The Matt Signal – Episode 68: Trial

Plot summary: Batman’s enemies take over Arkham Asylum and put the Caped Crusader on trial, claiming he is responsible for creating them.

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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!

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Notes

Episode Title: ‘Trial’

Original Air Date: May 16th, 1994

Directed: Dan Riba (5)

Written: Bruce Timm (story) (1) & Paul Dini (13)

This episode’s premise was originally slated to be the first animated film, but Alan Burnett felt it would be too plodding for a feature, so had it reworked to a regular episode and then wrote Mask of the Phantasm as we know it.

Possibly inspired by Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth

Harley Quinn’s former career at Arkham is established for the first time here.

Scarecrow has no lines because Henry Polic II was recovering from throat surgery. It’s possible John Glover was simply unavailable to voice Riddler, who is also visible but mute.

Stephanie Zimbalist, who takes over voicing Janet van Dorn, is indeed the daughter of Alfred’s voice actor, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Recap

Poison Ivy stands trial, and despite being recommended a lifetime sentence in a proper prison by DA Janet van Dorn (remember her?), she is returned to Arkham for shorter-term treatment, as she was captured by Batman, who is not a recognised law enforcement agent.

Naturally, van Dorn is none too thrilled and trashes Bats on TV and to Jim Gordon, going as far as to make the popular claim that he is responsible for creating/attracting the city’s costumed criminals.

Bruce meets van Dorn for dinner, and she’s naturally far more charmed by the billionaire than the vigilante. She’s called away by a supposed work call and never returns, with Gordon lighting the Bat signal to report her abduction, presenting Batman with a riddle…

Bats quickly deduces the intended meeting place is Gotham Courthouse, and is promptly shot in the back with a tranquiliser dart by Poison Ivy (pretending to be a blind justice statue in an incredible moment!)

Van Dorn is revealed to be locked in a cell in Arkham, with Two-Face explaining that Mad Hatter has brought the entire staff under his control. Even more delicious, she’s to be tasked with defending Batman in a trial, and if she loses, they both die!

Thus a straight-jacketed Batman is dragged up to the stand by Killer Croc, where Ventriloquist, our bailiff, calls order to the proceedings. The jury? Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Killer Croc. The judge? Why, Joker, of course!

Two-Face presents his opening statement, succinctly blaming Batman for making them all into freaks and monsters, which goes down well with the jury.

Van Dorn calls Mad Hatter as her first witness, pointing out Tetch kidnapped and brainwashed a woman before ever meeting Batman and he immediately cracks under the pressure, claiming he’d rather have killed Alice than respected her wishes.

Next up, Harley Quinn, who openly fondles Joker, thanking Batman for creating her boyfriend. Van Dorn points out Quinn used to be a doctor at Arkham, and that Joker had recently ratted on her to try and secure a reduced sentence. Harley is furious, requiring Croc to drag her away. You go, girl.

Poison Ivy is next, and van Dorn is easily able to manipulate her love for plant-life to make her lash out too. She feels this is enough to disprove their argument, claiming they each have their own pre-existing issues.

In a stunning turn of events, Mad Hatter delivers a verdict of Not Guilty. Joker agrees… but says they’re going to kill them both anyway. Who saw that coming?

Strapped to a table, Joker goes to unmask Batman, but Janet realises she still has a Batarang in her jacket pocket from earlier in the episode, and uses it to smash the lights. Bats vanishes in the confusion and begins picking them off one at a time. It’s as badass as it sounds.

With the Rogues Gallery (and a bunch of no name inmates) surrounding them, Bats is able to get Janet to the roof. Moments later, a battalion of GCPD, led by Jim Gordon and Rene Montoya, surround the prisoners, having been putting together Batman’s movements throughout the episode.

Joker is waiting atop the asylum, but Batman quickly kicks his ass too. In the aftermath, van Dorn admits our hero is a necessity, but she’ll continue to work towards a Gotham that doesn’t need him. He smiles and says “me too.”

Best Performance

As much of a cop-out as this is, I’m going to tip my hat to the entire voice cast on this one. There’s just such a huge number of speaking parts here, and everybody is pulling their weight. Some highlights:

  • Arleen Sorkin flipping from doting on Joker to furiously cussing him out.
  • Kevin Conroy’s delivery of “Who says I’m leaving?” when they realise he’s escaped his bondage.
  • After Scarecrow inadvertently beheads Scarface, George Dzundza proclaims “I’m hit, boys!”

Ranking

You can see why this would be pitched as the first feature-length BTAS story, because as good as it is, it could have been even better if each witness called to the stand got a little flashback sequence. Would it have been ripping off ‘Almost Got ‘Im’? Absolutely. But it could have been an even better version of what I’ve ranked as the third best episode ever! These flashbacks could also have gotten around Alan Burnett’s assessment that ‘The Trial’ would have been too slow for a movie. But alas, we can only work with what we have.

But what we have is still very good. The inmates taking over the asylum is in inherently compelling idea, and the notion of Batman doing as much harm as good has been debated to death by anyone who has ever engaged with the character, so combining the two concepts is a certified home run.

Janet van Dorn fulfils the role of droll Bat-sceptics who claim Bruce should just give all his money to social programs to magically stop the Murder Clown from poisoning people. Well, she doesn’t, because she doesn’t know Bruce is Batman, but you know what I mean. She starts out the episode with the valid viewpoint that he operates outside the law and thus can subvert the course of justice, but warms to him throughout the trial, wherein she essentially argues against her own viewpoint. Ending in a place of ‘we shouldn’t need you… but we do for now’ is the ultimate answer to this whole tired debate.

The episode is riddled with great character beats, but it’s not all debate club, as the action scenes after Batman escapes his bondage are excellent, chiefly him going stealth and turning them against each other. It literally has it all, and only a select few episodes can top it.

  1. The Laughing Fish
  2. Mask of the Phantasm
  3. Almost Got ‘Im
  4. Heart of Ice
  5. Trial (NEW ENTRY)
  6. Shadow of the Bat Part I
  7. I Am the Night
  8. Robin’s Reckoning Part I
  9. The Man Who Killed Batman
  10. Perchance to Dream
  11. Two-Face Part I
  12. A Bullet For Bullock
  13. Joker’s Favor
  14. Read My Lips
  15. Feat of Clay Part II
  16. The Demon’s Quest Part II
  17. Harley and Ivy
  18. Robin’s Reckoning Part II
  19. Beware the Gray Ghost
  20. Mad as a Hatter
  21. Heart of Steel Part II
  22. Appointment In Crime Alley
  23. Two-Face Part II
  24. Pretty Poison
  25. Shadow of the Bat Part II
  26. Feat of Clay Part I
  27. His Silicon Soul
  28. Off Balance
  29. Vendetta
  30. Birds of a Feather
  31. Heart of Steel Part I
  32. On Leather Wings
  33. See No Evil
  34. The Clock King
  35. It’s Never Too Late
  36. Joker’s Wild
  37. Eternal Youth
  38. The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
  39. The Cat and the Claw Part I
  40. Zatanna
  41. Day of the Samurai
  42. The Demon’s Quest Part I
  43. The Mechanic
  44. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
  45. Terror in the Sky
  46. P.O.V.
  47. Christmas with the Joker
  48. Fear of Victory
  49. Be a Clown
  50. The Worry Men
  51. What is Reality?
  52. Fire From Olympus
  53. Night of the Ninja
  54. Mudslide
  55. The Cat and the Claw Part II
  56. Nothing to Fear
  57. Prophecy of Doom
  58. Tyger, Tyger
  59. Blind as a Bat
  60. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
  61. Dreams In Darkness
  62. The Last Laugh
  63. Cat Scratch Fever
  64. Moon of the Wolf
  65. Paging the Crime Doctor
  66. Sideshow
  67. The Under-Dwellers
  68. The Forgotten
  69. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement

Villain Watch

Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) (fifth appearance)

Ivy dressing up as a blind justice statue and then shooting Batman in the back is very cool. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the only one Janet van Dorn isn’t able to make look bad, as not liking it when people destroy plants is the opposite of a crime. Plus she slaps Ventriloquist AND Scarface in one motion because she’s a boss. Screw it, she’s jumping over Mr. Freeze.

Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) (sixth appearance)

A huge episode for Harley, as Paul Dini fleshes out her backstory of being an Arkham doctor brought under Joker’s thrall (MUCH more on that later), and she actually stands up for herself and attacks him. It doesn’t last, of course, but it’s nice to see a token attempt to have her break free of him rather than remaining a punching bag. Far too many people enjoy their toxic relationship, and that creeps me out.

Two-Face (Richard Moll) (sixth appearance)

The dynamic between Harvey and Janet van Dorn is a nice continuity touch, as she replaced him as district attorney after he became a supervillain. He thus also makes for a perfect lawyer for the prosecution in the Rogues Gallery mock trial. Indeed, the entire episode wouldn’t have worked without him.

Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall) (fourth appearance)

In theory, Mad Hatter should get major points here as he brought the entire Arkham staff under his control, but I can’t help but lament him falling from top-flight villain, to semi-bumbling accomplice to the heavier hitters. He’s still undoubtedly a top ten rogue, but he was once flirting with the top half of that ten, and now finds himself fighting up from the bottom.

Joker (Mark Hamill) (twelth appearance)

You can’t help but love Judge Joker finding Batman guilty the second he sits down. Dressing Joker up in whimsical costumes is generally a home run, and the barrister’s wig and robes are no exception. Plus a Porky Pig impression to keep Hamill happy!

Ventriloquist (George Dzundza) (second appearance)

It’s barely more than a cameo, but the character works even in a small dose, with Wesker being too meek to bring the court to order, but Scarface immediately commanding attention. Their back and forth is charming, and as mentioned before, Ivy slapping them both like they’re separate individuals is top notch for both characters.

Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid) (fourth appearance)

Honestly, I almost didn’t rank him here. I mean… he’s the muscle. Even with what a disaster ‘Sideshow’ was, this is easily his worst outing. Perhaps no character has fallen further than Croc, who had as strong a debut as anyone. Even ‘Almost Got ‘Im’ gave him a stronger personality (albeit Batman doing an impression of him.)

  1. The Joker
  2. Poison Ivy
  3. Mr. Freeze
  4. Harley Quinn
  5. Two-Face
  6. The Ventriloquist
  7. The Phantasm
  8. Mad Hatter
  9. Penguin
  10. Catwoman
  11. HARDAC (and Randa Duane)
  12. Clayface
  13. Ra’s al Ghul
  14. The Riddler
  15. Clock King
  16. Lloyd Ventrix
  17. Count Vertigo
  18. Killer Croc
  19. Nivens
  20. Josiah Wormwood
  21. Scarecrow
  22. Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
  23. Rupert Thorne
  24. Sid the Squid
  25. Maxie Zeus
  26. Jimmy ‘Jazzman’ Peake
  27. Tony Zucco
  28. Man-Bat
  29. Hugo Strange
  30. Red Claw
  31. Arnold Stromwell
  32. Mad Bomber
  33. Tygrus
  34. Rhino, Mugsy and Ratso
  35. Kyodai Ken
  36. Gil Mason
  37. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  38. Cameron Kaiser
  39. Dr. Dorian (and Garth)
  40. Talia al Ghul
  41. Mad Dog
  42. Ubu
  43. Professor Milo
  44. Romulus
  45. Sewer King
  46. Boss Biggis
  47. Montague Kane

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.

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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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