Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 20, 2004)
After the live-action Batman films gave the franchise restored prominence in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the powers that be decided to expand the Bat-influence. Less than three months after Batman Returns hit movie screens, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on TV. Although many now respect it, Returns received a fairly poor reception, and it caused the film series’ producers to back away from Tim Burton’s darkness for future live-action movies.
As I recall, Animated, on the other hand, enjoyed a positive reception from day one. When it hit the air in September 1992, it garnered positive reviews and did well with audiences. Though this original series ceased production a few years back, its siblings continue to prosper; shows like Justice League and Teen Titans remain active.
This package presents the first 28 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Note that these are the first episodes produced, and they don’t even remotely approximate the broadcast order. For the series’ first season, they created 65 programs. I’ll review these episodes in production order and will also mention at what point they actually hit the air. Most of the synopses come from http://www.tvtome.com – thanks to them for their good work.
On Leather Wings (broadcast 2nd, 9/6/92) features a second winged weirdo in the skies above Gotham City. Naturally, people confuse the two, and Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) receives the blame for crimes committed by the second character. He spends the episode in search of this new menace named Man-Bat (Marc Singer).
This episode suffered from an excessively basic storyline. It seemed fairly predictable and lacked much depth. However, it did set up the series well. The fairly dark tone came through nicely, so despite the absence of much extended plot, the show worked well to start things.
Christmas With the Joker (broadcast 38th, 11/13/92) finds Gotham during the holiday season, and the Joker (Mark Hamill) is up to his usual tricks. He kidnaps Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo), and TV newscaster Summer Gleason (Mari Devon) and holds them hostage to lure the Bats into a series of traps.
Although this one also offered a simplistic plot, but it made up for this with clever antics. The show nicely combined action and intrigue, and Batman and Robin needed to use their vaunted detective skills to get through the events. In addition, Joker got good usage. Overall, the episode seemed strong.
The oddest aspect of the show came from the use of Robin, who doesn’t appear again until this set’s 24th show. I don’t know if he was always supposed there for the others but he just didn’t appear, or if one of the later programs brought him into the mix. Anyway, it seemed odd for Robin to pop up out of the blue here, even though I know the continuity may make sense as broadcast.
Nothing to Fear (broadcast 10th, 9/15/92) introduces a new villain named the Scarecrow (Henry Polic). He seeks to destroy the local university in a variety of ways, and he uses a fear-inducing gas to achieve his ends. This eventually affects Batman, who faces his greatest concern: the disapproval of his dead father.
While I didn’t care for the Scarecrow much, I liked this episode. The Scarecrow was too simplistic and obvious, but the show offered good depth via the exploration of Bruce Wayne’s past. It was interesting to see how the figurative ghost of his parents haunted him, and this added substance to a program that otherwise might have been less than stellar.
The Last Laugh (broadcast 15th, 9/22/92) brings back the Joker for more fun. He uses a gas to turn the citizens of Gotham into laughing idiots. Batman escapes this, but it gets to his butler Alfred (Efram Zimbalist). That wouldn’t seem to be a big deal, but extended exposure to the gas leads to madness, so Batman needs to stop the Joker before it’s too late.
While a decent show in its own right, this one suffered somewhat from its proximity to “Christmas”. Of course, that wasn’t an issue as broadcast, since “Laugh” aired almost two months prior to Christmas, but here it became a moderate issue. The two programs seemed fairly similar, so while “Laugh” was entertaining and offered a nice look at Alfred, it came across as less than terrific.
Pretty Poison (broadcast 9th, 9/14/92) brings in another new villain. Wayne’s best friend, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) starts to date sexy botanist Pamela Isley (Diane Pershing) and plans to marry her. However, he comes down with a quick-acting ailment and goes into a coma. Wayne suspects Isley had something to do with this, and he soon discovers she leads a double life as plant-loving Poison Ivy. She seeks her revenge against Dent for his acts that caused some roses to go extinct, so Batman needs to stop her and also get the antidote for Dent’s illness.
I thought “Poison” offered a very good show. Ivy is a rich villain, and the show gave her a level of depth that we didn’t find for Man-Bat or the Scarecrow. Overall, the show provided a lot of action and intrigue, and it demonstrated a high caliber of material across the board.
The Underdwellers(broadcast 27th, 10/21/92) starts with a scene in which a “leprechaun” steals a woman’s purse. When Batman investigates, he discovers a group of children enslaved by the Sewer King (Michael Pataki). Batman rescues one of the children and takes him back to Wayne Manor, where Alfred tries to clean him up and break down his defenses. Batman then returns with the boy to save the other kids and stop the Sewer King.
Shades of Oliver Twist! I’ve not seen enough Batman: The Animated Series to declare “The Underdwellers” as its worst episode, but it must be high on that list of shame. It smacks far too much of one of those “very special episodes” that take on social causes in a sappy way. It also suffers from one of the lamest villains I’ve seen. The Sewer King has virtually no powers and betrays little threat to Batman; sure, he bosses around some alligators, but the reptiles don’t muster much menace. Batman solves the “mystery” with tremendous ease, and the story seems rudimentary at best. It feels padded and flat. “The Underdwellers” proves to offer a dull and pointless story.
P.O.V. (broadcast 13th, 9/18/92) starts as officers Montoya (Ingrid Oliu) and Wilkes (Robbie Benson) drive to a sting operation to bust a drug lord. When they get there, they see the building on fire and Detective Bullock barely conscious. They also notice Batman at the scene. An investigation queries the group on what happened, and we hear the events from the points of view of Bullock, Wilkes and Montoya. While they tell their tales, we watch the actual events and then follow what happens after that.
Shades of Rashomon! Like “Underdwellers”, “P.O.V.” suffers from the absence of a strong villain. Never do we suspect the drug gang will truly threaten Batman. Still, at least they’re tougher than the Sewer King, and the moderately unusual structure to the story makes it somewhat more interesting. The program also includes a lot more action than the static “Underdwellers”. This isn’t very good Batman, but it seems moderately entertaining and rebounds somewhat after the clunker that opens the disc.
The Forgotten (broadcast 23rd, 10/8/92) begins with Bruce Wayne at work as a volunteer at a homeless shelter. A co-worker tells him that homeless and other volunteers have started to disappear mysteriously. Wayne goes undercover to get to the bottom of this, but he gets mugged and abducted. When he awakes, he discovers he’s stuck in a slave labor camp where the men must mine gold ore for a fat bastard named Boss Biggis (George Murdock). He meets and befriends Dan Riley (Dorian Harewood) and Salvo Smith (Lorin Dreyfuss) but suffers from amnesia. In the meantime, Alfred goes on Bruce’s trail to find his employer and old friend.
Shades of... well, “Underdwellers”! While not nearly as dull and heavy-handed as that earlier program, “Forgotten” suffers somewhat from its attempts to seem socially relevant. It also falls flat due to the near total absence of Batman. The concept of a Batman episode largely without its namesake seems intriguing, but here it doesn’t work very well. We also lack a tough and compelling villain once again, as Boss Biggis isn’t very scary or threatening. “Forgotten” offers a pretty predictable and weak program.
Be a Clown (broadcast 11th, 9/16/92) opens with a ceremony conducted by Mayor Hill (Lloyd Bochner) to inaugurate a new housing project. Though he declares it safe, some gangsters make a mockery of this statement. Hill relates that this was an isolated incident and he’ll make Gotham as safe as his mansion when he runs the “costumed freaks” out of town. This piques the interest of the Joker, who decides to pop in at the Mayor’s party for his semi-ignored son Jordan (Justin Shenkarow). The Joker impersonates Jekko the Clown and attempts to slay the many adult partygoers there since the Mayor uses his son as an excuse to schmooze. When Jekko/Joker departs, he finds Jordan as a stowaway, and at the boy’s bidding, he tries to make him into a protégé.
The relationship between the Mayor and Jordan lends “Clown” a sappier tone than I’d like, but at least we finally find a decent antagonist and a reasonably rich story. Actually, there’s not much to the plot of “Clown”, but the return of the Joker makes me so happy that I don’t care. The program gives us a typically nice performance from Hamill and pits the Joker vs. Batman in some entertaining ways. It doesn’t provide a stellar episode, but it’s generally strong.
Two-Face, Parts 1 and 2 (broadcast 17th and 18th, 9/25/92 and 9/28/92): “Running for elected office has Harvey Dent dealing with a tremendous amount of pressure. The public begins to take notice when a couple of public outbursts reveal a much deeper problem rooted in his childhood.”
Doesn’t it seem odd that Dent dated someone else a few shows ago but now displays signs of a long-term engagement to Grace (Murphy Cross)? That inconsistency aside, “Two-Face” presents a good introduction to this major villain. It also reminds us how well the series does darkness. From the extremely moody visuals to the startling vision in Bruce’s dream, this sure doesn’t feel like the standard kiddie cartoon.
It’s Never Too Late (broadcast 10th, 9/10/92): “Batman helps aging mob boss Arnold Stromwell (Eugene Roche) who after reuniting with his crippled brother and learning of his son's drug problem vows to make amends.”
Sign that we have a dull episode: I fixate on the animation. Stromwell is a bland, generic crime boss with little to make him distinctive, and the story offers little more than modified soap opera content. This is why I noticed just how much “arm acting” we get in Batman. The characters gesticulate awfully broadly, which occasionally looks ridiculous.
I’ve Got Batman In My Basement (broadcast 20th, 9/30/92): “A young aspiring detective helps Batman when he is knocked unconscious by the Penguin's (Paul Williams) nerve gas.”
”Basement” introduces another major villain, though not in a memorable way. Unlike Two-Face, the Penguin emerges full-formed and we don’t find any origin story. That’s not my gripe with “Basement”, though. Instead, it’s the fact the tale revolves around nerdy kid Sherman. I guess this could turn into a fun episode, but instead it just comes across as silly and cutesy.
Heart of Ice (broadcast 3rd, 9/7/92): “A vengeful Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) hatches a plot against Ferris Boyle, the uncaring businessman who inadvertently created him.”
Another day, another introduction of a major villain. However, “Ice” proves significantly more satisfying compared to “Basement”, and it even slightly surpasses “Two-Face”. It presents a concise take on the Freeze character and manages some drama and excitement. Besides, it’s hard to beat Batman with a cold.
The Cat and the Claw, Parts 1 and 2 (broadcast 1st and 8th, 9/5/92 and 9/12/92): “Batman meets Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) who has her hands full when she uncovers the terrorist plot of Red Claw while trying to purchase some land.”
Wow, the third episode in a row to bring in a major Bat-baddie! Actually, one can debate whether to refer to Catwoman as a “baddie” or not, for the role definitely doesn’t fit neatly into either the hero or villain category. That helps make this a surprisingly rich program that suffers only from the presence of a stock villain in Red Claw. Still, it introduces Catwoman well.
Footnote: if it seems odd that Parts 1 and 2 were split like they were, it makes more sense if you look at the day of the week. The series premiered on a Saturday, so Part 2 popped up the following Saturday for weekend continuity.
See No Evil (broadcast 56th, 2/24/93): “A ex-con steals a plastic that can turn him invisible. He uses it to steal jewels and visit his daughter.”
No one will ever think of “Mojo” as one of the great Bat-villains, and the lackluster nature of the show’s antagonist robs it of much tension. Yeah, he gives Bats some trouble, but he’s simply not in our hero’s league. The connection with his daughter offers some emotional depth but not enough to make this a better than mediocre episode.
Beware of the Gray Ghost (broadcast 32nd, 11/4/92): “When a series of bombings plague Gotham City, Batman realizes that they mirror the same crimes he saw "committed" on a television show, "The Grey Ghost", back in his childhood. The actor who played the Grey Ghost, Simon Trent, is now out of work because he can't work as anything other than a superhero. Batman seeks out his help, and Trent eventually dons his old costume. Together they discover that the bomber is using "Grey Ghost" toy cars, and track them to a toy store owner who bought them from Trent. Trent and Batman defeat him, and in the end the popularity serves to revitalize Trent's acting career.”
An all-around fine program, “Ghost” also fails to display a strong villain, but it doesn’t matter. The show offers a sweet tie-in with Bats’ youth, and the voice casting for Trent is a cool touch. (No, I’ll not say who it is - I’d rather leave it as a surprise.) This is a warm and winning program.
Prophecy of Doom (broadcast 22nd, 10/6/92): “Batman infiltrates a cult that is stealing from Bruce Wayne's wealthy friends.”
Batman can duke it out with the toughest superbaddies but he finds it tough to dispose of some common street hood? Please. I know that with so many shows a week to produce, not all of them can feature top-notch villains, but this one’s crooks are way below Batman’s standards.
Feat of Clay, Parts 1 and 2 (broadcast 4th and 5th, 9/5/92 and 9/6/92): “An actor who uses a miracle cream to fix the scars left by an accident has the ability to change his face into anyone else's. The trouble is that he has deceived an employee of Bruce Wayne's into thinking the he was Bruce Wayne. This does not go well with Bruce's alter ego. On top of that, the supplier has lost interest in the actor.”
Finally, we get another episode with a cool baddie. Clayface offers a villain worthy of Batman’s attention and he helps make this a lively show. We even get some amusingly sadistic moments from Batman.
The Joker’s Favor (broadcast 7th, 9/11/92): “A man named Charlie Collins (Ed Begley, Jr.) is coerced into playing a role in the Joker's plot to kill Commissioner Gordon.”
One of the more clever stories, “Favor” provides a thoroughly entertaining affair. The way it brings in the Collins character works well, and the whole thing moves by quickly. It’s a terrific show.
Vendetta (broadcast 21st, 10/5/92): “Detective Bullock is framed by an old nemesis Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid).”
Batman the detective comes to the forefront here, as he works harder than usual to find the truth behind the situation. I like that factor, as the character too often strays from his brainy roots. “Vendetta” also boasts a tone even darker than usual and becomes a strong show.
Fear of Victory (broadcast 19th, 9/29/92): “The Scarecrow uses a fear inducing toxin in a sports gambling scheme.”
Robin makes his second Animated Series appearance here, which continues to beg the question: how’d he get there? It’s still confusing. As for the show itself, it’s decent one. It lacks the drama to be great, but it’s entertaining enough, if not much of a mystery.
The Clock King (broadcast 14th, 9/21/92): “Temple Fugate becomes the Clock King (Alan Rachins) and targets Mayor Hill (for revenge.”
Clock King probably should be a dull villain, but he actually turns pretty cool. His origin story is amusing, and though his method and motives are predictable, the show utilizes them in a fun way.
Appointment In Crime Alley (broadcast 12th, 9/17/92): “A once respected neighborhood is terrorized by a man wanting to destroy it to build a new complex.”
Some parts of “Alley” work because they deal with Batman’s haunted past. However, the show fails to delve into well, as it mostly concentrates on an ordinary crime caper. This never feels like a problem worthy of Bats’ talents.
Mad as a Hatter (broadcast 24th, 10/12/92): “WayneTech scientist Jervis Tetch (Roddy McDowall) is working on way to electronically unlock the potential of the human mind. He's developed a headband and circuits that when attached to someone's head allows him to mind-control them. He is also a Alice in Wonderland fan and enamored of secretary Alice (Kimmy Robertson), who is engaged. When she has an argument with her boyfriend he moves in, donning the traditional illustrated garb of the Mad Hatter and mind-controlling punks, waiters, etc., to give her a good time.”
“Hatter” suffers from a case of Tries Too Hard Syndrome. It works overtime to tie in Alice in Wonderland elements and never becomes much more than an homage to that source. It’s a bland episode.
Dreams In Darkness (broadcast 31st, 11/3/92): “Batman must stop the Scarecrow from poisoning Gotham City's water supply while suffering from hallucinations.”
“Dreams” benefits from one cool concept: Batman in Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately, that idea and the sight of him fighting while bound in a straitjacket are pretty much all the show has going for it. Otherwise it does little more than rehash “Fear of Victory”. It’s only been a few episodes; that’s too soon to rework the same story.