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Batman: The Animated Series – Dreams in Darkness (Review)

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.

One of the fascinating things about Batman: The Animated Series, apart from the shrewd writing, the careful character development and the skilled animation, was just how well it worked within the grand tapestry of the Batman mythos. The writers would frequently take ideas and concepts scattered across the breadth of the character’s rich publication history, tweak and update them for the small screen, and then go on to rework the concepts for the next generation of writers and creators working on the character.

Dreams in Darkness feels like the perfect example of this chain approach to reworking concepts and characters. It’s very clearly inspired by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Shadow of the Bat story The Last Arkham, but it went on to be a major and obvious influence on Batman Begins. It’s an interesting perpetual character cycle, where the character is constantly renewed and reinvigorated by successive adaptations.

We all go a little mad some times…

The Animated Series shrewdly refused to be tied to one era of Batman as a character. Sure, there was a very strong Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams influence at work, but the creative team were as likely to be influenced by classic artists like Dick Sprang as (then) more recent talents like Frank Miller. Alan Grant seems to have been a fairly massive influence on the show. While most of his villains would probably be a bit unsuitable for tea-time viewing, the show did an excellent job introducing the Ventriloquist. The final episode of The New Batman Adventures, Judgment Day, would draw heavily from an arc of Grant’s Shadow of the Bat.

Perhaps Dreams in Darkness speaks most strongly to the team’s appreciation of the British author’s talents. Grant imagined the story as The Last Arkham, featuring a the serial killer Victor Zsasz. Zsasz actually appeared in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, but he’s unlikely to appear in any adaptation of the mythos aimed at younger fans. However, despite the fact that the story had been based around a serial killer carving marks into his own skin, the writers of The Animated Series were still intrigued enough by Grant’s story that it would be a major influence on their writing.

Blinded by the light…

(I know I seem to be doing this in almost every review, but it’s a massive shame that Alan Grant’s Batman work has yet to be collected. It’s especially disappointing considering the influence he has had on subsequent writers, and the fact that he was writing the book at the time Tim Burton’s Batman was released. It’s even more frustrating because there have been international collections released, nice omnibus editions with his collaborations with artist Norm Breyfogle. It’s right up there among my “most wanted” runs on the Batman character.)

Dreams in Darkness is an exploration of Batman’s sanity – or perhaps lack thereof. It’s an interesting attempt to pick away at the image of Batman as a creature cloaked in darkness. It’s telling that, throughout the episode, Batman recoils from light. He’s introduced in flashback as a shadow cast against a wall, larger than life, but the episode ends with sunlight finally breaking into the Batcave. Dreams in Darkness seems to suggest that Batman has a fear of the light, but that it’s an unnecessary and potentially harmful fear.

Has he finally gone batty?

It is, of course, an observation that makes sense for the character, but it feels like a bit of meta-commentary on the franchise as a whole. This story would have been written in 1992. During the nineties, following the success of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, comics were getting progressively darker. Batman comics, in particular, were getting much darker. A few years later, bane would break the character’s back in Knightfall, perhaps the logical culmination of that grim and bleak portrayal.

Dreams in Darkness plays with that idea. It’s no coincidence that Robin is conspicuously absent for the episode, despite appearing as a hallucination, and that Bruce’s fears seem to revolve around Robin either dying or abandoning him. The Animated Series very shrewdly kept Robin in reserve for a lot of its runtime, but argued that the character had an essential role within the Batman mythos, serving to brighten the otherwise pitch dark lead character, pulling him back from the edge of the abyss.

That bird’s about to have his wings clipped…

While he’s wheeled into Arkham, we can hear Batman muttering about Robin. “Robin! Look out! Don’t do it! It’s a trap! Look out! Joker’s got a bomb!” It seems like a shout-out to the death of Robin in A Death in the Family. You could also argue that Doctor Bartholomew is a reference to the hilariously inept psychiatric doctor from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, thus allowing writers Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens to reference the two turning points that led Batman to become an increasingly dark character.

Fittingly, then, the episode seems to hinge on a number of convenient plot contrivances and strange moments that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Silver Age comic book. Bartholomew takes Batman into custody, but refuses to remove the patient’s mask. Presumably the paper work just reads “Batman” and the social security number field is optional. It seems a bit weird for a character who makes a point of referring to even the Joker by his given name. This massive leap in story-telling logic requires a willingness to embrace the outright zany, and thus allows Reeves-Stevens to position the story against the darker and more “pseudo-realistic” approaches to the character.

Hopefully it won’t all be in vein…

Of course, the episode also (quite heavily) implies that Bartholomew is probably nuts. Perhaps not as heavily as Alan Grant did with Jeremiah Arkham, but there’s still a sense that Bartholomew is disconnected from reality. The fact that he is in a position of authority perhaps explains why inmates escape Arkham so frequently. When Batman suggests that Crane has escaped, the Bartholomew insists, “Our security is absolutely… completely…” To be fair, can’t bring himself to finish it.

When it’s clear Crane has escaped, he assures Batman, “Don’t worry, the police will handle Professor Crane.” Never mind what experience has demonstrated. In fact, he seems to have quite a great deal of arbitrary scepticism about the plot Batman is trying to foil. “How could such a complex plan be implemented without attracting attention?” Doctor Bartholomew asks. That seems an especially bizarre statement for a man who works with the likes of the Joker, who pulls off plans like that in his sleep. Bartholomew seems to be living in denial about the people he is working with, which perhaps explains why they don’t get better and why they so frequently escape.

Red skies at Knight…

That said, the episode doesn’t let Batman off the hook in this regard. After all, his habits are less than healthy, and his obsessions unnerving at best. Once he’s been affected by the Scarecrow’s toxin, Batman is told that he needs the antidote. “It will make you sleep for two days,” the doctor advises him. “Otherwise, in twenty-four hours, you won’t be able to tell reality from fantasy.” Batman declines, putting his own life at risk. “I couldn’t risk be out of action for that long. What had happened at the spa was only a trial run.”

Despite his seemingly noble intentions, it appears quite a selfish move on the part of the Dark Knight, an act of arrogant ego. After all, he’s a risk to himself and others if he can’t tell what is going on. He could easily trust Gordon and Robin to investigate. Sure, they’d be at risk, but it would be safer for the city as a whole. Batman’s freak-out on the road could have easily killed some people, and if he had died or been incapacitated, nobody would have stopped the Scarecrow.

Don’t go into the light!

(I do like that Reeves-Stevens take the opportunity to set the story in flashback with a very film noir narration from Batman himself. There are some wonderful moments, as the story embraces the German expressionist influences on the character, which would also include the European-influenced film noir. There’s a note of fatalistic despair as Batman opens his recollection, “As long as I was trapped in Arkham, there was nothing I could do, except for wait for the end and remember the beginning.”

He also gets a nice one-liner as he confronts a goon tampering with a water supply. “He thought he was going to do something to the spa’s drinking water. I decided to make him think again.” Batman can be, on occasion, a funny guy. A very warped, very dark, very funny guy. Not that I would like to be on the receiving end of a brutal Batman one-liner.)

He knows the drill by now…

Dreams in Darkness also makes nice use of the Scarecrow, who had previously appeared in Nothing to Fear, which arguably works much better as a pilot for the show than On Leather Wings did. The Scarecrow makes an effective thematic foil for Batman, if only because of the tools they use, a fact realised by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. That film borrowed a significant amount from the episode, with the Scarecrow’s plot seeming quite similar: dropping large amounts of his toxin into Gotham’s water supply from beneath Arkham Asylum.

That said, the animated version of the Scarecrow is quite distinct from Cillain Murphy’s Euro-trash scumbag version. While Murphy’s character uses fear as a tool to get what he wants (money and power, mainly), this version is interested in fear as an end to itself. I actually prefer Murphy’s delightfully unhinged and incredibly self-important version of the character, but this version works fairly well himself. I love the design for the show, although I think the Scarecrow was perhaps the only villain to be improved by the design changes between Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures.

Shocking stuff…

This version doesn’t want to hold the city ransom. He doesn’t want fame or infamy. He just wants to do it because it will satisfy his innate curiosity. “The opportunities to study the nature of fear will be unparalleled!” he boasts as he is almost ready to throw the switch. “It’s time for the greatest controlled experiment in mass madness to finally begin!” I’ve always liked the idea that the Scarecrow sees himself as a scientist conducting a psychological experiment on a larger scale, unhindered by those pesky medical ethics rules, and that’s the version we get here.

We do get some nice contrasts between the Scarecrow and Batman. We see that Batman also works on the power of fear. “Bummer,” Torchie remarks as Batman steps into view. When Batman arrives in the cavern, Scarecrow has to actually persuade his hired goons to attack the vigilante. Even then, it’s only with the most severe assurances offered. “He’s been affected by the gas, remember? He’ll be terrified of you!” Given Batman could barely walk into the caverns, it’s safe to say he was mainly fending the bad guys off by reputation, which stands as a testament to his reputation, and the fear he has harnessed.

The Torchie’s about to be passed out…

I think that must really eat away at the Scarecrow inside – the idea that Batman has so easily mastered something he can’t really generate without a copious amount of sinister chemicals. Imagine devoting your life to the study of something only to watch a guy in a cape show up and work it better than you ever could. It’s something I’ve always interpreted in the Scarecrow’s occasionally petty actions, and perhaps the reason he doesn’t move to a city where his fear would be “unchallenged”, so to speak.

The animation in Dreams in Darkness is especially fantastic. It looks absolutely lovely. Fittingly, there’s a whole bunch of clever uses of perspective, but there’s also some wonderful hallucination scenes – the kind of shots that frequently challenge the animators. I think the success of Dreams in Darkness can be measured by the fact that the hallucination scenes seem to have served as an inspiration to similar sequences in Arkham Asylum video game over a decade later. They still look impressive.

Well, he’s certainly seeing Arkham from a new angle…

Dreams in Darkness is a great little episode, and it’s one that works well as an exploration of the character and his mythos, rather than focusing primarily on a villain. I think it’s also an episode where all the elements – from the voice cast to the writing to the directing – happen to come together almost perfectly to produce a fantastic final result

2 Responses

  1. While I think this is a great episode, it incorporates exactly what I hate about a Scarecrow story: there is no development on Scarecrows part as his scheme gives a look into Batman. I think Batman’s villains are three dimensional enough to carry their own story outside of Batman. Actually to be honest and childish: SCARECROW IS MY SECOND FAVORITE VILLAIN AND I WANT MY SCARECROW STORY!

    • It’s a fair point. The nature of Scarecrow is that he works well as a vehicle to tell stories that are not necessarily tied to him as a character. Characters like the Joker and the Riddler have gimmicks that typically hinge on understanding them as characters or as grand mythological forces – the Joker is the embodiment of chaos or urban fear, the Riddler is a pathological and obsessed psychopath.

      In contrast, the Scarecrow deals in fear, which is very handy way of exploring the psychology his victims. A story featuring the Scarecrow typically tells you more about his victim than it does about himself.

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