I’m not going to lie, readers, DuckTales’ fifth episode, Terror of the Terra-firmians!, left me with conflicted feelings. On the one hand, it was a smart, meta outing that wasn’t shy about examining the show’s storytelling conceits. On the other hand, the episode sent mixed messages on skepticism and the process of discovery. We see these things while spending our first real time focused on Huey, rounding out the show’s first in-depth examination of its young protagonists.
The episode starts, inversely, at the end. Or rather, the end of a movie titled The Beast. Huey, unable to get past suspending his own disbelief, points out the unlikeliness of the movie’s body-snatching mole monsters. Webby is incredulous, particularly after discovering that said disbelief extends to the terra-firmians, a race of rock creatures rumored to live deep under Duckburg (as illustrated in Webby’s journal, of course). Lena, living up to her role as an instigator, suggests the only way to find out is to investigate themselves.
Thus, we have our two primary conflicts set up for the episode: Huey and Webby debating the existence of the terra-firmians, and Ms. Beakly and Lena butting heads over Lena’s influence on Webby and the boys, all framed by a treacherous descent through the depths below Duckburg. Also, Launchpad—who for some inexplicable reason was trusted to help Ms. Beakly chaperone the kids—is convinced that mole monsters walk among them, providing our comedic palate cleansers for the episode.
Launchpad’s growing paranoia (and change of heart, after Dewey convinces Launchpad that he himself is a mole monster) is played for laughs, and to great success. I’ve mentioned before that I love Beck Bennett’s Launchpad, and that holds true here, somehow being charmingly affable even while grabbing a pipe as a makeshift bludgeon “just in case.”
Actually, it’s criminal that I haven’t given more praise to the voice cast of DuckTales as a whole. Kimiko Glenn’s Lena slips a hint of pain under the teenage snark, Kate Micucci’s Webby is infectiously exuberant, Danny Pudi’s Huey is, well, Danny Pudi—I mean that in the best possible way as a personal fan of his tenure on Community. That’s not to mention the inspired choice of David Tennant for Scrooge, and the pleasant surprise of Catherine Tate as Magica de Spell. Who should Disney get next to round out this veritable Doctor Who cast reunion? John Barrowman’s getting around these days, I’m sure he’d be up for a guest spot.
Back to Terror of the Terra-firmians!, the episode’s plot of the kids delving deep into the abandoned subway tunnels provides a great framework for examining the character conflicts established early on. After a cave-in blocks their entrance route, Mrs. Beakly separates Lena from Webby and the boys to free the trapped subway train. Mrs. Beakly knows that something is up with Lena, and forbids the girl from seeing Webby again. But Lena, of course, needs to stay close to Scrooge’s family—but we see that her reasons for doing so are conflicted. Clearly she’s helping her aunt to some nefarious end. But she’s also getting something personal from these connections she’s built. Despite being literally connected to her aunt Magica, Lena doesn’t have the family she needs.
Let’s shift gears and look at where Terror of the Terra-firmians! lost me a bit. I’ll start by saying I enjoyed our first deep dive into Huey—stability and surety make him tick, though he’s not without a rebellious side (the half-hearted call that they were heading down into the subway was classic). The problem, as the episode portrays, is that his worldview is myopic. If it’s not in the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, it isn’t a thing. And this is a great point! Limiting oneself to a single source of information keeps one from considering other viewpoints and fosters an “us vs. them” mentality.
The problem is that the sole posited alternative to Huey’s “nerd stuff,” as Louie puts it, is Webby’s story of the terra-firmians the only “evidence” of which exists as scribbles in Webby’s own journal. We’re meant to see this conflict as a demonstration of Huey’s logical side versus the need to be able to embrace the unknown. My problem, however, is that how this conflict is portrayed sends the wrong message regarding skepticism and distrust of experts.
Before the appearance of the terra-firmians, Huey and Webby’s arguments boil down to one of documented evidence versus rumor and hearsay. And Huey’s in the right here, full stop. Until the terra-firmians show up, Webby has nothing beyond anecdotes to offer as evidence. I’m with Huey that burden of proof lies with the person making the extraordinary claim—if somebody wants to convince you that unicorns are real, for example, it’s on them to provide proof. They’re not right just because you will not or cannot disprove the existence of mythical equine creatures.
After actually witnessing the terra-firmians, however, Huey holds fast to the guidance of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, shutting out the evidence before his very eyes that contradicts his worldview. Here’s where Huey falters, and Webby is right in that Huey is refusing to acknowledge what’s right in front of him.
What bothers me about this is that when Webby is proven right when the kids meet their terra-firmian counterparts, only the latter half of the conflict is addressed. Yes, Huey sure learned to broaden his horizons, thank goodness! But this message doesn’t acknowledge that Webby had zero proof of the terra-firmians’ existence in the first place. This ends up delivering a message that seems to say Hey, those dumb old smart people who wrote that book sure were wrong. That true believer showed those so-called experts!
Of course, there is the flip side to consider here. Huey never explicitly dismisses Webby’s account because she’s a girl—DuckTales is a much better show than that. Regardless, plenty of women have had similar experiences to Webby, seeing their testimonies dismissed on technicalities or ignored altogether. Webby’s vindication and Huey’s acknowledgement, from this perspective, are a welcome turn that doesn’t always come in reality. It’s a shame that Webby’s argument relied on hearsay, even though she was proven right in the end.
Wow, that’s a lot, and I didn’t even mention the use of Louie and Launchpad’s commentary as cheeky meta commentary on the show itself. Well, consider it mentioned. This commentary got a bit deep for a review of an episode of a family cartoon, I know, but these things are important exactly because it’s a family show—kids are especially absorbent, as it were, of the media they consume.
Speaking of which, let’s end things on a lighter note. After Launchpad predictably crashed the salvaged subway train, the older of the younglings declared “there it is, Launchpad crashed it.” Kids catch on to patterns quick, no doubt! Next week sees the introduction of a new antagonist in The Infernal Internship of Mark Beaks!
Race Cars, Lasers, Aeroplanes: 3 crushed subway cars out of 4
I didn’t pay much lip service to it above, but the descent through the abandoned subway tunnels was very well done and had some fun moments. The use of various lighting tricks to highlight the tension in specific moments was a plus.
Might Solve a Mystery (or Rewrite History): 2 talking shadows out of 3
I’m a little surprised we got more Lena again so quickly, but it’s a welcome surprise. I’m glad to be proven right in where her character is headed with her increasingly mixed loyalties. The bet at this point is whether Magica is relying on Lena to bring her back from some sort of incorporeal state, or of she’s just communicating with her niece via her shadow. Regardless, who’s betting that Lena and Magica will have an arcane showdown at some point?
Smarter than the Smarties: 1 peer-reviewed thesis and 1 conspiracy theory out of 4 papers
DuckTales continues to prove that a family show doesn’t have to be vapid repetition. Each of these characters is growing by at least some small amount every episode. But man, that “don’t trust the experts, trust the conspiracy theory” message really soured things for me on this front. Don’t contribute to a climate that thrives on misinformation, Disney!
- “That’s exactly what the sheriff told those reckless teens!”
- “Ooh! Do I spy shale?”
- “Have there always been three of them?”
- “Sure, blame the mysterious rebel playing by her own rules.”
- “Well, maybe you can drive the train without crashing it.” “Eh?”
- “Huey’s usually right about nerd stuff.”
- “But who’s pushing the plates, Huey? Who’s pushing the plates?!”
- “So we’re supposed to examine every rock in this tunnel? …that actually sounds pretty fun.”
- “Oh no, he can hear my thoughts.”
- “It’s gone.” “Oh, that’s way creepier.”
- “Everything I’ve seen in a movie is real!”
DuckTales airs Saturdays on Disney XD.
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