Depicting characters’ dreams is the one of the easiest way of exploring their hopes and fears, and when Dr. Destiny psychically attacks the Justice League, we’re given a look into what terrifies the world’s greatest heroes. The episode begins with the dream of ex-LexCorp employee and Stryker’s Island inmate John Dee, who fantasizes about gaining superpowers and taking out the Justice League. Dee is one of the inmates chosen to be experimented on with the Materioptikon, a device which grants people short-term ESP, which is not the kind of power you want to grant a convicted criminal. Green Lantern notes that a prison is a dumb place to keep an ESP machine, but the warden reminds him that most people aren’t willing to have their minds experimented on. Green Lantern’s worries are founded when a breakout occurs and Dee uses the machine to gain the ability to subconsciously manipulate others, sneaking away while Solomon Grundy, Volcana, Firefly, and other supervillains keep the Justice League busy.
John Dee is one of this series’ creepiest villains, and this episode emphasizes the terror that follows when an ordinary psychopath gains god-like powers. After his wife Alice leaves him for another man, she’s the first target on his list of vengeance, and he breaks into her sleeping mind to cut her dream-self to pieces. Not as John Dee, but as Dr. Destiny, because he has a real future now. Dee’s transformation into Dr. Destiny is chilling, with his human face peeling away to reveal a horrific skeleton head that recalls the revamped New Batman Adventures design for another king of fear, the Scarecrow. It’s notable that Dee never wears his costume in real life, and Dr. Destiny is a representation of the great evil that exists within but isn’t reflected on the outside.
As Superman, Flash, Hawkgirl, J’onn J’onzz, and Green Lantern take care of the escaped supervillains, Batman takes it upon himself to track down Dee. Green Lantern doesn’t understand why Batman would be so concerned with an average inmate, to which Batman asks if he’s ever read The Odyssey. When Odysseus cut out the Cyclops’ eye, he told the beast that his name was “Nobody,” so that when it went looking for its vengeance, Odysseus would be impossible to find. As we saw last week, Batman is a hero who has turned his lack of superpowers into a tactical advantage, and he often counts on villains underestimating him so that they can let their guard down.
Butch Lukic is a great action director, and the first half of “Only A Dream” sees him stretching those muscles with the fights between the Justice League and escape supervillains. J’onn continues to be one of the most dynamic characters in combat, and the wide scope of his powers makes him an incredibly versatile character. As strong as the action is, what Lukic handles best in the first half is the horror, building up the suspense to the first part’s conclusion. After first transforming into Dr. Destiny in Alice’s mind, John Dee stands outside of his wife’s house and smiles as she screams in the background, the camera zooming in on his satisfied face. When the Justice League goes to sleep after stopping the escaped villains, the episode ends with a long shot of the Watchtower in orbit and the sound of Dr. Destiny laughing, suggesting that bad things are on the other side of “To be continued.”
The second half of this episode is when the psychological inspection begins, starting with a trip into the juvenile mind of the Flash. In his dream, Flash is surrounded by small children as he watches a fight between himself and Solomon Grundy animated in a hyper-exaggerated Mad magazine style. Flash is an overgrown child, but his arrested development is a reaction to his greatest fear: moving so fast that he’ll eventually leave everything in the dust and be alone forever. There are some serious emotional issues that writer Stan Berkowitz deals with in this episode as Dr. Destiny uses the Justice League’s fears to paralyze them in their minds. Flash’s dreams are depressing, but Superman’s are downright brutal. Unable to control his powers, Superman ends up destroying everything he cares about. First, he incinerates Lois with his heat vision at dinner, then hulks-out and destroys the Daily Planet before giving Jimmy Olsen a hug that shatters his spine. These dreams are surprisingly dark, and are a great signifier of the more mature tone that this series will develop as this season continues.
John Stewart dreams that everyone in his neighborhood is terrified of him because of what the Green Lantern has turned him into, and he fears that his powers will prevent him from ever having meaningful relationships with those who he once considered his friends. The season première emphasized how the team is primarily composed of orphans and exiles save for Flash and Green Lantern, but “Only A Dream” shows that these two are just as alone as the rest of their teammates. The things that separate all these heroes from the rest of humanity are the same things that make them valuable members of the Justice League, and when J’onn travels into their minds to rescue them from Dr. Destiny’s wrath, he saves them by reminding them that they are the masters of their abilities, not the other way around.
There’s one League members whose mind is off-limits to J’onn, and Hawkgirl is forced to endure her nightmare while the rest of the team battles Dr. Destiny. Shayera suffers from claustrophobia, so Dr. Destiny constricts her wings and buries her alive. Her fear is especially fitting considering her role this season as a Thanagarian double agent, and there’s nothing more confining than being trapped between conflicting allegiances. J’onn can’t enter Hawkgirl’s mind because Thanagarians have a natural resistance to telepathy, but he can’t save her because this is a problem she needs to figure out on her own.
Ever since DC: The New Frontier, I’ve loved the pairing of Batman and J’onn J’onzz, and while J’onn psychically fights Dr. Destiny, a sleep-deprived Batman hunts him down in the flesh. The Dark Knight continues down the path to becoming comic relief as he stops for an espresso pick-me-up and turns on the radio to keep himself awake, and the image of a fiercely determined Batman listening to a bouncy radio jingle helps balance the tension of the dream sequences. When Batman finds Dr. Destiny, the villain makes note of Batman’s lack of superpowers, but The Caped Crusader corrects him, “I have one, Johnny: I never give up.” Despite being able to manipulate Batman’s mind without him being asleep, Dr. Destiny doesn’t stand a chance against Bruce Wayne’s mental defenses, and by humming “Frère Jacques,” Batman overcomes the psychic assaults and takes down John Dee. The episode ends with Dee back in his cell, haunted by a new nightmare as he hums “Frère Jacques” in the dark.
- Anyone looking for a really horrible interpretation of Solomon Grundy can check out DC’s current Earth Two comic, which is full of horrible interpretations of classic characters.
- Stan Berkowitz couldn’t find a way to fit Wonder Woman in this episode? It would be nice to a look at the mind of our resident Amazon. At least we have next week’s “Maid Of Honor” for that.
- I really like Volcana’s smoky voice, courtesy of Peri Gilpin, a.k.a. Roz from Frasier.
- Flash: “So what were you working on?” J’onn: “Nothing. I was taking a nap.”
- Volcana: “Is that your flamethrower?” Firefly: “Wait’ll you see how I use it.” Volcana: “That’s alright, honey.”
- “That was some sweet banter, Uncle Flash. But what’s a ‘cur’?”
- “Get me a triple. Now.”