Wednesday, September 25, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 55, "Launchpad's First Crash"

"Launchpad's First Crash" -- which, given previously established DuckTales continuity, really ought to have been titled "Launchpad and Scrooge's First Crash" -- is a real anomaly among DT eps: a show that, while relatively uninspired and uninteresting in and of itself, opens the door to one heck of a lot of philosophical speculation.  Trying to fit this tale into established Duck-comics continuity is indeed, as GeoX notes, "a tall order," but Joe Torcivia and I sure gave it the old "Duckburg try" in THE DUCKTALES INDEX, and I'll make sure to revisit what we wrote when the time comes and see how well it has held up over the years.  Squaring the first meeting of Scrooge and Launchpad with what has come before on-screen isn't quite as difficult, but only provided that the viewer can execute a couple of "leaps of faith" along the way.

I have a suspicion that "First Crash" experienced a rather rough gestation period, simply because Anthony Adams and Michael Keyes are credited as co-writers.  Apart from their assistance in writing teleplays for several chapters of "Catch as Cash Can," these two gentlemen typically worked alone, so what could have brought them together here?  Did one begin writing the episode, only to run into difficulty, leaving the other to clean up the mess?  Whatever "the story behind the story" was here, it seems quite remarkable that two writers who have long since amply demonstrated their ability to craft high-quality Duck tales would put their heads together and come up with something as pallid as this to fete such a fateful first encounter.

The Wages of Fear-flavored setup for the flashback is a solid one, though Scrooge and Launchpad should probably have been giving profound thanks that their planeload of TNT turned out to be so... um, well-behaved.  It's understandable that the initial lightning strike, hitting as it did one of the plane engines, wouldn't have set off the explosives right away, but the headlong crash onto the mesa was surely more than severe enough to trigger something...

... especially since a good deal of the TNT seems to have fallen out of the split fuselage as a result.  How convenient that the spillage appears to have been sufficiently well-organized that no detonative damage was done.

After LP triggers the duo's memories with that riff on the "beloved harmonica" that we had never seen him play before and never will again, we channel a Vic Lockman caption or ten and "take a few steps back in time"... and the questions begin.  The obvious initial query is: Why did Scrooge decide to seek out Launchpad in the first place?  Given that success in the mission to find the Lost City of Diamonds will result in Scrooge becoming the world's richest Duck -- oh, yes, we'll get back to that pesky "will" soon enough -- one would think that Scrooge would want to team up with a more experienced pilot.  There's no evidence that Scrooge has any prior idea as to Launchpad's fees, so simply wanting to save money was probably not the reason for his decision to give LP a call.  My own guess is that Launchpad's air service was originally called "A-1 Air Service" and Scrooge found him listed first in the phone book.

Now, let's see whether we can get this scenario right with "Top Duck."  That episode's flashback to the Flying McQuacks' show "out on the coast" doesn't give us a truly clear picture of the young Launchpad -- all of the shots in which he appears are medium to long in nature -- but it seems fairly obvious that he is rather more chunkily built than the stripling who strikes that "soft (headed) bargain" with Scrooge.  I don't agree with GeoX that the "First Crash" LP "appears to be about 12," but, if you showed me these two images "cold" and asked me to pick the one showing the older LP, I would pick the "Top Duck" pic without hesitation.


Even if you put the appearance of the skinnier, more callow Launchpad of "First Crash" down to simple inconsistency of character design -- and, gosh knows, Wang Films has been known to suffer from that problem -- you're still faced with the task of squaring the attitudes of these two versions of LP.  In "Top Duck," the bag-headed laddie who slinks away in disgrace (at least in his own mind) from his Mom and Dad is obviously going to need a LOT of time to rebuild his shattered confidence, no matter what his next career move might be.  Indeed, at the time of "Top Duck," he is still suffering from feelings of inferiority and shame, at least insofar as "making his family proud of him" is concerned.

While it would be difficult for me to argue that the Launchpad of "First Crash" is pumped full of confidence -- he does resort to pleading on his knees and dropping his fee per mile to almost nothing, after all -- he still does manifest a certain naive insouciance, never more clearly than when he reacts to Scrooge introducing himself by saying, "Oh yeah, the rich guy!" A "broken in spirit" LP, however naively insouciant, would probably have shown Scrooge a little more formal respect than that in order to get the old miser on his side.  The mere fact that Launchpad is being so flippant suggests that, if this really is supposed to be the post-humiliation "Top Duck" LP, then he must have regained at least a portion of his spirit relatively quickly.  Granted that you're willing to buy that -- and, perhaps, that the thinness of the "First Crash" LP may have arisen from living on short commons while waiting for that elusive "first job" to turn up -- I'm willing to accept that the LP of "Top Duck" and the LP of "First Crash" could be one and the same.

While "Oh yeah, the rich guy!" may be a funny and in-character line, it presages a problem that dogs Scrooge and Launchpad's first adventure from beginning to end: There is no true development of the relationship between them.  One would think that it would take a while for the two characters to get comfortable with one another, especially during a mission with so much at stake for the both of them. For example, it would have been perfectly believable had Launchpad been a little timid at the start and allowed Scrooge to make all of the major decisions.  Instead, S&L fall to bantering in "mature" (so to speak) DuckTales style virtually right away, with Scrooge slinging insults and threats of firing and LP riposting with sometimes-amusing, sometimes-inane comments.  In short, the narrative plays out more like a conventional DT ep than it probably should have.  This may be part of the reason why GeoX criticized Launchpad's behavior as "annoying," as opposed to being infused with "his usual dopey charm."  The Launchpad of "First Crash" needed to be sufficiently different from the older LP in order to both fit believably into this storyline and help to provide an explanation as to the subsequent development of LP's character.  Instead, the "Ichabod Crane" LP behaves pretty much like the older LP, and such behavior coming from a younger character would probably come across as being more "annoying."

DuckTales' -- er, unconventional presentation of the setting at "the center of the Earth" raises some obvious questions of its own.  The potential for tectonic instability in a setup like this goes without saying.  How can the Earth's molten core be such a discrete entity, with some sort of -- well, it's not a vacuum, since the Sunchaser can fly through it, so what is it? Some sort of independent interior atmosphere? -- taking up the space between the core and the surrounding volcanoes?  Since the Earth obviously doesn't have that many huge, active volcanoes on its surface, a great number of the openings seen in the images below must lead to locations within the Earth's mantle itself, including the "hidden world" of the Amazons and their Babutas.  So how did the "legend of the Lost City of Diamonds" become common knowledge?  The Sunchaser is described at the end of the episode as "the first plane to fly through the center of the Earth," so who made that first trip to Amazon Land and returned with those reports of the riches to be found there?  We've grown accustomed to giving plausibility a fairly wide berth in many of Scrooge's treasure-hunting adventures, but it takes a heck of a lot to accept the legitimacy of the scenario presented here.

The subtheme of the Amazons' tiny Babutas running away to be "liberated" isn't particularly interesting, and the Amazons and Babutas themselves are pretty much forgettable as characters, with the possible exception of Grunta.  Even Grunta gets a nod primarily because Linda Gary's dialogue is so difficult to understand.  (BTW, Greg, that's why I misidentified Queen Oofa as "Queen Pupa.")  These characters are supposed to be subliterate savages, but one could say that Gary did her job too well here.  

More distressingly, the action in and around (and, considering that the albino bat guardians kidnap Scrooge and Grunta at one point, above) the Lost City of Diamonds is fairly mundane as well, and feature some tetchy animation to boot.  Scrooge does pull one of the biggest rocks (no pun intended) of his career when he blithely causes the collapse of the City by digging out a diamond.  At least Scrooge had the excuse of being under the spell of "Gold Fever" in "Treasure of the Golden Suns" when he triggered that self-destruct mechanism; here, he just seems to have had a temporary short circuit in his brain pan.
 
Once the city begins to crumble and the blue-ish diamonds start to literally flow like water, the obligatory surfing parody isn't far behind.  The "watery" diamonds then magically become discrete rocks once the wave has settled.  All of a sudden, the "moving brown lemming blobs" of "Scrooge's Pet" -- which, let it not be forgotten, also provided fodder for a surfing gag involving Launchpad -- don't seem quite so annoying.

As ho-hum as all this is, the real letdown has to be the manner in which Launchpad and the other Amazons and Babutas rescue Scrooge and Grunta.  Launchpad shouts, "Blow the horns!", the primitives make with the tootling, and the bats simply fly away and disappear?  That's it?  I suspect that this business was cut to the bone because of time constraints.  I would have preferred that the ep had fleshed this denouement out a bit while spending a bit less time dawdling around the Amazons' campsite and drawing out the encounters with the giant crab and giant octopus.

Scrooge and Launchpad's return to the outside world is probably the best action featured in the episode.  Even before the repaired Sunchaser gets off the ground, we get the priceless sequence in which Scrooge desperately tries to "lighten the load" by any means other than the disposal of his haul of diamonds -- up to and including the jettisoning of Launchpad!  Obviously, this comes off as pretty cold-blooded on Scrooge's part, but one must admit that, if Scrooge would ever have been tempted to cast LP aside for profit's sake, then it would have been on this mission, when the ties between the two characters are not yet so tight.  Just as S&L's being sucked into the subterranean world through a hole in a volcano was lifted from a scene in The Empire Strikes Back, so the duo's escape to safety through an erupting volcano has a parallel in The Millennium Falcon's escape from "Death Star II" in Return of the Jedi.  (Too bad that Adams and Keyes couldn't have had the Sunchaser traveling down a narrow trench at some point; that would have finished off the "original-Star-Wars-trilogy straight.")  The whole hollow-Earth scenario may have been a silly one, but this closing sequence gets as much out of the idea as could reasonably be expected.  The only major problem is that Scrooge winds up only one diamond to the good.  Would that one stone be enough to make him the world's richest Duck?  If not, then wouldn't this "first mission" with Launchpad have to be classified as a failure?

It's well past time to grasp the nettle, look the "Duck fanboys" squarely in the snout, and try to make some sense of this adventure in a Duck-comics context.  Here, it is necessary to quote at length from the DUCKTALES INDEX (thanks to Joe for giving me permission to do this):

It is made tolerably clear [in "First Crash"] that Launchpad is a post-Barks creation in both artistic and "realistic" terms.  The young Launchpad seems to be in his teens; presumably, his hiring by Scrooge (his "first job") came very soon after his leaving The Flying McQuacks.  Assuming he's now in his late 20s or early 30s, his first crash would seem to date from the mid- to late 70s, well past the end of Barks' working career -- a neat explanation of why Launchpad never could have appeared in a Barks story (except perhaps as a crash-prone infant).  Scrooge and Launchpad may then have dropped out of contact, only to be reunited by Gyro in "Three Ducks of the Condor" (in which the two do not seem to be strangers to one another).  The only problem with this theory is that Scrooge says that finding the Lost City WILL make him the richest Duck in the world.  Our only possible explanation (assuming Scrooge didn't misspeak himself): as Scrooge's adventures dwindled to almost nothing in the post-Barks, reprint-dominated 70s, Glomgold may have temporarily edged ahead of him in money count, prompting him to resume his globetrotting with this quest.  If this idea is too heretical to accept, you can always blame Adams and Keyes.

Knowing what I know now about Scrooge's few original "adventures" during the barren era in question, I honestly have to channel Greg and say: Damn, Joe and I were good!  Mild domestic conflicts with the Beagle Boys, Donald and HD&L generally left out of the picture... it's extremely easy to imagine this version of Scrooge losing his position, if only temporarily, at the top of the "slippery pole."  I will slightly qualify what Joe and I said above and leave open the possibility that S&L may have had a few dual adventures between the time of "First Crash" and that of "Three Ducks."  Considering that "Don't Give Up the Ship" suggests that Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L may have been on the outs for some time before Donald joined the Navy and HD&L came to live with Scrooge, it would make perfect sense for Scrooge to "restart" his adventuring career through some other avenue, even a treacherous (by which I mean, crash-prone) one.
 
It was a bad era for a lot of people -- Scrooge not excepted.
"First Crash" certainly isn't a dreadful episode, merely a forgettable one.  Most of the fun that Joe and I had with it arose from our attempts to entwine it in established Duck continuity... and even those who disagree with our hypotheses must admit that, if you can mine such deep musings out of a decidedly mediocre episode, then you're talking about one outstanding series.

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"DuckBlurbs"
(GeoX) …or, per the title card, "Launchpads First Crash," clearly a Finnegans Wake reference, or else grammatical dumbness. 
Funny, I don't recall ever seeing a title card with a missing apostrophe...
(GeoX) Yes, diamonds are hard, but that doesn't mean you can just cut through metal by rubbing them against it. Jeez. 
Yes, it appears as though, even under the most favorable of circumstances -- namely, under controlled conditions in the factory -- this operation would be much harder (heh) than Scrooge and Launchpad make it out to be.  It's shocking, I know.
(Greg) We begin this one in the desert complete with lots of CACTUS JACKS OF DOOM and we pan up to see the white plane as Launchpad is flying it (duh); informing Scrooge that they will reach the copper mine before AFTER HAPPY HOUR (dark). We then cut to the cockpit as Scrooge is worried stiff because there are explosives (!!!) in the plane. Man; if there is one episode that is just begging to be black balled after 9/11; this one is it. 
If it was shelved post-9/11, I'm unaware of that fact.  I rather doubt it, because this is simply a "transportation job," unlike the scenario of, say, "Flying Dupes."

(Greg) Man; the Sun Chaser looks like a big ass model airplane. I wonder if Launchpad had a hobby and it just went out of control now?
Or perhaps he fashioned the Sunchaser out of the bag of wreckage and oddments that he carried away with him at the end of the flashback scene in "Top Duck"?  If I were a struggling young pilot on a strict budget, that's what I would do.

(Greg) Launchpad gets forced down [by the octopus] as apparently they have stop[ped] selling the fact that the lake is BOILING HOT~! 
Yes, by all rights, Launchpad ought to have been nicely parboiled here.
(Greg) This episode was going so well; until Scrooge and Launchpad decided to act stupid.

I'm willing to grant Launchpad a pass, since it was literally his first adventure.  Scrooge?  Not so much.  He must have been way out of practice at this treasure-hunting business.

Next: Episode 56, "The Uncrashable Hindentanic."

2 comments:

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I will be honest - when I did maraton all Duck Tales episodes about six-seven years ago, I consider "Launchpad's first crash" to be the my least favortie episode of season 1.

Looking back, I guess this episode has some ineresting ideas about it (even if the concept of cyvilisation in the middle of the earth rubs me in the wrong way) but still, one of least interesting one, which is odd conisdering the "How Scrooge meet Launchpad" story...

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

I don't blame you for your lack of enthusiasm. The mere fact that such an important episode turned out to be so "blah" distressed me, as well.

Chris