Dastardly & Muttley In Their Flying Machines: The Complete Series Review

(Note: this review was written shortly before the death of Paul Winchell, the voice of Dick Dastardly. I have left the review as it was originally written, so the sentiments about Mr Winchell within it are not exaggerated by his sad passing but remain as a heart-felt tribute to his contribution to cartoon history.)



"Muttley you snickering floppy eared hound,
When courage is needed, you're never around!
Those medals you wear on your moth-eaten chest,
Should be there for bungling at which you are best!
So, Stop The Pigeon, Stop The Pigeon,
Stop The Pigeon, Stop The Pigeon,
Stop The Pigeon, Stop The Pigeon
Stop that Pigeon,
How?
Nab him, jab him, tab him, grab him,
Stop that pigeon now!

You, Zilly, stop sneaking, it's not worth the chance,
For you'll be returned by the seat of your pants!
And Clunk, you invent me a Thingamebob,
That catches that pigeon or I lose my job!
So, Stop The Pigeon, Stop The Pigeon,
Stop The Pigeon, Stop The Pigeon,
Stop The Pigeon, Stop The Pigeon
Stop that Pigeon,
How?
Nab him, jab him, tab him, grab him,
Stop that pigeon now!"


There’s an episode of the 1980s Hanna-Barbera all-stars show Yogi’s Treasure Hunt in which the crew of the SS Jelly Rodger are captured and forced to watch endless re-runs of the show some people still think was called “Stop the pigeon.” This proves too much for them, sending the group into a trance-like state before they emerge from their prison hypnotised, arms outstretched in front of them, all chanting “Stop the pigeon, stop the pigeon, stop the pigeon, stop the pigeon…”

I know how they feel. There were only seventeen episodes of Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines made but, after having sat through them all, it feels like a hundred times that number. The cognitive part of my brain has shut down, and instead of thinking rationally all I can think of are ways to trap that bloody Yankee Doodle Pigeon while pacifying the General and, if at all possible, winning as many shiny medals as Squadron Leader Dick Dastardly cares to give me. I see the world as a blur of repeating backgrounds and have started communicating via a series of strange, high pitched whistles and noises while hiding in an overcoat that, nevertheless, gives me away by failing to hide my nervous shivering within. Meanwhile inside my head THAT tune goes round and round, refusing to shift. It’s just as well there weren’t even more episodes because I swear I was on the verge of losing it completely, destined to be found by friends and family huddled on the floor in the corner of my room, arms wrapped around knees, sobbing quietly “Muttley, do something!”

Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines debuted in 1969. As with so many of the Hanna-Barbera shows, the premise is based on a live action film, in this case These Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, a 1965 slapstick comedy based around a newspaper sponsoring a race by air between London and Paris in the early days of aviation. The cartoon version sees Dick Dastardly and his faithful (well, kind of) dog Muttley commanding “the fearsome Vulture Squadron” (quite why they’re fearsome when they are so utterly inept at their job is beyond me) in their constant quest to stop Yankee Doodle Pigeon, a rather smug bird who carries communiqués for the enemy during an unspecified war. Originally Dastardly and Muttley were not going to be in it – early sketches show that the Squadron was instead led by “The Baron” and his dog, who was a taller, lankier looking canine than Muttley and would have been a lot stupider. At that point the show was called “Stop the Pigeon” but the popularity of the two characters from Wacky Races from the previous year meant that it was decided to bring them aboard instead, in the same television season that their fellow racer Penelope Pitstop also got her own show, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.



The duo don’t change much in the transition between shows. Dastardly is still as accident-prone as ever, constantly being thwarted by his nemesis and nearly always ending up plummeting to earth yelling to Muttley to save him. We don’t learn much more about him (other than he’s as rubbish at catching pigeons as he is at winning races) but we do about Muttley. Not only does he have a previously-unknown talent for using his tail as a propeller, enabling him to fly about on his own (and catch any Dick Dastardlys that fall past him as he does so) but he is also a bit of a medal-whore who will do almost anything so he can be rewarded with another honour to pin to his front (although how he pins it to his bare chest without bleeding we never find out). Not only that but he’s a bit of a daydreamer with an overactive imagination, often drifting off into his own world in which he is the centre of attraction as some great celebrity, whether it be as a magician, superhero or as a great actor. He’s obviously a deeply frustrated dog who yearns for the limelight (and a ladyfriend, who looks oddly like himself in drag) but never gets a chance to and needs the escape these fantasies give him to forgot for a few minutes the chaotic lifestyle he finds himself in. (Or maybe I’m reading too much into him).

Each episode is made up three main instalments, two chasing the pigeon and one featuring Muttley’s daydreams, which go under the title “Magnificent Muttley” and are much shorter than the others. Each individual story has its own title, and there are also a couple of gags called "Wing Dings" thrown to break up the longer segments, giving the whole a bit of a variety-show feel about it. It works well here, ensuring that each twenty-minute instalment doesn’t feel too long. Each main story usually involves the latest inventions of the Vulture Squadron’s resident inventor Klunk to ensnare the elusive courier, all of which fail and nearly all of which end up with everyone’s planes falling apart and the crew smacking into the earth (at which point the pigeon comes and blows a trumpet in their faces, which is a bit uncalled for if you ask me). There is a surprisingly amount of variety to be found surrounding this basic structure, but it does ultimately become repetitive, and the inevitability of the same things happening again and again (as with Wacky Races, there’s a good drinking game to be had with this show) mean that the older viewer, depending on their mood at the time, will either cheer along at the same old jokes or find it all rather monotonous. It’s good old-fashioned slapstick with plenty to amuse the youngish child but for the older watcher these cartoons certainly aren’t as purely enjoyable as more sophisticated fare from the HB stable such as Top Cat or The Flintstones.



The two other characters which make up the Vulture Squadron are both one-gag wonders. Zilly (who I spent the entire series thinking was called Silly until I watched the extras) has no business being in the air force, being as he is a complete nervous wreck – even a loud bang is enough to make him disappear into his voluminous overcoat (which is yellow, naturally), hiding until the danger passes. One can only assume that it was conscription or an over-bearing parent that made him want to sign up – he’s certainly more of a hindrance than a help to the Squadron, with Dastardly often having to send Muttley chasing after him when he decides to abscond from the latest precarious situation they find themselves in. (If we are to assume the cartoon takes place during the First World War, which the style of the aircraft would suggest, surely he would have been shot for desertion?) Luckily the other member, Klunk, is much more useful, an admittedly rather eccentric character who devises all the various traps to ensnare Yankie Doodle Pigeon. Although his communication skills leave something to be desired, given he mainly talks in squeaks, whistles and other odd noises, he’s plainly the brains of the operation, even if none of his traps even come close to working. Both of these valiant airmen are voiced by Don Messick, a Hanna-Barbera stalwart, who also reprises his role as Muttley. 1969 was a busy year for him: as well as also contributing to The Perils of Penelope Pitstop it was the year he started playing another dog who was to become his most cherished role, helping a bunch of meddling kids solve crimes committed by old men dressed in monster costumes. It’s to his credit that that dog (wish I could remember his name) sounds nothing like Muttley. In a show with only two voice artists, Paul Winchell was Messick’s companion, playing Dick Dastardly again with his customary relish, as well as the incoherent voice of the General who constantly yells down the phone at him. Dastardly is undoubtedly Winchell’s finest character, despite the fact he also featured in The Banana Splits, played the villain in The Smurfs and, more recently, was Tigger multiple times in various Winnie the Pooh features - he took Dick Dastardly and made him his own, creating one of the iconic cartoon characters of the sixties, and his performance is one of the reasons this series is not just another run-of-the-mill entry in the HB canon.

Although the look of the show is mainly uniform with the majority of the action taking place in the sky (backgrounds of which appear as though they haven’t been fully coloured-in, although, to be fair, they were never meant to be scrutinised with a pin-sharp digital transfer on a large television) there is one aspect of the art that merits particular praise, and that’s Jerry Eisenberg’s wonderful airborne contraptions. Looking like something Heath Robinson would have come up with if he’d been so inclined, these revel in the freedom cartoons give to be completely daft and absurd. We have giant hands clapping together just a second too late to grab the bird, planes with ladders connecting them so Dastardly can move between them, baseball bats on the undercarriage and so on – the main attraction of each episode is to see what silly device Klunk (and Eisenberg) has come up with this time. Eisenberg clearly enjoyed his brief on this show and it shows on screen – it’s just a shame none of those contraptions ever do manage to succeed in their aim.



As much as it pains me to say it, this is not a cartoon it’s easy to recommend to people over the age of ten. There’s a lot of fun to be had from it simply because of what it is, but it can never be anything more than a bit of typical 1960s knockabout stuff - besides the plane designs, the characters of Dastardly and Muttley themselves, and that theme, it’s not something you’ll want to return to time and again. It’s good for a quick laugh, and has a nostalgic appeal, but it still ends up as being one of the more overtly juvenile entries into the 1960s Hanna-Barbera oeuvre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just saw the pigeon fly past and I really feel this time I have the perfect contraption to catch him. Those medals are as good as mine…


The Disks
All seventeen episodes are presented on three single-sided dual layer disks. The packaging takes the same format as all the other titles in the Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection, with new artwork from the series on both the main sleeve and the interior box which opens up. These are always extremely attractive sets and this one doesn't let the side down. As well as the disks, the set also comes with a "Collectible Litho Cell", a piece of artwork by HB storyboard artist Bob Singer, held in a little cardboard sleeve which has details about it on the back.

The menus consist of moving backgrounds showing typical scenes from the episodes themselves of the Vulture Squadron in pursuit of Yankle Doodle Pigeon. There is a Play All option as well as an individual episode selection screen, one for Special Features and one for Languages. All the episodes are subtitled but none of the extras are.

Video
Not fantastic, very grainy with what looks to have been a very dirt set of prints. Although there are few very bad artefacts, every episode has multiple blips and overall this isn't one of the more impressive transfers we've seen.

Audio
Fine for what it is, the mono track of a thirty-odd year old cartoon series. Nothing has been done to spruce it up but it is clear enough and both dialogue and sounds are at the right levels.


Extras

Commentaries
"I'm sorry we didn't have more to talk about," says Jerry Eisenberg at the end of one of the two episode commentaries on the set. Although this is a bit disingenuous, as the two episodes are lightly peppered with interesting titbits about the production of the series (much more so than in the tracks for The Perils of Penelope Pitstop), there is still a lot of dead air or the commentators reacting to what's going on in the show. That said all four speakers - Eisenberg, HB designer Iawo Takamoto and former employees of HB Scott Awley and Scott Jeralds - all contribute something useful. It's just a shame that the two Scotts didn't prompt the other two a little more, as when they do we get some good memories out of them.

The Vulture Squadron's Greatest Misses
Seven minutes of clips from the show, split into five categories: Dastardly, Muttley, Planes, Klunk and Zilly and General Calls. Although not really a proper extra, this is very enjoyable, mainly down to the accompanying music that is used, all of which is very jolly and sounds rather better than the audio on the actual episodes themselves.

Dastardly and Muttley's Spinoffs
It's less than five minutes long, but this is a pretty thorough look at the cartoon that covers just about everything it could do. With contributions from the usual talking heads - Eisenberg, Production Designer Iawo Takamoto, historian Jerry Beck and others - this is a nice little piece about the show.

Trailers
On Disk Three there are trailers for the DVD releases of Wacky Races, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, The Flintstones: Season Three, Samurai Jack 2, Top Cat and The Best of the New Scooby-Doo Movies, all coming with cheesy American voice-over narration.


Overall
Although it's fondly remembered, Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines is not in the premier league of Hanna-Barbera productions, something reflected in the paucity of extras in this set. The series itself is good for the odd laugh, but there's little you'll be coming back to and, while the set is presented as nicely as ever, this isn't as essential a purchase as other titles in the Classic Collection.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
3 out of 10
Overall

5

out of 10

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