Challenging. Nuanced. Dangerous. The landscape of television animation in the early '80s would hardly be described in such a fashion. It was the world of cutesy fuzzy animals and quickie pop culture tie-ins. WWF Wrestling. Mr. T. The Rubik’s Cube. All producers needed was the latest fad and an animation studio willing to shoehorn unobjectionable character models into a paint-by-numbers plot.
When CBS ordered a series based on the latest trend, fantasy role-playing games, perhaps they didn’t know what awaited them. Debuting on Sept 17, 1983, Dungeons & Dragons (inspired by the game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and published by TSR) came to air already surrounded by controversy. The game’s use of occult imagery wasn't the only factor disturbing parents groups. Some even declared it a literal danger to young people.
WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?
In 1979, the month-long disappearance of teenage Dungeons & Dragons fan James Dallas Egbert III became a national story. News media reported as fact a private investigator’s claims Egbert had gotten lost in the utility tunnels beneath the campus of Michigan State University during a live-action role playing session. Egbert’s suicide the next year (later shown to be unrelated to his interest in the game) only fanned the flames.
In 1981, novelist Rona Jaffe published Mazes and Monsters, a cautionary tale of young people and fantasy role-playing games, inspired by the Egbert case. A year later, it became a made-for-TV movie starring, of all people, Tom Hanks. Simultaneously, another mother convinced the game led to suicide founded the advocacy group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t only something that could give kids nightmares. According to the advocates, it was outright deadly.
So, doing a kid-friendly adaptation for Saturday Morning? Makes sense.
APPROVED BY BS&P (BARELY)
Basically, the anti-D&D advocacy groups couldn’t have been too powerful, or else a major network like CBS would’ve never considered the series. News cycles were much slower then, but they moved on nonetheless. Studies showed that kids playing role-playing games actually had lower suicide rates than non-gamers. And if moviegoers could accept the sword and sorcery of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan films, if parents were shelling out for this new line of fantasy toys called Masters of the Universe…why not do Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday mornings?
Created by Dennis Marks and developed by Mark Evanier, Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t feel as if it belongs to this era of Kids’ TV. Sure, the setup feels like a standard plot engine for harmless adventures. A mysterious amusement park ride transports six youngsters to a fantastical realm. We follow their adventures, as they search for a way home with the aid of their guide, the Dungeon Master.
What kids didn’t expect is for the protagonists to contain internal conflicts and hidden anxieties. For their mentor to continually play games with them; with episodes that hint he can actually send the young ones home, he’s simply chosen not to. For the menaces they face to be occasionally horrifying.
Visually, Dungeons is clearly of a higher caliber than the limited animation seen on most network programs. Toei, the Japanese firm hired by Hasbro to animate the early episodes of G. I. Joe and Transformers (paranoid their properties might appear as “cheap”), handled the overseas work for the show. For many kids, it was their first glimpse of Japanese animation; the first exposure to character models that weren’t stiff and ultra-simplified.
HEY, HE SOUNDS LIKE OPTIMUS PRIME…
Taking advantage of the more detailed models, Dungeons & Dragons presents monsters and goblins that are appropriately scary. Children reared on Ruby Spears and Hanna Barbara likely had no idea what to make of Tiamat, the five-headed dragon, or a literal Shadow Demon. The lead villain, Venger, is one of the tamer designs, and even he likely gave a few kids some disturbing dreams.
Voiced by Peter Cullen, Venger is easily one of the era’s greatest villains. His motivation is simple—Venger’s a powerful wizard who desires the kids’ weapons, believing their power will enable him to rule the realm. Unlike the generic villains of the day, however, Venger’s story is a tragedy. He was once a good man, another pupil of the Dungeon Master, corrupted by his pursuit of knowledge. The children’s mentor tells them Venger is his greatest mistake, exposing the fallibility of their counselor.
The idea of a moral gray, of no obvious right choice for the characters, reappears throughout the series. Dungeons & Dragons featured a writing staff of notable names with little interest in producing bland kids’ entertainment. The network nearly shelved "The Dragon's Graveyard," an episode by writer Buzz Dixon. Its offense? A sequence that has the kids contemplating killing Venger! Another episode from Dixon so disturbed entertainment writer Ethan Alter as a kid, he tracked Dixon down as an adult to discuss the story’s terrifying fantasy sequences.
TV LEGENDS REVEALED
Other notable Dungeons scribes include Steve Gerber, who worked in an unofficial appearance from Marvel’s the Man-Thing into an episode. (Not just for a cameo, either.) Paul Dini, whose interest in zoology served him well in writing "Valley of the Unicorns," a story dramatizing the kids’ affection for their animal sidekick. Michael Reaves penned several episodes, including the one where the fed-up kid heroes decided to take the fight to Venger.
Developer Mark Evanier only has a handful of credits, but several anecdotes about the series on his website. Evanier’s most shocking revelation—he hates cast member Eric, the Cavalier. (As Evanier explains, Eric’s there at network demand to illustrate the “pro-social” value of going along to get along. Eric, the whiney malcontent, must always pay for not going along with the group.)
Given the darker undercurrent of the series, perhaps it’s not surprising that Internet lore spread regarding a banned final episode. One where the cast dies! Actually, one where we discover the kids were always dead, and the series was actually set in Hell! Okay, so this turned out not to be true (as detailed by Brian Cronin). But Michael Reaves did produce a finale episode. One that provided an end to the characters’ quest. Not to mention a few shocking revelations. You can read the script online today. It's been acted out as a radio drama in the past.
BOTHERED ABOUT SLUMPING RATINGS
Sadly, that final episode will remain unproduced. The show concluded with no true ending for the cast on October 19, 1985. Despite claims parents groups eventually won their battle to kill the show, Evanier reports a more prosaic justification for its cancellation. Ratings dipped noticeably in Season Three, so CBS decided against funding new episodes.
One unique coda for the series exists, however. In 1989, DC Comics published a Forgotten Realms one-shot entitled "Tour of the Realms." The comic, licensed by TSR, follows the cast years later as adults, still trapped in the mysterious realm.
If you’d prefer a happier ending for the characters, however, you’ve likely heard of the Brazilian advertisement for the Renault Kwid Outsider. Yes, the kids of the 1980s are now the target-consumers for midsized family-friendly SUVs. The Renault ad continues a recent trend of reviving 1980s properties for nostalgia-fueled spots. We live in a world where He-Man and Skeletor are reliving Dirty Dancing for the benefit of UK banks.
It’s all cute nostalgia today, but for kids of the ‘80s, this was serious stuff. And if the viral success of the Renault ad shows anything, it’s that people still care. So maybe this is just the spark needed to give fans the Dungeons & Dragons film they truly want. One that opens with six kids innocently stepping inside a roller coaster…