Gargoyles Rewatch: Part 1 – Season 1

Disney’s attempt at a kid’s cartoon built around merchandising but with higher production values, signalled it’s storytelling ambitions from the start. The first season starts with a five part origin story for the titular heroes, following them from Scotland in 994 AD to a New York that is sort of 1994 and sort of near future. In the process a plethora of characters are introduced as part of the backstory and then disposed of: A brutal Viking raider, a bigoted princess who relies on the Gargoyles to defend her castle but won’t have them in her sight, a young ‘magus’ with equal disdain for the Gargoyles and the captain of the castle who regards the Gargoyles as unjustly treated.

The Scotland section packs a lot in and not always convincingly. The five part ‘Awakenings’ story sounds generous in the amount of time given to establish the premise of the show but the story of Middle Ages betrayal and genocide is just one part of the broader plan to establish the show. We learn it is the sympathetic Captain who betrays the castle and had originally planned that all the Gargoyles would be away, so that even humans sympathetic to the Gargoyles participate in their destruction. The Magus, who appeared more villainous is genuinely contrite in his part in the destruction of the Gargoyles and it is he who accepts Goliath (the Gargoyle’s leader and the only one named at this point) to be turned to stone an join the five other petrified survivors. We are well into episode 2 by this point.

When we finally we get to meet the shows primary antagonist David Xanatos he is cast as an ambiguous figure. He is the arch-baddie of the series but he is affable, clever and broadly sympathetic. Rich and technologically brilliant, there are clear echoes of Batman as a character (although these days the similarity with Tony Stark/Ironman would be more current).

Castle Wyvern has been transplanted to New York and with the castle having ‘risen higher than the clouds’, the Gargoyle curse is broken and the Gargoyles are recruited by Xanatos as the castle’s defenders — just in time as the castle is immediately attacked. We’ll later learn this was a false-flag attack planned by Xanatos to further tie the Gargoyles to him. The attack (and falling stone work) bring Detective Elisa Maza to Xanatos’s building, and introduces her as another key character of the series.

Which leaves one more character to make an entrance. In a signature twist it is revealed that Goliath’s mate (later called Demona but at this point nameless) has also survived. However, the audience (but not Goliath) is aware that the story both she and Xanatos tell about her survival is suspect.

Only by the end of episode 5 is the full premise established. Xanatos’s plan is revealed (it doesn’t make much sense but I’ll come back to that) it fails, he ends up imprisoned for stolen goods. Demona is revealed as an anti-human zealot acting on her own agenda but implicated in Xanatos’s scheming. The remaining Gargoyles all acquire New York themed names: Hudson, Broadway, Lexington, Brooklyn and Bronx the Gargoyle dog thing (whose exact species is never clarified but who follows the same rules — stone by day and alive at night).

The opening episodes form a mini-movie but still somehow are crowded. There is a lot going on but it also feels it takes a long time to establish everything. I suspect these day, more would have been revealed gradually but there is a strong sense here of a show experimenting with serial story telling in a medium where that was still unusual.

The rest of season 1 eases off on the epic storyline. We are teased with more open plot leads, such as what Xanatos broader scheme might be (if he has one), what happened to the Gargoyle eggs entrusted to the unpleasent Scottish princess and the arrival of an additional human antagonist MacBeth (John Rhys-Davies with the only decent Scottish accent in the show) who also appears to be connected to the undisclosed history of Demona’s survival and character changes.

Writing that all down reveals quite how ambitious and out of control Gargoyles season 1 is. The show’s ambition for an epic story line was not allowed to replace the kind of weekly mini-story and Gargoyles fighting somebody plots that a more conventional cartoon would have. So plot details are often left hanging and the momentum of the twists and reveals is often undermined by the show’s very variable pacing.

Where the over-packed plot did little to help the character development, the show was greatly aided by excellent voice acting. Keith David and Ed Asner provided weighty gravitas to the elder Gargoyles Goliath and Hudson, and manage to just about pull off the rapid switches between a kind of attempt at Shakespearean tragedy and Saturday morning cartoon hi-jinks. Xanatos and Demona were voiced by Star Trek: TNG alumni Jonathon Frakes and Marina Sirtis — which I was unaware when I began this rewatch and so had the joy of a ‘is that Commander Riker?’ moment.

Xanatos himself both works and doesn’t work. Having established him as the arch schemer and stoically unflappable, for the rest of the season his numerous plans within plans become to appear utterly aimless. Is he scheming just to scheme? That initially seems disappointing but after awhile, and possibly unintentionally, the idea of this hyper-wealthy genius who actually just doesn’t really care if he wins or loses starts to make sense. Frakes is a decent actor but not famed for having a great emotional range and the role suits him perfectly. If his new super-dooper cybernetic robot gargoyles gets trashed by Goliath, well that’s just useful feedback on the next design. He famously cannot lose but mainly because he is very rich and doesn’t take anything personally.

Demona works less well and it is very unfortunate that the only female Gargoyle in season 1 is portrayed as duplicitous, manipulative and motivated by hate.

The supporting Gargoyles each get a focus episode in season 1 that broadens them out a little from comedy relief characters. Hudson the older mentor gets named first. The three younger Gargoyles get basic traits, Brooklyn is the cool one, Lexington is the one with technical skills and Broadway is the tubby one who likes to eat. Their focus episodes are variable in quality but the show’s commitment to continuity establishes additional traits that are maintained for the characters going forward e.g. Lexington has a particular animosity to the B-grade bad guys ‘The Pack’ (a kind of bumbling Team Rocket like group), Brooklyn ends up duped by Demona and from that point has a special animosity towards her.

Broadway’s episode “Deadly Force” was apparently later censored. Like many episodes it has clumsy ambition to it — attempting to do a kind issue-of-the-week style plot about gun safety mixed in with a police procedural about organised crime. The shocking part is a gun accident in which Broadway shoots Elisa Maza in the back, leaving her unconscious in a pool of blood. Given that up to this point Gargoyles had been following the normal kid’s action cartoon convention of lots and lots of shooting but nobody dying on screen, the gun accident sequence carries a lot of punch. It took me by surprise when I saw it this week and it would have been twice as shocking when it first aired.

The final episode of the show essentially concludes the origin story. Another Start Trek:TNG cameo from Michael Dorn adds a further antagonist (the troubled Coldstone, resurrected partly by Xanatos’s cybernetics and Demona’s sorcery). By the end of the episode the Gargoyles have defined for themselves a new purpose as the defenders of their new home, not the castle but the island of Manhattan. The end is a kind of deceleration about what kind of story the Gargoyles are in: are they in a pseudo-Shakespearean fantasy epic or are they in a more conventional superhero story? By episode 13 they appear to have chosen — they will be the defenders of the night fighting crime and serving the people who fear them.

Stronger in its ideas than its execution, the difficulty of serial story telling is apparent throughout season 1 of Gargoyles. Marrying all its themes and ambitions together doesn’t entirely work. It is appropriate that the final episode features a Gargoyle that is made out of multiple parts who can’t resolve who or what he is. Coldstone feels like an allegory for the whole of season 1.

Does it hold up? No. It is not a case of the suck fairy so much as the degree to which television has worked through so many of the issues that Gargoyles is experimenting with. The idea of kid’s shows with deep story arcs, character development and emotional depth and yet still being comical and tied in with merchandising is now much better established. With fewer templates to work on, Gargoyles season 1 is too clearly multiple influences joined together imperfectly. What you can never fault is quite how bold it is in what it attempts. It has been lessened over time but partly by people building on what it attempted.

One response to “Gargoyles Rewatch: Part 1 – Season 1”

  1. Yes, ‘Old Trek actors never die, they just do voice acting for Gargoyles’ was very much a running joke for a few years. In addition to the ones you mentioned (Johnathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and Michael Dorn), if you look over the Gargoyles IMDB page, you’ll also find Brent Spiner, Nichelle Nichols, Kate Mulgrew (whose voice was actually a plot clue at one point), LeVar Burton, and Colm Meaney. The last two were only present only for single episodes, but all the others had recurring characters, even if only across three episodes or so.

    That said, yes, I agree with your general assessment. Gargoyles was a show with an amazing reach that fumbled it all too often, partly due to being a trailblazer with few real examples of how to do what they were doing (heck, even doing long-term plots was something rarely done on American TV at the time), and partly due to differences of opinion between Greg Weisman and Disney execs on exactly what they were trying to do.

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