Monday, May 13, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 33, "Where No Duck Has Gone Before"

With this post, we reach the halfway point (in production order, that is) of DuckTales Season One.  Thanks to the passage of 25 years' time, I knew from the start that I probably would be able to come up with some new things to say about each episode, but I am still pleasantly surprised at the sheer number and the overall quality of new ideas that have been stirred up in my brain as a result of revisiting the series.  Oftentimes (and as I had originally hoped!), these ideas have been developed in the process of replying to others' concerns and critiques... and, wouldn't you know it, "Where No Duck Has Gone Before" provides another prime example of this phenomenon.  One of the first season's best sources of good, old-fashioned laughs, "Where No Duck" was a favorite of mine from the get-go, and my affection for the ep is shared by Joe and Pete Fernbaugh, but GeoX's and Greg's "mixed" reviews raised some issues that do need to be addressed.

Though it was the third episode to be broadcast in DT's first week of strip syndication, "Where No Duck" was the last episode of the "Launchpad Trilogy" to be produced.  As did "Hero for Hire" and "Top Duck," the ep is primarily concerned with establishing Launchpad McQuack's relationship to the wider world.  In "Hero," we saw the connection between LP and what one might call the "Duck 'universe' at large," as he grappled with the question of what the public image of a hero should be.  "Top Duck," of course, laid out the relationship between LP and his family (which the series unfortunately allowed to lie in exactly the same location for the rest of its run).  Now, in "Where No Duck," we get a close focus on LP's bond with his young pals HD&L and Doofus.  The question before the house is, how does Launchpad deal with the newly-revealed existence of a rival to his position as "heroic role model"?  As one might expect, after a decidedly shaky start...

... LP proves his mettle in his own inimitable way, that winning combination of dauntless derring-do, inspired improvisation, and old-fashioned dumb luck. 

Though he may not say so openly, Launchpad clearly cares very deeply about what the Nephews and his "little buddy Doofus" think of him.  It is this concern that helps explain his reaction to Major Courage, which GeoX strafed as follows:

...[R]ight from the beginning--well before we meet the Courage-actor and learn what a cad he is--Launchpad is seething with resentment towards the guy and fulminating about how he's a "phony." We are clearly supposed to sympathize with this. But for fuck's sake, of course he's not an actual space pilot--he's an actor. This idea that the two of them should be somehow in competition is completely idiotic. "If you ask me, real heroes don't need cameras and makeup," Launchpad mutters. No, you lunatic, but actors on TV shows do. You think he'd somehow be more heroic if he were a less telegenic actor? This boggles my mind with its stupidity. 

To tell you the truth, I never got the impression that LP was unable to tell the difference between a play-acting hero and the real thing.  I think that LP's real ire was directed at the boys for confusing image and reality so easily, and that he simply projected that indignation onto Courage (which, given Courage's unlikable personality, was quite easy to do).  You might say that LP's antennae were prematurely picking up signals that Courage was not merely an actor playing a role, but a true moral coward, someone who would be perfectly willing to abandon others and try to save himself (not to mention his career in "stage, screen, and television") when legitimate trouble arrived.  Perhaps LP had seen enough of Courage of the Cosmos to get an early sense of this.

The real character-related sticking point of this episode, it seems to me, has to be the fact that HD&L display the exact same wide-eyed enthusiasm about Courage as does their presumably more naive pal Doofus.  Greg's lamenting of the fact that the Nephews had apparently been "brainwashed" would probably have been even more doleful had he been more familiar with the typical characterization of HD&L in the comics.  It's not that HD&L are so naive as to think that Courage of the Cosmos actually takes place in space, or that the redesigned Starship Phoenix' flight is anything but a really, really nice example of great special-effects work; it's that they join Doofus in falling head over webs into the obvious trap of automatically regarding Courage as worthy of hero-worship.  One of the determining factors in one's assessment of "Where No Duck" is one's opinion as to how likely HD&L would be to act this way.  Personally, I never had a major problem with it, but then, I think I'm a bit more ecumenical than many Duck fans in terms of accepting alternative characterizations. For this one episode, I was willing to accept the Nephews as being somewhat more naive and "conventionally childlike" than usual.  (At least the boys figured out the truth about the "space adventure" reasonably quickly, just by physically stepping into the Kronks' ship at the beginning of Act Two.  In the scene immediately before that, they were still oohing and aahing over the "nice model," but they subsequently turned on a dime.  Preferably, not one of Scrooge's.)

GeoX cleverly refers to Major Courage as "the Courage-actor" in order to emphasize that we never really get to see the man (or pelican, or whatever he is) behind the TV persona.  While the character does display a reasonable amount of self-awareness when it comes to wanting to hold onto his TV-star gig and the accompanying perks, he does appear to have lost some of his ability to distinguish between what he truly is and what he has been hired to play.  In that respect, he's almost the exact opposite of the fictional sci-fi players featured in a movie that debuted a dozen years after "Where No Duck"...

The stars of the fictional show Galaxy Quest have never been able to disentangle themselves from their popular identification with the roles that made them cult icons, and they heartily resent that fact.  When an alien race seeks their help and they are forced to literally become the characters that they played on the tube, they discover inherent abilities that they never realized they had.  Just as the Galaxy gang's experiences revealed the real individuals' character, the Starship Phoenix' encounter with the Kronks revealed Major Courage's lack of same.  As for all the actors and actresses who have starred in the various versions of Star Trek, on which Galaxy Quest was all too obviously based... well, I suppose we'll have to wait for an alien invasion in order to see their true mettle tested. 

"Never GIVE UP?!  Never SURRENDER?!  This is CRAZY!!"

The decision to show "Where No Duck" in the first week of syndication was probably taken for several reasons.  Launchpad's basic persona is on full display here, so it was entirely logical to make this the first half-hour ep to feature the crash-prone pilot.  This is also the closest we ever get to a formal introduction of Doofus as both HD&L's friend and LP's "sidekick."  Many of the independent stations running DuckTales in the third week of September 1987 would probably also have been running Star Trek: The Next Generation, which broadcast its premiere episode in the following week, so using a Star Trek parody right off the bat would have been an entirely believable exploitation of what would come to be called "synergy."  I would like to think, however, that the "powers that were" at WDTVA also wanted to establish the fact that DT would be more than an action-adventure series -- that it could be, in fact, a laugh riot.  They couldn't have picked a better way to illustrate this than by showing "Where No Duck."  (One could argue that the later "The Uncrashable Hindentanic" is just as funny and a cleverer overall idea, but it is likely that that episode had not yet been completed.)

The best gags in "Where No Duck" are verbal, rather than visual.  True, if one HAS to use corny aliens in a DT episode, then Overlord Bulovan and the Kronks are reasonably good representatives of the species, at least when it comes to physical appearance...

... but the most ambitious visual gag aboard the Kronks' ship, the one involving the alien transporter, falls a little flat, simply because it's unclear where the characters are being transported in the first place.  I mean, they have to be going somewhere, correct?  They can't just be floating around in the "interplanetary medium" for the heck of it?

Greg also dinged Scrooge's main contribution (if you can call it that) to the episode, the "accidental" smashing of the ground-to-ship radio.  I have to agree with Greg on this one, not so much because such a spasm of temper is out of character for Scrooge -- he's had a few Donald-style blowups in his time -- but because Scrooge's initial cane-whack just seems to come completely out of nowhere.  I'd have much preferred Scrooge to literally lose his temper (perhaps at Gyro for obeying Scrooge's orders too perfectly?) and give that equipment a good, honest mauling.  (Which he does intend to do later, of course, in reaction to Major Courage's smugness, before being stopped by Gyro.)

The ep's best visuals are its worst -- the brief glimpses of the ultra-cheap Courage of the Cosmos, both on the screen and behind the scenes.  The gags here are both blatantly obvious (the model ships on strings, the Christmas tree lights, the folding chairs, the fake wall through which Launchpad crashes) and remarkably subtle (Courage's recliner-cum-captain's chair, the little bow holding the "Scumazoid"'s mask on his head).  Aside from being funny in and of themselves, they make Courage's delusions of grandeur about his true nature seem all the more... um, delusional.

As for Uhley's script, suffice it to say that when the ep was originally broadcast, it set a very high standard for all future attempts at humorous DT stories.  Major Courage may have been "full of it" when it came to courage, but so was "Where No Duck" when it came to classic one-liners.  I'll refer you to Pete Fernbaugh's excellent review for a thorough rundown of some of the more noteworthy ones. Here is a particular fave of mine:

 Uk... wuk?  I thought you were talking about verbal gags here?  Well, I consider equations to be a symbolic means of verbal expression, and that includes those equations that inhabit Launchpad's head.  I do confess that I think someone in the storyboard or animation department screwed up the expression at the bottom.  Writing the formula for the area of a circle as A = π^2r would have made more sense, though I doubt that LP would know enough mathematics to be able to make that sort of a mistake in the first place. 

I'll conclude by addressing the "five-year contract" business, another notion that seems to have gotten GeoX's knickers in a knot:

I actually remember seeing this episode when I was small, at a friend's house (hi, Dan!).  What I remember most is the ending: Scrooge had threatened to fire the Courage-actor, who counters that he can't be fired because he's got a five-year contract, about which he gets all smug. At the end, it turns out he's been demoted to concessions salesman for ravenous kids, and when he wants to quit, Scrooge reminds him of his contract. Oh how we laughed at his comeuppance (though now I suspect this reveals an inadequate understanding of contract law). But nowadays, it just reveals to me another flaw in the episode: the reason the kids are with Courage-actor in space is that he wanted to get them involved and show them a good time to suck up to Scrooge so as to not lose his job. But what was the point of this if he was under the impression that his contract made him totally invulnerable? Gah! 

First of all, I think that the main reason the "five-year contract" reference was put into the ep in the first place was as a tribute to the planned "five-year mission" of the original Starship Enterprise.  But I also think that there's a way to resolve the dilemma that GeoX mentioned in his last couple of sentences.  The "five-year contract" must refer to the fact that Duckburg Studios (and, after the business deal went through, Scrooge) is required to employ Major Courage in some capacity during that time period.  When Courage moaned that Scrooge was "gonna give that pinhead pilot my job!", he wasn't worried about losing his employment completely, he was concerned with getting demoted to some lowlier estate... as, of course, he ultimately was, once Scrooge cancelled the show and needed someone to serve as a candy butcher at the new space museum.  His attempts to butter up the Nephews were therefore meant to ensure that he could maintain the best possible job.  Now, why anyone on the production end of things would agree to such a contract in the first place is beyond me -- either Courage was related to someone at Duckburg Studios, or he had a really good legal representative -- but that's not for me to explain.
  


 
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"DuckBlurbs"

(Greg) Weird that everyone in the studios is a pig furry except for Major Courage. Affirmative action perchance?
No, as Greg himself suggested earlier in his review, the use of "pig backups" was probably a reference to Duck Dodgers.  Throw in The Muppet Show's "Pigs in Space" while you're at it.


Next: Episode 34, "Robot Robbers."

1 comment:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

This was the episode that MADE the (sans-Donald) series for me! The one that showed a skeptical me that some gold could be mined, out of the shadows of Barks’ comic books.

Despite it being produced about mid-way in Season 1, it has a “feel” that is difficult for me to describe (even today, after all these years) of a LP as a character that was in more of his “early / primal /more confident / Harrison Ford-like mode”, than what would become his later “more dumbed-down / incompetent / comedic foil” role.

It’s like the difference between Yogi Bear 1958 and Yogi Bear 1961. The former was funnier, and the latter was more loveable. Each was good, but the former (in both cases) had more of an edge that softened over time. And, being broadcast in the first week, leaves one with the impression that LP “softened over time” when, perhaps, he really “got better” and then backed-off a bit – eventually becoming permanent (“dumbed-down / incompetent / comedic foil”) sidekick to Darkwing Duck.

That was a rare instance, for the time, of great plot and funny / stylized drawings that you just didn’t see for SOOO LONG that you forgot that it could be done. The Kronk ship careening out of control at the end, bouncing off planets and stuff (aided and abetted by the accompanying sound effects), remains one of the most inspired bits of funny animation of the modern age.

“Major Courage” was a superb parody of how we began to regard William Shatner at the time – and what he has pretty much proven himself to be over the last quarter century… an egotistical parody of his former self.

After all this time, there are surprisingly few episodes of DT that REALLY and FULLY stand up to what I thought of them in 1987, when I was SOOOOO GLAD to have an animated series that didn’t suck, wasn’t cut to ribbons, or existed to sell toys! DT, in 1987, looked like Animation’s equivalent to the vast Treasure of the Golden Suns! I can't honestly say that today.

Yet, there are the episodes that I instinctively go-for, when I feel like enjoying DT at its best. The ones that have not diminished one iota, in the wake of some magnificent Warner Bros. series, The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.

Now that doesn’t mean that an episode is not good, merely because I no longer engage in “anticipatory salivation” at the mention of its name (as I did for MANY of them back then, when the best thing we’d seen in years was the 1985 JETSONS), but “Where No Duck has Gone Before” is very definitely one of them.

For the record, some others are “Home Sweet Homer”, “All Ducks on Deck”, and of course “The Uncrashable Hindentanic”!