Because Nobody Asked for It: My Top 10 Episodes of That Other Show

Hey, everyone. Have a nice Non-Denominational Winter Holiday of Your Choice?

Great! ’cause I’ve got good news and bad news.

Look, you guys have my word that the “The Laughing Bat” review is 90% completed, but there’s a slight production hitch that means it probably definitely won’t be done before we ring in the new year. But because my OCD acts up at the sight of a whole month empty I don’t want to leave you lot without my inimitable comedic prowess for so long-

Bag of tricks
WHY?! WHY DO YOU TORMENT ME?!

-here’s a little something that sooner or later, every Batman nerd shares on the Internet, free will optional. This might be a blog mainly dedicated to The Batman (for now), but I certainly don’t want you folks to come away with the impression that I don’t appreciate what its immediate predecessor did. I probably won’t ever love That Other Show as much as kids who legitimately grew up with it, but I love it all the same.

Suffice it to say, there be spoilers ahead!

10. The Ultimate Thrill

Writer: Hilary J. Bader
Director: Dan Riba
Animation: Koko/Dong Yang

This is one you probably won’t find on… well, anyone else’s Top 10 list, and even I have to admit that on paper, there’s not a whole lot of innovation or ambition to it. The plot is basically an endless string of sex jokes and action scenes, and the stakes never really go beyond “If Batman doesn’t stop the crazy lady, a bunch of rich people become slightly less rich”.

But goddammit, Roxy Rocket makes all that seem tolerable – more than that, worthwhile. As a villain, she’s basically the most charming parts of Catwoman and Harley Quinn thrown into a blender, without any deeper psychological hangups that might’ve worked with a more serious story, but would’ve only dragged this one down. It’s definitely a turn-your-brain-off kind of episode, but made with undeniable skill: not a moment more exposition than needed, not a single fight or joke stretched too long.

And I like how at several points, the episode teases the idea that Roxy’s the protagonist, and Batman the obstacle. That’s not to say she’s someone I’d want to meet in a dark alley, but it’s always refreshing to have a villain who’s not built up to be some all-powerful, unreachable badass (until the inevitable third act), but simply has the guts and the luck to stay one step ahead of Batman, and no more.

… okay, yes, and her design might have something to do with it, too. Who knew a cartoon lady could be so hot and so old-school?

9. Joker’s Millions

Writer: Paul Dini (original concept by David V. Reed)
Director: Dan Riba
Animation: Koko/Dong Yang

Twenty years after the fact, what That Other Show’s (in)famous Gotham Knights revamp got right and what it got wrong is still the subject of epic flamewars across the ‘net. I myself still retain burn scars from a particularly thorny debate about revamp!Penguin.

Penguin revamp
It was a step down for the character. Wanna fight about it?

What pretty much everyone agrees on, though, is just how much revamp!Joker sucks. The Nostalgia Critic summing it up as “Mickey Mouse Joker” is probably the nicest take, which is a real shame. I strongly believe that revamp!Joker was inspired by the painted cover Bruce Timm did for the Mad Love graphic novel’s second print, and folks, Mistah J looked freaking awesome there.

So what went wrong? This is just my speculation, but the “pinprick-eyes” look, while undoubtedly effective, only works if there are a lot of shadows to contrast against. At the bare minimum, the top half of the Joker’s head should be in shadow – preferably from the brim of a hat. Anything else, and the Joker looks like he should be hanging out on the set of Animaniacs, not engaging in mass murder or spousal abuse.*

This was a pretty bad fit for the general style of the Gotham Knights season, which emphasized cleaner lines, simpler detail, and stronger, more solid colors. What was never meant to be brought into the light was put into the light 24/7, and the Joker’s menace went down like a badly-baked soufflé. Mark Hamill’s inimitable voice, in some cases, only made it worse.

Paul Dini couldn’t change any of this, so he worked with it and turned in an unprecedented Joker plot for That Other Show: a pure, undiluted comedy. Oh, perhaps earlier episodes like “Make ’em Laugh” and “Harlequinade” flirted with this territory, but they at least bothered to go through the motions of a typical superhero plot. “Joker’s Millions”, on the other hand, begins with the premise that everyone in Gotham (except that big meanie Batman) is a-okay with the Joker just using a giant pile of cash to buy himself out of the law’s clutches.

“Mmm, I don’t like the tone this review’s taking, m’boy. On an unrelated note, here’s a belated Christmas gift…”

And the absurdity just keeps on piling from there. Joker hires himself a fake Harley! Batman swirlies a fake Joker! Not-Johnny Cochran pops up for a cameo! And it’s awesome.

Okay, so maybe some of the jokes don’t have as much bite as they did in the ’90s, but I’m always a sucker for seeing Dini flex his Tiny Toons muscles and just having fun with the characters, without high stakes to “trick” the audience into caring. And that that’s the only satisfactory direction you really can go with this Joker design? A pretty sweet bonus, if I do say so myself.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a PS4 to buy.

8. Read My Lips

Writers: Alan Burnett & Michael Reaves (story) and Joe R. Lansdale (teleplay)
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Animation: Tokyo Movie Shinsa

I may or may not have mentioned it here, but the Ventriloquist was my first-ever favorite Batman villain, and this particular episode might actually be my first contact with That Other Show. Does that give it an unfair leg-up on the competition? Probably, but does anyone expect a crumb like Scarface to play fair?

Now yer talkin’ my language!”

Now that I think about it, this episode might’ve done a lot to shape my preference for Batman as a largely-human crimefighter in noir-inspired Gotham, mostly fighting villains that, but for one or two gimmicks, could almost pass as real-life criminals. I understand that a lot of people thanks to Grant fucking Morrison like the “prep god who hangs out with the JLA and fights Darkseid” take better, and I wish them no ill will, but that’s simply not my Batman.

As for the episode itself – like the previous two entries, not a lot of singular moments stand out, but dear lord does it run like a dream. Actual tension when Batman confronts a block of wood, endlessly memorable dialogue (“And if I talk?” “… maybe you just get hit by a truck.”), George Dzundza doing one of the best Eddie G. Robinson impressions this side of Mel Blanc. All wrapped up in a plot that’s practically immortal, precisely because of how tightly it embraces the past.

Plus, dat TMS animation.

7. Feat of Clay, Part II

Writers: Marv Wolfman (story) and Michael Reaves (story and teleplay)
Director: Kevin Altieri
Animation: Tokyo Movie Shinsa

Yup. I’m one of those people. The ones who grade different halves of a two-parter on their individual merits. Torches and pitchforks are to your left, folks.

Honestly, though – the first half of “Feat of Clay” is such a deadweight episode that the only parts you really need are all included in Part II’s “previously on…” sequence. With Marv Wolfman gone, Michael Reaves dumps all the pointless corporate espionage and frame-up stuff to focus on what really matters: Matt Hagen, and the man he no longer is – if he ever was.

Clayface isn’t a villain who’s easy to sympathize with, mostly because he’s got a ton of superpowers and no compunction about using them in the most selfish, predictable ways possible. What’s truly impressive about this episode, though, is that instead of shying away from that, Reaves all but admits it. Yes, Matt Hagen is a spoiled, selfish, overgrown child. Yes, he treats the one guy who’s on his side like crap. But does even he deserve nothing but apathy and disdain when he’s mutated into a giant mud-monster?

And for those who like their Batman villains less Spielberg-y, this episode also does a damn great job of emphasizing just how terrifying Clayface is as an opponent. He can be that old lady you ran into on the street, that stray dog in the alley, the very ground you’re walking on – and in the event you do find him? Hope you’re ready to take on a half-ton bruiser who can’t even feel most blows.

Of course, both of those elements once again owe a giant debt to Tokyo Movie Shinsa. Not for nothing is TMS remembered as “the good Batman studio”, and their work in this episode is simply phenomenal. Pity, horror, confusion – whatever emotion the script calls for, their animation will drag it out of the audience. Take a look for yourself if you don’t believe me.

6. Joker’s Favor

Writer: Paul Dini
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Animation: Dong Yang

I hope this doesn’t sound insulting-

Too late - conceptual alarm clock showing that you are too late

-but in a lot of ways, Paul Dini has never really been able to top his first Joker story. The title alone is enough to grab one’s attention, while never truly giving away how the Joker is going to spend this episode making someone’s life miserable. And from the very first seconds of Charlie Collins rolling down that freeway, everything – Shirley Walker’s score, Kirkland’s claustrophobic direction – feels just a little off-kilter.

Then this asshole shows up.

The sequence where the Joker casually stalks Charlie through miles of backroads is – no kidding – perhaps his finest hour on That Other Show. I’m usually not a fan of writers emphasizing the Joker’s scariness over his other traits, but I’m more impressed with it here because all of it is technically G-rated. This Joker doesn’t maim or kill or even brandish a gun; merely the sight of him reaching into his jacket is played – successfully – as a sign of Very Bad Things, and a simple phone call is extrapolated into a sign that there’s nowhere on Earth you can hide from him.

On the strength of its first two acts, this episode would’ve been a decent contender for the #1 slot. But alas, the third act is where Dini’s (relative) inexperience starts showing. So maybe the Batman/Joker fight in the bargain-bin Temple of Doom was inevitable, but it’s still a giant momentum-killer in a story that had spent the last fifteen minutes painstakingly establishing Charlie as the POV character. And then there’s the actual resolution.

On paper, this is a brilliant takedown of the Joker. It’s a vulnerability that makes sense for him without destroying (too much of) his mystique, and it lets Batman show off a rare, off-the-cuff moment of humanity. But in execution, there’s too much left unexplained. Where the hell did Charlie find a fake bomb? Why couldn’t the Joker tell it was a fake? Was Batman in on the whole thing?

Long story short, this episode began soaring above the rest, then fizzled out in a maddening deus ex machina. Baaah.

Oh, and it introduced this little spotlight-stealer to the Bat-mythos. But we won’t hold that against it.

I’M KIDDING I’M KIDDING PLEASE DON’T KILL ME-

5. Heart of Ice

Writer: Paul Dini
Director: Bruce Timm
Animation: Spectrum

The reigning champ. The king. The Lord and Savior of Batman cartoons, if not all Western animation…

… still holds up pretty damn well after twenty years. Is it perfect? No, but it’s pretty damn close, and just between you and me – the entries after this are probably going to speak more to my personal preferences than the objective skill involved in them. You’ve been warned.

“Heart of Ice” is usually – and justly – praised for turning a gimmicky C-list villain into a tragic A-lister, simultaneously sympathetic and no less dangerous than before, while introducing one of the Bat-mythos’ scummiest corporate scumbags, while making sure that Batman saves the day with the least likely “weapon” imaginable. All within the space of twenty-two minutes. Yet, none of that was what really grabbed me on my first (and second, and tenth…) viewings.

What did? This.

I won’t say “Heart of Ice” was the first to take a look at how nasty Freeze’s weapons can be if they connect (that was a thing as far back as the Adam West show), but Johnny the thug remains one of the most effective looks. For such a bit part, his VA really goes all-out to sell how horrifying a frozen body part – let alone two – is, and I actually winced when he tried crawling after his reluctant partners and his pitiless boss. Batman stories in general are pretty damn bad about portraying henchmen as nothing more than walking punching bags for the heroes, so for Batman to go this far to help one – even if you could argue a purely pragmatic motive – is always a nice change of pace.

“Don’t you mean an ice change?”

Okay, so this episode also – unwittingly – led to that. Like I said, nobody’s perfect.

4. Two-Face

Writers: Alan Burnett (story) and Randy Rogel (story and teleplay)
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Animation: Tokyo Movie Shinsa

… by which I mean “Two-Face, Part I”. Sorry, Harv, but Part II just didn’t make the cut.**

“… you’re just fucking with me now, aren’t you?”

Even my closest friends on the ‘net will usually walk away with the impression that my undisputed favorite villain is the Joker, but to be honest, he’s in stiff competition with Two-Face on most days. To be sure, the Joker is entertaining when well-written, but very, very few writers can change the fact that he’s about as complex as a sheet of paper. He fancies himself the funniest man on Earth, and he likes making people miserable – end of story.

But Two-Face? He oozes complexity no matter how hard hacks try to turn him into just another gimmicky supervillain. In my opinion, there’s no better vehicle to explore the relationship between Good and Evil – as both real-life applications and storytelling devices – than Harvey Dent, the man whose mind plays host to both 24/7, and I pray every day for the writer who finally uses him to his full potential.

In the meantime, though, we have this episode, which does wonders with utilizing Two-Face’s second-biggest strength: his backstory. From Judas to Darth Vader, us Westerners just love seeing how a face becomes a heel, and Harvey Dent’s fall is, in its own way, even more tragic than Victor Fries’. Fries, after all, came to us already fully-formed as Mr. Freeze; but we got to know Harvey, if only fleetingly, as a crusading D.A., a best friend, a loving fiance…

… a chocolate mousse connoisseur…

… before mob blackmail and his own mental illness turned that inside-out. Now, as always, the execution isn’t perfect, but that a Saturday-morning cartoon was willing to touch this territory at all is worth every scrap of praise it gets, and then some.

Oh, and I’m obligated to mention TMS’ animation before I wrap this up, aren’t I? At a glance, this episode isn’t as flashy as “Feat of Clay, Part II” or even “Read My Lips”, but that sure as hell didn’t stop them from showing off at every opportunity. Harvey’s nightmare at the beginning, the fight in Thorne’s refinery, and the hospital scene at the end are all worthy contenders for their best work in this episode, but for my money, this fella takes ’em all to the cleaners.

3. A Bullet for Bullock

Writer: Michael Reaves (original concept by Chuck Dixon)
Director: Frank Paur
Animation: Studio Junio

Poor, poor Gotham’s finest. Always playing second fiddle to a bunch of kooks in spandex. And that’s on a good day. On a bad one…

Batman vs. SWAT

And yet, inch by inch, they’ve clawed their way into the hearts of many a Bat-geek. And for that, they’ve largely got this guy to thank.

“Yeah, don’t everyone clap at once.”

Before FOX’s Gotham, before Rucka and Brubaker’s Gotham Central, before even Batman: Year One redefined the Gotham police forever, there was Detective Harvey Bullock, the first glimpse of a GCPD that existed beyond Commissioner Gordon. Bullock was everything that the straitlaced, gentle, unflinchingly moral and pro-Batman Gordon wasn’t, and if that ensured a contingent of fans would hate him, at least it guaranteed they’d remember him.

And lo and behold, Bullock stuck around Gotham long after his creators had left, passing through the hands of men as varied as John Byrne and Alan Moore before stopping at the door of…

Chuck Dixon
“Countdown starts in ten minutes. Get me home by then. Or else.

“A Bullet for Bullock” remains one of my favorite Chuck Dixon stories of all-time, and its animated counterpart is easily the most faithful page-to-screen adaptation That Other Show ever did (which kind of makes my less charitable half wonder if Michael Reaves had a deadline crunch and just grabbed whatever was on the rack at the comic store). Forcing a teamup between Batman and his number-one detractor immediately promises loads of fun times, and the script definitely comes through with flying colors (“What’s this do?” “Passenger ejector seat.”), all the way to the absurd – and hilarious – end.

And yet, this may be the single grittiest episode in the series – others certainly touched darker territory, but I don’t think any of them had so ambiguously moral a protagonist, or painted such an unapologetically sleazy Gotham (drugs are mentioned by name twice!). Better still, there’s not an ounce of arrogance in the whole thing – from Robert Costanza’s constant back-and-forths with Kevin Conroy to the bouncy little jazz score in the climax, you get the feeling that everyone involved in this episode just wanted to kick back and have a little fun.

Well, almost everyone.

2. Never Fear

Writer: Stan Berkowitz
Director: Kenji Hachizaki
Animation: Tokyo Movie Shinsa

I mentioned up there that Bat-fans are mostly united in their disdain for Joker’s Gotham Knights revamp, but is there any character revamp that unites them in admiration? Perhaps not, but the Scarecrow’s comes closer than anyone else’s.

“Aheheh. I’m blushing. Really.”

Writers are usually less interested in the Scarecrow himself than what he (and his chemicals) can reveal about other characters, and “Never Fear” doesn’t really buck that trend. So what sets it apart from the rest of the pack? The fact that Berkowitz focuses on something a mite more interesting than “Batman (and Robin) don’t like thinking about their dead, dead parents”.

Sure, the Scarecrow doesn’t amount to much more than a plot device in this episode, but the questions his no-fear toxin leaves behind are so disturbing that we simply have no time to care. Is “morality” nothing but fear under a cuddlier name? And is Batman really that close to just going “fuck it” and killing every crook unfortunate enough to cross his path? These are questions to ought to keep Gotham – or at least Robin – awake at night long after Dr. Crane’s been returned to his padded cell.

Speaking of Robin, this episode’s a damn good showcase for the little guy, having him pull his weight and then some trying to rein the screw-loose Batman in. I mean, any version of Robin is still going to be a distant twentieth or twenty-first on my list of Bat-favorites, behind all the villains, Alfred, Batgirl, and Johnny the thug, but that’s a high compliment in my book.

“Tell ya what. Next time, you handle the city-poisoning nutcase!”

Obligatory TMS fluffing: … okay, the simpler, more action-oriented Gotham Knights designs kneecapped a lot of their strengths, but I defy you to watch the crocodile pool scene and not immediately rewind it for another go or five.

1. Perchance to Dream

Writers: Laren Bright & Michael Reaves (story) and Joe R. Lansdale (teleplay)
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Animation: Dong Yang

They say that a man’s favorite episode of That Other Show is a pretty good sign of just where his priorities (in Batman) lie. Chris Sims, ever ready to champion Batman-the-superhero, has “The Demon’s Quest”. Doug Walker, always interested in the structure of a story first and foremost, has “Almost Got ‘im”.

What does it say about me, then, that my favorite (for the moment) is “Perchance to Dream”?

The formula for this episode seems pretty simple: one part standard Batman, one part The Twilight Zone. It goes to some pretty weird places, but in the end there’s still a bad guy to punch, still a status quo to return to. That’s all that matters, right?

Only if you want to brush off one of That Other Show’s most successful psychodramas. Perhaps its only successful one.

The idea that Batman’s mantle is more curse than blessing has been at the center of dozens, if not hundreds of stories, but I can count on one hand the number of them that did it with anything resembling this episode’s elegance. Even the climax, which literally features Bruce fighting his alter-ego in a pounding thunderstorm, feels earned instead of ham-handed – is the worst thing that happened to me really the best thing that happened to me? Bruce can’t help himself from asking. Does my life really have no meaning if my parents aren’t dead and I’m not out risking my neck in a Dracula playsuit?

He’s not given an answer to either question – not in the least because saying “yes” to either would be really fucking depressing, and saying “no” would undercut Batman’s entire media empire – but the way the episode plays it makes it feel disquieting, instead of a loose end someone forgot to tie up. The Maltese Falcon quote at the end might be a tad cheesy, but it’s also a pretty clear sign that the dream, not its mastermind, was the point of the story.

But that said, the mastermind is pretty awesome, too.

The Mad Hatter’s debut episode just barely missed the cut on this little countdown, but in retrospect, it’s not too big a loss. He’s only got about three minutes of screentime here, but in those three minutes, the writers – along with the late, great Roddy McDowall – use one of my favorite tricks for giving a villain depth: show what their idea of kindness is like. Why wouldn’t the Hatter, representing childish escapism above all else, try to inflict gift Batman with the same?

But given the Hatter’s very personal grudge against Batman, there might be something deeper at work. Jervis Tetch might tell himself that he’s doing this for Batman, but deep down, he wants to see Batman isn’t so above it all. That given the right paradise, Batman would happily surrender to it, much as Tetch himself surrendered to the delusion that his coworker loved him – or, failing that, he could make him love her.

He’s wrong, of course. Unless Batman is still dreaming.

Dreaming that he woke up from his dream.

But that would mean waking up from his dream is his dream, so maybe he’d wake from that one too, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, until his dream of waking up from dreams has been properly fulfilled-

                      

Chuck Dixon
“Happy new year, folks. Now, anyone know the way out of this dump?”

* A strong reason that “Mad Love” – the episode – was never really in the running for this list.

** For reasons on why, this guy – remember him? – lays it out better than I ever could.

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6 thoughts on “Because Nobody Asked for It: My Top 10 Episodes of That Other Show

    • I like Justice League as long as I turn my brain off and treat it as a big-budget version of Super Friends, at least when the Big 7 are on-screen. The second-stringers like Huntress, Black Canary, and the Question, OTOH, are both small-scale and interesting enough to sustain a legitimately intelligent superhero show without stepping on each other’s toes.

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  1. I can’t stand to watch Perchance to Dream without constantly hearing a voice in the back of my head nagging me “Well, why hasn’t the Mad Hatter unmasked Batman by now, then?” I mean, it’s not like Joker, who doesn’t care about the man under the mask. Hatter has Batman completely at his mercy, the man he believes ruined his life, and he’s attacking him in a personal level, and the man is a hatter, for God’s sake, even if TAS never had him as hat-obsessed as the Silver Age mustachoed impostor. But anyway, why wouldn’t he want and try to pull Batman’s cloak off while he can? It’s a relatively minor (meta-wise) but also major (in-universe, because to the characters themselves it should matter a lot) plot point that has always bugged me about this, perhaps more than it should.

    As for my ten favorites in no particular order: House and Garden, I am the Night, Baby-Doll, The Laughing Fish, A Bullet for Bullock, Harlequinade, The Demon’s Quest Part I, Riddler’s Reform, Over the Edge, Almost Got ‘Im.

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    • A fair point. I generally headcanon that the Hatter was going to kill Batman soon after (perhaps by just letting him waste away in the dream inducer), so he decided Batman’s secret identity didn’t matter.

      On a perhaps-related note, maybe it’s *because* of his burning hatred for Batman that the Hatter doesn’t unmask him. Keeping the mask on keeps Batman as this dark, scary, inhuman beast – and so much easier to hate. Not to mention, it’s probably a bigger boost to Hatter’s ego that way.

      … or maybe after that business with Wormwood, Batman just rigged his cowl to electrocute anyone that touches it.

      (Hey, look at that – “Hush” is good for something after all!)

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