The Maury Povich of Evil Geneticists: “Monsters”

“If I seem a little nervous, it’s because I’ve never been this close to a real-life Loch Ness monster before.  But I’ll wager you’ve never been this close to a real-life gargoyle, either.  Guess that kind of makes us even.” — Angela

Monsters

Written by: Cary Bates

Original Air Date: November 28, 1995

Introduces: Original Nessie, Other Nessie, Spawn of Nessies

Timeline placement: January 16 – 18, 1996

Location: Loch Ness, Scotland

TMNT episodes I could make variably forced comparisons to: “Monster Hunter“, “Junklantis”

The Beats:

  • The world tourists once again fail to arrive to Manhattan.  As they approach this newest shore, they spot a large metallic figure traversing the waters below them.  Before they can ascertain what it is, it disappears from sight.
  • On the shore, Elisa spots a town in the distance, and suggests that the gargoyles wait for her while she walks there to find a phone with which to call Matt to let him (and the rest of the Clan) know where they are.
  • In town, Elisa quickly find out just where Avalon sent them: Scotland, again.  This time, however, they’re in the Loch Ness region.  She makes her way to a telephone booth, where she changes into her superhero identity calls Matt, only to get his answering machine.  She leaves a message, unaware of the fact that it is less than useless to do so,  as Matt’s recorder is full.
  • Back at the lake, the world tourists set off for yet another return trip to Avalon.  Angela is wistful, wishing to at least catch a glimpse of the monster she’s been told about, while Elisa is more skeptical: to her, it’s far more likely that “Nessie” is nothing more than a modified sub used by the nearby townspeople to bolster the tourist trade.  She’s only partially correct, thought.  Precisely one Nessie is mechanical.  The other one isn’t, and that night, Original Nessie is being hunted down by Mecha-Nessie
  • As Original Nessie swims around, it crashes against the world tourists’ skiff, causing it to capsize.  Goliath, Elisa, and Bronx resurface quickly.  Angela does not.
  • Goliath dives into the lake to try to find Angela, but the murkiness and the two moving Nessies make it impossible for him to do so.  As he goes up for air, he does not notice Mecha-Nessie open its mouth and swallow the young gargoyle whole.
  • As the world tourists search in vain for Angela, Mecha-Nessie makes it ways to a hidden underwater base.  Once docked, its crew exits the submarine.  Said crew consists of two Xanatos Security Squad goons.  From the bases control room, their boss berates them for their failure to procure Original Nessie, a.k.a. “Big Daddy”.  Said boss is Anton Sevarius.  He notes that without Original Nessie, he does not expect his current captive to survive the night.  The Security team leader, Bruno, explains that the reason for their failure had to do with gargoyles, which leaves Sevarius bemused, until Bruno adds that they’ve managed to capture one.  Elated at the prospect of evidence of a heretofore unknown gargoyle clan, Sevarius asks Bruno to take her into custody and obtain DNA samples.
  • Some time later, Angela wakes up and finds herself in a grotto, along with Nessie, or at least a Nessie.
  • It turns out that having Angela around is good for Other Nessie , as the gargoyle’s presence and friendship appears to have restored its desire to live.
  • Angela awakens to find herself in chains and face to face with a gloating Sevarius, who informs her that, after performing the relevant tests, he’s discovered that contrary to his initial working theories, she’s actually Goliath’s biological daughter.
  • After placing a tracker on Other Nessie, Sevarius releases it, so that it may rejoin Nessie, giving the Xanatos team the opportunity to capture both.
  • Elisa is making her way downtown, walking fast, when she spots two members of the Xanatos security team doing their shopping.  She stows away on their vehicle to see their destination, which happens to be on the lake shore.
  • Team Sevarius discovers Elisa and Goliath snooping around topside, so they bring them down into the facility and imprison them.
  • The members of Team Sevarius–minus Bruno, who has been left behind to stand guard over the prisoners–take Mecha-Nessie on another Original Nessie hunt, after first releasing a tagged Other Nessie to serve as bait.  They take Angela with them.
  • Taking advantage of some shoddy cell workmanship, Team Gargoyles–mostly Bronx–dig their way out of their cell. This does not go unnoticed by Bruno, who’s ready and waiting for them when they leave.  Unfortunately for him, Bruno was not ready for Bronx, who causes the Security guard to lose control of the situation and accidentally shoot up the complex, severely compromising its structural integrity.
  • With the complex flooding, Goliath and Elisa force Bruno to help them make their escape. Together, they take Mini-Mecha-Nessie, another submarine, out into the lake.
  • Original Nessie and Other Nessie reunite.  In order to lure them to Mecha Nessie’s clutches, Team Sevarius chains Angela to the exterior of the submarine like a worm in a fishing line.
  • In Mini-Mecha-Nessie, the world tourists spot the two Bio Nessies as they follow Mecha Nessie.  After Mini-Mecha-Nessie scrapes against Mecha-Nessie because of reasons, I guess, Elisa shoots Goliath, who is equipped with an oxygen masks for him and his daughter, out of the sub through the torpedo launcher.  Angela is saved.
  • Angela and Goliath help out both Bio Nessies, first by removing Other Nessie’s tracking collar, and then by disabling Mecha-Nessie’s tasers.  Original Nessie, in turn, attacks Mecha-Nessie.
  • As their vessel takes in water, Sevarius and the Xanatos Security Team attempt to use their sub’s remaining power to get to shore. Before they can do so, both Bio Nessies press their attack As the submarine goes down, the Xanatos Security Team realize that Sevarius has disapparated, the last thing they realize before they sink to the depths of the loch.  Meanwhile, Goliath and Angela have rejoined Mini-Mecha-Nessie and have escaped to safety, and eventually, the surface.
  • The world tourists observe as Original Nessie and Other Nessie, now free from Mecha-Nessie, are now joined by their child, whom they are free to take care of  in peace.

Continuity Notes:

How did this get in here?

Possibly the most interesting thing about “Monsters” is the way it doesn’t feel a whole lot like a Gargoyles episode, but rather a stock plot with Gargoyles characters attached to it.  Its antagonists are placed in in roles that are almost, but not quite, unsuited for them: we have the Xanatos security guys in a sub, and we’ve got Sevarius not playing God, for once, and in general acting more like a biologist than a geneticist (*).  We’ve got a plot that could have been done in any number of shows, including Captain Planet, Doctor Who and the 2003 TMNT–see “Monster Hunter”.  It does not involve any sort of moral quandary or shades of gray–even if you could argue that keeping Nessie in captivity is a good thing (and you can), the fact that it’s Sevarius acting on behalf of Xanatos means that Nessie’s well-being is not a priority, so they’re no question that what they are doing is wrong and must be stopped.

(This isn’t a complaint.  Although Greg Weisman himself was less than effusive about “Monsters”, noting the various problems with the its timing and animation, it is still a perfectly good episode.)

Since there’s not a whole lot else to talk about, let’s take the time to talk about Angela.  At this point, she’s been featured in five episodes (six, if you count the tail end of “Avalon” Part One), and stands as arguably the most important cast addition in the season (a case can still be made for the Weird Sisters, although not for much longer). “Monsters” is arguably Angela’s first focus episode–at the very least, it’s the first where she is asked to carry a scene without Goliath or Elisa present.

Angela was created as a response to a specific situation: the lack of female gargoyles in the Manhattan Clan. In this respect she is a very good idea; actually attempting to fix things is way better than shrugging and saying “that’s the way things are”.  She is also, as we find out here, Goliath’s (and therefore Demona’s) biological daughter and, more importantly, a gargoyle who wasn’t present for the Scottish massacres or know about Demona’s role in them, both which opens up a lot of interesting story opportunities. And yet, she feels in many ways like a failure.

If Angela were a Super Smash Bros. character, she’d be Mario. Nothing about her is bad, necessarily, but nothing about her is remarkable, either. She is smart, even clever, in much the same way characters like Goliath and Elisa are. She, like all the other gargoyles, is brave and determined to do what she sees is right. Her design does not call attention to itself. She is level-headed. She makes a fine addition to any team, once it’s obtained all the people it needs. But she’s not exactly essential—especially when placed into a group consisting of characters in that same mold, like Goliath and Elisa.

That said, while Elisa and Goliath are also Marios—decent at everything, but not fantastic at anything—they still manage to feel like well-developed characters instead of blank slates. There’s a specificity to them that gives them weight and justifies their screen time, and that’s something that’s largely missing from Angela, who has yet to inhabit any particular niche of her own. She doesn’t get to introduce Avalon or serve as its guide in any meaningful way—we have characters we actually know performing that role. Her perspective on the World Tour isn’t substantially different from Goliath and Elisa’s, as those parts of the world are as new to them as they are to her. She provides no special or specialized knowledge. Even her desire to join Goliath feels strangely muted: it could have been the easiest thing in the world to give her wanderlust or a zest for new life experiences that made her enthusiastic about the tour in a way Goliath and Elisa couldn’t, but no: she’s just as frustrated as they are, which is unhelpful, as it doesn’t give the writers a whole lot to play with. As I said, “Monsters” is the closest thing Angela has had to a spotlight episode so far, and even then, it’s impossible not to note that her role in it is minimal. Her one big scene is her interaction with Nessie Two, which moves the plot along only insofar as it keeps the beastie in play. Her big development this episode—the reveal of her specific parentage—requires no agency from her.

Angela, in short, feels a lot like a token female character. She feels like a character designed as a blank slate, onto which the writers can add or remove characteristics as required by a particular episode’s plot, and who can’t be anything else because the writers sometimes write plots requiring female characters, and what are they going to do, create a second one? And so she’s everything and nothing, in a way that can be hugely frustrating. And that’s really weird, given the series Gargoyles is.  At this point, Gargoyles had already assembled what was in 1995 almost certainly the strongest female cast in western animation history. Between Elisa, Demona, Katharine, Mary, Fox, et al., the series had grown quite experienced in writing a large (if not exactly comprehensive) variety of female experiences. All of which makes Angela incredibly hard to explain, especially in a context where she’s one of only three regular cast members and the only one that requires particular attention. How is she not getting development?

(This is yet another way in which the Avalon World Tour does not help Gargoyles: its conceit means the time that should be spent on Angela instead needs to be spent on each episode’s particular new character and scenario.)

A glimmer of a potential explanation presents itself when we examine the female characters who start out as allies, in comparison with female characters who start out as baddies. It’s worth noting that at this point, most of the female characters with larger, more flashy personalities (who, not coincidentally, are more likely to become fan favorites) are or started out as antagonists—Demona, Fox, Princess Katharine, even Mary and Finella. This is by no means strange—compare April O’Neil with Karai (TMNT) , Webbigail with Magica DeSpell (DuckTales), or Scarlett with The Baroness (G.I. Joe); villains don’t need to adhere to acceptable standards of femininity, which means that in many cases—mostly in the past but by no means exclusively so—it is only they who get to have things like defined personalities or voices or nuances. In contrast, female characters who start out as goodies—Elisa, Maggie, Desdemona, Captain Chávez—tend to be somewhat…less solid? than their baddie counterparts. None of them have ambitions beyond the status quo or a return to a previous one. They are largely lacking in humanizing quirks. None of them are bad characters, exactly, but it sometimes seems as if that’s the extent of the writers’ ambitions when it came to them. This can sometimes seem like enough when the norm is for female characters to be terrible, but is glaring and disappointing when it is not, as is the case here. It’s not until Coco, I believe, that the series introduces a female goodie with a loud personality. Angela, then, isn’t singular, but rather the latest in a pattern.

Even Elisa isn’t immune to this. While her context as a multiracial woman of color means that a certain level of normality works for her in a way it wouldn’t work for a white character, and she is a far more defined character than Angela, it’s still worth noting that Elisa often feels like less than she could be, sometimes even coming off has half-baked, in a way that’s tied, I think, to several of the series’ more notable storytelling missteps–see “Revelations” and “Heritage“.   Most glaringly, she ends the world tour precisely the way she begins it, and that’s a huge issue that is usually left unaddressed.

Still, Elisa can at least fall back on her relationships with her family and individual gargoyles (and, in theory, her relationship to Xanatos). Angela has much less material to work with—she has her relationships with Goliath and Demona, and an eventual romance with Broadway, which is meant to last for the remainder of their lives (gargoyles are super-monogamous) and makes little sense in that context, particularly since the bulk of their on-screen interactions (or her interactions with the rest of the trio, really) hasn’t been all that positive. But that’s it.

What does this mean, in the end? Not a whole lot, aside from being another example of how the Gargoyles writers’ awareness occasionally did not match up with their intentions and wishes. Weisman, at least, would get a lot better about this sort of thing: The Spectacular Spider-Man, for one, generally did a good job of making its female cast members—and I’m thinking of Peter’s classmates here–distinct and interesting, even when they shared largely similar contexts. Still, that’s not exactly relevant to Gargoyles, at least not the TV show.

On a worse show, having its two most prominent female characters be consistently treated poorly by the writers would be a deal-breaker. It would be a sign that the showrunners and writers don’t understand women, don’t care about them, and don’t care to care about them, because often, those two female characters would be it, with no one else to pick up the slack. Fortunately, there are two important mitigating factors at play here. First, there’s the fact that even if the show’s more interesting female characters start out as antagonists and obstacles, the way the show allows for shades of grey and change means they don’t necessary end up there, or that their initial position on the board makes them any less worth rooting for, making things far more complicated than “Gargoyles’ writers can’t write interesting ‘good’ women.” The second is that, again, Angela and Elisa represent only fraction of the show’s female representation (albeit the fraction with by far the most screen time), making this a disappointment rather than a catastrophe. Sure, Angela isn’t terribly compelling. But Katherine and Demona and Finella and Mary and Robyn and Elisa-on-a-good-day are.

And that’s why more diversity is always a good thing.

Footnotes!

(*) Which isn’t to say that the Nessie project wouldn’t have involved genetics work; it’s just that the part of it we see doesn’t have a lot to do with it.

Random Thoughts:

  • As an addendum to the above, it’s super-important to note that while Gargoyles’ missteps when it comes to female characters are mitigated by the sheer number of female characters and their general awesomeness, the same cannot necessarily be said for the series’ missteps when it comes to its female characters of color—not only because their numbers are much smaller (especially if you don’t count characters who technically aren’t POC, but are coded as such due to their culture, like the Guatemala and Ishimura gargoyle clans) their prominence less…prominent, and their awesomeness less consistent, but also because the missteps when it comes to their portrayal are more problematic–again, see “Revelations” and especially “Heritage.”
  • One of the key details about this episode that nevertheless managed to go completely over my head when first watching it, and which still blows my mind, is that the Xanatos Goon Squad as we see it in the cartoon, minus Bruno, are meant to have died in that downed sub. I mean, it’s not like characters haven’t died in Gargoyles before, but “going down with the sub / plane / Titanic” is normally such an escapable fate in comic books (Exhibit A: Sevarius, who survives despite having no apparent means of doing so) that seeing it actually take just seems weird. In any case, rest in peace, Xanatos Goon Squad. As extras went, you were pretty cool.
  • One wonders why it hadn’t occurred to Elisa to make her unsuccessful phone call back in New Florence Island.  Granted, her priorities were elsewhere, given that she had a lot less idle time back then, but still, there’s no reason why it couldn’t have happened after the crisis with Raven had passed.
  • One that note, one wonders how Elisa spends all that off-screen daytime, given her relatively limited funds.  Is there any fanfic about this?
  • Gun Check: Bruno’s “particle beam” uses the same prop as the machine gun he and the other Xanatos Security people had used in “Awakening”.
  • In his ramble for the episode, Greg Weisman notes that there are several repetitive elements in this episode, specifically, in the way Nessie is introduced into the story and how it results in the loss of a world tourist, both of which recall “Heritage” (which, by the by, had aired the previous day when the series was first being broadcast). The reuse of Scotland, meanwhile, recalls “Shadows of the Past”.
  • As much as I don’t usually care for Angela, I have to say that her interactions with Nessie–particularly the one quoted at the beginning, are fantastic.  I really wish we could have seen her carrying more scenes.
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4 Responses to The Maury Povich of Evil Geneticists: “Monsters”

  1. On the whole, what always frustrated me about Angela was the lack of balance between nature and nurture; her character had, clearly, been completely defined by her upbringing. And while that’s not an impossibility, it just seemed like a wasted opportunity. The fact that she is the daughter of Goliath and Demona is only, at least to me, demonstrated by her physical appearance. If her personality (or lack thereof) was switched into, say, Desdemona, there would be no association to Goliath or Demona, and that baffles me. (We see the inverse of this later, in “Possession,” obviously but that’s for another discussion, right?) Though radically different, Goliath and Demona do share a flare for the dramatic; sometimes an over-abundance of it (note: not necessarily a complaint). They are rarely ever subtle, unless, in Goliath’s case, it’s resignation, and even then, it’s usually followed by an excess of brooding. Goliath is good at brooding. And, of course, with Demona…I think we all know how dramatic Demona can be. If nothing else were different, I think Angela would have benefited from showing some sort of innately dramatic or even obsessive nature. I mean, even in later episodes when she insists that Demona is not beyond redemption, she does so in what I always felt was a fairly passive way. Apart from when she growls, roars, or is in the midst of a fight, acting (let’s be honest) as any gargoyle would, she’s muted and downright dull. This might not have been so bothersome if not for, as your blog points out, she’s surrounded by both male AND female characters who are the opposite.

  2. Ian says:

    RobinChristine! : )!

    I love your suggestion. I’m generally not a terribly big fan of nature as a factor in making people who they are, but I agree that a sense of continuity beyond the purely physical would have been extremely helpful in helping define Angela, and your idea has a bunch of potential I now really wish could have been explored, particularly since there’s so many ways to be dramatic. It can tie back to them, without being on the nose about it.

  3. Pingback: The Wedding Bells of Notre Dame: “Sanctuary” | Monsters of New York

  4. Pingback: Landfill(er): “Junklantis” | Monsters of New York

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