Batman: The Animated Series – Episode 06 – The Under-Dwellers
Writer: Jules Dennis & Richard Mueller (Teleplay), Tom Ruegger (Story)
Director: Frank Paur
Theme Score: Shirley Walker
Episode Score: Stu Balcomb & Lars Cutterham
Animation Studio: Studio Junio
Story Editors: Sean Catherine Derek
Paur will direct many more episodes throughout the series’ run and would also later direct 16 episodes of Gargoyles. Prior to BTAS, he worked as a storyboard designer on shows such as The Real Ghostbusters and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Writer Jules Dennis had also worked on The Real Ghostbusters and Richard Mueller had worked on both shows.
From the get go, the score of the episode is quite engaging. It’s a very tight, up tempo beat and helps set up the action scene which ensues, of two kids playing chicken on a train, very well. As the episode continues, the score continues to stand out far more than anything else with a brooding yet haunting theme as the kids in the sewer are shown for the first time.
The directing by Paur is impactful with a lot of different shots including a great over the shoulder pan to a crouched Batman as the kid flees. Unfortunately, the scene also sets up a bit of an issue with the overall story as it doesn’t really have any impact except to be one of those action sequences ultimately with no merit on the plot or Batman’s character either. With that said, I did like the subtle shake of Batman’s head as he came upon the kids.
One of my favorite shots in the entire episode is after the dinner bell is rung and the kid stands up in the field of rocks while shadowed silhouettes ‘march’ towards the source of their destination. Very reminiscent of war footage and does a great job also showing the control of the Sewer King over the children. Paur does a fine job trying his best to utilize a litany of various angles and shots to keep the episode from bogging down too much and it mostly works in his favor as it never ‘feels’ sludgy.
It’s pretty clear to see why Jules and Richard only handled a few more episodes in the series. The background of the story is somewhat intriguing but the actual teleplay tends to drift towards old hat characterization (e.g. the woman whose purse is stolen ‘fainting’ after Batman dashed past her). The actual character of the Sewer King (Michael Patataki) is pretty lame and reminded me of Mad Mod from Teen Titans without an ounce of the charm. Patataki tries with what he has but it’s just not enough.
The plot and story tries to go for a darker tone, such as runaway kids and abuse of them when there is no real oversight from the police, but the villain is just so poorly fleshed out and conceived. Ruegger came up with a concept that might have worked with stronger writers, however, Dennis and Mueller just can’t quite get a handle on how to balance it all and it shows. It’s also weird as the villain seems like a hodge podge of ‘classic’ fairy tale pieces such as the alligators reminiscent of Peter Pan and the cape reminding one of The Phantom of the Opera. Even the way he speaks can evoke Gollum from The Hobbit.
It’s telling that the scenes between Alfred and Frog, the kid, are a bit more entertaining to watch because there’s no real long term plan behind the Sewer King except that he mistreats the children he took in. It’s not even clear, a detriment by the writers, what his goal is beyond utilizing the kids for petty theft. There’s a semblance of possible neurological disorders but other characters such as the Mad Hatter are given deeper stories that transcend the fact that they are psychologically damaged or unhinged. That tactic is missing from the Sewer King as a villain and it clearly hurts the overall episode and any chance of it being an effective story.
There are some little moments that work well thanks to the art production such as the Bat symbols in the police woman’s eyes as she nearly runs down Batman in her police car. Unfortunately the art is a bit hit or miss like in the last episode, Pretty Poison, where the close up shots tend to be stronger than the long shots and character animation can be a bit stiff and jerky at times.
Next Week: Episode 7 arrives with P.O.V.