Sunday, October 14, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 14, "Armstrong"

Caught up to you, Pete!  In one sense, at least...

I agree with GeoX and Greg -- if you're rating "Golden Age" WDTVA episodes with the theme of "robots and the humans who build/exploit/are almost conquered by them," "Armstrong" does operate on a relatively simplistic level, certainly more so than does TaleSpin's "From Here to Machinery".  Hey, there was a good reason why TaleSpin led off its first syndicated season (not to mention backstopped the first full day of programming of The Disney Afternoon) with that particular gem.  But "Armstrong" also deserved ITS prime spot in DuckTales' opening week of syndication, and not simply because "Robot Robbers" followed it so closely in broadcast order.  Apart from being a fine episode in and of itself, "Armstrong" is a delectable showcase for some of the most stylish animation that the series had to offer during its first season.  The animation in "Armstrong" isn't as lively or bouncy as the animation in such Terence Harrison-directed episodes as "Double-O-Duck," but it fills up the deficit with slickness and subtlety that can only truly be appreciated in multiple close viewings.  If the intention of the folks at WDTVA was to immediately hammer home the point that DuckTales represented a step up to the "next level" in terms of production quality for syndication, then "Armstrong" was as good a choice as any as one of the instruments picked to help drive home the nail.

"Armstrong" had a somewhat longer "shelf life" than your average DuckTales ep. It was featured in one of the Mallard Press hardcovers...

... and the Disney Studios comics adaptation of the episode, written by Larry Gotterer and drawn by the Jaime Diaz Studios, was featured in the first issue of Gladstone's DUCKTALES title (October 1988).  Daan Jippes' dramatic cover promised even MORE excitement and danger than was actually delivered in the TV episode...

... but the adaptation itself could best be described as "relentlessly bland," incorporating a lot of the dialogue but without much imagination.  I suppose it is symbolic of the sheer drabness of the adaptation that Armstrong is colored gunmetal gray in the interior of DT #1.  (At least Jippes' version of the character looks pretty stylish.)  The changes that were made were problematic, to say the least: the "great hot chocolate efficiency debate" was removed completely...

"No marshmallows for you, lads... and no COCOA, either!"

... and, more troublingly, Launchpad consciously crashes his "Joyrider" on top of Gyro's barn (thereby destroying the battery of satellites dishes that Armstrong has erected) and consciously short-circuits the atrocious automaton with water.  LP also doesn't appear to be on the verge of "going away to think" when the desperate Nephews come to ask him for help in thwarting Armstrong.  Instead, LP's "crisis of confidence" consists of the single line, "Oh, my!  Beaten by a robot!"  (Somehow, I can't imagine LP saying "Oh, my!" in any context.  Winnie-the-Pooh, yes, but not LP.)

Back on the small screen, writer Michael Keyes does an excellent job of exploiting small details in his script -- for example, foreshadowing Launchpad's later, fateful use of the water pump in the early fire-fighting scene and having HD&L realize that the tanks and planes chasing them are only toys.  (The latter is made even more effective by its visual presentation, as I'll argue below.)  Some of Keyes' "bigger-picture" decisions, however, can be called into question, especially those having to do with characterization.  I'm willing to accept the idea of Armstrong turning evil for no apparent reason, simply because such a trope is well-established and has been used in the past. But why would Armstrong's final "heel turn" be triggered by a desire for Scrooge's money?  Wouldn't Armstrong be more likely to show its true colors by commandeering electronic equipment from McDuck Industries and using the materials to make its "compound" at Gyro's barn even stronger?  I suspect that the idea of showing dramatically-lit histrionics inside the Money Bin was simply too much to resist.

In making Scrooge the eyewitness to/victim of Armstrong's fall from grace, Keyes may have been commenting on Scrooge's own highly questionable ethical decisions in this episode.  The callousness displayed by Scrooge when he blows off Launchpad after LP has lost the big air race with Armstrong, and later when he banishes his Money Bin employees and installs Armstrong in their place, should not be ignored simply because they are presented with such relative casualness.  The "vanishing staff" business, in fact, seems all the colder because we don't get to see the employees' reactions to being replaced by a robot.  (Since Mrs. Featherby got the unexpected honor of a place on the dais at the air race, I hope that SHE, at the very least, managed to survive the personnel purge.)

Even HD&L don't get off scot-free in this episode.  I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on saying that Armstrong is "the best friend a kid could ever have"; they had no idea that Launchpad or anyone else could be listening.  (Launchpad's reaction to overhearing this indicates that, even at this early stage of the series, he sees himself as being something of a role model to the Nephews -- not the object of hero worship, as is the case with Doofus, but the recipient of a certain level of respect for "derring-do" and "a sense of adventure."  The boys have also clearly learned to care for Launchpad, as can be seen when they have no idea what has happened to him during the air race.)  But, guys, allowing Armstrong to do your homework for you is CHEATING.  Blowing off assignments to play Frisbee, as you will later do in "Nothing to Fear," is one thing; THIS should force you to turn in at least a few bucketloads of Junior Woodchuck medals.     

"Plagiarism... it'll be our little secret."

As for Launchpad, the ep's ultimate hero...  so what happened to the need to pass out business cards?  In stark contrast to "Hero for Hire," the Launchpad of "Armstrong" is apparently very well-known, introduced by Scrooge at the air race as a "world-famous pilot, adventurer, and derring-doer."  The reaction of the chief fireman when Launchpad flies in to help fight the fire -- "Here he comes again!" -- suggests that LP's airplane service is well-established and well-respected.  Since "Hero for Hire" was originally broadcast several weeks after "Armstrong," viewers of the former episode could perhaps be forgiven for wondering where Launchpad had to go to get his reputation back.  In truth, it's hard to fault Keyes for this; it's probably simply a product of the DT story editors having to juggle scripts from a multiplicity of writers.
The other major issue that I have with this ep is the simple fact that Armstrong's "reign of terror"... well, doesn't seem all that terrible.  Sure, the dial-twisting and power line-zapping is visually impressive, but Armstrong's "army" consists of four aerial drones, some toys, and a couple of missile-launching military (I guess) aircraft.  You might say I'm not impressed, especially since Armstrong probably needed only a bit more firepower to take out LP's Joyrider.  A line of dialogue stating that the robot is "still building its powers" and has the potential to take over the world if it's not stopped would not have seemed out of place.  Even if we didn't get a chance to see the robot's entire scheme, or anything close to it, put into operation, the episode is reasonably effective in making you believe that the semi-comical, chore-performing Armstrong with the rubbery, flapping limbs...

... really could turn into a potential world-conquering automaton.  Oddly enough, the single scariest moment occurs when a frustrated Armstrong, its globe-girdling satellite system wrecked by Launchpad's fortuitous stall and crash onto Gyro's barn roof, comes within a hair of taking LP's head off with a single punch. "If I were human, I might find this amusing," cackles Armstrong earlier in the episode.  This memorable incident shows that Armstrong may, in fact, be all too human when it comes to the exacting of revenge.  Gyro's later creation Robotica ("Metal Attraction") will have an even harder time controlling its emotions.  Perhaps you should stick strictly to robots of the industrial kind, Mr. Gearloose... and make sure that they're secure against takeover by hostiles while you're at it.

Armstrong's assault is just one of the many excellent visuals in this episode.  The dramatic scene with Armstrong and Scrooge in the Money Bin and the "vanishing staff" moment are obvious members of the club, but, once again, as with Keyes' script, the small details are often the most charmingly realized.  For example, Scrooge has a barely noticeable, tiny loss of balance as he leans out the train window to warn the incoming Launchpad that there's "no place to land" the Joyrider in the area where the path of Scrooge's gold train has been blocked.  Similarly, when Armstrong lands Gyro's copter and Gyro pops his head out of the canopy, Gyro's hair ruffles for a moment (due to the downdraft caused by the decelerating rotors) before settling down (probably a bit more quickly than they should in real life, but what the hey).  These little frissons are completely unnecessary, which is what makes them so charming. 

Even better than these bits is the "LIGHT-BULB!" moment at which the desperate HD&L suddenly realize that they can fight back against the toy assault.  The sequence of shots in which the reality of the situation dawns on Huey...

... reminds me of nothing so much as one of the more famous pages from one of Carl Barks' best DONALD DUCK adventure stories.  Granted, I think it was much harder for Barks to pull off this "mood transition" in his particular medium -- he was dealing with discrete comic-book panels, rather than a continuous flow of animated images -- but the mere fact that I can make such a comparison and expect it to be taken reasonably seriously is quite a compliment to the good folks at TMS, I think.

I'm more impressed with "Armstrong" now than I was when I first watched it.  As noted above, the story is fairly predictable, but one can hardly argue with the total package.  Nor can one argue with the incontrovertible fact that DuckTales has well and truly hit its stride by this point.  And the "next ep up" doesn't exactly represent a step back...

UPDATE (10/19/12):  Joe Torcivia reminded me of the non-trivial similarity between the appearance of Armstrong and that of "Robert, the Robot," the titular one-shot mechano of the lead story of DONALD DUCK #28 (March 1953).  In truth, as rendered on the cover by Carl Barks...

and in the story itself, by Dick Moores...

... I'd be hard-pressed to argue that Robert is more intimidating than even the benevolent Armstrong who vacuumed the floors and poured coffee out of his finger.  But you must admit, the physical similarity is most intriguing.





(GeoX)  [There's] a problem with plots like this: they're philosophically incoherent. Say you're supposed to complete the following sentence: "Robots may sometimes seem more efficient than human beings, but they can never truly replace people, because_____________" You would probably fill in something like "they lack the intangible assets--creativity, tenacity, heart; the human spirit, in other words--that got us where we are today." If instead you put down "they'll take over our satellites and steal our money and try to kill us," you would probably get some odd looks. I mean, I approve of the humanistic impulse that leads writers to assert that mechanization cannot solve all our problems, but things like this present just the opposite message: I'm pretty sure there is no documented real-world case of a robot Turning Evil, so if that's the only potential problem, then I guess we're good to go! Right?

Well, not necessarily.  The difference between a human Turning Evil and a robot Turning Evil is that there's at least a chance that the human can be persuaded to turn aside from his or her evil ways and repent.  The robot, by contrast, can only be "reformed" by brute force: "reprogramming," "pulling the plug," or outright obliteration.  The "reprogramming" option seems to work well often enough when the mechanical adversary is a computer, as we've seen in numerous episodes of Star Trek and (Harvey "fanboy" alert!) in the 1969 RICHIE RICH story "Convac: The Ultimate Computer."  With robots, on the other hand, you're generally restricted to things like, well, dumping water on them and hoping that they short out.  So the "potential problem," provided that it ever turns up, might prove to be a most intractable one.

(Greg)  [Armstrong] goes to the rock tomb and grabs as many rocks as [it] can stand and throws them up the hill... It creates a makeshift ugly statue of Scrooge (the ugly top hat gives it away).

The comics adaptation in DT #1 tells a different story:

Though I agree with Greg that the statue in the animated version is supposed to be Scrooge, I think that the comics gag makes more sense.  Gyro, after all, created Armstrong, whereas the robot has just barely been introduced to Scrooge.

(Greg)  We then cut to the podium with Scrooge announcing the air race between LP and Armstrong.  Gyro is here along with the nephews, Webby and even Mrs. Featherby...

... and the question that obviously comes to mind is: Where is Mrs. Beakley?  Not just in this scene, but in the entire episode.  Surely, her job as nanny to the boys would have been put in every bit as much peril as were Duckworth's limo-cleaning and vacuuming tasks, so why wasn't that addressed?  Come to think of it, wasn't Webby deserving of some attention at "tuck-in time," too?  My guess is that Webby wasn't included in the original script and was put into this scene simply because someone wanted her to get her ten seconds' worth of "work" in.   

(Greg)  [Armstrong]'s laser of doom melts the bicycle tires on cue... Louie calls [Armstrong] out for MURDERING their bikes.  I speak for everyone in this one: [It] melted the front tire you jerk!  It'll be all right.

Um, as Launchpad said about the Golden Condor, those bikes will never play the violin again.  The entire wheel assembly has been melted down, not just the tires.  I can't really blame Louie for going off like this, even given that the boys were facing a malevolent robot at the time.

Next: Episode 15, "Sir Gyro de Gearloose."

1 comment:

Joe Torcivia said...

Let’s not forget Armstrong’s comic-book ancestor…