A Forgotten Gem of the Saturday Morning Cartoons: Revisiting Dungeons & Dragons

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Fantasy was reserved for nerds and gamers. Dragons, witchcraft, quests: anything from dark, dimly lit basements, around a plastic table where you and your proxy friends have donned characters, rolled dice, and pretended. This is almost no longer the case.

Maybe we have 80s cartoons to thank for this integration of fantasy, at least in part. The escape came in many forms back then, from shape-shifting robots to holographic pop singers and an endless supply of anthropomorphic animals. For nerds (myself included) who didn’t feel enough connection to stereotypical good / bad shoot-ups from GI Joe and company, they have been satisfied in a variety of shows around magic and fantasy.

It’s not hard to imagine that those same children raised with a constant regimen of magical weapons, heroes, and battles fought in Eternia and Thundera are now at the head of many modern fantasy tales that we enjoy today. . Of course, for each He-man there have been dozens of failed attempts to capture the same fantastic fan base (not to mention merchandise sales).

Visionaries: Knights of Magical Light, Defenders of the Earth, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, and Captain N: the master of the game– to name a few – may have niche fan bases, but they were hardly popular pop culture phenomena nationwide. He-man Where Thunder cats. Based on the familiar trope of a group of benefactors battling evil through various mystical storylines, many of these shows were unceremoniously canceled early, with few home video releases available for future generations.

One of those most often forgotten Saturday morning gems that I particularly remember is Dungeons & Dragons.

Produced by Marvel Productions, the cartoon premiered in 1983 and ran for 3 seasons, ending in 1985 with a total of 27 episodes. It follows six kids who are magically transported through a roller coaster ride through an amusement park (why not?) Into the world, you guessed it, dungeons and dragons. This was all explained in the opening credits, a feature that we sorely miss these days. Come on folks, a little intrigue exhibit wouldn’t kill you!

As with its source material, the hugely popular tabletop RPG invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (Gygax viewed and co-produced the series), kids are each given a role to play, with a specific skill set and weaponry that will help them in their quest to return home.

Hank, the eldest (with the blonde locks of the Ken surfer doll), is the ranger, armed with a mighty bow and arrows. Bobby, the youngest, is the barbarian, with a Viking helmet and a club worthy of Bamm-Bamm Rubbles. Presto (real name Albert) is the bespectacled and groping magician and nerd resident. Sheila, Bobby’s older sister (despite the different hair colors) is the thief with an invisibility cloak. The spoiled brat Eric is the rider with a tough shield, but no sword for some reason. Finally, there’s Diana, the symbolic figure of color, sporting a furry bikini and javelin / jumping pole, which makes her the acrobat.

They are accompanied by the obligatory cute factor in the form of Uni the unicorn (yup), a Bambi-eyed My little Pony imitation which, although coming from a world full of talking animals, can only neigh, moan and sometimes moan a warning or an incantation.

Children are guided through their journey by the Dungeon Master, a figure so blatantly based on Yoda that it’s astonishing George Lucas didn’t pursue. If he doesn’t speak in the same wacky syntax, he converses in riddles, appearing and disappearing as he sees fit. Dungeon Master often promises the reward of bringing the party home, but ends up teaching them a PSA-style ‘valuable lesson’ more often than not, with the ability to escape the dungeon and dragon realm until their next one. adventure. His powers seem limitless, so it’s often astonishing that kids don’t just corner Dungeon Master and demand that he bring them home. Have they never seen The Wizard of Oz?

While each episode has its fair share of villainous antagonists, none are greater than the main man himself: Avenge. Resplendent in his robe, bat wings, and singularly phallic horned head, he exudes a distinct drag queen-does-Voldermort cosplay vibe. Avenge must capture the children and steal their weapons in order to develop his own power and conquer the kingdom. Logic.

The episodes are quite routine and stereotypical, with occasional variations. Children are teased by Dungeon Master with a new path to their prize (returning home), but first they must complete a task that involves traveling the realm, battling various dangers, and making moral decisions. They are repeatedly so close to returning to their own world, this is obviously ridiculous, but in the end, they always decide to stay at the last minute, either to help a friend they made on the way, or to defeat the monster of the day.

For a children’s program that aired between commercials for Cereal and Care Bears, Dungeons & Dragons dealt with some pretty scary things. Lots of side villains, often out of the original game, were downright terrifying!

Bloodthirsty spider queens, multi-eyed monsters, slimy creatures, and demons lurking in the shadows were all rendered fiercely, nothing more than Tiamat, the hydra-headed dragon queen. This bundle of nightmares had multiple heads, each capable of exhaling a different element (fire, ice, gas, etc.) in children, both on screen and at home. Tiamat’s shrill and distorted voice might sound a bit cheesy today, but back then it put Skeletor’s nasal whines to shame – thank goodness I had my Ruxpin teddy bear cover to protect me.

Death in itself was not taboo. In a semi-infamous episode, “The Dragon’s Graveyard,” the children actually plan to “destroy” Avenge so they can finally return home. They stand up to Dungeon Master and ask him to explain how this can be done. By teaming up with Tiamat, they lure Avenge to the Desolate Graveyard (initially shown without accompanying music, another rarity in this genre of animation) for what is essentially a final showdown of good versus evil. Heavy thing.

Let’s see them do this on GI Joe! (Yes, yes, they “killed” Duke in the movie, but that’s a different story – no one ever pulled a gun at Cobra Commander to stop it all.) Apparently, the standards and practices of CBS had a field day with this storyline, almost entirely shelving the episode. I can’t imagine that a script like this would be accepted today.

Like many other cartoons of its time and genre, the series was called off without a definitive conclusion. Fortunately, original screenwriter Michael Reaves posted the final script, titled “Requiem,” on his website for everyone to see. It was even an added bonus on the DVD collection of the first edition (now out of print), performed as a radio play. Without spoiling anything, it offers answers to lingering questions raised in the series, reveals startling secrets, and gives kids one last chance to return home … in exchange for one last extra quest.

Unlike other semi-fantasy shows like Transformers and Smurfs, Dungeons & Dragons seemed to lack the mass popularity that I always thought it deserved. There were hardly any merchandise generated (who wouldn’t want a Uni plush toy?), No spinoffs, and you might be hard pressed to find someone who remembers the series enough to provide. details beyond “those kids wandering with a unicorn.” Online, her fandom is definitely present the way you’d expect: there’s fan fiction, fan art, and the occasional cosplay costume on Instagram.

But compared to his contemporaries, Dungeons & Dragons feels like the forgotten bastard child of ’80s animation. Black cauldron of his time (which is quite fitting, as there is even a point in “The Dragon’s Graveyard” where Avenger evokes a skeletal army of the dead, bearing an eerie similarity to The Horned King.) So why not. isn’t there more than one following?

Along with the nostalgic praise online, the series receives its fair share of scathing reviews, mostly from true D&D gamers who see it as a bad knockoff or watered-down version of their beloved game. While I don’t have any personal experience playing D&D, I wonder if these reviews shed light on what detracted from this series: It was suffering from an identity crisis.

When it comes to adaptations, it helps to stay true to the spirit of the source material or to head out on a new path, without trying to have it both ways.

In a sense, this conundrum seems to reflect the choices that the protagonists face each week. Children continually had to choose between the familiar and the unfamiliar – constantly deciding whether or not to return home or stay and fight in this new fantasy world.

Today, with the integration of geek culture, the fantastic has become the familiar. Comic book adaptations mean box office gold, critics be damned. Nostalgia seems to fuel mediocre remakes and lazy reimaginings of beloved characters. Each hyped new fantasy project comes up against a ready-made legion of expert opponents, detractors, and fact-checkers obsessed with thoroughness.

Adaptations can be great, but it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of taking on new challenges and creating new stories. That you loved Dungeons & Dragons, never watched it, or thought it was derivative nonsense, the key question at the heart of the show always arises: are you taking the easy route or tracing it? you your own way? I would like to think that there are six children still looking.

Originally published in December 2016.

Reneysh Vittal is a writer, editor and cultural critic. Her work has appeared on VICE, Narratively and The Rumpus. Read more work on his website and follow him on Twitter @ReneyshV

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