By Jerry Chandler
“Fear not: Ranger, Barbarian, Magician, Thief, Cavalier, and Acrobat. That was Venger, the force of evil. I am Dungeon Master, your guide in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons!”
Back in the bygone and ancient days of the 1980s, ABC, CBS, and NBC still had entire blocks of programming, both animated and live action, aimed at children. These blocks were commonly referred to as “The Saturday Morning Cartoons” by adults and kids alike, and over the years they provided kids with a wide variety of colorful programs as weekly entertainment. One of the fun ones (and perhaps given the social climate of the time, the most surprising one) was Dungeons & Dragons.
Dungeons & Dragons ran from 1983 to 1985 on CBS. Living in the 1980s as a teenager in Central Virginia, it seemed almost amazing at the time that the show made it to air. Looking back at some of the events of that time as an adult it may not seem quite that amazing, but it’s still surprising that it didn’t take more heat from certain groups of agitators.
The Dungeons & Dragons game itself was firmly in the crosshairs of conservative and evangelical groups seeking to have it removed from our culture in order to “protect the children” from its influence. It and things like heavy metal music were the targets of the protectors of morality who stoked fears like the ridiculous “Satanic Panic” of that era. There was also the threat to all children’s programming with any level of violence in it in the form of the National Coalition on Television Violence. Having been a fan of the game and the toys and living in the state that was the home base for a number of the most powerful conservative evangelical groups seeking to stamp its existence out and having seen the NCTV ruin or destroy kids programming already; to say it was a little surprising to turn the TV on and see Dungeons & Dragons as a Saturday morning cartoon is a bit of an understatement.
Dungeons & Dragons was the story of six friends from then contemporary day Earth who got on an amusement park rollercoaster ride and ended up going through a wormhole into the world of Dungeon’s & Dragons. As soon as they arrive they’re set upon by the villains, Venger and Tiamat, who would be the major reoccurring threats in the series as well as meeting the being, Dungeon Master, who would give them their identities there and guide them through their adventures. This is all explained in the original series opening rather than in any sort of true pilot episode.
The main characters each had their own unique looks and powers related to the game.
Hank (voiced by Willie Aames) was the ranger.
Sheila (voiced by Katie Leigh) was the Thief.
Diana (voiced by Tonia Gayle Smith) was the Acrobat.
Presto (voiced by Adam Rich) was the Magician.
Bobby (voiced by Ted Field III) was the Barbarian.
Eric (voiced by Don Most) was the Cavalier.
The main cast of characters was rounded out by Uni the Unicorn (voiced by Frank Welker), Dungeon Master (voiced by Sidney Miller), Venger (voiced by Peter Cullen), Tiamat (also Frank Welker), and the Shadow Demon (voiced by Bob Holt). The list of writers on the series included names like Paul Dini, Buzz Dixon, Mark Evanier, Katherine Lawrence, Steve Gerber, and Jeffrey Scott among others.
The 27 episodes were typically fun, younger viewer safe, fantasy high adventure following our main cast of characters as they travelled through the magical world they found themselves in looking for a way home. The series played with some fairly generic magics and creatures during its run, but it also included creatures (such as the Beholder) and characters (such as Warduke) familiar to those viewers who played the game or collected the toys. Occasionally it would even throw in a name character (such as Merlin) that would be recognizable from myths and legends outside the of the game’s universe.
Because the characters were always traveling, there was no such thing as a home village for them or regular, reoccurring background characters, but that was more than just a little okay here. The fun of the series was seeing where the adventures would take them from week to week and how close they would come to finding a way home. Occasionally they actually found ways home but sacrificed their chance to get home in order to help others.
The world building in the series was a little hit and miss, but any shortcomings were hardly noticeable as a young viewer. Since it was another world in another dimension entirely, they could get away with some very unreal concepts- both in the creation of things like mushroom forests or in impossibly having certain types of environments all side by side with no issue –with no problem whatsoever. This certainly made the world of Dungeons & Dragons feel a more exotic and amazing place than many of the worlds in other cartoons.
Occasionally other things would be introduced into the show that some people felt was oddly out of place in a medieval setting show featuring fantasy elements like dragons and magic. One episode involved the adventurers coming across another group stranded in a dangerous land in the world of Dungeons & Dragons because damage to their ship had marooned them there. The ship in question was a spaceship, and they were in fact humanoid aliens with advanced technology. For people familiar with TSR’s game systems, this was actually no issue at all.
The stories were all largely self-contained throughout most of the series. There was an attempt to have a running story arc in the final season involving Venger being Dungeon Master’s son that was meant to be resolved in a never made episode entitled ‘Requiem’. In the various self-contained stories, the plots were typically completely tied up by the show’s end. There were occasional moments of seeming attempts at character development- lessons learned largely by the character of Eric –but this never actually happened. Most of the characters remained largely unchanged from the beginning of the series to the end of it.
This was occasionally seen as a problem when it came to the character of Eric. The 1980s became the era of children’s programming having to have educational and/or having a socially conscious message. This was the era of such concepts as The Get Along Gang. The character of Eric was- more so than in other children’s programming from previous decades –the example of the charter who gets in trouble and loses his way before learning his lesson. The lesson that was being pushed on programming by various so called “parents groups” at that time was that the group was always right. Eric’s various self-inflicted punishments in the series were almost all brought about by his not going along with the group’s decisions from word one or from seeking out his own path during a story. It was one of the things that Mark Evanier disliked about working on the series and made him greatly dislike the character.
Fortunately the character was written in such a way that his ideas were rarely the best go to ideas, so the desired lesson of the episodes came across more as a warning to not do really dumb things. Well, that and don’t piss off evil magic users, giants, or dragons. But even those were only if you noticed any attempt to push lessons through the show at all.
What you noticed more than anything was the action and the adventure. You liked (most of) the characters. The creatures used as threats could be designed to be more serious, but they could also be kind of fun. The magical weapons and the mysteries and threats offered up by such a world were great for firing up young imaginations for later in the day play outside.
Overall, the show was a huge bit of fun. If you were a child who gravitated towards fantasy adventure and magic that didn’t involve a cast of cute animals or a heavy dose of superhero and sci-fi ingredients mixed in, this was for a time the show you wanted to make time for on Saturday mornings. Some of it even aged well generationally. I purchased the series for my kids (it’s less than $9 on Amazon) and they both enjoyed it. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, there are even moments in the show that still seem fun to the kid inside of me.
Dungeons & Dragons is one of those shows from back in the day that doesn’t seem to get its deserved due when people talk about the great cartoons of the ‘good old days’ of the 1980s. That’s a shame really, because it was probably one of the better ones that were out there when it was on TV.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.