“Heart of Steel, Part 1”
Written by Brynne Stephens
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music Composed by Richard Bonskill, Tamara Kline
Animation Services by Sunrise
Original Airdate—November 16th, 1992
Plot: When a robotic briefcase robs Wayne Tech, Batman follows the trail to Bruce Wayne’s old mentor Karl Rossum, Rossum’s bombshell of an assistant, Randa Duane, and Rossum’s super computer, HARDAC. Meanwhile, Barbara Gordon is home from college and she notices her father Commissioner Gordon has suddenly gone very cold….
“Heart of Steel” is not shy about displaying its influences. HARDAC is every supercomputer Kirk ever faced on Star Trek: TOS, with the single red eye of HAL 9000 and a voice like the Superman arch villain Brainiac. Meanwhile, the duplicate robots are a little bit Terminator and a lot Blade Runner, the producers going to so far as casting professional sad sack William Sanderson as the robots’ maker, Karl Rossum. Rossum’s company shares a name with the Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron. And Rossum’s name and Randa’s license plate are direct references to R.U.R., the Czech play that was the original robot revolution story, and the origin of the English word “robot.”
Even after the mind-reading machine and the man-bat, this is the most science fictional episode so far. “Heart of Steel” drops us into the thick of it with one of the most out-there set pieces of the series, Batman getting his ass kicked by a briefcase. And while Batman is surprised by a piece of luggage with Doctor Octopus arms, his mind isn’t exactly blown, and he calmly catches up with the machine with the glider he stores on top of Wayne Tower. Batman just accepts that computers that can think for themselves and robots that can pass for human are the logical next steps in technology. After all, there’s a super computer and robot arms in the Batcave too.
(Small note: Bruce Wayne is locked away by security during the theft, which he escapes from through the secret door he of course also has. Did no one notice Bruce Wayne wasn’t there after the theft was over?)
Boy can the robots pass for human. Randa Duane is the most sexualized woman in the series since Poison Ivy. Modeled on Marilyn Monroe, Randa is a head-turning siren with her own noirish sexy saxophone theme who wears form fitting suits or even more form fitting lab gear. Implicitly, Rossum built Randa to replace his lost daughter. I wonder if in the first draft she replaced Rossum’s wife. Certainly Bruce Wayne seems taken with her. Even if Bruce’s (hilariously fake) smarm is just a facade while he interrogates her about the robbery, the first thing Bruce does upon meeting Randa is reach for her breast.
HARDAC is the villain of the piece, and a pretty straight forward one, but in a very real way he’s just a manifestation of Karl Rossum’s inner struggle. Rossum is another dark reflection of Bruce Wayne, someone who has suffered a tragic loss of a family member and taken to extreme methods to make sure it never happens again. But rather than focus on revenge, as Wayne and many of his villains have, Rossum has gone deeper and blamed human fallibility. He’s trying to erase human error.
Let it be known that we at Tor.com are huge fans of William Sanderson, and he’s amazing here. A veneer of pathetic, insincere affability covering a bitter and lonely life, while also having an ounce of hope. Even before he admits it, Rossum must know what he’s doing is wrong. Why else show Bruce Wayne HARDAC before Wayne has any reason to suspect him? Rossum wants to be caught. He wants Batman to stop him.
“Heart of Steel” also introduces Barbara Gordon, the future Batgirl, who will be a very important character later, especially in The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond. As with Two-Face, the series writers introduce Barbara in her civilian identity in episodes before she becomes a super-character, so that when she eventually does don the cape and cowl, Commissioner Gordon’s adult daughter would not appear out of nowhere.
Not that she does much in this half of the two-parter. Mostly she’s just introduced, though we get some good character moments. Bruce Wayne’s known her since she was 15 (and boy is that going to get creepy later) and Gordon is uncomfortable with his daughter growing up, bringing her favorite teddy bear Woobie with him to the airport and making sure Barbara has it at all times. Gordon and his daughter spending an evening at home when there’s suddenly a sinister knock at the door homages The Killing Joke, only this time it’s James Gordon who opens the door and is shot for his troubles. And Barbara knows something is wrong the moment her father backhands Woobie off the couch.
It’s really in the second half where Barbara shines, and also in the second half where this episode goes bug nuts insane.
“Heart of Steel, Part 2”
Written by Brynne Stephens
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music Composed by Carl Johnson
Animation Services by Sunrise
Original Airdate—November 17th, 1992
Plot: HARDAC’s plan to replace the powerful of Gotham with robot duplicates continues as Mayor Hill, Detective Bullock, and Bruce Wayne are targeted. As Batman fights for his life, Barbara Gordon conducts an investigation of her own.
Like “Robin’s Reckoning,” this two-parter has the same writer and director for both episodes, and this time even the same animation studio, so there’s no drop in quality at all. This really does feel like one long episode, including a joke that’s only funny if you watch both episodes. In Part 1, Alfred comments on the mangled bat-glider “I do wish you wouldn’t play so roughly with your toys, sir.” And when HARDAC turns the Batcomputer against Batman, Alfred responds “I do wish your toys wouldn’t play so roughly with you, sir.”
The biggest difference between the episodes is the Part 2 is pants-wettingly terrifying. Maybe I find body snatcher stories, where loved ones are replaced by unfeeling clones, particularly sickening, but Kevin Altieri bring his A-Game to the robot duplicates crab-walking around elevator shafts, red glowing eyes, torn off faces, and an unfeeling machine with a giant fucking laser burning up his creator. I find myself losing my shit.
I cannot stress enough how nightmare inducing Cybertron is. Everything is automated, down to the trash cans, and they are all trying to kill humanity. Nothing is what it seems. Headlights of a truck turn out to be two robots. Loved ones start flipping around with metal coming out of their face. People keep exploding. And the whole time, HARDAC is promising to take over all of Gotham, then all of the world.
Holy Crap! Holy Shit! Holy Fuck!
The opening must be particularly gut wrenching for Batman himself. The Batcave, after all, is where Bruce goes to feel safe, and HARDAC has not only invaded, but turned the cave against him. That’s Ra’s Al Ghul level villainy. As with Kyodai Ken, I wonder why HARDAC was never brought to the comics or other media. Is it because, when his light’s not on, you can see Rossum drew a smiley face on him?
In direct contrast to how terrifying the villain is, Barbara Gordon really shines. This is, after all, the episode that argues that she should become Batgirl. Melissa Gilbert nails a character who is absolutely out of her depth, dealing with a literally impossible situation, but determined to do whatever she can to save her father. She’s brave, strong, clever, and willing to pull on Batman’s cape to get what she wants. After saving her father, she goes back to save Batman (mission creep hits Gotham again). I can’t tell if Barbara using her foundation powder to find finger prints and vanity mirror to reflect a laser is clever or stupid (she fights crime with make-up ‘cause she’s a girl, get it?). She also looks appropriately horrified when she thinks she helped kill Harvey Bullock, before learning it was actually a Robo-Bullock (did Batman know it was a Harvey-Bot? Because he does not hesitate to throw him into the Batsignal).
My one complaint about the episode is that the Commissioner Gordon-Bot is so obviously out of character that Barbara doesn’t get to prove that she’s a good detective. She says “it’s not as obvious as bolts on his neck,” (referencing another influence) but anyone could see that Gordon’s personality had been replaced. It’s weird, because all of the other duplicates impersonate their targets almost perfectly, if more dickishly (or, in Bullock’s case, just a tad more dickishly). Randa Duane keeps joking and flirting with Bruce long after she’s revealed to be a robot. Why is the Gordon-bot so badly programmed?
This episode ends with a note of future adventures, as Barbara comments “I sort of enjoyed it,” to a puckish musical sting and a suspicious look from her father. Clearly she’s coming back. But HARDAC is coming back too. Randa Duane, after all, discovers that Bruce Wayne was Batman, and HARDAC only replies “This data may be useful later” and does nothing with that information. This episode. Consider “this data” to be Chekov’s Gun. It’s going to go off with a bang a few months from now….