Jumping around the Disney Afternoon lineup to review their various shows have been proven troublesome; because shows were syndicated on different networks and randomly aired in different markets, it’s tricky to get a bead on what aired first and where. Plus, there’s a difference in which episodes aired first and which episodes were produced first. Disney Afternoon shows had no reason or incentive to be in any order, which is perfectly fine for any TV program, but it makes it rather difficult to note any callbacks, or to put certain plot or character reappearances in context – when Gosalyn’s Quivering Quack returns in “Paint Misbehavin’,” Darkwing references her previous appearance in “Quivering Quack,” but if the former aired prior to the latter in syndication, viewers would have no idea what he’s talking about. (This makes it even trickier for Rescue Rangers, I’ve recently learned – the 5-parter that brings the team together wasn’t even produced first, let alone aired first.)
Gargoyles, created by Greg Weisman and which aired in October of 1994, was always a show I always wanted to tackle, but I wanted to cover the other cartoons – Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, The Wuzzles – first. I remember not quite liking this show when I was young, but then again, I distinctly remember thinking that it was a show that I would’ve love when I was older, a sentiment I shared with TaleSpin. Gargoyles came about when the first wave of 90s action cartoons became a huge hit – specifically, Batman: The Animated Series. As far as copying styles go, Gargoyles definitely has a solid amount of cache, according to its fervent fanbase. (Perhaps not so much for the Goliath Chronicles, which were made sans Weisman and his team. I’m not sure how I will approach the non-canon season at this point). Action cartoons have a lot more going for them than their comedic counterpart, so I decided to give it the episodic coverage treatment.
“Awakening” is the five-part movie introduction to the gargoyles and the setting. It was clearly created to be a straight-forward movie and not split into five episodic parts, but it isn’t as if splitting things up harmed things in any real way. “Awakenings” has a somewhat shaky and unclear start, but as the events and plot points comes along, a good amount of tension and intrigue develops, and Goliath learns the harsh lesson that being an sadistic asshole isn’t confined to humans.
We’re introduced to Elisa Maza first, a smart and formidable New York detective, arriving at the scene of falling debris that is careening from the top of a building. When she notices claw marks in the stones, we flashback to Scotland, 994 AD. An invading hoard attempts to ransack a castle, and the green-clothed soldiers attempt to defend it. Among the chaos, there’s talk (from the good and bad sides) about sundown and the nightly reveal of “monsters”. Sure enough, as the sun disappears into the horizon, the great stone gargoyles break open to reveal the flesh-and-blood gargoyles underneath, and the beasts beat back the hoard with aggressive gliding and brute strength. We’re introduced to the main clan at this point. Goliath clearly is the leader, but we’re also shown Broadway, Lexington, Hudson, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Demona – but at this point they don’t have names. Just distinct looks and attitudes.
The intro is one of those really awkward things that need to be set up for the great payoffs down the line, but it’s awkward nonetheless. I’m certainly not bothered by the prejudicial attitudes the humans exhibit early on – the commonfolk and Princess Katharine dismiss the Gargoyles and shit on them when they stop by the main dining hall – it’s just difficult to justify that attitude right after the gargoyles saved them. I mean, it’s an attitude I understand, but it’s not consistent – when the gargoyles save them later, they suddenly love the creatures, which goes against the idea of their prejudice as deep-seeded and cultural – so it comes off less conditional and more that the script demanded. Still, it’s a nice scene that sets up not only the humans’ hatred, but Demona’s growing frustration at such attitudes, and the “support” of the captain. It also sets up a bit of misdirection, when Magus, a mage who obviously supports and secretly loves the princess, expresses his disapproval at the gargoyles, then is seen scanning a book of spells ominously.
“Awakenings” suggests that love and loyalty, while powerful, blinds us and confuses us. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the season premiere is about these well-meaning intentions utterly falling apart due to rage, passion, emotions, and poor judgment. After the Magus scene, a figure approaches the invading hoard with a proposition. We cut back to the castle, where the captain and Demona suggest that Goliath and the gargoyles go and finish off the hoard. Goliath, vicious but not genocidal, only takes Hudson to scare them off for good, his reasoning is that he doesn’t want his clan to get hurt. Whoops. As it turns out, the Goliath and Hudson track a decoy group of said hoard, and are caught outside the castle as day breaks. They turn to stone quite a ways from the castle, and the hoard then tries to take the castle again. The soldiers defending the castle find out their bows were cut, and someone conveniently opens the portcullis to let them in. The hoard wins, and the captain is revealed to be the traitor. “These are not my people,” the captain says when asked why he betrayed them, a statement that’s a bit unclear at first, but it suggest that he took the princess’s slight against the gargoyles personally. After all, they fought for him, too – the captain most likely sees the gargoyles as his own men. It is extreme, though, that he’d betray the entire castle and, you know, his OTHER men for such a slight. It would have been good to see exactly why the captain felt so strongly for the gargoyles over his human soldiers, enough so to goddamn sabotage their bows and ultimately put their lives at risk. Hopefully this pays off later in the show. The real kicker is that the captain of the hoard, Hakon, destroys the stoned gargoyles, despite the captain’s protests. Both Goliath and the captain attempted to protect the gargoyles, but in their decisions, doomed them.
But don’t worry, it gets worse. Magus and Princess Katharine (as well as the commonfolk) are captured and led out the castle. Nightfall comes, and Goliath and Hudson return to see their brethren destroyed, including Demona, Goliath’s lover and second-in-command. We see that Bronx, Brooklyn, Lexington, and Broadway survived, as well as the eggs, so there’s some hope. Still, revenge is in the air, so they all go to save the humans and enact some justice. This triggers a set of tragedies that brings the “love/loyalty dooms us” theme to the forefront. Hakon and Captain Benedict Arnold suggest ransoming Magus and the princess, but when the gargoyles arrive, things go crazy, and Hakon almost kills Katharine. Magus flips out, assuming that there’s no way she’d survive when the princess escapes and the captain/Hakon gives chase. Magus escapes his binds as the gargoyles unload into the invaders, and as Goliath chases the three escapees, Magus, in his infinite rage, turns the remaining gargoyles into stone. Goliath prepares to unload on the captain due to his betrayal, but then the captain and Hakon betray EACH OTHER, and they fall off a cliff in their own scuffle. Goliath saves the princess, but rages over not earning his revenge. He THEN returns to see the rest of his clan turned to stone. Christ. Goliath is having one shitty night.
Magus and Princess Katharine are deeply sorry, though, and they do the best thing they can – promise to protect the eggs and turn Goliath into stone along with his clan. It’s a hollow, sad moment. Goliath certainly didn’t earn this. It just happened. Everyone thought they were doing the right thing, for love, for honor, for safety, and a whole lot of terrible things happen. Gargoyles may skimp on its story transitions – breaking the stone curse by putting the castle above the clouds is a particularly “it’s in the script” development – but it doesn’t skimp on the themes of altruism not happening in a void, especially with people with their own sinister motivations. This becomes clear some thousand years later when Xanatos (think of him as Disney’s Lex Luthor), upon discovering Magus’s book, brings the castle to New York and repairs it high above the clouds and releases the gargoyles from their curse. Goliath and his crew emerge relived but jaded, distrustful of the humans that betrayed them. But Xanatos may be their only hope.
What happens next is great to watch but not particularly meaningful, save for the relationship that develops between Goliath and Elisa. A bit of investigation of the clawed rock leads her to discover gargoyles and, after saving her life, the two develop a connection. I’m not too fond of the romantic implications of it, but the platonic stuff is great – especially their mutual distrust of everyone around them. There’s a couple of scenes where Elisa and Goliath explore the city, Hudson and Bronx get acquainted to barcaloungers and television, and Lex, Brooklyn, and Broadway have surprisingly amusing encounters with taxis and motorcycles (they also develop their core traits – Lex and his fascination with technology, Brooklyn and his love for the minutia of modern society, Broadway and his lovable oafishness and “passion” for food). It’s a nice setting up of future events and some cool action sequences, including my favorite: Goliath, stuck away from his castle again when the sun rises, turns to stone, so Elisa herself has to lure AND take down five armed henchmen in Central Park (or a facsimile of it). It’s a great High Noon-esque sequence, Elisa using her wit and stealth skills to take the henchmen out one-by-one.
Goliath and Elisa’s relationship develop into something real and poignant, two people who need each other in a world that threatens to overwhelm them. It comes in contrast to the manipulative Xanatos, who seems to be attacked by a rival corporation that stole a series of discs. He asks the gargoyles to help him retrieve the discs in three separate locations – which comes off a little too video gamey for my tastes – and as an extra incentive, he reveals Demona to be alive. Goliath, struck by the return of his love, agrees with her to help Xanatos. The action sequences are quite exciting, where Lex/Broadway/Brooklyn breaks into a building, Hudson and Bronx take on an underground base, and Goliath and Demona go after an airship. It’s in the airship that Goliath notices how vicious and cold Demona has gotten – she is more than eager to let the humans die for this disk. She even causes the entire ship to crash, much to his horror. Even in his massive distrust for humans, he has yet to resort to the casual killing of them.
That might be because of Elisa, who helped him greatly get acclimated to the new world. Xanatos thinks that the mission and Demona earned Goliath’s true loyalty, but he still goes off to see Elisa. In a perfect piece of parallelism, Goliath’s sense of devotion, which doomed him back in 994 AD, leads him to the truth in 1994, when Elisa reveals that the whole disc thing was a crock of shit, planned by Xanatos (more or less – it’s actually kinda unclear) to manipulate the gargoyles into his trust, and, um, use them as guinea pigs to study for his own robotic gargoyles creations. Or something – again, it’s a bit unclear here.
Still, we get an awesome sequence of gargoyles fighting (and destroying) robots, and one final encounter between Demona and Goliath, the former of which reveals everything – how she made a deal back in 994 with the captain, how Goliath was supposed to lead all the gargoyles away as the hoarders invaded (so they could return to the castle and take it over), how the captain tried and fail to protect the stone gargoyles, how she lived through the ages as a monster, while simultaneously seeing humanity become their own sort of monsters, to come to today and her uneasy alliance to Xanatos to rid the… let’s say city for now… of humans (considering the fact that Xanatos is a human, that is a “knife-behind-the-back” agreement if I ever saw one). Goliath is crushed by this reveal, and before Demona blows his head off with a bazooka (her knowing how to use human technology is a really nice touch and contrast to Goliath estrangement), Eliza comes in and saves the him. Stuff blows up, Demona disappears, Xanatos is arrested, and the gargoyles are tentatively at peace.
Of the entire tumultuous if thrilling ending, the deal with the captain and Demona makes the least sense, partly because it’s really difficult to see where the captain’s loyalty really lies, and, again, why he would risk human life over the gargoyles. It would have worked better if the captain seemed offensively jaded by humanity penchant for cruelty, but he certainly doesn’t come off that way. This, and Xanatos’ plan with/against the gargoyles showcases Gargoyles opening day flaws – the internal mechanisms of its most complex plans don’t fully congeal. But the core of Gargoyles storytelling is its strongest. Motivations and intentions are clear, and when it all goes down in flames, people and gargoyles alike are left stranded, hurt, or even killed. “Awakenings” sets a tone for the first season. It’ll be fun, but it won’t be pretty. Don’t trust anyone but yourself, and even then, that may lead to ruin.
(The show is pushing 20 years old now, but I would still recommend SPOILER alerts in the comments, if you plan to touch upon developments in the show’s future.)