Castles and Cauldrons reminds of me of three previous Odyssey episodes, Heatwave, The Prodigal, Jimmy, and Family Vacation. In Heatwave Jack and Oscar find Digger Digwillow (whose initials are pretty much D&D) playing out in the woods. Digger is swinging around a branch as a sword against an imaginary enemy, all the while talking to himself. Jack says, “Sounds like he’s having a sword fight with a wicked knight.” Digger later calls Jack and Oscar “knights from an evil realm.” Digger even gives himself a new name. He says, “I am the keeper of these lands. My name is Madrigal, knight of the king’s table.” So it’s pretty clear the AIO team doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with pretending to be someone else for a game. But there is a significant difference with Castles and Cauldrons. In Heatwave Mr. Whittaker is Digger’s teacher, not Len. According to Digger, “Mr. Whittaker says there’s a right way to use your imagination and a wrong way. The wrong way is when you let it run away with you, and it gets you in trouble.” And sometimes it gets you in a lot of trouble, like when Len is your teacher. If you’re looking for the nuanced counterbalance to the strong message presented in Castles and Cauldrons, it’s already there in Heatwave two albums earlier. In fact both shows were penned by the same writer, Paul McCusker.
This episode is almost an upgraded version of The Prodigal, Jimmy. Instead of drifting away to play Zapazoids without his parents’ permission with a gang of friends who don’t have his best interests at heart, Jimmy slips off to play Castles and Cauldrons with a cousin who takes pleasure in manipulating him. But when he finally comes to the end of his rope, his father is ready to welcome him home again. Instead of being peer pressured into wasting his money, this time Jimmy is pressured into getting involved with the occult. But as much as this episode is trying to deal with spiritual warfare, it gets a little bogged down by focusing so heavily on role-playing games. In the original intro to this episode, founder of Focus on the Family Dr. James Dobson talked at length specifically about the dangers of “fantasy role-playing games.” He objected to the promotion of “magic and mysticism” in these games and warned of “demons and Satan worship.” He ended by emphasizing again that kids should resist playing any of these games when their friends ask them to. But Dobson’s talk has been removed from the new version of this episode and replaced by a short, generic warning by executive producer Dave Arnold. Dave speaks for about ten seconds, compared to Dobson’s two minutes, and merely mentions the intensity of the episode and advises kids to listen with their parents. This is a positive change because it helps to soften the stance this episode takes, removing a section which seems to imply that all RPGs are inherently evil.
It’s summertime and the Barclays are having another staycation. Except this time George Barclay doesn’t come up with any fun activities to do so Jimmy has to find some on his own. His cousin Len arrives just in time for that. Len introduces him to a game with plastic swords, which is nothing new from Jimmy’s perspective. In the episode Family Vacation Jimmy suggests to his new friend Ted that they play “space aliens” using their brooms as lightsabers. Ted and Jimmy decide instead to play in the woods as the biblical characters of David and Jonathan battling against the Philistines. In Castles and Cauldrons instead of playing Jonathan, Jimmy is now Jon-Del the Apprentice. And they’re fighting the Black Monks of Benthrid instead of the Philistines. Jimmy’s first real clue that something weird is going on is when the clash of their plastic swords suddenly sounds like real swords. The Black Monks come with their own lifelike sound effects too, making grunts and growls more like monsters than humans. But it isn’t until the creepy victory incantation that Mr. Whittaker senses something dark coming over Odyssey. This is a powerful moment, but it would have been better if Whit had maintained this level of spiritual sensitivity for the Blackgaard saga or Novacom.
Len gets more and more controlling as they dive deeper into the game. He forbids Jimmy from telling anybody about their secret, especially his parents. Then when Jimmy objects to lighting candles because he finds them creepy, Len responds, “Jimmy thinks they’re creepy. Jon-Del likes them.” Len is the game master after all, so apparently he can make Jon-Del do whatever he wants. Ideas like control and power are expertly explored in this two part episode. Jimmy is controlling Jon-Del, who is controlled by Len/Luthor, who is opening himself up to the influence of evil spiritual forces. (By the way, the names seem like references to Superman. Luthor could be a reference to Lex Luthor and Jon-Del could reference Superman’s father, Jor-El.) Meanwhile, Len is also trying his hand controlling Donna’s cat and talks on and on about gaining access to power, real power, like the power to move things without touching them. He sounds a little like Nicholas Adamsworth from the episode The Power in Album 17. Len is so attached to his power that he runs away from Mr. Whittaker as fast as he can after meeting him. This is another telling moment which is well done. Len says that Whit gives him the creeps, the final nail in the coffin proving that Len is playing the villain. If you’re not a friend of Mr. Whittaker’s, you must be up to no good. But Jimmy is still in denial. Somehow after all he’s experienced he thinks Whit would be perfect to help them in the game to escape the spell of the Wizards of Kith. But Len tells the truth when he says that Whit would try to stop the game. It’s a little disappointing that Jimmy would still participate in the game after that, but apparently the peer pressure is too strong for him.
After hammering home the message that fantasy role-playing games are all bad, Mr. Whittaker makes a reasonable concession. He says, “Some of the role-playing games may be silly and harmless. But a few of them are more than that. They start off innocent enough, then with time they turn into something dangerous.” He goes on to say that people who play these games can let loose demonic forces in their lives, but admits, “Not all kids will be like that.” This episode is valuable in that it challenges you to re-evaluate the seemingly harmless entertainment you regularly ingest without a second thought, but its message about RPGs is a bit muddled. Not only does it misrepresent what a typical RPG entails, but for the majority of the episode it comes across as overly reactionary instead of giving a balanced view of the subject. As a result this episode is frequently cited by former listeners as an unhappy memory which taints the whole show for them. But to be fair, you cannot hear Castles and Cauldrons in isolation from the rest of Adventures in Odyssey. Countless other episodes see nothing wrong with live action role-playing. It’s only when things go too far that there’s a problem. If only this episode had reflected that a little better. On the other hand, Castles and Cauldrons does do a great job offering spiritual insight and exploring the dangers of viewing the occult as a harmless game. It gets 4 out of 5 stars.