Animation Appreciation: Batman TAS (Season 1)
With The Dark Knight Rises releasing in theaters this week, I asked regular reader/commenter Jack Deth (a.k.a. Kevin) to begin a mini-series highlighting some favorite episodes from one of the best animated series of all-time, Batman: The Animated Series!
Everyday after school, I spent an hour or so relaxing watching cartoons (instead of homework) . The usual animated features of choice: “Animaniacs” or “Bobby’s World” or “Eek the Cat” (or something like that), followed by the much more important “BATMAN!” There was an understanding between my parents and I. At 3:30pm SHARP, the family television was reserved for BATMAN! ha. No “ifs, ands, or buts!” (Imagine my added dismay when afterschool detentions kept me from my daily fix)…
In a recent comment thread, I discovered that our guest writer today also had a great affinity towards the beloved series. There is almost no other comparable animated series in quality, popularity, and vocal talent. From Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Bob Hastings (Commissioner Gordon), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Melissa Gilbert (Barbara Gordon/Batgirl), Adam West (The Gray Ghost), Ron Perlman (Matt Hagan/Clayface), and many many more! Other voices for the same characters in recent animated specials just don’t measure up for me!
If you’ve never watched any of the series, trust me, you are missing out. But you are in luck. Below you will find a guide in the way of recommendations of episodes to look forward to as Jack Deth shares five of his favorite episodes from the first season! (Following installments focus on favorites from seasons 2 and 3).
Greetings all and sundry! It is not every day that such a prolific a filmographer as Terrence offers such a gracious invitation to talk about, expound upon, and critique a favorite topic or subject. In this instance. The first of the three flagship animated series of afternoon entertainment kicked off by the fledgling Warner Brothers Studios. Who were then just starting to branch out into television in the early 1990s. To that end, allow me to introduce the series that, along with Superman and, later, Animaniacs, kept Warner Brothers a heavy contender during that decade.
Comprising three seasons. With the first season consisting of an unheard of sixty episodes. Five episodes a week for twelve weeks. The five episodes from that first season that stand out for me in descending order of story telling, detailed animation, dialogue and overall greatness.
#5: Joker’s Favor (11 Sept. 1991. S1. Ep.7)
The first Joker and Joker-centric episode that begins with a pudgy, balding nobody stuck in rush hour traffic trying to get home after a bad day at the office. Forced into more cramped quarters as Gotham police cars with sirens blaring, give chase to the supposed, fleeing Joker after a bank heist. Unbeknownst to our nobody, Charlie Collins. The Joker has sought camouflage in the packed, slowly spreading traffic. Behind the wheel of a vacation loaded station wagon and following much too close to Charlie. Starting a low scale bout of road rage. Charlie pulls up beside the station wagon and begins a “If I had two cents…!” chewing out the Joker. Charlie sees the mistake he’s made. Tries to escape and is forced off the road. Where the Joker give Charlie two cents. And the chance to do a favor in lieu of his life.
Two years pass and Commissioner Gordon is to be honored at a ceremonial dinner. The Joker will have none of that. Remembers his old friend Charlie, who’s living under an assumed name with his wife and son in suburban splendor somewhere in Ohio. Charlie agrees. Flies to Gotham and is met at the terminal by a liveried Harley Quinn. Who delivers her charge to the Joker. His plans for the evening and Charlie’s small part in the festivities…..
With Batman given a back seat. The episode can focus on the Joker, his many maniacal laughs and repartee between Charlie, Harley and his henchmen ‘Rocko’ and ‘Henshaw’. And great, sarcastic dialogue it is! Supplied by an uncredited minor God of the old DC comics universe, Archie Goodwin. The detailing is superb throughout. As is the silky smooth cel animation. Highlighted by what would later be called ‘Gotham Noir’ and ‘Dark Deco’ The liberal use of varying depths of shadow and silhouettes given definition by
The episode is also notable for the introduction of Harley Quinn, slovenly dedicated Detective Harvey Bullock and his partner, Officer Renee Montoya. And for giving Mark Hamill the reins of a superb gig as the voice of the Joker!
#4: Vendetta (5 Oct, 1992. S1. Ep.21)
Convicted felon, ‘Spider’ Conway is released under police custody from Stone Gate Prison. To testify against crime kingpin, Rupert Thorne. Somewhere in transit, a bomb is attached to the Yard Patrol Boat transporting Conway and explodes. Witnessed by Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock and Officer Montoya, And Batman, from a distance. Bullock orders the river dredged and remains recovered. While Batman gets there first. Then off to Stone Gate, where a toothpick is found on the prison’s pier. Options are sought and re-thinking applied back at Gordon’s office while Batman eavesdrops outside the window. Thorne and Bullock’s names are mentioned and it’s off to the GCPD’s Records Department for a look at Harvey Bullock’s file.
It seems that ‘Spider’ may have committed perjury during his trial and being sent to Stone Gate. Testifying that Bullock had taken bribes from Thorne. A question Batman wants answered badly. Thorne, elegantly rotund and flawlessly voiced by the late John Vernon (Dean Wormer of Animal House) is in his rooftop Greenhouse tending to his roses, ala Nero Wolfe when Batman confronts him. A Mexican Standoff arises and Batman takes Thorne outside for some controlled Bunjee Jumping interrogation between skyscrapers. The correct answer is given and Batman takes a closer look at the remains of the Police Yard Boat. Where a scale is discovered. Things start coming to light as someone impersonating Bullock takes another convict from the Gotham Jail moments before Bullock is arrested. The scale, under closer scrutiny is found to be human. Kind of. And hours of scanning microfische points to its owner as being a circus freak turned failed wrestler and most recently, a third rate criminal. ‘Killer’ Croc. Whose cavernous lair Batman discovers. Along with ‘Spider’ Conway and recently released/kidnapped Waylon Jones. The two loose ends Croc wants tidied up and disposed of. So he can frame Bullock and send him away. As Bullock had sent Croc away years earlier…
Another superb episode with the introduction of ‘Killer’ Croc. All muscles, scales, attitude and sharp teeth, Who, like Batman, stays out of sight until needed. And when he’s revealed, trouble ensues quickly. Physically, a match for The Dark Knight, though much slower. Preferring to bull his way through. Croc delivers the goods through a fight early on in his lantern lit cavern lair. Then during a final showdown in the meticulously detailed sewers beneath Gotham.
Kudos to the cel artists for getting the fluidity of motion down to near live action in many scenes. As well as the detailed brick walls, caged lights, pipes and valves of the sewers beneath Gotham to look so sturdy one moment. Only to have them fall apart so well and believably the next. High marks also for Archie Goodwin’s written voice of Robert Costanzo’s Detective Bullock. And some well spent and executed time devoted to what makes him tick.
#3: Heart of Steel, Part 1 (16 November, 1992. S1 Ep.39)
Someone or something is stealing high tech ‘Wet Ware’ from Wayne Industries. Super cool, Teeny Tiny Protein Silicon Wafers. The next step in Artificial Intelligence. The latest heist pulled off by the coolest looking, four flexible legged briefcase with a laser beam eye. That slices the elevator car containing an interceding Batman in half before getting to the roof and launching a missile bearing the pilfered chips to a high cliffed, narrow, rocky shore. Batman pursues in a hang glider like Bat~Wing and is shot from the sky.
Cut to a skull session between Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne. A name arises, Dr. Karl Rossum. A geek’s geek. Who taught Wayne everything he knows about electronics and is wondrously voiced by and drawn as William Sanderson. Who lives at the ocean’s edge in a huge Art Deco Mansion and underground Mad Scientists lab. Wayne drops by in his own 1949 looking yellow Buick convertible. To see what the Doc’s up to and is introduced to Rossum’s comely blonde assistant, Randa Duayne and H.A.R.D.A.C. An Holographic, Analytical, Reciprocating. Digital Computer. Which is about five stories tall. Looks something like an over sized 1940s Philco radio. With Tesla lightning antennae and a huge HAL like Red Unblinking Eye. That, when looked at from ground level, sometimes sports a Smiley Face.
HARDAC is very much like Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project. A computer exceeding the limits of its Prime Directive and quite convinced of its own immortality. While assembling bright shiny robots and encasing them in very realistic, near clone like skin suits.HARDAC knows all and will soon see all. And makes sure that Rossum doesn’t say too much as Wayne offers a dinner date to Ms. Duayne before leaving. And HARDAC’s latest creation is revealed….
Besides being a sly homage to Blade Runner. With William Sanderson taking the next step in his brilliant, yet quirky, advanced Toy Maker, J.F. Sebastian. And a great big honking computer with an attitude in HARDAC. The writers, director and cel artists were obviously having a ball! Infusing gentle humor into such a dark and ominous story very well told and executed.
Notable for having Melissa Gilbert voice visiting Barbara Gordon. Who is just starting to show her desire for crime fighting. And for the plethora of Transformer~like, shape~shifting, way too curious robots that are not what they appear to be.
#2: Heart of Steel, Part 2 (17 November, 1992. S1 Ep.40)
It seems that HARDAC has a secret agenda. Replacing people in power with its own emotionless, Pod People like clones for the betterment of all. Commissioner Gordon has already been Tased, stolen and replaced. Much to the slowly growing dismay of soon off to college, Barbara. Mayor Hall has made the cut as well. Keeping Ms. Duayne busy tweaking the final programs for the newly installed, stolen Wayne Industries Wet Ware, but there’s a problem. The program is a Trojan, planted by Wayne and requires fresh
data. Data kept somewhere inside stately Wayne Manor. A fine opportunity for Ms. Duayne to ply her feminine wiles and hopefully retrieve it and upload it into HARDAC.
A swing and a miss. Kind of. As Wayne is called away from the dinner date. Ms. Duayne reveals herself to be an evil Robo~Clone! Tasing Alfred, then scanning the den and library with X-Ray and Infra~Red. To reveal a hidden door and staircase. In the interim, Wayne meets the Mayor for an induction into ‘An exclusive Club’. Which reveals itself to be evil, red eyed Robo~Clones. Wayne runs and strews obstacles left and right. Which only show how powerfully strong the Robo~Clones are as Wayne enters an
elevator car. Whose closing door is punched through. Wayne escapes in his Batman regalia and climbs the car’s cable. Cutting it with a torch as a 360 degree head rotating, spider like Robo~Clone climbs up. The cable is cut through and the Robo~Clones and car plummet down countless stories. Revealing a mess of face peeled, smoldering junk in the basement.
Plucky Barbara turns on the Bat~Signal atop Gotham PD. Batman shows up and Barbara lets him know that Jim Gordon is not her father. Something else is! Just in time for Detective Bullock to show up for a face off with Batman. A fight ensues as Batman seeks higher ground. Bullock follows as Barbara fires a Bat~Rope and pulls while Batman pushes. Bullock falls into the Bat~Signal and is immolated. Or not. Rising in robot form to be decapitated by Barbara. Batman advises Barbara to stay with some friends before swinging off the roof for the final showdown…
The gentle humor of its predecessor is gone from this episode. Replaced by dark and creepy. There’s something definitely off putting about Robo~Clones that look human, yet cover distance, leap and dodge on hands and knees like spiders. Which may have been a way to get around the censors regarding violence. And this episode is violent. Though directed at Robo~Clones. Not humans. The detailing of everything else is exceptional, as one would expect. With lightning bolts and explosions right where they should be. It’s also nice to watch Barbara inch closer to becoming Batgirl. In a two part episode that was everything I had hoped it would be. And holds back the tide for…
#1: Heart of Ice (17 September, 1992 S1 Ep.3)
Focuses primarily upon callous, kind of slimy, low tier corporate raider, Ferris Boyle. Who runs Goth Corp. Inc. and is incredibly tight with a dollar. And sees areas where budgets can be trimmed. The Cryogenics lab of Dr. Victor Fries seemed a good place to start. What with the good Doctor was using the Cryo Lab to keep Dr. Fries’ beautiful, possibly cancer stricken wife Nora frozen until a cure is found. Boyle intercedes and orders the lab shut down. There is a fight where Fries is tossed atop some vials and beakers full of chemicals that react. Fries’ body temp plummets, yet he survives and declares a vendetta against Boyle.
As luck, or fate would have it. Boyle is up to receive an award for Humanitarian of the Year. A fine soiree is promised and sure to be crashed by Fries’ new identity, Mr. Freeze. In preparation, Freeze has been raiding and plummeting Goth Corp of its latest toys and trinkets. With what looks like a Brinks Armored Car on streroids. All but one piece has been gathered. Which gives Batman a chance to catch Freeze in the act. That plan doesn’t go as desired. Freeze gets away, but leaves a henchman behind to be scooped up and be thawed out in the Bat Cave by Batman, who has come down with a sudden cold. Always faithful Alfred takes this all in stride and offers a new addition to the Utility Belt. A Thermos of Chicken Soup. “The only way to fight a cold.”
Fortified, Batman pillages Goth Corps’ records department and finds Fries’ file and VHS tape. As Freeze and his gang roll up on the site of the night’s festivities and blasts its doors closed with a very cool, giant Freeze Cannon. Freeze wants the entire building cocooned in ice. Kicks off the top of a fire hydrant. Fires his freeze pistol into the geyser and rides it to a nearly frozen window. For another wicked entrance and an over the top, non lethal showdown with Boyle….
A beautifully written, melancholy episode that pushes all the right buttons in creating a memorable, sympathetic Victor Fries. Knocked out of the park by Michael Ansara. Who is so NOT Arnold Schwarzenegger or any of the 1960s take on the character. Fries has a depth and world weariness that is admirable in his quest to save his wife. Though is not averse to using his freeze pistol or cannon to make a point. Or toss out an occasional pun in his uniquely flat, emotionless, near mechanical voice.
Other voice work of note is provided by Mark Hamill in his premiere role. His Boyle is a slick, smooth talking, greedy, somewhat arrogant louse who gets what he deserves. While the Danny Elfman inspired full orchestra soundtrack conducted by Shirley Walker heightens mood and has you cheering for Freeze and Batman at the same time. Though it is Fries’ narration that tugs at the heart strings. Superb work all the way around!
For more from Jack Deth, visit his profile page at Flixchatter HERE where he regular contributes informative and insightful reviews.
Note from The Focused Filmographer:
Thank you so much for sharing, Jack Deth!
As mentioned earlier, I grew up watching this series and own every episode on dvd. I LOVE it! Jack touched on several of my favorite episodes in the first (and long) season. If I were to ADD five episodes to Jack’s five, here are the ones I would choose (with synopsis courtesy IMDB):
I Am The Night- Batman has serious doubts about his calling when Commissioner Gordon is seriously wounded.
Almost Got ‘Im- In a bar, a collection of Batman’s enemies chat about their failed attempts to kill him.
So many great episodes! You can see a list of all of the episodes in Season 1 HERE.
Are you a fan of the series? Tell me your Top FIVE episodes from SEASON 1 in the comment section!
Thanks for reading! Happy Watching!
-T, The Focused Filmographer
(Keep a lookout for the spotlight on Season 2 and Season 3 in the near future!)