“Birds Of A Feather” (season one, episode 47; originally aired February 8, 1993)
Ouch, “Birds Of A Feather” is a rough one. Not in terms of quality, but subject matter. The best writers find the psychological flaws that drive Batman’s villains, and Chuck Menville (story) and Brynne Stevens (teleplay) tap into Penguin’s delusional nature to tell a heartbreaking story about reform and rejection. After being busted by Batman during a museum robbery, Oswald Cobblepot vows to leave his criminal past behind, expecting to be greeted with open arms by the high society types he’s spent his life stealing from. Rather than being picked up from prison by a limousine, he boards a bus driven by a beastly curmudgeon of a women; his welcoming party isn’t a gang of celebratory rogues, but a stern Batman who warns him to keep his “beak clean.”
Oswald’s high hopes leave him susceptible to the machinations of stunning socialite Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) and her flamboyantly catty partner-in-crime Pierce Chapman (Sam McMurray), who use Oswald to boost their profile by featuring him as the comedic entertainment at their latest party. Last episode showed us glimpses of Penguin potential with his “Aviary of Doom” segment, but “Birds Of A Feather” is the first time Oswald Cobblepot is effectively used for drama, the writers finally offering insight into the motives behind his criminal behavior.
We still don’t have a definitive B:TAS origin for Penguin, but the appearance of the giant rubber ducky from Batman Returns suggests we should use that film’s “deformed baby discarded by his wealthy parents” story for Oswald Cobblepot. His obsession with all things avian represents his desire to soar with the city’s elite, and his association with a bird that can’t fly comes to symbolize Oswald’s inability to fit in with Gotham’s upper crust. Penguin slurps down whole fish at dinner with a disgusted Veronica, gurgle-sings along at the opera, and acts like a hyperactive cretin at his coming out party, achieving the exact effect Veronica and Pierce were hoping to achieve and guaranteeing their pictures in the gossip section of tomorrow’s newspaper.
Casting Oswald as the victim humanizes him, making the character more than a collection of misquotes and ornithological fanaticism, revealing a brave soul and a kind heart underneath his grotesque surface. When Veronica and Oswald are ambushed in an alley, he immediately leaps to defend her umbrella-in-hand, fending off the muggers until Batman shows up to totally cockblock poor Penguin. It’s nice to see Batman caught off-guard, and his reactions to Veronica and Oswald’s relationship are constantly entertaining. In fact, the emotional storytelling is really strong this entire episode, and the characters show a variety of facial expressions that help convey both the drama and humor of the script.
Bruce Timm credits Ronaldo del Carmen with storyboarding the stronger emotional moments of the script, and looking at his storyboards for the dinner scene shows how well he conveys the story without needing dialogue. Dong Yang has layout services provided by Mr. Big Cartoons, and the animation is smooth with the character models staying consistent throughout the episode. The final opera fight sequence is appropriately epic, and director Frank Paur essentially redoes the scene from the end of “Prophecy of Doom” with a much stronger animation studio. Shirley Walker turns in one of the best scores for the series with an opera-inspired theme that undergoes many variations from the title card to the blazing finale. The full orchestra is used spectacularly, and the powerful sound makes the tragic conclusion of the episode hit even harder.
With a more well-rounded character, Paul Williams is finally able to show off his full range as Penguin, and he’s simultaneously brash and tedious while charming and sympathetic. Oswald is so desperate to be loved that he showers Veronica with affection, and Williams brings an appropriate sense of romance to his character’s long-winded vernacular, creating a genuine sense that he cares for her. When he learns of her betrayal, Oswald’s emotional shift is immediate, reverting back to his criminal persona and kidnapping Veronica for a hefty ransom.
After receiving the money, Penguin lashes out at Veronica, saying, “All I wanted from you, dearie, was a little friendship. That would have cost you nothing!” When Oswald Cobblepot is Penguin, he at least has his fellow rogues for companionship, even if it’s only for the occasional poker game. This episode marks the beginning of Oswald’s evolution into the businessman we’ll see later in the series, showing the villain’s eagerness to change in order to reach the status his name entitles him to. He still has a long way to go, but once he distances himself from the Penguin, he’ll learn how to fly.
“What Is Reality?” (season one, episode 48, originally aired November 24, 1992)
The Riddler’s back, and he watched Tron a couple times while he was away. I do love how shows from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s handled the coming of the Digital Age, and “What Is Reality?” finds Batman entering a virtual reality world after Riddler hacks Gotham’s financial computer systems. The plot is far-fetched and the ending doesn’t make much sense, but John Glover’s charismatic Riddler and shockingly strong animation from Akom for the trippy VR sequences make up for the story’s misgivings.
The episode begins with one of the more horrifying moments of B:TAS because it’s such a real-world possibility: the crash of Gotham’s banking system. Imagine trying to take money out of an ATM, a riddle appears on the screen, and suddenly the account balance is zero. You'd freak the fuck out, too. Of possible apocalypse scenarios, I think an electronic blackout would probably lead to instant chaos, but Riddler’s terrorism is small-scale. In fact, the only thing Riddler really wants to do is eliminate any record of his civilian identity, and play a little game with Batman, of course. I always found it odd that Riddler left such elaborate clues until I realized that his entire M.O. is testing Batman’s intelligence, risking imprisonment if he underestimates his opponent. Riddler’s pride ultimately leads to a creation of his own digital world where he can play God, putting Batman through a gauntlet where jokes and riddles are not only literal, but life-threatening.
When Riddler delivers a box containing a virtual reality machine to Gotham Police Headquarters, Robin invites Jim Gordon to try out the digital world, leading the Commissioner directly into Riddler’s trap. Nice job, Robin. When Batman link in to the virtual reality machine, he encounters question marks that shoot explosive rounds, a crazy intent (locomotive), a chess board where he plays the Dark Knight, restricted to moving in a L-shape until he rides a Pegasus through a field of deadly constellations. Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but it’s virtual reality. It’s like the contemporary version of the giant props that Dick Sprang would use to liven up the page. Also, Batman’s chess board uniform looks pretty damn slick. Riddler's pride proves his undoing, and Batman creates multiple virtual copies of himself that Riddler attempts to outnumber, weakening his concentration and undoing his digital world. The episode's chilling coda shows Batman, Robin, and Gordon discovering a vegetative Nygma, still hooked up to his virtual reality machine, leaving him inside a prison of his own creation.
Director Dick Sebast got lucky this episode, as Akom does some of their best work this episode. Getting fired was the kick in the ass they needed to fix their final episodes, and the difficult material this episode presents the opportunity for them to minimally salvage their reputation. This is the best Akom has looked, but it’s still far from great, and every time I see an Akom episode I can’t help but wonder how much better everything would look if TMS or Spectrum were in charge.
- Bat Beatdown: This week Batman is getting the beatdown at the DMV, where two of Riddler’s goons put him down by throwing a license plate at the back of his knees and battering him with a metal post. It’s the license plate to the knees that really does it for me.
- I saw Marilu Henner recently at a play opening in Chicago. She looked pretty fly for her age.
- “Maybe the cream of society's curdled, huh?”
- “I got a schedule, you know!” “And a lovely disposition to go with it.”
- “As long as you’re here, won’t you stay for a cappuccino?”
- “Come along Binky, we’ve already been robbed once this year.”
- Veronica’s got sex-eyes when Batman appears in the alley.
- “In my day I associated with a much higher class of riff-raff.”
- “’Tis better to have love and lost – and made a small profit – than to never have loved at all.”
- “And who says opera has to be boring?”
- “I solved the Baxter's Box in less than a minute. Of course this time, I don't have a sledgehammer.”
- Alfred loves riddles.
- I know you’re reading this, Riddler. Give us some good ones this week.
- “Ah, well, I never was any good at parallel parking. I'm not too clear on the rules of pedestrian right of way either.”
- “I suppose you expect me to believe you actually planned that.”