Wednesday, September 18, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 53, "Duckworth's Revolt"

The theme of "reassessment" has kept cropping up in my most recent RETROSPECTIVEs.  With the added wisdom imparted by 25 years of hindsight, I've lowered my opinions of both "Jungle Duck" and "Duck to the Future," have gained new appreciation for the thematic boldness of "Scroogerello," and even niggled a few new nits out of "Double-O-Duck" even as I continued to praise that spy-spoof to the skies.  Well, here we go again.

Joe Torcivia and I had one of our largest differences of opinion regarding "Duckworth's Revolt" when it first aired.  He loved it, while I, quite frankly, didn't know what to make of it.  In the DUCKTALES INDEX, I did move a tad closer to Joe's position by noting that, if one could buy the premise of slave-driving vegetables capturing Duckworth and HD&L and the normally cool, calm, and, above all, content butler leading a Spartacus-style slave rebellion, then the ep was not without its peculiar harvest of rewards.  One of the factors that led me to this refined position was a viewing of the notorious Lost in Space episode "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" (1968), the plot of which bears at least a superficial resemblance to "Revolt"'s.  The kicker, of course, was that "TGVR" had long been regarded as one of the very worst LIS eps, the farther-than-far-fetched product of an overworked and burned-out writer who, by his own admission, "didn't have another goddamned idea in my head."

It was one thing to tongue-in-cheekishly "accept" "Revolt" as kooky camp; it was quite another to ignore the incredibly shaky elementary logic baked into some of the most basic aspects of the episode.  Take the opening premise -- please.  Scrooge fires the happy, non-materialistic Duckworth so that he can enjoy the "sheer ecstasy of making big [bucks]!"  Even if one interprets Scrooge's move as a grotesque overreaction to Huey's contention that Duckworth is the old miser's "slave" and a late-blooming admission of guilt that Scrooge has never given Duckworth a "fair chance" to become a self-made man, this makes no sense at all from Scrooge's perspective itself.  Duckworth appears to be far more than a mere factotum here; his rhapsodic comments about the glories of cleaning Scrooge's wallets, picking gum off of Scrooge's cane, preparing cheap meals, scrubbing floors, and taking out trash are not only amusing in and of themselves, they indicate that Duckworth willingly fills the roles of multiple servants.  Not even Richie Rich's butler Cadbury did that.  Is Scrooge likely to find another competent servant who will perform so many tasks so cheerily?  Not bloody so.  Scrooge at least partially redeems his idiocy by coming to the bus stop in the end to ask Duckworth to take his position back (technically, he asks Duckworth to put off his departure "until some later date," but that's the flimsiest of fig leaves), but boy, does this (still) come off as ultra-contrived, and a somewhat crude misreading of Scrooge's character besides.

The other major logical hole in the story involves HD&L's ride to the "rescue" of Duckworth while the latter is talking with Brigadier Broccoli.  Holding a position of strength in the Vegedonians' garden control room, the Nephews suddenly decide to "save" Duckworth "just in case he needs saving."  Wang Films' subsequent blowing of numerous spots involving the space car race and siege (how did Broccoli and Duckworth get knocked into a car with a closed top; why does the top keep appearing and disappearing; why is the speaker in the car connected to a general intercom, allowing Duckworth to address the other aliens laboring in the garden and encourage them to rebel; and so forth) are positively minor when compared to this far more fundamental SWERVE, which (1) comes completely out of nowhere with no motivation whatsoever and (2) essentially dictates the course of much of the rest of the plot, right down to the landing on the "gourdy green planet."

I still can't rate "Revolt" as one of the series' best eps, simply because I can't ignore such lazy writing at such key points of the story.  I have, however, grown to respect "Revolt" far more than I once did.  All the zaniness masks the simple fact that this is actually a pretty sober-sided story that features some surprisingly grim thematic and action elements.  The "slavery" angle is central, of course, but we are also "treated" to such delights as physical whipping of adults and children, despair in the face of evil, cattle prods (what would be the vegetarian equivalent of a cow?), catastrophic climate change, the decimation of a civilization (Broccoli's use of the word "destroyed," like the use of all those euphemisms for death in Kimba the White Lion, isn't fooling anyone), characters appealing for help before they are killed (Duckworth used no euphemism there!), and a bone-crunching moral dilemma (are the Vegedonians, in their straitened and desperate circumstances, justified in turning to forced labor until they can find a new home?  Could they be trusted to let their slaves go free after they have found said home?).  All the "squish-squashes" and "corny" vegetable puns in the universe can't obscure the cruel reality that some serious stuff IS GOING -- ON -- HERE, as Brigadier Broccoli might put it in his most stentorian tone.

GeoX makes the important point that the ep is "admirably committed" to its outlandish premise of alien vegetables, but I think that his point can be extended to cover more territory.  It is very easy to imagine "Revolt" being written like a syndicated Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog episode, with  ALL logic being thrown to the winds (with the proviso, of course, that there's actually no wind in space) and the silliness being piled on past all reason.  Instead, we got something more like the far more respected Saturday morning version of the Sonic show, which was set in a post-apocalyptic world and with the characters playing for much higher stakes.

It won't surprise anyone to learn that I consider this to be Duckworth's highest heroic flight of the entire series, though I still prefer several other episodes insofar as the quality of banter with other characters (in particular, Scrooge) is concerned.  Regarding the motivation for his switch to rebel leader, I'd like to think that Duckworth really was scared in the early going (though perhaps more so for HD&L than for himself) but decided to show, if not grow, a backbone after overhearing the boys' frustrated comments that he must actually like being a slave.  I wouldn't be surprised if the leaders of a lot of real-world slave rebellions displayed the same combination of initial trepidation and subsequent "raw strength and courage."

GeoX argues that the ep doesn't adequately follow through on some early questions that it raises regarding Duckworth's relationship with Scrooge:

My only real objection with the episode -- but it's a substantial objection -- is this: it flirts with asking questions about the morality of Duckworth's employment (what with the kids calling him a slave and all), but it never has the courage to follow through, instead contenting itself with assuring us that, well, he's not literally a slave, so there's no cause for concern. But that's so trivially true that if it's all you're gonna say, there was no point in bringing it up in the first place. Of course he's not literally forced to work for Scrooge--I mean, f***ing DUH. If you think this is an important question to address -- and I think it is; there's always the somewhat uncomfortable feeling in the comics that, notwithstanding all his "earning it square" talk, he's exploiting his employees as much as he possibly can -- you should bloody well address it. Otherwise, don't bother.

I can see Geo's point here, but I think that writer Dale Hale ignored the implications of the whole "real vs. wage slavery" business because he was so focused on Duckworth's own personal transformation from "yellow-bellied chicken" to rebel hero.  From the beginning, Duckworth insisted that he was proud of being Scrooge's employee (and who wouldn't be proud of working for the world's richest, if also cheapest, duck?), and it was that pride that ultimately fueled his decision to lead the rebellion.  This is definitely a case of the personal trumping the political.

I originally rated "Revolt" 2 1/2 stars out of 4; now, I'd have to give it at least a 3, though I would hesitate to go any farther because of the logical problems.  (3 1/4, perhaps?)  I've come to admire the boldness of the tackling of adult themes in such a surrealistic, thoroughly non-traditional episode.  If nothing else, I can always fall back on my common defense of off-the-reservation Duck stories: If Carl Barks could see fit to dish up a story about 17-foot-tall teenage girls on Venus, then we shouldn't complain too much about an episode like "Duckworth's Revolt."





Some... interesting... people worked on this ep.  Dale Hale has had his finger in too many pies (both printed and animated) to count during a career dating back to the 50s, but his most notable credit has to be the Dell and Gold Key PEANUTS comic books of the late 50s and early 60s.  Charles Schulz drew the covers of those books, but Hale, a friend of Schulz', got the honor of drawing the original stories themselves, which often went VERY far afield from standard PEANUTS strip fare.  I don't think that Charlie Brown and company ever met slave-driving alien vegetables during the life of these titles, but, if it were ever destined to happen, then it would have happened here.

Hale's last iMDB credit was writing four (not one, Greg) episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures, including an intriguing little confection called "Little Cake of Horrors" (1990) in which a dieting Hamton Pig is tormented by an evil talking cake who wants Hamton to eat it.  Ethically dubious anthropomorphic foodstuffs... there couldn't possibly be a connection to "Revolt," could there?

George DiCenzo (died 2010), the voice of Brigadier Broccoli and several other minor characters, is best remembered for playing lawyer Vincent Bugliosi in the classic 1976 TV adaptation of Bugliosi's book about the "Manson Family" murder case, HELTER SKELTER.  (I remember watching the show on its first run, when I was 13 years old.  Looking back on it now, it was pretty amazing that my parents allowed me to watch it -- more so if you know anything about my parents.)  For some reason, the juxtaposition of Broccoli and Bugliosi in DiCenzo's resume has always tickled me.  Both characters are essentially "straight men" in the most bizarre of situations.

NOT likely to invite Charlie Manson in for a "nice hot cup of onion tea" anytime soon.

(Greg) We begin this one IN SPACE near a planet I don't know and don't care about. And then we get the CRAWL OF DOOM which looks really sloppy (Huh; a Star Wars crawl in a DTVA show?)

I don't mind the technological crudeness so much as the fact that the text literally makes no sense.  This ISN'T happening "a long time ago"; after the Vegedonians capture the Elephant (I don't know what else to call her) Girl, they immediately turn to the "last planet from which to extract captives, namely, Earth," and we swing right into the main story.  I suppose that the Vegedonians could have been traveling for some time before getting to Earth, but the chief vege-characters don't appear to have aged at all (and we know that these aliens can age, given that we see "young sprouts" being evacuated in the later flashback scene).  BTW, if the Vegedonians really have visited all other planets with potential slaves, then, judging by the number of slaves that they have collected, there must not be that many inhabited planets in the galaxy.

(Greg) Now remember Duckworth is on the meat hook and the nephews have leg irons on? Well... We get the scene changer of doom and we see Duckworth sleeping on top of a bunk bed with no leg irons and the nephews on the bottom bunk sulking without leg irons on. How about that?! How did they find the key for those things? Logic breaks #2 and #3 for the episode and the first ones I don't accept. 

Maybe Duckworth and the boys were let out of their chains after being allowed to visit the little non-veggies' room...?  No, a definite logic break here.

(Greg) Duckworth invokes the Gruffi pose to annoy me as [Brigadier] Broccoli sucks up and wants to chat over some nice onion tea. Now there's something that should be marketed in some way. 

It's so easy to make from scratch that it's hard to say what would be gained from marketing it.  I suppose that a manufacturer could produce a synthetic onion tea that got rid of some of the more disagreeable side effects of the real thing.  The use of substitute ingredients would also answer GeoX's objection that the Vegedonians would regard the drinking of onion tea as cannibalism.

It's an open question as to what the Vegedonians actually eat.  Some plants are clearly less welcome than others (else why kill weeds?), but perhaps there is some lower, non-sentient strain of plant life on which they are permitted to feed.  Lieutenant Garlic and Sergeant Squash also appear willing to eat "plant food" made from alien (or at least duck) remains, which would seem to be even more ethically dicey than Soylent Green.

(Greg) Another barrel by the kangaroo alien on another leaf guard (there are two of them?!) with another good bump off-screen as the mob run like a mob and they are not going to take anymore crap anymore.

A reference to Peter Finch's famous slogan from Network.  The "drum-beating watermelon" (it's too squat and large to be a zucchini) similarly invokes Ben-Hur.

(GeoX)  "There comes a time when one must choose between trusting one's enemy or colliding with a gourdy green planet!" Words to live by.

The best part of this line is the part you left out -- the curiously calm "I have selected Choice #1."  Along with the "And I thought elephants never forgot!/What's an elephant?/Forget it!" exchange between Huey and the Elephant Girl and HD&L's occasional references to the absent Launchpad, it's one of my favorite lines of the episode.

(GeoX) Vacation Van Honk! 

And so late in the game, too!  Hale may not have gotten the word that this character had been "phased out."  Not that VVH had ever been truly "phased in," of course, but you get my meaning.

Next: Episode 54, "Spies in Their Eyes."


Pan Miluś said...

Odd part of the episode - HD&L where technicaly gone from home for few days and Scrooge didn't notice them? Was there a line in the episode that alien magicaly broth the ducks back in time to the second they left? It would made more scane then...

Next one is one of my favorite episodes ever (and my favorite Donald one) Can't whait:D :D

Anonymous said...

George Dicenzo was also the voice of Hordak in "He-Man" and "She-Ra:Orincess of Power"

-Joseph Adorno