Okay, let’s get the important business out of the way.
IT HOLDS UP. LIKE, DAMN.
Rewatching Gargoyles for this review I was expecting a sugar rush of nostalgia and maybe a melancholy recognition that it was good for its time but not the masterpiece I remembered from childhood. I did NOT expect to get hooked and embark on an epic binge watch that had me wondering whether I could squeeze in just one more episode at four in the morning. For those of you who never saw it, and you zygotes who are too young to remember, let me explain what Gargoyles was.
Take the shadowy urban action and moody aesthetic of Batman the Animated Series, add the “team of superhero creatures fighting evil in secret in modern day New York” setup of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, stir in some exceptionally high calibre voice talent, stellar writing and the finest animation Disney had done for TV up to that point, ladle in generous portions of Shakespeare and world mythology and add salt to taste. Boom. You got salty Gargoyles.
By the mid-nineties, there was something of a renaissance in television animation underway as studios moved away from the cheap, thinly disguised toy commercials of the eighties and started to create shows of a higher calibre. I described this in the Ducktales review, and while this renaissance was kickstarted by Disney, by the mid-nineties their TV output had in many ways been surpassed by rivals Warner Brothers, who had brought the thunder with such classic shows as Tiny Toons, Animanaics and of course Batman the Animated Series. This last one is the most relevant because Gargoyles is very much an attempt to beat Warner Bros at their own game and create their own BTAS. This led to some bad blood between the two shows, with Batman creator Bruce Timm dismissing gargoyles as “namby pamby…with all that Celtic fantasy crap.”
“Hi. Mr Timm? Unshaved Mouse. Huge fan. Go fuck a stoat.”
Which of the two series is better was a subject of fierce debate when I was growing up but having re-watched both I have come to the profoundly unsatisfying conclusion that they were both superior in different ways. Batman pushed the envelope of what was possible in kid’s animation artistically. In its Art Deco style, its mood, and its use of shadows and camera angles it’s hands down the more visually arresting show. But, while Gargoyles might look a little generic compared to Batman, I think the former beats the latter in terms of narrative ambition. Remember, Batman had a cast of characters that had been part of pop culture’s consciousness for almost sixty years at that point, but Gargoyles creates a new cast of characters, mythology and history out of whole cloth and uses them to tell a story with a depth and scope that hadn’t been seen in children’s animation in the West up to that point. The characterisation is also phenomenal. While at first glance the gargoyles are stock character types, peel them and you’ll find the layers have layers. And that’s not even getting into the villains. Most cartoons are extremely lucky if they can boast one of the all-time great cartoon villains. Gargoyles has at least four.
So what’s our premise? Well, in 10th century Scotland Castle Wyvern is guarded by a clan of gargoyles. Stone by day, big scary demonic lookin’ bastards by night. The gargoyles are led by Goliath (Keith Motherfucking David at his Keith Motherfucking Davidist). The gargoyles have lived in peace with Castle Wyvern’s human inhabitants for years, but they’re still distrusted by them because this is the dark ages and they look like the devil. The gargoyles get caught up in a load of court intrigue and betrayal and counter betrayal complicated enough for an entire series of Game of Thrones and the upshot is that Goliath comes back from patrol to discover that almost his entire clan was smashed to pieces by humans while they slept during the day. Only seven of the Castle Wyvern clan survived and they were placed under a spell by a vengeful wizard who thought they had killed someone who they actually hadn’t killed long story. The spell caused the gargoyles to turn to stone and stay that way, day and night, forever. The only way the spell could be broken would be if Castle Wyvern were “raised above the clouds” and if you’re getting a real “til Birnham Wood come to Dunsinane” vibe off this then that’s entirely intentional. This series could not be more indebted to MacBeth if they made MacBeth a character on the show which by the way they totally did.
“My friends call me Scottish Play.”
Anyway, flashforward a thousand years and David Xanatos (Jonathan Frakes), billionaire playboy philanthropist has Castle Wyvern disassembled, and rebuilt, brick by brick, at the top of his Manhattan skyscraper just to see what would happen. The spell is broken and Goliath and his surviving clan of gargoyles become the defenders of New York from all threats both human and supernatural.
I went back and forth over just how to approach this review. At first, I was going to do a general review of the whole series before remembering that there were 65 GODDAMN episodes.
And that’s not even counting the third season that never happened and which we shall never speak of again.
I then thought about reviewing one of the story arcs like “The World Tour” or “City of Stone”. But “City of Stone” focuses more on two side characters than the main Gargoyles and also there’s a lot of flashback stuff that would get really confusing and probably be boring to read. And as for “Word Tour”, I had (again) forgotten that Goliath and Eliza were putzing around on that damn boat for nineteen episodes so once again…
So finally, with the deadline approaching like an oncoming walrus on a bobsled I decide to just review one single episode which I think encapsulates the things that I most loved about this show.
That episode is Season 2’s “Eye of the Beholder.”
Let’s take a look.