May 28, 2011

Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, episode 3 "Quest for the Dragon's Eye"


If the last episode was all about showing how much of a genuine threat the villains can be when they unite their powers against the still scattered heroes, this episode tips the scale back on the side of good as the now united Spectral Knights spring themselves from prison, regain their power staffs, and get control of a few vehicles of their own. Between these two episodes, I think all of the magical powers have been very well established, and there's some great action in there, but it's still a little difficult to keep straight who is who at times, especially when all fourteen members of our main cast are on screen at the same time, dodging and pouncing and shifting from human to animal form and back again amidst racing vehicles and magical bolts and explosions. A little chaotic, but still exciting.

There is one thing about the vehicles, however, that doesn't make much sense. They're from the old times, and are activated when the magical energy of their drivers compensates for the lack of electricity in the world. That's fine, that makes sense. But why do they have their own holograms that magically produce hands that hurl bolts of energy? Where did this magic come from? Did Merklynn add it off screen? Are they from a time before the old time, in the days before technology first arose? Are they merely projections of the power of their pilots? In a three-parter that's done a pretty nifty job of giving everything a reasonable explanation, this feels like a bit of an oversight.

But, hey, the heroes win, announce their intention to spread a new age of freedom throughout the lands, and the Darkling Lords are chained away in a factory where they have to stamp traffic signs drawn before them on a conveyor belt operated by two pigs. Ah, but that's only the first ten minutes of the show!

Merklynn(!) frees the Darkling Lords, and when both parties show up at his shrine to recharge their powers, like any good drug dealer, he tells them they only get one more free hit, and all the rest need to be paid for in quests. It's an interesting status quo they're setting up here, where Merklynn has no allegiance, and the only way our main characters can use the amazing powers he's given them is to compete over who gets to find the latest bribe he needs, usually a magical item he requires to make his pool of power work in the first place. It's a great way of showing that the magic is nothing more than a tool, and like any tool, it comes with a price and the outcome is only as good or bad as the person wielding it.

And it leads to some more great action as, after our heroes and villains clash weapons a bit, they both have to team up to take on a giant robotic dragon piloted by another - yet slightly less imposing - wizard named Falkama. Some great dynamics come into play as the two sides are forced to combine powers... up until the threat is gone and a bizarre football game of sorts breaks out as the Dragon's Eye they were hunting is tossed and snatched from hand to hand. These people can occasionally work together, but they'll never be able to live together.

And that's what I love about this show. For all its silliness and tongue-in-cheek humor, it's very honest about the fact that the world is a tough place, and it's very hard for one side to get an upper hand over another. Even when one leader does all he can to see his people fed, and the other demands that all the spoils of his followers belong to him.

Some quick bits:
  • I love the scene where the Darkling Lords try to turn their magic on Merklynn, and the avatars take one look at their target before turning around and high tailing it back to their power staffs.
  • The sniveling Mortdredd turns into his beetle form, and is promptly stepped on.
  • The scene where the Spectral Knights meet with the distraught farmers is hysterical. Such bizarre voices, as if they asked the actors for any random accents they hadn't tried yet.
  • The Darkling Lords are now in possession of their own wizard. This won't end well.


“So, Darkstorm, how are we going to divide the booty?”

This is the first line from this week’s episode, “Quest for the Dragon’s Eye”. It really has nothing to do with the story, I just thought it was funny.

In episode three, the plot thickens, motivations become clear(er), and we learn that Leoric isn’t the great leader the New Valarek propaganda machine would have us believe.

The episode begins with the Darkling Lords celebrating their recent victory. Meanwhile, the newly formed Spectral Knights, in a true "easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death" fashion, are in a dungeon quickly filling with water. It says a lot about the predictability of cartoon good and evil that I would still rather be one of the Spectral Knights than one of the Darkling Lords at that moment.

Proving once again to be more interesting and more humorous than their goody-goody counterparts, the Lords' victory celebration is short-lived as greed and mutual distrust spill over into a comical free-for-all. It’s like watching a dysfunctional family fall apart during a long Thanksgiving dinner.

Meanwhile, the Spectral Knights use their wits - not to mention their totems - to escape the dungeon. I’m sure Darkstorm will learn his lesson and simply kill them next time. After a brief skirmish, the Lords realize that the magic of the power staffs has been spent and flee with the Knights in hot pursuit.

Turning the tables, the Knights defeat the Lords, imprison them in a labor camp(!), and go about the more mundane task of serving the people. And what a fine people they are. And by “fine”, I mean dirty, dumb, and inbred.

Not content to bask in the glow of Darkstorm’s defeat, the thankless farmers of New Valarek have to spoil the party by telling Leoric that their crops are withering on the vine. While the Knights are shown to be clean, cultured, and well spoken, the farmers look to be dirt poor peasants. Clothes tattered, craggy faces full of pain, and sporting a potpourri of bad working-class accents, I half expected them to start each sentence with “Duuuuuuh...”. This sharp class divide reflects poorly on Leoric as a leader.

Anyway, surmising that magic is the cause of the problem, Leoric’s plan is to travel to see the wizard Merklynn and trade him back the Darkling Lords power staffs in exchange for a solution. Trade him back... his own weapons. Great plan, Leoric. Great.

And speaking of Merklynn, we finally begin to see his motives coming into focus. While New Valarek celebrates, he sneaks into the fortress and gives Darkstorm a magic key that will free them from their bonds. He’s playing both sides! But why?

After another skirmish on the road to Merklynn, in which the Lords recover their power staffs, the Knights and the newly freed Lords arrive to discover that the wizard has his own plans for them. “Do you think I give you magic out of selflessness? Of course not! I do it because I want you to be instruments of my will.” It’s the old carrot and stick approach. If they want to replenish the magic of their weapons, they have to carry out certain tasks for Merklynn. In this case, recover the Dragon’s Eye.

After re-charging their weapons, the Knights set off on their quest, but the proud Lords refuse. Instead they try to turn their weapons on Merklynn. This proves futile, as Merklynn is the keeper of a magic orb, and the magic of the staffs cannot attack the bearer of the orb. Defeated and resigned to their fate, the Lords agree to join the quest.

The two groups converge on an old industrial complex where they encounter a large mechanical dragon being operated by a wizard via the power of a staff: The Dragon’s Eye. They discover that the wizard is Falkama, a member of the same order as Merklynn. The dragon is defeated, Falkama escapes, and a battle for The Dragon’s Eye ensues. Eventually the Knights win the Eye and return it to Merklynn.

Here is where the depth of this series comes into play. Instead of simply handing over the staff to Merklynn, Leoric demands something more. A cure for the famine gripping his land. Merklynn, who needs the Dragon’s Eye to power the sacred replenishment pool, reluctantly agrees, but warns them never to tell the Lords of his concession.

Meanwhile, the defeated Lords remain behind to scavenge the old complex for anything that may be of use. They find Falkama, stripped of his magic without his staff, but still wielding a bargaining chip. He knows things of magic, and, more importantly, of Merklynn.

In New Valarek, magical seeds provided by Merklynn sprout into mature crops, ready to be harvested by the inbred peasants proud framers.

I loved this episode. It’s clear Visionaries isn’t content to be a simple game of checkers like so many 80s cartoons; it strives to be more like chess. Sure, the heroes and villains are simple archetypes, but Merklynn is the straw that stirs the drink. His motives are unclear and his only allegiance is to himself. He controls the power, and both sides know it. The Spectral Knights play along only because they know that if they don’t, they'll be vulnerable to the Darkling Lords. It’s a rich moral tapestry that makes up for some of the show’s other flaws.

And here's this week's "Now That's Being a Visionary" moment:

Jimmy: “Hey, look. A dirty magazine! Someone musta dropped it.”

Skippy: “Oh, man! Let’s have a look...”

Man’s voice: (off screen) “That could be a sticky situation.”

Boys: (simultaneously) “Witterquick!”

Skippy: “We were just curious.”

Witterquick: “Curiosity is fine, but there’s more dried sperm on that magazine than a gigolo’s mattress.”

Jimmy: “Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.”

Witterquick: “Try looking at the lingerie section of a Sears catalog until you’re old enough to buy your own porno.”

Skippy: “My Dad has a whole stack of National Geographic!”

Witterquick: “Now that’s being a Visionary.”

Additional articles in our Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light series:

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