Dungeons & Dragons - Volume 1 Review
Take a nostalgia trip back to the 1980’s and chances are high up on the list of television shows you have fond memories of will be Dungeons & Dragons. Returning to the series over a decade later I was surprised to find that only 27 episodes were made, as it seemed to run on and on but was in fact so heavily syndicated that it only seemed so much more of an epic. Lasting then for only three short seasons and featuring many memorable characters the show did well to gain its fandom and forever bury itself in our minds.
Due to the success of DVD and by popular demand, many companies are seeing fit to release cult and classic television shows and thanks to Contender Entertainment fans all over the world can enjoy this beloved series over and over.
The story takes place in a mythical land of swords and sorcery, where dragons reign and enchantment befalls. Six friends: Hank, Eric, Diane, Bobby, Sheila and Presto are transported to this magical kingdom after experiencing a theme park ride called "Dungeons and Dragons". They are quickly greeted by the Dungeon Master and a small unicorn that Bobby affectionately names "Uni".
Hank - the eldest of the group and therefore a naturally respected leader is given a bow that fires arrows of light, he is now known as the Ranger. Eric - the Cavalier has a shield of great power, able to deflect the strongest attacks. Diane is given the power of athleticism through a glowing bow staff that extends at her will, she is the Acrobat. The headstrong, young Bobby, now the Barbarian is given a powerful club that can smash all that stands in its way. Sheila - the thief has a cloak bestowed to her, that when worn with its hood placed over the head renders her invisible. Finally Presto - the Magician, given a hat that he can draw any number of spells from rounds up this group of youngsters.
Upon arrival in this new world they are soon attacked by an evil warlock known as Venger who wishes to have their new weapons for himself in order to become the most powerful being in the world. He is quickly fought off by the new arrivals who escape with the help of Dungeon Master, who then offers his services to help them find their way back home. Lost in a new world, the friends must stick together and help each other in times of need if they are to ever see their home again.
It had been a long time since I first viewed this series so I was surprised to discover there is no proper set up to the action. Instead the introduction sequence that plays before every episode gives us a quick back story of how these kids got to where they are today and then we're just dumped with them as we see them fending off monsters, already well accustomed to using their new weapons as well as their familiarity with Dungeon Master, Uni and Venger. Further into the opening episode several nods are given to past events so we are simply meant to accept this despite being thrown into the thick of the action.
With that said the episode does give us a good insight into each character and sets up how the rest of the series is to play out.
With the opening episode out of the way the rest of the series flows very well and I'm happy to say that it is pretty much how I remembered it. The animation ranges from poor to very good, bearing in mind that various animators and editors switched about and the series isn't without its continuity slips but overall, after twenty years since its original airing it holds up very well and retains that sense of charm that made it so memorable in the first place.
More than anything else in the series it is the characterisation that takes precedence over the action and storylines and this is thanks to the series’ creator, Mark Evanier who intended for the series to feature well fleshed out characters who would develop further over time. For the episodes in this volume their personality traits are quickly established - Hank is brave and willing to help others, Eric is a cowardly figure who would rather hurl wisecracks but ends up as the butt of all jokes, while Diane is strong willed and perhaps closest to Eric. Bobby, younger brother to Sheila is impatient and lets his muscles get in the way of his brain from time to time and Sheila herself is an emotional wreck who manages to pull through for her friends during the most difficult times. Presto - whose real name we never learn is a comic figure who can never get a spell right and then there's Uni who doesn't do a whole lot beside making funny noises - thanks to Frank (Megatron) Welker. Oh and I almost forgot Venger (voiced wonderfully by Peter Cullen who you may also know from his work on The Transformers) - the big, bad fellow who is afraid of the ever recurring Tiamat, the dragon with five heads.
Although the series is all about the young heroes trying to find a way back home, each episode stands well on its own, lacking a kind of overall arc as it isn't some distant part of the world that they must get to in order to get back home. Instead they must travel to some place appointed by the Dungeon Master, defeat a bad guy and then find the portal. So we know if they miss their chance first time 'round then there's always going to be another. Several times during the series they do find the portal back to Earth but some unforeseen event usually forces them to stay behind and while this would ordinarily cause frustration within the group the friends just shrug it off and wait for the next opportunity. So we have a series that realistically could have ended much earlier than it did but it wouldn't be much of a series if it did that, so each episode we go along for the ride and enjoy ourselves despite it being a little predictable.
Adding to the predictability is how we can immediately spot when the group is being tricked by a kind old man or a dwarf or anyone else who wears red - a symbol that only the baddies wear to signal to the viewer that all is not well. Time and time again the often naïve heroes are lead into a trap that usually sees Venger (why does he only have one horn?) revealing himself in an over the top but sinister manner so it's all fun. Even though you know what is coming and the riddles that Dungeon Master leaves behind aren't too cryptic the series is still enjoyable and its simplicity that is carried by well rounded characters provides enough healthy entertainment for just over two hours.
Dungeons & Dragons - Volume one contains the following episodes:
The Night of No Tomorrow
Dungeon Master sends Hank, Eric, Sheila, Diane, Bobby and Presto toward the town of Helix to attend the local festivities. During their journey into town they see a castle in the sky and make their way up, where they soon meet Merlin who offers to take Presto under his wing and train him to become a powerful magician - but there is a cost, Presto must stay for the rest of his life.
Eye of the Beholder
The kids are saved by a knight called Sir John, soon after being chased by a giant scorpion. Soon Dungeon Master instructs them to seek out and destroy The Beholder, where they decide to take Sir John with them. There’s one problem however - Sir John is a coward.
The Hall of Bones
The kids' weapons have run out of energy. Every 3000 years they must be re-charged at the Hall of Bones (so why did Dungeon Master give them undercharged weapons so early on in their quest?). As they make their way toward the hall Venger seeks to capture their weapons for his own gain.
Valley of the Unicorns
A unicorn known as Silvermane, leader of all unicorns is attacked by wolves but saved by Hank and company. As they fight they lose sight of Uni who is taken away by an evil old wizard called Kelek who steals the horns from unicorns in order to accumulate unlimited power for himself. The kids may well have to turn to their biggest enemy in order to succeed in saving the unicorns.
In Search of the Dungeon Master
Dungeon Master decides to take a nice snail ride through the forest but is quickly attacked by a bounty hunter known as Warduke, who freezes him inside a magical crystal. The heroic six must race to save Dungeon Master before Venger beats them to it.
Beauty and the Bog beast
Once a year it is said that there is a river that rains upside down and if you visit this place then it will take you to wherever you desire. Dungeon Master tells the kids that this is where they must go but he warns them to never touch the beauty that brings the beast. Later on during their journey Eric finds a beautiful flower and sniffs it, turning him into an ugly Bog beast. He is told by Dungeon Master that if he doesn't find a cure soon then he will remain a beast forever.
The Prison Without Walls
Hank and friends are sent to a valley where the gnomes live. They have been forced into slave labour by Venger who has them digging for precious gems. The kids try to save them but the gnomes tell them that until Lukion, the dwarf wizard lifts his spell then they can never be freed. The heroes set out for "The Swamp of Sorrow" where they must free the prisoner from a prison without walls.
Contender Entertainment releases the first seven episodes of the series on a surprisingly good DVD, featuring welcome extras. The cover features some eye-catching fan art from Eamon O' Donoghue.
The series is presented in its original full frame ratio but suffers from several problems. Firstly the series appears to have transferred from tape and then had the colour played with. The opening sequence for each episode is clean, with decent colour tones that are suitably more saturated than the actual episode content itself. After the credits we see the colour take a quick switch, it is sudden and noticeable and becomes a lot stronger, resulting in colour bleeding that comes from overly strong reds and greens. It stays this way for the first three episodes before changing back to its toned down look which is a lot more acceptable.
Also throughout there is noticeable jagged lines that do not appear to be aliasing but tape conversion difficulties. Aside from these quibbles the series looks decent and is fairly clean considering its age.
The series is presented with its original 2.0 mono track. This is a solid enough track that has clear dialogue and makes a fair amount of good use from the front speakers. There isn't much more to expect from this.
This is where I was pleasantly surprised. Contender has shown some good respect for the series by adding some interesting stuff to the DVD.
Two excellent commentary tracks are available for the episodes Night of No Tomorrow and Beauty and the Bog beast. Taking part in the discussion is Lee Binding (producer of the DVD), Faye Keenan, Dave Newman and James Etok - sorry if there's any spelling mistakes, lords and ladies.
The commentaries are both informative and very funny. The guys and girls sure know their stuff and talk about many elements of the series, even stuff that was never fully explored but which fans have been discussing for years, such as sexual tensions. They're aware of how flawed the series is and point out many of the continuity slips or simply have fun at the characters' expense. All in all a very good listen and I'll look forward to future commentaries with them.
Original Series Bible
This is Mark Evanier's original 1983 development pitch for the show. It features extensive background and character information that looks as if he intended far more for the series than was allowed in its short time.
These are original concept drawings of each character. From their initial conception we can see that the designers had the characters' look figured out early on.
This has in-depth rundowns of each character and their personality; there is a lot of information to be had to from this for those not yet familiar with the series.
Inserting this into your DVD-Rom drive will give you access to the original script for "Beauty and the Bog beast" and the original story premises for the show.
Dungeons & Dragons has held up well after 20 years. It does lack a certain finesse when compared to more modern shows but that is to be expected. What it lacks in stunning animation it makes up for in good old fashioned story telling, with strong characters and interesting ideas. You can’t do much wrong in re-visiting your childhood with this classic series.