A couple years ago, the ‘pitch bible’ for Batman: The Animated Series was released online. It’s black-and-white, some graphics, but the scans make it look like a typewriter document. There’s a lot of good information there, from the episode structure to the rogue’s gallery. It has a good description of this Batman – detective and fighting skills, no Bat Shark Repellent, etc – and one for Bruce Wayne. The Bruce Wayne section opens with this definitive statement:
“One thing which we will stress and will make our series markedly different, is the fact that Bruce Wayne is the disguise and Batman his true persona.”
For every hero, there is a dichotomy between what they can do, and who they are. This is exactly what we see in “Only A Dream” – the attempts to reconcile the two sides. Maybe not for Batman or J’onn J’onzz, though – they very much are their superhero personas. But the others have some internal conflict. For all their strengths, their fears and doubts will always be present.
“Only A Dream” is a different kind of episode. There is plenty of direct conflict, man vs. man, but there is also a good deal of man vs. self. It takes its time getting there, though. There’s quite a bit of origin story for a one-time villain, even a good one like John Dee, but damned if the wait isn’t worth it.
John Dee – Doctor Destiny – is voiced by none other than William Atherton, best known as EPA Agent and dickless wonder Walter Peck from Ghostbusters, or maybe Professor Hathaway from Real Genius. His voice is great as both the hopeful John Dee and the vengeful Doctor Destiny, and he is perfect casting for a villain who resents the heroes for being ‘special’.
There is a lot to like here. Dee’s fall from grace is eminently believable, and when he transforms into Doctor Destiny, it’s legitimately chilling. (I’m not sure anything else from this show compares to Dee’s face peeling away to reveal Destiny’s.) Watching our heroes struggle against their own fears is every bit as tense as any fistfight from this show. These fears can be managed, but they are very real, and not something that can be locked away like so many B-team supervillains.
It’s only fitting that our heroes here are J’onn and Batman. J’onn’s telepathy makes him formidable, and his strength allows him to stand up to even Solomon Grundy. But his willingness to enter the dreams and save the others is a real statement of character. This leads to the fantastic brawl between the gigantic Destiny and J’onn, with an assist from Flash, toppling the monster inside the dreamscape.
But Batman ends the conflict here. His pursuit of Dee is as much a battle of wills as a chase. It does give us some lighter moments – I’m sure Batman can get coffee at a diner, regardless of the line – but the showdown in the Lexcorp warehouse is great superhero stuff. There are some great visuals here when Batman gets close enough to be affected in waking life, and Destiny fading back to Dee as he takes punches is incredible detail.
Dr. Destiny: You don’t have any special powers!
Batman: Oh, I have one, Johnny. I never give up.
This is the Batman of the BTAS writers’ bible, realized. No serious gadgets, just a detective who is nigh impossible to discourage.
Things end with our heroes having faced their fears and survived, and Batman taking a well-deserved nap. As for John Dee? Well, even nightmares have nightmares, and he likely isn’t the first to have a nightmare that also wears a cowl.
“Only A Dream” likely has just as much action as the previous episodes, but the tone is very different. Doctor Destiny couldn’t be a recurring villain, really, but this episode makes the most of his appearance. I feel like I wrote too much and only covered some of the good parts, which should tell you how much I liked “Only A Dream.”
We’re three episodes in, and already picking a favorite is nearly impossible. Knowing some of the episodes yet to come, it will only become harder.
- GRUNDY SMASH.
- Bringing back Peri Gilpin to voice Volcana is always welcome. I enjoy every minute of her screentime, Firefly’s immediate crush, and John’s simple method of letting the two firebugs knock themselves out.
- Likewise, Shayera pointing out the problem with Copperhead’s plan is a good character moment.
- J’onn being unable to reach Shayera because she has locked her mind is a good detail that almost goes unnoticed here.
- I like seeing Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane again, but it’s also great to see John Stewart’s neighborhood.
- The BTAS bible is located here, in case you are curious:
- I didn’t even mention John Dee’s daydream, where Lex Luthor and all the other villains admire his single-handed defeat of the Justice League. It might be a cheap gag but it’s still great.