2 years, 11 months ago
During the decade roughly spanning the years 1985-1995, Western animation, previously seen as something of a washed-up embarrassment of an industry that only produced patronizing throwaway entertainment for particularly dumb children, underwent a widespread creative and commercial renaissance. One of the pioneering studios of this period, which animation historians have imaginatively dubbed “The Renaissance Age of Animation”, was Disney, whose new CEO Michael Eisner (whom longtime readers will recognise as the former chief of Paramount who worked with Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek Phase II) sought to reverse the company's ailing fortunes by doubling down on creative quality control. For inspiration, Disney's animators looked to (in some cases copied) the style of Japanese anime, which was at its zenith in the mid-80s, and in particular the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The initial result of this was Adventures of the Gummi Bears, a high-profile Saturday Morning Cartoon Show that revitalized the block and genre by emphasizing high production values, tight, quality storytelling and a strong focus on fantasy action and adventure narrative. Adventures of the Gummi Bears was an international smash hit, singlehandedly ushered in a brand new age for animation and forced Disney's competitors to follow suit to keep up.
There was also an animated Broadway musical of sorts a few years later about some fish people that gets credit for turning the industry around, but it's not quite as historically important as Gummi Bears.
Fast-forward to 1994, and we're in the twilight years of the Renaissance Age. Disney, which deserves so much credit for bringing the era about, arguably had its creative peak of this cycle about two years prior to now. Gargoyles is a good case study for this, because while it's as acclaimed as the rest of Disney's other output from the previous decade and remains a cult favourite to this day, it very clearly also demonstrates that the studio is now in the business of following trends rather than setting them. The trend in question here would be Neo-Gothic superhero fiction and urban fantasy, and the series is very obviously and deliberately evoking the Art Deco Noir of Warner Brothers' legendary Batman the Animated Series, even down to a Manhattan setting.
Batman, which follows on thematically from the contemporary Tim Burton movies, had been critically acclaimed for not just its eye-catching and unforgettable art style, but also for its mature and sophisticated storytelling. At its best, Batman's episodes were like mini Greek or Shakespearean tragedies: Sympathetic character studies of flawed and vulnerable people whose combination of poor choices and poor lot in life led them down a path that culminated in them becoming supervillains. And that's sort of the key to Batman the Animated Series: Though praised for its unpatronizing character-based storytelling and in spite of its alleged “darkness”, Batman remained a staunchly idealistic and surprisingly optimistic series. It had a strong conception of good acts and evil acts (nothing amazingly preachy, just stuff like the somewhat defensible “urban terrorism against innocent civilians is probably a bad idea”) and put Batman himself in the position of being a compassionate healing figure, who fights nonviolently to stop people from hurting themselves and others (this had the unfortunate additional side effect of all too frequently making the villains more fleshed out and relatable than Batman, but that's beside the point). This was not the angst-ridden, manpain-infused grimdark animated take on Batman its fans like to position it as (that would be the Batman: Arkham Asylum series).
This is relevant to tonight's discussion because, unfortunately, Disney's Gargoyles sort of *is* that. It is very much interested in looking at the grief and suffering of its cast, particular protagonist Goliath primarily for voyeuristic reasons, and its most beloved story arc involves the titular Gargoyles being systematically betrayed and oppressed by everyone they ever trusted. Indeed, even their actual *origin story* is about betrayal: The Gargoyles were bound to protect and serve humans in medieval times, but the humans turned on them because they feared the Gargoyles, starting a war that ended when the humans found a magic spell that could curse the Gargoyles and turn them to stone. The sort of central joke here to someone relatively well versed in Disney's history and the sorts of tropes and thematic motifs they like to return to is that this plot, an ancient war between humans and a race of magical nonhumans based around fear and greed that ends with the humans winning and the nonhumans wiped out and reduced to a handful of survivors trying to preserve their ancient traditions, means that Gargoyles is actually less a riff on Batman and more a gritty, 90s grimdark remake of Adventures of the Gummi Bears.
When you boil it down to its basics, Gargoyles is fundamentally just Disney's signature high fantasy epic (The Black Cauldron filtered through J.R.R. Tolkien's conception of Elves with utopian undertones) buried under mounds of brooding grimdark. It's nothing that the studio hasn't done before (and frankly better), except this time it's going absolutely out of its way to convince you that's not what it is. Gargoyles seems ashamed of its roots, as all shows of its type always are: 90s grimdark is defined by nothing if not its overwhelming anxiety and embarrassment-It's so desperate to get taken seriously and read as adult and sophisticated it's terribly afraid you're going to notice it's basically pulpy genre fiction rubbish and laugh at it. And Disney is a studio uniquely susceptible to these concerns during this period, because in 1994 it had definitely established its reputation for being the gigantic media conglomerate “For Girls”: The modern animated canon movies, while not necessarily overtly feminist or even female-led, were very much female-friendly in a way people certainly would have noticed. Which leads me to my next point, which is that the reason Gargoyles is the only one of Disney's Renaissance-era Saturday Morning Cartoon Shows to truly see critical acclaim is because it was obviously aimed at boys.
Was it explicitly labeled as such? No, but let's look at the words people use to describe the show: “Dark”. “Gritty”. “Violent”. “Complex”. These are all adjectives that are going to grab little boy viewers and media critics hook, line and sinker. It's also “melodramatic”, but it's “Shakespearean” (as if other shows aren't) and a lot of people get lacerated and have their skulls kicked in, so it's OK. Gargoyles is no more or less intelligent than basically any other Saturday Morning Cartoon Show on the air during this period (let alone Disney's own shows). What it is, however, is grimdark cult genre fiction, and we now live in an era where cult genre fiction functionally serves as soap operas for boys. I'd be willing to bet the break session for this show consisted of someone at Disney sitting down and saying “Well, we're doing great with the female and family demographic, but we need something so young males will be reassured we're still servicing them”. That's just how media conglomerates think: For a modern example, see Disney's handling of Marvel, which numerous executives and spokespeople have actually come out and literally said they consider Disney's “Male Entertainment” division.
(For a contrasting example, look at Star Wars, which Disney manifestly has not done this with: They bungled the merchandise campaign for Episode VII, sure, but the marketing and creative wings of these types of companies don't always talk to each other properly. The movie itself explicitly features a woman as its heroic protagonist and wants you to notice.)
I fundamentally do not understand masculine tastes in media, or really much of anything else. I am at an utter loss to explain why boys have to have lurid ultraviolence and killing in order to get invested in drama, or why they gravitate so frequently to insular and solipsistic stories about brooding, loose-cannon antiheroes. Why they hate ensemble stories and utopianism. Because they do: You can't tell me the turn to voyueristic grimdark and lone-wolf noir narrative isn't tied up in some way with reactionary masculine fundamentalism. It's obviously connected to patriarchal hegemony, but what I don't get is why patriarchal tastes always seem to manifest in this particular way. The only explanation I can tentatively posit is that it's somehow a result of the normalization of war and some kind of bizarre, misguided death-drive type yearning permeating gender roles that potentially goes all the way back to the invention of war and the division of labour. We need people to get used to the idea of misery and killing, so we make stories to glamourize and glorify them.
Now that we've got all of that sorted, let's talk about the real reason I had to cover Gargoyles. Which is, of course, the fact both Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis have prominent starring roles in it. While not the only Star Trek alums to pepper Gargoyles' cast (Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Colm Meaney, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and even Nichelle Nichols had roles as well), Frakes and Sirtis are the highest profile by far and the most interesting to talk about from a Star Trek context. Given the premier date of October 1994, they may actually have been working on Gargoyles at the same time as they were wrapping up Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek Generations. It's certainly the first gig they had following departing Star Trek. Jonathan Frakes plays David Xanatos, a charming billionaire who finds the Gargoyles' castle and breaks their curse, only to betray them in a complex scheme to manipulate them for profit. Marina Sirtis plays the subtly-named Demona, Goliath's beloved from the Middle Ages who reunites with him in the modern age. Unlike Goliath, she can't forgive the humans for what they did to the Gargoyles in the past and refuses to coexist with them, swearing bloody vengeance on all of mankind. So she's basically Ursa from Gummi Bears except as a tragic villain instead of a rough-around-the-edges heroine who learns to put her anger behind her.
What's remarkable about Frakes and Sirtis' turns in Gargoyles is how eerily well their roles in this show compliment their iconic ones from Star Trek: The Next Generation. We never got a sequel to “Crossover” with the Enterprise crew, but in some ways you could almost read Xanatos and Demona as the Mirror Universe versions of Will Riker and Deanna Troi: Xanatos is particularly spooky, because he's every bit as disarmingly affable as Commander Riker, except where Will uses his charm in the service of empathy, Xanatos uses it as tool to manipulate people. It's genuinely frightening because he's so unbelievably good at it-You want to confide in Xanatos because he seems so warm, comforting and inviting, and yet part of you knows he's always going to use you, stab you in the back and leave you for dead. As billionaires do. It's hard not to root for him not just because he's so likable, but because he's so masterfully clever: No matter what course of action you devise to stop him, he's already thought of it and designed a contingency. He seems practically invincible, and it's impossible not to admire that in him.
With Demona, Marina Sirtis takes the grimdark brief in her own direction, wearing her character's pain, anguish and anger entirely on her sleeve. In a way she's in Ophelia-mode again, viscerally theatrically emotional in a way we really haven't seen her be since “Encounter at Farpoint”, but with the fire and intensity of something like her turn in “Face of the Enemy”. My issues with the general brief and concept of this show aside, I wouldn't be afraid to go so far as to say Demona is Marina Sirtis' definitive role: She's eminently sympathetic despite being an irredeemable supervillainess (a recurring problem with these 90s action genre shows), and it's hard not to have your heart break for her. And in doing so, Demona allows Marina Sirtis to show off her acting range on a populist platform in a way she was never really allowed to do before, or arguably was again. She's the breakout character of this show with damn good bloody reason.
In fact, Gargoyles doesn't just scoop up a swath of actors from Star Trek, it seems to be consciously modelling itself after Star Trek's basic structure. It's serialized, divided up into various story arcs with episodes leading one directly into another, just like a comic book. And, like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Gargoyles was produced directly for syndication. A lot of cartoon shows at the time were syndicated, but Disney shows more often than not tended to be bound to a network (frequently one of Disney's own, natch)-The idea here was that whatever risks and costs were to be incurred due to the experimental nature of the production would be offset by syndication, which is very much the attitude Paramount has historically had regarding Star Trek. The end result of all this is that Gargoyles, like contemporary Star Trek, is being explicitly (and unprecedentedly) positioned as a cult genre fiction series. And that's terrible: Neither Disney shows nor Star Trek should ever consider themselves cult genre fiction series primarily because they're not, but also because genre fiction is controlled by cults of reactionary patriarchy.
Disney is big enough that it can afford to branch out and placate the manboy demographic for a one-off. Its appeal and brand-name recognition is such that something like this is a trivial experiment for them, just like all the other odd and unexpectedly radical creative dead-ends Disney can always throw up for us from time to time. Star Trek can't. Star Trek can only ever work when it embraces its true populism because it's a modern myth structure, and myths can only survive when everyone has the opportunity to retell and contribute to them. In 1994, Paramount is on the brink of taking a cultural institution and locking it away behind a narrative paywall; only allowing admittance to a privileged cadre of affluent white, straight, cis males. It's a conscious, deliberate shift away from light to darkness, and the results are going to be catastrophic. Star Trek remains so cursed to this day.
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