Wednesday, August 1, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 4, "Micro Ducks from Outer Space"

Joe, GeoX, and I had an interesting exchange regarding just who the holy hay at WDTVA was responsible for (1) dreaming up the likes of Quacky McSlant and Vacation van Honk and (2) actually thinking that these characters possessed sufficient chops for any sort of meaningful role on DuckTales.  My own opinion is that there may have been a conflict between creators like Jymn Magon, who, thanks to Gummi Bears and Wuzzles, had some experience working in the WDTVA environment, and "outside people" who were brought in to beef up the crew in preparation for the production of the studio's first syndicated series.  Quacky and VVH have the feel of "gimmick characters" who fit right in with the approaches of such contemporary hit series as Smurfs (is it mere coincidence that DT story editors Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron-Anasti came to WDTVA directly from that series?).  So, for that matter, does the later Benzino Gasolini, who actually fared better than the earlier "dubious duo," garnering reasonably meaty roles in both "Hotel Strangeduck" and "Top Duck."  The cursory nature of these characters' ultimate contributions suggests that those who had a better sense of Duckdom than did the veterans of 80's kid-vid approaches got the better of the final argument.

Speaking of new characters, here's an interesting (and apropos, given the subject matter of this entry) comment from a 2004 Animation World Network interview with "Mr. Rockwell" himself, Tad Stones:

At that time [1988], I pitched three new characters for DUCKTALES.  I drew some pictures and I said, “Here's Space Duck, an alien duck; here's Bubba Duck, a caveman duck, and here's his personality. You know the big hit of last summer, Robocop? Kids, nobody knows the real hero is — Roboduck!” [Roboduck] eventually became Gizmoduck.

So now you know who to praise (or blame) for those second-season additions.  But... Space Duck?  That's distressingly... vague, don't you think?  Why not borrow directly from Carl Barks and bring back the much-loved Micro-Ducks for occasional return engagements?  I mean, the original story is well-regarded, and DT had already established the Micro Ducks (sans hyphen -- that sound you hear is Stan Lee sobbing) as viable characters in a first-season episode, right?  Only... well, um, er, not.  The way the Micros were characterized in that initial go-round, they might as well have been given generic names on the order of Space Duck #1, Space Duck #2, and so forth.  And that has always been my primary beef with this handsomely produced effort, in which the characterization of the Micros is kicked to the curb in favor of a well-imagined, frequently exciting, but ultimately hollow Land of the Giants-style exercise in which our shrunken heroes must make their way through super-colossal surroundings.  Others, including GeoX, have expressed very similar sentiments. 

The irony of the diminution (sorry) of the Micros' personalities and role is that, as set up by scriptwriters Jack Hanrahan and Eleanor Burian-Mohr, the little Ducks actually had the potential to excite more empathy in the audience.  One of the problems that I have with Barks' original story is the somewhat contrived rationale behind the Micros' journey to Earth.  I mean, establishing trade is all well and good, and it's cute to see Scrooge bargain with the tiny visitors over minuscule amounts of grain, but... a four-year one-way trip across deep space, just for that?  Shouldn't the Micros have a more compelling immediate reason for taking on such a daring mission?  The fact that the TV Micros need a large amount of grain because of a "terrible food shortage" on their planet -- though it may seem like a similarly contrived way of helping Scrooge get rid of his surplus -- gives the situation a certain urgency that the Barks story did not possess (at least, not until John the Con began trying to trap the spaceship so he could bring it to the Skeptics' Club).  Unfortunately, any ruminations over the Micros' desperate plight are pretty much shot to hell right at the start, when the Micros' stiff-as-a-stick female commander (who may be teentsy, but is definitely NOT a teen) insults a hapless, dangling Gyro to his face.

This acerbic initial exchange presages a series of script lines that teeter back and forth between cliched sci-fi movie exchanges and rather crude insults.  Lines like "A tiny spaceship, and tiny beings from outer space!", "We've scanned your grain, it is perfect for our needs," and "Farewell, Earthlings!" just don't have the homey, sympathy-inducing feel of:


And, no, the honorific-mangling, bumbling crewman Dekaduck is not an acceptable substitute.  (BTW, since the prefix deka- means "multiply by 10," which would imply that the Micros are larger than average Earth size, why not use a smaller unit to name the guy, say, Picoduck or Nanoduck?) As for poor Gyro, just as Scrooge will fling a whole flock of barbs Launchpad's way in the next episode, the old skinflint takes the skin off the inventor on several occasions here.  Not that Gyro comes off that well himself; his voice is finally rounding into form after Hal Smith's earlier "experiments," but he gets shocked, falls off a roof, practices grandiose speeches to "wel-come" the "space trav-lers," and falls asleep during his search for Scrooge, HD&L, and Webby.  Had it not been for Launchpad getting wrapped up in sticky "duck tape" (you may commence groaning now) and duplicating Gyro's plunge, Gyro would have been left naked and exposed as the ep's ranking stumblebum.  Even LP gets some glory when he winds up being the (admittedly cleverly set up) means by which Scrooge and the kids regain access to the Micros' "molecular manipulator" and are able to return to normal size.

While the Micros themselves have little substance, the run-up to Scrooge, HD&L, and Webby getting shrunk is generally well-done, with alterations both understandable (e.g., Scrooge using an insect sprayer, rather than smoke from an Indian peace pipe, to force the Micros' ship to land) and puzzling (do you keep a sledgehammer within arm's reach at all times, Scrooge?  I thought you already had plenty of traps for solicitors).  It does, however, seem rather unlikely that the mechanically efficient (except for Dekaduck, of course) Micros would have forgotten to take their "manipulator" with them, much less take so long to realize their oversight.

Well, at least he didn't trip and fall on them.

Of course, DuckTales debuted well before cell phones, laptops, and the like became common, else the shrunken Ducks might have found it a bit easier to communicate with the over-sized outside world and hence obviate the need for their cross-Duckburg trek to Gyro's "barn."  (Gyro's lab will also be described that way in "Armstrong," but the curious descriptor was dropped after that.)  Of course, then we wouldn't have gotten the fine travel sequence that graces the latter portion of this ep.  The miniaturized Ducks' trek contains numerous memorable moments, but the very best just may be the scene in the sewer, when Scrooge sets the Ducks' matchbox boat on fire to scare off the rats.  The rats are drawn in a very hardcore, realistic fashion, so their reaction to the threat packs a legitimate visual punch.

Legendary, too, is the scene in which Webby gets caught in the spider's web and famously wonders what this adventure will do to her dress.  I do wish in hindsight that the spider had been drawn in a more realistic manner to match that of the rats.  The two eyes don't bother me -- I get freaked out by seeing normal spider-eyes as it is -- but the lip-licking adds a cartoony element that detracts from the sense of peril.  If only there had been some way to flip-flop these scenes and allow the Ducks' encounter with the rats to be the pre-commercials cliffhanger.


One piece of business that I could have done without is Huey's OUT OF NOWHERE speech about the wonders of living in an over-sized world.  For one thing, it's redundant; we can already SEE, with our own normal-sized eyes, exactly what Huey is describing verbally here, so why overkill the point with unnecessary words?  For another, while he's waxing poetic, Huey draws the other Ducks' attention away from the task of piloting their matchbox craft, and the Ducks wind up literally going down the drain and nearly drowning.

The episode's conclusion is also a bit substandard.  After the all-but-tossed-off enlarging scene -- the least Hanrahan and Burian-Mohr could have done is to have given Scrooge a chance to apologize directly to the Micros for messing with their machine -- we get an awkward bit in which Duckworth dumps a tea-tray on Scrooge's desk, with Scrooge sporting what Greg called an "I'm going to hurt you" look and "wah-wah" trombone music playing in the background.  This is all a set-up for Scrooge to "bond" with Twitchy the lost ant (I thought that Webby was worried sick about Twitchy?  Have she and the boys forgotten about him?) and thereby "walk back" his earlier dismissive statement, "Anything smaller than a penny isn't worth ten cents!".  The problem, though, is that it would have seemed much more meaningful had Scrooge expressed such sentiments to the Micros themselves.  As GeoX pointed out, Twitchy doesn't actually contribute anything of importance to the story; Hanrahan and Burian-Mohr seem to be drawing attention to Twitchy in the early stages in order to set the ant up as an ally for the Ducks after the latter are shrunk down to Twitchy's size, but then they seem to have changed their minds, or something. 

My impression of this episode hasn't changed very much since I first viewed it in '87.  It's relentlessly mid-table, the result of one really good feature (the "Little Ducks, Big World" business) and one bad one (the reduction of the Micros' role to that of a convenient source of... well, reduction) cancelling one another out, matter- and antimatter-style.  Why couldn't Tad Stones have had his Space Duck brainstorm during 1986, when this ep was being made?  Then, perhaps, the Micros of Barks' story might just have stood a chance of showing up here.

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DuckBlurbs

(GeoX)  I fail to see why the Micro-Ducks would want to shrink down Scrooge's wheat instead of just taking a few kernels. I mean, I do see why; it's so that Scrooge can get rid of all his wheat, hurrah, but Scrooge's enthusiasm for even a super-tiny deal is quite charming in the original, and now that's lost.

As I noted above, I do give the writers credit for trying to justify the changes by escalating the seriousness of the Micros' problems, but I certainly understand what you mean.  At this very early stage, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that DuckTales' handling of Scrooge lacked the subtlety that would have been needed in order for the "charm" of Scrooge's micro-bargaining to be readily apparent.

(GeoX)  Dammit, if you're going to have a Micro-Ducks episode, I want my Donald/Princess Teentsy Teen romance!

IF the Micros had been handled better, and IF the DT powers-that-were had decided that they rated another appearance, then I certainly would have enjoyed seeing Launchpad fall for a comely young female Micro, if not for Princess TT herself.  It's not as if such off-planet romances were beyond him (cf. the Darkwing Duck episode "U.F. Foe").

(GeoX)  You know, spiders -- even scary spiders with glowing red eyes -- aren't trapped on their webs--there's no reason Shelob jr. here couldn't have given the ducks chase.

But that would have been mean.  Besides, the Ducks' subsequent rides on the skateboard and the pigeon were far more frightening, in terms of goosebumps per square inch of skin, than even Webby's near-miss with the spider.  How the Ducks managed to hang onto that skateboard under the circs is more than I can fathom, and Webby almost fell off the pigeon before being steadied by ScroogeWhat gave the spider scene extra points was the deathless "...ruin my dress" remark.

(GeoX)  In spite of the pointlessness of the ant-farm business, I do like the fact that HDL and Webby are equally enthusiastic about it--there's always this divide between them; you never (until now) see them all playing together like regular ol' kids.

And we will see the same dynamic in the next episode, as well.  The fact that HD&L and Webby can pal around like this at such an early juncture makes later episodes like "The Good Muddahs" and "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Webby", which really play up the "divide" you mention, seem a touch retrograde. 

(Greg)  So we head to a slow pan right shot of the STOCK FOOTAGE OF DOOM as we head to Scrooge's second office (I've accepted that he has another vault and office inside his mansion now; so it's no longer a logic break, just mere overkill on Scrooge's part.) as he continue to ink some papers and the phone rings.

Scrooge's having a "second" vault and office in his mansion is admittedly redundant, but, if you are going to posit the existence of a mansion right off the top, then it stands to reason that Scrooge should have a satellite office in his home.  Were DuckTales to be made today, Scrooge would no doubt have enough methods of communication to enable him to live inside his bin, as we always kinda-sorta assumed he did in the comics (the occasional appearance of a McDuck "mansion" or "house" aside).

(Greg)  So we go down the sewers as Webby does CPR on Scroogie. BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! That's the best spot I have ever seen out of Webbigail Vanderquack ever! 

Yes, and she really appears to be putting her "cute little all" into it, too:

 
(Greg)  We then go to a shot of the skateboarder nearing a sign that said: Don't go over the cliff with a picture and a walking motion X'ed out.

I think that that was meant to be a "Keep Off the Grass" sign.


(Greg)  We then go outside as we see Gyro driving his...I cannot say this on this rant...(Gyro: Just read the script Mr. Weagle.)..The VANILLA MANILLA UFO OF DEATH (Note from the future: It's Barks' canon so claims Chris Barat.) towards the mansion as he tells Scrooge not to worry and that he can fix the alien machine.

Wouldn't you know it, I can't remember the name of the story in which Gyro's hovercraft appeared.  Could someone kindly jog my memory? 

Next:  Episode 5, "Scrooge's Pet."

6 comments:

Comicbookrehab said...

I recall in some places it was "Gyro's Brainstormin' Barn".

It would have been nice to see what Tad's Space Duck looked like - that's assuming the sketch he used in his presentation (if there was one at all) exists. I keep imagining this image of Liliputt (from Darkwing Duck)recycled (because eventually, every idea gets used) or O.K. Quack.

Chris Barat said...

CBR,

"Gyro's Brainstorming Barn" appeared as the title of a feature in the old DUCKTALES ACTIVITY MAGAZINE. But I think that the series itself only used the descriptor twice.

I can imagine Space Duck looking like Lillyputt. The way that things were going in the series, with a turn towards lighter, more sitcommish plots, Space Duck would probably have been a far goofier character than, say, the Micro-Ducks. That's not to say that I wouldn't have preferred to see the Micros again!

Chris

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris quoted Greg as writing, "as we head to Scrooge's second office (I've accepted that he has another vault and office inside his mansion now; so it's no longer a logic break, just mere overkill on Scrooge's part.)"

The real overkill is that this "second office" is identical to the one in the bin ... as is (at least...) the exterior of the vault!

At whatever point during the several years following the series' original season's premiere run that, while watching a rerun of this episode, I first noticed this discrepancy ... it really annoyed me!

... thus, when The DuckTales Index cited an article as having noted that "Micro Ducks" was one of the earliest episodes to have been produced ... well, that explained a lot!

... to the point where, finally, I can forgive it ... KIND OF ...

;)

-- Ryan

(... yes, out of anything, THAT may actually stand the test of time as what truly to me defines this episode! I'd argue that it's testimony to what a mediocre adaptation it is of Barks' original ... but I know well that it all it really demonstrates is what a geek I am ...) :D ;)

Chris Barat said...

Ryan,

Yes, Scrooge usually doesn't practice that level of redundancy... at least, not in the TV series, where we only really saw one example of balls-out use of Scrooge's pre-Gizmoduck, quasi-Barksian security system.

Chris

Comicbookrehab said...

Or how about this: the Mansion is actually a Dyson Sphere, with the money bin inside it, so...yes, that office is in the bin, but he is also in the mansion at the same time...just one of those great untold stories that they never got around to clearing up. :)

Comicbookrehab said...

Now, the answer to why it was never revealed (in case you're wondering)...it was too expensive! Scrooge did away with it. Having a mansion, a limo and a butler was costly enough, but an orbital sphere powered by a star in space - better off just using the name to sell vacuum cleaners instead. ;)