Tube Talk Gold rarely delves into the world of cartoons, but Batman: The Animated Series is one of the most iconic and influential adaptations of Bob Kane's DC Comics creation ever produced. It was enjoyed - and continues to be enjoyed - by fans of all ages, reaching beyond the usual pre-pubescent demographic of Saturday morning cartoons.
Batman: The Animated Series: Originally broadcast from September 5, 1992 to September 15, 1995
One of the many reasons that this show is generally held in higher regard than its comic book TV contemporaries - the likes of Fox's X-Men and Spider-Man - was its superior level of animation. In short, Batman looked like nothing else on television.
The cartoon's vivid 'Dark Deco' style was based on the original artwork of producer and artist Bruce Timm, who first brought his vision to life in 'The Dark Knight's First Night', a two-minute animated vignette that was used as a promo reel to entice Fox into backing a full series and later served as the inspiration for the final show's title sequence.
Inspired by art deco designs, the film noir genre, Tim Burton's then-recent Batman movies and Fleischer Studios' fondly remembered Superman animated shorts from the 1940s, Timm and co-creator Eric Radomski created a wonderfully timeless visual landscape that fused 'old-style' architecture with futuristic technology - placing Bruce Wayne's technological arsenal alongside vintage cars and black-and-white television sets in a brilliantly bizarre blend.
Helping to transform Timm's designs into a living, breathing world was Batman's superb cast, made up of respected voice artists and big-name Hollywood stars. Leading the charge was Kevin Conroy, who for many fans still holds the title of 'best Batman'.
Conroy perfected three distinct vocal performances on the series - Bruce Wayne's suave but boorish public persona, his 'real' voice and then his subtly different 'Batman' vocals, his gruff but powerful diction a world away from Christian Bale's strained grunts. So universally praised and revered was Conroy's work here that he still periodically returns to the role of the Caped Crusader, most recently for 2011 video game Batman: Arkham City.
But of course, every good hero needs a villain and if there's one performance in Batman: The Animated Series more memorable than Conroy's, it's Mark Hamill as Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker. This writer can still remember having his mind blown upon connecting the dots and realising that the man who played whiney Star Wars lead Luke Skywalker was now tackling the comic book world's most famous villain with such incredible gusto.
We'd be remiss if we didn't also briefly mention the Joker's assistant Harley Quinn - voiced by Arleen Sorkin. An original creation, the character proved so popular that she was later written into the mainstream Batman comic book continuity - a clear sign as to how potent a force this series was within the wider Batman universe.
On top of its beautiful visuals and vocals, Batman also boasted a tone far more adult than one might expect from a comic book cartoon. Characters sustain visible injuries, real blood is shed and villains fire realistic firearms - this might not seem like a huge deal, but when compared to the fun, fluffy atmosphere and laser pistols of other animated shows airing at the time, it made a big difference. Fox certainly felt that the series was worthy of a wider audience, airing it in a primetime slot.
With a strong cast, a pitch-dark tone and animation to match, the first season of Batman: The Animated Series is a fantastic piece of work. At an epic 65 episodes in length, it's inevitable that the quality wouldn't remain wholly consistent throughout, but a good dozen or so episodes stand out as being particularly worthy of the acclaim and Emmy love that the series received.
Highlights include the Rashomon-inspired 'P.O.V.', the hilarious 'Joker's Favour' and the frequently disturbing two-parter 'Feat of Clay' - which features a fantastic guest performance from Ron Perlman as Clayface.
Other fan favourites include 'Heart of Ice' - which transformed the cartoonish and oft-mocked Mr Freeze into a tragic figure, 'Mad as a Hatter' - a moving tale of loneliness and obsession, and 'It's Never Too Late', which is almost entirely absent of comic book trappings and explores social issues including poverty and drug abuse.
To cap off a fantastic run, Timm, Radomski, writer Paul Dini and their team produced a feature-length animated Batman adventure. Originally intended as a direct-to-video release, Mask of the Phantasm impressed studio execs enough to be granted a theatrical release. It remains one of the best Batman movies in any medium.
It's fair to say that season two of the retitled The Adventures of Batman & Robin doesn't hold up as well as the preceding run. Ignoring the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' edict, Fox saw fit to impose changes on the show. As the new name suggests, Robin (Loren Lester) was now featured prominently in most episodes and the series as a whole took on a more light-hearted feel more akin to other animated shows airing at the time.
This new Batman was still capable of producing some knock-out episodes, but didn't feel anywhere near as fresh and bold as the series once did. Ditching the show's original moody title sequence for a bland clip composite was but one of many errors provoked by network interference.
It was clear that a change was needed. Following a three-year break - in which time Timm and Dini focused their attentions on a new Superman cartoon - The WB requested new Batman episodes and a revamped version of the show, with a greater focus on Batman's supporting cast and a more basic animation style, ran for 24 episodes in the late '90s. These New Batman Adventures proved popular with fans - particularly well-received was an adaptation of 1952 comic story 'Joker's Millions' - and the revamp spawned a number of new TV movies and spinoff series.
But ultimately, though they each have their own appeal, the likes of Batman Beyond and Justice League never matched the brilliance of those early Batman episodes. It's pretty widely accepted that Batman: The Animated Series was the greatest animated adaptation of a comic character but we're going to be bold and suggest that it's one of the best animated series ever produced in the US, period.
One final note - if this Tube Talk Gold has whet your appetite, this writer would strongly recommend picking up Paul Dini and Chip Kidd's coffee table book Batman Animated which details the show's journey from Timm's early sketches to the finished product. Like the show that inspired it, the book's gorgeous to look at and packed full of wonderful material.
Were you a fan of Batman: The Animated Series? Share your thoughts on the show below!