TV Review – The Best of Batman: The Animated Series Part 2

Perchance to Dream (Season 1, Episode 30)
Original airdate: October 19, 1992
Written by Laren Bright and Michael Reaves & Joe R. Lansdale
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Batman chases a group of villains but is knocked unconscious after seeing a flash of light. He wakes up back home as Bruce Wayne, unsure of how he got back to Wayne Manor. He knows things are wrong when he goes to enter the Batcave but finds it’s not there. Testing his sanity even further is the revelation that Thomas & Martha Wayne are still alive. Bruce is engaged to Selina Kyle, and Batman is an entirely different person newly debuted in Gotham City. This is obviously not the series finale, so it’s clear that Bruce is caught in a dream state of some sort.

This is one of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series when it comes to addressing the psychological turmoil of Bruce Wayne. We can see and hear his emotions when he glimpses old versions of his parents, happy and healthy as their son carries on the family business. There’s even the wish fulfillment of finding enduring love with Selina. Inevitably, the dream crumbles due to something I learned from this episode. You can’t read in a dream, and as Bruce looks over a paper and books, he finds it is incomprehensible. He confronts Batman in a clock tower and unmasks the real villain.

This is one of the episodes that adapted a one-off story from the comic books, specifically Detective Comics #633 (August 1991). That issue was written by Peter Milligan and illustrated by Tom Mandrake & Mike DeCarlo. Batman becomes the victim of a one-off villain called the Synaptic Kid who can read people’s minds but with dire side effects. That issue plays out with the Synaptic Kid believing he is the real Bruce Wayne and figuring out who this Batman is. The adaptation here slips comfortably into the mythos of the animated series.

Robin’s Reckoning (Season 1, Episodes 32 & 33)
Original airdate: February 7 & February 14, 1993
Written by Randy Rogel
Directed by Dick Sebast

Robin has often been the butt of many a joke before Batman: The Animated Series. However, I think it’s stories like this that prove why Robin is an integral part of the Batman mythos. We start with the duo of Batman & Robin stopping a construction site sabotage. Every criminal escapes except one, and after interrogation, he reveals the name of his boss, Billy Marin. The name means nothing to Robin, but Batman reacts with urgency. He tells Robin this doesn’t involve him and sets off to deal with the problem himself. Robin uses the Batcave’s computer to discover Billy Marin is an alias for Tony Zucco, the man who murdered Robin’s parents.

The rest of the two-parter jumps between flashbacks to Dick Grayson’s origins as Robin & his pursuit of Tony Zucco in the present. BTAS manages to tell Robin’s origin without ever falling into the annoying jokes so much of pop culture has come to make about the character. You understand why Bruce Wayne immediately wants to bring this orphaned child into his home. You know the connection between Bruce’s process of dealing with the murder of his parents reflected in Robin’s hot-headed desire to kill Zucco.

Robin’s Reckoning won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program for Batman: The Animated Series in 1993. It really is one of the highlights of the entire series. It never depends on a gimmicky villain and is entirely about developing the characters of Batman & Robin. It informs the viewer about why these two fight crime together and subverts some of Robin’s original intent. He was created as a way to lighten the Batman stories and humanize his character. In this story, Batman serves as the source of empathy, attempting to quell Robin’s murderous inclinations, knowing his ward would regret this for the rest of his life.

The Laughing Fish (Season 1, Episode 34)
Original airdate: January 10, 1993
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

A group of fishermen pour out the night’s catch and discover every fish bears the Joker’s twisted grimace. Batman watches from a rooftop, somehow anticipating this move. The Joker shows up at the Gotham Office of Copyrights wanting to trademark these fish and benefit from their sale. A pencil pusher there tries to explain you can’t trademark a living thing, which drives the Joker into an apoplectic rage. What ensues is the Clown Prince of Crime terrorizing Gotham throughout one night, targeting people who refuse to copyright his mutation. Batman and Bullock track the villain down to a closed down aquarium, working together to take the villain down.

Anytime you see Dini & Timm on an episode of BTAS, you know you are in for some of the best this series can produce. The Laughing Fish is no exception, with its rich atmosphere building from the first frames. The musical score and frequently stormy night make this entry into the series feel almost like a horror film. This is the first episode of BTAS that seemingly shows the Joker perishing, only to show up episodes later without any explanation. Including animated movies and Batman Beyond, the Joker has “died” only to return eight times. It’s just one of those great elements of the character.

This is another episode adapted from the comics, but in this case, it draws from two stories. The first is “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” from Batman #251 (Sept 1973) and the classic Laughing Fish two-parter in Detective Comics #475 & 476 (Feb/Mar 1978). That latter story is from the legendary run by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, which had a strong influence on the entirety of BTAS. The characters of Mayor Hamilton Hill and crime boss Rupert Thorne originated in that run.

Almost Got ‘Im (Season 1, Episode 46)
Original airdate: November 10, 1992
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Eric Radomski

One vital element of Paul Dini’s writing was how he understood each character’s voice in the world of Batman. It’s on full display here as we join a collection of Rogues as they play a poker game in a bar devoted to criminals. Our cast is made up of The Joker, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, and Killer Croc. To pass the time, each villain shares their story of how they almost killed Batman. Each story is perfectly themed to the gimmick of the particular villain. We also get appearances of Harley Quinn and Catwoman along the way. It also provides an origin for the giant penny trophy on display in the Batcave.

This is a much lighter episode than others on this list. Dini nails the voice of each villain, primarily through their plots to kill Batman. Two-Face flips a giant coin, The Penguin has a series of bird-related traps, Poison Ivy uses exploding pumpkins filled with toxins, the Joker has an elaborate televised faux talk show, and Killer Croc just tries to smash Batman with a rock. This episode works both as an introduction for new people and also as a treat for longtime fans.

The Man Who Killed Batman (Season 1, Episode 51)
Original airdate: February 1, 1993
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

A man runs through a downpour, scurrying across the streets of Gotham until he finds the residence of Rupert Thorne. The man introduces himself as Sidney Debris, and Thorne knows him as “the Man who Killed Batman.” Sidney tells the story of this evening, which begins with him being used a bait by other criminals during a robbery. Batman shows up, and Sidney accidentally tussles with him due to tripping. A propane gas take is broken open, and it appears that Batman goes up in flames. The other criminals are shocked and celebrate with Sidney at a nearby bar. 

This leads to a bar fight, getting locked up, getting rescued by Harley Quinn in disguise as a lawyer, going on a jewelry heist with the Joker, and subsequently getting stuffed in a coffin and dropped into a vat of acid. Somehow Sidney washes up outside that chemical factory and looks for help from Rupert Thorne. Well, they aren’t going to kill off Batman in the middle of the series, so there is more going on here than we can first realize. It’s another beautiful Dini & Timm episode, probably one of their lesser entries but still very entertaining.

Harley and Ivy (Season 1, Episode 56)
Original airdate: January 18, 1993
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Paul Dini made a massive breakthrough with his introduction of Harley Quinn. This is one of the first episodes to expand on her character in a way that resonated through both the series and the comic books. After a particularly nasty treatment by the Joker, Harley is “fired” and sets off independently. A museum robbery has her crossing paths with Poison Ivy. The two become a sort of “girl power” duo focused on showing the boys how much they can accomplish despite them. 

The Harley/Ivy team became an ongoing element in the show, especially in comic books once Harley was introduced. In fact, in the last couple of years, this has been developed even further to establish that the two villains are on again off again lovers. In 2009, Paul Dini penned Gotham City Sirens. It ran for two years and featured Harley, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman getting involved professionally when Bruce Wayne was presumed dead. There was even a Gotham City Sirens film in development to feature the Margot Robbie Harley, but that was put on hold for the Birds of Prety movie. It’s pretty impressive that a single episode of BTAS would have such long-lasting effects on the whole of DC Universe media like this. Quite a testament to Dini’s storytelling.

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