Funny how false childhood memories tend to linger so well. For twenty-six years now, I've held onto a powerful recollection of the pilot episode of the 1983 CBS Saturday morning cartoon "Dungeons & Dragons," an episode which, in my head, was a fully realized opening chapter to a lengthy adventure. Rewatching the series for the first time since the Reagan years, I was shocked to discover that such a pilot episode never existed - somewhere in my imagination, I had apparently stretched out the show's brief opening title sequence into something far more epic than it ever was.
It's part of the show's economy, really. In sixty quick seconds, we're shown the complete set-up to the series: a group of kids are mysteriously transported to a realm of fantasy and adventure thanks to a portal located within a Dungeons & Dragons-themed roller coaster; the wise Dungeon Master bestows upon them magical powers and weapons befitting D&D character type ("Ranger," "Barbarian," "Thief," etc.); they embark on a journey to find their way home.
The producers put great faith in children's ability to quickly pick up on backstory (or, at least, they figured an intro episode would only become redundant after the show entered the mountain of endless reruns common to Saturday morning programming), and the premiere episode instead found the youths in the middle of their journey. An abundance of dialogue here clears up the exposition and reminds us, again and again and again, of each character's traits.
The scripts' repetitiveness is expected, but it's also tiresome. The show's creators - cartoon/comics legend Mark Evanier is credited with adapting/shaping Dennis Marks' original plans; fans also consider story editors Hank Saroyan and Steve Gerber a significant driving force in this respect - display grand ambitions in their approach to a lavish, otherworldly universe, and yet it's all too often undone by the limitations of the 1980s kiddie cartoon format. With multi-episode story arcs out of the question, episodes had to feature self-contained adventures that became overly reliant on recurring themes, villains, and plot points, not to mention flat, "cutesy" comic relief. (Among other missteps, the heroes are paired with an obnoxious baby unicorn named - what else? - Uni, voiced in cartoony bleats by Frank Welker.) The characters themselves are tied too firmly into their respective "types," becoming not so much reliable as overly predictable and overly uninteresting.
To be fair, the staff writers (among them "Howard the Duck" creator Steve Gerber and future "Batman: The Animated Series" producer Paul Dini) do their best to push the material forward from time to time. Consider the episode "The Dragon's Graveyard," much admired (and rightly so) for its bold premise: the kids finally decide they really, really just want to kill their enemy, the mighty Venger, and kill him for good. It's much darker and more serious than you'd ever expect from an 80s cartoon; the comic relief is dialed down, the action is cranked up, and there's even a scene where Uni gets totally killed. (Spoiler alert: he becomes un-killed.) Even the obvious morality conclusion (violence would only lower the heroes to the villain's level, etc.) has a certain dramatic heft.
Unfortunately, such episodes are too rare. The majority of the rest stick to a not-so-well-worn formula, with the Dungeon Master handing out cryptic riddles about the way home, with the kids being too easily deceived by villains in disguise, with helpless locals requiring rescue, with the usual array of thin plot points, dull dialogue, and underwhelming "kid-friendly" adventures. The network's Standards and Practices heavy thumb is quite noticeable throughout, limiting how our heroes can use those weapons they're given or how they face their foes. And while we get a variety of wonderful beasties popping up on the side, the colorful creatures don't hide the fact that we're really just watching the same Darth Vader-ish villain story after story. (Venger is everywhere in this series, and his routine is stale from episode one.) Nor does it help that too many scripts offer too close a promise of returning home - the "almost there, within reach, but wait!" gimmick is recycled to a frustrating degree.
The animation is also a drawback. Despite some extravagant background and character designs, noticeable not only in the show's opener (check out the detail on that five-headed dragon!), the main character work is pure early-80s cheap. Human characters are flat, often represented with limited animation that leaves, say, lips as the only thing on the screen that's actually moving for lengthy shots. Action sequences fare better at times, and it's all a step above many other cartoons of its time, but it still looks too chintzy too often. There's very little that's animated about it.
Faring better is the vocal work, with Peter Cullen most impressive as the wicked Venger. (As famous as Cullen is for later voicing Optimus Prime, his pipes are best suited for ominous villainy.) We also get surprisingly quality work from the then-famous likes of Willie Aames and Donnie Most.
"Dungeons & Dragons" lasted for three seasons, although in the world of Saturday morning programming, that doesn't add up to much: twenty-seven episodes were rerun into the ground, none of them ever bringing the kids back home. Strong memories of the show's better moments and big ambition left the series with a devoted fan base who might find themselves under whelmed when they sit down to reconnect with these episodes.
Mill Creek collects all twenty-seven half-hour episodes of "Dungeons & Dragons" on a three-disc set. The series has been released on disc before, in a deluxe set from BCI Eclipse released in December 2006 (reviewed here). That sent went out of print when BCI closed down, leaving Mill Creek to snag the rights. Not surprisingly considering the company's bargain game plan, Mill Creek's turn at the show takes a budget route: it's the same episodes, but presented without any of the bonus material, resulting in a lower asking price.
The discs are housed in a double-wide case, but instead of trays, the case contains an inner frame; each disc is placed in a paper sleeve, and all three sleeves stack atop each other within the frame. It's an interesting set-up, obviously designed to handle anywhere from three to up to five or six discs. Although none of my discs were scratched, I'm not entirely thrilled with the idea of paper sleeves.
The episodes included here are:
Disc One: "The Night of No Tomorrow," "The Eye of the Beholder," "The Hall of Bones," "Valley of the Unicorns," "In Search of the Dungeon Master," "Beauty and the Bogbeast," "Prison Without Walls," "Servant of Evil," and "Quest of the Skeleton Warrior."
Disc Two: "The Garden of Zinn," "The Box," "The Lost Children," "Presto Spells Disaster," "The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow," "The Treasure of Tardos," "City at the Edge of Midnight," "The Traitor," and "Day of the Dungeon Master."
Disc Three: "The Last Illusion," "The Dragon's Graveyard," "Child of the Stargazer," "The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn," "Citadel of Shadow," "The Time Lost," "Odyssey of the Twelfth Talisman," "The Winds of Darkness," and "Cave of the Fairie Dragons."
Video & Audio
I haven't seen the BCI set, so I can't compare - although judging from rave reviews of the older discs, it appears that Mill Creek is offering newer, lesser transfers. Colors are only so-so, grain is about what you'd expect from an early-80s cartoon, and detail is only decent. Fans might balk at the idea of the episodes squeezed onto three discs (the BCI set spread them out over four), but at least no compression issues were noticeable. Presented in the series' original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is passable; again it's about what you'd expect from this vintage. Dialogue is clean and music and effects are nicely balanced, if nothing special. No subtitles are included.
As mentioned above, no extras are offered.
Serious and casual fans of "Dungeons & Dragons" alike will wind up disappointed with this re-release. Lesser transfers, absent extras, and cheap packaging are hardly what anyone who missed out on the BCI set want to hear. Rent It to feed your twelve-sided nostalgia jones - not only will you avoid a weaker set, you'll also not be too worried when you discover the show doesn't hold up as well as you remember.