Tuesday, July 2, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 42, "Time Teasers"

Between TV reruns, repeated viewings of the VHS collection "Masked Marauders," and voluntary video-entertainment choices made during treadmill sessions, I've probably seen "Time Teasers" just about as often as any of the 22-minute DuckTales episodes.  You might gather that I like it a lot -- and I certainly do; I think it's the prolific Anthony Adams' best script for the series.  Though the "Time Teaser" only actually plays a role during the first half of the episode -- with the balance of the adventure comprised of a memorable and funny three-hander between Scrooge, Gyro, and the Ducks, the Beagle Boys "B" team from "Hero for Hire," and a gang of pirates led by Pete (aka Captain Blackheart) -- a lot of the discussion surrounding the ep has tended to focus on which previous "time-travel timepiece" productions may have influenced it, and, more to the Duck-point, whether it influenced Don Rosa to create the suspiciously similar comic-book story "On Stolen Time."  I've gone back and forth on the latter matter several times, and I think that I've finally come to a reasonable conclusion, which I'll detail below.  First, though, we have some back history through which to thrash.

UPDATE (7/4/13):  I've slightly rewritten the historical matter below, based on helpful commentary from Mark Lungo and David Gerstein.   

The idea of a stopwatch that can be used to manipulate time dates at least as far back as the novel THE GIRL, THE GOLD WATCH, AND EVERYTHING (1962) by sci-fi/thriller writer John D. Macdonald.  This effort seems to have inspired similar notions to start ticking away in other creators' brains during the "Era of Fantastic Television."  In October 1963, The Twilight Zone broadcast the episode "A Kind of a Stopwatch," which starred, remarkably enough, King Artie and Rufus B. Pinfeathers himself, Richard Erdman, as the bumbling nebbish who comes into possession of a time-stopping chronometer.  I've never seen that one, but, thanks to Joe Torcivia, I was able to enjoy two fourth-season Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea adventures, "A Time to Die" (1967) and "No Way Back," (1968) guest-starring Henry Jones as Mr. Pem, a strange little man with a "time displacement piece" that he intends to use for evil purposes.  Interestingly, these are the only examples of the genre of which I am aware in which the device was consciously constructed by a villain from the off.  In both "Time Teasers" and "On Stolen Time," of course, the time-stopper was built by Gyro Gearloose, only to be swiped by a group of Beagle Boys.  (I'm being nice to the Nephews, BTW, by classifying their "borrowing" of the Time Teaser from Gyro Gearloose as something other than stealing.)  Mr. Pem's relatively speedy return in "No Way Back" -- which turned out to be the final original VBS episode broadcast -- suggests that he made something of an impression in "A Time to Die," especially since he supposedly died at the end of that initial episode.

Next came a cheerfully cheesy syndicated TV adaptation of The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything (1980) starring Robert "The Forgotten Tony Stark" Hays and Pam "Mindy" Dawber.  The film was offered to TV stations in both a two-hour "movie" version and a five-part "cliffhanger" version (where have we seen that arrangement before?).  It apparently features a rather politically incorrect take on female sexuality, so I don't imagine that it appears on TV much any more, but it does enjoy that nebulous thing known as a cult following.  Given Anthony Adams' interests outside of his relatively brief career in animation writing, I think we are on fairly safe ground in assuming that he had at least some knowledge of some or all of the aforementioned versions of the "time-stop-watch" story when he wrote "Time Teasers."  

Rosa produced "On Stolen Time" four years after "Time Teasers" was first broadcast, with the story's first appearance in American Disney comics taking place in DONALD DUCK ADVENTURES #24 (May 1992).  Clearly, Keno Don would have had ample time (hyuck) to peruse the TV episode beforehand.  For a long time, I assumed that it did influence him in some fashion, even if he would have been loath to admit it.  Now, however, I lean more towards the theory that Rosa came up with the idea independently, or, at the very least, had no knowledge of "Time Teasers" when he wrote his story.  That's not to say that the tales don't have some points of similarity beyond the simple (and, as GeoX points out, the completely logical) notion that Gyro would create such a device and the Beagles would try to use it to rob Scrooge blind.  For example, both stories open with Scrooge tasking his relatives with a seemingly impossible assignment involving the sorting of his money: stacking bills in Donald's case, stacking all the coins by dinnertime (!!) in HD&L's.  At least Rosa, who's never been accusing of giving Donald an easy time of it, didn't impose a specific time limit on Don's task.  Adams, by contrast, seems to have the idea that Scrooge's fortune is a whole lot... well, smaller than we've traditionally been led to believe.  And it won't be the last time that he gives that impression, either.

As one might expect of a detail-obsessed former engineering student, Rosa seems to have thought through the details of the time-stopping matter rather more carefully than Adams.  The latter holds to the relatively simple idea that those who are within the sphere of influence/event horizon/penumbra/whatever of the Time Teaser when the Teaser is activated can move freely, while everything around them is frozen in time (or, more accurately, is moving much more slowly than the "Teased" individuals).  This allows for the many manipulations of the "frozen world" in which Gyro, HD&L, and the Beagles subsequently indulge.  The main problem with this approach is that the characters influenced by the Time Teaser can't interact directly with the immobile folks around them.  Greg correctly notes that this gives the early part of the episode a somewhat static, slow-moving feel, especially when the boys are finagling with the baseball game.  The repetition of the time-stopping gags on the two consecutive pitches does tend to retard the ep's progress.  (For my own part, I found the boys' foiling of the Beagles' attempted robbery and their "surprising" of the high-diving Scrooge to be the funniest parts of this whole business; they're over with quickly and include much better sight gags.)

 

Unfortunately, Adams messes up things in at least one instance; he never explains how Scrooge, HD&L, and Gyro were able to get to the docks in time to see the Beagle Boys leaving the country on the steamer.  You might argue that the Beagles needed a very long time to get Scrooge's money from the docks onto the ship, but the non-Teaser-aided return of the money to the Money Bin, which is tossed off during the episode's extremely rushed final minute, seems to have taken no more than a couple of hours!  Either Scrooge has a relatively modest fortune, or Scrooge and the boys managed to accomplish a moving task that compares favorably with HD&L's original charge to stack all of Scrooge's coins.  This hastily-cobbled-together windup is arguably the one really major weakness of "Time Teasers."

In "On Stolen Time," Rosa literally and figuratively livens things up through his inclusion of the "ten-meter clause" (a direct consequence of the "five-second rule"?) and the stipulation that one has to briefly turn off the time-device before being able to move anything in the frozen world.  This allows for the chase scenes between the Beagles and the Ducks, which are further enlivened by the knowledge that the Beagles will be able to short-circuit the Ducks' attempt to catch them if they can get outside the ten-meter radius.  This represents a distinct advantage for Rosa's story...

... which Keno Don promptly punts away by his questionable handling of the other consequence of his setup: the idea that the Beagles and Ducks are constantly placed in physical peril as they race through the frozen world.  Adams didn't address this at all, allowing the characters' manipulations of time to take place in "wide-open spaces," such as the ball park, the environs of the Money Bin, and the streets of Duckburg.  As Rosa chivvies his characters through a crowded park, the cruel edge that occasionally tainted his stories suddenly comes to the fore, and his attempts to serve up side-splitting sight gags result in a parade of panels that are painful to behold.

Given a choice between enduring these pratfalls and "having my gun replaced with a weiner," I'd gladly swallow my pride and opt for the latter.  The Toon Disney version of "Time Teasers" doesn't even force me to make the choice; it actually snips out the scene in which Louie replaces Bankjob's gun with the hot dog, presumably because we're not supposed to see a kid handling a gun for ANY reason. The scenes of the security guard shooting at the fleeing Beagles, however, are allowed to remain. If GeoX was worried about the ramifications of sanctioning an authority figure's indiscriminate firing at criminals before, then he should really be worried now.

 
Finally, of course, both time devices are smashed... but the destruction of the Time Teaser merely sets the stage for the rest of Adams' episode, while the far more overblown obliteration of the gizmo in "On Stolen Time" serves as Rosa's bravura (and, true to the form of the rest of the story's gags, rather unpleasant) slapstick climax.  Here is where I think a crucial distinction between the stories can be made: While Rosa has a better grip on the logic and mechanics of time-stoppage, Adams delivers the better narrative, in the sense of creating memorable moments, scenes, and character bits that can be fondly recalled long after the episode has been viewed.  This, by the way, is why I now tend to believe that Rosa was not influenced by Adams: Rosa's storytelling style is so focused on detail and minutiae that it's entirely believable that he pulled the "time-stop-watch" idea out of his own mental pop-culture Rolodex and decided to create a story that went to considerable length to examine the logical consequences of having and using such a device.  The result is a fine story that one can marvel at for its ingenuity, but not necessarily a story that needed to be influenced by anything other than Rosa's own highly clinical approach to storytelling.  In short, the two stories are sufficiently different in tone that I'm willing to accept the theory that they were developed independently.

* UPDATE (7/4/13):  David Gerstein provides a reference to this 2003 post on the Disney Comics Mailing List in which Don Rosa claims that he never saw "Time Teasers" and that he got the idea for "On Stolen Time" from John Macdonald's story.

The last third or so of "Time Teasers" -- the point at which Adams and Rosa part company -- is stuffed with incident in the manner of a Thanksgiving turkey, which does result in the episode having what Greg called an "overbooked" feel, but this is also the part that helps boost the ep to classic status.  All of Pete's appearances in the series are good, but this is the one that I would like to think HE enjoyed more than any other, and not simply because he's reunited with his peg leg for the duration.  The sense of "gleeful menace" that has informed many of Pete's most memorable roles over the years has rarely been displayed to better advantage than it is here.

A simple conflict between the pirates and the Time Tub-transferred Gyro, Scrooge, and HD&L would have been enjoyable enough, but for Pete to demand "command performances" from the good guys to celebrate his birthday party... now that's the sort of idea that would be hard to pull off in comics form but is tailor-made for animation.  (We never do find out what nefarious plans Pete has for the Ducks after the party is over, but, in truth, we don't really mind.)  Considering that the Ducks-Beagles teamup plan was of Scrooge's creation, one would think that he and Gyro would have put a bit more effort into their soft-shoe routine...

Uh, second cane?  From where?

... but at least HD&L's *shudder!* breakdancing has the virtue of killing off some time before the Beagle Boys are ready to test their pipes.  I can't say that I was particular wild about the boys doing this even back in the 80s, and the whole business seems horribly dated now, but at least we can draw a direct link between Scrooge's head-bouncing "sea monster" temper tantrum and Louie's ability to revolve on his head while standing upside down.  I didn't realize that such traits could be inherited.

Then, of course, we get Babyface, Bugle, and Bankjob and their out-of-deep-left-field barbershop "quartet-but-it's-actually-a-trio" performance.  I don't know what's weirder, the boys' choice of century-old musical numbers or the fact that they can actually SING.  In the second season's "Beaglemania," part of the joke was that Frank Welker and Chuck McCann's performance of the Beagles' hit song featured more vigor than actual talent; the performance on the Disney Afternoon soundtrack CD was better, but only marginally so.  Peter Cullen, Brian Cummings, and Terry McGovern, on the other hand, do so well that one winds up wishing that at least one of "I Want a Girl," "Sweet Adeline," or "Down By the Old Mill Stream" could have been wedged onto the CD as well.  For sure, this one bit imprints itself onto one's memory far more successfully than anything Rosa included in the busy, busy world of "On Stolen Time."  I'd love to know how Adams came up with this whole idea.


But wait, we're not done; we still have time to enjoy the Beagles' dramatic escape from the pirates as they jump down...a waterfall emanating from a cave shaped like a skull?!  Cornelius Coot didn't mention anything like this in his diary, did he?  Which river was that flowing into the sea -- the Duckburg, the Tulebug, or the Goose?  Given that we saw a couple of Natives in canoes fleeing the scene when the steamer arrived in Duckburg Bay, can we infer that "Skull Cave" may have been some sort of Native shrine?  What entity or entities disassembled that natural formation over the ensuing centuries -- and were there any protests?  A serious "Donaldist" could probably mine a Master's thesis, at the very least, out of an examination of these questions.

In addition to singing, the Beagle "B" team is apparently also adept at long-distance swimming.  At least, they'd better be.

After piling all of these incidents atop one another and then also including the Ducks' final efforts to use the Time Tub to transport the steamer back to modern Duckburg before the pirates can overrun them, Adams whooshes through the denouement with a haste that can only be described as indecent.  At least the Nephews wind up paying for their attempt to "grease the skids" for the Duckburg Mallards... not that we seriously expected any other outcome, of course.

While one can criticize Adams for trying to do too much here, I don't think that one can fairly criticize him for not delivering a first-rate time-travel ep.  In truth, if I could only preserve one of either "Time Teasers" or "On Stolen Time," I would choose the former without hesitation.  It may not be quite as finicky, but it's definitely more FUN.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) The Duckburg Mallards game is in the morning, for some reason. Also, "by stopping time with every pitch, we can help the Mallards win their first game EVER!" Look: I've watched plenty of really dreadful minor-league baseball teams in my day, and none of them have had anything close to a "perfect" losing record. This would only be possible if the episode were taking place early in the Mallards' inaugural season.

Charlie Brown would like a word with you.  :-)   Yeah, it would have been more believable had the Mallards simply been a really lousy team.  Perhaps they're the perpetual poor relation of the Calisota Stealers mentioned in "Yuppy Ducks."  I always imagined the Stealers as being headquartered in St. Canard, which I take to be a larger city than Duckburg.  Large-market vs. small-market... you take it from there.

As for the fact that the game is in the morning, perhaps this is the Duckburgian equivalent of Patriot's Day in Boston.  The Red Sox have played games with late-morning starting times on that date for a number of years.

(GeoX) I like how HDL apparently were initially under the impression that a frozen baseball game would be fun to watch. A bit slow on the uptake, eh?

I don't know... they were certainly quick-witted enough to cadge refreshments from SOMEWHERE in the frozen world they'd created.  I suspect more "creative borrowing" was involved.

(Greg)  Gyro opens the door and asks them to come in since he has the deliveries ready to deliver so to speak as they go in and we pan over to see Gyro's latest invention for the Invention Of the Month Club: a combination hair dryer/popcorn maker. 

I don't recall Barks ever using the "Invention of the Month Club" idea, which seems rather surprising. Usually, Barks' Gyro worked out of his home/lab (cf. "Sir Gyro de Gearloose"), sold his inventions by pushcart, or was commissioned by the city of Duckburg to perform some task.  BTW, Gyro's dryer/popper combo here was anticipated by Barks on a 1969 cover for an issue of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES.  I think that Gyro was correct in avoiding the use of a live test subject... and a notoriously volatile one, at that.


(Greg)  So we cut into the office as the Beagle Boys are dressed as movers (check the blue shirts) which would be fine if they didn't [have] those stupid masks on. Gyro decides to demonstrate by invoking the Time Teaser and he disappears as we see some flashing off the coat rack and then Scrooge realizes that he has his top hat and cane OUT OF NOWHERE. One problem: There was no hat and cane on the coat rack. Logic break #3 for the episode as Scrooge calls this fantastic. No; I call this logic breaking from TMS.

Nope; here is the scene outside the vault as the Beagles approach it.  The hat and cane are clearly visible.


(Greg)  After the commercial break; we return as the Beagle Boys return. And since they are fast in time; Scrooge, the nephews and Gyro are frozen in time. One problem; Gyro is now IN the vault when he should be outside.

Again, this is incorrect.  Shown below is the shot of Gyro at the end of Act Two.  He is clearly inside the vault (check the sliver of office space that you can see to the left).

(Greg)  Gyro then takes out a wooden box which contains a thermometer and time places as he puts it into the sky. See; they burned a hole in the fabric of time which makes no sense either way and Gyro needed something to justify the obvious cartoon logic. They went back to 1687 which makes sense for the time period that the Beagle Boys are in; but didn't Gyro already say that they went back 100 years? 

No, he actually said that "That steamer and your money simply slipped into another century."  He didn't specify which one.  I love the way that Scrooge cries "Simply SLIPPED?!" here.


(Greg)  Now the pirates and the [Beagle] boys start singing the song on stage together which is silly considering that now they have a clear line of sight to see the ocean. 

I don't think that you have to worry about the pirates picking up on what Gyro and the Ducks are doing out in the bay.  For one thing, they're swaying back and forth with their eyes closed.  For another, they're probably drunk by now... or at least, they would be if WDTVA sanctioned the use of alcohol.

Next: Episode 43, "Back Out in the Outback."

7 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

Has any new evidence come to light that would lessen the likelihood of Don Rosa being influenced by “Time Teasers”? I’d always figured he wanted to take a crack at such a story, and employ his trademark depth of knowledge to the effort.

Either way, given the respective 1967 and 1968 airdates of the VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA Mr. Pem episodes, “A Time to Die” and “No Way Back” – not to mention their somewhat omnipresence in ‘70s and ‘80s syndication – one may easily assume that Rosa encountered these oft-“watched” (pardon) tales at a creatively-impressionable period of his development.

More so, I’d assume similar such encounters for Adams. The coincidences are almost too great not to.

Oh, and I’d recommend that everyone see these VOYAGE episodes at least once. Henry Jones turns in a delightful, rascally performance as Mr. Pem – and he seems to have a certain reactive fun-chemistry with Richard Basehart (Admiral Nelson) that the more typically maniacal series villains (let alone aliens and monsters) did not.

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

I'm not aware of any additional evidence; I'm just arguing based on my own re-reading and re-viewing of these stories.

Chris

Mark Lungo said...

Hey, Chris! just a couple of comments about "A Kind of a Stopwatch":

1. It was first broadcast on 18 October 1963, not in 1959.

2. You can watch it (legally, with commercials) on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/watch/440816#i0,p0,s5,d0

3. There's actually a large subgenre of stories about time coming to a halt. I made it the subject of the first TV Tropes page I started, "Time Stands Still": http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TimeStandsStill

ramapith said...

Fellas... no need to speculate about "Stolen Time," or about other influences. Just read this, and all your questions will become answers.

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I wish they whould use Bankojob and Bibob more...

Chris Barat said...

Mark,

"Hey, Chris! just a couple of comments about "A Kind of a Stopwatch":

1. It was first broadcast on 18 October 1963, not in 1959."

Thanks! I must have mistaken the premiere year of TWILIGHT ZONE for the actual year in which the episode was broadcast. (On my first birthday, no less.) I'll make the correction in my review.

Chris

Chris Barat said...

David,

"Fellas... no need to speculate about "Stolen Time," or about other influences. Just read this, and all your questions will become answers."

OK, I'm willing to take Rosa at his word here... though, once again, I don't think that he would EVER freely admit to having been influenced by DUCKTALES, even if it were true.

Combined with Mark Lungo's correction of the air date of "A Kind of a Stopwatch," it would seem that a whole LOT of people may have been swiping from John MacDonald here, since THE GIRL, THE GOLD WATCH AND EVERYTHING was published as a novel in 1962.

Chris