June 25, 2011

Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, episode 7 "The Overthrow of Merklynn"


Cleverly continuing the thread from the last episode, Darkstorm is still bitter about the constant need to return to Merklynn's shrine so as to recharge the Power Staffs. Darkstorm decides to fish (with a literal hook and line) Falkama out of his deepest dungeons, where the lesser wizard has filled his time since "Quest of the Dragon's Eye" by making little theater shows using rats and spiders. Falkama tells Darkstorm that the only way to steal the magic from Merklynn is to capture the wizard's orb, and doing so will require a few special ingredients.

The Darkling Lords arrive at the Athernaeum, a ruined temple where a dragon protects a tiny book (a "pocket printing") of powerful spells known as the Omnipotricron. The dragon is old and famished, but still manages to scorch the butts of Mortdredd and Reekon before they can get their hands on the book and pass it to Darkstorm. The next item on their list is the Wizardsbane herb.

In New Valarak, Leoric is overseeing a heated zoning debate between the Knights and civilian representatives over the issue of some barracks. Ectar argues that all his knights are well trained and won't create a disturbance, as demonstrated by Witterquick hurrying into the room so fast that he goes down and takes the entire door with him. The Darkling Lords have been spotted outside! The Spectral Knights rally and, despite suspecting a trap, easily capture the unconvincingly defeated Darkling Lords, who are once again forced into labor at the sign pressing factory (another nice callback to "Quest for the Dragon's Eye").

Merklynn once again shows up to free the Darkling Lords, but it's a trap! Darkstorm uses Wizardsbane to freeze Merlynn and steal his orb. Falkama appears and joins in their celebration, until he's also frozen by Wizardsbane. Now that Darkstorm has the power of the orb and the spells within the Omnipoticron (I get a chuckle ever time I type that word), he has no use for wizards, so he teleports them to a mountaintop Wizards' Jail (?!?). He zaps himself out of the factory, turns the Spectral Knights to stone, and tells the others to meet him at Merklynn's lair, where he's getting a massage (over his armor?) from a random faerie woman. When they arrive, the Lords have divided into two factions.

Those who feel Darkstorm is giving them the shaft are put under curses. The beautiful Virulina is turned into an ugly old hag. The thieving Reekon is made so that each of his stealthy footsteps rings out the loud sound of a cash register. The cowardly and deceitful Lexor is given a mirror copy that openly declares the honest truth behind each of his lies.

Those who continue to pledge their loyalty to Darkstorm are shown visions of bountiful futures they will be given. Cindarr, the lunkheaded thug, will gain both slaves and intellect. The snivelling Mortdredd will be followed by a posse that kisses his ass just as much as he does Darkstorm's. The brutal berserker Cravex will find peace in a beautiful garden with fluffy clouds, fluttering doves, and gracefully racing ponies.

Drunk with power, Darkstorm decides to recite the Sacred Secret Spell, which no wizard before has ever uttered. In a huge "Holy shit!" moment, it unleashes a massive Lovecraftian god monster that triggers a series of devastating plagues and bellows out "YOU HAVE BEGUN THE END OF THE WORLD." After a brief standoff with the traitorous Darkling Lords whose curses have worn off, the entire gang assembles and races through exploding meteorites, ground ripping earthquakes, packs of giant lizards, and even a massive flood, all in the hopes of getting the magic back to Merklynn before the final Plague of Darkness sets in. During this, New Valarak is destroyed, with the Spectral Knights still trapped in stone and unable to stop it.

The Darkling Lords finally reach the Wizards' Jail, and Darkstorm - having been coughed up by Virulina's shark form which swallowed him during the flood - pleads with Merklynn to set everything right. In a massive twist, the wizard reveals that the Sacred Secret Spell is merely a failsafe, something that creates the illusion of consequences so desperate that untrained hands will beg to return the magic that they stole. Merklynn says he'll never again give the Darkling Lords assistance, the other wizards in the jail sneak off to freedom while the front door is open, and the apocalypse reverses itself, ending on Leoric and Ectar stepping out of the zoning debate and having a laugh over how peaceful things have been lately.

What I liked:
  • The entire setup is fantastic. The ego of Darkstorm makes him unwilling to rely on someone else for power, so he ends up stealing so much that he inadvertently triggers the apocalypse and is put in his place when he begs Merklynn to make the bad things go away. I never expected such a story to be featured this early in the series, expecting instead that they'd let the status quo of power recharging settle in some more before deconstructing and upending it, but I'm impressed they had the balls and imagination to go there.
  • And speaking of the apocalypse, "Holy shit!" indeed. Valarak is destroyed, the world burns and rips itself apart, and it's introduced by a massive bellowing monster. A funny show takes a shockingly epic turn when he shows up.
  • There were amazing twists and epic imagery, but most importantly, writer Flint Dille had me rolling in my seat with laughter. The Lords dunking their butts in a fountain after barely outrunning dragon fire. The busybody representatives of the zoning commission. The brutal Cravex's fluffy fantasy. Several Darkling Lords debating whether or not to enjoy the sight of Darkstorm drowning when they learn he can't swim, and Virulina reluctantly rescuing him by turning into a shark and swallowing him whole. This episode is hysterical.
  • The complaint could be made that the Spectral Knights get the shaft this episode, but I love that it boldly declares from the start that it's all about the Darkling Lords. There's no dashing heroics or daring deeds, just power hungry bad guys who screw things up so badly that they either make it right or they die. It's a very bold move.
What I didn't like:
  • What is this randomly convenient Wizards' Jail? I like the idea that there's now a handful of potentially evil magic users on the loose, but this development pops up completely out of the blue, especially when there's still so much mystery surrounding the three wizards we've already met.
  • Also feeling extremely random are the Omnipoticron and the dragon guarding its temple. They aren't exactly hidden, so how did they go undiscovered during the age of advanced technology?
  • And where did the Lords get the Wizardsbane? We see them set out to get a batch, but then they suddenly just have it, despite Merklynn declaring that he'd eradicated it all. If we're having an episode of callbacks, wouldn't it be fun to see the Darkling Lords sneaking into Heskedor's herb garden or something?
This episode is a blast. The idea of focusing entirely on the villains as they again pull off a genuinely clever plan that only backfires when they go too far and trigger armageddon is bold and strikingly executed. The writing and voice acting are both sharp and intelligent, and there's some astonishing animation on display during the end of the world. And it's funny. It's really, really funny.

I wonder if the series would have stuck around longer if every episode put the spotlight on the charismatic bad guys and limited the stiff do-gooders to mere foils for their egotistical schemes.


Do you remember the TV series Family Matters? It was part of ABC's famed TGIF line-up in the 90s. Why do I bring this up in a Visionaries review? One word: Urkel.

Family Matters began as a spin-off of another TGIF sitcom, Perfect Strangers, and focused on the daily lives of a black middle class extended family living in the suburbs of Chicago. It was an agreeable but also rather dull sitcom in the classic Miller-Boyett mold. That is until a character by the name of Steve Urkel arrived. Intended to make nothing more than a single appearance, the character was such a hit that he was brought back again. And again. And again.

By season two, they had revamped the entire series so that the primary focus was on the Urkel character with the Winslow's relegated to bit players. Original series star Jo Marie Payton was pushed aside and producers eventually wrote out the now unnecessary character of youngest daughter Judy without any explanation. One day she was there, the next she wasn't. Jaimee Foxworth, the actress who played Judy, eventually went into porn. "Did I do that?" Yes, Urkel, you did. We can all hope that Leoric doesn't suffer the same fate as Jaimee after this week's episode (though he already has the porn 'stache), where he and his fellow Spectral Knights get "Urkled" by the Darkling Lords.

As Noel said, this week the Darkling Lords are front and center. A conceit by the powers that be that the villains are just far more interesting than the heroes? Perhaps. The episode begins like a sitcom really - call it Hangin' with Mr. Darkstorm - and ends like a Roland Emmerich film. In between, we get a really great picture of the dynamics that make up the Lords, with each of the spells highlighting their individual personalities, my favorite being Lexor's truth translator.
"Please, Darkstorm. Give me a chance to prove my loyalty!"
"Translation: I will do anything to get out of this."
The rub is that this is the type of treatment our generic and interchangeable heroes really could've used. I still can't tell any of them apart.

The other aspect of this episode, and this series, that I want to call attention to is that it's not content to merely be a series of stand alone stories. They're world building here, with characters and plot lines from episodes past coming back into play and future plot lines being set into motion. This rewards a loyal audience far more than it confuses the uninitiated, and I'm surprised more shows didn't follow this approach.

"The Overthrow of Merklynn" is the sharpest and funniest episode yet. And it occurred to me more than a few times while watching it that, if one concedes that these cartoons did have a role to play in the moral development of children, seeing the consequences of evil deeds like this is a far more powerful lesson than watching a bunch of generic do-goodery.

It's time for this week's "Now That's Being a Visionary" moment:

Willie: "Hey, it's the ice cream truck!"

Billy-Joe: "Yeah, but we don't have any money."

Willie: "I've got an idea. Make your hand into the shape of a gun. Now stick it under your shirt like this. And when he pulls up, say, 'Give me a vanilla cone with sprinkles, loser!' "

Man’s Voice: (off screen) "Talk about brain freeze!"

Boys: (simultaneously) "Cryotek!"

Willie: "They're not real guns, so where's the harm?"

Cryotek: "Are your parents brother and sister?"

Willie: "Um...."

Cryotek: "Your guns may not be real, but these ice cream trucks are driven by rednecks and ex-cons. You try that 'stick 'em up' shit with him and he's likely to blow a hole in your ass the size of Cleveland."

Billy-Joe: "I think my Mom's boyfriend left some store brand ice cream sandwiches in the freezer. Come on."

Cryotek: "Now that's being a Visionary."

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

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