Sunday, November 4, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 16, "Merit-Time Adventure"

Much as the recent Presidential tracking polls have seemed to range all over the map, the verdict on "Merit-Time Adventure" seems to be quite mixed.  Joe, Greg, and I enjoyed it, albeit with some qualifications; GeoX, not so much.  The ep's main point, that of helping Webby to (in Greg's words) "earn her over wings," is driven home with little subtlety, and Sharman Divono's plot bears many of the dreaded stigmata of a Scooby-Doo episode, which one would like to think that the WDTVA folks, dedicated as they were to making their own distinctive mark in the TV-cartoon world, would have consciously gone out of their way to avoid.  Still, when compared to OTHER attempts to tackle the same themes and use the same approaches -- some of which took place during the series itself, some of which arose much later -- "Merit-Time" winds up looking surprisingly good.  It certainly didn't deserve the unfortunate fate of being the easily overlooked "fifth wheel" during the week of syndication dominated by the four-part "firefly fruit" serial "Catch as Cash Can."


After reading (or should that be "enduring"?) kaboom!'s "Rightful Owners" serial, I have a much greater appreciation for how well Divono handled the ticklish issue of making Webby a stronger character.  Whereas Warren Spector took the precedent-dissing, politically correct approach, abruptly turning Webby into something of a hectoring know-it-all, Divono portrayed young Miss Vanderquack in the far more believable role of a dutiful neophyte Junior Woodchuck trying to learn some new skills.  The "lessons" that Webby teaches the initially complacent HD&L and Doofus about "sticking to one's last" and putting in the time to achieve one's goals are demonstrated by actions, not by words.  The same feminist message gets across, but it slides much more smoothly down the gullet. 

The only moment where Webby can be said to have slipped into something akin to "Wise Webbina"(tm) mode during "Merit-Time" occurs when she implores the grieving boys to "never give up hope" for the missing Scrooge.  As she did in part one of "Rightful Owners," Webby appeals to Junior Woodchuck principles in this speech, but the appeal is more in the nature of a reminder than a lecture -- and, since the boys are so terribly broken up and despairing at that moment, that was precisely the right tone to use.

Another particularly neat (and easily ignored) aspect of "Merit-Time" is Scrooge's immense work rate.  By this, I refer to Scrooge's willingness to take direct, "hands-on" action in his efforts to uncover the mystery of the ship-chomping sea serpent terrorizing Duckinsack Island and laying waste to his shipping business.  Carl Barks' Scrooge was a pretty active cuss, to be sure, searching out long-lost treasures, going on globe-girdling trips to inspect his business empire, and all, but it'd be a challenge to find a Barks story in which Scrooge is forced to assume so MANY different roles in such a brief period of time.  From dealing with authority (in a manner of speaking), angry locals, and truculent antagonists in traditional "big operator" style...

... to donning a disguise (a somewhat cheesy one, but what the hey) and infiltrating Dogface Pete's warehouse in an effort to discover a link between Pete and the sea serpent...

... to escaping from bondage in villain Archibald Quackerbill's hideout and scuba-ing to the aid of Launchpad and the kids in a manner that would make Kimba proud (and perhaps a bit jealous)...

... to staging a one-duck invasion of the sea serpent's control room, wielding a harpoon with deadly intent in the process...

... Scrooge arguably makes an even stronger impression than Webby here, and that's quite a feat.  I'm not even sure if Divono was conscious of the fact that she was allowing Scrooge to upstage Webby a bit.

"Merit-Time" isn't quite as obvious an homage to Scooby-Doo as some of the later DT episodes written or co-written by Richard Merwin -- largely because of the absence of any "phony ghosts" or "pseudo-supernatural elements" -- but the basic tropes are present.  Their success rate, however, can be charitably described as mixed.  Things get off to a good start; the foggy, moody opening sequence is extremely effective, with "victim" Quackerbill doing a good (almost too good, in all honesty) job of selling his fate at the hands of the serpent.  This one scene is far scarier than anything seen in Barks' "Terror of the River," which has been cited as a potential influence on this plotline... and we still have a few good frights to go.  This is somewhat ironic, given that the operator of the phony serpent in "Terror" had the explicit goal of scaring people silly, whereas Quackerbill and his one-eyed compadre simply wanted to use their "pet" to establish a monopoly on the salvage business.  You would think that "The Scarer," of all people, would have wanted to create a serpent like this, one with a truly scary demeanor.  Perhaps folks were more easily scared in 1946.  Somehow, given the events of World War II, I doubt it. 

Next, we get an attempt at a classic Scooby-Doo "feint job," with Dogface Pete and Captain Mallard (called Captain Scrimshaw in the Italian dub -- a somewhat better choice, IMHO) palling around, mumbling about secret meetings and such.  The problem is that, between the first and second scenes involving conversations between Pete and Mallard, we have already seen the serpent invade Pete's warehouse (presumably this is part of Quackerbill's effort to "eliminate of the competition," though the serpent appears to be engaging in more or less random destruction, as opposed to targeted destruction of Pete's salvaged cargo) and heard Pete evince concern for the captured Scrooge, so we already suspect that this second conference does not mean what we are led to believe it means.  This is true even though Mallard's earlier use of the word "unfortunate" to describe Pete's claim on Scrooge's cargo suggests that Pete knows how to manipulate the law.  I suspect that Mallard was speaking in this case as Scrooge's employee, the one tasked with getting the lost cargo to Duckburg, and that he really does feel that it is "unfortunate" that Pete profited from Scrooge's loss.  (By the way, GeoX, this is why "the 'stolen cargo' angle didn't go anywhere" -- there WAS no "stolen cargo" in the first place.)  The cooperation between Pete and Mallard then becomes your classic "temporarily unite to stop a common threat" scenario.  Somewhat clumsily staged, but acceptable.

The one Scooby-influenced bit that I didn't think worked here was the Little Wave's first direct encounter with the sea serpent (the equivalent of the Mystery Inc. gang's first encounter with the fake-ghost-or-whatever, the one that precedes the final encounter and the grand unmasking).  The gang's plan to sneak out of the harbor at night and trap the serpent with... A NET (and I don't mean Funicello!)... is, quite frankly, idiotic.  The non-swimming Launchpad is knocked into the ocean and doesn't call for help, undercutting Webby's later life-saving effort, which is supposed to be her big action climax.  And above all... why doesn't Quackerbill attack the Little Wave right then and there? He's even got the advantage of the cover of darkness.  Instead, after freeing itself from the net (hardly a daunting task, given the net's size), the serpent once again descends to the depths.  When next we see Quackerbill and his confrere, they're resupplying the serpent and complaining about having to get rid of Launchpad and (say it with me!) "those meddling kids."  A little bit late for that, fellas.

Despite the weak "first encounter" scene and the damage it does to the effectiveness of Webby's rescue of Launchpad, the final battle between the forces of good (well, semi-good, in Pete's case) and evil recaptures the high quality of the opening scene.  As unmaskings go, the "reveal" of the true nature of the serpent is first-rate.  Scrooge's discovery of the submerged control cabin is OK, but the real treat is the roped-and-tied serpent's sudden "skin-shedding" and the disclosure of what lies beneath:

I especially like the way in which the animators give the construction crane some all-too-realistic snapping movements during this sequence.  Again, Donald braining "The Scarer" with a wrench and climbing up the gullet of the fake monster to greet the Nephews in "Terror of the River," while fun to look at, doesn't pack quite the same dramatic punch. 

Along with "Superdoo!", "Merit-Time" represents one of the few times that DuckTales tried to do something truly substantial involving the Junior Woodchucks.  (Doofus, of course, serves as a perpetual reminder of the organization, since he's rarely seen without his Woodchuck cap; I'm talking here about episodes explicitly concerned with merit-badge competitions and similarly recognizable Woodchuck activities.)  I have no real objection to the Woodchucks' being turned into a coed organization, though Webby's pink Woodchuck uniform seems like rubbing it in...

... nor do I have any quarrel with the portrayal of HD&L as being a bit smug about earning their sailing merit badges during the trip to Duckinsack Island.  (Actually, I thought that they'd earned "seamanship" badges by helping Scrooge to sail the treasure ship out of Ronguay.  Perhaps "sailing" and "seamanship" count as separate disciplines according to Woodchuck protocol.)  Yes, I'm fully aware that the boys are traditionally presented in the comics as being deathly serious about bagging these baubles.  The difference here is that HD&L, in a DuckTales context, are every bit as new to the Woodchucks as Webby.  Remember that they join the organization during part one of "Treasure of the Golden Suns" and quickly earn a bushel of badges even before the adventure makes it out of Scrooge's candy factory.  One can easily imagine the boys REALLY getting into Woodchuckery after that, continuing to add to their medal haul (even as Webby struggles to keep up), and THEN indulging the feeling that earning the sailing badge will be a piece of cake.  No, the real problem here is that Doofus is presented as being just as successful a badge-winner as the Nephews, in flat contradiction to the later "Superdoo!".  There's no real explanation for this, apart from the standard "right hand, left hand" inconsistency that attends any animated series to which a multiplicity of writers contribute.  Or perhaps Divono duplicated Vic Lockman's mistake and figured that Doofus had to be a competent Woodchuck simply because he's bigger than HD&L.

I know that the temptation is there to regard HD&L and Doofus' behavior towards Webby here as being somewhat dickish.  In all honesty, their deportment isn't all that bad.  The worst it gets is when they respond to Webby's wish for a "second" merit badge with the claim that they'll soon own 200 badges and then yuck it up a bit.  Even this is blessedly free of Nelson Muntz-style "Hah-hah!" attitude towards Webby; the lads are simply chortling over their own prowess.

Once the kids get on board the Little Wave, the boys actually seem quite supportive of Webby's efforts to earn her sailing badge, even as they themselves goof off and play pirate.  "I think that Webby's sailing merit badge is in the bag," remarks HDorL (I can't tell which, since the boys are in Woodchuck and/or sailing gear throughout) as Webby takes the Wave out to sea.  Later, one Nephew shows another sort of support for Webby by stroking her shoulder in a soothing fashion as the kids grieve over Scrooge's apparent fate.  After it becomes obvious that Webby is the best sailor of the group, the boys (and I'm including Launchpad here) acknowledge the fact and let her pilot the boat during the climactic action.  I know that I'm comparing shiny red apples and rind-diseased oranges here, but imagine how the HD&L of Quack Pack would have behaved during these scenesNo, while this is not the boys' finest hour, it could have been far, FAR worse.

As for "Launchpad, the Junior Woodchuck troop leader"... well, at least Divono addresses the question of HOW such a shocking thing might have come to pass, which is more than Michael Keyes did during "Superdoo!".  Ironically, Launchpad may owe his unexpectedly lofty status to the Junior Woodchuck policy of handing out merit badges for everything under the sun.  In LP's case, he earned his badges for, in Doofus' words, "surviving catastrophes on land, sea, and air."  And given the sheer number of catastrophes in which LP has been involved, you can easily imagine how many trinkets he may have pocketed over the years.  In "Superdoo!", by contrast, LP is presented as "the all-time merit badge champion," with no explanation whatsoever being given (apart from the fact that LP needs to be bested and dissed as part of the super-powered Doofus' campaign to alienate all of his erstwhile friends).

"Merit-Time" isn't a front-rank DT episode, but it's entertaining, thrilling, and more than "Heart"-filled enough to rank as a fairly substantial success.





(GeoX)  [HD&L] have an awful, horrific, intolerable chant where they go "Wacka-Wacka-Woodchuck." Whoever came up with that one should certainly be thrown off a steep embankment.

I'm not all that crazy about the bit, either, and whoever did the Italian dub agreed with both of us, changing the chant to "Tutti per uno, uno per tutti!" ("One for all, and all for one!").  Not especially inspired -- not even original, in fact -- but at least it doesn't sound like it could have been dreamed up by Fozzie Bear.

(GeoX)  …and Doofus's crush on Launchpad is becoming somewhat creepily intense.

I would have preferred that Divono take the "Hero for Hire" approach and portray Doofus as more of a "naively supportive" pal than the "star-goofy groupie" he appears to be here.  At least Doofus is relatively competent (inedible biscuits aside) here.  

(Greg)  Mr. Quackerbill [falls] into the sea much to Captain Mallard's appalled sense. Captain Mallard calls for all the lifeboats as the boat is now at a 45 degree angle and the back explodes into flames. Huh?! That makes no sense at all since the serpent ate a section of boat and not the oil line which would have caused the fire. 

Yeah, the scene was already suspenseful enough without throwing a more-or-less gratuitous explosion into the mix.

(Greg)  [The boys] are all wearing matching paint splashing bathing suits (purple/orange splashes for the nephews; green/purple splashes for Doofus) and orange life jackets (so we can be safe according to the DORA LAW OF DOOM)... [Webby's] wearing a one piece bathing suit and pink trunks of course because she's supposed to be uncool see. Launchpad is manning the anchor (I think) wearing yellow/Red V trunks...

... and later, we'll see Scrooge wearing $-patterned boxers.  What was up with the weird 'n wild underwear in this episode?

(Greg)  Webby proclaims that the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook proclaims that they shouldn't give up. Umm; you don't need a book to say that Webagail. We got hundreds of cartoon episodes in history saying that same message. I think you're just showing off now.

Yes, but the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook makes the sentiment OFFICIAL.  At least, the Junior Woodchucks would claim so...

(Greg)  The nephews arrive with the big ass candy cane LIFE SAVER OF DOOM (HA!) and they throw it into the water blindly and Webby and Launchpad take some really good bumps off of it. Nice to see BS&P cut some slack on female kids taking bumps like that. Launchpad and Webby get onto the boat and then invoke the eye contact violence on the nephews; just to make the nephews blush. HEE HEE!

Actually, I'm not sure WHAT the Nephews are doing hereIs this a personal interpretation of the Three Wise Monkeys?  Whatever it is, it's cute. 

Next:  Episode 17, "Bermuda Triangle Tangle."

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