Cartoons in the ‘80s were a bit of a mixed bag. The cynics will tell you that ‘80s cartoons were just elaborate advertisements created to sell action figures and other merchandise—commercials with commercials. But while marketing toy lines was certainly a consideration, the idea that ‘80s cartoons had no substance is false. Many—nay, MOST—of the cartoons from the 1980s were enjoyable to the kids who grew up on them—and a number of them are still great to watch today.
For this entry, we’re going way back to the mid-1980’s—really the dawn of “The Golden Age For Kids”—to remember a cartoon that helped pave the way for a lot of the best cartoons and kids shows of the next 15 years. I didn’t watch Dungeons & Dragons in its original run, as I was only a small child when it first aired, and I’ve never played the role-playing game either. But after hearing some good things about the show and realizing that the entire 27 episode series was available on Amazon for less than $10, I thought I’d give it a shot.
And I’m very glad I did.
On a trip to an amusement park, a group of 6 kids (5 teens, 1 pre-teen) decide to check out a Dungeons & Dragons ride. However, something goes wrong on the ride and they are unexpectedly transported to a strange and mysterious realm—the realm of Dungeons & Dragons. There they meet fierce opponents, including the evil sorcerer Venger and the 5-headed dragon Tiamat. Their guide to the realm is the wise and powerful but enigmatic Dungeon Master, who grants each of the six kids a role and a power: Ranger, Barbarian, Thief, Magician, Cavalier and Acrobat. The kids use their powers/weapons to defend themselves and fight against evil as they move through the realm trying to find a way back home.
The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hank is the group’s natural-born leader. It’s never specified, but Hank is your standard “captain of the football team” type. He’s decisive, level-headed, principled and courageous. Dungeon Master makes Hank the Ranger, meaning he has a longbow that shoots energy arrows. There is no central protagonist in D&D, but Hank is probably the closest thing. I imagine that young boys watching the show would look up to Hank the most. Hank is voiced by Willie Aames who many Golden Agers may remember as Buddy Lembeck from Charles in Charge.
Blue-eyed, red-haired and freckled, Sheila is the group’s most emotional member and at times provides a mother-like presence. Dungeon Master proclaims her to be the Thief—which apparently does not carry a negative connotation in the realm of D&D. Her “weapon” is a cloak that makes her invisible when she puts on its hood. While it’s probably not the coolest weapon of the bunch, it helps the gang escape from a number of difficult situations. Many hints are given that Sheila’s feelings for Hank may go beyond just friendship, but nothing is ever confirmed.
|More than Friends? via thatguywithglasses.com|
The group’s youngest member by several years, the impetuous Bobby is Sheila’s younger brother. Playing the role of Barbarian, Bobby wields an oversized club that shakes the earth when he slams it down. Like his sister, Bobby is an emotional character, a little bit temperamental and very protective—especially of Uni, the group’s unicorn mascot.
A bumbling amateur magician known for botching card tricks in the earth realm, Presto’s role in the realm of D&D isn’t all that unfamiliar as Dungeon Master conveniently decides that he will be a magician. Unfortunately for Presto, his difficulties performing magic tricks persist in the new realm too. This leads to Presto lacking in self-confidence. His hat has magical powers, enabling him to cast spells and pull key items from it to help the crew in times of peril. The only problem is that Presto rarely gets it right and more often ends up pulling something ridiculous from his hat, providing a little levity. Once in a while though, Presto comes through and saves the gang with his magic.
The tough but friendly Diana is given the title of Acrobat, which works well since in the earth realm she was an all-state gymnast. Her weapon is a magical staff, which she often uses in more of a pole vault fashion. Diana is amicable, courageous, and very independent. Other than Hank, she seems to be the group’s strongest leader. Overall, Diana is a good role model for female D&D fans and is probably the character who would be most fun to hang out with in real life.
The ultra-sarcastic Eric fills the “wise-cracking sidekick” role for the group. A spoiled child of wealthy parents in the earth realm, Eric is prone to whining about the group’s situation. He’s also famous for acting tough but cowering when facing a dragon, monster, or other enemy. Though his friends tend to view him as a complainer and a general pain in the butt, Eric’s cynicism is very accurate at times and his frequent questioning of Hank’s leadership provides the group with an important voice of dissent. He also brings some comic relief—many times the whole group will get a good laugh out of watching Eric freak out about some harmless creature chasing him. Dungeon Master makes Eric the Cavalier, meaning he has a protective shield. Despite acting cowardly at times, Eric steps up and uses his shield admirably to defend the group from attackers on more than one occasion. Eric is voiced by Don Most, famous for his role as Ralph Malph on Happy Days.
The mysterious Dungeon Master presents himself to the kids as their guide to the realm of Dungeons and Dragons. Appearing as a very small and bald old man, Dungeon Master is also a supremely powerful wizard and is very knowledgeable about the realm. He tends to communicate in riddle form, often befuddling the children. There is a certain Yoda-like quality to Dungeon Master, but at times it seems like he is deliberately withholding information from the kids, and his true motives are hidden. Dungeon Master seems to have an interesting relationship with Venger, the realm’s most dangerous sorcerer and most feared villain, but details are scarce.
If Dungeon Master is the realm’s Yoda, Venger is its Darth Vader. An evil Sorcer, Venger is known for his fangs, his bat-like wings, and his iconic one-horned helmet. He rides a black stallion that can fly through the sky. In addition to his own powerful magic abilities, Venger is in control of an army of orcs and has a shadow demon as his right hand man. The only force in the realm more powerful than Venger is the dragon Tiamat. Venger seeks the 6 weapons that the protagonists possess, for if he can obtain them he will be strong enough to defeat Tiamat and control the realm. Venger is voiced by Peter Cullen, most famous for voicing Optimus Prime throughout the Transformers series and Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh.
Episodes of D&D:TAS tend to follow a pretty standard pattern. The group will be meandering aimlessly or working toward some forgettable task when Dungeon Master will mysteriously appear from nowhere. He’ll provide them with a cryptic clue of how they might get home, often using puns and riddles rather than simply telling the kids what to expect. Then, just as quickly as he arrived, Dungeon Master seemingly vanishes, and the heroes are left to try to decipher his directions.
They’ll set out in whatever direction Dungeon Master told them, but on the way they will run into some other person or group who is either imprisoned in the realm or somehow being victimized by a monster or a spell. The heroes will nobly put the interest of this person/group ahead of their own and free them from their captors. Somewhere along the way Venger gets involved but he is fended off. It’s a happy ending for the victims, but Hank, Sheila, Bobby, Presto, Diana and Eric are still stuck in the realm without much direction. Dungeon Master tends to show up again near the end, and it will become clear that helping the helpless and/or freeing the oppressed was his ulterior motive all along. Most episodes end on a light note, often times with Eric getting himself into a sticky situation to the amusement of the others.
Miscellaneous Thoughts & Analysis
It took a few episodes for me to fully latch on to D&D. It started a bit slow, but once you got a little more familiar with the characters it was really an engaging cartoon. By the time I got to the last episodes, I was really sad to see it end.
There are a lot of “surface” things to like about D&D. It’s set in a colorful realm that provides all of the necessary ingredients for a good story. The main characters are fairly well-written and generally likeable in their own way. Also, many of the characters that the heroes encounter in their travels have compelling backstories.
|Venger's Castle, via dungeonsdragonscartoon.com|
But probably what stands out most about D&D was that it had a little bit more depth than its predecessors. In the ‘70s most of the cartoon offerings on television were pretty sanitized, like Super Friends, Scooby-Doo, or Yogi Bear. D&D was one of the first cartoons to really step outside of that space and show that kids could handle action and slightly more mature plots, and that animation was an acceptable way to deliver that content. The show was not without controversy though—the National Coalition on Television Violence demanded that the FTC run a warning before each episode and claimed that it had been linked to real life violence and deaths.
D&D treated its viewers like they were capable of handling more than the same old formulaic kid stuff. One of the ways that that was manifest was by having storylines that wove through multiple episodes. For instance there are many allusions throughout the show that there is more to the relationship between Dungeon Master and Venger than what meets the eye. This subtext persists for a while, until the final moments of the episode “The Treasure of Tardos” when DungeonMaster says sotto voce (at a time when no one except the viewer can hear him): “There was good in Venger once—a long time ago. Everyone makes mistakes—Venger was mine.” The true nature of their relationship isn’t revealed until the series’ (unaired) final episode.
|The true nature of Dungeon Master & Venger's relationship|
is clouded. via thatguywithglasses.com
The show also delivered some more mature themes at times. Maybe the most popular episode among the show’s fans is Season 2’s “The Dragon’s Graveyard”. For the first time the heroes voice their frustration with Dungeon Master for using them to fix up other problems in the realm. They end up in the home of Tiamat—the mysterious “Dragon’s Graveyard”—and Hank is faced with a decision of whether he should kill Venger if it helps the gang get home. One of the show’s writers, Michael Reaves, suggested that that episode and scene “caused a battle royale with Broadcast Standards and Practices.”
|Jossef Muller, the Nazi who finds redemption|
in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons
Another great episode that was far more mature than you’d expect was Season 3’s “The Time Lost”. In this episode Venger uses his “Crystal of Chronos” to warp space and time, and he pulls both a futuristic fighter jet and World War II Luftwaffe plane into the realm of Dungeons & Dragons. Venger’s goal is to send the Nazi pilot—a man named Josef Muller-- back to the earth realm to win World War II for Germany, thereby altering Earth’s timeline and preventing the kids from ever entering the realm of D&D. But after meeting the heroes, the Nazi pilot has his eyes opened and eventually finds redemption. This particular storyline was so mature that I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I watched it. It’s not every day that you see a Nazi as a central character in an 80’s kids cartoon.
D&D:TAS actually has a lot of similarities to one of my favorite post-Golden Age tv shows: LOST. In both shows, a group of unwilling passengers crash land in a strange and mysterious place, and the plot of the show revolves around their quest to find a way back home. In both shows the protagonists encounter a number of different inhabitants of this strange new place—some good, some bad, and some who have elements of both. In both shows the person or entity that is portrayed as being the source of all evil (or “big” bad guy) turns out to not be, and both shows force you to question whether the person/entity portrayed as the defender of all that is good and righteous is really so righteous himself. Heck, both shows even feature nameless pillars of smoke that have existed for thousands of years and that embody true evil. The similarities are so numerous that it makes me wonder whether or not the creators of LOST watched and were influenced by D&D:TAS.
|Dungeons & Dragons' "The Nameless One"|
|Lost's "Smoke Monster"|
|This giant statue inside Venger's castle appears to show Venger|
with a 2-horned helmet. Or, perhaps this statue is not OF Venger
but instead someone he idolized. Since we only see the statue from
behind, we'll never know.
|A giant statue seen only from behind? Hmmmmmmm.|
Perhaps the coolest D&D plot is one that never really happened. The show’s final aired episode, The Winds of Darkness, was good but did not bring the plot to a satisfying conclusion. One more episode, known as Requiem, was written but never aired. Over the years there was much discussion about the plot of Requiem, particularly among diehard fans who used the internet forums to communicate. One of the most popular theories was that Requiem revealed that the kids had actually died on the amusement park ride, and that they weren’t truly in a different realm but in Hell, tortured by Satan in the form of the Dungeon Master. It’s one of those endings, kind of like “The Sixth Sense”, that just makes you say “Whoaaaaaa”, because it would make so much sense if that really WAS what happened. Also, reminds me of more than a few “LOST theories” I read through the years.
Of course, it is just an urban legend, as confirmed by Michael Reaves on his personal website. To clear things up, Reaves went so far as posting a PDF version of Requiem’s script. While it doesn’t truly wrap up the plot and it’s not quite as shocking as the Hell reveal would have been, it’s still a pretty neat episode in its own right. Some creative folks in the youtube community did a dramatic reading ofthe script, complete with voices that sounded pretty similar to the real characters. If you watched the show but haven’t seen the video, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Maybe in some cases there is some merit to the idea that ‘80s cartoons didn’t have a ton of substance. But Dungeons & Dragons, to me isn’t one of those cases. It has its plot holes and a few other issues at times, but overall it’s a pretty good story that was well ahead of its time in a lot of ways. IGN, which ranked it the 64th best animated show of all-time, described it as “truly a mature soap opera with swords and monsters.” I think that’s pretty fair. The show did a lot of things that were previously off-limits for kids cartoons and was influential in shaping what cartoons would look like in the later years of the Golden Age. For that we owe it a debt of gratitude—and for less than $10, a watch or re-watch.
Special thanks to DungeonsDragonsCartoon.com, an awesome resource for fans of the show.