One of the personal highlights of my childhood were “Saturday Morning Cartoons”. Long before Cartoon Network came into existence, kids had three options to watch animated shows: Before school, after school, and on Saturday mornings (though some stations did show Sunday morning fare).
Saturday morning cartoons were met with huge fanfare back then, even by the network themselves that would preview shows for the Fall’s new lineup. While we all have our favorites, some ranked high in nostalgia, while others still retain fun storytelling charm to this day. One of my personal favorites in the latter category was Dungeons & Dragons.
The show ran from 1983 to 1985 and was done my Marvel Productions, who did the equally excellent Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Dungeons & Dragons centered on a group of six pre-teens at an amusement park. The children excitedly get on a themed D&D roller coaster “dark ride”, and something goes wrong. The ride breaks apart, and sends the children through a portal into a land called “The Realm”. Here’s the children are left to themselves to find a way home, guided only by a Dungeon Master that provides basic and cryptic advice on how to achieve their goal.
For most shows like this back then, the introductory premise usually outlined the concept’s scenario, and then was rarely, if ever, mentioned again, with the protagonists focusing on their adventures. In Dungeons & Dragons, returning home was the central theme. The six children (Hank the Ranger, Eric the Cavalier, Diana the Acrobat, Presto [real name: Albert] the Magician, Sheila the Thief, and her brother, Bobby the Barbarian) spent each episode looking for clues or following leads in order to get back to Earth.
In addition to Dungeon Master providing direction, the kids were also accompanied by a young female unicorn named Uni, that had very limited teleportation abilities. Opposing them was Venger, and evil sorcerer who was without peer in The Realm, save for fearing only one thing: The five-headed, dragon Tiamat. She was the only thing that could repel Venger from his own goals of acquiring the children’s magical weapons.
The portrayal of the children’s situation was presented as sympathetic. The kids faced loneliness, frustration, personal insecurities, and often bitter failures. They were also clearly depicted as children of the 1980’s, as they would reference events and interests from home, or in some cases, the spells of Presto would reflect ’80’s technology when summoned. While they were sometimes able to find ways to return home, they would either be denied in the end, or in the rare chance that they did get back, some sacrifice would force them to return the The Realm.
Of all the children, the most pragmatic was Eric the Cavalier. While many viewed him as a complainer, he often brought to light how insane their personal situation was, or would directly challenge Dungeon Master to stop offering riddles, and give them straight answers.
This was brought to a head in one of the more controversial episodes, “The Dragon’s Graveyard”. After being denied returning home yet again by Venger’s interference, the children come to the conclusion that they only way they’ll ever truly escape is by killing Venger. The show’s tone changes for this episode, as when Dungeon Master appears to deliver yet another quest that may have possibility to lead them home, Hank interrupts him, demanding how to stop Venger once and for all. The scene is played so seriously that even the background music stops, and Dungeon Master no longer hints in riddles, now speaking plainly. Once he gives them the answer, he sadly looks up at the group, simply asking: “May I go now?”, before he quietly walks away. Even today, the scene is a remarkable piece of writing.
Of course, being a Saturday morning cartoon (and all cartoons of the time were bound by strict network and parental regulations), the kids have a change of heart, but the want to seek revenge is played straight until the very end, and reveals the connection between Dungeon Master and Venger. Throughout the show, Dungeon Master provided guidance, but also hindrance in many ways. “The Dragon’s Graveyard” provided insight that his own motivations and the collective experiences of the children to escape were tied to ultimately freeing Venger.
Dungeons & Dragons has a lot working for it. The stories are interesting, and the voice cast is great, providing sincere, emotional delivery. The music is partially recycled from other Marvel Productions shows (a standard for all animation studios of the time to cut costs) but works, and the writers clearly wanted to do more than push out a weekly show. The written stories were full of life lessons, real concerns, and sparks of continuity in an era where an episode’s events held no bearing on another, making episode order interchangeable.
Dungeons & Dragons has been released on DVD a few times (and is easily found online). It was a shame that the show never found a fourth season as one final and unproduced episode would have resolved a larger plot thread, and sent the storyline into a new direction. For me, the show is still a personal favorite, as it worked to avoid the superficial trappings of other shows of the time, and relied on its rich source material, providing great stories for both D&D fans and newcomers alike.