’80s Couch Surfing: Dungeons & Dragons

Welcome back to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which I watch and review two episodes of a TV show from the 1980s. Today’s entry is Dungeons & Dragons (1983-1985), a surprisingly violent and fascinating take on the popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game.

Season 1 Episode 1: The Night of No Tomorrow

I’ll admit that I was completely ignorant that there was a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon back in the 1980s, which is a shame considering how much positive word-of-mouth it’s gotten since its short 27-episode run. The moral panic against D&D was pretty strong in the mid-’80s, so watching it might’ve been a hard sell with my parents, but now I’m all grown up and able to view cartoons that will no doubt corrupt my mortal soul.

So let’s start with a look at the pilot episode, which I feel is pretty important to the whole setup of the series. It opens on a (1980s) contemporary theme park, where six kids board a D&D rollercoaster… and are never seen again. Seriously, they just up and vanish into the D&D world and never return home (a finale was never produced), so I guess their parents are still grieving without answers from this fateful day.

Basically, this show is Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek Voyager for kids: An endless search for a way home.

As the group shows up in the D&D campaign setting, a whole lot happens. A tiny unicorn runs into them, followed by a five-headed dragon spitting fire. Then a short guy named “Dungeon Master” zaps each of them to turn them into character classes — Ranger, Thief, Acrobat, etc. I really like that the little boy gets to be a Barbarian, because honestly, if you’ve ever met little boys, what else would they be than a savage? There’s also this other evil person who comes out of nowhere on horseback, and already I’m desperate for a cheat sheet to keep track of all of these figures.

Lost and without any clear guidance as to how to get home, the group engages in some fun echo shouting over a fantasy grand canyon. Now every kids show in the ’80s had some sort of adorable little mascot, and D&D’s was Uni the baby unicorn. I know unicorns don’t wear clothes, but the look and color of this one really suggests that its very naked. Their shouting summons the five-headed dragon Tiamat, who was apparently napping (?) in a nearby cave.

I can already tell that Bobby the Barbarian is going to be my favorite character, because this eight-year-old sees a giant dragon about a zillion levels above him — and his first instinct is to pick up his wooden club and charge the beast. Foolish? Sure, but far more brave than anyone else on the team. They just all stand there like dopes.

Finally the group sort of gives Tiamat the slip and traps him back in the cave, while the Dungeon Master reappears. That’s his actual name: Dungeon Master. The kids ask him point-blank how to get home, but he’s all Yoda-like and says, “Patience! Your presence here has a purpose!” Which is, according to many police reports I’ve read, what you do not say to children that you abscond with across state lines. Instead of helping them, he up and sends them north to some random village and tells them to beware of a white-haired wizard. Then he disappears, because what kids need escorts in this land of murder-lizards?

The kids start finding signs for Merlin’s castle, which totally sounds like a Disney World ride. I dig the lettering on the signs too — proper fantasy-like. The kids all climb up and Diana the Acrobat pole-vaults across the sky-moat to lower a drawbridge. You can see the template for today’s dumbed-down kids cartoons where every character has one defining skill and the show is structured to use each of them so they feel important.

Hey it’s “Merlin,” who is a wizard with white hair looking like he’s going to bite off the head of that poor rabbit any moment now. Bonus points for this show as Sheila points this out in a whisper to Diana. And then, just to mess with us, the writers have Merlin take off his hat — and the white wig he’s wearing with it. Because he’s totally bald for some reason.

Merlin won’t (can’t) send the kids back home, and instead starts regaling them with how he saved the village of Helix from the dragons a while back. Eric the Cavalier, who’s supposed to be the spoiled kid everyone hates, actually gets a few points in my book for telling Merlin off for his supreme lack of assistance and storming out of there.

Tiamat shows up and a battle ensues. For all his high-and-mighty talk about blasting away a ton of dragons in the past, Merlin just kind of stands there like a doof. And maybe I’m watching too much Superfriends lately, but I have to give it to D&D for actually doing the fight sequences well. Decent animation, a nice variety, doors exploding, that sort of thing. Presto the Magician (Presto?) successfully conjures up a huge carpet and the team use it to cover the dungeon hole so that Tiamat could conveniently fall right down it.

Merlin then points out that his rabbit is actually a hare… a white hare. OH I GET IT. That’s… kind of clever, episode. He offers to take Presto as an apprentice, and Presto agrees to stay there for the rest of his life. Doesn’t really explain why, but hey, we got a journey to go on. Everyone else treks to Helix.

Back at the castle, Presto tries to create a spell to get his friends home, but instead it unleashes all the dragons that Merlin bottled up a while back. Turns out that this guy isn’t Merlin, he’s the main villain Venger after all, and he tricked Presto into undoing Merlin’s magic. Way to go, kid. The dragons start tearing up the village, and the crew rushes back to get Presto and undo the spell.

Venger really doesn’t mess around; he’s free with the deadly magic and is relentless in trying to get the kids’ “objects of power.” The only way to stop him is to release Tiamat, who apparently is ALSO an enemy of Venger. It’s kind of a hate triangle.

With both the enemies out of the way, Presto pulls off the spell and saves Helix. It’s a pretty good ending as this fledgling magician gains a bit of confidence and then summons a cow for Eric to ride off into the sunset.

Season 2 Episode 3: City at the Edge of Midnight

We’ll jump ahead here to the second year of the show (which only had 8 episodes!) and a rather disturbing start to this story. It opens on a suburban home, where a kid gets sucked underneath his bed while his father is powerless to pull him out. It’s legitimately creepy. So this is where we got our nightmares from in 1984.

Over in the realm, the party is trekking through some sort of crystal desert. They’re lost, but they’re making good time. Dungeon Master shows up to make a few cryptic comments about how there’s “safety and danger ahead” in the City at the Edge of Midnight — and that “time is on their side.” He tasks them with saving children from both their world and the Realm’s.

They soon find an oasis, but it’s guarded by giant owl-things with single large talons in place of hands. The owl-things attack, but — as you might expect — an Arabian warrior busts through a wall riding on a giant elephant-thing and shooting sonic beams with his scimitar. He proposes a team-up. Everyone’s on board with this except for Eric, who cries, “Will someone tell me what’s going on?”

Nah. It’s more fun just to live in the moment of this show, man.

New favorite line: “You are, how do you say? Hot stuff!” The guy tells them that this is a cursed oasis that appears only once a year, and any traveler who spends the night in it is transformed into the owl monstrosities.

Ramud — I think it’s the guy’s name — invites them all for a feast in his tent, telling them of how his daughter disappeared from his palace one night. Everyone’s really digging Ramud, probably because he’s being super-paternal to a bunch of kids who are very homesick. He even gives Sheila his long-lost daughter’s doll, which she cries over.

On the cusp of midnight, their tent gets a lot scarier, as a portal opens up underneath Bobby’s bedroll. Hank fires his magical arrows into it, over and over, until a huge demon (the “Night Walker”) lurches out. It grabs Bobby and disappears.

Inexplicably, everyone remaining combines their weapon powers to re-open the portal. I mean, they don’t talk about it or explain it, they just do it.

They land in the titular city, where the clock is always one minute before midnight, the shadows are long, the silence eerie, and weird mini-dragons lurch out of windows to attack. It’s very arresting for a setting.

The dragons take them to an enormous factory full of gearworks, where the abducted children are doing something very odd — trying to stop the gears from turning.  The Night Walker appears to tell them that the kids have to keep the clock from striking midnight.

The party starts to fight back, taking a counterweight all the way up the very tall tower to find Bobby. I’m kind of gratified to see Eric use his shield not once, but twice, to help protect everyone. I really thought all he did was whine and mention his rich dad a lot.

I have to say the climax is exceptionally well done. As the music ratchets up the tension, Bobby smashes the ropes and wedges holding the clock back. It finally strikes midnight and the kids begin to disappear back to their homes. They find the kid — Jimmy — from the opening minute, who recognizes them, and tell him to call their parents and let them know they’re all OK. That’s some genius-level logic for a kids cartoon, and I am not being even a little sarcastic. It’s what I would have recommended, at the very least.

In a bizarre twist, Jimmy tells them all that on Earth, it’s still the same day that they all went to the amusement park, so nobody is really that worried about them yet.

They all return to the desert to find Ramud’s daughter waiting in the tent. That right up there is their wordless reunion, and it’s just so well done and subtle in a way I almost never see in kids cartoons. Ramud offers to keep them all as his family — his sons and daughters — but they decline. And you half want them to accept, too, he’s such a cool guy.

I love that this episode takes a boogeyman tale and turns it into a look at family. There’s the separation of families, the love of siblings (Bobby and Sheila are beyond happy to find each other), and even the disappointment of bad parenting (Eric admits that Ramud makes for a better dad than the one he has back home).

Color me impressed, very impressed with this episode. It’s genuinely good entertainment — imaginative, fast-paced, logical, and well-paced.

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