Tue
Jul 9 2013 2:00pm

Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch: “Baby Doll” & “The Lion and the Unicorn”

Batman The Animated Series Baby-Doll

Baby Doll”
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Dan Riba
Episode #076
Supervising Composer Shirley Walker
Music Composed by Carl Johnson
Animation Services by Spectrum Animation Studio
Original Airdate—October 1st, 1994

Plot: Mary Dahl, an adult who looks like a child, is kidnapping her former co-stars in order to play act her fictional life, at gunpoint.

“Why couldn’t you just let me make believe?” is Mary Louise Dahl’s plaintive cry to Batman at episode’s end, making “Baby Doll” a thematic sequel to “House and Garden.” Once again, a villain has created a seemingly normal family life using violence to maintain the world exactly as she wants it. No wonder these crooks hate Batman. He doesn’t just foil their plans. He ruins their dreams with harsh reality.

Notionally, “Baby Doll” is supposed to comment on the plight of child actors, especially at a time many sit-com stars turned to crime. In Gotham, of course, they turn to supervillainy. And to back up that point, Andrea Romano went out of her way to cast former sit-com stars as Baby’s “family,” including the actor who played Cousin Oliver, the face of the TV trope Cousin Spunky is parodying. But that point is undercut because Mary Dahl was never really a child star. She’s a more extreme version of Gary Coleman, an adult genetically cursed to always look five (and like a character on Tiny Toons). So it’s NOT the story of someone warped by being exploited as a child, but the story of an adult falling into Inception-levels of self-delusion.

She’s not recreating her own childhood, but a fictional childhood she portrayed on a sitcom as an adult, complete with a laugh track. Beyond that, in her new version, her character is never the butt of the joke, never humiliated, unlike what actually happened on the show. So basically, she’s forcing her former co-stars to live out their lives in her fan-fiction. Dahl’s interactions with her former cast have a similar balance of scary and funny that Mark Hamill hits in his portrayal of the Joker. The creepiness of Baby Doll—the uncanny resemblance to a five year old and the “normal” life she wants to impose on people—makes her a great Twilight Zone villain.

Batman the Animated Series, Baby Doll, Batman

But they don’t make her a good Batman villain. Oh, she’s sympathetic enough (she just wants love), but she can’t provide any threat to Batman himself. “But Steven,” I hear you say, “how is that different from Scarface, whom you think is great?” The difference is that Scarface is a wooden doll, and when he gets shot, beheaded, and crushed, it’s hilarious. Baby Doll, on the other hand, looks like a five year old girl. Oh, you can tell me she’s actually thirty, but that doesn’t stop her from being a human one fifth Batman’s size. Every time he attacks her, he looks like a bully at best and a child abuser at worse.

Thus, the extended chase at the end is anti-climactic. Yes, it’s clever that Batman flushes Baby Doll out by making a big appearance, attracting all the real children (because kids LOVE Batman), and it’s an emotional moment when the Hall of Mirrors reflects what Baby Doll would have looked like if she had grown up normal, and it’s nice to see that Gotham has non-abandoned amusement parks, but on her own and without any hostages, Baby Doll just does not provide any tension at all.

Honestly, I’m much more interested in Mariam, Baby Doll’s personal assistant and (along with the thugs dressed as Gilligan and the Skipper) the physical threat for the evening. Her character design—reserved demeanor, professional dress, and reflective glasses—make her look like Kevin from Sin City, or the evil twin of Scott McCloud. Plus, her one line explanation for her skills, “It’s a living,” is fascinating. We haven’t seen any truly mercenary characters on Batman: the Animated Series before. Even Bane was more concerned with honor than the five million in diamonds. Yet here’s a woman who does an even better job of fighting Batman and Robin than Bane, who will work for whoever pays her. It would have been fun to see Mariam pop up again, working for a series of bosses who could use her muscle. And it’s hard not to see her as a prototype for Lex Luthor’s bodyguard/enforcer, Mercy Graves.

Batman the Animated Series, Mariam

And as much as I complain about the denouement, everything leading up the final chase is great. This is a particularly good episode for Robin, demonstrating what he can do as a character that Batman can’t, namely be aware of pop culture. He’s the one that watched the old sitcom, even though it was terrible, and he’s the one that rewatches the episodes for clues, even though he unfavorably compares it to being smothered in sharp vines by Poison Ivy. He also gets a few great hero moments, pushing a woman out of the way of a van before flipping over the van himself, and doing a dramatic costume change in shadow, a direct visual call back to Batman’s similar reveal in “Almost Got ‘Im.” Except for accidentally grabbing Bullock in a moment of confusion, Robin has a perfect record for the episode. He could just as easily have been the one to chase after Baby Doll in the end, and Batman wouldn’t have needed to be in the episode at all.

Clearly, once Batman and Robin catch up to Baby Doll, the story is over. So, if they had cut the final chase and spent more time with Batman and Robin being detectives, trying to find Baby before she kills someone, or spent more time with Baby menacing her family and forcing them to live out her fantasies, what ends up being an okay episode could have been a great one.

 

Batman the Animated Series, The Lion and the Unicorn

The Lion and the Unicorn”
Written by Diane Duane, Philip Morwood, Steve Perry
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Episode #077
Music by Brian Langsbard
Animation by Dong Yang Animation, Inc.
Original Airdate—September 15th, 1995

Plot: Alfred’s past as an agent of British Intelligence comes back to haunt him when he’s called back to England and captured by the terrorist Red Claw.

Hey, this is another okay episode that could have been great if only it had a little less Batman in it.

“The Lion and the Unicorn” is the second episode to focus on Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth. “Eternal Youth” revealed what Alfred does when he’s not butlering: “get laid” and “turn into wood” (unfortunately not in that order). “The Lion and the Unicorn” asks the question, what did Alfred do before working for the Waynes? Answer: he used to be a spy.

The comics have had several different versions of Alfred’s origin. In some, he’s always been a butler, working for the Royal Family before taking over for his father Jarvis (ha ha) as the Wayne’s butler. In others, he was an accomplished stage actor, which explains his rapier wit and penchant for disguise make-up. And, in some, he worked for British Intelligence Services. Of course, these origins aren’t mutually exclusive; Alfred could easily have career hopped in his youth. It’s just hard to imagine he had time to do so and also have been Bruce Wayne’s personal attendant for the last twenty years.

Alfred being a spy also has troubling implications, because it’s hard to imagine it’s totally a coincidence that an employee of MI5 just happened to raise the world’s greatest crimefighter. Did Alfred subtly guide Bruce along the path to becoming a ninja scientist detective? Worse, did Alfred arrange the Wayne’s death to motivate the budding genius Olympic level athlete to fight crime? Did he do it again with the Flying Graysons? I’m not just throwing out fan-fiction prompts, either. One of the final episodes of Justice League suggests lifelong government manipulation is behind the origin of a different, but closely related character.

Batman the Animated Series, Alfred, MI5

But I’m getting super ahead of myself. The real problem with “The Lion and the Unicorn” is that it tells us Alfred used to work for British Intelligence, but doesn’t show us what that means. The episode should contrast how Alfred acts in the batcave (cleaning the batsuit, making sure Robin doesn’t catch a cold, and generally playing mother and father to the Dynamic Duo) and how he acts out in the world—swiftly dispatching two attackers with an umbrella, breaking antique chairs over thugs’ heads and remaining snarky even under advanced interrogation techniques (a skill Hugo Strange noticed way back in “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne”). As much fun as it is to watch Batman and Robin race through a castle filled with deathtraps (and it is, Boyd Kirkland’s direction is again exceptional), how much more fun would it have been if this episode was an Alfred-only adventure, the gentleman’s gentleman bringing down a terrorist cell with only good manners, a sharp right hook, and a quiver full of snark?

Certainly there are hints of the better episode this could have been. Batman explicitly says Alfred wasn’t a field agent, which I think is a nice touch. The lazy route would have been to say Alfred used to be James Bond, a.k.a. Batman in a tux. Instead, it’s clear Alfred was more a George Smiley type, a desk jockey who nonetheless guided international policy and saved lives. He has his own supporting cast ready to go, from still in the field David Niven-lookalike Frederick and the team of Ms at headquarters. He has some enemies to start with, the thugs Bert and Ernie (ha ha). There are London-only action sequences, the chase on the double decker bus, the infiltration of a Scottish castle. How cool would it have been if Alfred casually returned from this grand adventure, with Robin still thinking that Alfred was “just a nice old guy who polished the silver and fixed me sandwiches”? Unfortunately, Alfred spends the majority of the episode tied to a chair.

The other problem with the episode is Red Claw. She was boring in “The Cat and the Claw,” and she’s still boring here. She’s still a terrorist that demands five billion pounds from the British, but for no cause or country. Any other villain could have worked in her place, and almost any other would have been better, especially established and actually interesting eco-terrorists Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. It also may have been fun to introduce a new, British themed villain, a nemesis specifically for Alfred.

Red Claw leads to a lot of the logic problems with the plot. Why do two old spies, one who hasn’t worked in the service for over twenty years, have the launch codes? How does Red Claw know this bit of doggerel is part of the code and not all of the other nonsense? British intelligence knows where she is, why are Batman and Robin storming the castle on their own? And why does she make her demands before getting the launch codes, then launch the missile before London has a chance to meet her demands? If we knew anything about her character, theses impulsive mistakes might make sense, but instead she just comes across as an impatient idiot.

Batman the Animated Series, Alfred Pennyworth

Because they aired out of production order, “The Lion and the Unicorn” was the last episode of Batman: the Animated Series to air on FOX Broadcasting. It’s not a great episode, and it’s worse as a series finale, since it doesn’t really say anything about Batman. It hardly says anything about Alfred. One has to assume it aired last simply because someone judged it worse than any of the other twenty additional episodes. It’s hard to disagree with that (I think “The Terrible Trio” is worse, but not by much). The good news is then, is that the remaining episodes are all pretty great to the end.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

3 comments
John C. Bunnell
1. JohnCBunnell
A question: you have the second of these scripts credited to Diane Duane, Philip Morwood, and Steve Perry. Should "Philip" possibly be Peter Morwood, Duane's husband and also an established genre writer? (It seems improbable that a Duane script would have a different Morwood as a collaborator....)
John C. Bunnell
2. JohnCBunnell
And to answer my own question:

On one hand, YouTube video shows that the screen credit really does read "Philip Morwood" (which thereby gets replicated in the episode guide I consulted). But a check of Peter Morwood's own Web site finds "The Lion and the Unicorn" included in his filmographic credits, along with an assortment of other animation credits, mostly in collaboration with Diane Duane (and notably including two episodes of Gargoyles).
So the correct credit should be to Peter Morwood, notwithstanding the screen shot.
RobinM
3. RobinM
I still kinda like the Lion and the Unicorn just because it was an Alfred episode but your right it could have been stronger. I really don't picture Alfred plotting to create Batman by offing his parents even with Batman Beyonds "secret origin".

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