Perhaps the most fateful words ever uttered in a cartoon are: “Hey look – a dungeons and dragons ride” because without further ado, six children – the eldest about fifteen years old and the youngest being seven – hop on a roller-coaster and start on a perilous journey. While others ‘oooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the fire-breathing dragons on the ride, Eric, voiced by Happy Days actor Donny “Ralph Malph” Most cries “give me a break!” as if Richie Cunningham were in the room. He is less than impressed at the fantasy creatures at this theme park.
Suddenly, a vortex opens and the children are transported through a portal into another world – fantasy becomes reality! Dun-dun-dun. While trying to work out why they are no longer wearing their GAP clothing but, instead, leather, plate and cloth armor, a baby unicorn runs into the arms of the youngest member, Bobby. They look up and a five-headed dragon, known as Tiamat, starts baring down on them breathing fire and frost while an old, gnome-like chap just stands back and watches it all unfold.
As Tiamat corners them the balding gnome, affectionately known as Dungeon Master, tells them to ‘Fear Not’ and uses his powers to place a magical bow in the hands of eldest, Hank. The young hero instantly takes on the role of a Ranger and pew-pews the five-headed-beast while the rest of the children receive their gifts and abilities. Bobby becomes a Barbarian with a club; Albert – who is later known as Presto – a hat to be a Magician. Sheila, Bobby’s big sister (who I’m convinced has a mutually reciprocated crush on Hank) is given a magic cloak transforming her into a disappearing thief. Eric, our key comic relief (he really IS Ralph) becomes Cavalier with his shield while last, but not least, as a ball of frost shoots at Diana she is given a magically staff to turn her into Acrobat and she flips out of the way in time.
As the children regroup, with a bit of magic, Presto pulls out long rope from his hat that enables them to climb a cliff face – only to be confronted by
Optimus Prime Venger, voiced by the legendary Peter Cullen (known for his vocal talent work on Transformers, Voltron and Knight Rider). From his mounted flying horse (he clearly downed the Headless Horseman in Azeroth) he casts a spell. Thankfully Eric deflects it from his shield and it hits Tiamat – who, I should mention, is voiced by Frank “The Voice of God” Welker. Frank’s work is extensive and includes Freddy (Scooby Doo), Megatron (Transformers), Slimer (Real Ghostbusters), and a bunch of the Smurfs, Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. He has also worked in TV shows and feature films including The X-Files, Star Trek, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins and Curious George!
But I digress, Tiamat is hit from the deflected blast (which just happens to sound like the lasers used in Transformers) and is pretty pissed off chasing Venger away.
“Who was that?”, asks Sheila, played by Kate Leigh – who has more talent than you can shake a magic cloak at – and Dungeon Master, voiced by the late Sidney Miller – informs them it was Venger, The Force of Evil while he, in all his gnomish traits, introduces himself as their guide in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons.
Blimey, that was just the first 50 seconds of the show! Multiply that by another 21 minutes and you can see that each episode was set up for pure fantasy action fun. Glorious.
Five bowls of cereal later and your Saturday morning was complete. The show aired in the 9.30am slot (10.30am central) in the fall of 1983 (season one), the spring of 1984 (season two) and the spring of 1985 (season three) before being cancelled. 27 episodes in total, the 28th – and final episode of season three – never actually aired. In fact it didn’t even make it through production. CBS cancelled the show at a very unfortunate place because the 28th was written with an ending that would provide closure if the show was cancelled yet left with new possibilities should the show get picked up. The episode, originally titled Redemption but later changed to Requiem, revealed that Venger was actually Dungeon Master’s son and that Hank and Sheila were making out under her invisibility cloak while the others slept. Okay, one of those is actually false – you’ll have to listen to the radio play to find out!
Yep, that’s right – a radio play! Fans, not content with the show getting cut before a conclusion, were finally rewarded with some closure when the script was acted out by dire hard enthusiasts who managed to get their hands on the missing script. Could it get any better than that? Heck yeah, Kate Leigh actually reprised her role as Sheila and filled in for Bobby too. Could it get any better than that? Well, there are fans still today working on producing an animated cartoon of the final episode.
I know many other cartoons had cult followings that were bigger than D&D but there are few that saw such fan dedication in completing an unpublished script. My kids now watch this show and love it so I can say, with confidence, that this show is a timeless masterpiece.
There are a two DVD box sets available on the internet with some big differences:
The first is considered the Ultimate Collector Edition Box Set. This sells from between $25 (used) to $110 (new) on Amazon. However, with that price tag it does come with a lot of extra features:
- “Entering the Realm of Dungeons and Dragons” featurette
- Commentary on two episodes
- Full-length animated storyboard for one episode
- Interactive adventure
- 50 profiles of characters, creatures, and artifacts
- Short live-action fan film “Choices”
- Radio show-style presentation of unaired final episode
- Alternate and rare footage
- Art galleries
- DVD-ROM supplements
- 30 page booklet
As you can see, it really has been given the royal treatment. Absolutely beautiful box set. The only downside to this set, other than the price, is that the music used in the controversial episode The Dragon’s Graveyard was not the version that was initially broadcast. The music is actually less dramatic than the original and takes the edge of some of the climatic impact of the scenes. We’ll actually be looking at the controversial arguments of D&D both the game and the comic in a later article.
There is, however, a set (pictured right) that does have the original broadcasted version with the right music. It is also probably the best deal you’ll ever find for the D&D Complete Animated Series. The region 1 set from Mill Creek Entertainment is, at the time of writing, on sale for $6.97 on Amazon (RRP $19.95). This features all 27 episodes with the original music and is the best edition if you want the cartoon as you remembered it. If you don’t need all the extra features, this $6 three-disc version is perfect for taking a trip down memory lane without breaking the bank.
In 2009, IGN ranked Dungeons & Dragons #64 on its “Best 100 Animated Series” list and should definitely be on your list to watch either again or for the first time if you were never lucky enough to see when it aired.