When we last spoke on this topic, Batman: The Animated Series (B:TAS) was about to debut on Fox.
Monday, September 7, 1992. I lived for that date.
That was the day the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series was set to begin on Fox.
As I mentioned last time, I had seen a copy of an episode at a local Trek convention, and I was stoked! It looked great, and I counted the days until the show hit the airwaves.
I was so excited that week and so focused on that Monday that I didn’t follow my usual practice at that time of reading the TV Guide from stem to stern. I hated missing programs! And I knew that nothing would compete with B:TAS.
Finally, the day came, and my VCR (yes, it was that long ago) taped the premiere half hour. It was “On Leather Wings,” the same episode I’d seen at the Trek con. I was thrilled to have it on tape, the first of many.
But what really struck me was the title sequence. Dark and moody, energetic and relentless, it was gripping. However, one thing was not there—the word “Batman.” At the end, the only thing we see is Batman in costume being lit up by a lightning bolt a la the cover of the first issue of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Who needs words when a terrific picture will do? Loved that.
The next day, “Heart of Ice” aired. It turned fourth-tier or lower villain Mr. Freeze into a fascinating character, a scientist trying to revive his ailing wife.
To say I was impressed was an understatement. If this was how they were going to treat the low-level bad guys, what would they do with the Joker and the Penguin?
My roommate at the time, who worked over a half hour from home, used to try very hard to get home in time to watch the tape with me every afternoon. The bad news for him was that I worked less than 10 minutes away, and when it came to B:TAS, I was not a patient guy. He’d often burst through the door to discover that I’d already watched that day’s show. But I was always happy to watch it a second time!
The first week was percolating along well, and my tape collection of B:TAS episodes was growing every day. Life was good.
Now that B:TAS was under control, I went back to my weekly practice of reading the TV Guide. I picked up that week’s edition, got home and plunked down in front of the television to start reading.
I hit Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, and the roof caved in.
On Fox, there was an episode of B:TAS. It was called “The Cat and the Claw.” It featured Catwoman, with Kate Mulgrew voicing the Red Claw, a new villain for Batman. And worst of all, it was part two!
How could the second part be airing when the first chapter hadn’t been shown? I had never heard of this episode. I had to know what was going on, so I pulled out last week’s TV Guide. There, at nine in the morning, sat an episode of B:TAS. Yep, “The Cat and the Claw,” part one.
I was livid! The show wasn’t a week old, and already I had missed an episode!
I hit the Internet and read an article indicating that Fox had decided to try and bolster their Saturday morning line-up by running episodes then. The author indicated that he thought it was a bad idea since all the advertising had indicated a Monday launch. Very few fans knew about this last-minute change and would be, politely put, unhappy at this.
My response was, “YA THINK?”
Thus began a long and cloudy relationship with the Fox television network and fans of the show.
Later on, Fox decided to run B:TAS on Sunday nights. Why they chose to air reruns instead of new episodes I’ll never understand. That little experiment didn’t last long due to low ratings. Duhhhh!
On the other hand, the show itself was, in my opinion, the very best incarnation of Batman ever. Great characters, dynamic animation, surprises that shocked a long-time television watcher such as myself—all in all, some of the very best storytelling I’ve ever seen.
Some of my very favorite episodes were “Almost Got ‘Im,” any show with Mr. Freeze, and any episode with Batgirl in it. The series also took time to let us get to know characters before their evolution into heroes or villains. For example, we see Harvey Dent, district attorney, several times before he becomes Two Face. It made the inevitable transformation all the more poignant.
Later on, I found out that the show’s creators were even more frustrated with Fox than I was, and eventually they let the contract with the network expire. I watched the last new episode, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” with great sadness, figuring it was all over. Interestingly, that show brought back the Red Claw, who had appeared in the first episode ever aired on Fox, as I previously have pointed out in this column.
Luckily, it wasn’t the end. Soon after that, Superman: The Animated Series debuted on the WB Network from the same creative team, and Batman joined the Man of Steel soon after in a three-part episode appropriately titled, “World’s Finest.” For a long time, that was the most-watched show on the WB. The local WB channel ran the same three-part storyline every Friday at 5 p.m. for weeks.
Teaming Batman with Superman meant re-designing the Caped Crusader. While the B:TAS costume very closely resembled the uniform he wore in the comics, this new one was even darker and more batlike. I loved it.
The WB episodes were unfettered by Fox’s restrictions, and they were often more “adult” (in the good way). For example, in “Cold Comfort,” another Mr. Freeze episode, the bad guy goes about wrecking the life’s work of several prominent citizens. The biggest shock I ever had was when Freeze comes around a corner at the end, and his body has been destroyed by his transformation, leaving only his head in a spider-like device that clicked along furtively until it turned the corner. Yikes!
Before long, Batman and Superman moved into the Cartoon Network’s Justice League, which was followed by Justice League Unlimited. With every new program, I figured that these guys just couldn’t keep up this tremendous pace. And every time, I was happy to admit I was wrong. Very happy.
Next time: The Big Bat Finale.