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Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century

Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century title card
Written by:Michael Maltese|Directed by:Chuck Jones|Release Date:1953

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm writing a recap/commentary/review/etc. about Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, a Daffy Duck cartoon from the 50s.

It was released in theatres in 1953 to be precise, which means it's the oldest thing on my site so far by a full 10 years! It's a decade older than both Doctor Who and Star Trek, and almost 25 years older than Star Wars. But it's a parody of serials starring Buck Rogers (created 1928) and Flash Gordon (created 1934), so it's riffing on something 25 years older still... along with all the other sci-fi that was around at the time.

Speaking of Star Wars, George Lucas liked the short so much he requested that it was shown before the first movie during its initial cinema run. 1000 animation professionals liked it enough back in 1994 to vote it #4 of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time. But despite its popularity, it took 27 years for the short to get its first sequel (they were aiming to get done in time to be at the front of The Empire Strikes Back, and missed), and then 16 more years for the next one. It finally got a TV series though in 2003 and I have no idea if it's any good or not.

I've never tried to write about a 7 minute slapstick cartoon scene by scene before, but it seems like a terrible idea for so many reasons and I'm hyped to do it. I should mention though that I'm going to ruin the ending to Haredevil Hare, so if SPOILERS are going to be an issue for you I suggest you either watch it first or read this review with your eyes closed.



Hey it's a Merrie Melodies not a Looney Tunes!

I was curious what the difference was between the two, so I looked it up, and it turns out that the Looney Tunes title card has thicker circles around the outside. Plus Looney Tunes cartoons have a theme called "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down", while Merrie Melodies open with a tune called "Merrily We Roll Along". And that's basically it.

Both series started in the 30s when Warner Bros. decided that Disney's Silly Symphonies series of cartoon shorts was a good enough idea to borrow for themselves. They were basically meant to be animated accompaniments to showcase the impressive collection of music that Warner's had the rights to, which is why they both have musical titles. Looney Tunes started off in black and white while Merrie Melodies was in colour, and the two initially had their own exclusive characters. But by the 40s they had basically become the same series, to the point where the directors didn't even know what their cartoons would be released as, because it really didn't matter.

The cartoon starts with dramatic orchestral music and a long panning shot of a taxi swooping around some very tall skyscrapers. I'm guessing they were airbrushed, but I don't really know. All I know is that the shot was built from multiple layers moving at different speeds to create a parallax effect, so I couldn't stitch the entire thing together to form one giant image like I wanted. I could only get the very top of the towers.

It's probably for the best though really, seeing as the picture's tall enough as it is.

Damn, if this taxi goes up any higher it'll end up in an episode of The Jetsons. It's already been travelling long enough to evolve and grow some headlights, along with an extra set of windows.

This is the futuristic world of the 24th and a half century you're looking at here, and seeing how cartoon was released in 1953 I reckon it takes place exactly 400 years later in 2353. That puts it 11 years before Star Trek: The Next Generation, and... lots of years before Buck Rogers (every adaptation seems to have him wake up on a different date.)

Yeah, this definitely looks like '50s architecture.

Whoa, we're on the 17,000th floor? The average giant skyscraper has about 4.9m per floor, which would put this around 82,438km in the sky (51 miles). That's about 8 times higher than your average passenger plane would fly. In fact it's actually 20 miles higher than the stratospere... uh, the stratosphere. At this point you're basically in orbit and breathing wouldn't be an option.

Of course all those calculations are actually meaningless, as this building clearly doesn't have 4.9 meter tall floors. I mean look at the size of that doorway!

Look at the size of that eye! See, this is what happens when you let your art designer go wild and do their own thing (in this case that artist was Maurice Noble. I should also mention that it was written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones. And Mel Blanc played the role of everyone! Lots of good names there.)

What you're looking at here is space hero Duck Dodgers disembarking from his taxi and entering the office of Dr I.Q. Hi. You can tell that this is set in the future as they've got automatic doors that can sense when someone's approaching! Okay sensor-triggered automatic doors had been around since 1931, but the first automatic sliding door was invented a year after the cartoon, in 1954. Apparently.

It's weird how much Duck Dodgers looks and acts exactly like Daffy Duck, except with a cape and a hat (with a cape). Dr Hi's got a hat too, with a lightbulb on top. I suppose it must be a thinking cap. Either that or the dude's just really into lightbulbs.

Dodgers has been summoned here to meet Dr Hi because the world is facing a crisis. They're running dangerously low on Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom. The good news is that they're pretty sure they know where to find more: the mysterious 'Planet X'. The bad news is that they don't know where to find Planet X.

Babylon 5 Duck Dodgers cartoon
Babylon 5 1-01 - Midnight on the Firing Line
Dodgers takes the job with so much enthusiasm that he levitates and glows for a bit, yelling "Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century!" before dropping straight past the platform he was on and slamming into the floor below. So I guess he's dead now.

This is actually a shot from Babylon 5's first episode, Midnight on the Firing Line, which featured a surprise Duck Dodgers cameo at the end. It's apparently Security Chief Michael Garibaldi's second favourite thing in the universe, though I'm not sure if it's this cartoon in particular or just Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies in general. Maybe he's into Tom and Jerry as well, I don't know.

Man, look at that face. The guy's determined to leave this room with dignity, despite slamming into the ground hard enough to squeeze most of his head into his tiny helmet, and this is the closest to dignified he can manage right now. Funny how the little antenna on top isn't bent.

This definitely isn't the hyperactive lunatic version of Daffy Duck from his introduction in the 30s. This is the self-serving son of a bitch with an ego from the 50s. He's somehow gotten a reputation for being a space hero in this universe and he's fully bought into his own hype.

He's still doing the walk by the time he makes it out to the evaporators... which are basically Star Trek's transporters, except 12 years earlier.

Teleporters have actually been around in sci-fi since the 19th century so the concept was nothing new at this point. It was even less new three years later, when Daffy Duck returned to the setting (and some of the same backgrounds) as a cop in the sci-fi Dragnet spoof short Rocket Squad. The eye even made another appearance!

Then we get to see his ship.

Not quite as innovative as the Starship Enterprise (or as weird as eyeball security cameras) but it works. I like how it's been charged up wirelessly by those two towers.

More lightbulbs huh? I guess Dr Hi must have designed this ship.

By the way, it might look like he's got a piano for a control panel, but that's not actually true. Pianos don't have the black keys arranged like that. Also those knobs make it look more like a pipe organ.

The camera pans across to show his sidekick sitting next to him, which gives me an excuse to stitch together another giant sized image!

Oh wow, okay maybe this wasn't a great idea this time. It'd make a good wallpaper for ultrawide monitors though.

It's Porky Pig in the role of Eager Young Space Cadet! And he's already doing his joke of trying to say one thing, stuttering, and then just saying something easier instead. The funny thing is, the reason Porky has a stutter is because his original voice actor, Joe Dougherty, actually had a real stutter. They fired him for it then hired someone who could imitate it.

I'm not sure why Porky had to be dressed as Teletubbie for this mission, but I'm sure those antennas on their heads must serve some important purpose.

Dodgers does that thing where he glows and yells "Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century" again, then gets the ship moving.

Unfortunately Dodgers has the ship in reverse gear and manages to back it right into the launching platform.

The joke is enhanced by the fact that it's a rocketship with engines at the back and the thrust should only go one way. Not that it's stopped basically every fictional spaceship that's come after it from being able to being able to put the rear engines in reverse just fine (with the notable exception of The Expanse's Rocinante)

Oh, I don't like it so much from this angle. That fin on the back's a bit rubbish. Space is looking pretty today though.

It seems like the ship's launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, which is a great place to launch a rocket from. That was where the first US Earth satellite was launched, in 1958. Plus the first US astronaut was took off from the base in 1962 and the first (unmanned) ship to reach the moon was launched there in 1966.

But this cartoon was made in 1953 and none of that had happened yet.

In fact this was made four years before the launch of Sputnik (1957) and eight years before Vostok 1 (1961), so people didn't actually have an image of the Earth taken from space yet.

Dodgers has come up with an elaborate plan to find planet X that's so complex that even he doesn't understand it, and it's pissing him off. They've got to fly a whole lot of turbo miles though, that much seems clear. Also he's really good at drawing dashed lines.

Eager Young Space Cadet has a suggestion. Dodgers ignores his suggestion and comes up with a better one, which is in fact exactly the same: if they follow the other planets from A to Z they'll inevitably run into X along the way!

See, these planets all have giant letters on them, and they're right next to each other, and they're arranged in alphabetical order, so really this will be no trouble at all. It's funny how this cartoon has roughly as much scientific accuracy as a Star Wars movie.

The thing is, Eager Young Space Cadet illustrated his plan by pointing out planets A, B, C, D, E and F flying by outside, so they were going the right way to begin with and they didn't really have to do anything.

Anyway, his plan works and soon they arrive at Planet X.

Oh damn that shot is amazing. How is this not an album cover? Wait, maybe it is an album cover!

Nope, Google Image Search has given me nothing but disappointment.

This shot looks awesome as well. I don't want any more comedy, I just want to see more Xs!

Having successfully found the planet, Dodgers' next job is to go out and stick a flag in it to claim it for Earth. Unfortunately he's knocked on his beak by another ship flying in to land...

It's Marvin the Martian! Not that he had a name yet, that came much later when they decided he was marketable. Apparently Chuck Jones used to call him 'Antwerp', because he looks a bit like an ant and he's a twerp. He also looks a bit like a Roman in basketball shoes, and I never knew why... until now. I just did the research and he's actually supposed to look like the Roman god Mars! So that makes sense.

This was the character's third appearance and up to this point he'd actually been a Bugs Bunny villain. He first showed up in 1948 Looney Tunes short Haredevil Hare, which took place in the present day (well, 1948 I suppose). Scientists shot Bugs Bunny up to the moon in a rocketship just so he could outwit someone other than Yosemite Sam for a change.

Close up!

Turns out that Marvin's brought an A-1 brand disintegrating pistol to disintegrate anyone who claims they've already claimed the planet. Dodgers isn't too worried though, as he's wearing his disintegration-proof vest. In fact he just tells him to fire.

Well, he's dead then. This isn't even a 'pair of eyes blinking in the dust and then he's okay in the next shot' situation, he is an ex-duck.

The disintegration-proof vest survives, but sadly it didn't provide much defence when he got shot in the neck.

Fortunately Eager Young Space Cadet has an Acme-brand integrating gun... and it works! Though Dodgers is furious that he butted in just when he had him where he wanted him, because Duck Dodgers is a dick and gets frustrated by anything that contradicts his conviction that he actually is an awesome space hero.

When Marvin's first showed up in Haredevil Hare he was the one with the sidekick, a Martian dog called K-9, because he needed all the help he could get against Bugs. The dog returned for his second cartoon, The Hasty Hare, but now he's missing! I guess Marvin doesn't need so much help against Daffy. Uh, I mean Dodgers.

Though Dodgers does manage to get the drop on the guy with his own disintegrating pistol!

Unfortunately it's Acme brand, and while it technically does what it says on the box, it brings Dodgers about as much satisfaction as Wile E. Coyote typically gets from his Acme mail order gadgets.

Funny thing is, Marvin had an Acme brand Disintegrating Pistol himself in The Hasty Hare, and it got the job done just fine. I guess a product can change over 400 years though.

Dodgers makes a run for it and Marvin chases him all the way back to his ship.

Fortunately Eager Young Space Cadet is there and he's gotten Marvin a gift for his birthday. Marvin's so happy that he drops the gun and admires his fizzling cylinder for a bit. He must think that it's one of those Uranium PU36 Explosive Space Modulators he's always trying to blow up the Earth with.

He soon learns that it's just an ordinary regular stick of dynamite though. Fortunately it turns out that Dodgers' ship is actually fairly dynamite-proof. Marvin's helmet survives as well, and there's one furious fuzzy little Martian stomping around inside of it after the dust's settled.

He looks so betrayed!

Duck Dodgers television Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Marvin retreats to his own ship and Dodgers decides to send him a message with his Acme Ultimatum Dispatcher pistol. If you stick your head right up to the screen and squint you might be able to see it.

This is a shot from 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind by the way, and it couldn't have been easy for them to film that TV without any flickering. I nearly went with the shot which shows he's got a little model USS Enterprise hanging up in there, to get three science fiction titans in the same image, but this screencap looked better.

Hang on, 1977 was the same year that Star Wars came out. Man, you couldn't keep Duck Dodgers out of cinemas that year.

The ultimatum gun fires a bullet containing a message. Fortunately Marvin can read English and just happens to have an A-1 brand Ultimatum Answerer pistol handy. Hang on, I just realised that all of Marvin's stuff has writing on in English. Even his ship!

Dodgers waits at the window to see what Marvin's bullet contains, but all that's in it is a gunshot. These two should keep their windows closed! Though I suppose if they did then he wouldn't have been able to send a bullet back with a note saying "Ouch!"

So far the score is Marvin 2: Dodgers 0, but Dodgers isn't ready to give up just yet. He decides to spy on the Martian using his Super Video Detecto Set to see what he's up to over there. It might look a bit dated, with its black and white screen, and lightbulbs sticking out of the side, but this thing is so advanced that Marvin's able to shoot him through it.

Dodgers is looking pretty good for a duck that's been shot twice in the head, but now he's pissed off to the point where he's ready to unleash his secret weapon.

It's a whole lot of remote-triggered explosives (made by Acme).

I love the X cloud by the way! I'm less keen on Marvin's ship, as it's a real ugly looking thing. It's fine though, as he gets a different ship in every short it seems. Wait, hang on, weren't the windows on the ship rectangular when we saw the interior?

Oh, maybe the circles are gun ports!

Marvin's got a secret weapon of his own, the Martian Matomic Masher, which looks very different to Dodgers' weapon (it's got a cash register built into it for one thing), but turns out to be basically identical in effect. Now both ships are surrounded by explosives, and they have moments left to negotiate some kind of peace, maybe share the shaving cream atom. I mean I'm not sure the Martians even shave!

But the two of them both of them pull the fire lever with glee and the simultaneous explosions utterly destroy Planet X. Man, we're lucky Wile E. Coyote never ordered one of these from Acme.

All that's left afterwards is a tiny bit of rock, with Dodgers and Marvin somehow both standing on top of it. Dodgers easily overpowers his nemesis, shoving him off into space, and that's it. He's won, the planet's his.

He finishes the episode with his catchphrase, yelling "Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century!" and for once he doesn't immediately screw something up right afterwards. I guess it's kind of hard to top this. Not only are the three of them stranded in an uncharted part of unknown space, without their ships, or food, or land, but now Earth's going to run out of shaving cream!

Personally I'm blaming Eager Young Space Cadet for this, as he could've done a lot more to avoid things escalating to this point. He could've done a lot more in general, as after getting them to Planet X, reintegrating Dodgers and giving Marvin a bomb he just disappeared from the story! Not that Bugs Bunny did any better in his first encounter with Marvin.

Haredevil Hare
This tragic conclusion is actually a homage to the ending of Haredevil Hare, which ended in pretty much the same way, except with the Moon blown up and Marvin hanging off his dog's tail.

Incidentally, if you thought it was hard to breathe 51 miles above Earth, try breathing on no planet at all.

Merrie Melodies That's all Folks!
I want to end all my reviews with this image from now on.

Here's one last useless Looney Tunes fact for you: from 1936 to 1959 the colour of these circles changed each year, so you can tell a cartoon's age from its rings. Duck Dodgers has a certain shade of green circles which indicates that it's a 1952-1953 cartoon.

If you're interested in seeing all the colours, or you're craving more nerdy facts about the Looney Tunes titles, you can check out Dave Mackey's Field Guide.


CONCLUSION

I try to do the research when I'm writing one of these reviews, so I decided to watch a few more Looney Tunes afterwards just to give Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century some context. Then I watched some other cartoon shorts like Tom and Jerry as well just to be thorough. Then I watched some more Looney Tunes...

Funny thing is, out of all the shorts I've seen lately, Duck Dodgers was the only one that really felt short. I think that's mostly because it's got the setup of a longer story. By the time the heroes reach Planet X and they're ready for their battle against Marvin it's halfway through and there's only about three minutes left. And from then on it's all gun jokes.

I get that it was made during the Cold War and it's a tale about how an arms race can ultimately destroy both sides, but it was a bit one-note. Plus there wasn't really any escalation until the end, when Duck Dodgers had finally had enough and let frustration get the better of him. Marvin too! Marvin has the upper hand over Dodgers during the whole cartoon, but the two are pretty evenly matched when it comes to vengeful stupidity, and they both pull the lever to destroy the world and everything they were fighting for. There's no heroes in this story, just co-villains. (Sure Eager Young Space Cadet is more competent and sensible, but his apathy and inaction dooms them all in the end.)

But as Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies go this was one of the better ones I thought. Not '#4 best cartoon of all-time' good, or even '#4 best Looney Tunes' (it's no Duck Amuck or Rabbit Seasoning) but it was decent. I can definitely tell why it stuck in people's minds... I mean the guy yells the title three times. Plus it's got some great animation and some fantastic weird backgrounds, many of them featuring Xs. It's just a shame that it ends just as it's getting started.



COMING SOON
Next on Sci-Fi Adventures, Babylon 5 returns with Epiphanies. No Daffy Duck in this episode, but he'll be back.

Thanks for reading all my words. If you want to leave some words of your own you can place them in the box below, or you can drop by and visit the Sci-Fi Adventures Discord!

5 comments:

  1. I see they've parked next to an original pre-release X-Box in that second shot of Planet X. The controller was obviously too big too get in the same shot.

    Heh. Gaming jokes. Sorry, wrong blog.

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    Replies
    1. This is the future, so that's actually a brand new next gen Xbox, called the 'Original First Classic Xbox XXX'. They added the extra Xs to avoid confusion.

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  2. My memory of this cartoon ends at about the 4-minute mark. Apparently, the trippy backgrounds, the many electric rays, and the lightbulb-based technology of Earth stuck with me. The shooting, not so much.

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  3. "Dr Hi's got a hat too, with a lightbulb on top. I suppose it must be a thinking cap. Either that or the dude's just really into lightbulbs."

    Given that this cartoon comes from the 1950s (a time before microelectronics), I believe all those "lightbulbs" are supposed to be vacuum tubes.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah it seems likely, or some other kind of sci-fi technology, I was half-joking about them all being lightbulbs. They do look more like lightbulbs than vacuum tubes though, with their thin filaments.

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