Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) is considered by some of us old folks to be the definitive version of Batman. Here, he is smart and determined but never violent or gleeful in his mayhem. He uses detective skills. He uses fighting skills. He shows compassion. Kevin Conroy became the first actor to change his voice between Batman and Bruce Wayne. Mark Hamill became the most comic accurate Joker yet. Along the way we had a new origin for Mr. Freeze, met Harley Quinn, and saw real character development. The brilliant minds of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and the rest of the creators built a soaring, gothic world where Batman could shine.
These are the 7 best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (here, I am including The Adventures of Batman & Robin and The New Batman Adventures as an extension of the same series) according your favorite scientist: me.*
1. THE LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT
A few kids in Gotham tell their versions of how they see Batman. It’s a fun and loving tribute to the history of Batman, from the cartoonish and silly Dick Sprang days to the grim and gritty Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns saga. The animation style changes with both stories and it does what I feel the BTAS does best, by giving us interesting side characters with fully realized personalities. Oh, and Firefly!
2. ON LEATHER WINGS
I’m a sucker for Man-Bat and the 1970’s style gothic horror comics that Danny O’Neil did so well in the comics, so of course I love this episode. It also was the first episode produced, second broadcast and really drives home the beautiful, dark animation style and seamless action sequences.
3. HEART OF ICE
Silly classic character Mr. Freeze (fun fact: He was originally called Mr. Zero) gets a brave and compassionate new origin. Gone are the days of German accents without motivation and in are tragic love stories and dying wives. This series made Mr. Freeze an A-lister and this episode is why.
4. BEWARE THE GRAY GHOST
No list of the best of any Batman-related thing would be complete without Adam West! So, here he is as the voice of washed up, typecast actor Simon Trent – better known to young Bruce as the Gray Ghost. Sound familiar? Yup, Adam West basically plays himself in a heartfelt episode that also masterfully weaves in both a disturbed everyman villain and a bit of Batman’s origins.
Though the plot is sort of silly, the execution is heartbreaking. An actress named Mary Dahl, suffering from a growth disorder, is a washed up and confusing woman looking no older than a child. As people in Gotham are wont to do, she kidnaps her old TV series family and decides to hold them hostage. How Baby-Doll sees herself is a pretty good mirror for how I imagine many of the villains on the show feel.
6. ALMOST GOT ‘IM
Joker, Killer Croc, Penguin, Two-Face, and Poison Ivy are just hanging out, playing cards and recalling the times they almost got Batman. It’s a good nod to the comic Batman universe where the rogues’ gallery often hangs out together, despite hating each other. This episode is fun, smart, and calls back to a few comics, namely World’s Finest #30 featuring the infamous giant penny, and the late 70’s story arch titled Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?
7. MAD LOVE
Here it is in all its glory: The Harley Quinn origin story. It’s basically an adaptation of the 1994 Mad Love comic and, hey, that’s fine because the show and comic have the same creators. This episode is both disturbing and deeply sad, showcasing the insanity and abuse that Dr. Harleen Quinzel suffers through. This episode also plays off another aspect that BTAS did really well, by giving us adult situations for a teen audience.
Really, any episode is a great place to start. If you want to expand outside of these 8, I say start at episode one in the production schedule, On Leather Wings, and go through the entire series in a few weekends. The animation style isn’t for everyone, being heavily influenced by the original Fleischer Superman cartoons, but the plotting, voice acting, and atmosphere are top notch. Add in music by Danny Elfman and you have the closest thing in Hollywood to a Batman comic book.
*Editor's Note: Yes, he really is a scientist.