Sunday, January 27, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 24, "Treasure of the Golden Suns, Part One: Don't Give Up the Ship"


The above, of course, is NOT the original title card for this scene; for the edited, two-hour "movie" version of the pilot adventure, "Treasure of the Golden Suns" greeted our eyes here.  Whatever the specific message, this is quite simply one of the most meaningful moments in the history of TV animation.  The impact that "Golden Suns" had on the TV-toon landscape -- especially on those who (like Pete Fernbaugh) literally grew up during the series' initial run -- is, I believe, best encapsulated by Burger Beagle here:


Though I was 24 years old at the time, "Golden Suns" shook up my fannish world in a very similar fashion.  The show hit me at precisely the right time; I was two years removed from diving into Duck-comics fandom in a major, albeit unorthodox, way (by buying two sets of the Another Rainbow CARL BARKS LIBRARY), and I was slowly starting to catch up with Barks stories that I'd not previously seen, thanks to the year-old Gladstone Comics line.  I therefore came to the series with a relatively modest number of preconceived notions about how the characters "should" act.  At the same time, I had learned enough about the Ducks' world that I was able to appreciate how well DuckTales went about the business of interpreting it.  The element of surprise was at work as well; having "uncoupled" from contemporary TV animation a long time before, I only learned of the series' impending debut through a blurb in Geoffrey Blum's CROSSTALK column in the Summer of 1987.  Even then, the main purpose of the shout-out was to trumpet a new, adventure-focused DUCKTALES comic (which would ultimately be renamed UNCLE $CROOGE ADVENTURES, so as to make room for a DUCKTALES title that actually featured stories set in the slightly different DT universe).

In order for "Golden Suns" to score, of course, the success of the first installment, "Don't Give Up the Ship," was absolutely crucial.  This was, after all, the second of what would ultimately turn out to be three "McDuck Milestone Moments" in which Scrooge McDuck had what amounted to a coming-out party, postdating Barks' introduction of the character in "Christmas on Bear Mountain" and preceding "The Recluse of McDuck Manor," the final chapter of Don Rosa's LIFE AND TIMES OF $CROOGE McDUCK.  These "rich duck debuts" all had very different purposes, but I would argue that "Don't Give Up the Ship" had the trickiest task of them all.  The fact that it succeeds so comprehensively is probably THE single biggest factor in the overall success of the "Golden Suns" cycle.

"Bear Mountain" introduces Scrooge as a gimmick character, a means to the slapsticky end of getting Donald and HD&L to a remote mountain cabin, there to have their (theoretically) hilarious encounters with DA... BEARS!  Barks himself admitted that in thinking up "rich old Uncle Scrooge," he was simply swiping from Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL -- hardly a stable platform from which to launch the career of an iconic comics legend.  Of more concern to us at present is the prior relationship (if any) between Scrooge, Donald, and the boys.  Barks gives us vague hints, and nothing more, on this score, but it's pretty obvious that the relationship is tenuous at best.  Donald and HD&L know of Scrooge and his skinflint reputation, but they clearly don't know him particularly well, while Scrooge knows enough about Donald to recognize that he's chicken ("That quivering waterfowl would flinch at his own shadow!") but not well enough to understand that any show of "bravery" on Donald's part would almost certainly have to be the result of an accident or coincidence, as indeed it turns out to be here.

Symbolic of the disconnect between the Ducks in this story is the "forced" nature of the party scene on the final page -- the only time during the story when the Ducks are actually together, by the way.  Scrooge's "act" as the largesse-dispensing grand seigneur seems so artificial that it's fairly obvious that he's rarely been asked to fill such a role before.  The story ends with a gag, rather than with any sort of meaningful "bonding moment" between Scrooge and his kin.  At this moment, it seems very unlikely that Scrooge has established enough of a connection with Donald and HD&L to justify bringing Scrooge back in another story.  Barks, however, saw some potential in the character and decided to bring him back -- albeit in a somewhat more pleasant and genial form -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

The atmospherics of "The Recluse of McDuck Manor" are quite different.  Following the vector of the relentless logic that he used to illuminate the growth, development, maturation, and ultimate calcification of Scrooge's character in the previous chapters of LIFE OF $CROOGE, Don Rosa presents the 1947 version of the old miser as a defiant anchorite who has achieved near-mythical status during the period of his total withdrawal from the outside world.  Duckling Donald's juvenile booty-kicking during "The Empire-Builder from Calisota" aside, this truly IS a "first encounter" between Scrooge and his relatives -- a meeting that's initially so cold and formal that it might as well be a first encounter between representatives of alien civilizations.  Scrooge even feels the need to formally define his relationship to Donald:

In stark contrast to what will be their attitude towards Scrooge at the start of "Don't Give Up the Ship," HD&L seem keen on establishing a link with their forbidding great-uncle right from the start of "Recluse" (not that Scrooge initially appreciates the gesture):

As things turn out, not even a successful cooperative battle against the Beagle Boys is enough to turn Scrooge's attitude completely around and convince him to commit to a life of renewed adventure.  Instead, the boys literally have to goad Scrooge into formally restating his philosophy of "the strenuous life" and then deciding to go about the task of living up to his own words.  As we'll see, the manner in which the Scrooge/HD&L bond is developed during "Don't Give Up the Ship," while not without its logical difficulties, is far less manipulative, and, to my mind, somewhat more emotionally satisfying to the audience.
The situation depicted in the first act of "Don't Give Up the Ship" is quite an interesting hodgepodge -- and it needs to be in order to have a chance of pleasing both complete Duck "newbies" and longtime fans of the Duck comics.  The Ducks' pre-series relationship appears to be more akin to "Bear Mountain" than "Recluse"; that is, they seem to know each other, but not intimately.  Even at this late date, for example, Scrooge seems surprised by Donald's decision to join the Navy ("You can't be serious about this crazy idea!"), which would seem to suggest that he just recently found out about it, possibly at the very moment when Donald asked him to take care of the Nephews.  That doesn't bespeak a very close relationship between the adult Ducks.  Compared to the Scrooge/HD&L "bond," however, it's practically lovey-dovey.  I mean, the boys don't even want to acknowledge Scrooge's physical presence during the leave-taking scene at the dock.  I'd almost have preferred the yawning indifference that the Quack Pack Nephews would probably have evinced here.  The boys' reaction is so negative that it can't possibly be explained by Huey's stereotypical complaint that Scrooge is "so cheap!".  Instead, we get the impression that whatever past dealings the Nephews have had with Scrooge can't have been pleasant ones.  I can't imagine this set of characters having gone on exciting adventures in the past, can you?


As if to set the stage for the boys' blow-off, the scenes with Scrooge prior to the dock encounter (and following that wonderful, Barks-inspired "swimming scene" in the Money Bin) trade heavily on well-established stereotypes of Scrooge's cheapness.  I'd even argue that Scrooge comes off worse here than he does in a typical comic-book gag where he reads newspapers at the library to save money or tries to chisel a free cup of coffee.  Blowing off a charity worker, greedily snatching a hatful of cheese samples, and "tipping" a cab driver with mousetrap bait seem to be going "below and behind" what we would expect of a hopeless miser.  Indeed, such moments would later be treated much more seriously (though with highly debatable results) in "Down and Out in Duckburg."  It must be admitted, however, that gags of this type indicate that writers Jymn Magon, Bruce Talkington, and Mark Zaslove -- the heaviest of heavy hitters among DuckTales scriveners -- were clearly paying close attention to all of the featured items in Barks' UNCLE $CROOGE comics.

If the Scrooge/HD&L relationship doesn't seem to promise a happy McDuck Mansion household -- but wait, it gets better -- then the Donald/HD&L relationship is a pleasant surprise.  Personally, I find the affection shown between Donald and his Nephews here, and, in fact, throughout the series, to be most refreshing.  This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the DuckTales Donald is consistently portrayed as something of a stumblebum.  The Nephews of many Barks and Rosa stories would no doubt respond to such repeated fallibility with a mixture of exasperation and cynicism -- that is, when they weren't rescuing Donald from the consequences of his (frequently self-defeating) actions.  Not here -- the DT HD&L are always legitimately excited to see their uncle, always unhappy when they have to part company with him, generally compliant with his requests, and devoted to making him look good whenever they can.  There's a hint that the boys can still be hellions (why else would Donald have to warn them about "backtalk" and "spitballs"?), but I don't get the sense that Donald was the standard target of their pre-series hijinx.  The boys' pivot from a heartfelt embrace of the departing Donald to a refusal to raise their eyes to Scrooge is one of the most striking moments of this ultra-significant scene.

The early days of HD&L's confinement, er, domicilage at McDuck Mansion (the nature of which building, BTW, they appear to be completely unfamiliar with -- another indication that they haven't had much contact with Scrooge) find the boys copping something uncomfortably close to a "Quack Pack Nephews" attitude.  "We haven't been allowed to do a single thing in this whole house!"?  Really?  I don't see Duckworth guarding the stairs (yet).  Plus, as GeoX notes, HD&L's accommodations don't seem all that incommodious.  Perhaps they would have seemed more abhorrent had a couple of additional gags about the lousy reception and programming on the boys' TV (not to mention some cutting comments about a lack of gifts from Scrooge!) not been cut from the final draft of the episode script.

Flicked forks heading for the ceiling in 5... 4... 3...

Happily, once HD&L decide to follow Scrooge to the Money Bin, the "establishment of harmonious coexistence" is well and truly UNDERWAY!  We start with the boys trying to get closer to Scrooge but instead getting in his hair, leading to fairly predictable misunderstandings between the Ducks.  The boys get into some mild trouble here -- breaking some vases, fishing in Scrooge's Money Bin, trying to take the "junky, old" boat without asking Scrooge first -- but the writers wisely avoid making them act too terribly bratty towards their great-uncle, instead depicting their peccadilloes as the results of juvenile high spirits and enthusiasm.  When interacting with Duckworth, however, the boys' notorious, Cain-raising past is given a little more latitude.  HD&L's "battle of wits and wills" with Scrooge's tight-lipped butler is a cute sidelight throughout this episode (though, strangely enough, it will never again get quite the same amount of attention in any future ep, with the arguable exception of certain moments during "Take Me Out of the Ballgame").  Duckworth alerts us as to what's coming with his easily-overlooked reaction to the boys' glee at moving into McDuck Mansion:

Shortly thereafter, we get the verbal fencing in the attic, during which Duckworth teases not knowing which Nephew is which and covertly questions the boys' literacy.  HD&L get revenge when they escape Duckworth's watchful eye and follow their uncle, in the process pulling a trick that certainly wouldn't have been out of place in a cartoon short of the 1930s or 1940s.


As if all of these introductions and historical shout-outs aren't enough, the first act of "Ship" also features the introduction of the Junior Woodchucks, the Beagle Boys, and our "VERY special guest villain" El Capitan!  I think you'd be hard-pressed to find ANY 11-minute span in the history of TV animation so overstuffed with milestones of such meaty moment.  Starting the boys' membership in the JW's at "ground zero" is, of course, the only reasonable choice under the circumstances, since the mass audience needed to be formally introduced to the organization with a minimum of fuss.  One particularly intriguing thing about the "recruitment scenario" is the specific reason why Scrooge decides to let the Woodchuck recruiter make his fateful spiel.  With HD&L already having been depicted as rambunctious and (under certain circs) moody, it would make perfect sense for solicitor-scourge Scrooge to embrace the Woodchucks as potentially having a positive effect on the boys' behavior.  This "origin moment" is very different from Barks' introduction of the JWs as a self-important outfit that HD&L just happened to have belonged to all along, but it works extremely well in this context.

It takes a lot to upstage the Beagle Boys in their first (in a manner of speaking) series appearance, but El Capitan manages to do so.  El Cap is a major reason why "Golden Suns" rocks, of course, and the writers show admirable restraint in their initial handling of the character by refusing to rush into a detailed investigation of his creepy backstory.  Here, he simply seems to be a mysterious old guy who's searching for the key to a treasure -- something that every fan of UNCLE $CROOGE comics, or even RICHIE RICH comics, can relate to quite easily.  We only get occasional flashes illuminating the obsessive madness that drives him and will ultimately make him such a memorable foe.

Scrooge's sudden "swerve" at the start of Act II -- which he performs even as HD&L, having overheard his unkind comments, are unhappily leaving the Mansion -- is probably the most debatable moment of "Ship."  Granted, Scrooge does at least try to justify his change of heart regarding HD&L, though for somewhat self-centered reasons; he softens towards the boys because "[they] remind me of myself at that age... cunning, sharp, resourceful."  The timing of his admission still seems rather too neat and convenient.  Perhaps I'd be more impressed with his attitude adjustment had he come to that conclusion after a strenuous spell of walking and pondering in the Worry Room.  Or... say, is it possible that that was where he was supposed to BE in this scene?  He's wearing gym clothes (of a sort) and walking around in circles, Duckworth has post-workout accoutrements handy, there's padding on the walls and a table in the center... did the animators not get the memo that Scrooge was supposed to be wearing a rut in the floor here?

After the Beagles' heist of the model ship at the Money Bin museum, the relationship between Scrooge and HD&L hits the nadir that we all knew it would have to reach before the real bonding process could begin.  The boys "formally" don the mantle of Junior Woodchucks, begin to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge concealed within the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook...

... and somehow manage to avoid getting themselves killed.  Seriously, there are VERY few episodes in which HD&L find themselves in as many different varieties of peril as they do in the last third of this one.  Perhaps none of the dangers reach the standard Kit Cloudkicker level, but let's give credit where credit is due.  (Let's also admit that some of these perils would probably not be countenanced by present-day animated series.  "Professional juvenile derring-doers on closed set!  Smashing face-first through a glass window is NOT advisable in real life!")

(Incidentally, how much time elapsed between these four scenes?  The boys leave the Mansion via glider at nighttime, but, by the time they reach Scrooge's candy factory, it's mid-morning at least.  How long were they hanging around the L'Orange Theater waiting for the Beagles and El Capitan to show up?  Six, eight hours?  I'm surprised they didn't question Dewey's supposedly outstanding deductive skills at some point.)

The climactic action in the world's most unsanitary candy factory -- seriously, I can't imagine How It's Made countenancing a visit to the place, what with gumballs, pies, and liquid chocolate flying every which way -- ties the episode up in a neat bow in that it gives Scrooge a chance to witness and appreciate the Nephews' quality as heroes in and of themselves, as opposed to "mere" reflections of Scrooge's past.  In responding to the reporter's questions about "family" by appealing to the similarities between HD&L and himself, Scrooge seems to be reiterating the self-centered justifications for tolerating the boys that he previously displayed in the not-Worry Room...

 
... but there's nothing like a cooperative quest to defeat a common foe to help one appreciate what one's allies bring to the table.  Fittingly, the episode (almost) fades out with a heartfelt hug that "bookends" the embrace that HD&L gave Donald at the start.  Scrooge and HD&L are now officially a "team," and the basic character dynamic of the series has been firmly established.

This one 22-minute slab of entertainment was more than enough to sell me on the merits of the series... and I hadn't seen anything yet.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX)  The nitpicker in me has to note: the episode screws up the nephews' names: my understanding is that, 'officially' Huey is red, Dewey is blue, and Louie is green (though, of course, this order is violated all the time). Here, Huey is consistent, but the show can't decide which of the other two is which. This would be okay if this was meant to be a running joke, but no, I'm pretty sure they just screwed up.

(Greg)  Donald admits that [Scrooge] is [cheap] but he is family and I'll take his word for it because if I try to do mallard family relationships with Donald Duck/Scrooge McDuck comics; my brain will fry on cue... Then we get logic break #2 for the episode as Donald tells Louie not to back talk on Scrooge and Dewey is the one who sells it. Wouldn't it hurt for BS&P to change one word so that it would make sense here. Even Plunder and Lightning didn't make THAT mistake. And then when Donald tells Dewey no more spitballs; he's addressing Louie. Oh; great, they ARE going to RUIN the CHALLENGE for Plunder and Lightning's crown barely two minutes in?! Even the movie version of P&L didn't make this kind of mistake. Louie sells it anyway as Donald wants a big hug as the dramatic music beckons. This scene would have been pretty good if the writers didn't SCREW up the addressing of the kids here. Dewey is in blue and Louie is in green. It's always been like this for DECADES! How could the writers SCREW this up?!  

Uh, guys, I don't think they did.  I don't know how Disney Captions rendered the opening verbal exchange between Donald and HD&L, but I sure as heck heard it as:  "No backtalk, Dewey" (Donald looking at Dewey) and "Louie, be good, etc." (Donald looking at Louie).  Granted, interpreting what Donald is saying is often a tough task, but I honestly didn't see or hear any mistakes being made here.  Incidentally, I believe that DuckTales is actually the place where the Huey = red, Dewey = blue, Louie = green color-coding was first explicitly codified.  I imagine that this was done for the same reason that the Beagle Boys were given different names, appearances, and personalities -- to help viewers keep straight who was who.

(Greg)  So we head to jail and inside a jail cell as three dogspeople dressed up in the same gear (green hat, black masks, red shirts, blue pants, brown shoes) are doing jail things like reading...  counting days on the wall with chalk and sleeping on the bed. If you thought the mallard family relationships are confusing; try figuring out the Beagle Boy names; besides Ma Beagle of course. I could NEVER get them straight and I don't think I [am] going to here in this series. The Air Pirates were much easier to figure out. Beagle Boy #1 (we'll call him Chalk Boy until we get him his official name- the pitfalls of ranting on episodes cold.) proclaims that they hit Scrooge's Money bin 299 times which is the number of times they have been arrested.  And here comes the dumb police guard (Jim Cummings) with the JOKEY SURPRISE OF DOOM which is something to sweeten your disposition. Oh boy! After 299 attempts; you would think that...  Oh wait; it's the beginning of the LAW OF DTVA which is that the police force is more stupid than everyone else; including the heels.

And there's worse, much worse, to come, of course.  Would it be too much to ask the Duckburg Police Department to put the Beagles in separate cells, at least?

(Greg)  Huey proclaims that he was going to send the boat to Donald Duck. So Huey admitted that he was going to STEAL from Scrooge? You just made Scrooge look like a even bigger babyface now. Scrooge blows that off because it's not junky; it's priceless. Ummm; Scrooge; it's not just that...it's because they were STEALING it from you. And then he tell them that they are grounded until further notice. Huh?! Didn't Scrooge ground them from the start?! 

Actually, it was more like the Nephews grounded themselves

(Greg)  The nephews then break all logic and reason by walking on the power lines!! NOW WAIT A MINUTE! Were they not inside the roof tube just a moment ago? Shouldn't they be on ground level? Logic break #4 for the episode and the first one I don't accept at all. And it makes no sense for ducks to step on power lines either. 

I always said that those lads were well grounded.  (See what I did there?)  And who's to say where that "roof tube" led to?  Recall the scene in "All Ducks on Deck" in which Admiral Grimmitz dove into the tube to avoid the missile, the missile followed him and exploded, and Grimmitz poked his charred head out of the remains of the tube immediately thereafter.  Perhaps the "roof tube" was a false-front tube just like that one?

Next:  Episode 25, "Treasure of the Golden Suns, Part Two:  Wrongway in Ronguay."

6 comments:

Comicbookrehab said...

JIm Cummings didn't hold back when playing El Cap.

Also, this debuted months after "Sport Goofy: Soccermania" aired on NBC, so seeing Scrooge, the Beagles and the nephews wasn't particularly jarring - their characterization is pretty consistant, though Scrooge is a LOT less manic here. He can make Donald look like Huckleberry Hound sometimes. :)

Daniel J. Neyer said...

Call me cynical, but I've actually always liked the recurring police idiocy concerning the Beagles in Ducktales; it reminds me of some of Barks' jabs at the penal system, particularly in the House of Haunts story (where Barks had originally planned to have the Beagles being tutored in crime tactics by the prison authorities), as well as the bit in the Loony Lunar Gold Rush where Dangerous Dan McShrew is punished with a five-dollar fine.

Regarding the Junior Woodchucks in Don't Give up the Ship, it's interesting to note that Rosa used a virtually-identical "origin" for the Nephews joining the Chucks, only in Whatta Lotta Jargon (I know I'm not intializing the title correctly) it was Donald enrolling the Nephews in the Woodchucks to curb their rambunctious antics (which were actually a lot more reminiscent of the animated shorts than anything H, D and L did in Golden Suns).

Ryan Wynns said...

To (derivately) paraphrase Comic Book Guy:

Best. Review. Ever.

I hope to have additional thoughts to share in the near future, but for now, I'm kind of speechless. :)

-- Ryan

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris,

I'm very impressed with your comparison of the three different takes on Scrooge's "coming out" occasion. Your breakdown of the characterizations and the dynamic between Scrooge, Donald, and the nephews is right on the mark and exceptionally thorough -- you made each seem "real".

Not only is the episode -- as you pointed out -- very busy, but you brought home that the true thrust of the episode is the arc of Scrooge and the nephews' bonding. The conflict with the Beagle Boys' and the chaos in the chocolate factory are there as a vehicle for said character arc; most episodes of DT (and of just about all WDTVA series, for that matter) are defined by the trappings of the premise (the setting, the set pieces, the villain(s)’ scheme, etc.), with the character arcs worked into it. In this case, it seems virtually the other way around.

I really hope that one day, I get to see the original “Treasure of the Golden Suns” title frame.

-- Ryan

Chris Barat said...

CBR,

I also saw Soccermania when it first aired. Oddly enough, by the time I saw it again in the early 90s, I had TOTALLY forgotten that Scrooge had been voiced by Will Ryan. I guess that Alan Young did a pretty comprehensive job of brainwashing me. I did, however, remember that the Beagles weren't quite the same.

Chris

Chris Barat said...

Ryan,

Thanks for the kind words. I wish I could provide that original title card but I can't seem to find the videotape with the two hour version of "Golden Suns" on it. (I got that from another source since I didn't have a VCR back in 1987.)

Chris