The Matt Signal – Episode 38: Heart of Steel Part I

Plot summary: Wayne Enterprises’ cutting edge AI tech is stolen by a series of stealthy little robots, but Bruce is far more interested in a not-at-all suspicious blonde. Typical.

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Each Saturday and Sunday Matt Waters recaps an episode of the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!

Notes

Episode Title: ‘Heart of Steel Part 1’

Original Air Date: November 16th, 1992

Directed: Kevin Altieri (11)

Written: Brynne Chandler (1)

First-time series writer Brynne Chandler (known for a time as Brynne Stephens) was once the highest paid female writer in animation. She was married to fellow series scribe Michael Reaves, and worked on He-Man, She-Ra, My Little Pony, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Gargoyles.

Karl Rossum is named for Rossum’s Universal Robots, a play written by Karel Capek, which is famous for the invention of the word robot.

The first appearance in the series for Barbara Gordon, though ‘I Am the Night’ aired first.

Recap

A blonde woman, who we know is attractive because some sensual music plays when she walks, leaves a briefcase at the front desk of Wayne Enterprises. Security examine it but find nothing suspicious inside, and as it’s late, they opt to just leave it until the morning.

One of the guards escorts Bruce Wayne to his car, oblivious to the fact the briefcase has sprouted little legs and started walking around! It’s quite a visual.

Briefcase-Bot makes its way to the top floor, deftly evading security measures while gaining access to Research & Development. Once inside it steals a whole bunch of computer chips with a tiny vacuum nozzle.

Bruce is locked in the security office by the guard, who took too long fumbling with his keys to take him outside. Bruce calmly presses a panel on the wall and the corner of the office revolves in place, trick fireplace style!

The robot gasses security but is no match for Batman, who hogties it. Desperate, the bot unleashes various laser attacks before fleeing to the roof. Batman gives chase but the damn thing opens up, reveals a rocket mechanism and launches it way off into the night’s sky, destroying the remains of the case.

The rocket touches down by a secluded spot on a beach, with the blonde woman from earlier opening it up and pocketing the chips. She gets into a car (licence plate R.U.R., as in Rossum’s Universal Robots) and orders it to drive her home.

Batman does his best to give chase with a little glider, but the car detects him and begins shooting a comical number of guns and missiles, sending Bats careening into the water below.

Returning to the Batcave a total wreck, Bruce sets about repairing the glider. Lucius Fox telephones to report the theft of “prototype protein-silicon wafer chips.” Thankfully Alfred is as baffled by that sentence as us, so Bruce explains they’re cutting edge AI tech.

Jim Gordon asks Bruce and Lucius about who might be in a position to buy the chips, with the pair telling him about Karl Rossum, Bruce’s mentor in the world of electronics who retired after losing his daughter.

Speaking of daughters, Barbara Gordon makes her series debut and gets a mildly creepy reaction from Bruce, and embarrasses her father.

Bruce drives over to Rossum’s lab, which is crawling with little robots and other tech. Karl greets him warmly, claiming he’ll call Bruce if anyone approaches him with the stolen chips. Rossum’s helper bots make Bruce a cappuccino and give him a foot massage, creeping him out.

Not stopping there, Rossum shows Bruce his pride and joy, an enormous computer called HARDAC (holographic analytical reciprocating digital computer), introduced by his assistant, Randa Duane, who is definitely neither the blonde woman from earlier, nor secretly a robot…

Remarking on how cold her hands are, Bruce asks about HARDAC, with Rossum giving the world’s most suspicious answer about certain projects being under its control. Distracted, Bruce asks Randa over for dinner and leaves.

HARDAC scolds Randa for failing to obtain the digital files to accompany the chips, but reports the latest “duplicant” is ready, with a robotic Jim Gordon emerging from the shadows!

Randa and the Gordon clone arrive on the real Jim’s doorstep and knock him out. Barbara hears a noise, but “Jim” comes back inside and reports he’s fine, though his hands are cold and he aggressively bats her childhood teddy bear out of his way.

Bruce reports back to Lucius that while Rossum denied being approached, he knew precisely which components were missing, confirming his plan is to interrogate Randa. Speaking of the definitely-not-a-robot, she walks into the office, touches up her makeup and subtly leaves her compact mirror behind…

Once everyone has left the compact opens up, revealing a similar antennae eye as Briefcase-Bot and hacks Bruce’s computer with its little tentacles. I know this is all for evil, but it’s pretty adorable.

Excusing himself from his dinner date with Randa, Bruce returns to the office and puts Lucius at ease about the stolen files, stating he uploaded dummy ones while the real thing is secure at Wayne Manor.

HARDAC remotely asks Randa to search the house. She electrocutes Alfred until he passes out and then begins looking around the house with special glasses that reveal the entrance to the Batcave to her. She also tells HARDAC that Bruce is Batman.

Bruce races home, but by the time he arrives there’s no sign of Randa, and Alfred doesn’t remember what happened. Making matters worse the Batcomputer rebels against him and a robotic arm grabs Bruce.

To be continued…

Best Performance

It’s awfully difficult to resist voice acting legend Jeff Bennett, who provides a voice for HARDAC that is evocative of fiction’s most famous computer, HAL 9000, without being a full-on copy. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the more traditional slow-talking ‘I… am… a… robot’ voice for two episodes, so this decidedly more human, yet emotionless take is more than welcome. HARDAC only has a handful of lines, but this two-parter being so memorable is in large part because of how popular this character is with the fan base.

Leslie Easterbrook is having a fun time playing in a space adjacent to femme fatale with Randa Duane, while Melissa Gilbert makes Barbara Gordon immediately warm and likeable.

All of the regulars are perfectly fine, but it’s far from their best work.

Ranking

This two-parter is extremely popular, so I’ve been somewhat dreading this review, as my memories weren’t that positive. Perhaps that will hold true in Part II, but I enjoyed this episode more than I expected.

I think it would be a safe bet to assume the animation team had a tremendous amount of fun designing the duo of infiltration bots, predominantly Briefcase Bot. 30 years on they look pretty cute, but I could see them toeing the line between creepy and cool to children at the time. Seeing the little critters continually get the better of all the humans is a great deal of fun, but it’s definitely not a comedy episode, with the concept of the duplicant adding a far more sinister undertone. The reveal of HARDAC’s motivations for replacing Gordon with a robot remain the most intriguing cliffhanger, especially as the actual one kind of sucks.

I do think this is another instance where my decision to force multi-part episodes to stand alone may end up proving to be a bad one; there’s just an awful lot being thrown at us, and it’s hard to latch onto anything in particular. We don’t have a firm grasp on what HARDAC wants with the stolen tech as it already appears to be a fully functioning AI, and Bruce is busy trying to seduce what is very clearly a robot, leaving us in limbo as to what we’re meant to care about.

Enter Barbara Gordon, who has about 3 lines, but provides the closest thing to an emotional middle as exists, with her father replaced with a robot with unknown motives.

  1. The Laughing Fish
  2. Heart of Ice
  3. Robin’s Reckoning Part I
  4. Perchance to Dream
  5. Two-Face Part I
  6. Joker’s Favor
  7. Feat of Clay Part II
  8. Robin’s Reckoning Part II
  9. Beware the Gray Ghost
  10. Mad as a Hatter
  11. Vendetta
  12. Appointment In Crime Alley
  13. Two-Face Part II
  14. Heart of Steel Part I
  15. On Leather Wings
  16. Pretty Poison
  17. Feat of Clay Part I
  18. It’s Never Too Late
  19. See No Evil
  20. The Clock King
  21. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
  22. Eternal Youth
  23. The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
  24. The Cat and the Claw Part I
  25. P.O.V.
  26. Christmas with the Joker
  27. Fear of Victory
  28. Be a Clown
  29. Night of the Ninja
  30. The Cat and the Claw Part II
  31. Nothing to Fear
  32. Prophecy of Doom
  33. Dreams In Darkness
  34. The Last Laugh
  35. Cat Scratch Fever
  36. The Under-Dwellers
  37. The Forgotten
  38. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement

Villain Watch

HARDAC (Jeff Bennett) (first appearance)

It’s pretty difficult to rate HARDAC with only half its story told, but I’ll do my best. Jeff Bennett elevates the material, but it’s basically just HAL 9000, a year after Terminator 2 came out. I get it, you’re tapping into the zeitgeist’s interest in robots, and the towering design gives it a tech-based Sauron vibe, but we have no clue what it wants at this stage.

I’ll throw Randa Duane into the ranking process as she is ostensibly an extension of HARDAC anyway. Ditto the little bots. As an ensemble, we’ve got something, as they have cool old-timey sci-fi designs and are incredibly effective in achieving their tasks. A common trope with robot stories is a sense of inevitability as they are entirely devoted to the job at hand, and we definitely see some of that here.

I just really struggle to place them that high, even with the full suite packaged together as one character, because all they are is cool.

  1. Joker
  2. Mr. Freeze
  3. Two-Face
  4. Clayface
  5. Mad Hatter
  6. Poison Ivy
  7. Catwoman
  8. Clock King
  9. Killer Croc
  10. Rupert Thorne
  11. Lloyd Ventrix
  12. Josiah Wormwood
  13. Scarecrow
  14. Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
  15. HARDAC
  16. Tony Zucco
  17. Harley Quinn
  18. Hugo Strange
  19. Red Claw
  20. Arnold Stromwell
  21. Mad Bomber
  22. Man-Bat
  23. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  24. Kyodai Ken
  25. Penguin
  26. Professor Milo
  27. Sewer King
  28. Boss Biggis

Plugs

Eager for more long-form coverage of Batman? Why not check out my podcast with Mike Thomas, The Tape Crusaders, which reviewed every Batman movie and delved a tiny bit into the animated series.

Speaking of my podcasts, There Will Be Movies continues tomorrow with Bad Times at the El Royale.

Kevin & Jerome’s Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul podcast, Reel Bad, drops new episodes the first Tuesday of each month.

Jerome & Brian’s Pantheon Plus continues each Tuesday there’s not a Reel Bad.

Speaking of Jerome (twice), he continues to bring you his 100 favourite movies of all time, posting between 3 and 4 per week.

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Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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