“Paging The Crime Doctor” (season one, episode 53; originally aired 9/17/1993)
According to director Frank Paur, “Paging The Crime Doctor” was referred to as “The Geezer Show” around the studio, and even though the episode is mostly just old people standing around talking and occasionally kicking ass, it’s not too bad. Family can be as strong an impetus for crime as revenge, lust, and greed, but it’s one of the less explored motivations on the series. How cool would it have been to see Jack Napier’s sister? Or explore Harvey Dent’s daddy issues? Most of the family-oriented episodes up to this point have focused on Batman’s non-costumed villains – Arthur Stromwell, Lloyd Ventrix, Karl Rossum – and “Paging The Crime Doctor” looks at the relationship between crime boss Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) and his brother Matthew (Joseph Campanella).
After losing his medical license for not reporting a bullet he removed from his brother, Matthew has become the private practitioner of Rupert and his goons, held under the empty promise of regaining his medical license through Rupert’s influence. When Matthew has to operate on a tumor restricting the flow of blood to Rupert’s heart, Batman’s fairy godmother Dr. Leslie Thompkins is abducted to assist with the surgery, causing Matthew to reevaluate what’s he’s done in the name of family.
“Paging The Crime Doctor” has four writers – Mike W. Barr and Laren Bright on story, Martin Pasko and Randy Rogel on teleplay – and the group is a mix of creators from both comics and cartoons. Longtime Batman writer Barr contributes his only story to the series, and DC editor/writer Pasko returns after his surprisingly creepy invisible dead beat dad episode. Bright and Rogel worked together on “Robin’s Reckoning,” where Bright served as story editor, and that episode’s balance of action and emotion carries over to “Paging The Crime Doctor.”
The title card suggests a much more malevolent character than Matthew Thorne, but it’s a stronger choice for the writers to make Matthew a good man trapped in a bad situation. The moment when Matthew’s life broke was when he decided to take that bullet out of his brother, and when he sees Leslie again he is reminded of the life he had before becoming his brother’s servant. By making Matthew a medical school colleague of Leslie Thompkins and Thomas Wayne, the writers increase Bruce’s emotional investment in the crime, which tends to strengthen my interest in the episode. The episode’s final scene is a heartbreaking reminder of why Bruce has taken on his mission, with Bruce asking a jailed Matthew to tell him about his father. Great voice work from Conroy, and the way his voice softens shows how hard it still is for Bruce to talk about his father. The quality of the voice work helps elevate the script, from the kindness in Dr. Thompkins voice to the familiarity between the brothers that makes Matthew's servitude even more inexcusable. Campanella and Vernon are able to bring enough to nuance to their character voices to capture the moral dilemma behind the situation, and Rupert speaks to his brother differently that he does his disposable goons.
Director Frank Paur was cursed with Akom animation for most of his early B:TAS episodes, and with the bane of this series’ existence out of the picture, it turns out he’s a pretty good director. The opening car chase is fluidly animated despite how unrealistic it is (it’s a cartoon, physics don’t really matter), and Batman using his cape to block the driver’s vision an efficient use of a largely visual element of the costume. The scene where Matthew and Leslie jump across the rooftops is ridiculous, but I like Dr. Thompkins so I don't mind seeing her go all action every once in a while. This may be "The Geezer Show," but if the writers are able to tell a good story, who cares if the characters are old? On the opposite end of the spectrum is "I've Got Batman In My Basement," and no one wants that.
“Zatanna” (season one, episode 54; originally aired 9/2/1993)
I love that of all the DC superheroes to have as the first guest star on B:TAS, Zatanna is who they choose. A fairly obscure, magic-based character, she seems a bit of an odd fit for Batman’s more realistic, street-level environment, but Paul Dini creates a connection to Bruce Wayne that gives her extra significance to the Bat-mythos. I do have one big issue with her portrayal on his series, though, and that’s the lack of fishnets. Are they really hard to animate or something? Zatanna’s costume is absurd and totally not appropriate for crime-fighting, but the fishnets are a detail that reminds us Zatanna is a performer before a vigilante. They really should be there.
Zatanna is one of my all time favorite DC characters, and it’s probably because of this episode. I didn’t start seriously reading comics until after B:TAS ended, so I didn’t know much about female heroes beyond what I saw on screen. Zatanna’s connection to the stage appealed to the future theater geek in me, but what really stuck with me was the magic. Even though this episode shows the smoke and mirrors that are incorporated in Zatanna’s act, the character’s enchanting personality suggests real power underneath, a magical power to see the hope in life. Zatanna lost her parents too, but she honors their legacy with a tuxedo and the spotlight instead of hiding behind a mask in the shadows.
The last episode to flash back to Bruce’s training days, “Zatanna” reveals how Bruce learned the skills that have gotten him out of all those death traps. Under the fake name “John Smith,” Bruce was trained by renowned magician John Zatara, developing a relationship with his teacher’s daughter during the course of his studies. In the present day, Bruce sits in the audience during one of Zatanna’s shows in Gotham, watching as his friend is framed when one of her tricks goes awry. After breaking Zatanna out of a Gotham Police wagon, Batman has his first team-up with an established DC character (sorry, Gray Ghost), and as he inspects the scene of the crime he quickly deduces that Dr. Montague Kane, infamous magic debunker, is responsible.
This episode is one of Dini’s weaker plots because Kane is a pretty one-dimensional character, but Dini’s attention to the emotional life of his heroes keeps this episode from falling into the reject pile. Dini ended up carrying the relationship between Bruce and Zatanna with him for his Detective Comics run, largely to make up for the damage done to both characters in Identity Crisis, and this episode shows why that relationship has proven so effective. We don’t know the extent of Bruce’s relationship with Zatanna, but the nicknames and general touchy-feely atmosphere between the two suggest a few casual hookups at least. Bruce and Zatanna could have had a future together, but they were on two distinctly different paths. In a telling flashback moment, Zatanna asks Bruce to pick a card and she will tell him his future. She guesses that he pulls the two of hearts, cozying up to him as he corrects her with the correct card: Joker. Zatanna is a romantic, Batman is a superhero.
When Zatanna makes the connection between Bruce and Batman, she’s pitifully asks him, “What happened that made you put this on?” He replies, “A painful memory, and a promise.” Zatara trained Bruce because he saw something “deep and painful” inside, and now Zatanna sees it too. She leaves her friend with words of encouragement and a signed autograph, and Batman has been magically transformed by their reunion, having gained approval from his past and a new ally in the present.
- Batman Beatdown: Chained to Zatanna and dangling on a net thousands of feet in the air, Batman frees himself and swings the chain at Dr. Kane, wrapping it around him and pulling him off the plane. He must have learned how to handle a chain from old episodes of “The Gray Ghost.”
- Zatanna Zinger: After being framed, tied up, and thrown out of an airplane, Zatanna puts the magic to the side for her solution to the Dr. Kane problem. As he sits in the pilot’s chair, Zatanna gently tapping on Kane on the shoulder, reminding him, “A magician never does the same trick twice!” and punching him in the face. Ow.
- Thanks to Eric Garneau for showing me this awesome B:TAS timeline. Although the writer forgets to put the “Night of the Ninja” and “Zatanna” flashbacks at the beginning.
- “Always used to say you had a very hard head. He didn't know the half of it.”
- “Stay in bed the whole day, understand?” “Right.”
- “Get out, or so help me I’ll knock your brains across the street.”
- “Rose, thorne, of course. How clever, in a prosaic kind of way.”
- “I was a different person then.” “Yes. Intense, driven, moody... she'd never recognize you now.”
- “No, there was something inside you I had no right to deny, something deep and painful.”
- “What do you care about some leggy dame in nylons? Or have I answered my own question?”
- “You're sure there's nobody you want to call? A friend, relative... a husband, maybe?” Smooth, Bruce.
- “You know, I've got the weirdest feeling that we've met before.” “I… just have that kind of face.”