I grew up in the early 80s. While I don’t feel the same enthusiasm towards the general zeitgeist of the era as many others of my generation, I do have to admit a certain amount of affection towards certain entertainments of the era.
One of the great things about being a kid in this era was the sheer amount of television programming time dedicated to cartoons. On weekdays, you could watch cartoons in the morning before you went to school and you could watch them in the afternoon when you got home. But the best day for cartoons was Saturday, when just about every network turned itself over to animation for three to four hours in the morning.
One of the shows I remember loving from this era was Dungeons & Dragons. Sword-and-sorcery fantasy was hot stuff during this era, and a small-press publisher from southeastern Wisconsin with the unlikely name of Tactical Studies Rules had transformed its flagship product–a weird hybrid of storytelling and miniature wargaming called a “roleplaying game”–into a cultural juggernaut. D&D exerted a huge influence on the first generations of video and computer games. If you ever poured quarters into Wizard of Wor or Joust machines at an arcade, plugged an Adventure cartridge into an Atari 2600, or booted up Ultima, Wizardry!, or (my personal favorite) Zork on your Commodore 64, you received, in some way, a distillation of the D&D experience.
Oddly enough, as popular as D&D was at the time, it never quite sank its hooks into more popular forms of entertainment. The game’s co-creator, E. Gary Gygax, moved to Hollywood to license the property for television and movies, but only one project came out of the campaign: an animated series, produced by Marvel, which ran for three seasons and twenty-seven episodes from 1983 to 1985.
Thirty years later I re-watched the first six episodes.
The first thing you’ll notice about Dungeons & Dragons is that it doesn’t have an origin episode. The title sequence sets up all the backstory you need to know. Six friends–Hank (the oldest, probably about 17), Eric, Sheila, Donna, “Presto” (I assume he has a real name), and Bobby (the youngest, I’d say around 8 or 9) board a Dungeons & Dragons-themed dark ride at a theme park and find themselves transported to a fantasy realm. There, they meet Uni, a good-natured unicorn foal who takes a shine to Bobby, and the gnomic Dungeon Master. They also encounter the series’ principal recurring antagonists: Venger, a demonic warlock, and Tiamat, a five-headed dragon. Dungeon Master gives each of the kids a magical artifact and states that he will be their “guide in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons.” Ostensibly he promises to help the gang get back home but he clearly has his own (presumably benevolent) agenda.
The producers unabashedly pitched the series at a younger audience, par for the course of the era. Cartoons were for kids and appealing to older viewers was a secondary consideration. D&D’s technical quality is comparable to that of its contemporaries from production houses like Hanna-Barbera or Ruby-Spears–although since the animation was outsourced to a Japanese firm, I see more than a few anime stylings. The setting is typical high fantasy without obvious links to the “universe” laid out in the D&D books, although some of the iconic monsters do appear, and you can tell the artists have fun with them (particularly the hideous giant scorpion of episode two, “Eye of the Beholder”). By the standards of family entertainment, the series is fairly violent and occasionally surprisingly dark.
The series draws its characters in broad strokes. Hank, Donna and Sheila have the least memorable personalities: Hank (“Ranger,” with a bow that shoots energy bolts like arrows) is a natural leader, Donna (“Acrobat,” with a staff that can be used as a weapon or stunt prop) athletic and confident, Sheila (“Thief,” with an invisibility cloak) introverted and clever. The strongest personalities belong to Eric (“Cavalier,” with a shield protected by a force field) a spoiled and cowardly snob, and the nerdy and uncertain Presto (“Wizard,” with a sorcerer’s hat he can use to conjure objects–usually the wrong ones). The impetuous and hotheaded Bobby (“Barbarian,” with an enchanted club to hit things) brings up the rear.
American television of the era rarely tended towards long-term story arcs, and production executives considered it good for a series to contain little episode-to-episode continuity–that way episodes could run out of order in syndication. Dungeons & Dragons is no exception: in episode 3, “The Hall of Bones,” the kids find their artifacts’ magical power fading and must find a way to recharge them–an odd plot for so early in the season. This similarly extends to characterization: over the course of an episode, Eric might learn a valuable lesson about the importance of courage and teamwork, but the next episode invariably opens with him reverting to his insufferably obnoxious self. I see little character development across the first six episodes.
Episode plots follow a clear formula, generally opening with the gang taking on a task (often as vaguely-defined as “getting back home”). Dungeon Master suddenly appears, offering them guidance and occasionally assigning them one or more side-quests. He also offers a clue to an upcoming predicament in the form of a riddle (invariably infuriating Eric) before disappearing suddenly. The kids take on the quest, Venger and/or Tiamat (occasionally both) reveal their involvement, and the gang get in more trouble before finally understanding Dungeon Master’s clue and saving the day.
A cleverly-written episode can play upon and subvert the audience’s expectations of the formula. That’s why episode 4, “Valley of the Unicorns” (co-written by Paul Dini–who’s since become a legend for his work on the “DC Animated Universe” series) is probably the strongest of the batch, as its novel villain–a wizard who requires a source of magical power to overthrow Venger, and who sees Uni’s horn as the perfect source of said power–requires the kids to get creative and play the two antagonists against each other.
Still, this structure has its drawbacks. A lot of the early episodes seem interchangable, and it’s easy for their plots to get mixed up in my head. That’s why episode six, “Beauty and the Bogbeast,” a comical adventure not featuring either of the recurring villains, is probably my second-favorite.
That pretty much sums up my feelings on the first batch of episodes. They were entertaining, but for the most part I don’t really engage with them on anything other than a nostalgic level. So I don’t know if I’ll continue with the series. If I do, you’ll read about it here.