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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dungeons and Dragons and Eighties Television

"Eye of the Beholder."

The Dungeons and Dragons cartoon ran one season. I was in my mid-teens when it premiered, and I'd pretty much outgrown Saturday morning cartoons by then, but I made an exception for Dungeons and Dragons; I was fond of the game.

(For those of you born after 1990: used to be, the only place you could reliably find cartoons was on Saturday mornings; all the major networks (just three: NBC, CBS, and ABC) showed them until noonish. There was no Cartoon Network, and the only other place you could find 'toons was maybe around 3:30 in the afternoon; this was also before Oprah and the dawn of the Afternoon Talk Show, so reruns were king before the evening news)

I was disappointed, of course. The cartoon had the bad fortune to be a product of its times. Y'see, before the Eighties really got going, the Seventies had beat cartoons up pretty bad. Parent groups were convinced that shows like Speed Racer and the old Adam West Batman promoted violence... so networks imposed a set of standards. You couldn't show anything that looked like a gun, for example, much less use one. No one could die, period. Violence of any kind was largely forbidden. In prime time TV, you could have guns, but you could only show them once or twice. No more than one or two deaths per show, even on cop shows!

This is why the original Battlestar Galactica's Cylons were robots, btw. You could blow up all the robots you wanted, but if they'd been aliens, you could only kill one or two per show... and the A-Team got real good at blowing stuntmen through the air, but hardly ever killed any of them, despite thousands of rounds of automatic ammunition being expended. And the A-Team took an ocean of crap from parents' groups about their violence...

Things changed in the mid-Eighties. Advertisers wanted RATINGS, not homogenized crap that nobody wanted to watch, and cartoon advertisers were learning how to make end-runs around the rules in order to get the kids to watch; this ultimately resulted in GI Joe, one of the great thirty-minute toy commercials ever aired on a daily basis... in which thousands of shots were fired, no one got killed except COBRA android troopers, and every battle ended with Cobra Commander fleeing and screaming "Coooobraaaa! Reetreeeeeaaaat!!!" Yeah, now, that's entertainment. Prime time got cool again with Miami Vice, Magnum P.I., and other stuff that was supposed to turn us all into homicidal maniacs, naturally.

...but in 1982, the eighties hadn't quite started yet, and the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon had been successfully merched to the network... a game based on an RPG/wargame in which combat in some form or another usually dominated the table... transformed into a medium in which violence was eschewed, no one could get killed, and showing something that looked like a weapon was forbidden. Oh, yeah, and you had to avoid "imitable behavior," because if some kid out there clouted his little sister upside the head with a toy sword, Mom could sue the network.

Is it any wonder that Dungeons and Dragons was doomed? Oh, yeah, and we had to be extra squeaky clean, because of all those rumors of satanism going around...

All this springs to mind because I picked up a DVD of the show for five bucks at Hastings the other day, in a dump bin. I thought it was quite a deal. It wasn't. I'd forgotten how I thought the show was lame at age sixteen; we have a group of kids, whisked to D&D world and equipped with magical items of dubious use, and sent on a variety of pointless quests by the mysterious gnome "Dungeon Master." It's worth noting that the party's warriors -- a Cavalier and a Ranger -- have no melee weapons. The Cavalier has a magic shield, which is handy for hiding behind, and the Ranger has a magic bow that conjures magic arrows when he shoots it (always at objects, never at people). I don't think I saw a sword in any episode of the show.

What else? Oh, yeah, our Barbarian has a magic club that causes earthquakes when he whacks it against the ground; we never find out what happens if he hits a person with it. The wizard has a magic hat he can pull things out of; regrettably, it works only for comic relief, making our wizard the most worthless member of the party. The Thief has a cloak of invisibility, which is nice... and the Acrobat has a magic pole that allows her to... um... pole vault. Yeah, that's neat. Certainly, I would want to play a game based on such incredibly lame concepts.

This morning I watched the episode "Eye of the Beholder."

My whole group had wanted to catch that one. It had a beholder in it. How could you possibly make anything lame out of a BEHOLDER?

It opens with our party encountering a knight. He's kind of a comical knight, because he's a towering coward, and he must seek out the Beholder. He has no sword, weapon, or equipment of any kind, although he's dressed in full armor. In the middle of a desert. E-yeah, we're starting off well, here.

A bunch of things happen that you don't care about because they are lame and you aren't watching this show to care, you're watching it to hopefully be entertained. Finally, our knight and our heroes must confront the Beholder.

In the cartoon, the Beholder is largely mindless, and fires energy blasts from its ten eyestalks. Upon encountering it, everyone runs like hell. It chases them. This goes on for a while, until it conjures energy-tentacles from its eyestalks and snares everyone and begins to drag them closer, closer to its befanged mouth... which point one of our heroes recalls a famous cliche, and realizes that they must show the beholder a flower. The knight has one in his lapel (of his armor, of course) and does so. The beholder immediately melts.

Yes, that's right. Death by cliche. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Just once, I'd like to see some D&D-based entertainment that someone took seriously that didn't suck. James Cameron, where are you?

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