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Batman: The Animated Series: "Mad As A Hatter"/"Dreams In Darkness"

Illustration for article titled Batman: The Animated Series: "Mad As A Hatter"/"Dreams In Darkness"
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“Mad As A Hatter” (season 1, episode 27)

I’ve always found Jervis Tetch (Roddy McDowall) the most relatable of Batman’s villains. His desire for Alice (Kimmy Robertson) mirrored my childhood crush on my similarly blonde next door neighbor, Jenny, and I saw myself reflected in Mad Hatter’s big-toothed overbite. As an adult, I still connect with Jervis’ romantic woes (who hasn’t wanted someone they can’t have?), but it’s how they relate to his obsession with Alice in Wonderland that fascinates me. The adults watching Batman: The Animated Series understand Jervis’ emotional attachment to his childhood fixation. Those watching it during the original run had probably been exposed to Batman through the comics, Superfriends, or the Adam West show as children, while those of us that watched as kids now rewatch B:TAS through nostalgic lenses but with freshly matured eyes. It’s the “Grey Ghost effect,” and watching B:TAS becomes a temporary visit to a world where bills don’t exist and the biggest worry is getting your homework done before Monday.


Alice in Wonderland has that effect on Jervis, but he doesn’t truly leave Wonderland when he returns to the real world, and his inability to separate reality from fiction alienates him from society. He mistakes his secretary’s politeness for affection because of her resemblance to a storybook character, and he believes that becoming the Mad Hatter is the key to winning her heart. These are pretty extreme delusions, but they’re also why “Mad As A Hatter” works so well. Writer Paul Dini doesn’t operate in subtlety, and it’s his ability to instill humanity into his spectacular characters that makes him such a perfect fit for Batman’s world. Like the gods of ancient civilizations, these heroes and villains represent larger ideas, and making them relatable to the everyman gives them added significance. The Mad Hatter is the closest we’ve gotten to a god of love, but instead of Cupid’s bow and arrow, he’s armed with top hats and microchips. He doesn’t want to poison millions or level Gotham City; he just wants companionship and someone to share tea with that’s not a mind-controlled rat.

Paul Dini episodes usually feature Bruce Wayne in a more prominent role, and by making Jervis a Wayne Enterprises employee, we get to see Bruce wearing his real mask as an executive. Bruce is a compassionate, friendly, and downright charming boss who gives Jervis the freedom to work on his mind-altering microchips despite not seeing any solid results. Jervis’ manager, Marcia Cates (Loretta Swit), isn’t as merciful, and seeing Bruce in comparison to Marcia makes him even more personable. Good thing, because Jervis is completely lacking in the social interaction department, and he’s an anxious, awful mess in the company of his superiors.

The lonely bookworm with communication problems isn’t a revolutionary character type by any means, but it’s one that will probably resonate with most of the B:TAS audience. Unless you went to the high school where comics and cartoons were what all the cool kids were into. That exists, right? When Jervis learns that Alice and her boyfriend Billy (David Haskell) have broken up, he transforms into the Mad Hatter, his metamorphosis triggered by jubilation rather than the tragedy of the other rogues. Dini uses quotes from Alice in Wonderland to show Jervis’ quickening descent into a fantasy world, and they become more prevalent as his reality begins to reflect Carroll’s story. When he eavesdrops on Alice’s cries, Jervis utters, “Curiouser and curiouser,” which are the same words Alice says after eating a cake that increases her size exponentially. It’s one of her first experiences with the magic of Wonderland, and Gotham Alice’s breakup is similarly miraculous for Jervis, as he grows into the confident, powerful Hatter persona. Using his microchip technology, he fashions a mind-control device using a top hat and cards, but instead of using them to make Alice fall for him, he takes her on a perfect date by controlling everyone else.

Poor Jarvis Tetch! He really is trying to be a gentleman and failing spectacularly. He can use his hat to get free dinner, but he has no idea how to woo a girl. He thinks that his Alice will be as fascinated by him as the one in the story, so he makes no attempt at easing into a relationship with her, moving way too quickly for his recently single assistant. When Jervis takes her hand in the restaurant, she’s clearly uncomfortable from the physical contact, and when he begins singing “The Mock Turtle’s Song” and invites Alice to dance with him, she’s just plain terrified. When an apologetic Billy is waiting for her at home, Alice has no problem accepting his marriage proposal, and when Jervis finds out, he goes flying down the rabbit hole, tossing hat cards everywhere and dressing people up in all sorts of ridiculous costumes. This marks Jervis’ transition from well-meaning creep to full-on villain, as he forces Billy to break up with Alice, then fits Alice with a mind-control headband and takes her away to Wonderland.


Director Frank Paur’s bad luck returns, as Akom handles the animation this episode, and despite being an improvement over the company's previous output, there’s still a general sloppiness that stands in the way of making this episode a “Heart of Ice”-level success. The inconsistent faces and body types that plague Akom's usual work are present here, but scripts like Dini’s also require a heightened level of acting ability in the cartoon actors. The action is smoother than normal, and the company does a great job animating the mice, but from a technical standpoint, the sound saves this episode. Shirley Walker’s score conveys emotion beautifully, particularly through the contrast of the music with the action of the plot. Alice’s first breakup is followed by rousing carousel music that emphasizes Jervis’ elation, while the waltz composed for the Wonderland dance is sweeping and romantic, making Alice’s horrified expression even funnier.

The voice cast this episode is incredible, led by McDowall’s grandiose performance as Jervis Tetch. McDowall, who played a villain named Bookworm on the Adam West Batman series but is probably best known for playing Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, portrays Jervis with such desperation and sadness at the start that the thought of him succeeding doesn’t seem so bad. When he goes out with Alice as Mad Hatter, he’s so much more at ease, and despite his aggressive intentions, he speaks to her with tenderness. He seems genuinely conflicted about using his technology on Alice, but he also has a vicious side that comes out when Batman becomes an obstacle. When he screams, “I’ve waited my whole lonely life for her!” it has an entire life’s worth of pain behind it. Robertson captures sweet but oblivious Alice perfectly, while M*A*S*H’s “Hot Lips” Loretta Swit is just dripping with bitch as Marcia Cates. Kevin Conroy shows off his comedic skills by spending more time as Bruce Wayne this week, but there’s disgust in his voice when he realizes that one of his employees is his newest foe, foreshadowing a serious beating for Jervis.


I’ve complained about the camp of past villains, but Dini is able to make it work for Mad Hatter because of the plot’s focus on the distinctions between fantasy and reality. The Walrus and the Carpenter henchmen are absurd, but at least their presence is justified by the storybook influenced amusement park in the episode, which also provides some nice Dick Sprang-inspired visuals. Giant chess pieces and a labyrinth of playing cards enhance the fantasy elements, and by taking the Wonderland elements to the extreme, the comedown to reality is even more depressing. Fantasy ends up delivering the final blow, as Mad Hatter is Bret Michaels-ed by a giant Jaberwocky flat. As he watches Alice and Billy reunite, he recites “The Mock Turtle’s Song” once more: “Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.” As the camera pans to a statue of the weeping mock turtle, Jervis is left with the bittersweet memory of his one dance with Alice, facing a future behind Arkham’s walls.

Grade: A-

"Dreams In Darkness” (Season 1, Episode 28)

Do Arkham Asylum employees do anything other than stand in the way of justice? Supervillains escape daily, one of their psychiatrists goes rogue, and in “Dreams In Darkness,” they throw Batman in a cell while Scarecrow plots to poison Gotham’s water supply. From inside Arkham. They either really suck at their jobs, or they’re actively trying to destroy Gotham City. Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens write a Batman spotlight episode, as he is forced to escape Arkham and stop the Scarecrow while under the influence of the villain’s fear gas. Things tend to get awesome when Batman trips out, and director Dick Sebast gets some great hallucinations to animate, which look beautiful, thanks to Studio Junio.


What distinguishes “Dreams In Darkness” from past episodes is the voiceover narration, creating a hard-boiled, pulpy atmosphere for the intense story. Conroy got to have some fun in “Hatter,” but “Dreams” gives him the chance to show his dramatic side. His expressive voice works especially well for voiceovers, and he immediately sets the tone for the episode with his matter of fact delivery when he narrates, “There was no time left. Not for me. Not for him. And not for Gotham City.” Locked in his cell, he recalls the events that led to his imprisonment, specifically his exposure to Scarecrow’s fear gas while stopping an attempt to contaminate a spa’s water. After seeing the Joker in Alfred’s reflection, Batman begins to suspect he’s been poisoned, but when he’s offered an antidote that would keep him out of commission for two days, he puts his duty to the city before his well-being.

While driving to Arkham to question Scarecrow, Batman hallucinates Robin in the middle of the road, crashing the Batmobile right outside the Asylum gates. The animation this episode is really spotlighted during the action sequences, and the Batmobile crashing not only has a strong sense of physics and dynamic angles, but it’s also packed with detail. The small things like the treads ripping off tires or window drapes blowing in the wind help make the world as real as possible, which is especially important in an episode full of hallucinations. After the crash, Batman is taken in to Arkham, where he is outfitted with a straitjacket and psychoanalyzed by Dr. Bartholomew (Richard Dysart), who believes Batman has invented this plot to give himself a reason to seek treatment.


When one of the orderlies tries to take off Batman’s mask, Bartholomew refuses, saying, “His mask is at the root of his delusional fixation. Taking it off might plunge him into a catatonic state.” So if someone walks into Arkham wearing a mask, they’re not at all interested in identifying him? Contacting his family? God, the staff sucks at its job. Now, I know Batman was able to escape from a straitjacket while hanging upside down and underwater in “Be A Clown,” but let’s just assume that Scarecrow’s fear gas has diminished his abilities. It’s an annoying weakening of the character, but it allows for some amazingly trippy hallucinations that are some of the darkest images yet on the series.

Batman’s first fear gas trip takes us to the exaggerated, dark cityscapes of Radomski’s “Appointment In Crime Alley” title card. Crime Alley, where it all begins. Or ends. Batman sees his parents, who turn away from him, heading into a tunnel as Batman runs toward them, calling for them to stop. As the world swirls around him, the ground begins to shake, and the tunnel transforms into the barrel of a gun that pours a stream of blood. Standing on a rock surrounded by flames, Batman stares into the pistol as the hammer pulls back and shoots, engulfing him in a white light that awakens him to the reality of his cell’s floor. The animation is slick, the colors are vivid, and that image of a bleeding gun is a stark, effective symbol. Batman’s hallucination reminds him of his mission, and he escapes his cell and makes his way to the Arkham basement to stop Scarecrow.


Scarecrow wants to contaminate Gotham’s water so he can study the widespread effects of fear, a plot very similar to that of Batman Begins, and it’s his constant drive to learn that makes him different from the other rogues. Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion, and as his knowledge of the emotion grows, his appearance changes to become more terrifying. It probably doesn’t get much scarier than his revamp Wild West-hangman-preacher costume, but I like to imagine if the series were still running, Scarecrow would continue to alter his look. In any case, it’s a better explanation for the character’s inconsistent appearance than “they couldn’t settle on a design.”

In the basement, Batman’s second hallucination hits, as a rat transforms into the Joker. A giant Penguin bursts through the ground, and then his head pops to reveal Two-Face underneath. He throws a coin at Batman that turns into a buzzsaw, and then he melts Clayface-style into Poison Ivy, whose hands turns into vines that pull Batman into the abyss as Alfred and Robin watch. As Batman falls into the giant mouth of Scarecrow, a bat emerges from the darkness, its screech waking Batman from his hallucination just in time to stop the Scarecrow’s plot. Todd Hayen's score masterfully blends the various musical themes of the villains during this scene, and Junio outdoes itself with the transformation effects. There needs to be a GIF of that Penguin head-pop.


The episode ends in a wave of great looking explosions, and the amount of yellow and orange is limited to make the sharp red of Scarecrow’s fear gas stand out. As Scarecrow comes stumbling out from a cloud of his own medicine, he’s screaming and thrashing in terror, but in the back of his head, he’s probably taking notes. After a night in Arkham, Bruce returns to the Batcave where Alfred administers the antidote, and under the shadow of the bat, he is finally without fear.

Rating: A-

Stray Observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: Tie between Batman taking out three men by whistling and kicking the table out from under Mad Hatter as he runs across it to chop off Batman’s head.
  • “You got off easy this time, Tetch. But heads could roll if you slip up again.
  • “Off with his head!”
  • Red roses are a recurring motif in “Hatter.” Great use of Wonderland imagery.
  • “Classic male fear of commitment.”
  • “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” My high school Drama class had a unit where we were all required to memorize "The Jabberwocky" and perform it over and over to work on vocal articulation. Public school, baby!
  • “I’ll prepare your usual breakfast: toast, coffee… bandages.” “Good night, Alfred.” Banter!
  • BS&P let a “suicide” slip in over the police radio. Bad censorship.
  • Bat-ejector seat is amazing.
  • “Mr. Hat told us to jump in the river.” “Right.”
  • “What a sweet, funny man.”
  • “Congratulations.” Bruce is so cute.
  • “This is getting too weird.”
  • “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at!” Of course.
  • “Then all you’ve waited for is a puppet. A soulless little doll.”
  • “We don’t have any more time!”
  • Scarecrow’s henchman at the HealthSpring spa has the lamest superpower ever: welder-drill hand.
  • “Look out! Joker’s got a bomb!” Jason Todd hallucinations?
  • Joker’s name is given as Jack Napier by Dr. Bartholomew, keeping with the character’s Tim Burton origin.
  • “Isn’t that why I’m here? Because I’m disturbed?”
  • Henchmen become the Mask when Batman is exposed to fear gas.
  • “This time, see if you can keep him in there.” Not likely.
  • Kevin Conroy. Darwyn Cooke. Parker animated. Someone needs to make this happen.

Next Week: The first volume of DVDs is over. Interlude: Mask of the Phantasm.

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