Monday, September 23, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 54, "Spies in Their Eyes"

Merry Christmas!  Well, 1987-style, anyway.  You know that we're getting close to the end of season one when we see the first of the "clutch" of episodes that aired in late December 1987 and January 1988 following the series' initial few reruns.  GeoX found it strange that "Spies in Their Eyes," with its Donald/Navy theme, was immediately followed by another such episode (namely, "All Ducks on Deck"), but there actually was a five-day gap between the original broadcasts, so the "repetition issue" didn't seem like such a much at the time.

"Spies" is a fairly solid effort with a couple of strong one-shot (at least in animated form) guest villains livening things up considerably, but I can't rate it with the series' four-star eps for a couple of key reasons.  The theme of Donald being falsely accused of "espionage and high treason" could have made for a really thrilling denouement, with Scrooge, HD&L, and their temporary ally Cinnamon Teal hustling to stop superspy Victor Luzer's theft of the "attack sub experimental" and prove Donald's innocence before Donald is subjected to a court-martial.  Since the real penalty that would have been facing Seaman Duck for such crimes would have been death or, at the very least, lengthy imprisonment at hard labor, the others' goal would have been to preempt the legal proceedings themselves.  Here, however, writers Sharman DiVono and Bruce Reid Schaefer seem to get their legal wires crossed and conflate the "court martial" with Donald being "drummed out of the Navy."  In other words, Donald has every right to whine in the scene below, because he's the victim in what amounts to a show trial.  "Sentence first, verdict afterwards!"  The softening of the ultimate penalty doesn't hide the fact that this is a gross miscarriage of justice.

In truth, it may not be all that surprising that Admiral Grimitz butchered the legal niceties here. In this ep, he pretty much ruins whatever small reputation had accrued to him during his previous appearances in the series.  Overbearing and "lunkheadish" he may have been before this, but he seemed at least marginally competent during the mission to stop Dr. Bluebottle's stolen sub in "A Whale of a Bad Time."  The lazy way to write such a character would be to turn him into some kind of buffoonish, sea-going version of Dr. Strangelove's Jack D. Ripper.  Well, it took a while for the "Kablooey"s and obsession with toy boats -- er, "Pentagon-issue naval battle simulators" -- to appear, but we got them in spades here.  As if to emphasize the turn to a more comedic (at least in theory) characterization, the admiral's legs seem barely able to support his body at numerous points.  Launchpad suffered very much the same top-heavy redesign in Darkwing Duck, and we all know what happened to LP's general level of intelligence along with that.

One particularly disturbing aspect of Grimitz' deterioration as a character is his seeming indifference to Donald's plight.  I wouldn't say that he takes actual pleasure at the prospect of cashiering Don, but he certainly doesn't seem all that worried about investigating the matter to the bottom, laughing off Scrooge's hypnosis theory and such.  This aspect of the ep has always left a bad taste in my mouth.  Grimitz would at least partially redeem himself with a slightly better performance in "All Ducks on Deck," but he lost a fatal amount of ground here.  Thankfully, when Quack Pack did its "Donald returns to the Navy" episode "All Hands on Duck," it left Grimitz blessedly alone to nurse what remained of his battered rep.

As if to take up the slack for his superior's newly-minted inferiority, Donald delivers a solid, and occasionally even admirable, performance.  We get the standard amount of bungling, to be sure, but Don's refusal to talk about the secret sub with Scrooge, even when the two of them are the only ones present, lends credence to Scrooge's musing that the Navy has helped give Don some maturity.  Don's actions under hypnosis are, of course, not his fault, and he doesn't hesitate to pursue the stolen sub all by himself.  Despite being hypnotized, he's considerably less of a "pawn" here than he was during "Sphinx for the Memories," and the character traits that he is allowed to display here tend to flatter him, rather than put him in a bad light.

"Spies"' other significant demerit concerns Wang Films' animation.  No, actually, I should be a bit more precise and say "Wang's figure drawing."  To say that the latter is "all over the place" during this episode is to insult the very nature of randomness.  It is tough to believe that the two versions of Donald shown below could have appeared in the same 22-minute production:

Likewise, check out these two versions of Victor Luzer.  Did Wang have the "T-team" (no, not that one!) working on the first scene (which is "merely" the scene in which we are introduced to Victor)?

The shame of it all is that, while Wang's character animators really let them down here, their background personnel came up "aces full" with some impressive and imaginative visuals.  The street scenes in Singapore (minus the "stereotyped" Asian characters, who, for the most part, aren't all that offensive) are fairly bland, with the occasional bit of intriguing lagniappe tossed in, such as the "go-go girl" sign at the upper right of Don's notorious "The night is young, and I'm old enough!" scene...


... but the Wang crew suddenly gets a bit fancy at the spy-infested Cloak & Dagger Club, tossing in well-composed long shots and clever overhead views of Cinnamon Teal's booby-trapped booth.

We get similarly strong background work when the hypnotized Donald enters the carrier and the submarine and steals the computer link.  (True confessions time: I didn't really notice the bad character designs until I made heavy use of freeze-frame while preparing this commentary.  At normal speed, the flow of the animation tended to obscure some of the more egregious anatomical violations.)

It is eminently probable that much of the supporting voice cast of this episode was chosen with a purpose in mind.  Victor Luzer is not only a(n) (un) worthy successor to Carl Barks' procession of nasty, arrogant pig villains -- so much so, in fact, that it's a bit surprising that he didn't simply demand that Donald be "permanently silenced" after Cinnamon Teal brought the latter out of his trance -- but an homage to Bernie Kopell's KAOS agent, Siegfried, from Get Smart.

Meanwhile, the choice of Haunani Minn as the sultry voice of Cinnamon Teal originally seemed like typical "Asian typecasting" to me, but not so fast: Minn played the role of a North Korean guerrilla woman in the 1979 M*A*S*H episode "Guerrilla My Dreams."  (This was the notorious [at least, back in the day] episode in which Hawkeye said "SOB" on prime-time TV.)  Did someone at WDTVA remember this show and figure that someone who could play a guerrilla so memorably could also play a spy?

Cinnamon Teal, of course, would make a comeback in kaboom!'s TV-Duck comics, appearing in both "Rightful Owners" (first appearance... sigh... kaboom! DUCKTALES #3) and the concluding DUCKTALES/DARKWING DUCK arc, "Dangerous Currency."  At the time, I remember shedding a figurative tear at the thought that Cinnamon had "fallen back into evil ways" following her bout of cooperation with Scrooge and HD&L.  Now, however, I would qualify that claim and admit that there was no real evidence that she actually DID reform as a result of "Spies."  She simply formed a mariage de convenience with the good guys for the purposes of getting the real documents back from the treacherous Victor.  Her "return to the dark side" still strikes me as a little disappointing, nonetheless.  I mean, Scrooge saw his way clear to offer the Beagle Babes a job after they kidnapped Webby; why couldn't he have done the same for a "promised to be good" Cinnamon? 

No comment -- either visually or verbally.
Next stop... er... disgrace and extra-dimensional exile in a pile of slime.

The other major one-shot player we get here, Cinnamon Teal's cousin and "silent partner" Ho, might as well have been excluded for all he meaningfully contributes to the fun.  Why even bother introducing him if he completely disappears immediately after the scene in the basement of the Cloak & Dagger Club?  Why not simply have Scrooge and HD&L get knocked out from their fall into the basement, then have Cinnamon revive them and plead for their help herself?  About all that Ho provides (aside from fodder for the groan-inducing Snow White pun) is a bit more fuel to the fire of complaint about the series' overuse of "Asian stereotypes."

The episode's climactic action gives all the major players something to do -- well, all except HD&L, which, given their earlier gung-ho attitude about plunging into a nest full of spies and intrigue, seems an odd omission.  GeoX's complaint that Victor abandons subtlety in favor of "blasting at ships for no stated reason" can be answered by noting that Admiral Grimitz has, after all, tried to "block the port of Singapore" with the carrier (and, as Greg pointed out, that would be a rather tough real-life assignment; check out the map below), so how else could Victor be expected to react in order to secure his escape.  We even get a couple of (non-lethal) "Kablooey"s for good measure, the better to soothe Grimitz' soul just a wee bit after that embarrassing turn as a danseur.


The ending is logically dubious -- unless you accept the theory that documents can't be copied in the Duck "universe," that is -- but Geo's conclusion that this is "a pretty good episode all told" seems just about right.  Unfortunately, "All Ducks on Deck" turned out to be so much better than "Spies" on so many levels that the generally decent quality of the latter episode tends to be forgotten today.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) He's a DUCK--TALES--HERO, got spies in his eyes!  Sorry, but I fail to see how anyone can talk about this episode and not use that one.

Er, ah... "Pinball Wizard" reference??  Otherwise, I haven't got a clue.

(GeoX) Louie: "What's hypnosis?" Dewey: "It's when you walk around in a daze and don't know what you're doing!" [Louie:] "That sounds like Unca Donald, all right!" No, it sounds like the forced setup for a stupid joke at the expense of character. STOP DOING THAT.

Especially since it has long since been established that the DuckTales Nephews, though they do recognize Donald's fallibility, respect him too much to be willing to indulge in such a crude and obvious insult.  Given that the lads willingly "dorked out" and "flashed" Donald with cameras when they first met him on the streets of Singapore, I don't think that they're in any position to be tossing stones here.


(Greg) Donald gulps as MP #1 (MP's are the privates of the Navy see. He's the fat dogsperson on the headphones) calls for the attack sonar to engage and MP #2 calls for attack computers are engaged as a smaller MP in sailor gear mans the computers and somehow doesn't speak. 

Actually, the two members of Shore Patrol (not MP's... my bad) are the guys who arrest Donald at the end of Act One.  The dogfaces in the sub are simply "generic" sailors, while the gig driver (also not an MP) is the one who ferries Donald to and from Singapore.

(Greg) Ducktales is [Bernie Kopell]'s only DTVA appearance and in fact probably the only cartoon he was in.

Kopell appeared in at least two other animated series: The Lionhearts (Remember?  The series that tried to make Leo, the MGM lion, into a cartoon star?) and As Told by Ginger.

(Greg) So we head to Singapore as the far shot looks like a regular city in America (bad sign for the writers right there) and then we cut to town level as we see the Asian Stereotypical buildings and then go to ground level as we see a decent amount of Asian dogsperson stereotypes strewed out for all to see. A man yells out there are fresh spices from India, Africa and China (and no I don't know who is voicing him; so don't ask).

I think it was Ed Gilbert, but I'm not absolutely sure.  The Toon Disney version of the ep cut out this line, segueing straight from the long shot of Singapore to the marketplace scene with the HD&L voiceover.  No... sense... making...

(Greg) So Scrooge punishes [Cinnamon] by pushing her into the ocean and she splashes down. I smell Toon Disney cut here...

No, the scene was preserved.  Perhaps "male on female contact violence" was deemed OK in this situation because Cinnamon was technically a villain?

Next: Episode 55, "Launchpad's First Crash."

5 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Was it ever established who “Victor Luzer” was supposed to be a parody of?

The only thing I can think of was “Victor Laszlo” of “Casablanca” – but, clandestine though he was, he was a good guy!

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

In the absence of any competing theories, I'd still have to say that the name (if nothing else) was a parody of Victor Laszlo.

Chris

Anonymous said...

Here's my off-the-wall theory regarding Donald's court martial, and how he would have got off without the death penalty (keeping in mind I have no idea how US military law works in real life or in Ducktales ).

The navy wanted to cover up the SNAFU with the secret sub, and the court martial & execution of Donald Duck for high treason would attract unwanted attention, particularly since he's the nephew of Scrooge.

Furthermore, Scrooge McDuck himself knows the president ("A Whale of a Bad Time") and presumably has other friends high in the government.

Result- navy makes plea deal with Donald's lawyer to quickly and quietly "drum him out of the navy." Donald's pressured into signing by his lawyer, but is still none too happy about it.

Of course, this would all fall apart since (I guess) it wouldn't be in Donald's character to acquiesce to such a deal, particularly with Scrooge and the nephews still investigating the case.

Chris Barat said...

Anon,

That's not a bad theory, actually... and I agree with you that Donald would probably NOT have taken the compromise lying down.

Chris

Regular GeoX said...

Relevant cultural reference. :p