Dungeons & Dragons
There is quite possibly an entire generation of adults for whom the title of no other television show can so evoke their childhood as this one: ‘Dungeons & Dragons’. The animated series first aired in the United Sates in 1983, its commercial origins being obvious, based on the popularity of the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game produced in the 1970s and ‘80s by the Wisconsin-based company TSR (which came to a rather acrimonious and notoriously litigious end in the 1990s as role-playing fell out of favour). But the obvious product-promotion genesis of the series passed most child viewers by as they became caught up in its simple but attractive dramatic premise of an escape to another, altogether more magical world. From L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ in 1900 to the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ by C.S. Lewis in the 1950s , what some have deemed as ‘as wish to escape’ has been a mainstay of Fantasy literature and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ reflected this not-so-hidden desire, albeit in animated form.
The storyline itself was in many ways a classic example of the children’s Fantasy fiction that the original D&D games so ably illustrated. In it a group of six children (Hank, Eric, Sheila, Diana, Presto and Bobby) find themselves transported via a rollercoaster ride at their local amusement park to a mysterious world, the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons, where they are trapped until they can find a way home. In this new universe the diminutive Dungeon Master becomes their mentor and guide, giving them clothing and magical gifts to suit their personalities and abilities. Hank, the oldest of the group and its natural leader, becomes the Ranger armed with a fantastical bow. Eric, his frequent rival, becomes the Cavalier, with his protective shield. The oldest of the girls, Diana, becomes the Acrobat with her telescopic javelin or staff. Sheila becomes the Thief, with her cloak of invisibility. Presto, the stereotypical nerd of American TV, becomes the Magician with a miraculous wizard’s hat over which he had little control. The youngest member of the group, Bobby, becomes the Barbarian armed with a fearsome club. They soon learned of their enemy Venger, Force of Evil (who it turns out is the Dungeon Master’s son) and his chief aide and spy, Shadow Demon, who sought their magical gifts to add to his own sorcerous powers, and the foe of both groups, Tiamat the many-headed dragon.
Around this simple narrative were written the friends’ numerous adventures in the Realm, each encompassing one episode, often with an apropos moral message thrown in as well as comedic moments (usually derived from the occasional cowardice of Eric, or the magical mishaps of Presto). A certain pathos was derived from the exiled and trapped nature of the group and their inability to get home, and their feelings of lost and yearning for family and friends was sometimes used to great effect. With these moments the show could get surprisingly dark but usually not for long. The animation itself was frequently excellent rarely displaying the shoddy quality that defined some other mass-produced cartoons of the 1980s and matched the drama nicely.
So does ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ still have the power to engage and hold one’s attention all these years later? Well, unfortunately no. It was a children’s animated TV series aimed full and squarely at children, and both the writing and the attitudes have aged as much as the former, now adult, viewers. What then seemed like a weekly spell that was all too easy to willingly fall under now seems rather trite and clichéd. Even the once wonderful animation, that in one’s minds-eye was so much better, the reds much redder, the blues much bluer, now seems somehow faded and washed out. I’m not saying the series is bad, it most certainly is not. All the qualities spelled out above are still there. But it’s just not as good as memory made it: or perhaps as it actually was back then – in one’s childhood. Adulthood is a terrible thing, and it takes as much as it brings, and sad as it is to say, for me at least, the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons is something that is permanently lost.
The entire series, all 27 episodes, exists in several box sets, some better than others, though watch out for missing original features including some of the musical scores. While I felt sort of cheated by this particular revisit to my childhood I’m sure there are many who won’t be – so perhaps it is up to you to decide if you should take that famous rollercoaster ride yourself.