90s cartoon The Dreamstone: more than just a cracking theme song

Jamie looks back at a 90s CITV curiosity, and discovers it was a lot darker than he realised...

Art and pop culture serve constantly to remind us that the deepest and liveliest of feelings can be re-awakened by the unlikeliest of stimuli: one bite of a madeleine sent Proust careening backwards through his entire life; a forkful of rat-prepared ratatouille transported the stiff and jaded restaurant critic Anton Ego back to the innocence and bliss of his childhood; the realisation of the long-ago link between a sizzling sausage and a severed pinkie-finger might just have short-circuited Tony Soprano’s brain; and Billy Connolly once felt his juvenile fear centre return with a vengeance after catching a whiff of his long-dead aunt’s scent inexplicably wafting through a doorway in downtown Hong Kong. 

Things like this happen to us, real and fictional people alike, because our sense organs are faulty time-machines wired directly to our brains, the connections so volatile that a stray scent, a half-glimpsed bloom of colour or a distant pitter-patter is all that’s required to take us on a Delorean-style thrill-ride through decades of memories and associations.

Before you even realise what’s happening, you could be laughing at a perfume, running from the colour red, enjoying Mrs Brown’s Boys, or sitting with tears streaming down your face after stumbling across the first season of a long-forgotten early-1990s CITV cartoon series on Amazon Prime video. Which is what happened to, you know… some… guy I know. Not me.

Okay, it was me.  

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The older I get the more I realise that there’s very little difference between a strong hit of nostalgia and a night of heavy drinking. That’s one of the reasons I gave up drinking. Nostalgia’s a little harder to quit.

The Dreamstone is one of those shows that seemed to define my childhood, despite the fact that I now realise I remembered surprisingly little about it beyond its basic premise and set-up: good vs. evil; sweet dreams vs. nightmares; grandfatherly Gandalf guy vs. massive mountaintop monster.

Most of all, though, I remembered the theme song. No small wonder. There aren’t many cartoon series with a theme song scored by the London Philharmonic orchestra, and sung by a man whose voice sounds like heaven itself whipped to the consistency of ice-cream and distilled into the throats of the Pet Shop Boys. Take a bow, Mike Batt.

When I heard that song again – that beautiful, haunting song – it turned me back into a boy. For a few blissful moments I was living in a world re-populated by loved ones long since dead or gone; a world not yet corrupted by the honey-trap of adulthood. By the time The Dreamstone’s title sequence ended, 39-year-old me was a misty-eyed, sentimental wreck; I felt like I’d just walked into a wedding fresh from a funeral. My wife shook her head at me.

‘I have to watch all of this; and the kids need to see it, too,’ I told her, as I sniffled away like a hamster with serious hamster allergies.

My wife rolled her eyes this time. She looked like a human fruit machine.

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‘Kids,’ I shouted, calling my five- and three-year-old sons through to the living room. They arrived so quickly they must have incorrectly divined a promise of chocolate somewhere within the urgency of my tone.

‘Sit down,’ I told them. ‘I’m about to pass the baton of my childhood to you.’

There was a look on their faces that told me they were trying to work out if ‘baton’ was a type of chocolate.

I rewound the episode.

You can probably tell that The Dreamstone debuted a long time ago by my archaic use of the word ‘rewound’. I might as well have said ‘Forsooth, verily did I wind back the ribbon’.

1990. Christ, I’m old.

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I was intrigued. Would the old magic survive a re-watch of a whole episode? A season? Would my kids be just as bewitched as I’d been thirty years ago, or would its ancient styles prove too creaky for their contemporary tastes?

I pressed play.

Showtime

I’d remembered the broad strokes, now to fill in the finer details.

The Dreamstone of the show’s title is a shiny, diamond-like MacGuffin that’s integral to the work of the Dream Maker, the jovial half-Gandalf, half-Dumbledore, and all-round good-guy who rules over the Land of Dreams. He’s voiced by John Franklyn-Robbins, but Classic Who Doctors Pertwee, Baker, Davison and Baker were each at one point or another considered for the part.

It’s the Dream Maker’s responsibility to ensure that the Noops – a bunch of plodding, furry green teddy bears – have sweet and pleasant dreams. The planet’s dreams are all made in the Dream Maker’s dream factory, a sort of magical meth lab. Apropos of nothing, the Dream Maker has a pet fish. Called Albert. Who flies.

The old wizard is assisted in his alchemy by the day-dreaming douche bag Rufus, and the wide-eyed Amberley, both Noops, along with a posse of magic-leaf-riding forest creatures that look like they’ve just crawled out of Jim Henson’s reject pile.

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So far, so idyllic.

Unfortunately, over in the Land of Nightmares, deep inside the Black Mountain of Viltheed, sits the 100-feet-tall purple dragon-beast Zordrak, the Lord of Nightmares, whose continuing mission is to unleash an unending horde of nightmares upon the Noops. Before he can accomplish this, first he must seize and destroy the nightmare-repelling dreamstone. He attempts this in every single episode. Fortunately, Zordrak is spectacularly bad at his job. Next to Zordrak, Dick Dastardly is both a world-class pigeon fancier and a champion race-car driver.

The big guy makes the classic baddy mistake of hiring completely incompetent henchmen. There’s definitely a gap in the market – from here to Eternia – for a really world-class henchmen recruitment agency (and henchwomen, my marginalised evil sisters) to stop them from using this one: “Want to pay lip service to your evil dreams, but never actually achieve them? Then call now: we’re the bumbling nincompoops you’ve been looking for.”

Zordrak’s henchmen are the Urpneys, a bunch of wide-eyed, mottle-skinned morons with a penchant for wacky schemes and a weakness for fascism. Their boobery is facilitated, nay weaponised, by a green, many-armed, quasi-Nazi scientist called Urpgor, who spends his days building all manner of useless shite ripped straight from the ACME catalogue: a giant metal bird that spits out explosive death eggs; a knitted hot-air-balloon; shrink rays; invisibility rays… the list goes on.

It’s never clear why Zordrak doesn’t just walk to the Land of Dreams and murder everyone. It’s equally unclear why the Dream Maker doesn’t keep his dreamstone under 24-hour armed guard. Or at least install a burglar alarm. Could it be that the forces of good and evil relish the challenge that the other represents, and, indeed, need the struggle to cement their relational moral identities? After all, Zordrak’s name was originally supposed to be an anagram of ‘Satan Himself’. Could it be that good needs evil in order to exist, and vice versa? Or could it be that I’m imbuing an animated series about an old hippy and his magical flying fish with rather more depth and complexity than it deserves or requires? Nah.

One thing’s for certain: the cartoon makers of yesteryear didn’t shy away from depicting murder: actual, cold-blooded murder. In the opening moments of the very first episode, Zordrak casually tosses an Urpney into a pit of lobster-like monsters, who tear the little guy to pieces and devour his shredded flesh. Welcome to childhood with the safety off. Not even Skeletor actually murdered someone, and he was a complete asshole. Respect.

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The grandmaster of evil Christopher Lee was originally considered for the role of Zordrak. Nevertheless, voice actor Gary Martin – who geeks everywhere will remember best as the voice of Epideme in the Red Dwarf episode of the same name – does a sterling job of bringing the rage-filled, hoarse-voiced behemoth to life. Zordrak is very scary. Well, at least until you realise just how ineffectual he is, and start to feel a bit sorry for the vast, purple bastard. Maybe his father withheld affection or something?

[Zordrak’s at his most terrifying in the episode where he reverts to his gaseous form and prepares to enter and hijack Amberley’s dozing body, uttering the retrospectively horrendous line: ‘The perfect subject; the perfect combination. Insignificant and unconscious.’ Not cool, Zordrak.]

Even Rufus, the ostensible good guy of the show, does a wee bit of murdering. When Amberley is kidnapped and taken to Viltheed, Rufus goes to save her. He discovers that she’s been turned to stone. Racked with grief and guilt, he starts to cry, whereupon he learns that his tears of love have the power to break the spell and release her. As they’re escaping, Rufus tosses a (literally) petrified Urpney into the mutant-lobster-pit to create a diversion. Since by this stage Rufus knows that the petrification spell can be reversed, our boy’s a stone cold killa, son. Again, respect. Skeletor’s a pussy.

Worse than all that, it’s clear that the Urpney’s aren’t working for Zordrak of their own free will. He’ll clearly kill them all if they won’t acquiesce to his insane lust for jewellery. If the good guys were worth their salt they wouldn’t stop until they’d liberated the poor Urpneys from their terrifying, miserable lives of enslavement and arbitrary murder. At the very least have a telethon for them or something?

Mind you, when you really think about it, the Noops aren’t exactly free, either. Their good dreams are explicitly stated to be a reward for working hard all day, i.e. an opiate for the masses. Mike Batt’s beautiful song even has a lyric that tells us: ‘I dream in colour, cause I live in black and white.’ I guess the Noops need their dreams to make their life of servitude more palatable in the Dream Maker’s benign dictatorship.

Oh my God.

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If Zordrak captured the dreamstone and stopped the flow of good dreams… if his nightmares got through and gave the Noops a shake, a reality check, encouraged them finally to see their invisible chains… they might actually overthrow that asshole wizard and break free from the ceaseless drudgery of their hard capitalist toil; recognise the Urpneys as their brothers and sisters. With true freedom in hand, they could make their own dreams, right there, in the waking world.

‘What do you think of The Dreamstone, kids?’ I asked them. ‘Good cartoon?’

My eldest prepared to pass judgement. He raised his fist in the air in the manner of a Roman emperor. Would his thumb point up, or stab down? (Yes, I taught him how to express his preferences in this way. You should try it with your own kids. It lends an unexpectedly dramatic air to choosing breakfast cereal in the mornings.)

Down went his thumb.

‘I agree,’ I said, nodding gravely. ‘Thatcher’s got a lot to answer for.’

Bloody good theme song, though.

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‘You guys want to watch Adventure Time now?’

Sweet dreams, everybody.

PS: Check out the Urpney Song on YouTube, a genuine release featuring the musical talents of Ozzy Osborne and Billy Connolly. 

The Dreamstone is currently available to Amazon Prime Video subscribers, alongside these other recommended kids’ TV shows.