Sunday, March 16, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 75, "Super DuckTales, Part Five: Money to Burn"

"Can ["Super DuckTales"] get any more overbooked?" asked Greg at the start of his review of "Money to Burn."  Paraphrasing Gizmoduck himself:  It CAN?  Yes, I guess it can.

Overbooked and, sadly, underedited.  The evidence that "SDT" was something of a rush job, which has been trickling in throughout the serial, pours out in a gush in this final chapter, in the manner of the "Lake Dobegon Money Dam" bust that climaxed "Liquid Assets."  Clearly at a loss as to how to stretch the "longest sustained Beagle Boy assault on Scrooge's money in history" (yeah, I'm allowed to swipe from myself) out to cover an additional 22 minutes, Ken Koonce and David Weimers execute the sire of all "swerves" by anticipating one of the future cardinal rules for Quack Pack writers: When in doubt, throw in a space alien.  In all honesty, the shift in focus does result in a fair amount of clever humor, not to mention a large number of much-appreciated sci-fi and pop-culture shoutouts, and it gives Scrooge, Gizmoduck, and Launchpad the only chance that they will ever have to share an adventure together.  Unfortunately, the Beagle Boys plot threads aren't "tied up" as much as they are balled up and tossed carelessly into the corner, as if the audience is expected to forget that the Beagles' takeover of Scrooge's mansion, subversion of Duckburg's justice system, and so forth ever happened.  This is considerably more insulting to the viewers' intelligence than the fuzzy "explanation" for the Beagles' sudden presence on Duckbill Island with Glomgold in "Ali Bubba's Cave."  The audience's patience is further tested by a series of events that are logically absurd even by the comparatively lax standards of a DuckTales space saga.  Marrying visual indifference to narrative laxity, Wang Films chooses this final chapter of the serial to "blow" its proverbial "fuse," littering our path with visual mistakes and obvious goofs that wouldn't have passed muster if the production had been subjected to normal quality control inspection.  The result is a climactic chapter that, while it's certainly memorable, can't honestly be classified as great, except insofar as it gives Fenton ample opportunity to prove his full worth as both himself and Gizmoduck.

The Scrooge-Launchpad-Gizmoduck troika turns out to be a winning combination, and I commend Koonce and Weimers' ability to keep the distinctions between the two original creations clear, much as "Three Ducks of the Condor" managed to perform a balancing act between LP and Donald.  We get a quick taste of this right off the bat, as the trio prepare to join the hordes of Duckburgians in search of the sunken Money Bin (which, lest we forget, sank in clear view a mere couple of hundred of feet off shore, but let's not visit that subject again).  Gizmo is all ready to make a bombastic pronouncement about the Ducks' impending investigation, but LP quite literally squelches him and directs him inside the sub -- a perfect reaction for a character who, despite his occasional bouts of braggadocio, is all about deeds, rather than words.

The peculiar use of a literal "space plane," the USS Jumpstart ("USS"?  Shouldn't that be "DSS," for Duckburg Space Ship, given that Duckburg has its own space agency?), provides the excuse for LP to serve as pilot during the Ducks' mission to track the alien robots who have made off with the Money Bin.  The Jumpstart, with its theoretically unnecessary clutch, wipers, and open-able windows, gets a sufficient amount of air time that I wonder whether K&W had the intention of bringing the craft back in some future episode.  If doing so would have allowed Launchpad to participate in another "adult teamup," then I would have been all for it.

On the robot planet, Gizmoduck, of necessity, does most of the fighting, but Launchpad does get one glorious moment to shine when he and Scrooge are attempting to launch the Jumpstart from the edge of the cliff.  When LP pushed the Jumpstart over the edge and hung onto the wing for dear life while waiting for Scrooge to pop the clutch, who wasn't thinking of the pilot's condor-back flight during "Three Ducks of the Condor"?  "Flyin' coach" was even more problematic here because LP had to figure out a way to get from the wing to the cockpit before the Jumpstart plunged into the lava (or molten metal, or whatever it was).  Given the structure of the Jumpstart, this feat would literally seem impossible, but, true to Scrooge's tribute at the end of "Launchpad's First Crash," LP finds a way to make the impossible possible. It's a moment of derring-do to rival anything we saw during the first season, and, Scrooge verbally acknowledges the fact after the two have flown to safety, as well he should.  It also marks the literal end of an era: it's almost literally the last time that Launchpad will be allowed to BE Launchpad, in the most dramatic sense, before the onset of the Darkwing Duck neutering process.     

We never do find out exactly what happened when Gizmoduck "pushed all his buttons" and destroyed Planet MEL.  This is actually a harbinger of sorts of what's to come insofar as Gizmo's battles are concerned.  Believe it or not, this is the last time that we will ever see Gizmo using his deadliest weapons (the "torsal torpedoes" and such) in any major manner.  His future missions will generally involve him using his flying abilities, extendable arms and legs, speed, and the occasional quirky gadget (e.g. the "microscopic handcuffs" that he intends to use on the Metal Mites), but missiles, rockets, and other explicitly military-style paraphernalia?  Not so much.  This is so remarkable that I have to wonder whether it was a conscious decision.  The production crew even seems to have become somewhat leery of Gizmo using gadgets in general; how many of the items pictured below ever made another appearance, even one in jest?

Gizmoduck's track record on the robot planet isn't spotless -- he did get walloped by that first bunch of robot guards -- but, before we're done, we just know that Launchpad, as is his wont, is going to trump any mechanical error of Gizmo's with a mental rock of his own.  This comes to pass when LP accidentally releases the Money Bin into Earth's atmosphere... and now the obsessed Scrooge, heretofore mainly a captive and/or ineffective kvetcher, gets his moment in the unfiltered rays of the Sun.  Of course, GeoX is correct in criticizing the "scientific research" that went into putting Scrooge's "space swim" together (though the truth of the matter turns out to be a little more complicated than one would think), but, given such conveniences as days-long trips to other planets (a la the speedy trips to and from Mars in "The Right Duck"), holes and doorways on spacecraft that don't cause air to be sucked into the vacuum, and the like, it's difficult to get too bent out of shape about it.  Besides, it sets up a really neat homage to Slim Pickens' missile-ride near the end of Dr. Strangelove (1964).

The reason for the Strangelove call-back becomes chillingly clear when the Bin lands back atop Killmotor Hill accompanied by a massive flash that looks for all the world like a nuclear detonation.  K&W seem to have assumed that, since no actual explosion was involved, none of the nearby buildings would have been destroyed.  I find that exceptionally hard to believe.  At the very least, the shock wave would have blown out all the windows in the area as surely as the baby Yeeker shattered all the Protectoglass at the conclusion of "The Unbreakable Bin."  A few of the flimsier buildings would probably have bitten the dust, as well.  Then there's the little matter of damage to the Bin itself.  Not even Scrooge's installation of a bin bottom with the toughness of a command module's heat shield (I guess that the events of "A Drain on the Economy" must have scared him into doing something about that vulnerability) would have prevented a structure that has been cracked and pierced by far less stringent shocks in the past from sustaining some massive trauma.  I mean, the force of the blow was strong enough to peel the highway off of its foundation like a bandage being pulled off a person's skin (leading to a particularly visceral form of Karma being visited upon the puzzlingly unpunished Beagles' heads).  If you asked me which climax was more outlandish -- the destruction of the Valley of the Golden Suns or the Bin's thunderous touchdown -- I might just pick the latter.

While the absurdities of "Burn" wind up burying the viewer's logical faculties as thoroughly as the displaced highway obliterated Ma Beagle's cottage, the serial's thematic continuity -- that of Fenton gradually realizing and taking full advantage of his own capacities -- did carry through in rock-solid fashion to the very end, completely independent of the planet on which the action was taking place.  After defeating MEL in the counting contest armed only with his wits ("no cracks about going into battle unarmed!") and returning to Earth, Fenton proceeds to take on two of his other personal demons, reading his lazy "M'Ma" the riot act and ginning up enough courage to ask Gandra Dee for a date that, as things turned out, hadn't previously materialized only because of his own lack of self-confidence.  The latter two scenes hit exactly the right emotional notes -- yes, even including the "facedown" scene in the trailer, which some elements of today's viewing public might regard as bordering on verbal domestic violence -- and allow us to exit with a smile on our faces, not to mention a sense of legitimate anticipation as to what challenges Fenton (as opposed to Gizmoduck) might have to take on in the future.

Tucked in between these moments, however, is the post-touchdown scene in the Money Bin, hereafter to be known as the "Two Somebodies (and I'm not kidding)" scene.  After Scrooge gives both Gizmoduck and his "friend" Fenton the promise of continuing employment...

... an ecstatic Gizmoduck exits the Money Bin above the watching figures of HD&L, Launchpad, and... Scrooge?!

One can only assume that "Scrooge 2" is the great-uncle of the notorious "fourth Nephew," Phooey Duck.  Come to think of it, that might help explain all of Phooey's appearances in the Duck comics.  Phooey feels so neglected by his ethereal elder (who, as far as I know, only appears in this one TV episode) that he tries to horn in on the legitimate fun whenever he can.  Needless to say, this visual gaffe ends up detracting somewhat from what should have been a much more powerful scene.

Likewise, it is difficult to become totally invested in the perils of the robot-planet ruckus (Good night, Vic, wherever you are.) when the animation continually performs the visual equivalent of tickling us under the armpits and making us laugh.  Start with one of WDTVA's worst examples of the "Conveyor Belt Of Doom," one rivaling even those seen in Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers' "Mind Your Cheese and Q's" and Bonkers' "Hand Over the Dough."  The problems go well beyond the one Greg mentioned regarding the contradictory directions in which the traumatizing treadmill is shown to be traveling.  Compare Scrooge and Launchpad's position on the belt upon initial placement...

... to their location a nontrivial amount of time later, AFTER Fenton and MEL have had their little enumerational extravaganza AND the revived Gizmoduck has taken out some robot guards:

I suppose that Scrooge and LP slipped into a wormhole in the interim.  (BTW, if they're supposed to be processed into "axle grease," then why are presumably worn-out robots being dumped into the melting pot as well?)  The Money Bin, incidentally, is handled in similarly dilatory fashion; while the framework of the "big machine" (RIP) is stripped and presumably destroyed before the end, the Bin itself is never wrecked or "blasted open," despite the robot workman's announcement that the robots are ready to do the deed before the Ducks are dragged in front of MEL.  While the Bin may not have been thoroughly cooked, it was certainly heated up to sauna-like levels at some point, as it seems to have been reduced in dimension by the time Gizmoduck rescues it and returns it to Scrooge:

The aliens' spacecraft undergo similar waxings and wanings in size.  The first shots of the salvage cruiser zeroing in on the sunken Bin -- bits that obviously take after the opening scenes of the original Star Wars -- suggests that the ship is quite massive:

During the salvage process (aka "The Parting of Duckburg Harbor"), however, the craft appears to have shrunk in size:

Hard to imagine a full-grown Money Bin fitting inside that thing, but it does.  In fact, it has a mechanical claw that literally reaches down, picks up the Bin, and lifts it into the hold.  (Mind you, this is the same Bin that supposedly couldn't be moved while all the money was inside, at least, not until the end of "Full Metal Duck.")  We "supersize it" again after the destruction of Planet MEL, with the alien ship dwarfing the captured Jumpstart...

... and literally covering the entire Duckburgian sky when it comes in for a landing... er, hover... after the Bin has landed.  Hammering home the sheer immensity of the huge ship, Gizmo and Launchpad descend to Earth in a massive elevator-like device that seems to have been inspired by Dune.

What subsequently happened to that gigantic spacecraft?  It had to come down eventually.  My own "headcanon" is that Scrooge's scientists then examined it, discovered the secrets of its operation, and applied them to other projects, ultimately leading to the Duckburg of Carl Barks' "Island in the Sky" at some point in the undefined future.  That would certainly take care of many of the lingering logical problems that I have with that Barks story.  It would also tie in nicely with the retrofitted backstory of Lost in Space that was provided by Bill Mumy in the comics adventure "Voyage to the Bottom of the Soul."

Aside from Fenton getting in touch with his potential for heroism of any sort, the major emotional breakthrough examined here is the maturation of Scrooge and Fenton's relationship.  In all honesty, this material could have been handled more artfully.  The issue I have with it isn't with Fenton's behavior so much as Scrooge's.  After Fenton has been stripped and revealed by MEL, Scrooge's comment about Fenton's "inferiority" probably pulls an automatic guffaw from most viewers, but it's actually out of place.  Granted, Fenton made quite a few goofs on the "Assets" side of the serial's ledger, but shouldn't Scrooge have considered that Fenton also has shown himself to be capable of controlling the Gizmosuit (including during a time period when he did not have access to the manual) and therefore must have something going for him?  A classic example of overreaching while going for a cheap laugh, says I.

While Scrooge and Fenton are being dragged away to what they believe to be a greasy fate, Fenton (no doubt thinking of that earlier "inferiority" remark) tries to convince Scrooge that he is worthy of the miser's trust, but Scrooge appears to have given up all hope.  Again, Scrooge's attitude is the problem here, especially given the parameters established in the TV series.  Has Scrooge forgotten so quickly that his "true wealth" consists of his family (cf. "Once Upon a Dime")?  Wouldn't he feel some sense of responsibility to keep fighting until the end for their sakes?  And wouldn't he appreciate the fact that Fenton is showing the kind of spirit that sustained Scrooge as a youth?  Remember how galvanized Scrooge became when similar points were brought up to him at his lowest ebb during "Down and Out in Duckburg." Why couldn't he bring such points to mind here?  At least Scrooge ultimately comes to acknowledge his errors and give Fenton full credit for coming through in the clutch.

If you're in a forgiving mood, Scrooge's uncharacteristically passive acceptance of his apparent fate here might be written off as a simple oversight, overlooked in the rush to get to the serial's climax.  The handling of the Beagle Boys, by contrast, is just plain sloppy.  They continue to be a part of the narrative in the opening moments of "Burn," commandeering a vessel to go and search for the Money Bin...

... but, after the aliens swoop in, the Beagles are quite literally overshadowed -- victims, along with Scrooge, of the robot craft's powers.

So now the police are going to recover their moxie and take the Beagles into custody, right?  Wrong!  The B-Boys are next seen sitting on Ma Beagle's porch and complaining about being bored.  No explanation is given as to what the legal status of their purchase of Scrooge's Mansion is, whether they are now wanted fugitives, or anything similar.  This could have been their first appearance of the serial, and it wouldn't have made any real difference insofar as their reactions were concerned.  You've heard of hand-waves; this is a veritable hand tsunami.  It's not an outright mistake akin to the problems that dogged the final chapters of "Time is Money," but it's something almost as offensive: It's writing that is contemptuous of its audience.

So where does "SDT" rank among the quartet of DuckTales four- and five-part adventures?  Safely behind "Treasure of the Golden Suns," to be sure, and safely ahead of the even more problematic "Time is Money."  That leaves a direct comparison with "Catch as Cash Can."  I suppose that I'd give the nod to "SDT" due to its sheer scope and the presence of Fenton, who, by and large, makes an extremely successful debut here.  But the call is a little closer than it would have been had I done this comparison back in the late 80s.  Entertaining as "The Birth of Gizmoduck" is and continues to be, the signs of lowering "Cartoon Duck Syndrome" seem rather more ominous now than they did then. 




Bumper #10: "Dollar"




(GeoX) Funny bit: as the robot boss [MEL] is claiming to be "the fastest, most sophisticated computer in the universe," it turns its head and you can see the port marked "VHF cable" on the back. 

MEL, of course, was a parody of yet another figure that (quite literally) flashed across the consciousness of America in the late 80's, namely, Max Headroom.  The irony is that the Max Headroom TV series involved a satire of a future dystopia, whereas here, MEL himself is the overbearing authority figure.  Unlike Max, MEL himself is real, rather than virtual, with the pixellated shenanigans being confined to the monitor in his head.

(Greg) The spaceship scans and then beeps white buttons on the bottom of the ship about 15 times and then shoots the laser as the sea parts completely from the ocean as Scrooge is shocked and swears in DUBBED ANIME STYLE (Holy Sesame! Disney Caption ignores this part by the way.)

Scrooge actually said, "Holy Cecil B. DeMille!  The ocean's parting!" referring to the famed parting of the Red Sea in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956).  The light-pattern on the ship's hull may also be a movie reference: think Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
(Greg) [W]e head inside and see Scrooge, LP and Gizmo Duck pop up from a metal railing and they watch on seeing metal cars in a line as this is really out of the Jetsons' motif now. 

Actually, given the nature of the civilization on Planet MEL, it's like something out of Mega-City One.

(Greg) We pan west to see behind the junkyard Gizmo Duck, Scrooge and Launchpad dressed up in disguises. Sadly; Scrooge's spats give away the cover right in advance. Then for no reason; we cut to them walking across a bridge with glass and metal. So they manage to get past the guards somehow? Logic break #3 for the episode.

Perhaps they waited until the guards marched into the complex and tagged along behind him, in the manner of Dorothy's friends in The Wizard of Oz (1939).  It's not as if Koonce and Weimers haven't swiped from that source before...

(Greg) Scrooge doesn't care how many names he calls [MEL] unless he gives Scrooge his money back of course. MEL no sells because his money is valued as a way to make useful robots. Scrooge calls it a waste which is funny projection considering who is with him now and all those other robots in previous episodes.

I think that Scrooge meant that it would be a waste to turn his money into parts for robots. 

(Greg) MEL breaks down as Fenton bails to the tray and takes one out for him to count and MEL counts them. Fenton calls it wrong because it's nuts instead of bolts. Which is irrelevant since he asked for ball bearings which is logic break #4 for the episode.

I know this was an error of sorts, but I have to applaud K&W for that clever callback to the interview scene in "Liquid Assets."
(Greg) Scrooge apologizes for his treatment of Fenton because it proves that it takes more than a suit of armor to become a hero. And this is why I like Fenton more than Drake because while both of them are full of themselves and REALLY STUPID; Fenton knows how to fold them when it is on the line a lot better than Drake Mallard ever could.

Two lines of Gizmoduck's -- "I am [a hero]?  Yes, I guess I am" and "You had a right to be upset" -- sum up the psychological difference between Gizmo and Darkwing about as well as anything ever has.

(Greg) So we head to the trailer park and Mrs. Crackshell's trailer as Fenton wheels into the trailer and proclaims that they are home to his mother. Mrs. Crackshell blows him off to be quiet as she is watching As The Feathers Fly. I guess she found a spare television from somewhere.

And if anyone could just simply "find a spare television," it would be her.

Next: Episode 76, "The Land of Trala [sic] La."


Pan Miluś said...

I hate the entire premise of this episode. You have first four parts that actually work well as a coherent storyline, and then you going to end it all with a random adventure where character's go into space for reasons that had nothing to do with the rest of the four-parter!? That's just bad storytelling.

Also - yhe! The first four parts where so Beagle-centirc leaving them out is alsmost isulting to the characters.

The only part I like is Fenton vs. the robot MEL. I like how he uses his natural talents counting + being anoying(hard to get rid of) to outsmart his most powerfull oponent without the Gizmoduck suit. It's like in Disney "Hercules" where you have the hero fighting all the monsters with his super power but during the fight with the final, bigest monster (The Cyclops) he has to fight without any powers and manages to win him just by uing his brains. It's similar irony here.

Fenton truly proven himself in that scene...

Also - since you pointed out second Scrooge - Bankjob is seen among other Beagles in one shot on the ship.I guess animaor confuse him bor Bouncer

Anne said...

I couldn't figure out what Scrooge said in the "sesame" part, but now I know it was "Cecil B. DeMille." Thanks! :)
As illogical as this episode is, and even though Scrooge is crazy, I have to say I love how he goes to such drastic lengths to get his bin back, and always does get it back because he fights so hard for it. I think this episode shows his determination and perseverance pretty well, and I admire him for it.

Joe Torcivia said...

Despite its flaws, “Money to Burn” was – and remains – my favorite chapter of the “Super DuckTales” mega-story.

You perfectly distill the reason WHY, with this sentence fragment:

“…it gives Scrooge, Gizmoduck, and Launchpad the only chance that they will ever have to share an adventure together. ”

Though it’s sad that such showcase events as “Time is Money” and “Super DuckTales” appeared to be subject to even less production and editorial scrutiny than ordinary daily episodes.

Jason said...

Megabyte Beagle’s complete disappearance is also weird. For someone who was essentially responsible for Gizmo Duck being subservient to the Beagles, he doesn’t get any comeuppance at all.

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris, Joe, et al,

This is my favorite chapter, too. It's an abrupt departure from the preceding chapters, and the money bin being abducted by a UFO is silly from a Barksian perspective, but it raises the stakes notably and is certainly more of a bang-up climax than that of "Time of Money". And I've always really enjoyed Fenton's squaring off with the alien computer.

-- Ryan