Category: TV

The growing power of the Idiot’s Lantern…

Doctor Who: Legacy – “We’re trying to defeat the Daleks, not start a jumble sale” (Whovember #1)

First Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

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The grand start to Doctor Who viewings in the 50th birthday ‘Month of the Doctor’.  This first arc finds the original Doctor in full swing, fighting off Daleks and time itself.

#1: The Space Museum and The Chase.

THIS SCHEDULE WILL DEFINITELY GO TIMEY-WIMEY, BUT IT HAS TO START WITH THE ORIGINAL.  
The young, the grumpiest… The First Doctor.  Hmm?
This choice of adventures isn’t all about beginnings though.  Coming well into the Hartnell era, they also bring a significant ending as well. In November 1963, An Unearthly Child began with teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright conscientiously pursuing their mysterious student Susan Foreman through the London fog to 76 Totter’s Lane.  It was a precipitous mission and one that ultimately landed them – after two years of concussions, gas and radiation poisoning  – in the London of 1965.  At the beginning, in that totter’s yard, the two teachers were the hook that the show was built around.  They were the audience’s eyes, discovering the mysterious Doctor and learning more about his enigmatic grand-daughter.  It was a trick so good that it would be repeated again in 2005 when the series regenerated and once more when the show spun  into Torchwood.

The Space Museum (Season Two, 1965)

Recent ‘New Series’ stories have built-up the role of those two, ‘first’ companions in Who mythology.  Some have developed that stumbling discovery by the accidental stowaways as the catalyst that creates the Doctor as we know him.  They’re the two that make the crochety old exile get involved.  If not, he would have presumably happily stayed in the East End, hoping that regeneration wouldn’t catch him in the chemists or at school parents’ day.  As seen in the first episodes, at this point he’s a Time Lord who would rather run away from adventure than embrace them.  It’s a powerful idea, that adds weight to that first adventure.  While, as the Doctor mentions in The Space Museum, he’s already played spectator roles in the likes of James Watt discovering the power of steam he’s not the rampaging freedom fighter (and most dangerous man in the universe) that Steven Moffat would seek to take down a peg or two 50 years or so later.

That reading it pure retcon however.  In the show, little is heard of them again after the Doctor grudgingly sees they’ve arrived safely through the Time Space Visualiser at the end of The Chase.  The main exception is the strange reference in the Sarah Jane Adventure Death of the Doctor and the their implicit inclusion during the Tenth Doctor’s morbid coda.

They weren’t the first companions to leave the good ship TARDIS though.  That sole privilege fell, oddly, to the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan earlier in Season Two.  She was quickly replaced with Vicky a young character who can be kindly described as an extension of Susan’s character rather than a carbon copy.  Of Ian and Barbara’s final two stories, it’s The Space Museum where Vicki comes into her own, although that tale is also generally considered one of the weakest stories of the show’s first two years.  True, there are many problems with the four part serial, but it’s main and unavoidable trap is that it could never live up to the promise of its first part.  Caught up in Script Editor Dennis Spooner’s plans to have thematic diversity between serials, it picked the short straw of hard science.  The first part works wonderfully, sustained by the TARDIS crew alone, some great directorial flourishes, moments of great tension and that fantastic cliff-hanger – when the crew find their future selves boxed as exhibits in the titular Space Museum.  But the pace was always going to alter when the time travellers are caught up by time in part two.  Perhaps the strangest thing is that the blatant science plot of part one is replaced by comedy.

I don’t think the fault quite lies in the fact that an essentially comedic story was taken far too seriously by cast and crew.  There are strange truisms that appear comedic, but many factors are highlighted in retrospect.  The rather pathetic aggressors who’ve invaded the planet seemingly only to build a staid and empty museum to their own achievements – with no curators, but guards and a governor – are indeed proto-Douglas Adams.  but could they ever really be anything else?  to this day, their equally ineffective opponents, the planet’s native Xenons, are some of the most pathetic rebels that the show’s seen.  But while they’ve trapped in a stalemate of ineptitude, this miserable struggle  provides Vicki with the bite she’s been waiting for.  And then it’s not just Adams.  In retrospect, it’s a bit like Rimmer taking charge of the WaxWorld allies in the Red Dwarf series four episode Meltdown

The ending is the treat: a blunt example of the TARDIS crew finding that every road leads to Rome – or at least their eventual fate as Museum exhibits.  However, those ‘paths’ are as typical in the context of the show as kidnapping, capturing and gassing.  The most extraordinary thing is that the museum has no CCTV network.  Perhaps the great Morok Empire, despite the frankly bizarre suggestion that they’ve defeated Daleks, just hadn’t got round to it yet.  Despite the ineffectiveness of either party, or perhaps because of it, the ending is oddly satisfying as the Doctor’s content to point out.

A clear highlight of the serial is Hartnell himself who is clearly having a grand old time.  On many occasions, he’s merrily chuckling away, but that may be the pre-and post- effect of the holiday that took him away from episode three.  Here his Doctor is particularly mercurial and wonderfully eccentric.  Fascinated by the smaller things, finding it far to amusing that he turns a Dalek into a hiding place – his behaviour adds immensely to a finale in which he plays a very minor role.  Though we may later find him to be a Time Lord,  The Space Museum establishes the master.

The Chase (Season Two, 1965)

The following story does what it says on the tin-Dalek.  Again, The Chase, is not the best regarded Hartnell tale.  The third major Dalek serial, it’s inevitably going to look weak against its definitive predecessors.  It would have been impressive had it had the same strength, especially considering that it was a rather last minute commission from Dalek creator Terry Nation.  The fact that The Chase emerged close to the first colour Dalek film and never quite made it as the adapted second sequel in that series doesn’t help.

The main problem here isn’t the ambitious set-up, but the complete lack of plot.  As established at the end of The Space Museum, The Daleks have been rather irritated by the Doctor.  By this point, they’ve perfected time travel (they move quickly, these Daleks, but more on that later) and set off on an assassination mission through, as they say, “infinity”.  But after an auspicious start on the sandy, twin-sun scorched planet of Aridius – and the inevitable shot of a Dalek rising from the sand – the Dalek’s mission appears slightly flawed.  Once they’ve found that they can’t destroy the TARDIS, their pursuit is directionless.  They resort to a rather unconvincing attempt to duplicate the Doctor as their numbers are slowly whittled down by a dodgy Earth galleon construction and Frankenstein’s Monster among other things.

The Chase‘s plot is necessarily episodic, more so than a usual story.  In the middle, the similarly framed joke reveal of The Mary Celeste and the Haunted House attraction in successive episodes don’t help the repetition.  Model work is excellent though, not least in the final two episodes when the the two parties find themselves on the jungle planet of Mechanus.

Housed in their impressive city, the Mechanoids are a misstep.  The idea lurking behind their bulbous design and slightly too daft-voice is still good on paper – human designed terra-forming weapons.  But that fascinating edge is removed by the metal versus metal scrap at the end.  It’s o surprise that they never made a return appearance, foot noted as proof that Dalek-lightning doesn’t strike twice.

At points, The Chase seems even more of a parody of typical Doctor Who than The Space Museum.  The haunted house setting, where the set-up isn’t revealed to the travellers (nor the rather optimistic 1996 entrance price of $10) is a particularly noticeable twist on a traditional Who adventure.  Having previously penned The Keys of Marinus, the first of the Doctor’s ‘travelling serials’, here writer Terry Nation is simply repeating the trick by combining it with his pepper-pot creations.  Nation tropes abound, especially the unfortunate inhabitants of Aridius and their Mire Beast enemies. The Mechanoid planet, with its dangerous moving fungus and gleaming city twists the concept of the original Dalek tale itself.  Terry Nation was a master of filler when required, if not quite of pace.

There’s quite a few precursors to later and even New Who here, some vaguer than others.  Of course, the legacy of the structure is most felt in the The Dalek’s Masterplan, the Fourth Doctor’s search for the Key to Time and then 2007’s The Infinite Quest. In the course of this chase however, the Doctor is strangely open to the concept that they’ve left space to enter the human mind in the TARDIS when confronted with a house of nightmares – a theme that would return again and again   The Empire State Building foreshadows the plans the Daleks would earlier/later have for that skyscraper in Daleks in Manhattan.  Season Eight’s Hide necessarily picks up up its cues from the Haunted House, while Season Six’s Curse of the Black Spot would take the Doctor back to a galleon setting and prove just as inexplicable (editing can take the blame there).  Some of these are a stretch, with The Chase coming as it did just two years into a now 50 year career.  But, the third Dalek serial was always going to be important.  Just imagine the kids who were excited when they saw that Dalek prop in The Space Museum.  Then imagine how excited they were during this six part adventure…

Special mention must go to the Time Space Visualiser. Nicely picked up from the previous adventure’s museum, it allows a light filler-filled episode one that guest stars the Doctor’s future complication, Queen Bess – along with petrified Shakespeare –  Abraham Lincoln and of course, The Beatles.  “Now you’ve squashed my favourite Beatles” the Doctor quips. Badly. After they’ve regaled him with Ticket to Ride.

This adventure is a fine example of the early Dalek era, but its chronology may not be as clear cut as it seems.  Again, hindsight plays a large part.  As the Daleks say, their rather sudden revenge is triggered by the Doctor delaying their invasion of Earth, but is that the invasion seen earlier that year?  Some Dalek chronology puts the story after the Third Doctor tale Day of the Daleks, with a more compelling rationale.  By that time the Daleks would not only have been thwarted in their invasion of Earth twice (the second time by a Doctor they didn’t quite recognise at first) but also have developed more established time capability.  Certainly, the Dalek’s development of time travel, dimensional engineering (seemingly lost by New Who) and a new mobility without external power packs makes it a better chronological fit. Crucially, it still complies with the Pre-Davros ‘first history of the Daleks’.

A final word on the sulky Doctor who reluctantly sees his companions off at the end of The Chase.  “I shall miss them” he says at last.  Whether the Doctor as we know him was created by Ian and Barbara’s accidental intervention is open to speculation.  But it is fair to say that they gave him a push in the right direction.

While both The Space Museum and The Chase show signs that the show was becoming aware of itself just three seasons in, the show’s legacy was assured by the time his first companions had all left that battered blue police box.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on to find the Second Doctor turning up like a cosmic hobo penny in Whovember #2!

Doctor Who: When the Radiophonic Workshop went to Shoreditch (#Whovember)

Radiophonic Workshop Whovember

radiophonic

It’s Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary month.  First off, a rare glimpse at an incredible part of British culture.

YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLOODY GREAT LUCK TO CATCH THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP IN ACTION.  Not just a concert rendition of their songs, but the real deal, or as close as you can get.  Messrs Mills, Ayre, Howell et al on a stage, surrounded by theremins, vocoders and ever-spinning tape loops.  Dick Mills took centre stage, wonderfully and eccentrically decked out in what may as well be milkman garb.

The Radiophonic Workshop was, of course, the BBC department established in 1958 to produce music and effects for radio and later television.  Mills gave an interesting run-through of the departments origin, one that led to the creation of an important and influential unit… Until the BBC shut it down in 1998.  Yesterday, it was an hour of classics, crossing from Gallifrey to the War of the Worlds, with a glimpse at the pages of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for good measure.

Best of all, the concert was held in Shoreditch, that part of East London, England, Earth where, in a totters yard, on Totters Lane a policeman first led us to the TARDIS fifty years ago.  It wasn’t the home of the Workshop, but the home of their most famous creation.  As Mills said when introducing the closing section, they couldn’t just let the 50th birthday of a certain “medical man” go without recognition.  “1958 to 1993” read the badge on the front of Dick Mills’ Jacket.  “The original sonic solution” read the back.

The Doctor Who theme really must be the Radiophonic Workshop’s most famous creation, but that’s hardly its only gift.  That theme was tweaked from Delia Derbyshire’s first arrangement of Ron Grainer’s composition – with assistance from Mills – was tweaked all the way up to Peter Howell’s compositions that closed Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor era.  As Workshopper Mark Ayre once said, while the Workshop started off with little beyond hand-me-downs from other departments, by the time it was disbanded in 1998, it had become one of the most sophisticated studios in the world.  Always based at Maida Vale, the original workshop spread from its famous Room 13 – as Mills joked, that’s when the License Fee started going up.  There were star admirers in the crowd, and rightly so.

Praised as unsung heroes of electronica, there reach extend beyond the airwaves and screen into popular music.  During particularly pounding rock efforts I was reminded of the indiscernible and strange connection between English eccentricity and rock and rolls.  From the Beatles to Bowie and rolling on to better examples of Britpop, it’s long been an asset, or cause, of Britain punching above its weight in popular music.  While an aspect like Metal could only have developed from the industrial Black Country, eccentricity is a general staple of all forms of British music.  And while the devilishly talented core members of the Workshop were crafting incredible music from nothing on behalf of the state broadcaster in the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of Pink Floyd were doing the same for progressive rock just miles away.  One listen to that band’s 1971 song One of These Days illustrates that link.

Of course, in 2012 the BBC announced that the Radiophonic Workshop would be returning as an online endeavour after 14 years.  It’s a great, eye-catching and correct idea.  But the real deal were those creaking around a stage in Shoreditch for an hour in the November of 2013.  Catch them when you can.

The Radiophonic Workshop was something that only the BBC could produce, something that only Britain could produce.

Merlin: Swords and Sorcery Part I – For the Love of Camelot!

Merlin for the Love of Camelot

Merlin chuck

The first of a series looking at Arthurian legend on the small and big screens.  First up is the throwtastic family fayre of Merlin.  Massive spoilers guaranteed for those who are yet to take the trip to Camelot.

CONCLUDING FIVE TERRIBLY SUCCESSFUL YEARS, MERLIN’S FINAL SEASON COMMENCED A YEAR AGO THIS WEEKEND.  As 2013 sees Albion traded for Atlantis on the long Autumn evenings, it feels a good time to look back at a show that proved many wrong, and also that Arthurian legend is still ripe for repossession.

 “In a land of myth, and a time of magic… the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name… Merlin.”

So began each episode, firmly setting the tone for The Adventures of Young Merlin.  In his review of the first episode of Atlantis, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston wryly commented that the show has the same boy’s public school vibe as Merlin – and it does.  Aside from myth, the show cuts into a similar vein as Harry Potter, conjuring up a class obsessed buddy show – although Atlantis could really do with a similar intro spiel.  With special effects limited by its television budget, a lot of the series’ appeal had to come from its interplay.  That put a focus on a script that received criticism for its modern English when it first started (all but gone by the end of its run) but that proved to be eminently sensible.  After all, what language would be historically accurate?  Unfortunately however, not many shows have an inbuilt universal translator or telepathic circuit and people take that badly.

Atlantis has taken the opposite approach to Merlin, starting in the modern day that Merlin briefly finished in. The camera could have easily cut from the South West country road that Merlin endlessly walks to the boat from which Jason surveys the ocean depths.

Different Fish

But Atlantis is a different fish to Merlin, despite its surface similarities.  The new show has a wealth of myths to draw on, and not necessarily all Greek (Jason is palling up with Hercules rather than Heracles after all).  In the first episode the main hero landed in an Atlantis that sounded a lot like Crete, took on the mantle of Theseus and defeated the minotaur.  There isn’t a golden fleece in sight, but it will surely come.  Atlantis may have significant crossovers with Merlin cast and crew, but it’s come with significant new blood – not least Howard Overman elevated to co-creator.

Following loosely in the boy wizard’s footsteps, Atlantis has immediately eased itself of Merlin’s early constraints.  Despite a singular base in one city, presumably in the Mediterranean, that may as well be Camelot in Albion, its setting brings an easier route to adventure and story.  The show’s intrepid trio have thousands of tales to draw on.  Although Merlin brought in various British and Celtic myths, from its various fantastic creatures to the aes sídhe, it was always set in the stone of Arthurian legend.

‘The Future of Camelot, Albion, and the United Kingdoms’

But as John Hurt’s Great Dragon intonated in the opening of every episode, this Merlin was a young boy, and a servant, for the whole run of the show.   No matter how many nods and references there were to the legends of Arthur, the audience knew that this was just laying the groundwork for the famous myths to come….  Well, that was the ruse that remained for a considerable time, in fact, pretty much up to the time that its cancellation was announced.  With every nod and appearance of an element of the myth, Merlin wasn’t hinting at what was to come after all – it was interpreting them just as Spenser, White, Malory and countless others had before.  In these days of old and bloated knights, it’s refreshing to see Arthur locked as a young king, because when Merlin ended, the whole legend had been told.

Most parts of Arthurian lore were acknowledged from the love triangle of the throne, the lady of the lake, Uther Pendragon, Excalibur, the sword in the stone and round table as well as bringing in the likes of Tristan, Isolde and the Fisher King.  By the final season many parts were in place, overshadowed by the road to Camlann.  In five years it covered pretty much the whole caboodle, not necessarily in the expected way or order, but it got away with it all rather brilliantly.

There’s a number of reasons why.  Perhaps most importantly, Merlin got its casting spot on.  The mix of the characters and chemistry more than overcame plots that frequently fell into the old ‘Oh we’re off for a quest because one of us has fallen ill’ mould.  While some of the characters remained a little underused, even wasted for long stretches, such as Sir Gwain and Guinevere, others flourished in leisurely story arcs.   In the case of Morgana, seldom has a character been allowed such time to develop from light to dark.  Katie McGrath had precious little to do for two seasons, but more than made up for it (well, went manically over the top) when the character’s power was realised.

The Great Purge

Merlin’s real strength was using and abusing the myths as it saw fit.  With such a successful chemistry and easy reliance on its strict formula, with its deus ex machina dragons, it eeked out parts of the myth throughout the series.  It laid simple, never over the top, plot strands with the confident and correct opinion that it really didn’t need to worry about being slavish to any version of the myth.  The quest, a medieval-going-on-modern castle set-up and the consistent suppression of magic were kept at the show’s core.  With a fixed base, the show could explore its established geography of kingships across Albion, laying down bases to return to and build on without being slavish.

The Changing Seasons

A quick summary of the five seasons shows the neat and steady unfolding of the myths.

  • Season one took a while to get swinging, despite introducing Lancelot, Excalibur and finished with a cameo from the Cup of Life.
  • Season two brought a twist on the Lady of the Lake and ended on the dragon lore with the last Great Dragon released (physical, not metaphorical here), a literal representation of magic that other adaptations have used a little more opaquely.
  • Season three played a longer game, with excursions to the Fisher King seeding the way for a finale where everything stepped up a gear.  With the addition of Sirs Gwain, Percival and Elyan, it sees Morgana seizing Camelot, the quest for the cup of Life, the formation of the Round Table, the return of the Lady of the Lake and the recovery of Excalibur.
  • Season four doesn’t keep Uther around for long and has soon deepened the myth with Morgana fully rogue and Arthur on the throne.  Nathaniel Parker adds a superb touch of class as the dastardly Agravaine de Bois (a character confused throughout myth).  Lancelot sacrifices himself, it turns out permanently, and by the finale Arthur is drawing the sword from the stone.
  • Season five jumps forward three years into an age of prosperity where Guinevere sits on the throne next to Arthur.  But the gathering doom of Camlann grows closer as Mordred resurfaces to earn his knighthood.

Despite its leisurely pace and skilful nods, it’s a shame that there wasn’t one more season, perhaps with Merlin taking on the mantle of Camelot physician and hand of the king from Gaius.  Many wanted it, but the format of the show would have been utterly broken by Arthur discovering and accepting Merlin had powers for any length of time.  The fact they never adapted Gwain and the Green Knight though, that’s almost unforgivable.

Since Doctor Who reclaimed Saturday nights for family drama, many shows have failed.  The most notable casualty was Demons, but even Primeval and Robin Hood were limited successes.  Merlin managed it with ease, taking support and leads from its far older brother and eventually breaking into a later peak slot that crossing the watershed without sacrificing its family fun.  By the series’ end, while Doctor Who struggled with over complications and split seasons, Merlin remained one of the most consistent shows ever seeking to entertain on a Saturday night.  No wonder it took a bite out of the X-Factor.  Against all odds, Atlantis is surely in good stead.

More Merlin? In Part 2: For the Hate of Camlann! – I take a look at the closing ‘Mordred trilogy

Batman: Rebooting Batmen – The Brave and the Bold

Brave and the batmen

It’s easy to dismiss as another in the constant roster of DC animated series, but Batman: The Brave and the Bold plays a pivotal role in picking up the past and sowing the seeds of the Dark Knight’s future.

SATURDAY MORNING CHILDREN CARTOONS CAN BE A BIT OF A SURPRISE.  Whether that’s nostalgia, something tolerable your kids have found or simply viewed through the fug of a hangover – or all three – some of them stick.

Batman: the Brave and the Bold (TBATB) wasn’t one of those.  On its UK run, I caught it maybe twice – the same episode both times of course – and dismissed it as the latest kid friendly iteration of the Dark Knight’s day time adventures.  Slight and packaged in easy Technicolor with the boisterous campery of its title sequence, I didn’t give it much credit having just watched a two series of the ambitious Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS).  TBATB was far removed from that, with The Batman and Batman Beyond in between, not counting other DC Universe off-shoots.  But then, a week ago I stumbled across TBATB and…  Soon kapowed through the first season.  I discovered it’s rather brilliantly done. As a throw-back to the Silver Age of comic books, If can’t think of better praise than saying that definitive animated Batman Kevin Conroy isn’t missed.  If you don’t expect the dark drama and profound storylines of other Batman series, TBATB holds many surprises.  More than just its consistency and sense of humour, I’m a bit in awe of the level of the show’s confidence and what that creative team managed to pull off.  …

Batsetting

BTAS is rightly regarded as classic television, animated or not.  It had dark, redemptive themes, wonderful art deco stylings and brilliant casting (and voice direction to bat-boot).  It took confident and driven creators to change the perception of the Dark Knight in cartoon – a format where Superfriends and Scooby-Doo still cast some camp shadows.  It was the early 1990s, and Batman was dominant at the cinema, but Tim Burton’s realisation couldn’t simply be transferred to the small screen.  It would only become apparent afterwards that the Burton Batman ended as BTAS started.   But by drawing on the success and the style little seen in big screen superheroics, BTAS could use the cinema as a springboard.  The gothic stylings and Danny Elfman’s superb score were identified as translatable elements and they worked brilliantly.  The title wasn’t only accurate, it was aspirational. While the film series ran on the big screen, these animated tales would be every bit their equal.  The pathos of the Two face tale, the tragedy of Clayface’s origin, the superbly dark Mark Hamill iteration of the Joker, confirmed that BTAS reached the same artistic level as the best of the Bat films.

In doing so, it laid down a large gauntlet – increasingly so as its quality fed into the New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series while the Batman films stuttered in the late 1990s.  BTAS wasn’t exactly a fresh direction for the Dark Knight, 60 years into his career, but its legacy would live on.   David Warner’s portrayal of Ra’s Al Ghul may be more comic book, but the construction of Two Face formed part of a renaissance in the character that would push Harvey Dent to being, pre- and post-transformation, the integral figure of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

When it came to the Lego: Batman videogame in 2008, it was the still heavy legacy of Burton’s Batman that led to the decision to use Danny Elfman’s score, but by that time BTAS itself surely played a matching part.  The highly successful Arkham videogame series hasn’t had to look further than Kevin Conroy as their Batman for the most part.  Though defined by change, shreds of each of the Batmen permeate the others.  As almost the ideal example of that, TBATB premiered in late 2008 – the same year as The Dark Knight reclaimed Batman’s crown at the cinema – and lasted three seasons.

Animators have long had to react against the film reiterations of Batman on screen.   The Batman, the tale of a young Bruce Wayne taking on the mantle of the Bat surfaced in 2004, a year before Batman Begins.  In its way, it took a similar tack to the BTAS. You couldn’t translate Christian Bale’s Batman directly into cartoon, but took the youthful approach as a launch point.  When it finished around the time of the The Dark Knight, that difficulty in translation was confirmed.  The film series was set onscreen for at least one more instalment, which left a nice void for TBATB – for the first time, a complete divergence.   The Batman wasn’t un-innovative – their feral Joker is proof of that, but TBATB didn’t have to react as much as do what it wanted.  If it was intended to be particularly kid friendly, it had the luck to have a serious set of personnel to develop it.

TBATB doesn’t paw the same ground as BTAS, but there are references to its illustrious forbear just as there are to many parts of the Caped Crusader’s history.  Batman, and his non-supernatural opponents, don satisfyingly physical knuckle dusters when the need arises – but any violence soon ends in a still frame as close to the ‘kapow’ of the 1960s Batman as it could be without using the word.  Even the death trap makes a glorious reappearance.

Batorigins

TBATB is a title used intermittently by DC Comics since 1955, in each iteration pairing superheroes who may not normally hang out together.  In the early ‘60s it had moved on from Robin Hood to incorporate the first sightings of The Suicide Squad and in 1960 itself, the first appearance of the Justice League (followed three years later by the Teen Titans).

Following the success of the ‘60s TV series, issues 74 to 200 of TBATB were exclusively Batman team-ups and that’s where, decades later, the animated show picks up.  One of the most fascinating parts of comic lore is how new creative teams and overseers interpret and reinterpret decades of acquisitions, team-ups and trademarks.  The TBATB brand name has staying power, despite its archaic title.  It was after all was envisaged for those early knights, gladiators and Hoods, not the capes and cowls it now encompasses.  While it may be prefaced with Batman, that silver age innocence remains. In the later episode Night of the Huntress, both Huntress and Blue Beetle transform in pure throwbacks to that time.

Batfamily

TBATB the cartoon takes Batman as the starting point, but this is an easier Dark Knight.  He may be a workaholic, but he takes the Silver Age in his stride – especially when he’s surrounded by foils.  The format is simple, two team-ups across the pre- and post-titles.  The first episode captures a neat dynamic with a younger and competitive Green Arrow – with Batman grudgingly naming him his preferred defender of justice.

Within episodes, the framework of superheroes around Batman had been set, with firm references to the past and future.  Accruing the most appearances, The Green Arrow and Blue Beetle are modernised versions – rebooted in the former, literally in the latter.  But by the end of the first season, the Green Arrow has landed his Black Canary and there’s event been time to explore the late Ted Kord, the original Charlton Comic Blue Beetle.

Alongside Red Tornado and Jack Kirby classics Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth and OMAC, TBATB promotes lesser heroes – including Metamorpho – a character who first appeared in the pages of TBATB but is now a young member of The Outsiders (DC’s X Men).  Green Arrow is as high profile as Batman’s allies get – with Black Canary, Black Lightning and Red Tornado near and rivals on the spectrum.  Arrow’s dominance in this league came at a time the young arrow was discovering green in Smallville and far before the success of the Arrow TV series.  Still, it’s a shame it clashed with Man of Steel and Dark Knight scripter, David Goyer’s late 2000s film pitch, Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max.  That was a film that would highlight the lesser known hero and villains much as TBATB did.  The outsider of the DC film universe.

That framework’s established so quickly that by mid-season , a two-parter could visit the alternative, reversed Earth-2, where the Red Hood fights in futility against Owlman and the Crime Syndicate of America he belongs to.  Without Superman and Wonder Woman, these characters had to be drawn well.  The Red Hood was immaculate.

Batvillains

Talking of that Red Hooded rogue, TBATB wasn’t just a showcase for Superheroes in their Silver Age (and later) splendour, but also the villains.  Major Disaster, the Weather Wizard, Calculator, the Clock King all had their moments, as did the Blackgate Penitentiary and inevitably, Arkham Asylum.  As it should, the show plays lightly with the well known and pushes the lesser known and new to the fore.  Catwoman is refreshingly a villain (cat burglar) once more.  Still, the love interest aspect remains and leads to and surely the subject of the open-ended finale in Inside the Outsiders (“Women are a tricky, tricky business”).

Then there’s the new ones.

New villains are difficult to introduce.  The Animated Series lucked out by introducing the rarest of foes – one who was adopted into the comics.  But then, for every Harlequin, there’s a Sewer King and Tygrus.  TBATB gives it a good stab.  The Babyface Gang may seem pretty generic, but with the addition of Mrs Man Face, take a twist for the bizarre (“The hammer of justice is unisex”).  The closest the first series gets to the gangs of Gotham, Babyface is a criminal taking the same leaf out of Dick Tracy’s book as the 60’s series sometimes did.  The main attempt however, is at the other end of the scale, the mystical realm of Dr Fate.  Equinox, a supernatural figure obsessed with balance ties Batman as skilfully into the magical realm of the DC universe as John DiMaggio’s ebullient Aquaman does to the gates of Atlantis and the surly Guy Gardener to space.

The DC Universe is vast, encompassing the real gods of Olympus with the biblical (from Lucifer to Zauriel) and the magic that extends from Pandora and the Phantom Stranger and even pre-time.   TBATB wears all of it on it cowl, allowing time travel access to Jason Blood and Etrigan the Demon in the time of Merlin as well as 19th century London where the world’s greatest detective must team-up with Sherlock Holmes.  That mixture of the real and fantastic has posed challenges to many writers, but TBATB allows him to prowl the rooftops of Gotham as easily as the outer reaches of space. From Gotham to Star City, to the Green Lantern home base of the Planet Oa or Adam Strange’s Rann, TBATB covers the lot.

Batlights

There are many highlights in the series, including singing, miting and Robins.

The murky Colour of Revenge features a team-up between Batman and Robin, for the most part in his older Nightwing, guardian of Blüdhaven guise – though for ease he remains Robin (multiple iterations of Robin would rather ruin TBATB format).  But while their relationship plays on different Robins over the years, the prologue flashback is pure 60s TV series.

Referencing the history of the Dark Knight reached a peak in the 19th episode, Legends of the Bat Mite.  Scripted by legendary BTAS alumni Paul Dini, it plays as fast and loose with the Knight’s history.  Far more than a punning title it fits in multiple DC Comic Elseworlds references and even Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, crossing barriers that you’d normally expect in a Warren Ellis  Planetary crossover.  During the episode, perpetual pain Batmite crosses the fourth wall to voice the show’s statement of intent:

“Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

The imp from the 5th dimension, much like the creators, had a point.

Batman takes the mantle of the series, but as Batmite points out on behalf of those creators, he doesn’t necessarily carry the characteristics you might expect.  Anguish and gruffness has been replaced by a wry sense of humour and a fondness for a catchphrase – often including a reference to justice like the many variations on “Crime doesn’t take a holiday, and neither do I”.  As I’ve written before, the Dark Knight is a character defined by movement from and within his narrow, mythical confines.  Barely touching on Wayne’s past or Alfred, hardly revealing the Batcave and neatly, whenever sans mask, Bruce Wayne’s face is hidden (first series at least).  So long defined by the dual persona, this is pure Dark Knight.

At the end of the series, an episode introducing the Musical Maestro shows that the series could change its format.  Virtually entirely musical, its fits a tale of global crime into a repurposing of the Phantom of the Opera.  It’s evidently a storytelling format full of confidence that makes the earlier The Batman series fade in the gloom.

Batrole

TBATB is not only a neat showcase for Batman and lesser known DC superheroes and villains, but also neat launching point into the whole DC universe.  That’s Batman’s key worth.  TBATB earned its own part of the DC multiverse after the Infinite Crisis storyline: Earth 23.

It’s no surprise given Man of Steel’s success in its own right, that it’s Superman’s cowled compatriot who will come on board to open up the DC Universe for everybody else.  The literally mythic Wonder Woman is the last of DC’s trinity and the last easy to translate – but then that’s the same challenge as Marvel faced bringing in Thor to Iron Man’s world.  The Caped Crusader in Batman versus Superman will be darker, older and gnarlier than has appeared in film before, not the workaholic blue and grey quipster of TBATB, but his cohesive role will be the same.  Reach into the utility belt for the Unifying DC Universe Batspray.

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