The 80s was a weird time for animation, mostly due to the watered down stuff you’d see on TV. Every show was trying to be the next “He-Man”, while desperately trying to shill its action figures onto the young audience watching at home. Not all shows were like this, however. Some shows were radically different than what was airing, or tried its best to be more than an over-glorified toy commercial.
You had shows like Galaxy Rangers, M.A.S.K., and The Real Ghostbusters. These were all shows that managed to be entertaining and interesting, while also selling toys! There was another show that also fell into this category, at least in some respects. So, let’s talk about the long forgotten “Dungeons & Dragons” cartoon. D&D began airing in 1983, and ended its run in 1985 with 27 episodes. It told the story of 6 kids who are transported to a fantasy world based on the popular Dungeons & Dragon board-game, due to riding atop a magical theme park ride based on said board-game.
Right away, the concept alone really makes no sense. I mean, why would they make a theme park ride based off a board-game? Of course, the “being pulled into an alternate universe by a theme park ride” makes far less sense regardless. After the six kids are brought to this new fantasy realm, they are tasked by the “Dungeon Master” to help bring peace to the realm. While doing this, they are desperately trying to find a way home.
The characters were certainly interesting on this show. You had Eric, who was the jerk of the team. Despite being a cavalier, he didn’t have a sword and was really only there to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. There was also Hank, who was the archer and leader of the team. All of the other characters filled simplistic roles in the group as well, and half of them were useless in most combat situations.
Most of the episodes revolved around the kids trying to get home or help someone, only to get attacked by “Venger”. Venger served as the show’s main villain, who was constantly trying to kill the kids every chance he got. He only feared Tiamat, who was a ferocious dragon with powers that rivaled his own.
As you can tell, the D&D cartoon had larger stakes than your average 80s cartoon. The show was dark, though kept a playful attitude through most of its episodes. Some episodes only had a few dark elements here or there, while still playing up the comedic aspects.
A good example of this is the episode, “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior”, which featured our heroes meeting said titular skeleton. In the episode, all the kids were forced to face their fears. Most of their fears were pretty tame, or very basic overall. Thing is, that’s not what most people remember about the episode. Near the end of said episode, Hank nearly gets all his skin peeled off by a magic spell! Yes, you can even see his skin starting to peel in the episode itself.
Of course, they save him before he can become another living skeleton. Thing is, this was the only part of the episode that really ventured into dark territory. However, some episodes were just designed to be really dark in nature. I think the episode everyone talks about when it comes to this show is “The Dragon’s Graveyard”.
The whole gist of the episode is that the kids are sick of Venger constantly trying to kill them, so they decide to hunt him down and kill him themselves. It’s a pretty dark subject for a show from the 80s to tackle, but it makes for an interesting watch all the same. Seeing the young heroes pushed to the brink, and willing to kill the main villain was something that no other cartoons at the time were really attempting.
While the show did have some dark and thought-provoking episodes here or there, it always fell back into typical kid show territory. As hard as this show tried, it just never broke away from the constraints of its medium. Despite this, the guys behind the show still act as if it’s a masterpiece of its time.
One of the writers of the show was Michael Reaves, who avidly believed the show was a game of its decade. Heck, he even compared it to “Gargoyles”, one of the darkest kids shows in the 90s! It’s weird that he’d compare D&D to such a dark and revolutionary show, but it’s good to know that he’s proud of what he and his team created!
I’ll be honest, I enjoy the show in spite of its flaws. It did try to be dark and incorporate elements from the board-game, even if the final product came off as bland on occasion. At the very least, it stands apart from most other 80s cartoons. It tried to be more than just a commercial for something and I can at least appreciate it for that. I hope this show does make a return one day, so they can finally animate a proper ending for it!