Plot summary: Batman’s enemies take over Arkham Asylum and put the Caped Crusader on trial, claiming he is responsible for creating them.
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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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.
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.”
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!”
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.
- The Laughing Fish
- Mask of the Phantasm
- Almost Got ‘Im
- Heart of Ice
- Trial (NEW ENTRY)
- Shadow of the Bat Part I
- I Am the Night
- Robin’s Reckoning Part I
- The Man Who Killed Batman
- Perchance to Dream
- Two-Face Part I
- A Bullet For Bullock
- Joker’s Favor
- Read My Lips
- Feat of Clay Part II
- The Demon’s Quest Part II
- Harley and Ivy
- Robin’s Reckoning Part II
- Beware the Gray Ghost
- Mad as a Hatter
- Heart of Steel Part II
- Appointment In Crime Alley
- Two-Face Part II
- Pretty Poison
- Shadow of the Bat Part II
- Feat of Clay Part I
- His Silicon Soul
- Off Balance
- Birds of a Feather
- Heart of Steel Part I
- On Leather Wings
- See No Evil
- The Clock King
- It’s Never Too Late
- Joker’s Wild
- Eternal Youth
- The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
- The Cat and the Claw Part I
- Day of the Samurai
- The Demon’s Quest Part I
- The Mechanic
- The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
- Terror in the Sky
- Christmas with the Joker
- Fear of Victory
- Be a Clown
- The Worry Men
- What is Reality?
- Fire From Olympus
- Night of the Ninja
- The Cat and the Claw Part II
- Nothing to Fear
- Prophecy of Doom
- Tyger, Tyger
- Blind as a Bat
- If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
- Dreams In Darkness
- The Last Laugh
- Cat Scratch Fever
- Moon of the Wolf
- Paging the Crime Doctor
- The Under-Dwellers
- The Forgotten
- I’ve Got Batman in My Basement
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.)
- The Joker
- Poison Ivy
- Mr. Freeze
- Harley Quinn
- The Ventriloquist
- The Phantasm
- Mad Hatter
- HARDAC (and Randa Duane)
- Ra’s al Ghul
- The Riddler
- Clock King
- Lloyd Ventrix
- Count Vertigo
- Killer Croc
- Josiah Wormwood
- Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
- Rupert Thorne
- Sid the Squid
- Maxie Zeus
- Jimmy ‘Jazzman’ Peake
- Tony Zucco
- Hugo Strange
- Red Claw
- Arnold Stromwell
- Mad Bomber
- Rhino, Mugsy and Ratso
- Kyodai Ken
- Gil Mason
- Nostromos (and Lucas!)
- Cameron Kaiser
- Dr. Dorian (and Garth)
- Talia al Ghul
- Mad Dog
- Professor Milo
- Sewer King
- Boss Biggis
- Montague Kane
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.