Oh, great. It’s that dreaded “kids’ TV show tries to teach kids how important reading is even though this is still a TV show” episode. And this is on Gargoyles, which is supposed to be an action show, to boot. Shakespeare references are cool and all, but can the show talk about how “reading is awesome!” without beating us over the head with it? Spoiler alert: it can’t. But that’s okay, because it says other stuff, too.
To be fair, the episode doesn’t open with a close-up on a book or something, and instead starts off with two indubitably British Indiana Jones archaeologist chaps exploring some cavernous ruins, like ya do.
It’s a magical cave, as evidenced by the pulsating lyre (um?) and a chest that reads, “The seeker of knowledge need fear nothing here. The destroyer, everything.” These two luckily are not the maniacal movie villain types of British, but are the brainy academic kind, meaning their faces don’t melt when they open the chest. Then MAGIC happens!
Also, the face of God/Dumbledore/Gandalf/Whatever.
Surprise! It’s Merlin, actually. In the Gargoyles universe, Merlin was a historical figure, presumably an actual wizard if those happen to exist (which we know do) and the contents of the chest were the scrolls he left behind.
Now, the implications of this are interesting. We’ve had a man named Macbeth appear in the show, and we’ve had characters parallel the story of Othello. But this is the first time that we’ve straight-up acknowledged that a fictional character is totally real in the Gargoyles universe. Merlin is considered a legitimate, actual person who lived by scientists. Yeah, there are historical origins for our version of Merlin, sort of, but for the most part anything we associate with the popularized Merlin myth purely fictional. In Gargoyles, the fictionalized Arthurian legend is history, and the science magazines Lex reads in the following scene explicitly name Merlin as a “5th century white wizard” that definitely existed and was alongside King Arthur.
Presumably, “white wizard” is the debatable part of things, where historians perhaps believe it was a title even if they don’t believe in magic. But considering this is a universe where magic does exist, it’s pretty cool for the show to play around with the world’s history. As much as Gargoyles pretends that it’s “Gargoyles in our world!” it’s definitely got its own alternate history, and anytime the show embraces the differences is enlightening.
Elisa is tasked to protect the scrolls’ transport to the museum, prompting discussion within the clan. There’s some gratuitous shots of the smarter gargs reading various things while discussing how cool the scrolls are, which is meant to set a clear juxtaposition with Broadway and Hudson doing the most stereotypical Lazy American things in existence: eating and watching trashy reality TV. Hudson doesn’t pay much attention to the conversation because Celebrity Hockey is on, but oy vey does Broadway lay on the “I can’t read but reading is lame I’m too cool for school!” stuff, and it’s immediately kinda grating. We all know where this is going, don’t we?
Anyway, Elisa and Matt are with the Brits on the ship that’s transporting the scrolls. It’s dark and stormy, like it always freakin’ is on Gargoyles.
There’s brief discussion establishing that the scrolls might be magic spells (duh), succeeded by the arrival of a pair of jets blowing out the windows of the ship. The Gargoyles were following, luckily, and Lex references the kind of jets they are, which he read in a magazine. Again, Broadway mocks him because READING IS LAME even when it’s obviously providing helpful information, but whatever.
The jets land, and a couple of brawny mercenary types break in and start shooting…electro…laser…gun…things? It’s 90s Gargoyles technology, so you know how that goes.
After some awkward tackling and junk (seriously…the animation makes the action kinda really weird) there’s a mildly funny gag between British lady and Buzzcut lady. “These scrolls are priceless!” British lady says. “Oh man, what was I thinkin’!” the mercenary says, holstering her gun. British lady totally buys it, and is actually relieved, and then the mercenary kung-fu kicks her down just to screw with her, I guess.
After an air-fight sequence, Broadway attaches himself to one of the jets. The rest of the clan sees this, and assumes Hudson attached himself to the other escaping jet.
Unbeknownst to them, though, is that Hudson has actually fallen unconscious into the water…but with one of the canisters!
The two mercenaries get back to their base, angry that they only got one canister. That is…until Broadway grabs the other one, which was stowed in the jet, and sneaks off.
His giant claw marks make it obvious what happened, though, so the two mercs go on the prowl.
Meanwhile, since Goliath pretty much blames everything wrong in the entire world on Xanatos, he busts into Xanatos’s castle. Owen is the only one there, and he’s just kinda smug and doesn’t really do or tell them anything.
In any case, the chase continues as the mercs catch up to Broadway.
Broadway busts out of the complex, but the villain of the episode is revealed: it’s Macbeth. And he’s as awesome as he should have been in his awful introduction.
For real, though. “Enter Macbeth” was a total mess of an episode, but I don’t think I gave enough credit to how cool Macbeth still was as the enigmatic badass. He’s even cooler this time around, mostly because he can beat the Gargoyles hand-to-hand, partially because of his trenchcoat, and also because John Rhys-Davies is just, like, really good at everything.
Macbeth really wants the scrolls—not for their fiscal worth, but because of the spells. However, the one he has is the second compendium, and “it would be useless, even dangerous to read them out of order.”
So, of course, the mercs are tasked with finding the first one.
Elsewhere, Hudson washes up on a beach, still holding the canister. A blind man and his seeing-eye dog stumble on Hudson, who asks for a place to rest until sunrise. The man introduces himself as Jeffrey Robbins.
Meanwhile, Macbeth and the mercs travel in their jet, like, scouring the ocean to see if anything just-so-happens to be floating there, I guess. Macbeth also casually threatens to murder his two flunkies, so that’s cool.
But enough messing around, because Jeffrey Robbins is hella interesting, and it’s time to get to know the guy. First of all, he’s voiced by Paul Winfield, whose monster of an IMDB page speaks for itself. But we learn that Robbins served in Vietnam, where he lost his sight to shrapnel in a heroic move, and was subsequently awarded a purple heart. Basically, he’s an alright dude. He’s also incredibly insightful; he’s able to figure out that Hudson was a soldier once just based on the tone of his voice, for example.
Since the war, Robbins became a novelist, or he was before he “dried up.” He shows Hudson both braille and text copies of one of his books, but Hudson retorts, “Bumps…scrawls…what’s the difference?” As has been suspected, Hudson can’t read.
Even though Hudson and Broadway are on a similar arc here, they feel like they’re on two different shows. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that Broadway is going to learn that his obviously-ignorant remarks about reading being lame were wrong. The writing is on the wall from the start, and Broadway’s lesson is clearly aimed at the younger audience. That makes total sense, really; Broadway functions well as a cipher for the kids at home, in this case any kids who resemble Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Reading isn’t typically “cool” to the general 10-year-old population, even less-so in the pre-Harry Potter time. And to be honest, it’s a lot easier to passively absorb a TV show than get invested in a book series (speaking from experience.) So, yeah, it makes plenty of sense to have Broadway voice the naive opinion that reading just isn’t worth it (in his case replacing “television” with “having a superhero action star life.”) It’s just that he voices the most obnoxiously direct and aggressive version of that sentiment possible.
Hudson, on the other hand, voices the more mature side of it, and it’s clearly aimed at a completely different group of people. For one thing, Hudson is old, and he doesn’t show a distaste for reading so much as, well, shame. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly what he says down the line. It’s very different angle to look at illiteracy, especially considering most children don’t really have shame in the same sense that adults do.
Back on the jet, Macbeth talks fondly about Merlin, referencing him as a “single spectacle” that “turned a boy into the greatest king that’s ever been seen.” Macbeth, being a well-spoken guy, gives the most flowery, succinct description of Arthurian legend imaginable, prompting Broadway to remark, “You describe it like you were there.”
Macbeth laughs off his comment, telling him he obviously read about it. The way he says “I’m old, but not that old” suggests something more going on, but what’s important is that reading brought the people to life for Macbeth, who in turn brought them to life for Broadway. More on that later.
Goliath goes back to Owen again, just…because. Owen, basically being the most powerful plot-moving force on the planet again, tells The Gargoyles exactly where to go by suggesting that Macbeth is the villain-of-the-week. I’m not even going to question it anymore.
Back on the beach, Hudson reveals that he never told the clan he couldn’t read. Again, Broadway hammered it over everyone’s heads that he thinks reading is stupid; Hudson stayed silent, implying that his inability to read isn’t by choice. Robbins tells him, “It isn’t shameful to be illiterate, it’s only shameful to stay that way.” But before the conversation can go further, Hudson runs off and stones up in the daylight, leaving Robbins to think he “scared him off with his preaching,” the poor guy.
Macbeth, who I guess has been flying around the ocean and walking up and down every beach in New York or something, shows up at Robbins’ door asking if he’s come across the canister or a “person” named Hudson. He uses the obviously-fake name Lennox Macduff, though, and Robbins immediately makes the Shakespeare connection. Also, his dog Ginny growls, so all signs are pointing to this Macduff dude being a bad guy. (By the way, Ginny is named after Gilgamesh, which is what the book Robbins shows Hudson is about…cool, right?!) Macbeth still comes across the Hudson-statue holding the canister, though, and he grabs it.
That night, Hudson wakes up and goes back to Robbins, who tells him about that Macduff visitor and how he knew the name had to be phony. They connect the dots to Macbeth together, and Robbins uses THE MAGICAL POWER OF THE PHONE BOOK THAT WILL NEVER BECOME OUTDATED to locate Macbeth’s address.
Macbeth, meanwhile, is finding the safest way to open the scrolls, which somehow involves a molten lava pit.
Broadway is being held captive so Macbeth can try out some spells on him once the scrolls are open, FYI. The way we see Macbeth get the scrolls opened is pretty cool, with some complex mechanics used to melt off the seals.
However, it’s at this point that I wonder if Macbeth was the best choice for the villain. Like “The Long Way to Morning”, the choice of villain seems to be for convenience, giving us an established one so we don’t have to waste time crafting a new one. But, while this episode honestly does redeem Macbeth on the “coolness factor” side of things, his significance to the story is a bit disappointing. The problem is that, in his first appearance, he was firmly established to be mysteriously entrenched in the show’s evolving Mytharc. This episode is pretty much a complete standalone, so while Macbeth is really cool, any episode that doesn’t shed much light on his connection to the mythology—especially considering how mysterious he was in his first appearance—seems like a missed opportunity. Then again, more Davies is always a good thing, and it does get more Shakespeare references shoehorned in, so it’s not a total loss.
Hudson and the clan converge outside of Macbeth’s place, and bust in to save Broadway and the scrolls together. Apparently Macbeth only hired the two flunkies as guards, but he did apparently give them giant Gatling guns. During the mayhem, the scrolls burst open, and Macbeth frantically reads them. To his surprise, it’s simply Merlin’s diary, with the text telling of Merlin’s thoughts while training young Arthur.
Goliath gets his hands on the scrolls and threatens to burn them as an ultimatum to get Broadway set free. Macbeth doesn’t care since they aren’t spells. Broadway, however, screams that “They’re magic! Precious magic!” because “It’s Merlin’s life, in his own words. When you read them, they take you there.”
I will say this one very important thing: Bill Fagerbakke delivers this part impeccably. The guy’s great. The lines themselves? Ehhhhhh. I’d be okay with Broadway declaring the written word “precious magic” if it was more justified. As it stands, he “learned his lesson” from literally one scene of Macbeth recapping Arthurian legend. Macbeth’s little speech there is very good, but it’s a pretty big cheat that some flowery language teaches Broadway to completely flip his mindset.
Yeah, time constraints and all that, but the haphazard way Broadway has a sudden realization sort of undermines that aspect of the episode. As cringe-worthy as Broadway’s declarations may be, his reasoning for appreciating literature is solid. I like Broadway attaining an appreciation of literature because of how it transports you to different worlds. That aspect of “reading is awesome” is good, and I’m glad the episode chose that side to focus on. But because the episode is split between Hudson and Broadway gaining appreciation, Broadway’s evolution to learning that lesson—which is more important than the lesson itself—is lost. It isn’t earned because his revelation comes from one scene, which is frustrating considering the whole point of these morality tales is to show the process of learning the lesson from multiple angles (see: “Deadly Force.”)
Anyway, Macbeth gives up on all this and asks The Gargoyles to leave, scroll and all. On the way back, Goliath offers to read the scrolls to Hudson and Broadway before they return them to the museum where they belong. Hudson surprises them, though, instead saying he will read them on his own, just as soon as he learns how.
We get one last peek at Robbins, who decides to write a book about Merlin after hearing about the scrolls on the news. As he starts the creation of his story, he speaks the opening lines, referring to the written word as “Windows to the past, mirrors on the present, prisms reflecting all possible futures. Books are lighthouses erected in the dark sea of time.”
To be honest, I keep wanting to be annoyed by any big morality episode. The end morals of some season one episodes tended to get in the way of good storytelling, but so far “Deadly Force” is the only other one that used a big moral as its entire basis. That episode worked because the moral was rare to see on a cartoon and was handled with much maturity. “A Lighthouse in the Sea of Time” is about reading, of all things. It’s a moral made for children, and it’s one we already learned from Sesame Street. And it’s showing up in our complex action cartoon?!
And yet…it fits, doesn’t it? I mean, this episode throws in references to Shakespeare, Arthurian Legend, Gilgamesh…this whole show does that, in fact. It’d actually be disingenuous to bring up the fact that much of the show’s background is based on the written word. So I guess, while Broadway’s little arc is kind of annoying and isn’t played out too well, it’s justified that it exists. Hudson’s story, on the other hand, is the episode’s highlight. Robbins is an instantly likeable and memorable character, and focusing on Hudson’s shame at not being able to do something everyone else expects he can is especially relevant. We’ve seen Hudson’s feelings of inadequacy on display before, so this plays into his character in the long term.
But then, aren’t we still missing the point?
I’d like to think it’s not a coincidence that Jeffrey Robbins, our main mouthpiece for the importance of literature introduced here, is African-American. He’s a sophisticated and accomplished author, and he’s a war hero, and he’s still independent in spite of his disability. Since he was in Vietnam, that meant he was around during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, which means he’s lived through some of the most volatile racism of the last 60 years in America. It could be a coincidence—they could have very well decided on the character’s race after Winfield’s casting—but I’d like to think Weisman & Co. are usually pretty aware of what they’re doing. I say that because, though the show doesn’t address this directly, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a higher percentage of illiterate, low-income people in America are statistically people of color. So it’s fitting that it’s a black man who tells the uneducated viewers (kids and adults) that, no, it’s not your fault that you didn’t have the opportunities for education that your more privileged peers did. But you are always responsible for how you can change, even in the smallest of ways, and taking the initiative to learn and get that education is the first step to improving your life.
It’s not really Hudson’s fault he can’t read, because his circumstances (the time period, his age, his race, etc.) didn’t allow him the opportunity. Hudson and Broadway have both faced some pretty awful things, and to an extent have used them to justify their own ignorance (shame in Hudson’s case, stubbornness in Broadway’s.) Robbins is a black man from the 60s who lost his sight in a war and had to completely relearn how to read and function. None of them had everything handed to them. But they all take initiative to do something more and be someone better, in spite of the rest of the world seemingly telling them they aren’t worth it. The lesson of the episode isn’t so much about how reading is awesome, even though that’s thrown out there for the younger folks. It’s about shedding your predispositions for the sake of self-improvement, and moving forward in spite of your circumstances.
It’s not books that are the true precious magic, it’s your ability to read them. They might be the lighthouse in the sea of time, but it’s up to you, the reader, to steer the ship that the light is guiding. Now get out there and start sailing.
Next time: Literature strikes back.