Wednesday, May 10, 2006

REVIEW: Duck Dodgers Season One Overview

[Review for Toon Zone News: 3rd January 2004]

Some called it a bold step. Others -- rather aptly -- declared it "looney." Whatever the opinion, Duck Dodgers has made it through its first season. So how did it fare? Did the creative team that dreamed up and produced the show manage to take these iconic characters from a future located in the past and bring them successfully into the present?

For those who missed Daffy and Porky’s original outing, or if you are simply from the UK, allow me to summarize.

The show is based on the classic 1953 Warner Bros. short “Duck Dodgers In The 24th ½ Century," starring Merrie Melodies' regulars Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, with Marvin the Martian in villainous support. The short spoofed the rather glitzy science fiction that swamped cinema screens at the time with a ruthlessly simplistic tale about the battle to possess a single planet. Except for a rather uninspiring sequel in 1980, it’s been fifty years since we've heard from Dodgers.

When unveiled, the show promptly came in for heavy criticism from the Looney Tunes fan base. Times had changed, and so had people's expectations about cartoons and cartoon humour. Many felt the new show relied too heavily on verbal banter and lacked the slapstick humour of the original. Others questioned the quality of the animation and some of the visual redesigns. Such harsh scrutiny isn’t unusual, however; remakes and revamps always rest uneasy with the avid fan.

Just as the original short poked fun at 1950s science fiction, the new series shows no fear in doing the same with contemporary sci-fi, which provides a terrific resource for the show to draw on. Indeed, the first season sprang many identifiable science-fiction in-jokes on us. Some of them were subtle pieces of dialogue or tiny visual references that only dedicated fans would get. The battle on the bridge in "Duck Codgers" reeks of The Phantom Menace, for instance, and Dodgers' outfit in "Enemy Yours" is reminiscent of Dr Doom’s from Marvel Comics. Some episodes are actually keyed to infamous sci-fi moments. Star Trek‘s "The Deadly Years" and "Spock’s Brain" are both decimated in "Duck Codgers" and "They Stole Dodger‘s Brain," respectively. "The Green Loontern" is based in the same universe as DC Comic’s Green Lantern series and stars the title's heroes and villains. Another noteworthy source is Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, which has its title spoofed in "The Wrath Of Canasta," is cheekily quoted in "The Foul Friend," and has one of its final battles mimicked virtually scene-by-scene in "The Queen Is Wild." There is something for every sci-fi fan, but if you know your Trek, you‘ll probably get more of the sneaky references.

The show wasn’t above self mockery either. Dodger’s inability to recognise the disguised Cadet in "Big Bug Mamas" references the inability all Looney Tune characters have at recognising a friend or foe who is cunningly decked out in a wig and lipstick. "The Wrath Of Canasta" is both an homage to the 1951 Daffy and Porky short "Dripalong Daffy" and a satire of the cult film WestWorld.

The season provided a variety of guest characters from outside the original cartoon. Some characters will be at least slightly familiar to regular cartoon viewers. We’ve had cameos from Yosemite Sam, Nasty Canasta, Dr. Woe, the Goofy Gofers, Marvin’s faithful hound K-9, and those wonderful instant Martians. We have also seen some great new characters added to the universe -- the Martian Queen (Tia Carrere), and those robots voiced by Star Trek’s Michael Dorn.

For a series based on a five-minute cartoon, there was clearly an effort to experiment with duration. Of the thirteen episodes, ten were split into a two-story format while the other three episodes developed over a full twenty-five minutes. Overall, the quality of the episodes has been good, and some have been fantastic. In my opinion, the animation and production have been of high quality. The theme tune and opening credits certainly are the finest I’ve seen this year.

The show also benefits from a strong and reliable cast. Joe Alaskey and Bob Bergen are top-notch, and we are also treated to some great semi-regular and guest-starring roles from the likes of Michael Dorn, Kevin Smith, Tia Carrere, John DiMaggio, Lauren Tom and Tara Strong.

The main characters have all got off to a good start and the interplay between them has been refreshingly varied. Dodgers -- a character whose lack of charm and talent could have become tiresome very quickly -- is unpredictable and quirky. Sometimes he is the most useless imbecile in the galaxy, while at other times he shows himself the hero we’d expect to bear a title in the Protectorate. The same goes for Porky’s Space Cadet. To my pleasant surprise, he wasn’t there to constantly save the day, and he would even occasionally show himself to be as stupid as Dodgers (okay, perhaps not that stupid). By not making the characters too rigid, they have kept each story from becoming too formulaic.

The scripting feels as if the writers are conscious that they must keep the show interesting and not fall into formula. "Quarterback Quack" deals with time travel; "The Wrath Of Canasta" takes us to the Wild West; "K-9 Kaddy" takes Marvin golfing on Mars and into an unwitting battle with a pair of Martian gofers. Whether you feel this is the Duck Dodgers of the past's own future, one cannot deny that every attempt has been made to keep the show fun and diverse.

To be fair, in one respect the show does occasionally fail: the structure of its plots. With the 24th ½ Century now being a far richer place, it seems the writers get a little too bogged down with fleshing the story out to the detriment to the humour. "The Green Loontern" is perfect example. It’s an episode which has a nice idea and oodles of in-jokes, but it just spends too much time being a proper story and not enough time playing for gags. I found each of the extended stories suffered this way, with the jokes dragging and the story swamping the dialogue. If the first season has provided any lesson, it is that the stories suit a short format rather than a longer one. I found the other two longer shows -- "Hooray For Hollywood Planet" and "Shiver Me Dodgers" -- both slow and tiresome. Indeed, I must agree with criticism that the show can be on occasions too mouthy -- a little more visual humour would be good. Overall, it's true that Duck Dodgers is very dialogue heavy.

But humour is a subjective thing, of course, and I’m pretty sure that each episode offers a joke for someone. I may not have laughed at every line, but I finished most of the episodes feeling pleasantly amused. The show is not stomach-burstingly funny, but it is very enjoyable.

I’d have to recommend "K-9 Kaddy" as the best story of the season. For me, it captured the simplicity and charm of the Warner Bros. cartoons I watched as a kid. It was a delight to see the Goofy Gofers again, and while the story was pretty vacant, the jokes were plentiful. Marvin and K-9 were also on top form -- a pure treat. Other gems this season included "The Fowl Friend" -- which offered the most politically incorrect resolution this side of South Park -- and "Big Bug Mamas." As for the show's characters: while Marvin will always be my favourite, the Martian Queen was really proving her worth by the end of the season in stories like "The Queen Is Wild" and "Enemy Yours."

Reinventing Duck Dodgers was a daring exploit, and thanks to some good writing, strong production values and a great cast, they have done a fine job. It’s not a perfect show, but hopefully the team will have learned from its mistakes this season and will produce a second that is more consistent. Duck Dodgers is a great place to go for sci-fi parody and humorous jibes. Put away your expectations for a return to the Golden Age of Warner Bros. and just sit and enjoy this fun cartoon. You’ll have a good time.

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