How to Train Your Dragon 2 looks, at least from the early trailer, like it is willing to take risks with the series formula. Hiccup is older in the trailer, and the rest of his friends have aged accordingly. Older characters leads to dealing with more serious stuff, and can either be a sign of a series maturing, or attempting to wear the superficial coloring of maturity to appease a knee-jerk, psuedo-sophistication which sees “dark” and “serious” as synonymous with “quality.” Who knows how the movie sequel will do, but its predecessor was a real pleasant surprise.
What does all this have to do with this new DVD release of episodes of the Dragons TV series? Not much, except to point out that, as of June 13th (when HTTYD2 comes out) the continuities will officially diverge. The TV series has followed closely from the original film and the subsequent direct-to-video releases. And since the Dragons series will be continuing on for at least two new seasons, released directly on Netflix starting in 2015, it will be interesting to see where the series goes, since the characters on the Dragons series neither age, nor really change, even as the world around them is in flux.
Dragons: Defenders of Berk Part 2 contains the last 10 episodes of the second season of Dragons, telling the story of young Vikings, led by resourceful (if completely non-Vikingy) Hiccup, who helps turn the age-old enemy of the Vikings, dragons, into non-threats, and even loyal companions. He flies with the loutish Snotlout, the bookish Fishlegs, braindead twins (and the show’s most reliable comic relief) Ruffnut and Tuffnut, and the beautiful but very tough Astrid. Together, they form a kind of air patrol for the remote island of Berk, and of course, since this is a cartoon aimed largely at young audiences, their dragons cause just as much trouble as they solve.
The second season of Dragons (renamed to Defenders of Berk, from the previous season’s subtitle Riders of Berk) has numerous aspects of story continuity, mostly revolving around antagonisms between the Berkians, the Outcast Vikings, and the large armada of the fearsome (and deranged) Dagur.
Taken on their own merit, the episodes in this collection are pretty good. There’s none of the awkward staging that marred some of the early episodes from the first part of the season. After 40 episodes, reliable formulas that the show employs have become evident: tensions between “dragon riders” episodes (almost always either Astrid and Snotlout, or the twins butting heads), “dragons in peril” episodes (depending on how you want to count, there’s at least three of those here), and “foiling plans of outsiders who attack Berk” episodes.
None of this is bad. But, by the end of the 40th episode (the finale of the season, and a decent piece of work) these same scenarios feel like they’ve been played just about enough. I’ve seen enough of Hiccup trying to balance loyalty to his friends with his position as leader of the group. I’ve seen enough of Snotlout stupidly hitting on Astrid, and being rebuked. And while there is a definite forward movement in the overall plot trajectory (Alvin and the Outcasts have some leadership shifts, Dagur makes several bids to capture Hiccup’s Nightfury) the characters themselves remain static.
Two examples demonstrate where the show began to go, and stopped. In one episode, when trying to help out a hurt wild dragon, Ruffnut, after accidentally bonding with the trapped dragon (a development, it should be noted, that parallels Tuffnut’s night in a tree making friends with a Typhoomerang earlier in the season) makes a sacrifice that dramatically changes her appearance, a sacrifice which is completely ignored in the rest of the series. In another episode, Astrid scares Snotlout off from his usual romantic overtures by pretending to give in to them; he has no idea what to do with her now that he’s caught her. Next episode, he’s right back to the same tricks.
There are arguably good reasons for keeping character development in a TV show static, and sometimes I do get sick of over-serialization, meaning I can’t just sit down with an episode of a series I’m interested without checking out hours of backstory first. Anime in particular demonstrates the way to fail at this kind of storytelling, where just missing a single episode can sometimes make the rest of a series completely incomprehensible. And it does not make Dragons bad that it doesn’t respect serial continuity. But it does make it, weirdly, feel more old fashioned than the first season, and less successful.
That is, until the final episode where relationships between Vikings and their enemies are clarified, the Whispering Death dragon which has been a constant antagonist for the season is dealt with in a satisfying manner, and some real changes are made. It may just be throat clearing to have a clear deck for next season (and, indeed, no conflict is set up at the end of this season to pay off in the next, as was Mildew’s betrayal at the end of last season) but it was nice to have real, permanent changes. There’s a balance that can be struck between serial and episodic storytelling. And maybe 2015’s season on Netflix will strike a finer balance. As it stands, Dragons: Defenders of Berk Part 2 is a decent continuation of quite a decent series, but one that had the potential to be much more.