For this opening episode, the entry is going to be much longer and more thorough than I plan to get on a regular basis, since it’s worth taking time delving in-depth into each characters’ introductions, how the episode succeeds introducing the concept to new viewers, and just because there’s so much going on.
The biggest downside to opening up with a five(!)-parter is you can’t treat your first episode like a standard pilot. You can’t fully introduce every character, you can’t flesh out the overall concept, and you can’t give an example of what a typical episode of your show will be like. The story here is so big in scope that it’s going to take a while to really settle into feeling like Gargoyles the TV show (not until around episode 4, if memory serves.) As a result, part one feels a little strange in places—not in a bad way at all, just that it’s clear that this is a prologue of sorts. For people watching this episode for the first time, there’s a nagging feeling that we’re hearing “Wait, there’s more!” On one hand it’s great, because it basically forces any pseudo-interested viewer to return for episode two. But at the same time, if you aren’t hooked by the medieval stuff when “Gargoyles in 1994” would have worked for you, you potentially lose a good viewer. It’s the catch-22 of such a large-scale pilot, but there probably isn’t any way to avoid it since this episode is really friggin’ huge.
We start off with the title of the episode, “Awakening,” popping up instead of the title of the show.
It’s a weird choice, to say the least, but if you think of this as the beginning of a movie (which it was released on VHS as) then it makes some sense as being the title of said movie, I guess. Although there was a missed opportunity to have the fiery Gargoyles logo pop up before the clever first shot of the show…
There’s an instant introduction to the show’s insanely loud, orchestral score as the backdrop for the show’s first action sequence…a bunch of rocks falling on people. The animation for this mayhem is great in this opening, though (particularly the taxi crashing into debris and getting smashed by a piece of freakin’ steel.)
Nothing substantial happens here plot-wise, but it still accomplishes a lot. It establishes the dark tone (the animation and use of shadow in this opening scene is beautiful, like I said.) More importantly, it introduces Elisa Maza, a cool cop with big hair, tight pants, a sweet red car and a matching red jacket. Also, she’s voiced by the stellar Salli Richardson(-Whitfield). She’s just oozing coolness. If she punched you in the face, it would be awesome. And we can get that from only about two minutes of seeing her!
We also hear the phrase “street pizza,” which effectively solidifies the idea that “YES THIS IS THE 90S, AND WE’RE PROUD OF IT!” It is important, though, that we know for sure the show is in the “present” day, since 98% of this and the next episode take place in the past. So in this case, the quick flashforward technique to say “don’t worry, we will be in the present day, just give us a sec” works in its favor.
And, of course, the discovery of claw marks is a great hook—especially given that we haven’t seen an opening credits sequence and know nothing about what’s going to happen. Actually, this makes not displaying Gargoyles at the start of the episode more forgivable, since if you just flipped on your TV on a whim and caught this, you’d be totally enamored trying to determine what—
In any case, we jump to Scotland, 994 A.D., where an unnamed army led by a blonde beauty named Hakon charge a castle.
We also meet the Captain of the Guard for the defending castle.
I have to commend the way exposition is delivered in this first episode, especially in this scene—there’s a quick conversation about how it isn’t worth going through the gargoyles to get to the castle and how it’s so close to sunset—probably the most important plot device in the entire series. It’s almost a throwaway line, but it’s so off-the-wall to anyone uninitiated with the show that it sticks in your head, and clarifies what we see in a few seconds.
It’s a fantastic introduction for who we learn is Goliath. Hakon (who’s obviously our antagonist at this point) is absolutely terrified and clearly in the worst place imaginable—hanging on the statue of the biggest gargoyle when the stone starts cracking. It’s surprisingly frightening for our leading hero character to be introduced this way, and for those who haven’t seen him all over Gargoyles merchandise, he just doesn’t look like the good guy. He comes complete with an angry sneer, big teeth, a monstrous roar (yawn?) and glowing green eyes (uh…explain that one, Weisman?). It is a little weird that the “stone” falling off of him just looks like shreds of paper, but all that’s forgotten because of THIS:
His big character beat so far is “badass,” but that’s enough for now. We also get introduced to our supporting characters, though they’re unnamed at this point (and will be for a while, so I’ll go along with the unnamedness here.) It’s okay, though, since they’re so visually distinct and we get character beats for each. First it’s our trio:
They sort of scream comic relief here since they’re more animated and cartoony right from the get-go. But like Elisa and Goliath, they still get great character beats right off the bat. Red is enamored by the fighting, ready and quick to jump into battle. Little Green has some dry wit and seems more observant before jumping in, though no less excited. Hungry Blue is…fat.
There’s also a burly, bearded senior gargoyle with a goddamn sword, affectionately called “Old Friend” by Goliath. Also he’s voiced by fucking Ed Asner, so there’s pretty much no way this character isn’t awesome.
Initially, I was put off by how non-descript any other gargoyles, outside of our main characters, were. They aren’t very detailed, they don’t have dialogue, and most of them we only see with glowy eyes or in silhouette. But then, I already know exactly which gargoyles are our main characters. For someone viewing this for the first time, it’s already kind of overwhelming; we’ve got no less than twelve potential main characters who have been given the spotlight, seven of which are gargoyles. Most of them are rapidly introduced with character beats in a span of about ten minutes. Weisman has since shown his prowess with introducing characters in fast-paced/big-cast shows like Spectacular Spider-Man and Young Justice, but it’s still a big feat. And these are completely new characters, in a rather alien world for anyone not previously interested in medieval fantasy. An entire new species of sentient creature is introduced here, with rules of where they fit into society, how they work biologically, and how the characters relate to one another. Bottom line: there’s a whole helluva lot going on, so it’s not only forgivable that we don’t get a glimpse of the rest of the gargoyle community in this opening, it’s necessary.
Now that you’re getting used to there being giant winged blue people, it’s time throw you off again by introducing a gargoyle dog, which sounds fucking stupid to anybody but Gargoyles fans. It doesn’t make much sense, but he’s still cool, and adds an extra bit of creative flavor to the show.
And then there’s the female Gargoyle, and the only other one named in this episode, Demona. She is absolutely terrifying. Like, seriously, that’s her character beat. And it’s great.
Since the gargoyles are obviously badasses, the attacking force retreats, though not without Hakon’s “I’ll be back!” moment. During the obligatory celebratory feast all medieval people did back then, some of the soldiers chastise the Captain behind his back, for being “Captain of the Gargoyles” and a friend to beasts. Which is stupid, because the gargoyles and the Captain collectively saved the entire castle, but a sad truth for how ignorant people can be when it comes to oppression. We’re again given a quick, almost off-hand introduction to a concept (that gargoyles are second-class citizens) followed by seeing that concept in action, which we do by way of Princess Catherine and the Magus. Briefly warning us what we’re in for first and then showing us eases us into this world. It’s a formula you have to tread lightly with, but works in this episode because of the world’s alienness and the fact that it has to make sense to kids.
Anyway, back to the angry rich white people.
The Captain invites Goliath and Demona to the feast—because, y’know, they saved everyone’s asses—but Catherine and the Magus are totally disgusted by the thought, because “They’re beasts!” and “They’re unnatural!” (Sound familar?) This type of discrimination allegory isn’t unique at all, but it is turned on its head a bit, because there’s still ambiguity as to whether or not the fears are unfounded. Goliath and Demona’s introductions were akin to the way you’d introduce evil, child-scaring villains, and all they’ve done so far is beat the shit out of people and/or eat. When they enter the room while Catherine and the Magus are bad-mouthing them, we get this shot of Goliath:
So we do get why the angry rich white people fear the gargoyles, since gargoyles are creepy and threatening by their very nature. But Goliath shows they can also be quite respectful, and are totally in-tune with human customs. And more importantly, that Goliath is an intelligent, respectful, gentle giant (when he isn’t a raging killing-machine I mean.)
Somehow Catherine doesn’t immediately swoon and start writing Goliath’s name in all her notebooks (you know she was thinking about it) but instead kicks them out in spite of all that. Though, not before drawing comparisons to the biblical Goliath—the Captain notes how both Goliaths are/were big and strong, while Catherine says they are/were both “a bully and a savage!” Neither of them note the part of the story where “David kills Goliath,” but maybe they’re saving that for a later episode. Don’t see why they would be, though.
All this leads up to finally exploring Demona a bit more. She hisses for one, which is great, but she also spells out her self-righteous attitude: “We owned the cliffs first, they should bow to us.” Goliath calms her down, explaining “it is the nature of human kind to fear what they do not understand.” So first of all, yeah, we’re introduced to every single theme present in the entire series in the first 15 minutes. But second of all, Demona and Goliath are each other’s yin and yang; Demona gives Goliath an edge, while Goliath keeps Demona grounded. It’s evident here that she could potentially go off the rails without her hubby.
Directly after we get a shot of the Magus flipping absurdly quickly and sinisterly through one of his spell books. We move more quickly to a hooded figure meeting Hakon’s camp.
It’s worth noting that this section is the most boring part of the episode, despite the fact that we’re getting the most actual plot here. Nothing much has really happened up until this point, which is a nice indicator for how interesting all the character interactions already are, even before we’re invested. The reignition of a battle, a new mysterious player (who’s obviously meant to make us think he’s the Magus) giving information to overtake the castle—that stuff’s not as interesting as Goliath and Demona talking about human nature. That’s neither good nor bad, really, just an observation of how highly this show regards character studies.
Meanwhile, the Captain and Demona want to take the gargoyles to Hakon so they don’t show up at the castle during the day. Goliath is hesitant about this for some reason; it’s odd on one hand, since they make a good point, but it’s also very earnest. He’s not interested in strategy for keeping a war going, he’s literally just keeping away intruders (again, a theme that continues throughout the series.) Demona and the Captain bring him over to their side, though, resulting in Goliath saying in the most Goliath-y voice: “I can scare those cowards away without any heeeeelp.” Oh Keith David, be still my heart. He also commands Demona, his “best warrior,” to stay, also telling her “You and I are one…now and forever.” Aww…seriously, just…awww.
We get a little more exploration of the gargoyles vs. human society dynamic by way of the trio. First off, a kid named Tom, innocent anime-eyed Disney child as he is, starts grilling the trio for some exposition, giving us insight on how they don’t actually have names and call each other “friend” (although I think they rarely actually say “friend” but whatever.) Again, the trio are very polite to the kid, much like Goliath was polite to Catherine…and like that situation, Tom’s mom freaks out for no good reason, too. But while Goliath turned the other cheek, our Red, Green and Dog gargoyles say “screw it, let’s have fun” and get their monster on, inciting a mild riot. Goliath shows up and is pissed, and puts them all in time out (even Hungry Blue, who didn’t actually participate in the riot. Way to go, Goliath.)
Demona, who watched what transpired, openly disagrees with Goliath—again, reinforcing her staunch anti-human mindset (though to be fair, her attitude is totally justified at this point.) Goliath goes off with Old Beard (I’m considering calling him that even after he gets named) to follow Hakon’s army’s tracks into the woods. A very cool part of this scene is seeing Goliath and Old Beard running on all fours, another element that makes gargoyles more alien/animal-like, juxtaposed with how human they’re becoming to us personality-wise as we get to know them.
This “animal-like vs. human-like” conflict continues when we visit the trio, who’ve been forced into the rookery by Goliath—revealing that gargoyles have eggs. That’s about all this scene does, but it’s important.
I know I’m harping on these fat jokes—Hungry Blue gets plenty of character development later on in the show, so it’s all good in the long run. And hey, there’s nothing I love more than food too (except for maybe Power Rangers or Spider-Man.) But it’s one of the only things in this pilot that ends up feeling very annoying, since it’s trying too hard to reassure us that the show has humor. This bit in particular is oddly drawn out—Hungry Blue just chews and chews ad naseum, and Green has a delayed reaction. And I’m not quite fond of the “He might eat us!” joke. Like, I get it. But when our first interaction with a character is literally two separate fat jokes in the span of five minutes and then one every other five minutes, it’s not a very good first impression. Maybe that was the point, but even so, it could have been toned down.
Anyway, back with Goliath and Old Beard: to their horror, it’s just a few men and a bunch of horses that made the tracks; they were a decoy, and Hakon’s real army is headed towards the castle. Worse yet, it’s sunrise—they’re turning to stone before they can reach the castle!
Hakon, of course, storms the castle. But the cloaked saboteur has made things even easier, sabotaging weapons and opening the gates.
In the mayhem, we get a big reveal of the identity of the traitor:
This reveal is very, very awesome. In one 20-minute episode with over a dozen main characters being introduced, one of our supporting characters gets a very mature and Shakespearean arc. When Hakon asks the Captain why he betrayed the castle, he says because “they’re not my kind.” It’s a beautifully dark callback to the episode’s overall debate over human vs. gargoyle, and functions as a preview of the kinds of debates and future characters we’ll be dealing with more in-depth throughout the show.
Hakon wants to smash the gargoyles in their stone form, which the Captain tries to stop, telling him “Once your band is out of sight they won’t follow, it’s in their nature.” Which…well, I guess Goliath was kind of like that, but…that still seems like BS. In any case, Hakon’s a dick (and also has common sense, if we’re honest) and commands the genocide of the stone gargoyles.
What we see the Captain go through is an incredibly dark concept to introduce to kids in the very first episode—the idea of going too far for what you think is right, or what the need for revenge will drive you to. Again, this isn’t a new idea, but for a character arc so condensed, it had to be simple, and it was still effective. It’s understandable for the Captain to feel this way. In his head, he’s standing up for the gargoyles, but it’s likely for more selfish reasons. The fact is, he was unappreciated and ostracized by the court, no matter how good at his job he was. You feel for the guy, but he’s still acting out of pure spite. Not to mention he did still have it pretty good in the court, he still had friends in the gargoyles, and things weren’t so bad that they couldn’t turn around later on. But he was too impatient, and it’s now cost him dearly.
The only thing that might have made this scene work even better (though it already works really well) is if the gargoyle we see smashed was a character we got to know a little more; imagine if we got a purple gargoyle hanging with the trio, seeming to be another part of the comic relief, only to have him smashed to bits without a send-off? It’s too dark for a children’s cartoon, I imagine, but Greg Weisman often comes off as the Joss Whedon of cartoons, so I could see him pulling off something like that if he could.
Anyway, that night Goliath and Old Beard return, and it’s of course way too late.
Goliath finds the remains of smashed gargoyles, and realizes Demona must have been one of them. I’d be hard-pressed to find a time when Keith David doesn’t turn in a good voice performance, but the way he brokenly calls his supposedly-dead lover “my angel in the night” is heartwrenching, as is the iconic, gut-punching wail we hear right before “To Be Continued.”
AND WE’RE OUT!
Er…nevermind. The episode follows up with some shots from next week (kind of ruining the “turned to stone forever” plot twist.) It makes sense, I guess, because it reminds the audience that, yes, the show is in the present too and the cool big-haired cop lady is important. But it does feel too revealing for those totally uninitiated to the show. Then again, this is on the same line as the “are gargoyles purely violent?” question earlier—it’s not revealing anything now because pretty much no one catching the show at this point is going into it totally blindly.
…But then we get the full opening sequence, which feels superfluous. Don’t get me wrong, the opening is great (and it again tells the kids “Don’t worry! We’re in your time period too!”) but with so many scenes from the first episode being used, it feels like filler. Especially when the closing credits come on right after and reprise the exact same theme again. I get the idea, but it sort of cuts the momentum by not having the episode end on the intended emotional high point.
That said, these very minor nitpicks at the end are more in line with logistical issues (and makes me wonder if this five-parter would work better viewed in its cut-together movie version.) Either way, this incredibly solid 22-minutes has a lot of stuff, as you could tell. Every character is introduced with a clear indication of who they are and where they will go (maybe not Hungry Blue or even Old Beard at this point, but they have potential for sure.) The animation and art design for this episode is absolutely beautiful, with amazing use of shadow and facial work and only a couple of minor hiccups.
The voice-acting for this show overall is phenomenal, but right from the get-go we can tell that this is more than just generic pulling-off-the-streets casting. In addition to Keith David, Ed Asner and Salli Richardson, we also have Jeff Bennett, Bill Fagerbakke, Thom Adcox-Hernandez, Frank Welker, and Marina Sirtis, all of which are renowned voice/live actors with distinct voices and (in the case of Bennett and Welker) unbelievable range. But even if you have no idea who they are, the distinctiveness of their voices gives a very unique flavor to the show and bring the characters to life, even just in this first episode. We even get a full character arc for one of the supporting players, providing the backbone of the plot and carrying many (all?) of the themes we’ll delve into throughout the show.
I guess I was wrong before when I said this can’t function completely like a pilot—it still does, presenting the kinds of things we’ll see in the show, just thematically instead of structurally. But since the themes and especially the characters are endlessly interesting, and the stakes and drama are already ridiculously high, it’s practically grabbing us by our throats and pulling us into episode 2. And that’s exactly where we’re going to go.