Gargoyles Rewatch Part 4: Season 3 – The Goliath Chronicles

It too me longer to finish the thirteen episodes of season 3 than the 53 episodes of season2. It’s not that the final season is bad but rather the show had all its momentum removed.

Season 2 ended with all of the main story arcs completed. The Gargoyles were back in their castle. Xanatos was now their ally in truth rather than as a deception. The truth about everything that happened in Scotland and why had all been revealed as the side effect of the magical people of Avalon. Finally the people of New York knew that the Gargoyles existed.

Season 3 starts from that last premise and positions the show closer to influential X-Men animated series that was an approximate contemporary to the Gargoyles. Throughout, Gargoyles overlapped with the superhero genre and the contemporary storylines characterised them as crime fighters. In season 3 public knowledge of the Gargoyles present them as heroically defending a public who hate and fear them.

The anti-Gargoyle bigotry is personified by a new (sort of) character John Castaway, who leads an anti-Gargoyle vigilante group called the Quarrymen. Dressed in high tech armour but wearing hood-like masks, the Quarrymen become the default bad guys for season 3.

According to fan sites, Castaway is meant to actually be one of the Hunters from season 2 (ancestral opponents of MacBeth dedicated to destroying Gargoyles – it’s a long story). If that was the intent of the show, I missed it. Perhaps it was going to be a big reveal. Castaway’s motives seem more cynical and opportunistic but this maybe just that he is under written.

Indeed, the whole Quarryman storyline doesn’t really go anywhere. I’d say aspects of it are unbelievable, as it requires a violent group of bigots to establish a terrorist army without anybody in authority caring very much but then again maybe that was more prescient than we realised.

The final episode resolves matters with a final battle between the Quarrymen and the Gargoyles over a runaway train. The final rescue of the train and its occupants by the Gargoyles results in them being hailed as public heroes.

In between, episodes are more of the stand alone individual stories focusing on one character. Hudson has to reconcile his own pride against his physical needs when he discovers he is going blind. Brooklyn adopts some runaway teenagers. Broadway goes to Hollywood. Bronx helps an Amish boy who secretly likes comic books…and so on. They are no worse and at times better than some of the stand alone episodes of the previous seasons.

What the season lacks is that over-arching epic sense of the first season. Reverting back to a more standard cartoon about crime fighting characters undermined the distinctiveness of the show. With Xanatos now on their side, the show also lacked any interesting antagonist. Even the ambiguous MacBeth takes a back seat, appearing only in the first episode of season 3 as an interviewee on a TV show where he defends the Gargoyles.

I’m glad that I watched the whole set. There is a lot to learn from a show that was both ambitious and flawed. There is both finesse and clumsiness to the show which makes the parts and ideas and influences more obvious and observable. There is no mystery as to why it was so beloved and if somebody gets the money together to do a remake (hopefully with tighter scripts) I’d be keen to watch it.

Gargoyles Rewatch: Part 3 – Season 2 episodes 24 to 52

The previous thirty-six episodes of Gargoyles had established the show as having a duel setting: a futuristic 1990s New York and fantasy 900s Scotland. Occasionally the show would dip into stories about organised crime and there were hints of a bigger plot line about the illuminati, but most stories fell into the mix of medieval Scotland meets modern New York.

The trip to the Isle of Avalon resolved the final hanging plot line from Scotland: what had happened to the Gargoyle eggs that Goliath had entrusted to the princess. It also went some way into explaining both Demona and MacBeth’s excessive life spans. From that point onwards the premise of the show changes radically.

For about twenty of the remaining episodes in the series, the show narrows the cast and varies the setting. Goliath, Elisa, Bronx and Goliath’s new found daughter Angela are sent to a series of different locations around the world. The pretext is that the boat from Avalon takes you not to where you want to go but where you need to go. In each case there is a mission to accomplish in various settings around the world including Canada, Northern Ireland, the South American rainforest, London, Nigeria, Japan. In each location, the travellers meet new Gargoyles and/or magical creatures/gods but tailored to the culture of the location (e.g. a golem in Prague, or Anansi in Nigeria or bushido-trained Gargoyles in Japan).

The show means well but it is often culturally clumsy and feels heavy-handed in its attempt to educate. There is a recurring theme of a young-person who has become distant from their cultural roots who must re-engage with those roots to defeat a magical or modern threat. Regulars villains and other side characters also show up (e.g. The Pack in more than one setting.

The stories try hard but are often thin and poorly thought out. In The Hound of Ulster, a young man discovers that he is actually the re-incarnation of the hero Cúchulainn and that his girlfriend is actually a banshee in disguise who he has to defeat. So the mundane version of the plot has him going off to meet his girlfriend in the woods after dark and him returning later and his girlfriend (presumably) is never seen again by anybody.

This was a show that was still coming to terms with its sexual politics. Even the introduction of a new female character (Angela) still has the three main characters defined in terms of Goliath (his former love interest, his current love interest and his daughter) although the show does give each one their own agency. Fox, the former leader of The Pack, is developed further as a character but only once she is Xanatos’s wife and is revealed to be the daughter of Renard, Xanatos’s commercial rival.

The Australian episode is not good. Goliath has to fight nanobots in the outback by accessing the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Like I said, the show means well. One ground breaking aspect of that episode (aside from the nanobots breaking through the ground) is that Fox (who is running the nanobot plant in the outback – don’t ask why) is visibly pregnant. I can’t thing of any examples of a kid’s cartoon character who becomes pregnant in the course of the show. Even by broader SF shows in general, it is not a sudden magic pregnancy as a plot-twist (at least not that magic, but that’s for a later episode).

The ‘World Tour’ episodes expand the range of characters associated with the show including new Gargoyle designs. I assume this was to help feed potential toy lines but also several episodes (particularly The New Olympians featuring an Atlantis-like city full of creatures based on Greek mythology) I assume were soft-pilots for spin-off episodes.

The world tour wraps up with Oberon and Titania returning to Avalon to tie the show back to its pseudo-Shakespearean connections. Before, Goliath can finally get back to Manhattan proper we get a Gargoyle’s take on the X-Men’s Days of Future Past future dystopian timeline story. The original twist is that the whole dystopia is a trick to try and force Goliath into using time travel, instigated by the elf Puck. More of whom in a moment.

The whole Oberon/Avalon story line still has a few episodes to go though. In the process, the role of Oberon and Titania in everything is retconned into the Gargoyles backstory. It turns out that Fox’s mother was Titania in disguise, making Fox and Xanatos child (Alexander, newly born) the grandchild of Titania and hence part of Oberon’s clan. The stoical and very un-Puckish assistant to Xanatos, Owen Burnett turns out to have been Puck in disguise all along (the total difference in character is explained as part of the disguise). This all leads to a climatic battle between Xanatos and Oberon with the Gargoyles helping Xanatos.

With only a few episodes left in the series, there is a brief return to the status quo, with Manhattan based stories reprising the themes of previous episodes (fights with Demona or organised crime).

The season concludes with an excellent three parter, as the Gargoyles clash with a Gargoyle hunting clan from Scotland and Demona has a secret genocidal plan. As with some of the World Tour episode, there is a genuine attempt (if using visual shorthand) to make real world places look like how they are, with a flashback to renaissance Florence. Elisa gets a new partner and potential love interest who isn’t what he seems. Things go from bad to worse for the Gargoyles as their cover gets blown and their home in the police clock-tower gets blown up

However, by the conclusion of the three parts, the Gargoyles and Xanatos have made peace, New York now knows of the Gargoyles existence and Goliath’s clan are re-instated in Castle Wyvern. Just before the sun rises, Goliath and Elisa kiss…

The End…or that is the implication. There is a series 3 but the show had very much brought its tangled narrative to an end. In retrospect, much of the story feels like a random events constantly being reworked into the resemblance of a wider arc but the complete story with its time-travel and magic and cyborg energy weapons all just about hangs together.

Next time: The Goliath Chronicles brings the show to an end with a short season 3.

Gargoyles Rewatch: Part 2 – Season 2 episodes 1 to 24

I didn’t check to see if this garden ornament was alive after sunset

My initial plan was one post per season under the naive assumption that season 2 was a similar length to season 1. That was a very foolish assumption. Season 2 has fifty two episodes, enough for one episode per week for a year and far too much to summarise.

However, there is a distinct shift in the whole premise of the show that begins at episode 20 and is fully established by episode 25. That twenty-fifth episode (set in Canada) is effectively episode 1 of a significantly different show and I’ll save those episodes for another post. Between the two is a three part story that I’ll get to below.

For the first part of Season 1 the show continues on from Season 1 in much the same manner. The Gragoyles has been established as living in the clock tower above Elisa Maza’s police station and have sworn to protect Manhattan as they had once protected Castle Wyvern. The main enemies have been established Xanatos, The Pack, Demona and the as yet mysterious MacBeth.

There is a running theme of transformation in several episodes. Elisa’s brother (introduced in season 1) is turned into a kind of mutant gargoyle like creature by the sinister Doctor Sevarius, Xanatos creates a robot version of himself as a new leader for The Pack, Demona enlists the elvish Puck and a magic mirror to make herself human during day time (as well as messing with the human/gargoyle distinction more generally), Fox (the former leader of The Pack and now fiance to Xanatos) turns into a werewolf, Demona turns everyone in Manhattan into stone, Goliath gets cloned to create an evil Golaith (Thailog), and The Pack get changed into cyborg mutants.

The various transformation allow the show to edge a bit closer to a romance subplot between Goliath and Elisa. There’s just a hint of the similarity between aspects of the show and the 1980’s Beauty and the Beast TV show. Goliath and Ron Perelman’s character are a bit similar and both Elisa Maza and Linda Hamilton’s character are in law enforcement. However, while Gargoyles touches on romance (and there are multiple weddings) it’s clear that the show is sufficiently confident to real dive into it.

Of course, if we are talking about live-action influences we can’t ignore Highlander. MacBeth is revealed to be an immortal Scotsman and in fact the actual historical King MacBeth on whom Shakespeare based his play. A deep connection between MacBeth and Demona was suggested in Season 1 but in Season 2 the back story is picked up.

The basic issues of Gargoyles start becoming clearer. The show has so much backstory that it often works as a kind of time-hopping fantasy epic. However, much of that backstory was a set-up in Season 1 to establish the Gargoyles as a kind of superhero team. In principle the two things could work together but the further into Season 2 the show gets, the more obvious it becomes that the conflicting concepts of the show don’t really gel.

Part of the problem is Xanatos. The character is great in some many ways and a clever contrast to Goliath. Affable and pragmatic, he is unfazed by failure but like any super villain he has to keep being defeated but never in a way that he is conclusively defeated. The difference between Xanatos and a classic super-villain is that he really isn’t bothered. Which is fine and in many ways quite clever. However, after awhile his schemes increasingly look like absurd games on his part that don’t really matter to him.

Demona also is something of a one-note villain but unlike Xanatos remains interesting mainly because of her past-self. This first part of Season 1 allows the show to pick up on her history and follows events in Scotland after the rest of her Gargoyle clan are either murdered or turned to stone for a thousand years. The connection between her and MacBeth also gets explained up to a point.

By episode 20 nearly all the hanging plot points have been resolved from Season 1 and even most of the new ones introduced in Season 2 (excluding the introduction of The Illuminati of all people). The only remaining issues are

  • the multiple magical macguffins introduced (a book of spells, a magic transforming stone and time-travel amulet)
  • The ‘weird sisters’ — MacBeth’s three witches who have been intervening in the past and the present in various guises
  • The Gargoyle eggs

The eggs were the biggest unresolved piece of foreshadowing from the introductory episodes of Season 1. After Goliath’s clan is murdered and the few survivors cursed, he entrusts the remaining Gargoyle eggs to the Princess and the Magus (the initially bigoted but now contrite characters from 994 AD Wyvern Castle). The implication being that a second generation of Gargoyles would hatch from the eggs. This point was put aside until episode 21 when, out of the blue, a Medieval knight appears in New York sporting a helmet that looks like Goliath and an unconvincing Scottish accent.

The knight turns out to be Tom — a character we last saw in the early episodes of Season 1 as a boy in 994 Ad Scotland. Tom’s arrival sets the show on a new course. Goliath, Bronx (the Gargoyle dog) and Elisa are taken to the magical island of Avalon. Here, as explained in a long series of flashbacks, is where the Princess and the Magus ended up along with the eggs.

However, the island has a different pattern of time and so all these characters (and the hatched eggs) are still alive on Avalon. A conflict involving a Archmage (now voiced by David Warner), the Weird Sisters, Demona and MacBeth is now a war and Goliath and Elisa have to defeat them to save the new generation of Gargoyles. The ensuing conflict involves bringing King Arthur back to life and various other antics.

It’s a gloriously absurd mish-mash of Shakesperean references, Arthurian legend, time-travel plots, and space age beam weapons that makes zero sense. All of Demona’s and MacBeth’s backstory gets retconned into this plot but with the added twist that the two of them are under psychic control at the time so remember none of what is revealed at the end.

It’s silly but it works. It works better than the attempts at getting the show be a X-Men style superhero show or even as a very odd show about fighting New York mobsters.

The multi-part ‘Avalon’ episodes end with Gloiath, Bronx, Elisa and Goliath’s new found daughter climbing into a magical boat and setting off from Avalon. The past few episodes had busily blown up the past premise of the show and resolved substantively all the hanging elements of the backstory. Fittingly, the four characters in the boat sail off into a very different show than they had just left…

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.

Rewatching Gargoyles: Part 0

Was it the impact of cable television or was it the slow impact of VHS but significant changes happened to the world of mass-market kids cartoons in the late eighties and early nineties. The basic fundamentals of creating shows which would cross-promote toys and other media franchises (movies, comic books) and which could be recycled indefinitely on Saturday mornings, didn’t change but there was new emphasis on better quality animation and writing. Notably, there was a renewed appetite for serial story telling and shows were there was continuity of both plot and character development that was lacking in shows like He Man.

Notable examples include The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: The Animated Series, the 1990’s X-Men series that each attempted to raise the game of kid’s TV shows. Of those, Disney’s Gargoyles was one of the most ambitious. Personally, it was a show I saw only a little of due to where and when it was available but I recall even at the time that it was promoted as something of a prestige project. Like many kids shows, it had a short run of three (closer to two and a half) seasons that had a bigger impact than its net running time.

With a complex premise and deep backstory, it was the sort of show that would plug into young minds and create a fandom that would last far longer than the show itself. The term ‘Xanatos Gambit’ named after the shows key antagonists convoluted schemes has become a term used in wider fandom both to describe a plot trope and ironically to describe over-thought schemes in real life.

Meanwhile…speaking of manipulation…

Obviously I caved in and signed up for a Disney+ streaming subscription. Tempted by the vast back catalogue and the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian (aka Lone Wolf & Yoda-Cub), I handed yet more of my dollars to the media-oligarchy. The service itself is still a bit clunky (it forgets what episode you are watching, hangs for no good reason etc) but its selling point was always going to be the vast archive Disney controls.

The poor old meat robot had a spot of enforced idleness this week which coincided with a blistering hot day and a level of air-quality that was literally off the charts. It was the sort of day where that bit in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is recuperating in a big tank of liquid looks like the best of all possible worlds. It was the perfect day to sit back and indulge in rewatching something. I asked Twitter to pick between an MCU infinity war marathon (Avengers Infinity War & Endgame back to Back), the 1990’s X-Men cartoon or Gargoyles. The answer came back that I should watch Gargoyles.

I phrased the choice as a ‘rewatch’ but I quickly realised that I knew even less about the show than I thought I did. So this was more of me arriving new to the show and experiencing a whole pile of twists, betrayals and shocking reveals for the first time.

I semi-live Tweeted my experiences of about eight episodes here:

And here:

I’m going to finish watching Season 1 and then write a blog post covering that first series and then two further posts for Season 2 and the shorter Season 3.

I think this is going to be a meaty topic. The show has many flaws and sudden shifts of tone but in nearly every episode I’ve seen, it is full of ambition. Whatever else you might say about this often surprisingly dour show, it was a show that relentlessly worked to be bigger than its limitations.