Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Perchance to Dream"

“My life is a dream, Alfred! The best dream anyone ever had.”

After a routine night on patrol, Bruce Wayne awakens to a new day, into a world where he isn’t Batman, he’s due to marry Selina Kyle, and his parents are still alive. Bruce can’t put his finger on it, but something is wrong. Is it the fault of the Batman, or has Bruce Wayne fallen into a delusion?

I’ll begin by saying that this episode is on record as Kevin Conroy’s favorite, and when Batman himself tells you it’s worth a look, that’s really saying something. We could joke about this being his favorite because he gets the most to do – he voices no fewer than four characters (Batman, Bruce Wayne, Other Batman, and Thomas Wayne) with aplomb – but the truth is that this is a dynamite Batman story. Indeed, it might be the show’s best episode not written by Paul Dini. It touches something of the character’s core, it’s emotionally potent, and it’s a pretty good mystery. For that reason, I’m going to throw up a big overall spoiler warning for the rest of this review, because it’s very difficult to talk about this episode without taking stock of the whole story.

Edgar Allan Poe concluded a poem of the same name with the couplet “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?” and it’s a great line that would have fit in neatly with this episode – perhaps at the end, had the writers opted not to use the “stuff that dreams are made of” refrain from Shakespeare by way of Bogart. (But don’t mistake me – it’s a great use of that line!) The episode forms its own mystery which is, in a sense, unsolvable, with the only clues being that we know Bruce Wayne is Batman and that we know Bruce Wayne can read. It’s the latter that tips off our protagonist, who memorably intones to Batman, “Reading is a function of the right side of the brain, while dreams come from the left side. It’s impossible to read something in a dream!” Whether or not that’s scientifically valid is moot (and, I suspect, somewhat difficult to test), but it’s a clever way to work with the notion that Batman is the world’s greatest detective. It’s also fun to catch that a jewelry store in the background of a few shots has “Alxjyziv” on its storefront.

You’d be forgiven, on that beat of illegibility, for thinking that Mr. Mxyzptlk might be responsible for Batman’s latest predicament. In truth, though, you don’t have to look all that far into the show’s back catalogue – just two episodes, to “Mad as a Hatter.” Yes, it’s Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter, who’s found a way to turn his mind-controlling technology into a dreamscape for his hated enemy. And yet there’s something psychologically tragic and at once perplexingly compassionate about the Mad Hatter’s scheme, because he’s not trying to kill Batman. “I was willing to give you whatever life you wanted... just to keep you out of mine!” I’d lamented the way that Tetch was “more pathetic than sympathetic” in his debut episode, but he comes back strong, particularly for an episode in which he barely appears. There’s something oddly noble about an enemy whose endgame is to dispose of the hero by giving him everything he wants, especially considering that nothing would have stopped the Mad Hatter from killing Batman once he slipped the dream machine onto his head.

As before, the actual fight with the Hatter doesn’t last very long; Batman hopelessly outmatches him. The real battle, though, takes place a little bit earlier, in which Bruce Wayne confronts Batman at the clocktower. The battle for Bruce Wayne’s mind is also a battle for Batman’s soul, suggesting that Bruce’s happy normalcy and his role as Batman are mutually exclusive. Ultimately, it’s the detective that wins out; though he finally has his parents by his side, Bruce Wayne cannot stomach living in a world he knows is wrong, and he’s willing to stake his life on it.

The winning streak continues; “Perchance to Dream” is a knockout episode, tightly crafted and alternately mysterious and touching. It truly is one of the best, perhaps even more so once you know the ending and can really appreciate the lure of the dream world.

Original Air Date: October 19, 1992

Writers: Joe R. Lansdale, Laren Bright, and Michael Reaves

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall)

Next episode: “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy,” in which The Mad Hatter shockingly does not appear.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

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