After a lengthy hiatus, DuckTales returns to answer one of it’s most intriguing, lingering questions: “What Ever Happened To Della Duck?” Now, it’s doubtful that this episode will being a direct, cynical version of the film that the episode title is cribbing from. But the episode does have a tough task ahead of it: it has to explore exactly what did happen to Della after recklessly rocketing off into space, how despite all the money Scrooge spent, he failed to find her on the closest planet to Earth, and, most importantly, define Della as a character for the audience. Who is she, exactly? Will she “fit” in with the interplay of the character dynamics so far? Does she seem like the kind of character who would give birth to the rambunctious nephews that we’ve seen up till this point?
Some of television’s strongest episodes focus on one single character trapped in dire circumstances and overcoming them with skills, ingenuity, and pluck (off the top of my head I’m thinking of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s excellent “4,722 Hours”). Now you can add DuckTales’ to that list. The multi-year saga of Della’s lengthy moon-stay is thrilling, tragic, powerful, and defining. The script, written by Madison Bateman and Colleen Evanson, gets to the heart of Della as a character even before the title appears on screen. After crashing onto the moon from the lighting storm, Della’s leg is trapped under some of the wreckage. Finding some convenient Gyro-invented Oxy-Chew gum (which provides air, water, and nutrients*), she tries to escape, but as a another piece of wreckage bears down on her, she comes to the terrible conclusion of what must be done, particularly after staring at a picture of her unhatched sons, herself, Scrooge, and Donald. Her whole approach to this truth is to simply kick at the wreckage and mutter, “Aw, phooey.” Cut to: two months later, with a robot-legged Della staring up at the distant Earth, fully determined to get back home to her boys.
It’s an absolutely shocking moment, and for at least two-thirds of the episode, similar moments to that do not let up: moments of triumphs and success followed by tragedy and heartbreak. They start off low-key hilarious, with Della simply attempting to jump back home, battling an off-screen bug monster, and being annoyed that the terrible-tasting gum has yet to lose its flavor. It’s broken up with melancholic drawings of what her kids may look like, more notches drawn on her “calendar,” and the tedious passage of time. After nine months, Della’s hair is longer, but her spirit isn’t broken. She tries to spell out a (hilariously long) message with spare parts, then use a “$,” but two dust-ups with the Moon-mite ruin those plans. Every failure hurts to watch, especially coupled with those interstitials announcing how much time has actually passed. And through it all, Della never gives up.
Paget Brewster provides Della with an absolute pitch-perfect revelation of the character, who, without even meeting them, seems to embody traits of all three of her sons: she has the gabby, talkative cleverness of Louie, the blind, adventurous spirit of Dewey, and the overly-intelligent ambitions of Huey. Her next plan is to literally rebuild the rocket. She also has Donald’s quick-to-anger attitude: in reading a smarmy comment left in the owner manual by Gyro, she tears it up and stomps on the remains, Donald-style. Of course, without the manual, she utterly blows rebuilding it, in a very funny montage sequence. She then re-tapes up the manual, and we’re hit with the next sudden, distressing blow: another six whole years before she’s done building it. It’s a success, but, god, the time.
This is then followed by a series of up-and-down, ironic twists that hits you in the gut. The rocket ignition works but the engine runs on gold. Della searches for gold on the moon, but it’s another four whole years before she realizes there isn’t any. A loosen tooth from the gum chewing is actually gold, but right then the Moon-mite attacks and destroys the ship. Yet when the creature almost takes Della’s life... laser beams fire at it off-screen. Lieutenant Penumbra and General Lunaris suddenly appear, two moon alien characters that come dangerously close to derailing the momentum of this episode. It’s not that they’re bad characters per se, but they bring a whole ‘nother vibe to things; the episode has to switch on a dime from the tragicomedy of Della’s solitary, desperate survival to the mysteries and interactions of these aliens and their own battles with the Moon-mite. The episode lampshades this, with Della wanting to rush through the “we hate each other but now we’re best friends” part of the relationship between her and Penumbra, but it can’t escape how much of a turn this part of the episode takes.
But it quickly swerves back into more thematic resonant territory, as a final battle between Della and the Moon-mite reveals that the creature has a child, and all that ship-destroying was mainly to feed it. Admittedly, there is a certain... convenient, “writerly” hollowness to the reveal, but again, Brewster’s acting, along with Tanner Johnson’s tight direction (which, to be clear, has been stellar throughout this episode, especially of those various full-frame isolation shots and the brutal cuts to those interstitials) sells it. And you can’t help but get a lump in your throat as Della sings that Moon-theme melody to the upset young Moon-mite, the same one she would sing to her boys. It could be cheesy in any other context, but the episode completely sells it. Even after, there’s a brief moment where Della has to come to terms with maybe, just maybe, she has to live on the moon forever, away from her kids. But the reveal of the city, adorned with gold, provides hope once again for the undaunted mother. It’s clear then that Lunaris has ominous plans for Della, which means the introduction of these moon people are for another, future-episode purpose. That’s fine. “What Ever Happened To Della Duck?” answers its own question with brilliant, devastating, hopeful entertainment, while also placing Della perfectly within the pantheon of the show’s animated take of the Duck universe.
- *The episode, smartly I would say, uses the gum to bypass the need to have Della search for food, water, and air, to focus on the escape attempts.
- I like that it’s about a year before a spaceship passes by the moon (at the inconvenient time the moon mite causes a dust storm). That suggest it took time to fund/build the first couple of ships to search for Della. It’s a small detail but an important one.
- The episode doesn’t make it clear why the video transmissions weren’t reaching Earth, but we can chalk it up to them simply not working.
- What are some other “lone survivor” episodes out there? They’re always a treat, even in not-great shows!