Summary: Tricked by Venger, Presto conjures up a horde of fire-breathing dragons to threaten the town of Helix. The kids must rescue Presto and save Helix before it is too late.
Looks like it’s all kicking off big tie for our plucky heroes. Will they all survive?
I bloody hope so. It’s episode one of twenty-seven. It’d be rather shit if the remaining twenty-six episodes were nothing but twenty-minute montages of Venger dancing on six adolescent graves.
[Dove: That would be epic.] [Wing: I’d watch it. Also, that cover is AMAZING.]
I first became aware of this cartoon series in my formative years at Secondary School. I was eleven, or twelve, and heavily into role-playing… especially, well, Dungeons & Dragons. I played it twice a week, in the evenings after school. Think the Stranger Things boys without the retro cuteness (but with more front teeth).
So this cartoon should be a cherished memory. It was in my wheelhouse, released while I was at the correct age. I should’ve loved it… right?
I HATED IT.
I hated the stupid barbarian, and the inept mage. I loathed the crappy thief woman, and I yearned to punch the pompous ranger in the face. As for the frankly unexplainable cavalier and acrobat? They weren’t in the Dungeons & Dragons I was playing. And the groomy peed Dungeon Master looked far too much like a caricature of Paul bloody Daniels.
But the worst offender, by a country mile?
THAT FUCKING UNICORN.
Seriously, I’d happily watch a three-hour special of that four-legged animated twat-nozzle being slowly kicked to death. [Dove: Agreed, this was a major problem in the 80s, that there had to be some kind of irritating pet that made constant noise (akin to a squalling baby). Because of the fun. Ulysses 31 had NoNo the robot and My Little Pony had the baby ponies.]
It appears that I’m recapping yet another series in which Unicorns are asshats. C’est la vie. [Wing: Subconscious lashing out at the Unicorn Club.]
On my initial watch, I remember little more than hatred. I remember the party (above), the main antagonists (Venger and Tiamat), and nothing but the red mist of rage. I don’t even know if I saw the whole series.
I rewatched them with my lovely wife Dove some fourteen years ago, a mere six months into our relationship, after she bought the DVD box set from HMV. I remember nothing of this, save that it occurred. Apparently, we watched them all, and I “wasn’t as angry about them as you are now.” So either I mellowed somewhat and then grew hateful as I festered in a bouillon of intolerance, or I was (more likely) still on my best behaviour while in the early stages of romance, and thus unwilling to reveal my true self. [Dove: At the time we watched, he was quite mellow, saying that it was a bit rubbish, but I remember him being much angrier over The Neverending Story, which we watched in our first month of our relationship.] [Wing: WHAT. What is your beef with the Neverending Story, Raven? I may have to burn this place to the ground.]
I dunno why I agreed to recap this series, to be honest. I predict it will not go well.
For those interested, the episode is on YouTube. It can be found here.
We start with the pre-episode credit, which show the origin story of the party, and already I’m angry. Here’s a screenshot. [Dove: Ask anyone who hasn’t watched it since childhood and they will all claim they saw “the very first episode” that was all about how the kids ended up in the D&D realm. I think this opening is burned into everyone’s brains.]
WHO THE HELL IS THE CREEPY GUY WITH THE ZAPPA BEARD? That’s all sorts of wrong right there.
So, our heroes ride a Dungeons and Dragons rollercoaster that magically transports them to a magical land. During this transportation, they transform into a number of D&D party members, each with a magical object:
- Ranger with magic bow.
- Mage with magic hat.
- Barbarian with magic club.
- Thief with magic cloak.
- Acrobat with magic pole.
- Cavalier with magic shield.
I’ve already touched on the awfulness of the Acrobat and Cavalier. But by far the biggest oversight? No bloody Cleric. Who’s gonna heal the party when Venger stabs them with his weird horn thing? I suppose I know the reason: no religion. It probably explains why there’s a Cavalier when it should obviously be a Paladin. But if they can make the Paladin – Cavalier change, why not have a Medic, or Healer, or Druid, or something?
The pre-episode credits also introduce Venger, Tiamat, That Fucking Unicorn, and the Dungeon Master, albeit in less than fifteen seconds. Then the episode begins.
[Wing: I am approximately one minute into this (just long enough to get through the opening), and I am delighted. This is going to be cheesy as hell and wonderful for it.]
The party climb a big hill / cliff in a vista of floating rock islands, looking for a way home. That Fucking Unicorn bleats and slows them down, and there’s some echo-based horseplay. Eric the Cavalier displays that he’s a bellend, then That Fucking Unicorn waked up Tiamat the Five-Headed Dragon Behemoth from a cave behind them.
THERE IS SO MUCH WRONG HERE.
First, why the hell does this first episode begin with the characters already established? Are we seriously supposed to take the whole origin story from the fucking pre-episode credit sequence?! The whole thing is only a minute long! Where the hell is the intro episode? It feels like I’ve missed a memo already.
Next, why the hell are they shooting their load and bringing out Tiamat for their FIRST FUCKING ENCOUNTER?! Like, shouldn’t they start with some kobolds or goblins or something? I know it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, but that doesn’t mean you bring on the dragons on the first fucking page? We had to wait until Season 6 to get anything cool out of the dragons in Game of Thrones, but when they kicked off, they did it in style.
Last, what the fuck is up with Tiamat?! Tiamat is, and I quote, “a supremely strong and powerful five-headed draconic goddess,” not a bumbling teabag that lives in a fucking cave. Even if I could get past the fact that the writers decided to that a normal dragon wasn’t cool enough for the first few minutes of the first ever episode and plumped for a MANY-HEADED CHROMATIC DRAGON GODDESS INSTEAD, I cannot and will not tolerate the fact that they’ve made this wonderful and terrible force as potent as a fucking guinea-pig. [Dove: Say what you will, but Tiamat is the best female character in this show. Although Baby!Dove desperately wanted Sheila’s cloak.]
[Wing: Can we take a minute here to talk about Diana? Diana the acrobat? Diana the acrobat for some reason dressed in a fur bikini? Diana the acrobat for some reason dressed in a fur bikini who is a black girl? Why is she dressed like a barbarian? Why is she wearing a fur bikini? Even the goddamn actual barbarian has fucking leather chest armor (albeit, likely very thin armor). So your ONE BLACK CHARACTER is not a barbarian, good choice, but then you dress her in furs and sexualize her costume more than anyone else? THE FUCK IS THIS BULLSHIT. How many things am I going to have to burn for this? ALSO, if you are going to call a character DIANA and give her GOLD BRACERS AND A FUCKING CROWN YOU’D BETTER GIVE HER A FUCKING BOW AND ARROW AND/OR A GOLDEN LASSO TOO, FUCKERS.]
Go read the Wiki link in the quote above. THAT’S Tiamat. Not this jizz-lizard.
The dragons in this series are the second-worst dragons of all time. The worst? THESE GUYS.
Bobby the Barbarian charges the draconic goddess, believing his magic club adequate weaponry to take down a GODDESS. Hank the Ranger rescues Titchy McRageFists from certain death – Bobby is literally Scrappy Doo – before Sheila the Thief tricks the ALL POWERUL OMNIPOTENT SUPER-BEING by pulling on an invisibility cloak and luring it back into the sleepy-nap-time-cave. Bobby seals the doorway.
Great work, writers. You’ve emasculated (effemulated?) one of your main antagonists within the first three minutes. Who’s gonna be scared of this dragon, now we all know she’s fucking useless?
The Dungeon Master appears. He looks like a garden gnome that’s had sex with a Persian rug.
The tiny DM spills a few Cheshire Cat riddles – well, one – and Eric the Cavalier comes out with this:
“Listen. I’ve had it with your riddles, now give us a straight answer for once. How do we get out of this world?”
Erm… when did you get the chance to hear any of the DM’s riddles? This is literally the first time we’ve seen either you or the Dungeon Master outside of the pre-episode intro, but it’s coming over as though you’ve been there for weeks. It makes connecting with the characters almost impossible, as it’s broken one of the fundamentals of plot structure and narrative flow. We know almost nothing of the party’s Life Before, which means we don’t know what they have to go back to, and we can’t empathise with their predicament. Sloppy.
The Dungeon Master tells the party of a celebration happening that evening in the northern village of Helix. There, they might find some clues as to how they might return home. He also tells of Helix’s past: it was once attacked by many dragons, which were eventually driven back by good magic.
There is also a warning: beware the many faces of evil, all known as Venger…
Okay, so this guy’s a little scarier, as befits the Big Bad for the whole series. Then again, those teeth are a joke, as to get them over his bottom lip he must be gurning and hissing like a Panto Villain. And he’s cross-eyed.
I’m guessing he’s a Sorcerer of some kind?
The DM departs in his maddening poof-and-I’m-gone way, but not before leaving these particular pearls of wisdom regarding Venger:
“You shall know his newest face by his white hair.”
YOU’VE GOT WHITE HAIR, YOU LITTLE CLEFT.
After the DM fucks off, Eric the Cavalier says:
“I hate it when he does that.”
When does he do that? This is literally the first episode! [Dove: I feel like Eric is the voice of reason in all this nonsense. He constantly calls the DM on his bullshit. It’s just unfortunate they never showed us the start of this bullshit and expect us just to fall into what feels like a mid-season episode.]
Okay, so I get the writers are probably trying to remove the need for exposition and backstory by throwing us right into the action, but please, this shit’s embarrassing.
The party decides to march north. Time passes, the sun beats down. Eric complains. Standard.
Eric: “All this walking has been a waste of time. I’d trade anything for dad’s limousine right now.”
Bobby: “I’d trade your dad’s limousine for a peanut butter and banana sandwich right now.”
And here we have what’s likely the aspect of the show that pisses me off the most.
THEY ARE NOT ROLEPLAYING.
These brats are basically playing themselves in a magical world.
Roleplaying involves creating a character, then pretending to be that character. It can be detailed as learning a thousand-page fabricated family history, or as simple as putting on a pirate voice, but either way, there is some effort to become That Which You Are Not.
This? IT’S JUST SOME PRICKS IN A PLACE.
[Dove: Time for a quick roleplaying story. Raven was GM-ing (we played Rolemaster, so he wasn’t a Dungeon Master, he was a Game Master), and someone was playing a half-orc that was basically good, but not very bright and had his own internal logic. We were tasked with protecting a prince as we travelled across a land. Naturally we were beset by low-level bad guys who wanted to kidnap the prince and hold him for ransom. Our half-orc reasoned it was better to kill the prince than have our land be held to ransom by bad guys, so about 20 minutes into the campaign, we’ve lost our entire reason for playing. Our half-orc had been in character. He’d ended the game on our first encounter, but he roleplayed. Thinking about this session still makes me smile.]
[Wing: That is a delightful bit of terrible but in-character decision making. Aside from that, I am curious as to why they chose to make a D&D cartoon into a portal fantasy rather than either a story about roleplaying or a story that plays the D&D world straight and is just set in that world.]
Presto the Mage attempts to conjure up some food with this potent spell:
“Abra-come-‘ere! Magic burgers appear!”
Seriously, this shit is written by someone with NO IMAGINATION. Even JK Rowling managed to make Ron’s nonsense colour-change spell in Harry Potter And The Magic Rock sound somewhat fun:
“Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.”
That’s fucking Shakespeare compared to “Abra-come-‘ere! Magic burgers appear!”
A cow appears. The party laugh. The cow moos. Diana the Acrobat makes a joke.
After that comedic interlude, the party stumble upon Merlin’s Castle. “Stumble” is the wrong word, as the castle is in the sky, atop a cloud! The group tell of Merlin’s legendary magical prowess. A rope ladder appears, and they climb up to investigate. One happy side-effect? That Fucking Unicorn can’t climb rope ladders, and is left behind. I hope it gets eaten by a puma. [Dove: Spoilers: It doesn’t.]
[Wing: … I kind of like the unicorn.]
Why the hell is MERLIN a thing in this realm? Couldn’t they come up with their own name-brand magical fella? This was the Eighties, so why not say “fuck it, let’s call the wizard David Copperfield.” If they ever reboot this, maybe instead of Merlin’s Castle they’ll have David Blaine’s Apartment.
After some drawbridge shenanigans, they gain entrance to the the magic castle. There, they are greeted by Merlin, an old wizard with white hair. Carrying a white rabbit.
That’s carrying a White… Rabbit.
That’s a. White. … … RABBIT.
The party are suspicious. Merlin has white hair! However, it appears that he doesn’t. What he actually has is white hair sewn into a hat:
Basically, he’s wearing one of these.
[Wing: But he does have a white hare.]
Merlin informs them that he can’t help them get home directly, but he leads them to his cauldron. That’s where the magic happens, ladies. What Merlin can do, however, is give them information about Helix.
Leading on from Dungeon Master’s information, it seems that Helix was beset by Venger’s dragons, but they were driven back by the Good Magic of Merlin. Basically, Merlin is telling everyone that he’s a badass, despite his ridiculous headgear. Every year, Helix throws a party to mark the occasion.
Predictably, Eric the Cavalier is bored by the encounter, and storms off. However, as he opens the door to the chamber, who should be there but… TIAMAT!
FOR FUCK’S SAKE. This is AWFUL.
How the hell did a FUCK-OFF GREAT BIG FIVE-HEADED DRAGON sneak up to the chamber door undetected? And why on earth did the writers use Tiamat AGAIN, so soon after the scene earlier? Is Tiamat destined to be this random thing who just appears whenever the convoluted plot needs an injection of pace and peril? I really hope not. As I said above, if the party continually outwits this MULTI-HEADED DRACONIC GODDESS every episode, who will believe they are in peril when they are attacked by goblin bandits? ATROCIOUS.
Scrappy Doo the Barbarian is [Wing: Still.] convinced he can beat Tiamat with his wooden stick, and is saved from certain death by Merlin and a Telekinesis spell. Tiamat pursues the party, but they trick her into falling down a hidden trapdoor into the dungeon.
Yeah, because that’s what’ll contain a fire-breathing dragon. A wooden door.
(Actually, I guess the trap is pretty decent, if it were being deployed against some orcs or other idiot minions. Not much cop against a goddess.)
[Dove: Except, y’know, the castle is floating in the sky. I always assumed that Tiamat would just drop to the ground like a really angry five-headed rock. And then shit gets real in Helix. My version is better.]
At the prompting of Hank the Ranger, they decide to get out of there. Sheila the Thief hands Merlin back his white rabbit.
His white… rabbit.
Merlin spills the beans.
“Thank you my child, but it’s not a rabbit… it’s a hare. A white hare.”
AND STILL THEY DON’T TWIG.
“MERLIN” HAS LITERALLY JUST SAID IT, GUYS. COME ON NOW.
[Wing: I know I’m watching this for the first time as an adult (and one who has studied storytelling extensively), but even baby!Wing would have clocked that white hare from its first second on screen. WTF, writers. Be better.]
Merlin then declares that, at the age of seventy, it is time for him to take an apprentice. He offers the role to Presto, who conjured a carpet in order to disguise the hole to the dungeon. The catch? For Presto to become the apprentice, he must stay with Merlin forever.
We cut to the drawbridge. The party, sans Presto, discus their plans, and wonder if their wizard friend will stay or go. His internal monologue must be thrilling at this point.
[Dove: Technically, this is your second Stranger Things reference in this recap.] [Wing: I had to take a little break from watching the episode and reading the recap (which I’m doing at the same time) to listen to this, because I love it so much, though this isn’t my favourite version.]
Sheila the Thief and Diana the Acrobat are convinced that Presto would never leave them. Then Merlin appears, with Preston, and informs everyone that Presto is staying.
Everyone is gobsmacked. Behold their smacked gobs!The party head to Helix without him.
Back at the castle, Merlin informs Presto that they’d have to deal with Tiamat, trapped in the dungeon, later that day. The answers to how, and in fact to all questions, can be found in the big dusty book of spells.
Merlin then pops outside for a ciggie, leaving Presto alone with the cauldron and the book.
Predictably, Presto scours the book for a spell to help his friends return home. And lo! He finds one! He sets about casting the spell with glee.
The spell, containing such ingredients as boiled bat wings and petrified spider eyeballs, does not work, of course. In fact, it does something far more sinister… it summons dragons!
Look, I realise the show is called Dungeons & Dragons. I know that, with such a title, certain expectations must be met. But you’ve already PUT A FUCKING DRAGON IN A FUCKING DUNGEON. That took you ALL OF TEN FUCKING MINUTES. There’s nowhere left to climb, you’ve reached Peak D&D.
JUST STOP SPAMMING DRAGONS!
Presto runs to find Merlin as the dragons take flight. Bound for Helix, perchance? Who can tell?
“Merlin”, upon hearing of the dragon infestation, reveals his dastardly scheme. He switched the spells, knowing Presto would try to help his friends get back home. Instead of achieving that goal, it broke the original Good Magic spell that banished the dragons in the first place. [Wing: He says that only good magic could break the good magic spell, but if “Merlin” switched the spell, then Presto is actually doing bad magic even with good intentions so if bad magic can be done with good intentions and break the spell what’s the point of good magic and I think I just twisted my brain.]
For you see, this “Merlin” is not actually Merlin. The real Merlin died a thousand years ago…
And Venger likes to party.
[Wing: Venger and Chernabog should team up.]
Venger steals Presto’s hat before sashaying off to do evil things elsewhere.
We cut to Helix, where the party is in full swing. Hank the Ranger converses with the Mayor.
Why are the mayor and the Helixers so much shorter than our heroes? I hate this style of animation, where the main protagonists are all one proportion while the comic relief are grotesque and usually stunted. Disney is particularly bad for it, in films such as Tarzan
Look at the tiny, funny professor! Hahaha, short fat people are ridiculous!
[Wing: Dove, no defense for one you love?]
In the fortune teller’s tent, the racially insensitive fortune teller sees danger in her scrying crystal. The dragons are coming back!
Simultaneously, the mayor tells Hank that Merlin died a thousand years ago. Hank puts two and two together… and realises that Presto is in grave danger. Something Must Be Done!
Sheila and Diana appear with the fortune teller. The dragons circle overhead. The Helixers run off to warn their friends and take shelter, and finally, FINALLY, Hank makes the connection between White Hair and White Hare. And Diana hammers it home by explaining the confusion in explicit and laborious detail. That’s for the cheap seats, I guess.
Let me just say that this “puzzle” is COMPLETELY SHIT. I get why it was included, as a ‘clever’ play on words and meanings. The DM is a tricky little hobbit, after all. But at no point did anyone, in the party when confronted with “Merlin” or in the meeting room discussing the script, ever ask why in the blue FUCK was Merlin carrying a rabbit? Like, that’s my first question, man. “Yo Merlin…. what’s with the rabbit?”
They could’ve done the exact same puzzle with some other dual-meaning word that wasn’t so eye-pokingly weird. Or if not, they could’ve at least had Merlin explain away the damn rabbit. Either works. This way? This way DOES NOT WORK.
The party dash off to Merlin’s Castle, leaving Helix to burn under the unforgiving fire of the dragons.
Apparently, stone is flammable in Helix.
The party take three horses, multiple riders on each. This leads us to one particular screenshot which I’m sure my pre-teen self would have enjoyed a great deal where he not blinded by apocalyptic fury and the sheer ineptitude on display.
[Dove: The dialogue wants us to believe that they’ve been there for awhile now. Those are her only panties, presumably. They are blindingly white. Does the D&D realm have an excellent laundry service?]
[Wing: Magic. *picture dramatic jazz hands here*]
That Fucking Unicorn, despite being of an equine persuasion, also rides a horse.
It’s a baby, I guess, so I’ll let it off this time.
As the dragons circle, the townsfolk quiver and wail. The Mayor offers the following words of hope:
“This is not the worst of it. The legend says the final assault will come soon, and our town will be completely destroyed.”
Erm… EX-FUCKING-SCUSE ME?!
Where did THAT come from? There’s a legend that says the town will get completely destroyed soon, and you DIDN’T MENTION IT EARLIER, OR PREPARE FOR IT IN ANY WAY? You’re unfit for office, you tepid waste of skin.
The party arrives at the castle, determined to rescue Presto and reverse the spell that freed the dragons. Happily, they find an un-shackled and un-killed Presto stroking the white hare by a fireplace. Presto explains what’s happened, and the part he played in the scheme. Hank’s plan? To have Presto re-cast Merlin’s original spell to banish the dragons and save Helix once more.
Suddenly, Venger appears! He demands the party hand over their magic items. They refuse, and the battle starts in earnest!
[Dove: Venger side-note. I spent the entirety of my childhood thinking Venger was a girl because he’s wearing a dress. Not very progressive of me, but I was 5, it was the 80s, and I grew up in somewhere even less diverse than Sweet Valley.]
Bobby the Barbarian uses his club on the ground, shaking the foundations and causing multiple books to fall from multiple shelves. Venger is buried in a literary avalanche. It won’t hold him for long, but the party make their escape regardless.
As Venger tails them in the corridors at the base of the castle, Hank and Presto split off to find Merlin’s spellbook. The rest of the party are tasked with “keeping Venger busy,” something about which Eric is unsurprisingly nonplussed. Sheila, however, has a plan. The party dash off.
At the cauldron, Presto is having a crisis in confidence. Hank tries to boost his friend’s self esteem. However, the most important thing that happens in this scene revolves around the following three stills:
WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE STUDS IN HANK’S LEATHER ARMOUR?!
Cheap animation is cheap.
Venger appears at the doorway, vowing to crush both Hank and Presto. At this point, I bet he’s wishing his evil costume had two horns, so he could skewer them both in one elegant motion. He really should speak to his stylist.
Back with the others, we learn the brilliance of Sheila’s plan. Apparently, Venger’s one fear is Tiamat. So… RELEASE THE FIVE-HEADED DRAGON GODDESS!
Here’s a tip for the writers: if your main villain, a thousand-year-old-Sorcerer, is afraid of something, DON’T HAVE THAT SOMETHING OUTWITTED BY A BUNCH OF IDIOTS MULTIPLE TIMES EACH EPISODE.
Tiamat is released and chases Venger away, giving our “heroes” time to escape. Which is nice.
As the bumbling teabag pursues the campy vampire, Hank and Presto work on the spell to banish the other dragons and save Helix. Presto delivers the incantation.
“In the name of Merlin, in the time of sorrow, banish wingéd demons, let there be tomorrow!”
In all seriousness, that’s actually pretty cool. Extra marks for the use of wingED demons.
Obviously, the dragons fuck off. Presto, and the party, are victorious.
Back on the ground, Presto explains that he only agreed to stay with “Merlin” to research a way to get everyone home. They watch as the castle floats away, and Presto bemoans the loss of his Magic Hat.
Of course, the Dungeon Master appears, and gives him a new one. Because they grow on fucking trees.
They all decide to ride back to Helix, presumably to return the horses. This time, however, logistics dictate that Eric ride with Presto, which he refuses to do. He requires a steed of his own. Presto helps by pulling the burger-cow from his hat once more, and they all laugh as Eric complains.
As the episode ends, and the rest of the party ride into the metaphorical sunset, Eric delivers the killer line (emphasis mine):
“I’m not riding on any cow. No way! I don’t ride anything that gives milk.”
Oh, Eric. I feel sorry for your future wife.
I really, really, REALLY, REALLY hated this. Could you tell?
I am not looking forward to the rest.
It has to get better. It HAS to. Doesn’t it? First episodes are notoriously weak… right?
If this doesn’t improve, I’m going to make like the Dungeon Master: I’ll arrive, spout some vacuous bullshit, then disappear. So, no change there.
[Dove: I’ve got to be honest, I don’t really see why I enjoyed the rewatch a decade and a half ago, but apparently I did. It must get better. Or that first watch was utterly nostalgia-tinted, because my Dad used to watch it with me. Eric was his favourite character.]
[Wing: So that turned out exactly as I expected, which was cheesy and terrible and hilariously fun, though that might have come from reading the recap and commenting while watching it. I continue to have issues with Diana’s design, but I liked that she got to do some useful leaping things (…though so far she’s basically a pole vaulter, not an acrobat), and I hope Scrappy Doo falls off a cliff.
Basically, I enjoyed the hell out of this experience and can’t wait for the next episode.]