the air, hiding like an ostrich from the two creatures. If you watch closely there is a quick paint error in the animation as John stands up and brushes himself off, his glove/gauntlets seem to disappear as they become flesh colored for a second.

There’s another error, this time in the photographing of a series of cels as the gang is walking through a field of mushrooms. The bottom right of the screen shows that the cels were shifted enough so that Diana’s legs disappear and you can see the edge of the frame.

This episode is jam packed with various creatures and background characters. Besides the giant attacking dragon and scorpion in the beginning, there are also a group of slug/snail creatures, the eventual Beholder (which is taken from actual D&D mythology), and an entire town of people that Sir John is supposed to be defending.

Once again, when confronted with the slug/snail creatures the gang chooses not to fight, though they attempt to parry and block against the monsters’ assaults. It’s almost a theme for this episode as at every turn, when faced with danger, the group is written almost as victims for Sir John to try and save. Unfortunately, because he’s a coward, or trips into saving the gang, it sort of comes off as weird and unbalanced, especially later in the series as the group whole heartedly takes on the like of Venger or Tiamat without batting an eyelid. I think part of this is due to the series being new, and as I’ve mentioned before, I have a hunch that there was possibly pressure to limit the aggression and violence of the main characters.

This non-attacking theme is carried on through the battle with the Beholder as the gang blocks, parries or ducks for cover. By this point I was really getting tired of all this running and hiding, and it really began to feel like the characters were acting more like pawns of the writers than characters. On a separate note, the Beholder in this episode is kind of interesting in that it’s quite different from how they’re portrayed I the D&D role-playing game, at least according to wiki. I’ve never been fond of this sort of flying blob with eyes type of creature, but they must have been popular as they pop up in other places like the Doom computer games, as well as in Big Trouble in Little China (and to an extent Slimer from Ghostbusters.)

Though I didn’t really care for this episode all that much, I really liked the scene between Sir John and Venger (who is holding John’s son hostage to get him to lead the kids to the Beholder.) After John dumps the gang off to their doom he meets back up with Venger who is evidently an evil villain who keeps his word as he returns John’s son to him with no strings attached. It was rather refreshing to see a scene play out like this since this situation typically turns out sour for the person who ‘sells their soul’ as the villain typically doesn’t keep their end of the bargin. I think this is one of the reasons why I really dig Venger as a villain, and later on it’s moments like this that really show how well developed of a character he is.

This episode also marks the first time when the gang actually manages to open a window home to their own world, though it also sets up the pattern of having them make the hard choice to stay and help someone in the D&D realm, sacrificing their chance to get back. There are actually two reasons why the gang decides to stay in this scene, the first being Uni. Bobby, who is basically Uni’s guardian, doesn’t want to leave him behind even though I believe it’s sort of accepted that Uni wouldn’t be able to survive in their world. This is sort of a weird situation because at the end of the day it isn’t going to change as long as they keep the annoying little unicorn around as a mascot/pet. The second reason the kids decide to stay is to help Sir John, who in the end came back to rescue them, and is now being attacked by Venger.

Once again we see the kids, on the offense and to the rescue even, not really fighting Venger. In fact the only time he is even fazed is when a bolt he shot at Eric is reflected back upon him. To top it all off, he’s dispatched by a mysterious red bolt of energy that more or less remains unexplained, though we get the idea in the end that it came from Dungeon Master, who is laughing himself silly where the group can’t see him. This just raises the question again about how involved is DM, and what is he capable of doing interference-wise.

Since the show is based on a table top role-playing game I’d have to say that Dungeon Master should really only be the type of character that describes settings and gives hints, like the real world counter part he’s acting as, though it is common for the Dungeon Master/Game Master/Story Teller to play a character in their own campaigns, which has always sort of bugged me as a player. As we’ll see in the next few episodes this dichotomy is addressed further, though later on, in the 2nd and 3rd seasons DM takes on a more classic guide-like position, stepping back from the group a little. Again, I think this is more of a stumbling at the beginning of the series as the editors and writers are feeling their way around the world they’re creating.

Tomorrow, the Hall of Bones.

Cartoon Commentary! #2

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.

Cartoon Commentary #1, A look at the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon…

I suppose I should start off this first Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon Commentary column by talking about where I was (nostalgia/memory-wise) right before I received this DVD set.  I guess this is sort of my first confessional about a basic lack of knowledge of the cartoons I grew up loving.  All I really remembered about this show was what the main characters (Hank, Eric, Diana, Sheila, Bobby, Presto, Dungeon Master, and Venger) looked like, the fact that it was a Marvel Productions cartoon (don’t know why that stuck with me), and that there was very little merchandising off of the show.  In fact it’s kind of weird that there was a toy line (produced by LJN) that was running concurrent to the cartoon that didn’t feature the main cartoon characters, only characters from the pen and paper game that were worked into the show (I’d only ever seen one set of German PVC figures that were molded off of the show characters at a convention in the 90s.)  I knew the basic plot, kids trapped in the D&D realm who couldn’t get home, and I had snippets of memories from a couple of episodes, in particular Quest of the Skeleton Warrior (I vividly remember Hank running up the disappearing stairs in the Lost Tower sequence.)

Add to this the fact that I’ve only ever played one actual session of the role playing game and hated it (I’ve gamed for years, but mainly using the Palladium and White Wolf systems), I feel like I’m pretty much a newbie to the whole cartoon experience, even though I remember it, I guess I don’t really remember it.  Heck, I’m not even all that fond of fantasy setting in books and movies, and all of this aside, I still have a very strong nostalgic sensation whenever I hear the audio to the show opening or see any stills from the animation.  It’s a very palatable and physical sensation that stirs, so there has to be something to this right?

So now that I have that confession out of the way, lets get into the show shall we?  As I stated above, Dungeon and Dragons was one of the shows produced by Marvel Productions, debuting in the fall of 1983.  Though Mark Evanier (who wrote both the series bible and the pilot episode over the course of a few days at the emergency behest of CBS) is often cited as the show’s creator, it was actually the brainchild of Dennis Marks (and also credited to Kevin Paul Coates in the end credits) who had been pitching the series under the title Swords and Sorcery (or something very similar.)  Evanier has some funny anecdotes about his introduction and involvement with the series on his blog, in which he mentions that he was hired to rework the concept after CBS picked it up the option to air the show.  Apparently the pitch, after passing through a lot of writer’s hands, had become quite unwieldy with way too many characters and ideas floating around.  Evanier said that it’s common for writers to want to add in the revision process and not delete any of the previous writers’ work.

Evanier cut away the excess, streamlining the concept into the 26 page series bible which introduced the main children that would go on to be in the show (Hank, Eric, Diana, Sheila, Bobby and Presto), as well as Bobby’s ‘pet’ unicorn Uni, Dungeon Master, the main villain Venger, and a red dragon named Rogull, which didn’t make it into the show and was replaced by the five headed dragon Tiamat.  He also outlined the idea of using the main title sequence as an opportunity to tell the origin of the gang’s entry into the realm of dungeons and dragons, most of which ends up as the final show’s credit sequence.  Here are the three pages out of the series bible that outline the main title sequence, some screen shots of the final credit sequence, and the opening title music so you can get an idea of what they were trying to achieve…

I would have liked to include the actual animated sequence, but so far I’ve been less than impressed by streaming video compression over the internet, so I guess I’ll stick with screen shots for now.

There were basically two main differences between the bible and the actual versions, things that I think would have added just a tad of great characterization and back-story, which were the introduction of (I’m assuming) Venger as the D&D ride’s barker (as well as the closed for repairs sign that would have been a nice touch) and a stronger connection between the kids and their weapons/items.  It would have been nice to see the kids approaching the items cautiously, with Hank reaching out first for the energy bow.  I think it was a very subtle way of assigning leadership, and marking Eric as sort of a coward.  Since the main title sequence is already filled to the brim with back-story, I can see that it must have been a choice between slowing it down a bit to add more characterization or speeding it up to set the tone for the action and adventure aspects, which is what they ultimately went with.  At the end of the day I’m sure the studio is much more concerned with tone over character, as one typically points more toward money (audience share and for sponsors.)  Either way I find it interesting that they chose to cram the origin into a 1-minute reel of animation as opposed to dedicating an episode to it.  In fact I think this is quite common for cartoons in general, especially in the 80s (some notable exceptions being Thundercats and Transformers.)

Another thing that sets this show apart from other 80s cartoons is the choice that Hank Saroyan, the story editor and voice director, and the producers made, which was to cast some established actors with familiar voices for the children.  I suppose it was to cash in on some recognizable voices that the audience might not actually recognize, but might subconsciously relate to.  The first person Saroyan sought out was his friend Willie Aames (who had made a splash on the drama 8 is Enough, and who went on to play Buddy on Charles in Charge, and Bibleman, cough, hack, um, yeah) as Hank, the Ranger. Aames suggested his 8 is Enough co-star Adam Rich, who was then cast as Presto, the Magician.  Saroyan had also previously worked on the animated version of Happy Days (in space no less) and really liked the energy that Donnie Most put into his performance as Ralph "Mouth", so they cast him as Eric, the Cavalier.  The rest of the cast was rounded out with a few veteran character and voice actors Sidney Miller as Dungeon Master, Bob Holt as Shadow Demon, Venger’s second in command, Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime in Transformers as well as many others) as Venger, and Frank Welker as Uni and Tiamat (most famous for voicing Fred on Scooby Doo, but he’s also worked on practically every other cartoon ever), as well as some newcomers, Tonia Gayle Smith as Diana the Acrobat, Katie Leigh as Sheila the Thief, and Teddy Field III (son of Ted Field II, director of Children’s Programming at CBS’s entertainment division, who is the first to mention that he had nothing to do with his son’s casting) as Bobby the Barbarian.

Next week on Cartoon Commentary! we’ll take a look at the first three episodes of the series.