The Dreamstone has been a show sat far in the corner of my mind for a long time. Despite being one of the first adventure series I watched obsessively as a little kid, it seemed to get forgotten as time passed by. With the joys of the internet now at my convinience I decided to finally take a look at the show again. Was I wrong to discard it? Well, yes and no, since the show now obsesses in my mind as one of the most bittersweet pieces of media I've ever seen.
The basic plot revolves around a magic realm called the Sleeping World, that takes the process of dreams (which the residents hand produce themselves) VERY seriously. On one side is the Land of Dreams, where the wizard like Dream Maker creates good happy dreams for the Noops (odd little Jazz Jackrabbit type anthro beings), on the other is Viltheed, ruled by the demonic lizard-like overlord Zordrak, who attempts to corrupt the good dreams of the other side with his ghostly Argorribles, who take the form of nightmares. However what gets in his way is the Dream Maker's special trinket, the Dream Stone, that not only helps send dreams to the Noops but is powerful enough to fight away the Argorribles and protect the sleeping residents. As a result, Zordrak sends his other minions, the Urpneys (clownish human-lizard hybrids) to go over to the Land of Dreams and attempt to steal the Dream Stone. This produces the basic setup for nearly episode, the Urpneys being caught in a sort of Ralph Wolf vs Sam Sheepdog dynamic in which they must attempt to steal the stone from under the heroes' noses, usually via some wacky invention donated by Zordrak's scientist underling Urpgor, almost always ending in comically pathetic failure.
The Urpneys are pretty much the biggest draw of the show, being highly amusing and surprisingly well rounded characters. The delusionally gung ho Sgt Blob and his neurotic lackeys all bounce off of each other wonderfully, and as the show progresses we see more of Urpgor, Zordrak's right hand minion (and punching bag) and the team's narccistic mad scientist. The rivalry between the two divisions is actually more interesting than that between the heroes and villains due to the clearer amount of ambition and contempt between Blob and Urpgor, who both strive to brown nose their usually unimpressed overlord, not to mention the level of personality and humor from them both. Frizz and Nug exist as unwilling patsies to each mission, a great amount of sympathy is strived from them being almost normal guys just unfairly placed in the wrong side of the war, not to mention their amusing savviness to the plot and the frequent cliche dilemmas it produces for them. Zordrak himself is not an active part of the plot outside a few increasingly rare instances, more a sinister presence that pivots most of the Urpney's actions. His sinister characterization adds a wonderfully dark air to the show, even if it mostly feels left to waste, any actual villainy put aside for his 'abusive overlord' shtick. The Urpneys are the villains you follow for most of the show's entirety and put that spotlight to good use.
As for the rest of the show...well...this is where the problems begin. The Dreamstone is a blatant case of having a show reliant on developing an expansive universe and it's inhabitants...and then focusing almost solely on 'the fun part'. The heroes in particular suffer because of this. The writers obviously found more potential with the Urpneys, and struggled to invest any sort of development or even basic characterization into the heroes the large majority of the time, usually only existing for exposition or according to whatever made the Urpneys' plot worked. They didn't even get into the show's humor that much and are pretty much immune to it's trademark slapstick violence, meaning they usually came off as somewhat boring, and at times frustratingly cloying. For all the effort the wonderful pilot episode goes to developing the Noops Rufus and Amberley, they spend far too much time afterwards as somewhat bland secondary characters, which the show struggles to make remarkable enough to work as the lead protagonists (the show never explains why we need them over the omni potent Dream Maker or the huge civilization of super powered Wuts, or even their power house guard dog fish who can fly anywhere).
We have an even bigger core problem concerning the heroes as a result of the Urpneys' sympathetic dynamic as well. Basically the plot of each episode is the heroes stopping the Urpneys giving them bad dreams. Note there doesn't appear to be anything special about these dreams, they don't die from a nightmare, they're more or less just ones you experience in everyday life. This is compared to the Urpneys' own arc of avoiding their evil boss's wrath, which ranges from slapstick torture to DEATH. A bit of skewed priorities is required from the audience here, especially due to how sympathetic the Urpneys are personality wise. There isn't a lot of chemistry between the two sides to appease the grey dynamic either. Frizz and Nug are wimpy pawns who get forced into each mission terrified of the heroes kicking their teeth in, and the heroes...usually do just that. It is only worsened by the fact the Noops are actually a hell of a lot more contemptuous than the villains, paying evil unto evil and smugly inflicting excessive slapstick beatings whenever capable. We know the 'smug hero thrashes outclassed villain' dynamic is hardly rare in slapstick cartoons, but while the likes of Bugs and Tweety could be smarmy little bastards, they at least usually took meticulous care to ensure you thought their antics were karmic and that their foes were getting what they deserved. The Noops on the other hand have all the worst traits of a slapstick hero with little of the good, with a heavy dose of nauseating saccharine and self righteousness on top of it, while the Urpneys rarely even qualify as proper villains. Basically, you will root for the Urpneys for most of the duration.
World building in the show is pretty sparse, at least in the early points of the series. The more surreal cosmic imagery of the show seems something that could have added a unique charm, but remains rather flat most of the time, especially since it's mostly restricted to the heroes, who fail to infect much personality into the matter. It's rather frustrating how many potentially great ideas the show displayed, only to have most of them used half heartedly or put aside after only a brief use. The dream making concept in particular is an interesting gimmick, though practically ignored. The show rarely develops it outside a motive for Zordrak's plans and as standard cutesy goings on for the heroes which are usually a bore to sit through. We actually see a dream all of four or five times in the entire series (as wonderfully trippy those rare instances are). It also comes off kinda unfitting for the level of tension the show tries to insinuate concerning their importance. Nearly any reason to feel value for the heroes' dreams is solely because the story says you should.
You see the recurring problem here, AB-SO-LUTE-LY NOTHING is allowed to take priority over the Urpneys, not the heroes, not the actual main villain, not the wonderfully surreal world around them, not even in terms of stuff that is needed for the core plot to run. It's all just a backdrop to help make with their own entertainment value and 'put upon' characterisation. This really makes the show feel like a waste of potential and of course any odd time the Urpneys' aren't in the spotlight is usually a chore to sit through as a result. This is maybe an unfair statement overall, it does really try to rectify itself, but it's a very slow and gradual process. I can actually rate the show much higher for it's final season alone. They at least do a decent job of ironing out the Noops' 'designated good guy' image and make them as much a part of the show as the Urpneys, and the episodes start to feel more inventive and attempt to bring it's universe to life more. You can tell however that they are still struggling to care about anything above the Urpneys and they are still the driving force of each plot. Definitely don't watch this expecting much of any character development and what not.
It's hard to quite define the genre the show heads for, swaying between dark action and laid back slapstick while often not quite merging the two naturally like many other adventure cartoons do. Note that the skewed dynamic between the heroes and villains is played without a hint of irony, in fact most of the time, it actually tries to take itself semi-seriously. For a show that spends most of it's time focusing on the slapstick of it's incompetent villains, it tends have a rather grandiose air as a result, and it is probably for this reason the more light hearted episodes run better. Again this is something that was played smoother in the later episodes.
Cosmetically, the show is rather lush, especially considering the standard low budget for most British cartoons at this point. The animation varies, but is rather consistently high quality. The first season is provided by Fil Cartoons, who, while noticeably cruder, make up for it by making their lower budget style expressive and 'fun'. Moving Images' work afterwards is more refined, but at the cost of being a bit more generic and 'ugly' in style. The orchestral soundtrack provided by Mike Batt also adds a majestic touch (even if it sometimes seems dissonant to the rather laid back comical plot). You will have 'Better Than A Dream' and 'War Song of The Urpneys' forever engraved into your head. The voice work is impressive with tons of enthusiasm (even if as mentioned, some get a better opportunity to shine than others). A few voices are replaced throughout the show's run, not always the most accurate replacement, though most still do a decent job emitting life either way.
I admit that the way I nitpick the show mercilessly makes me sound like I hate it. Far from it. The show enchants me and I love it's idea, in concept, it's just the final execution of it, even in terms of the core basics of the story, is extremely flawed and uneven. It just felt like the staff were diluting and simplifying everything to an almost ludicrous degree (not to mention overlooking loads of great ideas) for the sake of a simplified slapstick plot with the Urpneys, albeit while still pretentiously playing itself off as a complex adventure story. I could argue Mike Jupp should have looked for a more versatile team that understood his idea in a more rounded sense, but for nearly every bad point about the rest of the show, there was a good one concerning the Urpneys, something that was definitely the unique touch of Gates' team and helps make the show it's own. I will give credit that the team seemed to be catching on to some of the show's flaws by the later points and trying to refine them, but being more than halfway into a four season series, and mostly for core elements they should really have sorted from the very start, it wasn't quite enough to save it. Perhaps the show would have benefited from taking a little longer in production, by which point the team may have had a clearer idea how to play everything out.
If you want to get a taste of what the show can truly offer, I suggest watching the glorious two part pilot, and then skipping over to Seasons Three and Four, from which a far greater attempt at creative rounded episodes begins. After that it might be easier to appreciate the earlier series, which are still pretty damn fun for the Urpneys, but fairly broken and empty in regards to anything else.
Jupp and Gates collaborated for a second project, Bimble's Bucket, which is jarringly similar to The Dreamstone in concept (to the point some elements and character come off as less than shrewd substitutes), albeit more streamlined and retooled to work much more fluidly with the team's comfort zone, almost as if it was second attempt to get the concept working properly now they knew their strengths and weaknesses. Either way if you liked the best bits of the first show, you'll almost certainly like this one. Gates Productions also seemed to adapt elements of the show into their interpretation of The Snow Queen, suggesting they really took to this formula.
All in all The Dreamstone was a brilliant concept that didn't really have the right effort put into it. I do actually hope that one day the show might be among those revived, given the excellent concepts that the original managed to establish and many others it failed to reach the potential of, it still feels like something that could be a true gem with the right care.