Wednesday, June 5, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 38, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Three: Aqua Ducks"

My revisiting of what I've always considered to be the weakest chapter of the "firefly fruit" saga turned out to be a more pleasant sojourn than I'd expected.  I'd now rank it ahead of "A Drain on the Economy" on the quality scale, though still safely behind both "A Whale of a Bad Time" and the climactic "Working for Scales."  Part of the reason why is a belated attempt to be fair to Michael Keyes' teleplay, specifically, its similarity to that of "Cold Ducks" in "Treasure of the Golden Suns" (which, ironically, occupies the same penultimate position in the narrative).  Keyes introduces various details at the start of "Aqua Ducks" and cleverly kneads all of them together as the plot progresses. Accepting Gyro, Launchpad, and Doofus' successful "raising of Atlantis" and its centuries-old layer of "air-breather" trash may still require a certain suspension of logic in the viewer's mind, but I give Keyes credit for trying to make the narrative cohere in a satisfactory fashion.  I have also uncovered some overt evidence that Keyes (or the guiding trio of Magon, Talkington, and Zaslove) was, in fact, influenced by Barks' "The Secret of Atlantis" here, and that's certainly worth a few bonus points.

Of course, I don't want to go too far in rehabbing this ep.  Dan Neyer has done a good job of reminding me and all other partakers of this blog of Scrooge's lengthy history of (momentary) hysteria, but the old miser's ceaseless verbal battering of his "partners in dive" has ALWAYS irritated the living hell out of me, and it still does today.  Nor have I ever understood why Scrooge would sign off on allowing Doofus to provide the "youth interest" on this trip, especially since Scrooge (as Greg correctly noted) has had virtually no interaction whatsoever with the Nephews' portly pal up until this point in the production order of the series.  The on-edge Scrooge who had two mini-fits in "Economy" and pitched the funniest tantrum in the history of TV animation in "Whale" should have known that changing the usual cast of adventuring characters in this manner was asking for trouble.  Add on the expected moments of bumbledom from LP, Gyro, and Doofus to set Scrooge off and the insertion of a not-so-very-subtle environmental message, and you have an episode that, while it has its share of strong points, still has a distinct tendency to grate on one's sensibilities like sand in one's beachwear.

Recall that the original script for "Three Ducks of the Condor" originally presented Scrooge in a far harsher light, playing up his tendency to boss others around so as to provide a better contrast to the imperious Joaquin Slolee.  I think that some of the excess bile that was ultimately drawn out of that ep must have trickled its way into this one.  Scrooge's second line of dialogue (which ironically follows words of praise for Gyro's quick construction of the Gold Digger) is already of the "snarky dig" variety, and we're off to the (verbal) razes.  The worst part of Scrooge's opening salvo of spleen sploodge is his immediate bashing of Doofus, starting with the implied claim that Doofus' approval of Gyro's "Super Fizz" drink means that the kid isn't human (or avian, or whatever).  Scrooge hadn't seen ANY real evidence of Doofus' fallibility in "Merit-Time Adventure," "Hero for Hire," or "Where No Duck Has Gone Before."  Nor had Doofus yet done anything to tick Scrooge off in this episode.  Heck, even Launchpad hadn't really screwed anything up at this point, since the initial 'copter crash occurred because of a mechanical problem.  Scrooge's behavior in these early scenes seems like an incredibly crude way of setting up the subsequent conflicts between him and the "morons" on his team.  Keyes would have been much better off letting Scrooge's anger build as the episode progressed.  

Gyro seems to need another type of "Super Fizz" here!

Of the three "morons," Gyro arguably is the least deserving of Scrooge's abuse; the stuck valve that caused the premature inflation of the balloon inside the Gold Digger is, like the 'copter crash, a mechanical malfunction, and Scrooge should have known that bugs might develop in the Gold Digger due to the lack of beta-testing.  (Oddly enough, after the gang plugs the leaks that develop in the Marinara Trench, the seaworthiness of the Digger is never an issue again.)  Where Scrooge might have found additional fault with the inventor was the method Gyro created to get Scrooge's money off the ocean bottom: using balloons to float it to the surface in bags.  Rather small bags.  If you accept the premise of "A Christmas for Shacktown" regarding how long it would take Scrooge to haul his money out of the quicksand pit by toy train...

... then how long would Gyro's method take?  Half as long, perhaps?  That would still be well over a century.  There would also be more potential for loss, especially since we never see who, if anyone, was tasked with the job of fishing the bags off the surface of the ocean.  The bags could very easily drift away from their surfacing points as well.  I suspect some sort of magical intervention would have to be involved here.  Is Calisota next door to Equestria, perchance?

Doofus' main contribution to raising Scrooge's blood pressure is, of course, his using a balloon to squeak -- er, speak -- er, both -- to dolphins.  I think that Keyes missed a chance here to at least partially justify Doofus' presence in the episode by making more of Doofus' Junior Woodchuck ties.  Doofus' eager participation in the JWs is, after all, one of the major things (besides the physically obvious, of course) that defines the character.  But after allowing Doofus to use his "Junior Woodchuck Toothpick" to pop the out-of-control balloon, Keyes simply has Doofus stumble onto his dolphin communication system (which, of course, will play a major role in helping the captured Ducks to escape the Fish Folk) through dumb luck.  Unless the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook has explicit instructions regarding bringing peanut butter and sardines on underwater expeditions, this sort of convenient revelation could have been vouchsafed to anyone -- even a Littlest Chickadee.

Launchpad, of course, doesn't need to be laden with any additional burdens of dubious competence; all that he has to do to arouse Scrooge's ire is simply to be himself.

The most impressive sequence of "Aqua" is probably the stretch between the Ducks' dive into the Marinara Trench and their capture by the Fish Folk.  The Trench visuals provide us with our first tantalizing hint that "The Secret of Atlantis" may have been mined for source material: the appearance of weird, luminescent fish.  Granted, Barks takes fuller advantage of the situation by using the fish to explain why Atlantis can enjoy daylight, but "Aqua" makes up for shedding less (natural) light on its subjects by including a neat "passage of time" scene in which the Gold Digger switches on its lights in dramatic fashion.  Remarkably enough, the figure of "5000 fathoms" (9140 feet) reported by Launchpad during the Ducks' descent is pretty close to the actual record dive depth in the real-world Marianas Trench, the mark of 10,916 feet at the so-called Challenger Deep.  Since the Digger still had a ways to go before touching bottom at the time LP issued that statement, the actual depth of the Marinara Trench must have been even closer to the real-world figure.  I suspect that Barks would heartily approve of such accuracy.

After dropping what GeoX reported as "an Are You Being Served?" reference -- personally, I was thinking of elevator operator Bugs' announcement to the Great Gildersleeve character in Hare Conditioned (1945) -- we get one of the series' most eye-popping pop-culture references, Scrooge's brief "Mammy" call-back.  Would this has slipped through today?  I highly doubt it.  Even Doofus seems somewhat taken aback by Scrooge's Jolson take, and we've had 25 years to sharpen our "sensitivities" since then.  Soon thereafter follows another classic movie reference, with Scrooge lamenting the "morons on [his] team" in the manner of the Strother Martin character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  Might this be considered a call-ahead to a future Don Rosa story featuring those raffish title characters?

The first encounter with the Fish Folk also goes rather well, with the Gold Digger following in the noble tradition of the Golden Condor and the Construction Robots by acquiring distinctly sentient characteristics.  The "humanoid" way in which the Digger attempts to squiggle away from the Ducks' would-be captors is very nicely done.

With the introduction of the Fish Folk's environmentally-mandated mad-on against the "air breathers," the tale bogs down somewhat.  The price we have to pay for Master Malek's lengthy video-enhanced diatribe against the polluting "purple traitors" (thanks for trying to lighten up this scene, LP) and the subsequent sentencing of our gang to 400 years of hard labor in the junkyard is that, in contrast to Barks' quick yet careful sketch of Atlantean civilization, we never get a real sense of who the Fish Folk are, or from whence they originated.  GeoX described the Folk as "charmless," which is accurate enough, but the reason why they are such is that we only basically see them browbeating, slave-driving, or pursuing the Ducks.  Barks' Atlanteans, by contrast, are much more sympathetic; even though they effectively imprison Scrooge, Donald, Huey, and Dewey, they have a convincing reason for doing so (wanting to avoid discovery and exploitation at the hands of the "greedy" surface dwellers), and they are even willing to allow the Ducks to learn the story and secrets of their civilization.  (Of course, had Barks conceived the Atlantis story during the time he wrote his JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS scripts, he might well have opted for the more simplistic anti-pollution approach.)  If Keyes, Magon, Talkington, and Zaslove did take inspiration from "The Secret of Atlantis," then they seem to have missed the point -- and, yes, I'm now inclined to believe that they did.  The overarching reason?  Pants.  Yes, really!

Horizontally striped red and blue pants in both cases!  Fashion faux pas such as these don't occur simultaneously due to mere chance.  As to the simpler designs (carp-ish and frog-like) of the Fish Folk, I suspect that that was done for the obvious reason, to make the Folk appear "Toonier" and, therefore, more in line with the designs of the Duck characters.  Barks' "men turned fish" design may have struck the DT character designers as a bit too realistic.

Visually, the design and setting of the sunken "junkyard" of Atlantis -- complete with upside-down ship where the imprisoned Ducks can survive, Poseidon-style -- are most impressive.  How unfortunate, therefore, that the animators couldn't keep the appearance of the place straight.  The sunken Atlantis, with its coral-encrusted towers and temples, looks like an underwater Bedrock; the newly raised city, by contrast, loses its calcium carbonate coating almost immediately.  By the time "Working for Scales" opens, the place looks like a brand-new Las Vegas resort (and with Scrooge's fortune now arranged into a tidy pile, to boot).  I'll have more to say about the decidedly jagged join between "Aqua" and "Working for Scales" in my next entry, but, for now, I'll just let the contradictory pictures speak for themselves.

The "revenge of the morons" neatly incorporates a whole honkin' load of artfully planted story elements: the calcium carbonate, "Super Fizz," the vulcanized rubber, even Doofus' cherished peanut butter and sardines (though I must confess that I don't recall Gyro making a big deal of needing a vegetable oil to create his home brew).  The rescue would have been dramatic enough without the superfluous added peril of a sudden leak that imperils Scrooge in "solitary confinement"; the contrived nature of this business reminded me of the melting snow suddenly threatening The Mole's hideout in DICK TRACY.  The chase sequence featuring Launchpad, Squeaker, the Fish Folk guards, and the monster Glubzilla is a sort of reprise of the air battle at the climax of "Three Ducks of the Condor," albeit a mellower one, due to the nature of underwater travel.  It's not entirely surprising that the Fish Folk ultimately flub their pursuit, given that they had inexplicably parked the Gold Digger right next to the junkyard before Scrooge's earlier, abortive escape attempt.  LP's ultimate resort to that old Disney Afternoon standby of tickle-torture to convince Glubby to release the rising Atlantis somehow seems fitting.  Barks' parallel "Going Up!" scene in "The Secret of Atlantis" is fittingly more sober-sided, with Huey and Dewey promising never to reveal the existence of the underwater city.

"Aqua Ducks" is in no sense a classic or anything close to it, but I'm willing to give it its fair share of props and acknowledge what it does do well.  I just wish that Keyes' "snarling Scrooge" and "morons save the day" approach had been tempered a bit.  To be fair, the single most inappropriate moment of harshness on the part of Scrooge in this serial is still ahead of us.





(GeoX)  Doofus refers to "my mom," the only piece of evidence so far that would contradict my theory that he's an insane vagrant. Still not entirely convinced, though.

Well, I am.  Why else do you think that Doofus disappears after this chapter?  Someone back home must have insisted that Doofus stay behind when the gang returned to Duckburg for final preparations to travel to Macaroon.  And there's absolutely no doubt that they did so, as I'll argue when discussing "Working for Scales."

(GeoX)  "Thanks to Flintheart Glomgold, my fortune is sitting on the bottom of the ocean!''--Well, as noted in the entry for the previous episode, you've gotta take a lot of the blame for that yourself.

I suppose that in a certain sense, Glomgold was to blame for Scrooge's money winding up there... but it's true, Scrooge did make the fateful decision to pull THE... SWITCH, um, I mean, the eject lever.

(Greg) [Gyro] gives the beaker to Launchpad and the glass to Scrooge and neither one seems terribly excited about it. They drink it and they all gag and spit on cue...  Launchpad proclaims that it tastes like an old tire and Gyro responds by saying that vulcanized rubber is one of the main ingredients. You know what is even funnier: fake rubber is the main ingredient in bubble gum. So it's not the rubber's fault; it's GYRO forgetting to add flavoring to MASK the rubber.

I wish I knew WHY Gyro added vulcanized rubber in the first place.  Practical uses of vulcanized rubber that I dredged up using Google include tires, hockey pucks, shoes, and hoses -- nothing liquid there.  (Evidently, I haven't watched enough episodes of How It's Made.)  At least Keyes tried to bring in the rubber angle later in the story to give Squeaker and his pals a way to help the Ducks by fetching the old tires. 

(Greg)  Doofus is blowing up Gedo balloons with the mini air pump just to annoy me...  He then rubs the balloon casually as that annoys Scrooge to no end...  Scrooge... pops the balloon with his cane (BOO HISS!) and threatens to make him tread water the hard way. 

Threatening to drown a child for a petty cause... ugh.  Scrooge's subsequent reference to Doofus as "a pea brain" is practically a complement next to this.

(Greg)  So we see the Gold Digger swim in an easterly direction as Scrooge asks if they are at the money and Launchpad checks his coordinates and proclaims that it should be over the ridge... I predict that we see the bottom and there is no gold to be found. I check the DVD... Damn; I'm good as there is only a penny left as Doofus asks if he had a lot more money than that. HAHA!... Gyro calls this impossible because no craft could dive this deep and you cannot move three acres of gold that fast.  

There is an obvious logic break here that Greg missed: since the money is not where it is supposed to be, the Fish Folk must have moved it, so how did they move it?  Master Malek calls the arrival of Scrooge's fortune on the sea bed "littering" and we later see pictures of the Fish Folk dumping some money into the junkyard, so the money can't simply have fallen en masse into the junkyard to begin with.  Glubzilla must have really "earned his kelp" on this little job.

(Greg)  [W]e see a huge clam being placed on a podium and then some electric eels go into it and it opens to create a television screen. 

Leaving aside the obvious question of who the heck TOOK the pictures of the Fish Folk being inundated with trash over the centuries, this scene may provide additional evidence that the writers consulted "The Secret of Atlantis."  Barks gave the Atlanteans an "all-fish lighting system" that provided illumination for street signs and street lamps.  (Since the "layer of glowing fish" was already present to give Atlantis a source of light, these technological innovations seem a bit redundant, but that's another story.)

(Greg)  [T]he City of Atlantis rises from the ocean slowly to the surface and I see Logic Break #10 because there's no F'N way the city could FIT through the deep trench. 

Agreed; this is as bad as the coral cover suddenly vamoosing on the surface.

(Greg) So the water drains from the smoke stack and Scrooge is screwed because he free falls and slides down the smoke stack and lands with a wussy bump onto the ground...  Gyro and Doofus meet with him and Scrooge is in SHOCK. Gyro thanks LP and the dolphins along and Doofus thanks Gyro for the fizzy drink. I would thank Doofus for getting the dolphins to help of course; but it's ignored. 

Actually, Gyro does mention both Launchpad and Doofus here, so Doofus does get his due(fus) before all is said and done.

Next: Episode 39, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Four: Working for Scales." 


Jason said...

This episode was always my least favorite of the “Catch as Cash Can” arc. I found it grating to have Scrooge constantly in a snit for much of the show, although I guess having his fortune at the bottom of the ocean would make him edgy. I’d say my favorite part of the episode was after Scrooge got put in a cell by himself, and Launchpad, Gyro and Doofus got to take center stage. Though I find it weird that Doofus came along for this trip at all.

I also found it amusing that the Fish Folk thanked Scrooge for taking their trash at the end! They go from being outraged to being happy in just a few seconds. It’s quite funny.

YossiMH said...

Huh. Your reaction to this episode surprises me. I positively adore Scrooge's heaping of abuse on the others in "Aqua Ducks"; I find some of the instances of said verbal bashing to be comedy writing at its finest, and completely in keeping with his generally irascible nature.

I'm afraid you may end up not liking some aspects of Scrooge's depiction in "Remastered"; in my contributions to the script, at least, he's heavily influenced by his portrayal here. Hope I turn out to be wrong about that, though.

Pan Miluś said...

Man I hate the desing of the frog people... Plus yhe - I think it's odd that they replace HD&L just for this one chapter.

My least favorite of the four I guess...

But the next one? Boy ow boy! One of best episodes of the series! Such spectacular epicness :D

Joe Torcivia said...

Calisota next to (Choke!) Equestria?

No, no, Chris. Have you forgotten that it was DuckTales that LIBERATED television animation from the stranglehold of toy-based series?

Yes, I can see the roll call now – not unlike the way the teams were assembled on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:

Gyro, we need you for your inventive skills – not to mention your low hourly rate!

Launchpad, your derring-do – and, of course, your rate!

Doofus, you’ll be along as the “youth interest”, because you work cheaper than Herbie and Little Lotta – let alone my resourceful grandnephews, who we’re cutting out of this episode for budgetary reasons. Maybe, after this, they’ll learn to ask for less, the little scamps!

This was another case of Barks ELEMENTS being grafted onto a completely different story. And, hey… In the Bill Wright Mickey Mouse story “The World Under the Sea”, didn’t GOOFY tickle-vanquish an outsized squid? Perhaps more evidence that comics were lying around the DTVA offices? Too bad they were eventually swept-out.

Oh, and because I was too late to comment on the previous DT post… Yes “A Whale of a Bad Time” was a great one, that unfortunately gets lost as a part of the larger serial. It’s a shame that it wasn’t produced as a stand-alone – where it would have ranked as one of the all-time best.

Chris Barat said...


It did seem as though the designers could not make up their minds regarding how the Fish Folk should look.


Pan Miluś said...

Barks "Secret of Atlantis" is one of my top favorite duck stories BTW

Chris Barat said...


"Calisota next to (Choke!) Equestria? No, no, Chris. Have you forgotten that it was DuckTales that LIBERATED television animation from the stranglehold of toy-based series?"

The current MLP is a far cry from the one from the 80s. Still, I see your point!