Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Welcome to the fifth installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, our first look at a show for kids, the afterschool cartoon Batman: The Animated Series, one of the few hand-drawn cartoons from the 1990s that still stands up to repeat viewings to this day.
The Show: Batman originally aired from 1992-1995 in an afterschool time slot. The first truly dark depiction of the DC Comics character of Batman geared towards children, it was inspired both by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic books and the “otherworldly timelessness” of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns films. The style of the show, which incorporated dark color palettes into a noir-like atmosphere, was dubbed “Dark Deco” by the producer/co-creator on whom the show’s artwork was based, Bruce Timm.
Batman was such a success in its run, both critically and commercially, that its look and feel became the framework for the DC Animated Universe, a run of shows using DC Comics characters inhabiting the timeless world created for Batman. One of the most unique elements of the show was its mixture of retro clothing and architecture with modern developments such as computers, all part of that otherworldly timelessness. The show was also different from other comic book adaptations for TV in that it kept many of the grimmer aspects of the original stories intact.
Why Batman: The Animated Series? The best episodes of Batman are miniature movies, from the unique framing and artwork to the adaptations of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from the Tim Burton films fully orchestrated and added to by composer Shirley Walker. To a generation of fans too young for the Burton Batman and grown up before Christopher Nolan’s reboot, this version of the story of Bruce Wayne is the definitive take on the comic book icon.
While the show remained loyal to the subject matter on which it was based, it also took some liberties, and, in some cases, improved upon the original material. “Heart of Ice,” the third episode of Batman to air, is the first, and perhaps best, of those episodes.
The Episode: “Heart of Ice” originally aired on September 7, 1992 and though the pilot was striking with its introduction of the show’s “Dark Deco” visual style, solid voice acting, and well-above-average orchestral scoring, “Heart of Ice” was where Batman: The Animated Series truly began to show that it was something different, something far beyond the medium of a Saturday morning or afterschool cartoon.
It would be remiss in discussing an episode of Batman, though, not to begin with the title sequence, one of the best and most unique in all of television. No credits are given, not even a main title, as a scene unfolds, scored perfectly with Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from the Tim Burton films. First, the Warner Brothers logo fades into the image of a police blimp in the sky, casting its lights down over a darkened city. (Nowhere in the world have police blimps really ever been used, but they work well visually and fit with the show’s timeless feel). As the music explodes, so does the front of a bank, with crooks armed with guns heading out.
The fact that they are carrying realistic handguns in and of itself sets Batman apart from other cartoons of the era, and the fact that they fire bullets at Batman himself when he appears to subdue them goes even further. Batman is merely a shape, a shadow, a force of nature as he subdues the crooks in a series of leaps and bounds, leaving them for the cops as the opening sequence fades out without a single credit.
This title sequence may get me as pumped now as when I was 10.
From there, another trademark of the series: its retro, grayscaled title cards, giving us the episode title and a relevant, often severely artistic image related to the subject matter. This time, “Heart of Ice,” more simple than most, just snow and art deco lettering, but perfect for the episode itself.
And what an episode it is. As an episode of any show involving Batman, it involves one of his gallery of rogues, in this case (one probably could have guessed from the title) the former Dr. Victor Fries, Mr. Freeze.
Unlike many of the iconic Batman villains, most notably the Joker, Mr. Freeze had always been a joke, a mad scientist making puns involving cold as he froze things with a ray gun. Not so in Batman: The Animated Series. Here, instead of a gimmicky mad scientist, our Mr. Freeze is a cold man, but only because all warmth has been taken from him. Paul Dini’s writing and Bruce Timm’s new artistic vision of Freeze for the series were so well done, added so much to the character, that his new backstory, given in this episode, actually became a part of the comic book continuity.
Freeze (voiced by Michael Ansara) was, in his former life, a scientist for GothCorp, run by the greedy Ferris Boyle (voiced by the series’ Joker, and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill). His wife, Nora, dying of a terminal disease, inspired him to invent a cryogenic chamber, so she could be frozen until a cure was found. Boyle cut his funding, however, which resulted in a struggle between the two, the cryogenic chamber being seemingly destroyed (it would come back as a plot point in a later episode, though) and Dr. Fries ending up chemically damaged so that he could only survive in a sub-zero environment, his new condition a metaphorical curse for the loss of warmth and the love of his life.
“Heart of Ice” sees Freeze attempting revenge on Boyle and GothCorp, eventually trying to kill him at a gala event in which Boyle was ironically to receive the Gotham Humanitarian of the Year Award. It is here that Batman has to save the day.
Strange, that this is really the first mention of Batman in this write-up. He is designed iconically by Timm and voiced perfectly by Kevin Conroy, and in many episodes given a greater depth than in previous portrayals, with focus on his personal life as Bruce Wayne as well. This episode, though, belongs to the voice work of Ansara and the character of Freeze. As Batman discovers the man’s background and why he is doing what he is trying to do, he empathisizes for the villain, more than many of the others he faces. And though he is the member of the rogues gallery, Freeze is not the true villain of the piece—instead, it is Boyle, the greedy corporate executive, who also gets his comeuppance, a theme Batman: The Animated Series would revisit time and time again.
Like any afterschool cartoon, the conflict is wrapped up in twenty-two minutes, but “Heart of Ice” is also tinged with melancholy at the end, as Freeze is in a sub-zero prison cell, holding the snow globe that is the final keepsake of his wife, and crying that he failed to save her. Heavy stuff for a kid show, but that’s what made “Heart of Ice,” and Batman: The Animated Series, special.
Odds & Ends: Michael Ansara is not the only iconic voice actor to lend his skills to Batman: The Animated Series. There’s the aforementioned Mark Hamill as the Joker, Richard Moll (aka Bull Shannon from Night Court) doing great work as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred, among others.
Mr. Freeze’s new backstory was not the only innovation of the show to end up back in the DC Comics continuity; the Joker’s female sidekick, Harley Quinn, was so popular that she ended up in the comics, as was female Gotham police officer Renee Montoya, who even got a “coming out as a lesbian” storyline in the comic books.
The Batman: The Animated Series DVDs present the shows in a different order than which they actually aired, so if that’s how you first encountered the show, you probably think this being the third episode to air is incorrect. Well, it’s correct; so there.
Next Thursday, May 26 – The Office, Season 1, Episode 4: “Training”