Wednesday, November 13, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 63, "All Ducks on Deck"

"All Ducks on Deck" isn't a character-building episode on the order of "Hero for Hire," "Sir Gyro de Gearloose," or "Top Duck."  Nor is it an old-fashioned Barksian treasure trek like "Raiders of the Lost Harp."  Its original air date, a couple of days after the similarly-themed "Spies in Their Eyes," may actually have worked against it a bit, at least in the minds of those viewers who were unfamiliar with the history of Disney comics.  However, for those "in the know," the ep took no time at all to shoot to the top of the "faves" list, for one rather obvious, obsidian-cloaked reason...

Yep, the appearance of The Phantom Blot was a stunner, all right, not least because he had long been linked with Mickey Mouse in fans' minds.  (It also may have marked something of a turning point in the depiction of The Blot in all media, an argument which I will explore below.)  Why did the DT crew wait until almost literally the last minute of the first season to bring him on board?  The big-canvas criminal plans that The Blot typically favors would seem to provide an excellent contrast to the more Scrooge-centric obsessions of The Beagle Boys (robbing the Money Bin), Flintheart Glomgold (topping Scrooge on the money list), and Magica De Spell (getting her hands on Old #1).  Moreover, in battling The Blot's machinations for the good of the wider world, Scrooge would have multiple chances to grow in moral stature, just as he did when he tearfully left the petrified Nephews and the rest of his family behind at the Mansion and went off to secure "The Golden Goose."  Oh, well, at least we'll always have Cat Island.


As memorable as The Blot's performance is, he's not the only star of this particular show.  For example, he must (no doubt reluctantly) share the stage with Donald, who turns in his most comprehensively Barksian performance of the series here.  Any Duck fan who doesn't recognize the influence of Barks in Don's desire to impress his Nephews by relating tall tales of his supposed Navy exploits is hereby required to turn in his or her honorary key to the city of Duckburg -- no exceptions.  At the same time, the specific sin that Donald commits also makes perfect sense in the context of his role in DT, and, more specifically, of his relationship to HD&L in the series.  The slightly more "grounded" and cynical Nephews of most Barks "ten-pagers" would more than likely have seen through Donald's exaggerated stories relatively quickly and blown them off without having to set a webbed foot inside their uncle's duffle bag.  By contrast, from the opening moments of "Don't Give Up the Ship," the DT HD&L have generally tried to give Don the benefit of the doubt, and they maintain that attitude throughout the course of "Deck." Even after the boys stow away and learn that Don's stories of heroism were bogus, Louie declares that he's proud of Unca Donald anyway, and the trio dig into the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook and set about trying to create situations in which Don can live up to his inflated self-image.  In the end, after braving a fair amount of adversity and bum luck -- most of which happens to him through no direct fault of his own -- Don comes up with the plan to guide Scrooge and Launchpad back to the carrier with flares (OK, GeoX, it may not have been "brilliant," but Don hatched the idea at the precise time it was needed, which has to count for something), and the boys reward him with the handmade medal in a touching scene that does, indeed, evoke memories of the heartfelt concluding panels of Barks' "The Olympic Hopeful" (WDC&S #188, May 1956).  

The episode sets up Donald's folly perfectly with the opening Pinball Reef sequence, which plays out like a "sea story" brought to visual life.  The anthropomorphized waves, the giant octopus' "knotty" end, the "dinging" sounds that Don's carrier makes when it collides with the reef, and the carrier's abrupt acquisition of Slinky-like capabilities as Don pilots it out of the hazard are unmistakable signs of a fib being told -- more specifically, a fib of the hyper-exaggerated sort that the comics Donald might conceivably dream up if he were in a particularly creative mood.  The difference here is that Don is allowed to "get away with" these initial whoppers, at least at first, since the DT HD&L already have a more consistently benign view of their fallible uncle to begin with.  Some of the more hard-assed "sourdoughs" in the Barks fandom might object to the show letting Donald slide by in this manner, much as some fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic didn't like it when the fib-telling Rarity managed to preserve her reputation with both her forgiving friends and Canterlot society in the episode "Sweet and Elite."  Both Donald and Rarity do seem to learn and absorb their lessons, however, which is the whole point of the moral in both cases.


Most of the ep's other supporting players -- Launchpad, Admiral Grimitz, and the traitorous dork Ensign Plover -- are also in excellent form.  LP doesn't actually have all that much of substance to do, but whatever he does do is pretty much pure gold, starting with his using the top of Scrooge's rolltop desk as a miniature aircraft carrier...

... then carrying through to the classic "double-parkin' crash"...

... and finishing with flying the invisible jet...

Season the dish with such memorable lines as "What a sunset -- ya'd hafta get up pretty early in the morning to see a better one!" and "A net, and I don't mean Funicello!", and the viewer winds up getting an unexpected amount of bang for his McQuack buck here.  Speaking of bangs, Admiral Grimitz, while he's still suffering from "Spies in Their Eyes" "kablooey" syndrome here (although he does get a chance to experience the feeling from the other end of the gun, as it were), both behaves and is treated more like a legitimate naval commander.  The Navy saw fit to use Grimitz's carrier as the place to land the invisible jet, didn't it?  Would it have dared to do so if the Admiral were a complete stumblebum?  Not in the Reagan 80's, it wouldn't have.  As if to make up for his shabby treatment of the much-put-upon Seaman Duck in "Spies," Grimitz also acts a little bit more benignly, towards Donald here.  Donald's deck-swabbing penance is justified -- Launchpad and Scrooge did bring him back late, after all -- and Grimitz subsequently thinks highly enough of him to (1) have Don accompany himself and Plover during the lifeboat drill and (2) permit Don to actively participate in the missile exercise.  Even after both activities have ended in disaster for Grimitz, Donald is merely sentenced to peeling potatoes, which, according to Plover, Don was originally slated to do anyway.  The punishment could certainly have been a lot worse.

Greg pointed out that IMDB misidentified Ensign Plover as "Ensign Plummer."  In this case, the movie reference site has even less of an excuse to get things wrong than Disney Captions typically does.  Like Jack Lemmon's Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts (1955), Mark Taylor's Plover is a callow, vaguely obsequious sort who "grows" in unexpected ways by the end of the production.  The problem is that one can "grow" in the manner of a weed as well as a flower, and Plover, like Taylor's infamous Dougie Benson of TaleSpin's "Louie's Last Stand," turns out to be a thoroughly bad egg -- a worse one than Dougie, in fact, since "Agent X" was presumably corrupted by The Blot long before he actually turned to the dark side and stole the jet.

Oh, Scrooge was in this, too, wasn't he?  I guess that the biggest contribution that he makes to the ep was... getting netted by The Blot?  That, or using some fishing paraphernalia to manipulate a "wonky-sounding" lever.  Take your pick.  The beauty part of Scrooge's presence is, of course, that he does not need to make a huge impression in order to, well, make an impression.  He is secure enough in his role as star of the show that he can gracefully step aside, accept a decidedly minor role, and allow others to shine.  There can be no better example of the depth of DuckTales' cast, and its ability to mix cast elements in an effective manner, than that.

But make no mistake, it's The Blot who steals the show from the moment we hear that raspy offscreen voice "calling Agent X."  I'm not one of those people who dislikes the reuse of The Blot even after the character had been unmasked in the original 1939 Gottfredson story.  It's not the ID of The Blot that matters so much as the quality of the opposition that he provides.  The portrayal of The Blot, especially in artistic terms, has been far less consistent over the years.  The original article was a hulking "man of mystery" who played for keeps despite never wanting to hang around until the death trap had been sprung.  The addition of long fingernails to The Blot's arsenal of menace on the cover of that first comic-book reprint may have been a slight exaggeration, but it was certainly an understandable one.



When Gold Key decided to let The Blot "return" to American comics in a 1964 WDC&S serial, the "mystery look," in particular the blank eyes, was retained:

The decision to give The Blot his own title -- yes, Western "went there" (as it did with The Beagle Boys) long before any superhero publisher decided to tribute a villain in this manner -- was accompanied by a slight "softening" of the character's appearance, in the form of pupils being added to his eyes.  It certainly wasn't as bizarre-looking as Harold Gray's giving Little Orphan Annie pupils late in his career, but it did have the residual effect of making The Blot seem a bit more like a conventional big-scheme villain, albeit one who has opted for an interesting choice of habiliment.

We're still a long way from the ravening-eyed, cackling Blot of "Deck" at this point... or are we?  By 1972, a cover artist for Brazilian Disney comics had stuck a smile on The Blot's cape, the first instance that I've been able to find of an artist treating the character as a kind of "shadow figure," as opposed to a man in a cloak.  Roger Armstrong introduced the grinning Blot to American comics when he teamed up with writer Mark Evanier on a couple of SUPER GOOF adventures in the mid-70s.  It's unlikely that any cross-pollination took place here, but, hey, you never know.  Before long, even longtime Mouse comics master Paul Murry had abandoned past practice (including all seven issues of the PHANTOM BLOT title) and had started to affix a smile to HIS Blot.

Some overseas treatments of The Blot got even looser and goofier than this in the 1980s.  In this 1984 French cover, The Blot has not only acquired a wide, gaping mouth, he appears to have hair growing out of his (cloak-covered??) scalp!  I don't know which is more "incroyable mais vrai" (incredible but true), the "flying kayak" at upper right or the mere existence of this image.

Most intriguing of all is the following cover to Brazilian MICKEY #454 (October 15, 1987).  Yes, you read the date right -- just a shade over two months before "Deck" had its premiere on December 30.  If that figure at lower right isn't a close relative of the "Deck" Blot, then I'll be gravely disappointed.  Can Frank Welker transpose that raspy Blot voice into Portuguese, by any chance?

Much more of this, and The Blot will become unrecognizable as that clever cloaked fellow from 1939 and will morph into something like a dusky devil-figure.  The Blot of "Deck," however, marks a spot where the trend of silly abstraction seems to have executed something of a U-turn.  Granted, we would still see an "exaggerated" Blot on occasion: for example, on Rick Hoover's classic cover to Disney Comics MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES #3 (August 1990)...

... but most modern stories featuring The Blot have returned to the classic, blank-eyed, clearly-cloaked version of the character.  It was this Blot that made such an impression in the wonderful Disney Comics two-parter "The Big Fall"/"A Phantom Blot Bedtime Story" (MMA #7-8, December 1990-January 1991)...

... surprised us by showing up in the modern TV shorts Mickey Foils the Phantom Blot (1999) and Mickey and the Color Caper (2002)...

... and (sigh) got slimed and sucked into God knows WHAT alternative plane of existence at the end of the "Dangerous Currency" arc that wrote finis to the Boom! Disney comics era.

While he may have been a logical result of various trends of artistic Blot-dom at the time of his one appearance, the Blot of "Deck" stands wholly alone as the only version of The Blot to not only break through the "fourth wall" into the world of "human" pop culture, but to smash the "wall" to smithereens in the process.  Did this Blot have a psychic pipeline to the future in his comparison of himself to entities like Darth Vader and Dr. Doom, both of whom are now "Disney properties," as the Disney version of Captain Hook has always been?  I don't know; perhaps we ought to do some surreptitious checking and see whether the Disney Company has sunk some of its capital into the purchase of vintage 1953 Buicks.

Needless to say, "All Ducks on Deck" is one DuckTales tale that has aged quite gracefully, even as its version of The Blot appears to have subsumed into the past.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) Oh, yeah, anyway, the Blot tries to steal an experimental invisible plane--though the idea that he's going to somehow be able to RULE THE WORLD with this plane needs some fine-tuning.

This is one of the ep's few obvious flaws.  Had we gotten some detail about the jet's potential as a weapon of mass destruction, The Blot's confidence in its vital importance would have been slightly more justified.

(GeoX)  [The Blot] actually has comparatively little screen time, but his ranting IS entertaining to watch, and I have to admit, I was not expecting -- spoiler alert! -- for Grimitz's ass-kissing adjutant to be in league with him.

The remarkable thing is that Plover's heel turn (thanks, Greg) still came as something of a surprise despite the obvious Scooby-Doo "Economy of Characters" principle being in force (to wit: once it was learned that one of the characters was an enemy agent, it was obvious that it would have to be someone who had appeared during the episode).  I guess that Mark Taylor's "dork" act really WAS convincing.

 

(GeoX) Seems like the idea of the nephews stowing away in luggage is a bit ragged by this point…

Well, let's see: there was "Dinosaur Ducks," this episode, and... um... what am I missing?

(Greg) Quick logic break; when they do the pinball spot; the carrier actually nails the sharp rock in the middle; which would have caused a huge hole in the bottom of the carrier and the carrier would have sank; but it whizzed by as if it didn't hit the carrier at all. Bad, bad form there Wang Films.

Donald's tale-telling had the effect of "rubberizing" the carrier.  End of problem!

(Greg) Some Youtube users were suggesting that if TaleSpin ever continued into a second season that the Phantom Blot would make a great villain to replace Don Karnage (or at least give TaleSpin a really bad ass second main villain) and he would have all the one shot villains who lost to Baloo, Rebecca and Kit working for him to destroy Higher For Hire.

You know, if the TaleSpin High Flight project had lasted longer than it did, then I can easily imagine someone coming up with an idea like this.  It's hard to visualize The Blot as a kingpin ruling over a multitude of minions, though.  Typically, either he works alone or he has a very small group of associates assisting him.

(Greg) Louie claims that the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook even amazes them. Doesn't that kind of prove that the book is a crap shoot? Huey proclaims that they hope it never falls into the wrong hands. Don't worry; no sane person would ever touch that book with a ten foot pole.

It'd be kind of hard to blame what went wrong here on the Guidebook.  Donald just happened to hit the remote-controlled "shark" in the worst possible place, and Admiral Grimitz pocketed the missile homing device under the mistaken impression that it was a radio.

(Greg) Donald and the nephews grab flare guns and then begin shooting them. And folks; we finally have evidence of kids shooting guns in a Disney cartoon and this is as close as bullet shooting guns as you can get without being as such. The writers are going to have a long talk with BS&P after this episode airs. I wonder if Toon Disney cut this scene out?! 

No, in this case, I believe that they showed common sense.


(Greg) We then cut to Scrooge and Launchpad as Scrooge pops up and hits his head on the canopy and he wants LP to open it. Big mistake there Scroogie and he pushes the invisible button which commits logic break #2 for the entire episode as the GOOFS WITH ATTITUDE eject without the canopy being open; or glass shattering no less. 

You may have missed the canopy flying off to the right during the ejection sequence.  Good attention to detail there, as the canopy would naturally become visible once it detached from the invisible jet.

Next: Episode 64, "Ducky Horror Picture Show."

6 comments:

Pan Miluś said...

Ok! I must be the ONLY person who trullz bother by the fact that it wasnt Donald who stoped the Blot on the end...


BTW One more episode when the boys stow away was COLD DUCK

Joe Torcivia said...

I will never forget coming home from work, turning on the VCR to check the day’s DUCKTALES episode… and the utter, jaw-dropping shock of seeing The Phantom Blot in animation! By this time, I felt I’d seen DT’s entire act, for better AND worse – especially in view of the wrong-headed episode (“Once Upon a Dime”) that preceded it – but WOW!

And, say… Is that Dr. Syclocks emerging from a manhole with Brer Fox?! THAT would never even happen in a ‘70s issue of WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST!

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

True, but they didn't stow away IN LUGGAGE in that episode. They were simply in the cargo bay when the plane took off.

Chris

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to see your take on Ducky Horror Picture Show. It's my pick for worst episode of the series, even as a kid I thought it was dumb. However, I read Gregory Weagle's rant and he gave it 100%. I wonder if I'm alone in not liking this one.

As an adult, I find that even the good intentioned anti-racism message seems to fall flat for me - the monsters are a nuisance -they trash Scrooge's convention center and the wolfduck tries to drown Scrooge.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

"And, say… Is that Dr. Syclocks emerging from a manhole with Brer Fox?! THAT would never even happen in a ‘70s issue of WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST!"

Yes, and that wasn't Syclocks' only appearance in Brazilian comics around that time: check out

http://coa.inducks.org/character.php?c1=date&c=Dr.%20Syclocks&view=4

Chris

Pan Miluś said...

I JUST REALISE - So the Blot want's something that will make him invisible and will make him rule the wrold and acts all insane about it? I get it! The plane is the One Ring from Lord of the Rings!!!! He do look a bit like a Nazgul! And that makes Scrooge and Lunchpad are Frodo and Sam and Donald is Legolas or something... I don't know... I got lost in the allegory I was mking...