I’ve been thinking a little more about the format of this column again, and I think I might take a break from Dungeons and Dragons after episode 13, which is the end of it’s first season as well as both the half-way point in the series and the point at which the writing shifts a little as Michael Reaves comes aboard to take over the heavy lifting for Jeffrey Scott (at least in terms of episode count.) I’m afraid that if I stick with just this show for another month and a half straight my commentary is going to get a little stale. So, I’m going to get through (at least) episode 10 this week, and then next week we’ll hit the last 3 shows before switching gears and talking a look at another show (I’m not sure which one that will be yet, but I’m thinking something else will a low episode count.) Anyway, on to today’s installment of Cartoon Commentary!…

Episode ten, titles The Garden of Zinn, originally aired on November 19th, 1983 and was again written by Jeffrey Scott. The writing in this episode is probably some of Scott’s weakest, relying heavily on clichés (in particular some very over done sitcom clichés), as well as a nauseatingly repetitive theme of secrets and transformation, which almost becomes absurd by the time the 22 minutes are up.

The episode opens with a small twist of convention, this time with a creature of the realm running from the gang instead of vice versa. It’s actually kind of interesting as the fracas involves the gang scrounging for food, a concept that is lost on most cartoons, and particularly in role playing games. I remember a few times when various game masters I’ve played with made things like eating, going to the bathroom and sleeping pretty big issues as they wanted to instill a sense of realism in the gaming environment, much in the vein of the various Sims games. I’m sure there are plenty of people on both sides of the fence on the concept of showing characters doing day to day things, but I’ve always been a fan of it, if only because it makes it all that much easier to suspend my disbelief of the world I’m being shown.

Of course, this scene also features the quickest appearance of our obligatory dragon, as the creature being chased appears to be a baby dragon (who acts strangely like a chicken.) The scene is also another example of madcap/Looney Tunes style humor, what with all of the fudging the bucket, head smacking, cloud-of-dust-raising hilarity that ensues. This is a style that comes and goes during the series, and to me it’s always out of place as the concept begs for a more serious tone. Sure it’s a cartoon aimed at kids, but that doesn’t mean the writers have to succumb to outright physical comedy, and again, this is just my opinion.

The sequence takes a turn for the more dramatic…well, it will, after a crazy sitcom convention, you know the one, where someone fishing has got a really big nibble and try as they might they can’t reel it in? Yup, that one. Well, the rest of the gang comes to the aid of Diana who is fishing, and together they manage to pull a huge Nessie-like creature out of the water. According to the DVD notes this is a dragon turtle, which because of the wording, gets a pass on the obligatory dragon thing.

In the scuffle with the creature, Bobby steps up to attack only to have his forearm scratched on one of the turtle’s fangs. This is the turn to the serious as the bite is more deadly than it at first seems…

Before we get to the ramifications of the turtle bite, I’d like to point out another crazy issue with one of the gang’s magical items, though for once it’s not Hank’s bow, but rather Diana’s staff. Her staff is already a little weird as it sort of has telescoping powers, as well as the ability to come to her hand (as seen in the first episode when she’s tricking Tiamat into a dungeon) much in the fashion of a Jedi willing their light sabers to their hand. Well, at one point the turtle grabs her up and is about to eat her whole like a Twinkie when she jams her staff in it’s mouth (ala Luke in the rancor pit in Jaba’s palace.) Just like the rancor, the dragon turtle chomps down on her staff, snapping it like a twig. After the monster is dispatched though, Diana, very off the cuff grabs the two broken pieces of her staff and just sort of puts them together, all good as new. You know, I would really have loved to have been in on the training sessions these kids must have gone through with Dungeon Master…

As Bobby falls ill from the turtle bite and the gang is lost with no ideas on how to help him, Dungeon Master makes his first appearance and surprisingly doesn’t really help the kids. Apparently his magic has no effect on natural occurrences, which seems like poppycock to me (effectively an excuse to have the kids go on a quest to help Bobby instead of DM just curing him.) It’s scenes like this that really make the character hard to peg in terms of his disposition and power. Is he strong enough to do things like cure Bobby and send the kids home? Is he just toying with the kids in an odd attempt to teach, or is he really so polar in what he’s capable of doing? I’m not sure and the writers never really give any concrete answers, again, a convention of writing for children’s television, but not one that I enjoy.

It’s as this point in the episode where the writing takes a distinct step towards becoming more of a fairy tale as the gang is pointed towards the Garden of Zinn in search of a yellow dragon (whose foot holds the curative powers that Bobby desperately needs.) The garden turns out to be the equivalent of your basic Disney magical kingdom

…complete with an evil queen bent of ruling the land.

The best part of this sequence is when the Shadow Stalker is introduced (there are actually two, but we don’t meet up with the second until the next sitcom cliché.) I really like the design and voice acting on the Stalker, the latter of which was done by Frank Welker  (who voices Uni) in a precursor to his voice work for Dr. Claw (from the Inspector Gadget cartoon.) I could so see the Stalker becoming the Boba Fett of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (you know, how like in Empire and Jedi, even though he has a pretty small part, he’s considered one of the coolest characters; see also Wedge Antilles)

The gang, stumbling on their way to find the Garden of Zinn, run into a very unassuming character named Solars, who bears a passing resemblance to an aged aardvark. He has them bring Bobby to his little hut where he’ll try and help the gang. Now almost all of the Disney fairy tale conventions are set into place (the last of which we’ll get to in a bit after some more sitcom conventions.)

The gang splits up leaving Sheila, Bobby and Uni with Solars, while the rest go on to find the Garden of Zinn and a definite cure for the turtle bite. Along the way their road forks, and while questioning the path to take Dungeon Master shows up. Or does he? Hank and Eric are suspicious, so they try and test him, which pisses him off. All of a sudden another Dungeon Master appears (will the real DM please stand up), bringing us into one of the oldest gags in the business, "which one is the real one". Seriously though, I think this has been in every single sitcom and cartoon since the beginning of time, and at this point it’s almost a cliché of a cliché.

The two fight it out and it’s only then that gang realizes who the real DM is, as one of the two merely defended himself instead of attacking. This introduces the first of a million transformations in this episode, as the false DM is revealed to be none other than the Shadow Stalker.

Of course, just as the kids are off on their way again with the new advice from the real Dungeon Master, we’re introduced to another bit of trickery as DM turns out to be a second Stalker. You know, if Hank was so wise to spot the first false DM (by noticing that he wasn’t speaking in riddles), I’m surprised that he didn’t notice the second, as he doesn’t mysteriously disappear after doling out the riddles like he always does. Oh well. This Stalker also has a transformation sequence, though it’s utterly pointless, unless you consider hitting the audience over the head with the fact that he’s evil beyond his Jack Nicholson-like sneer after the kids leave is purposeful.

Once again the gang come to an impasse, and for whatever reason we’re sort of forced to relive the last sequence as both stalkers take turns showing up as DM again. There’s more transformations (we’re up to four now) and deceit, though luckily it ends in a rather neat bit with the gang getting pulled underground by a bunch of crazy vines.

In the sequence that takes place underground we’re introduced to a staple of the D&D gaming universe, a giant Purple Worm (I’m pretty sure it’s a purple worm as it meets the description almost to a T.) Once again Diana gets a chance to show off her prowess (she did land a dragon turtle while fishing after all) by literally (though not very forcefully) beating the worm into submission with her staff, basically horse-whispering it to a point where the kids end up riding it up out of the cavern, back into the topside world.

Getting back to the fairy tale aspects of this episode, after the kids successfully face off against the worm, Queen Zinn decides that Eric is the perfect choice to be her king, a idea that sounds great to him after she basically plops down a ransom and buys his love. I can sort of see why Mark Evanier detests the character and possibly regrets having to leave him in; he really is played off as the fall guy for hammering home morality to the kids, but not necessarily in the best way. I mean, it’s always him versus the group, and that dynamic gets old after awhile, as if the rest of the kids are fallible or something.

Another this that this screen grab illustrates is the art style in this episode.  All of the characters look a lot more realistic and I think it’s a bunch of small details like the lines drawn under Eric’s nose, little things like that. 

Anyway, the Queen then takes the kids to the ‘yellow dragon’, which just happens to be a plant and not a giant fire breathing lizard. Not only that, but in a weird coincidence, the yellow dragon just happens to share almost the exact same color scheme as Eric, the Queen’s new husband to be. Just thought that was weird.

Back over with Sheila, Bobby, Uni and Solars, there is another slight animation error, a paint mistake that has Bobby’s hair color matching Sheila’s. This was sort of a fun error though as they are brother and sister and it would make more sense that they both have red hair, especially since it’s rather rare and genetic.

So in the true wacky (though I have to admit that it’s actually played off sort of subtly in this cartoon) cliché spirit, Eric is getting married to Queen Zinn by a very stuffy priest, yet the rest of the story is pointing to the fact that this union is going to be disastrous so the rest of the characters have to race against time to break it up. Pretty much you get everything except for the Queen hurrying along the priest. There are also some interesting backgrounds in this scene with a whole bunch of miscellaneous characters attending the funeral including a tiny green blob with huge eyes (which might just be a turtle), some dwarves and gnomes, and even an orc or two. Sheesh, you think the orcs would have tipped of Eric to the situation…

What I find the most interesting about this episode though is that we get to witness two characters dying (at least I’m assuming they’re dead, what with the charred out husks of their bodies looking the way they did and all), which is the first time in the series that this happens (not including the golems as they aren’t really alive.) Hell, maybe the Shadow Stalkers aren’t alive, but either way it’s a pretty disturbing scene, and it’s pretty interesting that it made it into the show considering how much the writers and producers seemed to care about such content.

So even though the Shadow Stalkers wouldn’t be transforming into Dungeon Master anytime soon, that didn’t stop Scott from writing in a ton more transformation sequences. The next involves Solars and Sheila, who after saving the kids from the Stalkers and helping her and Bobby, Sheila gives him a big teary hug. Well, in perfect Disney fashion, the grateful tears of Sheila just happen to be the one thing that can transform Solars back into the King that he truly is (we get a very obvious hint about this earlier in the episode when Sheila finds his cloak, crown and scepter.)

Of course, this transformation sets into action another, and of course it’s Queen Zinn’s spell firing back upon her. So we’re up to six now.

When Eric realizes that his bride to be is no longer the Leia-golden-bikini-wearing looker that he thought she was, he high-tails it out of there, complete with an insane double take sound effect (you know, the one that sounds like insane stammering, something like, "eyeyaeyeyaeyeyaeye".)

Of course, this wouldn’t be a complete transformation episode without Eric changing his shape as well, I mean hell why not at this point right?…

He gets his unintentional wish to be transformed into a blue-faced baboon while grabbing Dungeon Master (who had finally popped up for real.) Then the whole episode ends in laughter, and yet I was just sort of sitting there thinking, "Hmmmm, that sure was a wacky episode. I think I’ll go shape-shift into someone who enjoyed this episode…"

Anyway, next time on Cartoon Commentary! we’ll take a look at the episode, The Box, and ask ourselves, "What is in said box?"