Friday, August 22, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 95, "Scrooge's Last (sic, a quadzillion times sic!) Adventure"

Despite its being originally broadcast on November 17, 1990, during the first season of The Disney Afternoon, it's hard not to regard "Scrooge's Last Adventure" as being the "moral and/or functional equivalent," at the very least, of the end of DuckTales' unexpectedly prolonged second season.  Yes, "A DuckTales Valentine" was broadcast during the 1989-90 season, but it was not originally a syndicated episode, appearing instead as part of an NBC special, in the manner of the edited version of "Super DuckTales" the year before.  I tend to regard "DTV" as inhabiting a sort of Limbo between the "second season" of Fall 1989 and the "third season" of Fall 1990.  (It's an open question as to whether it should have stayed in "Limbo" permanently, but I'll address that when I review the ep.)

Of course, "Last Adventure," despite its 1989 copyright date, could kinda-sorta be legitimately counted as a 1990-91 episode as well, thanks to the good offices of Ken "Kopykat" Koonce and David "Double Your Pleasure" Weimers...

Though, to be fair to K&W, the differences between "Last Adventure" and "Bearly Alive" (which actually debuted a few weeks BEFORE "Last Adventure" finally aired) are clearly more distinct than those between "Allowance Day" and "The Time Bandit."  The meshing of the two plots of "the main character mistakenly believes that he's dying" and "the main character participates in an adventure under the assumption that he's dying" is far more successfully executed in the TaleSpin episode than it is in "Last Adventure."  Joe Torcivia and I recognized this immediately, and, in fact, Joe included his own suggestions as to how "Last Adventure" could have been "fixed" in an Appendix to our complete DUCKTALES INDEX.  I'll highlight some of Joe's specific suggestions before I'm done.  The main point is that, unlike "Ducky Mountain High" and "The Duck Who Knew Too Much," the flaws of which became somewhat clearer to me upon repeated close viewings, we KNEW that something was amiss with "Last Adventure" from the off.  GeoX hit it square on the beak when he observed, "There's really two episodes here, and neither one gets the space it deserves."  Which is a real shame, as "Plot A" (not to be confused with "Plan B"!) represents nothing less than an historical departure for Scrooge into what Joe termed "the incredible world of bits, bytes, glitches, and microchips," a full decade before the creation of the Nephews' I-Team and such "thoroughly modern" UNCLE $CROOGE stories as "World-Wide Witch" (UNCLE $CROOGE #320, August 2003).  DuckTales fans may be permitted a bit of smugness when I note that, while these comic-book stories were panned by some readers who didn't cotton to the notion of Scrooge or any of the other Ducks getting involved with modern high-tech, no one of my acquaintance seemed to mind in the least Scrooge and Fenton's trip into the digital world, or, for that matter, Scrooge's earlier use of a PC and a word-processing program in "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity."

An ENTIRE episode devoted to the interface between Scrooge and cyberspace, if executed properly, could have been one of the most memorable Duck-related media moments of all time.  It also was certainly feasible for a good subplot to have been included; for example, Fenton's dogged determination to make up for the malfunction of the computer banking program could have been amped up a few levels, in order to show just how responsible even a bungler like Fenton can be when the stakes are high enough.  But, no, K&W just HAD to fall back on the trope of Scrooge getting the impression that "[his] old ticker is beyond repair" and he's doomed (and therefore needs to think about preserving his fortune for all time).  Adding to the "retreaded" feel of this plot line is the fact that the phone conversations that set up the misunderstanding in both "Last Adventure" and "Bearly Alive" both end with the same gag about "selling the spare parts."

In both "Adventure" and "Bearly," young characters' destruction of a precious inanimate object sets the plot-ball rolling down its well-established, Worry Room-depth groove.  Kit Cloudkicker is probably technically more at fault than the Nephews, given his more mature character and HD&L's well-established reputation for rule-skirting, boyish hijinks, which has been downplayed a bit for their role in the TV series but has certainly popped up on occasion in the past.  This is partially obscured by the amount and extent of the destruction seen on screen.

Both "Adventure" and "Bearly" also skirt the bounds of probability by having a "doctor who isn't really a doctor" break the "bad news."  But then, we get the moment of true divergence when Scrooge, the party directly involved, receives the dubious diagnosis, as opposed to Rebecca Cunningham, who is the affected character's boss.  Baloo subsequently gets the word from Becky, and the actions that follow  (to wit, Baloo daring to enter "The Bearmuda Trapezoid" and make one final bid for eternal notoriety) flow directly out of that revelation.  Moreover, those actions are entirely personal in nature, and, despite the ultimate introduction of the subplot involving Howard Huge and the Spruce Moose, would have limited repercussions on the world at large, whether or not they result in success.  Scrooge's decision as to what to do with his money, and his subsequent loss of said money in the computer, would have far greater societal ramifications (as we saw in a far more dubious context in "Yuppy Ducks"), making the lengthy delay in his finding out the truth seem all the more aggravating.  The fact that Fenton knows the real truth but never does tell Scrooge, even in the face of Scrooge verbally confronting his mortality on several occasions, also doesn't sit too well with the attentive viewer. 

Once "Adventure" and "Bearly" shake loose from the "dying" conceit, they both lay out reasonably well-crafted adventure scenarios.  The major reason why "Adventure" sustains more long-term damage is that it simply takes too long for the "dying" business to be cleared away, especially when one considers what's to follow in its wake.  Before that "one giant leap for Duck-kind," we have to trudge through a painful first act in which HD&L do, as Greg suggests, channel a number of the less attractive characteristics of the cynical Quack Pack Nephews -- with the added abrasion of the hideous "Plan B" crying fit.  The juxtaposition of the smarmy "false sincerity," the brute-force bawling, AND the po-faced dissing of "the good Junior Woodchuck thing to do" is terminally cream-curdling, to be honest, no matter what HD&L might (and, in fact, do) do later in the ep to express their concern for Scrooge and Fenton's well-being.  (I'm less harsh on the boys' disruption of Scrooge and Fenton's progress inside the computer when they start to play "Quackman." They couldn't have known what was going on at the time.  Even so, it might not have hurt for them to have asked who had been using the program that was currently running on screen before they went ahead and made the switch.)  Are the boys as bad here as they were in "Yuppy Ducks"?  No, but it's an uncomfortably close call.

The misled Scrooge's interactions with his household staff aren't much better.  Scrooge's reported comment to Mrs. Beakley -- "The way [you] look, [you] must enjoy [your] cooking" -- really does come off as, in GeoX's words, just about "the most dickish thing" Scrooge has ever said, and the "X is for wimps" joke didn't justify multiple repetitions, each of which is less successful than the last.  The confab with Fenton is a little more successful, mostly because Fenton's suggestion that Scrooge turn to computer banking really is a pretty clever idea (particularly in 1989), but, basically, we're just kind of spinning our wheels until the fateful moment when the "glitch" makes its appearance.  The brief scene of Duckworth crying, even though he hasn't been told by Scrooge why he should be crying, is the only bit that really works.  One of the few saving graces here is the early introduction of Scrooge's magnet-tipped cane, a classic example of a "small detail" being slipped into the picture well in advance of its ultimate use.

In a more philosophical sense, one reason that Scrooge's reaction to his fake fate never really rings true stems from the nature of Scrooge himself:  Scrooge resigns himself to his apparent fate much too easily.  It is more believable to imagine Scrooge, after he has absorbed the initial shock, doing everything that he possibly can to find a way to preserve his life against all odds, just as he has always fought to protect his fortune, not for its monetary value, but for its symbolic value as a reflection of his life of toil.  In Carl Barks' illustrated prose story "Go Slowly Sands of Time" (UNCLE $CROOGE McDUCK: HIS LIFE AND TIMES [1981]; later redone as a comic-book story in 1983), Scrooge goes to the trouble of seeking out a distant land of long-lived people in order to find the "secret" of eternal vim and vigor, only to find that he's known the "secret" all along, which is to love your work and take pride in what you do.  This proactive Scrooge is nowhere to be found in "Last Adventure."  Instead, we get a carbon copy of the fatalistic, almost dazed Scrooge of an episode like "The Money Vanishes."  Not until Fenton (rather insensitively) suggests that "there's nothing [Scrooge] can do" about the lost cyber-money does Scrooge snap back into form, snarling, "Never say that to Scrooge McDuck!"  Better late than never, but still... um... late.

So how could this "pre-computer" portion of the episode have been improved?  Joe suggested that a massive Beagle Boy raid on the Money Bin, similar in scope to, or perhaps even bigger than, the attack in "A Drain on the Economy" could have provided the setting for Scrooge's decision to seek a "terminally foolproof" way to secure his fortune.  Joe theorized that Scrooge could have gotten steadily wearier and wearier during the course of the lengthy battle, reflecting the cumulative effect of his advanced age.  Realizing that additional generations of Beagles are waiting on the horizon, Scrooge could then have made the decision to find an ultimate solution, giving Fenton the opening to suggest computer banking.  This would do away with the need for a "Scrooge thinks he's dying" context, would include the subtheme of Scrooge wanting to preserve his fortune for the benefit of HD&L and Webby, and would allow for a more thorough exploration of the world inside the computer.  Makes sense to me!  (A more modern take on this scenario, reflecting the more reliable software of the 21st century, might include Scrooge being worried about identity theft and subsequently fighting with a cyber-villain for control of his electronic fortune.)

Even though the circumstances are quasi-tragic, it's hard not to get through the "Fenton's disrupted demo" sequence without emitting a chuckle or three.  Fenton's exaggerated reactions are certainly a major reason why, and their combined effect is amplified by Alan Young's comparatively restrained, yet steadily more infuriated, verbal reactions to Fenton's obvious discomfiture.

Enter "accommodating source of miracles" Gyro, whose quality of performance here, after a somewhat up-and-down second season as a whole, can hardly be faulted.  (No, not even that temporary detour for the broccoli sandwich.  I'm speaking in technical terms here.)  Flourishing a soon-to-be-obsolete floppy disk, Gyro proposes to digitize Scrooge so that Scrooge can hunt for the "glitch."  Fenton then makes up for his mistake -- which, in truth, isn't necessarily a mistake at all, given that the appearance of the "glitch" couldn't have been predicted -- by demanding that he be allowed to accompany Scrooge.  His methods of persuasion include... *sigh*... "Plan B."  But his intent is still noble for all that.

And off they go into the wired blue yonder!  The "Cyberworld" visuals we see in Act Two and Act Three are appropriately impressive, though they're obviously not meant to be taken seriously -- at least, not as much as the visuals seen in Disney's original Tron (1982).  A "cyber-vehicle" -- the "Diskdrive," in Scrooge and Fenton's case -- appears in both cases, but "Last Adventure" interprets it as a literal nautical vehicle, swimming on an "ocean of current."  This is amplified when "Moby Glitch" reenacts a scene in Jaws (1975) and announces its presence by taking a chomp out of the Ducks' "butterfly net" (which the Ducks presumably produced in the time-approved "Toon" fashion).  Fanciful, to be sure, but a lot more satisfying than, say, the scenario presented in the 101 Dalmatians: The Series episode "Virtual Lucky" (1997), in which the computer screen is, in effect, a glass partition, and the scene inside the computer is presented as a 3-D diorama, with the characters inside the computer able to talk to the characters on the other side of the glass.  Wreck-it Ralph (2012) was rather more successful in pulling off this latter conceit, primarily because the characters "inside" and the characters "outside" could not communicate in any way, not to mention that the CGI characters were rendered in 3-D to begin with.

The parallel plot threads of Scrooge and Fenton trying to find their way through an ever-changing computer environment and Gyro trying to dope out a way to rescue them are developed in a thoroughly appropriate, tension-tightening manner.  Ending Act Two with the "plug" literally being pulled on Scrooge and Fenton was exactly the right decision, not least because it allows for a glorious opening to Act Three, in which the "Cyberworld" literally reconstitutes itself before our eyes, climaxing with the reappearance of Scrooge and Fenton.  (Cleverly, and correctly, the Ducks are deposited more or less right back at the place where they entered the computer, at the helm of the "Diskdrive.")

Once Scrooge and Fenton "reach out and touch someone through the telephone system," things begin to get just a bit wonky.  Interpreting the phone wire as an empty tube is an acceptable metaphor, but it edges a bit closer to "diorama" territory than we had previously been.  The references to phone modems are probably the single most technologically dated aspect of the episode, in the sense that this material would have to be completely revised and updated in a modern retelling of the story.  (For example, Gyro would need a different manner of directly communicating with Scrooge and Fenton than literally talking through Scrooge's phone.)  Thankfully, the climactic, though sadly off-screen, punch-up (with Fenton literally getting eaten!) and Scrooge's belated use of the magnetic cane make for an exciting ending and a climax that Captain Ahab could only have wished for in his dreams.

Now, how to get our heroes and Scrooge's money back to the world of flesh and feathers?...

Oh, boy... This is all kinds of "inoperative."  Joe, who has worked in the computer field for his entire life, really didn't like the sloppy, almost defiantly lazy manner in which this was handled.  In his alternate scenario, following the defeat of "Moby Glitch," Scrooge and Fenton were threatened with extinction by the "reformatting" of the floppy disk, only for Gyro to pull their digitized tailfeathers out of the fire at the last minute.  With things back to normal, Scrooge then demanded that Fenton get his money out of the computer and back to the Money Bin.  Refreshed by his adventure, Scrooge then turned with renewed enthusiasm to his battles with the Beagle Boys, now realizing that "there is much worse" than engaging in continual battles with a flesh-and-blood foe.  Carrying this scenario out on screen would have required additional explanations of real-world computer terms, but it could certainly have been done in an imaginative manner.  Moreover, since the theme of Scrooge dying would have been removed to begin with, we could have been spared this unfortunate fadeout scene...

As was the case with the other members of "The Tardy Trio," "Last Adventure" could have been considerably better than it was.  The sense of loss is probably the most acute here, though, precisely because the core idea was so strong, not to mention exceptionally forward-thinking.  It was a shame that the idea wasn't given sufficient "elbow room" to be exploited to its fullest.

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"DuckBlurbs"

Believe it or not, The Disney Afternoon wasn't finished with the "mistaken mortality" trope once "Last Adventure" and "Bearly Alive" hit the airwaves.  Never a series to create "something new" when "something borrowed" was already close at hand, Goof Troop gave us the 1992 episode "Terminal Pete," in which Pete learns that he's supposedly dying and decides to make the most of his remaining days in Spoonerville by... becoming a stuntman.  What can I say, it was THAT kind of show.

(GeoX) …so why isn't this the last episode, then? Are they implying, thusly, that Scrooge Will Never Die? Or, more likely, was it planned to be the finale, but was shuffled around due to some desire to end with a two-parter?

It was almost certainly a clumsy attempt to telegraph the "dying" trope, but it wound up giving the wrong impression as to the series' future plans.  When I read the synopsis in the Gladstone DUCKTALES comic, I originally believed that it really was Scrooge's "last" adventure, at least in a DuckTales context.  That was why the appearance of new, 1990-copyright eps in Fall 1990 came as such a huge surprise.

(GeoX) If there's one thing I like, it's media about "cyberspace" from a time when nobody was really clear on what that entailed.

I think you've hit on the reason why Tron became such a belated cult favorite.  "Last Adventure" had the potential for cult status, too, had it not been for... well, you know...

(GeoX)  Note that this computer is actually in the bin, so now it's buried under huge mounds of cash--if Scrooge ever wants to get it out, he's got his work cut out for him.

Since Scrooge's home computer is in a convenient location (the workspace/TV room/conversation pit/etc.), it would stand to reason that his Money Bin computer should be in a similarly commodious place -- for example, next to his desk.  The Money Bin computer was situated where it was only because Koonce and Weimers simply HAD to have their lame-o, "money-gushing" ending.  Ugh.

(GeoX) "Nice game those Duckburg Dodgers had last night, huh?" The Mallards, the Stealers, and now a third baseball team??? Well, if the Stealers play baseball, I suppose the Dodgers can play football. You'd think there could at some point have been some sort of consultation on the subject among the writers, though. 

There is a precedent for a football team being named the Dodgers, so I'm going with the football theory. 

(Greg)  Oh lord; how contrived and forced can you get? Are we supposed to believe that two nephews can destroy a grandfather clock THAT easily? Kit yanking out the compass in Bearly Alive is much more believable than this... And how did Mrs. Beakley NOT hear the noise?!

Well, if the clock is a fragile antique, I suppose that it would be more vulnerable to "mass destruction," provided that it was struck roughly enough.  As for Mrs. B., she may have been out of earshot, for example, down in the kitchen area near the breakfast nook.

(Greg) Scrooge answers the phone and yes; it's Doctor Glockenspiel (late Hal Smith in case you didn't notice)...

Actually, it's Hamilton Camp.  Likewise, Nurse Hatchett is voiced by Joan Gerber, rather than Kathleen Freeman.  Though she received a credit, Freeman apparently did no voices here. 

(Greg) Dewey wants to put it to a vote; and all of [the Nephews] put the money behind the[ir] backs and whistle. Memo to GeoX: I realize that you hate the fact that they betrayed the Woodchucks in such an insulting way; but seriously, the Woodchuck Guide Book has been such a hit or miss book in terms of creditability that at this point; the writers [have stopped] caring about it since it's already screwed up in this canon.

It's the principle of the thing more than anything else -- the long-established idea that HD&L, as GeoX says, take the ideals of the JWs very seriously.  They would probably do that even if the Guidebook were more fallible than it is typically depicted as being in the comics.  Carl Barks and the other people who wrote JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS stories certainly had more than their share of fun with the inflated pretensions of the Woodchucks as an organization, but they never depicted the boys as cynically playing with the notion of what they should do as JWs.  I still think that HD&L came off FAR WORSE during "Yuppy Ducks" when they abandoned the comatose Scrooge, but Koonce and Weimers' reuse of the "Not the honest Junior Woodchuck bit again!" trope here is one of the strongest suggestions to date that the duo have well and truly burned out on the series.  (They will, however, prove to have just enough gas left in the tank to make one more meaningful contribution -- albeit with considerable help -- before the curtain comes down.)

(Greg)  The nurse hangs up thus showing that she has absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever and then Fenton hears groaning and we head into the vault to see that Scrooge has somehow appeared on the area where the diving board used to be and now it's gone for no reason whatsoever. Not to mention that we never saw Scrooge walk in; so was he in the vault all this time? And since the vault is open; he surely had to hear Fenton insult him.

I don't have an explanation for this, either.  I can imagine Scrooge having a VERY explosive reaction when he walked in and found Fenton seated at Scrooge's desk! 

(Greg) Scrooge goes nut[s] and swings the cane around getting off death reference #2 and nailing the cane right on the corn on his foot and yelping and doing the foot grabbing spot in pain. He clearly was aiming for Fenton and missed by a country mile. The "I'm not [about] to die a father!" makes no sense though; it should be "I'm not going to die pennyless in the gutter!".

Scrooge actually says "I'm not about to die a pauper!", which certainly makes sense in context.

Next: Episode 96, "A DuckTales Valentine."

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

The trope about someone mistakenly thinking they're are dying goes at least as far back as the Jetsons episode "The Test Pilot." George Jetson tests an indestructible suit. The suit ends up falling apart in the wash, probably inspiring the dry clean only Gizmo suit in the "New Gizmo Kids on the Block"

Speaking of Gizmo Duck, it is sort of funny that Fenton wouldn't want to wear the Gizmo suit into the computer?

Chris Barat said...

Anon,

It goes back even further, to THE HONEYMOONERS episode in which Ralph thinks that he is dying of " arterial monochromia."

As for Fenton, perhaps he simply didn't have time to get into a position to call for the suit?

Chris

Pan MiluĊ› said...

"The Flinstones" had this plot, "Top Cat" had this plot, "The Simpsons" had this plot
that ugly as sin web comics I did years ago had this plot :
http://panmilus.blogspot.com/2011/07/smierc-ziomala.html (well kindof, it was played as a practical joke by the doctor here, not a mistake)

Jhony Bravo, Ed, Edd n Eddy, The Smurfs...


I'm shock "My Little Pony" didn't had episode where Pinkie thinks she has 24 to live...

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

"I'm shock "My Little Pony" didn't had episode where Pinkie thinks she has 24 to live..."

JUST WAIT!!

Chris

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris,

I've actually been meaning to bring this up to you for a while -- Nov. 17th, 1990 was actually a Saturday (unless the calendars are wrong...) I'm not sure if at this point, there's any way to resolve this discrepancy... :/

-- Ryan

Chris Barat said...

Ryan,

I checked on the Infoplease perpetual calendar, and that's what it said! Saturday! How the bloody HECK could Joe and I have gotten that wrong?! And other sources of DT episode lists say 11/17, as well. (Of course, those may have used US as a source!)

The pattern of release days during that Fall doesn't seem to help us much:

9/10/90 -- Ducky Mountain High (Mon)
9/18/90 -- Attack of the Metal Mites (Tue)
9/26/90 -- Duck Who Knew Too Much (Wed)
11/5/90 -- New Gizmo-Kids on the Block (Mon)
11/??/90 -- Scrooge's Last Adventure (??)
11/27-28/90 -- The Golden Goose (Tue and Wed)

I don't know what to say... I will certainly throw it out there for the general blog-reading public as soon as I can. Perhaps, as part of my post-"Goose" wrap-up.

Chris

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris,

I'm surprised that you and Joe would've somehow gotten this wrong, too -- uncharacteristic for both you guys!

The lists online definitely are definitely derived from your work. A few years ago, I edited the Wikipedia list so that all of the airdates are cited from The DT Index, and other lists online started mirroring it. (Before that, there was a completely erroneous list that was very common online.)

I hope that someone out there can give an answer!

-- Ryan

Chris Barat said...

Ryan,

Some of those ridiculously inaccurate ep date lists are still out there.

My best guess is that the correct broadcast date was during that week of Nov 12-16.

Chris