A new series is upon us, readers, and we’re playing by ear. Let us see where that takes us.
Awakening (Part 1)
Fun fact: for the longest time there was only one way to a home video release of this show. And that means was a tape that had the first five episodes put together as a kind-of sorta feature film. Well, perhaps (as you’ll see) it’s more accurate to say that the beginning of the series was written as a film and then broken up into five parts for television. Either way, the important bit to note is that the script was written by Michael Reaves, who wrote the most underrated film in the Batman canon that I was geeking out about a few days ago. The point is this is part of the reason Batman The Animated Series feels like such a direct precursor to Gargoyles and also it’s me reassuring you that there’s some quality cartooning about to happen.
We open in New York City with the mother of all catastrophes, which you know is a big deal because the various pedestrians have all stopped to give a shit about it (some days I think I should stop picking on NYC but then I think nah, all the TV shows are set there and also they have semi-reliable public transit and Stephen Colbert and those tasty black and white cookies, they can fuck off). But I digress. There’s rubble falling from an enormous skyscraper, and the cops are all completely baffled as to what’s going on because WEATHER IS HAPPENING and nobody can call inside to see about roof security or something.
The point of this scene is to introduce audience-viewpoint character Elisa Maza, who’s basically the “intrepid reporter” archetype except that her actual job title is detective, which means that when things start going bad she has access to a handgun and full combat training alongside all that ill-advised but well intentioned snooping. Elisa is awesome. She notices deep gouges in some of the debris, and we all pretend we don’t know where it came from like we didn’t see the title of the show coming in.
That fades out to both our second title and our second in media res style scene, which this time centers on some scenic Scottish bloodshed 1000 years before the story proper (if you ever forget the timeline of the series, just look hard and think “shoulder pads”). There is a castle (Castle Wyvern, just to save exposition time) under siege, because it’s Tuesday something something Scottish Play. Things seem dire until sunset, when the stone gargoyles atop the parapets shed their trappings and become flesh and blood creatures (yes you really saw that). This is essentially more setup, and it’s interesting to note the way the animation plays its cards in this regard: the gargoyles that will end up in the main cast all have pupils and decidedly more animated, human features than the rest of the clan. That’s how you know when we’re introduced to Goliath and the three junior cadets, as it were, who will become Hudson (who is so old the Scottish accent uniquely permeated his bones), Brooklyn, Lexington, and Broadway. It is also the first of many Broadway-centered “heeeeeee’s fat!” jokes, so buckle in for that.
Stray additional notes: that is a well stocked as fuck refugee encampment, no I don’t know why there’s a gargoyle dog, that is disconcertingly jaunty music even if the battle is technically a win, and there’s a really nice bit of visual storytelling in seeing said dog (Bronx)’s claws dig through stone, answering Elisa’s question for us.
Oh, and the one with obviously-not-suspect red eyes is Demona. I have a lot of feelings about her, most of them involving keening sounds of despair that only occasionally end in the tender touching of my computer screen.
But hark! All is not well in Castle Wyvern, since there’s a fair amount of prejudice amongst the humans (and notably, the Princess…who seems to be in charge? But her uncle is a king somewhere? So…she has her own castle but is still a princess? I’m possibly overthinking this) in regards to the non-human creatures keeping their heads off of pikes on the regular. The captain of the guard is the only notably Not a Dick one, which is. It’s sure a thing, isn’t it. And finally, Goliath and Demona are lovers in addition to being captain and second-in-command, and you should be picking up a serious Xavier-and-Magneto vibe right about now. This will in no way define their relationship in future, everything will be fine.
We’re going to be talking about Demona a lot in future, but I want to take a moment to sort of appreciate the softness she shows toward the quartet of young gargoyles. She might be quick to anger, already vocally a gargoyle supremacist, but it’s important to remember these moments now where she was on something of a teetering point, when her protective affection for her clan and her love for Goliath was stronger than her hatred for humans.
Oh, also gargoyles heal their wounds when they turn to stone during the day. We assume you’ve noticed this and do not need dialogue to confirm it, continuing the show’s proud tradition of assuming grade school students understand nonverbal communication.
So there’s a traitor in the castle who’s giving the advancing army inside tips, and Goliath is coincidentally being lured away. Equally coincidentally, our four Future Important Gargoyles have just gotten in trouble for riling up the townsfolk, and they’ll be down in the heavily fortified rookery being grounded (and thus out of the battle to come).
And wouldn’t you know it, Captain Mc Mutton sabotaged all the weaponry and let the invaders in because he felt excluded from the human members of the castle; he intended to have the gargoyles spared but isn’t really fussed enough to take a mace to the face for the cause. And so Goliath and his companion-who-will-be-Hudson (look, I like the idea that gargoyle society developed individual assignations purely for the convenience of interfacing with humans and see no need for it within their own society, that’s neat worldbuilding and all, but it is very hard to describe in recap form) return to find the castle decimated, the humans gone, and all the gargoyles in rubble.
It’s not Disney without a rousing round of offscreen genocide! And because the victims were made of stone, they get away with showing a lot of mutilated corpses. I was not kidding when I called this the forefather of Gravity Falls.
As first episodes go it’s pretty damn strong, though the prologue with Elisa ends up dangling awkwardly as a result of the original pacing (normally if you started with a frame like that you would bookend the episode with it – this just makes up by having the most ridiculously long “next on” segment I have ever seen). But it establishes all of our major (gargoyle) players, has a strong dramatic hook in the human/gargoyle tension and manages to seed some things that will be relevant dozens of episodes down the line from now. That, and the beautiful use of color almost evokes an oil painting of a historical battle – the colors are all over great, even if the character designs are sort of terminally 90s with their boxy shoulders and square jaws.
I’m gonna leave that “angel of the night” thing alone, by the way. Keith David has suffered enough.
Awakenings (Part 2)
Oh hey, the opening! Enjoy that lovely brass instrumental, because for the most part you’ll be getting a shortened version with expository monologuing by Goliath.
We open back on the destroyed castle and that really cringeworthy line, before Goliath gathers up his few remaining clan members and swears revenge. Meanwhile in captured refugee land everything is terrible, except for the painfully blond kid in an entire landscape of brunets and redheads who’s there to be the cartoon equivalent of Steven Spielberg’s red-coat-wearing-girl. DO YOU NOT FEEL THE WEIGHT OF POIGNANT INNOCENCE CRUSHED NEATH THE VIOLENCE OF PREJUDICE, VIEWERS?
In the cave of plot development the Princess and the Magus are being weighed as war prizes of sorts, and I’m pretty sure the deeply uncomfortable vibe I’m getting here is intentional? Likewise, there’s an uncommented on but sort of beautiful aspect to the writing of these flashbacks where almost none of the characters are named outside of their roles, lending a half-mythic, half fairytale sort of feel to the proceedings. Once again, it does not make things easier on my end. There’s a bit where the token TIME PERIOD ILLITERACY reference comes in, which leads to the Enemy Captain (Hakon, but I barely remember that so I don’t expect you to) burning a page from the Magus’ book. Tragically it is a page of Plot Solving, but we’ll come back to that.
The gargoyles arrive before anything too heinous can go down, and there’s a whole “taking on the camp” sequence that takes the time to reestablish our main five in terms of their combat attitudes: the old, studied veteran; the one who likes food, the dog, and so on. This is functional in plot terms and does well enough on the character end, though the main purpose seems to be in giving some smoother animation to each individual rather than trying to create the impression of a grand battle. Things are over pretty quickly, but the Magus is under the impression that he is in an 80s slasher movie and a female character wandering offscreen is as good as signing her death warrant; overcome with grief, he curses all the gargoyles but Goliath into permanent stone.
While you think about that slightly forced contrivance needed in order to keep the plot moving (if you want to excuse it one might say that it’s quite Shakespearean, as many of his plays likewise relied on characters making supremely dumb assumptions for the sake of tragedy), sit back for a minute and soak in how freely they bandy about the word “death” here. It has weight and context, and we heard some pretty brutal squishing sounds last episode as a few guards were dropped to their deaths. This isn’t to suggest that there’s anything gratuitous is going on – rather, consider it my amazement that this is happening in the same year that the butchered Sailor Moon dub would first go on the air (to say nothing of the anime boom that would follow).
Goliath is off rescuing the princess, only to come back to a real final toe-stubbing on the day. The Magus can’t reverse turning all the gargoyles to stone, since that page’s plot relevancy made it a real homing beacon for that fire earlier. Now, it seems, Goliath is at last alone. Which is a lovely line reading from Keith David in an episode where’s mostly called upon to do a lot of growling and roaring and general battle sounds, but I’m really bringing it up so that y’all will bookmark it in your mind. This concept of loneliness versus community is central to the show, and the context of what makes one alone and in what sense that word applies will see countless permutations in episodes to come. For now, just know that it ends in Goliath asking the Magus to turn him to stone as well (oh, and also the Magus and the Princess will be taking care of all those unhatched eggs. Put that waaaaaaay in the back of your mind). Goliath is, of course, frozen in the position of the famous statue “The Thinker,” a rumination on man’s intellect and form and so on and so forth. If you hadn’t noticed before, he’s the philosopher of the group.
Don’t worry though, the spell has one of those loopholes that fails to account for the forward march of human development! The gargoyles are only set to be encased in stone until such time as “the castle rises above the clouds.” That’s our cue to skip forward to “present” day and meet David Xanatos, a man I can sum up for you in one screenshot.
Alright, but really, Xanatos gets an excellent introduction in this scene: he’s fit enough to go sprinting all over an ancient castle like it ain’t no thing, he has money to spare and confidence to back up what one can only call schemes even from the start. He is also accompanied by my favorite character, Owen Burnett, whose job it is to side-eye Xanatos’ plans and then ultimately facilitate them whilst maintaining a glorious monotone. He is the glorious latter day mixture of Anthy Himemiya and Daisuke Jigen, and I fully intend to stop these recaps now and again to check in with how he’s doing. Analyst indulgence, if you will. Also he is carrying a cellphone in 1994 that is not the size of his head, in case the audience needed more confirmation as to how bafflingly rich and ahead of the technological game his employer is.
Being a practical man, Xanatos figures the easiest thing to do would be to disassemble it and set it atop his enormous above-the-clouds skyscraper. And my, what a drab contrast NYC makes, doesn’t it? Painted up all in greys with uniform buildings, lit below by street lights but entirely lacking the vivaciousness of the Scottish sets.
Xanatos’ plan is a hit, bringing the surviving gargoyles back to life with the angriest yawns ever recorded. And our ominous billionaire is sweet as pie bringing them in, explaining what was going on and just how fascinated he was and how he just wanted to see if the stories were true. There’s some lovely layered character work going on in there – his icy “don’t disappoint me” when he’s up on the tower alone, his almost childish but ultimately private glee when his plan works out. Jonathan Frakes is often best in show when the series turns the spotlight on him, and he’s got an amazingly strong grip on a very complex being from nearly the word go.
And wouldn’t you know it, Xanatos finds lil ol’ himself attacked the very moment after he was claiming to offer friendship! I tell you, the coincidences pile up around this man like nobody’s business.
Well, at least we know where the debris was coming from now.
We end with a retread of the opening scene from the opposite perspective, the news that Goliath is seriously not on the flower crown friend train, and we even see our secondary gargoyles getting some vestigial characterization! It’s not much beyond “hey, the little one is the youngest and the quickest to grasp tech! Hey, the old wise mentor dude!” but it’s something. These first few episodes are unusually combat intensive for the show, as interested in selling itself and setting up a sort of feel as in exploring its cast. Don’t worry, we’ll have plenty to dig into in the coming weeks.
By the way, I’m experimenting with a somewhat more conversational style for these as opposed to the usual highly structured CA – it’s something I haven’t really attempted since the Green Jacket recaps waaaaaaaaaaay back in the earliest days of this blog. Do let me know what you think. Playing by ear, remember.