Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Gargoyles

Note: This review refers specifically to the first two seasons of "Gargoyles" - since series creator Greg Weisman has taken surprisingly drastic steps to disavow the third season, I might as well do the same.

First, my thanks to kazekage for introducing me to this series.

The basic premise of "Gargoyles" is as follows: a thousand years ago, humans enjoyed a peaceful (if uneasy) relationship with Gargoyles, stone warriors that came to life after sunset and protected their shared homes. In 994 AD, one such home - Castle Wyvern in Scotland - is invaded by a horde of Vikings during the day. The helpless Wyvern Clan is decimated, leaving only six survivors. These survivors, including clan leader Goliath, are then frozen by a magic spell "until the castle rises above the clouds".

A millenium later, "eccentric" millionaire David Xanatos transplants the entire castle, brick by brick, onto the top of his corporate headquarters in Manhattan. The skyscraper's added height puts Castle Wyvern - and its Gargoyle statues - above the cloudline, and when the sun sets Goliath and his clan are released into a very different world.

As might be expected, the first season (13 episodes) deals with the Gargoyles orienting themselves in the modern world: they befriend Eliza Maza, a police officer, and make quite a few enemies as well. Goliath ultimately decides to declare Manhattan the Gargoyles' new home, and dedicates them all to defending the city from criminals and supernatural threats. And plenty of both emerge in the much-lengthier second season (52 episodes).

To better explain why I find "Gargoyles" so impressive, I've put together a little list of Things I Never Thought I'd See in a '90s Disney Cartoon (in no particular order):

1. Blood. Characters don't bleed often, but when they do, it's a significant moment, like Demona clawing Gillecomgain's face (thus giving birth to the endless vendetta of the Hunters) or Broadway accidentally shooting Elisa in the back with her own gun.

2. Character development. For everyone. Take a look at this "group photo" for the Disney Afternoon: "Tale Spin", "Darkwing Duck", "Gummi Bears", "Ducktales" - all amusing series in their own ways, but they all followed very strict status quos. Not so with "Gargoyles": the protagonists evolve, as do most of the antagonists.

2a. Most of the villains have a rather surprising amount of depth and growth. Demona is completely axe-crazy (and how's this for cognitive dissonance: she's voiced by Marina Sirtis, who probably only raised her voice two or three times throughout the entire run of "Star Trek: The Next Generation") but once her backstory is revealed, it's hard not to feel sorry for her, even though she refuses redemption at every opportunity. Xanatos seems to be the Gargoyles' archenemy (and i now understand why it's called the Xanatos Gambit: he's a brilliant Thrawn-level manipulator) but by the end of the second season he becomes a husband and a father, and finds common ground with Goliath (the one Gargoyle who hates him the most). Even Macbeth manages to let go of his hatred during his last appearance.

3. The Gargoyles are frozen in 994 AD and wake up in 1994; the natural assumption is that we're focusing on the present day. For the most part, this is true... until we discover that two storylines unfolded during the interrim, both of which have major ramifications on the present. The "City of Stone" arc flashes back to Demona's life after the fall of Castle Wyvern - a fittingly tragic tale that continues to reverberate throughout the second season. And then, later in the season, we learn what happened to the human Wyvern survivors and the Gargoyles' unhatched eggs. The series makes excellent use of its timeline.

4. Halfway through the second season, Goliath discovers he has a daughter, Angela... and he rejects her. Granted, it's more to do with how Gargoyles view family: children belong to the entire clan, so it doesn't really matter who the biological parents are. But it's still a shocking moment that taints our hero, especially since Angela does see him as her father. Of course, when he finally comes to love and accept Angela as his own, she's injured by the newest incarnations of the Hunter. Skip to 5:10
here and tell me you don't get the chills.

5. Much has been made of the series' surprisingly high number of loans from "Star Trek": Nichelle Nichols, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Kate Mulgrew, Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn all had recurring roles, while others such as Colm Meaney, LeVar Burton and Avery Brooks turned up for guest-spots. So for someone who's even moderately familiar with the Roddenberry franchise, it's pretty much a constant string of "Hey, I know that voice!"

5a. But that tends to overshadow the fact that the rest of the cast were excellent as well, particularly Keith David, John Rhys-Davies, Tim Curry (brr!) and Jeff Bennett, who totally channeled his QFG4 Ad Avis voice for Owen.

6. Various episodes take turns exploring Scottish, Irish, English, Native American, Nordic and Greek mythologies, with a line of dialogue summing it up perfectly: "All legends are true." But it's Shakespeare who gets the most love from the series' writers: Puck, Oberon, Titania, Macbeth and the Weird Sisters are all major players in the mythology, while Coldstone and his companions were apparently once known as Othello, Desdemona and Iago. Shakespeare and Disney - not a partnership I'd have anticipated.

Which isn't to say that "Gargoyles" is entirely without flaws. Pacing is a bit problematic throughout the series: for example, Puck is introduced very early in season 2 and doesn't turn up again for almost forty episodes; nothing much comes of Demona's ability to withstand daylight; the Illuminati are built up as major players but fizzle out towards the end; and the King Arthur subplot is practically an afterthought.

Also, while the World Tour arc had some great out-of-Manhattan adventures, the payoff was surprisingly lacking: almost twenty episodes are used to establish characters such as Cuchulainn, Natsilane, the New Olympians and the Gargoyle clans of England, Guatemala and Japan, but once the dust settles they never appear again. Granted, there were only six episodes left in the season once the World Tour ended, but I kept expecting Goliath's new allies to turn up during the Gathering or the Hunter's Moon - both major crisis points for the Manhattan Clan - and they're not even mentioned. Apparently the World Tour was meant to springboard an entire array of spin-offs, but to my knowledge none of them ever materialized so it all comes off a bit moot.

Time travel is another headache-inducing issue here: the series takes the familiar stance that history has already been written, so whenever Goliath or someone else goes back in time, they only end up doing whatever they were meant to do all along. This becomes especially frustrating once the Archmage makes his comeback, because his future self saves his past self from death and tells him he knew how to do it because his future self told him, etc. It all gets a bit too recursive for my tastes.

Still, there's a lot to love about "Gargoyles": solid writing, a cast without a single weak link, bold (and successful) attempts to push beyond the standardized limitations - both technological and "moral" - of animation at the time, and a rich, consistent mythology that holds up under scrutiny. All of this from a mid-'90s Disney cartoon.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quoted For Ultimate Truth

"And most of all, I want to know why in the FUCK these people who want the Silver Age back SO DAMN BAD seem to want everything BUT the essential optimism that characterized the fucking Silver Age brought back. I can't be the only person who's noticed this, can I?" -kazekage

Hardly a surprise, but...

"Heroes" has been cancelled. So has "Flashforward".

I very much doubt that the demise of "Flashforward" comes as a shock to anyone - any series that needs a three-month hiatus to stabilize itself, after losing two showrunners in rapid succesion, after only nine episodes, is utterly doomed. Still, it had a rather interesting premise and solid, capable actors.

Why, then, did I lose interest in it so quickly (along with the rest of America, it seems)? I suspect the main reason was the overabundance of irrelevant subplots: there were about a dozen storylines introduced (again, in nine episodes) and few of them had any meaningful connection. Yes, our FBI protagonist's investigation and his potentially-doomed marriage are worth following, not so much the tale of his AA sponsor's war-ravaged daughter. The cancer-stricken doctor is certainly sympathetic, but the babysitter? Not really. And the writers throw in so many red herrings and dead-ends that it just turned into a confusing jumble after only a few months. With cast members jumping ship even before the official announcement, it's probably best to quietly turn out the lights and call it a day.

"Heroes" is, of course, another matter altogether. At one time occupying the top spot on my must-see TV list, its downfall was a far more protracted and painful affair.

In many ways, it was a series that comic book aficionados like myself had been waiting for: an original, live-action superhero drama that took itself seriously while tossing the an occasional wink to the old conventions and tropes. It was the X-Men without giant robots and spandex; it was "Watchmen" without the overwhelming pessimism; it was "Astro City" set in New York without the pre-arranged public acceptance of superhumans.

(The fact that they had Milo Ventimiglia, Zachary Quinto and Adrian Pasdar, sometimes on the same screen? Well, that was just a bonus for me personally.)

And despite various hiccups along the way, the first season managed to tell a good story, with a great villain in Sylar. There was suspense, romance, a few dramatic deaths, a fair amount of action (though I'm sure the Kirby Plaza showdown could've used a bit more flash) and more; all in all, an excellent start.

Then the second season came, and... well, that's where the decline started, though it was gradual enough that you might not notice it without hindsight. Of course, Tim Kring's defense is that the WGA strike brought an abrupt halt to the season - technically true, since the second season lasted 11 episodes rather than the traditional 22-24.

But even if you take those eleven episodes on their own merits, they're not particularly good, largely because they just reiterate the first season's strengths in a lesser capacity: another apocalyptic threat, another trip to a dystopian future, another Mystery From The Past (and wow was that revelation a letdown) and so on. Characters started doing very foolish things simply because the plot demanded it. Guest stars such as Nichelle Nichols, Joanna Cassidy and Nicholas D'Agosto were utterly wasted despite being built up as significant figures in the storyline.

The real turning point, in my opinion, was showrunner Tim Kring's decision to abandon his original plan for the series, wherein each season would feature a different cast of characters. It was a daring plan and one that could have worked quite easily: if you can create six popular characters, there's no reason why you can't create six more further down the line. And by the first season finale most of the characters had wrapped up their individual subplots: Sylar was defeated and probably killed, Hiro completed his quest, Nathan and Peter saved each other, the Hawkins family was reunited... all nice and neat, minus a few loose threads.

And instead of leaving well enough alone, Kring preserved the cast in the second season... and then dumped a whole batch of new characters on his viewers. Some, like Dana Davis' Monica Dawson and Kristen Bell's electrifying (in more ways than one) turn as Elle Bishop, were instant darlings; others, like Mexican twins Maya and Alejandro and seasonal Big Bad Adam Monroe (played by David Anders), were... less successful. To put it both mildly and politely.

The problem was, of course, that having these second-stringers around only demonstrated how poorly their storylines were being handled in comparison to the ones who'd been around for a whole season already. It didn't work because the writers simply didn't have the time to develop the new characters while formulating new storylines for characters they'd already established.

Then the third season lapsed into utter nonsense: more new characters, hopelessly entangled subplots, and a loss of anything even remotely resembling coherence. Notable guest stars such as Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, John Glover, Francis Capra and Dan Byrd were kept from making any significant contribution (indeed, most of them just stood around and talked for a while before disappearing into the ether and never returning).

Of course, the end result of this increasingly rapid degeneration was painfully clear: rather than embodying the best aspects of the superhero genre, "Heroes" came to represent said genre's worst excesses. Characters who'd long since outlived their purpose were maintained, without being given equally compelling new directions. Storylines became convoluted beyond comprehension, with retcons becoming more and more common. Plot dictated motivation, even when the plot made no sense to begin with. It became, for lack of a better term, a hot mess (literally so: Sylar may have devolved into a useless, whining prat but good lord Zach Quinto is still a poster boy for snu-snu).

Getting axed at this point is more a mercy-killing than executive meddling. I can't even say I'm particularly sorry to see it go, since I said my goodbyes to "Heroes" while it was still on the air. As with most spectacular TV flops in recent years, I can only hope that the right lessons will be learned here...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In Defense of Fan Fiction

Author Diana Gabaldon has problems with fan fiction.

indigo_5, herself a fanfic writer, responds. She is joined on her LJ by yours truly, even as many more reply on Gabaldon's own blog in response to her rather poorly-informed views on what fan fiction is. There are many, many intelligent discussions currently going on at these two sites regarding the issue, and I don't want to duplicate or cut-and-paste excessively, so go, read.

This flare-up got me thinking about my own stance on fan fiction. No surprise, I've long been a defender of this phenomenon - even tried my hand at it once or twice, just to see if I could - and I've often taken the rather extreme position that fan fiction is as valid as the texts it's based on.

Why? Because the concept of "intellectual property" gets a bit wobbly once you consider how character archetypes and plot conventions work in literature: any tree-hugging Elf can be traced back to Tolkien, figures like Achilles and Arthur have appeared hundreds (if not thousands) of times in practically every genre under the sun... I don't know if I'd go so far as to reiterate the old cliche of "No New Ideas", but there's some weight to the argument that the execution is what counts - that you can take the familiar and shuffle it around until it becomes new and interesting again.

And I think that's what has writers like Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon so downright terrified of fan fiction, to the point of decrying it as both illegal and immoral (the former, not even close, and the latter is such a subjective value judgment that there's no point debating it): if "intellectual property" goes the way of the dodo, and literature becomes a meritocracy where the only credit you earn for authoring a work is based on the actual stylistic, aesthetic and thematic quality of said work... well, that'll be when we separate the best from the rest, won't it?

Because you can go ahead and write a novel and make the New York Times, but then some amateur on the Interweb spins a tale that outshines you on every level, using your own characters. That's when we'll see where the real talent lies... and authors who've coasted by on atrocious writing (why yes, Stephenie Meyer, that is my fiery gaze you're feeling on the back of your neck) will find themselves in very awkward positions.