Introducing: one of the show’s very best characters.
A Lighthouse in the Sea of Time
Let’s talk about the IMPORTANCE. OF. LITERACY. No, really, that’s Weisman and crew’s stated goal on this one, which I find quite admirable. Though it is a bit strange looking back now, when changes in technology and the multimedia mixing of text (not to mention the arguable importance on the rising importance of not just textual but contextual visual literacy) have changed the conversation so hugely. It’s important to not as well that this episode aired a few years before the first Harry Potter novel was published, giving western media an answer to their endless hand wringing over whether kids were still reading (32 bit game consoles were household items now, and the growing number of cable channels allowed things to seem like a 24 hour youth crisis from an outside perspective).
But enough of context corner. We open with a pair of unnamed archeologists, a woman doing a vaguely Jane Goodall-esque voice of wonderment (though I can only think of the battered conservationist from Animaniacs) and a man in a Tom Sellick moustache. They stumble upon a harp providing its own musical cues and a chest containing the Scrolls of Merlin – you can just sort of feel the appropriate capitalization in the dialogue.
Back at the clock tower we have our central players for the thematic conflict of the week: Lex the tiny supergenius and yearning-to-be-Byronic Brooklyn are both voraciously reading what looks to be every magazine published in New York (new headcanon: Lex is super into underground zines, which will someday prove a great help to him), while Broadway is our painful petulant illiterate child. Spoiler alert, this will not last. And while normally I’d be a bit eye-rolling at how on the nose the ensuing exchange is, the audience members for whom literacy issues would be a really important issue are probably young enough that spelling it out is a real help.
Elisa is also on hand to be our window into the plot this episode. The scrolls are on their way to the Met for further study, and she and Matt are their police escort. Given that this involves them heading out onto a properly Tempestuous sea, I see no way in which this could go wrong. I mean, until I found out that Tim Curry was the captain. Then I had several itemized guesses on hand.
Unfortunately, “Johnny Bravo mooks in harrier jets” was not on my bingo card. They disarm the ship and take off with the scrolls, and while Hudson manages to grab one of them he also gets left floating in the ocean in the ensuing chaos. Elisa is quick to assume Xanatos was responsible, which isn’t unreasonable given how many balls he’s juggling at any given time (and Demona is of course ruled out because of the methodology) but also belies a somewhat dangerous tendency for a cop. She’s got evidence bias pretty hard because of Derek, and it’s already affecting her job. Because she doesn’t even consider the other tech-wielding antagonist she previously witnessed firsthand.
In an extremely Prosperous turn of events, Hudson washes up on Macbeth’s island, on the other side of the property from where the jets come in for a landing. But wait! They’ve now lost both scrolls – Broadway managed to hang on to the second jet all the way back to shore, and snatched the second canister. Which, unfortunately, also leaves him to sneak around with no way off the island and no backup. He’s doing pretty well, too, until Macbeth and his LITERAL BAGPIPE MUSICAL STING step in to stop him.
I don’t think I’ve ever loved a screenshot as much as I love this thing
A brief interlude in NYC: Goliath goes to the castle and inadvertently hands Xanatos a whole bunch of free info by accusing Owen of knowing about the scrolls and missing gargoyles. The facial expressions in this scene are golden, and a favorite reference point against the impression that Owen is purely a straightlaced square (which I’ve never bought – if he were completely inflexible Xanatos would never keep him around, competency be damned). Because he is clearly having the time of his life trolling Goliath in this scene. “You know I can’t do that,” he says, sounding ominous and telling the ironclad truth at the same time.
Hudson winds up twice as lucky as Broadway, as the human who finds him on the shore is a kind man named Jeffrey Robbins. You’ll have noticed the glasses, dog, and cane already I’m sure, and how it seems to play into his unperturbed offer to let Hudson recover at his beachside house (though perhaps not so much as you might think – you’ll notice Robbins’ hand rests on Hudson’s wings and skin at alternate points, and someone who relies heavily on tactile sensation would no doubt be able to put a few ideas together based on that input). Like Hudson, he lost his sight protecting young soldiers, in this case in Vietnam. And he’s a (former) novelist as well, just in case you needed yet another reason to like this lovely, kind human. Their conversation about illiteracy as an older adult is a lot more scaled back than the Broadway story tailored for younger viewers, and it’s quite poignant. A light touch that’s expected nowadays, but is often sniffily assumed not to exist in pre-2000 animation.
Back on Macbeth’s airship, said Scotsman gives Broadway a brief history of Merlin’s CV, underscored by a lovely piece of inspiring horn. Broadway is clearly awed, struck by the power of Macbeth’s storytelling in a way he wasn’t by Lex and Brooklyn’s current events and technical manuals. In case you didn’t catch it earlier, by the by, it was Macbeth who sealed these scrolls in the first place. Tuck that info away for future use, hmm?
Macbeth is able to find Robbins’ house during daylight hours and snatch the canister from Hudson’s frozen hand, giving the name “Lennox Macduff” to Robbins as a cover. Which….apparently is also his name in the phonebook. Macbeth is on the grid? I suppose he doesn’t have enough money to avoid bothering with a base level of feigned legitimacy.
And what’s Macbeth’s plan now that he has both scrolls? Well, he figured he’d start by trying out some of those Very Dangerous Spells, no doubt eventually meant for Demona, on Broadway. Just in case you weren’t sure on where he stood on the morally grey spectrum. But the scrolls are actually Merlin’s diary, bringing us round to the inscription on the chest at the beginning: knowledge seekers have nothing to fear. And yes, Broadway makes a big speech about how Books Are Magic and Macbeth is so touched that he lets them all go home. Broadway and Hudson decide they’ll learn to read, and we end with Robbins poeticizing on the titular line, “books are lighthouses in the sea of time.” Which is, plain and simple, a great image.
While there were a glut of episodes on the importance of reading from all sorts of shows in the 90s, this one holds up better than most. It has a hand up in how deeply the show was already entrenching itself in myths, legends, and history. Many attempts at this method came off as forced no matter how well intentioned they were, but Gargoyles had and will continue to have a strong emphasis on making aspirational figures out of intelligent, literate characters. It’s a lot easier to sell the joy of reading when your characters show a passion for it outside of one episode (though it is entirely possible to poke fun at this structural archetype and retain an inkling of its core sincerity – see the Sayo Yamamoto directed Champloo episode “War of the Words”). I even have an inkling that it would hold up well now – Gargoyles’ blend of magic and ancient objects plopped into the modern world often lift it from the confines of its decade, even when the futuristic tech comes with a decidedly 90s aesthetic. The message here is about books as ancient things that still have value, even as the forms change. And you know what? Reading on a phone or tablet is still the sharing or stories and information. Well done, G-team.
Here it is, Weisman’s favorite stand-alone episode and possibly mine. Certainly it’s in my overall top five. Oh! And it contains an enormous spoiler hidden somewhere in the episode. If you can find it as a new watcher, I’ll be both delighted and impressed.
We open with Demona sneaking into one of NYC’s many plot-convenient museums, where she uses the spell pages she took waaaaaay back in the first season to activate a magic mirror. And out of that mirror comes a beatific gift unto us all.
This is Puck. He’s sort of the Bill Cipher before Bill Cipher, albeit more morally grey: a mischievous supernatural being who makes wildly uneven deals, shows up rarely but leaves enormous impact on the plot, and steals every scene he so much as touches. And yes, he is totally voiced by Data-from-Star-Trek.
The approach of having Puck’s first appearance matching him against not just a neutral observer (Elisa, maybe, or even a doubtlessly delighted Matt) but an angry foil lends the episode a real spark – not to mention subtly giving the fae a chance to grow more sympathetic qualities at a later date. Because boy oh boy does Puck not like Demona.
Absolutely no trouble feeling emotions. That emotion? Loathing
But putting that aside for a moment, because if I’m allowed to wax poetic about Puck unchecked we’ll get nothing else done, what does Demona want from this mirror anyhow? I mean, she’s taken all the effort of hiring goons to bring the thing all the way to her tailor made high rise adorned with gargoyle statues and also a speaker-wired gargoyle mail slot, which I assume she acquired by murdering the very enthusiastic stone-collectors who must’ve originally owned the place.
Well, the answer to that will have to wait until we’ve had our dose of exposition. The reason Demona was able to draw Puck from the mirror is because it belonged to Titania, queen of the Third Race (aka seelie, fae, faerie, changelings, that whole arm of myth). Yes, the Titania of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which if you’re not familiar – though I imagine anyone reading this probably is, vaguely, since it’s the Shakespeare play I see most often staged by children’s troupes and amateur companies in addition to its frequency in high school classrooms – is the story of four mismatched lovers who wander into an enchanted forest and spend the night as the pawns in a lover’s spat between King Oberon and Queen Titania.
Puck is Oberon’s right-hand servant, and is the one to play go-between for the feuding pair and enact most of the ordered magical interference on the mortal characters. This show treats the play as a semi-canonical, albeit highly fictionalized, past occurrence. For most of this canon Titania and Oberon are at least semi-happily together, which is probably how Puck was so easily on hand. Sure, let’s go with that. This is a huge addition to the series, as it folds out an entirely new spectrum of creatures and folkloric stories that the writers will be able to draw from in future arcs.
Anyway, where were we? Oh, right. LET’S KILL ALL HUMANS. Interestingly, Demona didn’t seem to have a concrete wish in mind once she got hold of Puck, and the “get rid of the humans” line springs more from her endless well of rage than an actual plan. And again, research – Puck’s magic simply doesn’t extend to every human alive. Old stories depict him and tricksters like him as very personal chaos causers, able to turn an individual’s whole life upside down for kicks but rather disinterested in world-shaking change. Case in point: it takes Puck about two seconds to pinpoint the fact that Demona is still in love with Goliath deep down, and then to show her an image that would propel her into making another anger-based decision.
It’s not exactly a surprise that Demona’s hatred of Elisa is at least partly motivated by jealousy (though again, with only two really major female characters, it is a touch sigh-inducing). And it’s even less so that she stumbles into making her wish as “rid me of that human” rather than a straightforward “kill Elisa Maza.” It’s a microcosm of the shortsightedness that doomed Demona’s clan in the first place, a trait she cannot accept responsibility for then or now. But Puck does as he’s told, and Elisa the human is no more.
I think the crew might share some responsibility for the eventual existence of Deviantart
By which I mean “she’s a gargoyle now.” And when Puck says that Elisa (the human) is no more, Demona is quick to demand that the process be repeated with every human in Manhattan. Puck goes so far as to tell her she’s not asking for what she thinks but does not give enough a damn to actually correct her, and so up they go to the top of skyscraper to perform the spell.
Meanwhile, Elisa isn’t just a gargoyle now. That “no more” part of the wish extends to Elisa believing that she’s always been a gargoyle – and further, that the clan was formerly human. So Puck’s magic can change a person’s whole sense of self, but not the core of their relationship with others. Or maybe he’s just decided not to, given the whole Shakespeare thing. And even then, it’s a surface level thing. She still remembers Goliath rescuing her when they met, but not why she needed to be caught. And all of this is discussed as she and Goliath take a rather romantic glide over New York, actively aware of the pull between them now that the whole interspecies thing isn’t in the way.
They’re also quick to notice Puck’s magic once it goes into effect, turning the whole island into a sea of 9 to 5 and touristing gargoyles. It’s a great scene that must’ve taken a huge amount of work, since there are dozens of individual character models for scenes that are sometimes less than a few seconds. Demona is furious, once again showing that she’s less interested in having other gargoyles around than having the Grand Tradition of gargoyles that’s passed away (safely into her mind, where she can be its often contradictory supremacist arbiter).
And the trio is sort of happily baffled after spending so long adjusting to their status as outsiders – even back in Scotland, they never would’ve seen so many other gargoyles. And there’s a nice little touch as Brooklyn and Broadway get distracted by a trio of girls while Lex is sort of oblivious. Part of it’s his status as the youngest, but in retrospect it makes a nice bit of foreshadowing for his coming out in the comics (I love this little queer gargoyle, readers, I truly do).
Once she’s made a break for it Demona demands that Puck “turn the gargoyles into humans.” And because he has had it up to metaphorical HERE with her (I imagine he’s always a bit of a handful, but is probably capable of being much more flexible than he is here) and turns the literal-meter up to eleven. Thus are our five main protagonists turned into humans, preempting an entire swath of fandom’s hobby before it was even a thing. I’m a touch interested in how the conversation about ethnicity went – I’m a big fan of Goliath’s design, but the fact that he’s the only humanized gargoyle who isn’t fairskinned makes me wonder about his backstory. My admittedly brief research shows that most of the dominant cultures in Scotland in the 10th century were post-Anglo invasion, so all the blond makes sense. Moorish descent, perhaps? Anyway, I digress.
Keith Davids’ voice of liquid amazing has some special potency coming out of that face
Goliath happens to be turned mid-glide, giving Elisa the chance to mirror their meeting and save him for a change. It’s such a little thing, but it’s a fantastic callback and relevant to the various species reversals they go through while grappling with their feelings in this episode, and I love it.
The ensuing battle with Demona and Puck is full of great small touches, mostly thanks to Puck’s magic and Elisa and Goliath’s grand teamwork. And when it’s over, Goliath shows the proper way to make deals with changelings: make a demand in exchange for something they want, and then make damn sure you honor that bargain. Goliath’s status as a warrior philosopher of sorts gets a lot of subtle play in these two episodes – his dear familiarity with the police station library last episode, and his knowledge of the Third Race and interacting with them here. Mmmmm, that’s good characterization. Also his final fumbling attempt to talk to Elisa after the spell is broken shatters my heart to mulch.
Unfortunately, Demona didn’t learn her lesson. Pride hurting from her defeat, she scorns Puck’s offer of a gift, perhaps not realizing how lucky she was that he didn’t turn right around and curse her when they got back. But a second slight is a step too far, so Puck grants her one of them there ironic wishes, which becomes our fantastic episode stinger. TA DA! Human Demona. A fact that she might loathe, but also won’t stop her from being a lot more mobile and dangerous in the future.
There is almost nothing about this episode I don’t love. The stakes are high, the action is creative, the romance angle doesn’t feel sudden or forced, and Puck is a wonderful character – the kind you want to see more of, but know in your heart is most effective because he appears so rarely. So, where did Puck go with Titania’s mirror? How will he bestow dubious gifts upon our heroes and star crossed lovers in days to come? I can’t wait for you to find out, readers.