Mirror, Mirror: Dungeons & Dragons

One of the things I won’t be touching upon on Star Trek Debriefed is how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings started to build the incredible cult following that resulted in the Peter Jackson movies in this century. That includes the Ralph Bakshi-directed animated movie that I did in fact see growing up. But I will discuss the most popular property to capitalize on the cult success of The Lord of the RingsDungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons, which was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 (the year after J.R.R. Tolkien died), is the original tabletop role-playing game, which has spread into video games and even full-on live action gaming. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: I know precisely zero about tabletop and live action role-playing games. My expertise is with video game RPGs, and mostly console ones designed in Japan. So, my apologies in advance if I screw up here.) For the uninitiated, role-playing games involve a player or group of players assuming the role of a hero (or group of heroes in most console RPGs). Owing to its tapletop roots and reliance on dice and homemade maps, statistics play an integral part in how RPGs operate (and its why video games have proven such a fertile ground for the medium). Character progression, stat increases, attacks, and so on are handled via statistics, which in tabletop games means rolling dice (the D&D format typically calls for a 20-sided die). In tapletop RPGs, games are usually “run” by a person who in essence designs the campaign (in Dungeons & Dragons, this person is referred to as the Dungeon Master).

Since Gygax and Arneson were fans of Tolkien’s works and the fantasy genre in general, the “default” RPG setting is medieval, with knights and dragons (duh!) and the like, but just about any setting can and has played host to a role-playing game. Despite Gygax anticipating sales of 50,000, Dungeons & Dragons was so popular that by 1977, a second game type, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released with more complex gameplay mechanics in mind. By 1981, there were 3 million players worldwide. The next year, the game was featured in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and a French language edition was published. However, 1982 was also the year that one of the most notorious controversies involving Dungeons & Dragons started, with the suicide of Irving “Bink” Pulling II.

Pulling’s mother, Patricia, who was an evangelical Christian, decided that her son had committed suicide because of the occult influence of the game, and started up a one-woman campaign (under the name Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, or “B.A.D.D.”) to get the game banned, going so far as to sue TSR (the company that published Dungeons & Dragons). With conservative Christians (read: the batshit insane nutballs who have fucked up the country in my lifetime) ascendent in their cultural influence, Pulling gained national attention, and was helped in no small part because of a novel and tv movie called Mazes and Monsters.

Mazes and Monsters, based on the story of James Egbert III, was written by Rona Jaffe, who was previously best known for writing cultural essays for Cosmopolitan in the ’60s, takes some of the wilder rumors about Egbert’s disappearance in 1979 and accepts them as plausible. Basically, Dungeons & Dragons is blamed for Egbert’s disappearance (in actuality a suicide attempt) and eventual suicide, when in real life Egbert was depressed, isolated, suffering from parental pressure (he was a child prodigy who started attending Michigan State at the age of 16), and drug addiction. With the negative press raging, CBS commissioned TV movie (starring a then-unknown Tom Hanks) that aired on December 28th, 1982.

With all of this insanity going on, Dungeons & Dragons was a hot property. The game was a best-seller, there was Dragon, an in-house magazine, a series of successful video games for Mattel’s Intellivision, a line of novels, and a line of toys from LJN. It was also around this time that Dennis Marks, a writer, voice actor, and producer at Marvel Productions (and, at the time, a 20-year veteran in the industry) had the idea to create a series inspired by Dungeons & Dragons titled Sword and Sorcery. He pitched the idea to NBC, but they didn’t buy it. Still seeing merit in the concept, Marks went to Gary Gygax himself, got the D&D license, and managed to sell the show to CBS.

However, even though Marks had sold the series, Marks would not see the concept through any further. According to Marks, it was because he had burned bridges with not only Judy Price, who was CBS’s Vice President of Children’s Broadcasting, but Price’s counterpart at NBC, Phyllis Tucker Vinson, which forced Marvel’s President (and the DePatie in DePatie-Freleng), David H. DePatie, to fire him. (Marks also claimed that Vinson and Price were fired within a year for their unreasonable ways, but a quick Google search reveals that Price was at CBS at least through 1994, and Vinson at NBC through at least 1989, when she engineered a brief and unsuccessful return of Fat Albert to network television. Furthermore, Marks’ creator credit would be de-emphasized and shared with Battle of the Planets writer Kevin Paul Coates starting with the second season.) Whatever the reason, Marks was replaced with Mark Evanier, a writer with lots of experience in animation and comic books. Evanier has made it clear that he was there to prune characters and clean up the concept, as well as write the first episode. Evanier’s contributions to the series lasted for a whopping 48 hours, owing to the need by CBS to set their 1983-84 Saturday Morning schedule in stone.

The final concept that was hammered out is thus: six children (ranging, according to the series’ bible, ranging from ages 8-15) are at an amusement park and get transported to another world, called the Realm, while riding the Dungeons & Dragons ride. In short order, they meet the timid yet friendly baby unicorn Uni, frightful five-headed dragon Tiamat, enigmatic sorcerer Dungeon Master, and the villainous Venger. Dungeon Master gives the six children magic Weapons of Power (which Venger needs to defeat Tiamat) in order to help them survive in the Realm long enough to find a way home (or at least one they can actually go through without incident).

As mentioned two weeks ago, Steve Gerber was hired to be the story editor, on the suggestion of Mark Evanier (who was Gerber’s friend and had also written for Thundarr the Barbarian). With the exception of Karl Geurs, every credited writer that season had worked at Ruby-Spears while Gerber had been on staff there (and Geurs had been on staff at Filmation when Buzz Dixon and Paul Dini were there). However, the bulk of the episodes were written by Jeffrey Scott, one of the most prolific writers in animation history, with generally strong results. The most graphic (and darkest) episode of the season, “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior”, was penned by Buzz Dixon (upholding his reputation from Thundarr), though the graphic bit was due to an incredibly brief shot where lead character Hank’s flesh starts to melt away. Gerber’s episode, “Prison Without Walls”, was in part a reference to his work on the Marvel Comics character Man-Thing (which included, rather humorously, a series titled Giant-Size Man-Thing), as he found a character in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual called a Shambling Mound that, at the time, was a dead ringer for Man-Thing. (The character was also one of a number from the first season who were also represented in the LJN toyline.)

However, as I also previously mentioned, story editing for the season was a fairly horrendous experience for Gerber. There were constant battles with CBS’s Broadcast Standards & Practices (and possibly also Judy Price), and he left after the season was over. Furthermore, Jeffrey Scott and producer Bob Richardson were tapped to work on Muppet Babies (which ultimately became Marvel’s longest lasting and most acclaimed series), and other than two additional scripts by Scott for the second season (“The Traitor” and “The Last Illusion”, two of his stronger episodes for the series), their contributions were lost for the rest of the series. Voice director (and co-story editor on the first season) Hank Saroyan also joined Muppet Babies as well (as voice director, executive in charge of production, and story editor), but seems to have still had an active role on the show while Karl Geurs was promoted to producer and story editor.

With Geurs and Scott turning in scripts for the eight episode second season (down from 13, though this was standard procedure on Saturday mornings), another writer was needed, and Geurs selected another former Filmation staff writer, Michael Reaves. By this time, Reaves had worked for the four biggest American TV studios (the aforementioned Filmation, Hanna-Barbera with The Smurfs, DiC developing Pole Position (which directly preceded Dungeons & Dragons on CBS in the 1984-85 season), and Marvel with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk). However, his most recent work was story editing and writing for The Mighty Orbots for TMS that aired on ABC in 1984-85, and was by all accounts a disaster that ended with a nasty lawsuit by Tonka over accusations of infringement with their Go-Bots toys.

With Dungeons & Dragons, Reaves helped to introduce a far darker tone to the series, which was indicated by Venger introducing the pre-opening teaser, and the new, substantially darker opening. The majority of the disturbing moments in the series come in this season (and that includes both of Jeffrey Scott’s episodes, which have some particularly dire moments, especially in “The Traitor” when shrinking violet Sheila accuses Hank, whom the show makes it pretty clear that she loves, of selling out to Venger and possibly even killing her brother, Bobby), with “The Dragon’s Graveyard”, wherein our heroes conspire to kill Venger, almost getting rejected by CBS. (The network announcer’s preview for an August 1985 rerun, by which point the show was following Muppet Babies, is particularly telling: “Coming up, Dungeon Master has a mutiny on his hands when the kids take sides with a dangerous dragon to defeat the evil Venger, on Dungeons & Dragons!”)

But most importantly, Reaves introduced a backstory for Venger and Dungeon Master that was ultimately never paid off. The third season, which was further reduced to six episodes, found CBS suddenly cold on the series. Part of it was due to complaints (besides groups like B.A.D.D. that just plain hated Dungeons & Dragons, the show was considered the most violent cartoon on network TV, and there were lingering concerns over the LJN toyline, which had collapsed by 1985), and part of it has been attributed to a dip in the ratings (the show was in its latest-ever time slot for 1985-86, following CBS Storybreak, which was a limp effort to pander to the parents’ groups nipping at CBS’s heels), but the biggest issue seems to be that CBS was in the process of completely overhauling the Saturday morning schedule. Dungeons & Dragons and The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (which got a late three-episode second season order) were the only shows on the schedule carrying over from 1983-84, and Muppet Babies and reruns of Land of the Lost being the only holdovers from the previous season. (Wikipedia also lists The Get Along Gang and Pole Position in the 1PM hour for the fall, but that time slot was heavily pre-empted by college football, especially on the West Coast, and I’m not even sure if Channel 3 bothered to carry the two shows that year.)

The aired product reflects the lack of faith. Newcomer Katherine Lawrence (who at the time was using the pen name Kathy Selbert) writes half of the episodes (with one, the Venger-free series finale “The Winds of Darkness” being based on a story idea from Karl Geurs and co-written by Michael Cassutt in the first script of his TV career) and admitted before her taking her own life in 2004 to being unaware of Reaves’ plan for the series (this resulted in “Citadel of Shadow”, which introduces Venger’s sister Karena, introducing some inconsistencies with that storyline). Also, music editor Mark Shiney and sound effects editor Michael L. DePatie teamed up for the very good but very busy “Odyssey of the Twelfth Talisman”. That leaves two episodes for Michael Reaves: “The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn” (which continues his story arc) and “The Time Lost”. The latter episode proved problematic with Broadcast Standards & Practices, as it deals with Venger trying to alter the past so that the Axis Powers win World War II, complete with a member of the Luftwaffe in a pivotal role. The episode was written and storyboarded with Swastikas visible, but aired instead with the Balkenkreuz (the symbol of the Wehrmacht) awkwardly placed as a replacement for the Swastika.

Amazingly, neither “The Time Lost” nor any of the series’ nagging complaints are responsible for the end of Dungeons & Dragons. CBS was looking for a season-ending episode that would have also been the springboard for a revamped series (as network execs, then as now, constantly fret over the possibility of kids’ shows growing stale) that may have seen both Bobby and Uni written out of the show (and definitely would have seen a decreased emphasis on the Weapons of Power), and greenlit a script written by Michael Reaves, but legal problems at TSR, first between creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and then between Gygax and other higher-ups at TSR (which saw Gygax ousted from his own company) resulted in the series ending and the finale stricken from the production schedule.

With the exception of a brief return in the spring of 1987 (temporarily replacing CBS Storybreak), Dungeons & Dragons was largely forgotten in the US (it was an enduring and hugely popular hit in South America, though), until the rise of the internet (which is a fairly common occurrence for ’80s shows). However, the internet being the internet, a fairly dark rumor started circulating (despite the D&D cartoon community being a generally very positive environment), that stated that the “true” story of the series was that the kids had died on the ride and were trapped in Hell with Dungeon Master being Satan. This is of course patently insane, but it offended Michael Reaves enough to post his finale script, titled “Requiem”, online. The script (which has spread like wildfire online, and was included with the first DVD release of the series) is the darkest Reaves wrote for Dungeons & Dragons, but stands as a denied classic of TV animation, and probably would have stood as a landmark for the medium. However, for now, it stands as the one thing we never received as children: closure.

Next week, we’re going to round out our look into cartoons premiering in 1983 with the most famous action-adventure cartoon of the decade.

Speak your mind!