To be clear, I am aware of that DuckTales is airing episodes wildly out of order. While this is fairly normal for most TV programs, the argument seems to be that this is a particularly bad case of episode reordering, and that it really reflects poorly on, if not so much the overall story arc, than the connotations of the storytelling, the flow of how Frank Angones, Matt Youngberg and the crew ideally envisioned the story beats playing out. In an era in which many creative teams are writing towards a binge-model of TV (inspiring a few think pieces supporting the value of the individual episode), I can sympathize with the team for this. That being said, my concerns have been less with how the overall season is progressing and more with the specifics within the stories being told and how they’re being told. I spent a lot of time thinking how to review this show, how much value I should put on the comedic, visual, dramatic, and adventurous beats, and honestly, I’m still confused.
The beginning of “Terror of the Terra-firmians” had me still just as confused at first. No Donald. No Scrooge. A pretty weak incentive to push the characters underground (Lena peer pressures Huey and Webby into finding out more information about the mysterious Terra-firmians by sneaking off into the subway; it fails because I’m struggling to grasp Lena’s core motivation beyond “it’s a cool thing to do”). I have to admit, that first act left me a bit baffled, as it was tricky to discern what, exactly, what Webby and Huey were arguing over. I understand that it was, essentially, over whether the Terra-firmians were real or not, but the specific nature of the disagreement alluded me. Huey has already been on an adventure that included a magic flying dragon, an underground lost city, and a headless horse (which he put into the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, and we’ll get to that in a second)–plus, he would know that, at this point, it would be best to trust the deeply informative Webby on her word. That he would cling so obsessively to scientific explanations for everything was hard to buy, especially in the overtly exaggerated world of Duckberg.
But it’s in the second and third act that it all starts to come together (and, to be fair, I wonder if the reordered episodes would shed more informative light on Huey’s behavior). The start of the investigation itself felt forced: narratively, it tried to pass itself off as a urban legend “let’s check it out” kind of venture a la Hey Arnold! or Gravity Falls (and the Gravity Falls influences were all over this episode), but other than Webby, neither Lena nor Huey seemed particularly curious about anything. Once the cave-in occurs, though, the stakes are finally raised, and the cast–which brings in Launchpad, Mrs. Beakley, and the remaining nephews–begin their high-octane battle for survival. A runaway subway train, chaotic rock monsters, and no clear way out provides DuckTales a clear, all-out adventure tale, something that show desperately needed. The show still struggle with setting up its mysteries–the real suspense and tension doesn’t begin until the episode is halfway over–but it’s good to know the show can perform when the craziness begins to happen
Plus, in the near-death darkness of the tunnels, characters finally begin to expose themselves, the dramatic spirit of the show opening itself up. In a revealing moment, as the subway train creaks under the weight of massive rocks, Huey freezes, clutching his Guidebook as the only thing that he’s sure of. It becomes clear that Huey’s dismissal of things weird and unknown was his way of managing his utter fear of them (this also explains the great lengths he would go to scientifically justify the weird antics around him). It’s a sudden honest moment, Huey focusing on the light because it’s the only thing he’s truly sure of in the moment; that he embraces Webby’s hand with a burst of confidence in his family, that they can face that unknown together, is a sign of welcome development. There’s a sense, though, that his use of of the Guidebook is a crutch, as he scribbles tangible evidence of the Terra-firmians inside of it. What is Huey like without it?
The second reveal involves Lena, whose bickering with Mrs. Beakley reveals the dark, literally-shadowy connection to Magica. It isn’t one hundred percent clear what the connection is between Lena and Magica (is she literally trapped in Lena’s shadow? Is it all in her head? Is it some super wild spell/curse that hasn’t been fully explained yet?) but “Terror of the Terra-firmians” displays the struggle Lena has between doing Magica’s bidding and doing the right thing, which includes magically lifting a crashed subway car off a subconscious Beakley. As predicted, Lena’s relationship with Magica (and family, and the concept of family) is tenuous as best, which makes her a wild card that literally doesn’t play by any rules. It’s a dramatic beat forward in the overall arc, and it provides a tense but resolved conflict between Beakley and Lena, but “Terror of the Terra-firmians” is also a dramatic beat forward for the show’s prowess in an individual episode. Once it tweaks its beginnings, and once it really pulls together the full cast, it’ll really be the show it feels like it wants to be.
- The characters do find the Terra-firmians, who are quite familiar to fans of the original show (the episode, “Earth Quake,” isn’t great but it has one of the best pieces of TV animation ever–a runaway mind cart sequence that’s genuinely incredible–that starts at 4:00). Here, it’s revealed that Webby’s fantastical ideas about the Terra-firmians are mirrored in the imaginations of the underground creatures themselves. Huey and the red Terra-firmian touch fingers, mimicking E.T., but really, there’s no point to it. Even Mrs. Beakley calls it a waste of time. They do help them out to safety though!
- More self aware jokes abound: Lena wonders why everyone isn’t the “crazy adventure family” that their reputation implied they are. (Is this also a hint into what Lena is ultimately trying to do? Even though more of her character is revealed here, I still struggle to understand what she’s trying to get Webby and the family to do.) In a more episode specific moment, Louie tears up watching Huey accept Webby’s help; he literally describes this as a twist he didn’t see coming; it “really came together in the third act.” A tacit admission that the first half of the episode wasn’t the strongest? Basically.
- One of the best but hilarious running gags in the original DuckTales is how the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook gradually gets more and more ridiculous. In the early episodes it starts off as a basic outdoors survival guide a la The Boy Scouts, but gradually becomes more wild, with advice on how to handle things like aliens and random situations. Huey’s dependence on it, plus his behavior in the pilot, suggest that he’s deeply into the Junior Woodchucks in a way that his brothers aren’t. This may be the most significant thing that the re-ordered episodes actually screw up.
- I liked Launchpad in the pilot. Not so much here. Lauchpad comes across a bit too stupid here, stupid in a solely plot/joke device kind of way. I like that he did manage to get the subway car running (seriously, that’s really impressive), though. I think it’ll be a while before they can balance his ignorance with his skillset (TaleSpin did it right with Wildcat.)
- The shots of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook (and to a lesser extent, Webby’s diary) resemble the journals from Gravity Falls. I... don’t know how important the information will be in those two pieces of water fowl literature, and, if I have to be honest, I’m not too enthused about DuckTales delving down the Gravity Falls track. Gravity Falls did its thing. DuckTales, do yours.