Chanelle McCluer thankfully decided to help me tackle the near-insurmountable task of posting about Are You Afraid of the Dark? for an entire month. Here, she reviews "The Tale of the Dark Dragon" from season 2, an episode that emphasizes the importance of recognizing your own inner beauty. That, and the fact that magic can be vanquished by a few tears.
Though I was born a little late to greatly remember this show’s glory days (’91), I grew up on Are You Afraid of the Dark reruns. My afterschool program was run by a woman who liked to shove the kids in front of the TV in the basement so she could spend her time upstairs, chain smoking and watching soaps. She was pure class. We kids always watched Nickelodeon - I enjoyed a lot of programs, but I was terrified when this show came on. I always cowered in the back of the room during the opening credits (I would describe them, but with my subpar writing skills it would just be embarrassing for me to try after Ryne’s brilliant post about them), but by the time the Midnight Society was gathered by the fire this show always managed to draw me in.
The Tale of the Dark Dragon episode begins with Gary approaching the Midnight Society’s meeting place alone, where he is quickly surprised by the group who has planned a bit of a birthday bash for him. The group settles down in front of the campfire to hear the special story member Dave came up with just for Gary, which features Gary’s favorite thing, magic.
Dave’s story opens in a high school library, where we meet Keith Saunders, a nice but awkward boy who was recently in a car accident and now must wear a brace on one leg and suffers a limp. Keith is joined by his friend Mariah - she clearly has a major crush on him, but he doesn’t notice her because she’s a brunette with glasses, and therefore is obviously unattractive. Keith, in fact, has his sights set on Shelly, the popular blonde girl that all the boys at school like. Because everyone knows all blonde girls are popular. I happen to think Mariah is cuter than Shelly, but this is high school and I’m a girl, so what do I know? Shelly happens to be on a break from her boyfriend, though, so Keith heads to the local diner hangout after school hoping for a chance with her. But, when Popular Blonde decides to return to her ex because he mouthed the word "sorry," (everyone knows this is all it takes to get a girl's forgiveness), Keith is down on himself.
Luckily, he suddenly sees an ad for a magic shop selling special potion to bring out the best in a person, which sounds like just what he needs! He visits the shop, which contains all the quintessential magic supplies like fluffy bunnies and big dramatic curtains, opened with a flourish by the quirky shop owner who goes by the name of Mr. Sardo. When Keith asks for the potion, Mr Sardo opens up a small cupboard that looks like something my mom would use to store antiques, and mulls over several bottles before randomly pulling one out. It reminds me of how my doctors pick out medications for me. The potion is also ridiculously expensive, much like doctors. Luckily, Keith here is smart and skeptical, and decides to test the potion by feeding it to the fluffy bunny. . The bunny squeals and then magically transforms from fluffy to sleek furred. I thought he was cuter before, but whatever. Convinced, Keith leaves the shop - unfortunately missing the bunny turn into a monstrous creature as ominous music plays. He also misses out on what may be the best line of the episode, where Mr. Sardo yells “HAROLD” in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of the infamous “Stella” scene from A Street Car Named Desire.
Keith goes home and takes the potion, where he undergoes a short but werewolf like transformation before revealing the apparently better version of himself – I think he could've just gotten a haircut and new outfit, as that's what the potion seems to have done. Oh yeah, and he can now walk like normal - big bonus, though I don't see what's so bad about having a limp. House has a limp, and the ladies love him. I guess things were different in the nineties.
Anyhow, now that Keith is set up with hair gel and a leather jacket, he is magically unrecognizable to Popular Blonde (Shelly) and her (also blonde) friend. Way to perpetuate the dumb blonde stereotype! But wait – Mariah, the brunette, doesn’t seem to recognize him either, though she is aware something is familiar about him. Apparently everyone at this high school is an idiot. Keith tells everyone he is K.C., Keith’s way more awesome cousin, and the entire school eats it up. I guess the audience is supposed to ignore the fact that his inch thick black eyebrows are unmistakable.
Keith is feeling pretty darn good about his newfound popularity, until he wakes up the next day. He finds that his leg brace has magically shown up on his leg again. He also finds an alarming rash on his neck/ chest. As the course of the day goes by, Keith sees the rash is spreading so he throws away the flask. Unfortunately, he is quickly tempted by a phone call from Shelly asking “K.C.” to come over. In a moment of truth, he has to decide between a chance with Shelly and the fact that this potion is doing something strange to him. In typical teenage boy fashion, Keith throws caution out the window and goes for getting the girl.
That night, Keith’s new alter ego, K.C., asks Shelly to the dance and receives a yes and a kiss - she quickly forgets all about boyfriend Gary. He's on cloud nine - until he wakes up the next morning with an abnormal amount of facial hair. I would think this was an after school special on puberty if not for the fact that he's sprouted fangs as well. Maybe is his undergoing a werewolf transformation after all. Keith goes back to the magic shop for advice, where he finds out he was the first person to use the advertised potion. He looks through the potion book with Mr. Sardo and finds a passage about the potion that the magician missed - "before bringing out the best, one must fight the dark dragon from within." Neither Mr. Sardo nor Keith are sure of what this entails, but as Mr. Sardo says, Keith is about to find out.
When Keith returns home, Mariah (brunette) visits just as Keith turns into some sort of (non-werewolf - darn!) monster, aka a very bad face mask that looks like it came from the Halloween version of the 99 cent store. His voice also magically echoes. Keith pushes Mariah away before she sees him, but she's clever - we know this because she wears thick glasses and dowdy clothes. She sees Keith sneak out of his house and follows him to the school. Once inside, Keith takes potion and she catches him writhing around on the floor before turning into"K.C". Keith tucks the potion into his locker and enters the dance, where Shelly is waiting in a dress that appears to be made out of tin foil. You can tell the nineties have only just begun because music reminiscent of the 80's is playing.
But back to the dance - while Keith is enjoying himself dancing, an authority figure comes up to a microphone on the stadium and says it is time to present the award for the best athlete in the school. This is even more preposterous than the other teen shows I've seen where they vote for Homecoming King and Queen in the middle of the dance. Does this actually happen anywhere? Shelly's boyfriend, Gary, wins and uses his speech to let Shelly know "She has first place in his heart." How touching. Shelly ditches Keith, or K.C., for Gary - fickle teen relationships! Now there's something that actually happens at high school!
Luckily Keith doesn't have long to be bummed because Mariah comes in looking like the perfect vision of an 80's bride. Keith quickly recognizes her, and she lets him know she loves him. Okay, then. She is thrilled to now be "a pretty girl like Shelly." I thought she was prettier than Shelly earlier, and if she really wanted to change her look that bad a perm and contacts would've done the exact same thing as the potion without the nasty side effects - which she quickly begins to experience. Keith quickly finds out that Mariah has drank the whole bottle of potion and guiltily explains why he wanted to change as he watches Mariah transform into a beast. He tells her he didn't want to be himself because he just wanted to be normal - not have a limp and a brace and be stared at. He says, "I hate myself. “Wow, strong words for a show on Nickelodeon! Mariah replies, "I don't hate you." In a quick Beauty and the Beast type moment, Keith’s tears fall onto Mariah as she is dying and she suddenly wakes up as herself with no recollection of the night. When asked what happened, Keith says, "I think I beat the dark dragon." The two are now back to themselves, and are a couple.
Cheesy and far-fetched as this episode is, it touched on some deep and dark issues and did so with grace. The "dark dragon" ended up being Keith’s demons - his thoughts of being an outcast with a disability which caused him to hate himself. Really, Keith had no reason to hate himself, and he was so lucky to end up with a sweet girl like Mariah who told him this instead of a superficial girl like Shelly. As someone with health issues, I can't say that I wouldn't accept a magic potion that took my problems away just as Keith did. But, as Keith learned, maybe our thoughts, attitude and how we feel about ourselves affects us more than any physical attributes ever could.