~ by Rebecca Fisher
To my mind, there are three animated TV shows that stand head and shoulders above the rest. They appeal to adults as well as children, contain mature themes and elaborate storylines, and elevate “Saturday morning cartoons” into an art-form. They are Warner Brothers’ Batman: The Animated Series (and assorted spin-offs), Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, and this: Disney’s Gargoyles. Attributed mainly to co-creator Greg Weisman, more recently known for his work on The Spectacular Spiderman and Young Justice, the show aired throughout the mid-nineties to high acclaim.
Unfortunately, creative differences meant that after its first two seasons (sixty-five episodes in total) Weisman departed from the show, leading to a lacklustre third season and imminent cancellation. When he finally got the opportunity to continue his story in comic book form, Weisman opted to ignore the third season and simply pick up where his own story left off.
Though it never garnered a huge amount of attention during its time on air, Gargoyles has since become a cult classic and amassed an extensive fan-base. Its popularity is based on its complex characters and extensive story-arcs, and though the grand finale of the second season provides a certain sense of closure, there remain a number of tantalizingly unresolved plot-threads
As the title suggests, the show revolves around gargoyles, portrayed here as powerful winged creatures that turn to stone during the day. In medieval Scotland one such clan of gargoyles lives alongside humans in a reciprocal relationship: they protect Castle Wyvern by night, and humans do the same for them whilst they’re in their vulnerable stone slumber during the day.
The clan is comprised of clan-leader Goliath (the only one who has a name) and a variety of others both old and young, but most notably his mentor, a trio of young gargoyles and his second-in-command, the female gargoyle that is also his beloved. It’s clear right from the start that despite their working relationship, tensions between humans and gargoyles are running high, especially when an influx of frightened refugees pour into the keep after a Viking attack.
Goliath and the (as yet unnamed) Demona
For in the words of Goliath, intoned at the introduction of every episode: “Stone by day, warriors by night, we were betrayed by the humans we had sworn to protect: frozen in stone by a magic spell for a thousand years.”
I won’t disclose the details, but suffice to say that six members of the clan survive the massacre at Castle Wyvern, only to be sent into a magical centuries-long slumber that can only be broken when the castle is “raised above the clouds”. Their saviour is a millionaire entrepreneur called David Xanatos, who has the entire castle moved from Scotland to New York City, and reconstructed atop his own personal skyscraper. As handsome as he is charming, he promises to help the gargoyles adjust to their new surroundings and time period.
Castle Wyvern atop its new home in New York City
But of course, nothing is what it seems. Befriending a detective called Elisa Maza, Goliath learns that Xanatos has been using them to further his own ends – and is in league with a familiar face from the past.
This is only brushing the surface of what Gargoyles eventually managed to incorporate into its run. As the series went on, the overarching story expanded to include almost everything but the kitchen sink: mythological figures from around the world, characters from Shakespeare, ancient conspiracies, futuristic technology (including robotics and mutations), gangsters, time travel, Arthurian legend, and – of course – other gargoyles.
As episodes went on, the story branched out into a myriad of interlaced subplots, involving dozens of intriguing characters that interacted with each other in fascinating ways. Along the way it dealt with themes of prejudice and tolerance, the futility of revenge and the importance of family. It spanned the globe, from America to Scotland to the mystical island of Avalon, and stretched in time from 975 AD to the mid-1990s.
It also had a solid grasp of continuity and foreshadowing, with some characters going incognito under acquired identities for lengths of time, with various clues as to who they really are strewn throughout episodes (thus justifying a re-watch to catch the relevant dialogue). Certain events are revisited from different points-of-view, shedding further light on what really happened, and the non-chronological layout of the episodes gives the show the chance to follow various characters down different strands of history.
Every now and then there was a moral, but conveyed with care and maturity. For instance, in the environmental episode, one character points out that it’s not feasible to prevent farmers from cutting down trees in order to fend for their families; whilst in the gun safety episode, the moral isn’t “guns are bad”, but “guns are dangerous and need to be respected.”
In short, the show was continually surprising in regards to the depth and scope of its material and the intricacy with which it handled the ever-growing mythology that it built for itself.
Although its heroes are diverse and interesting, it was really in the show’s villains that Gargoyles excelled – simply because they are so much more complex than most cartoons are willing to concede for “bad guys”. David Xanatos is best described as a Machiavellian plotter who excels in manipulation and long-term planning, though at the same time he has no interest in vengeance or personal grudges if his plans are thwarted. Impeccably polite and highly practical, he’s also revealed to have several weak points when it comes to the safety of his family and his fear of death.
Not so much evil as amoral, all his machinations are centred on accumulating ever-more power and influence through his elaborate scheming. In fact, the phrase “Xanatos Gambit” is widely used among certain fans to describe a plan whose expected outcomes (no matter how numerous) all end up benefiting its creator.
Then there’s Demona, a female gargoyle whose fall into darkness is one of the most compelling elements of the entire show. As flashbacks eventually reveal, her complicity in the massacre at Castle Wyvern resulted in the deaths of her clan and her inability to cope with the guilt of her own actions. Through various spells and events, Demona is rendered immortal and spends hundreds of years formulating ways to achieve her misguided goal of destroying all mankind. Given the show’s propensity to bring in various characters from Shakespeare’s plays, it’s not an exaggeration to say that her tragic existence feels Shakespearian in nature, especially when it comes to the four-part episode City of Stone (possibly the best story-arc of the entire show).
Among the good guys, most notable is Eliza Maza, a New York police detective who becomes the gargoyles’ most important ally. Like the voice actress who played her, Elisa is half Native American, half African American, and her extended family become important recurring characters as the show goes on. As well as that, something of a “beauty and the beast” romance springs between herself and Goliath, giving the show an extra bit of poignancy when it came to the impossible nature of their attraction.
And for fans of Star Trek, it’s amusing to note that an extraordinary amount of actors from that franchise lend their voices to the cast of Gargoyles, including Marina Sirtis, Jonathan Frakes, Kate Mulgrew, Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, Avery Brooks and Nichelle Nichols – as well as many more.
It’s difficult to articulate just what made Gargoyles so special, since there were so many wonderful threads used to weave a complete tapestry. The large ensemble of characters, the surprisingly dark tone (not surprising since the main characters can only function during the night), the storylines that combined tragedy, comedy, romance and intense drama – it all accumulated in a show that kept surprising viewers with the density of its story, character and themes. I live in hope that one day Greg Weisman will get the chance to continue exploring this world and its inhabitants, for even after the lengthy run of Gargoyles, you get the sense that its creators were only getting warmed up.
Next Time: Sleepy Hollow
The surprise hit show of 2013 was not (as many suspected) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the quirky and spooky Sleepy Hollow, a very unique take on Washington Irving’s short story that presents the Headless Horseman as one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Ichabod Crane as one of the Biblical Witnesses of Revelation. It sounds nuts, but – as we’ll see next time – there’s something about the idea that somehow just works.
About The Reviewer:
Rebecca Fisher is a graduate of the University of Canterbury with a Masters degree in English Literature, mainly, she claims, because she was able to get away with writing her thesis on C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. She is a reviewer for FantasyLiterature.com, a large website that specializes in fantasy and science-fiction novels, as well as posting reviews to Amazon.com and her LiveJournal blog.
To read Rebecca’s detailed introduction of both herself and the series, as well as preceding reviews, click on: