Episode Number: 30
Original Air Date: October 19, 1992
Directed by: Boyd Kirkland
Written by: Laren Bright, Michael Reaves, and Joe R. Lansdale
First Appearance(s): Martha Wayne
“Perchance to Dream” is one of my favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, and in looking around the internet, I’m apparently not alone in my enjoyment of it. It’s a story that originated in part from Detective Comics #633 and it’s a story that’s basically been retold several times over, just in a different fashion. When drilled down to its core, it’s simply a story of what-if Bruce Wayne gave up being Batman or never became Batman to begin with. The way it’s presented in this episode is fun and clever, and for a young adolescent mind, it was delightfully confusing even if everything about the episode’s resolution is telegraphed basically from the start. Because the episode does revolve around a mystery, I’ll just say you should watch it before reading this. It’s fun and not something I want to spoil for anyone, but there’s some really obvious clues too so it’s no Rosebud.
The episode opens, as many do, with Batman pursuing some criminals in the Batmobile. They flee into a warehouse and Batman gives chase, but he stumbles into a trap. We get a quick cut of Batman looking up at something descending from the ceiling onto him and then a jump-cut to Bruce Wayne waking up in a cold sweat. Alfred is there to open his curtains and get him up and also inquire about the alarmed state Bruce awoke in. He brushes it off as a bad dream and gets on with his day. When he goes to open the entrance to the Batcave he finds it’s not there. When he asks Alfred about it he’s confused and thinks Bruce is playing a joke. This just annoys Bruce and he seems about to get angry until his dad enters the room.
Bruce is shocked to find his parents, Thomas (Kevin Conroy) and Martha (voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, the first time the character spoke) are alive and well and enjoying retirement. He doesn’t understand how this could be, and his parents are concerned. He soon finds out that he’s also engaged to be married – to Selina Kyle of all people. Bruce seeks out Leslie Thompkins for some guidance and she’s no help in sorting out what’s going on, but she is able to steer him towards being happy and accepting of his current life. Things get really weird though when he and Selina have a run-in with Batman. Batman apparently showed up in Gotham recently and he behaves just like how we would expect Batman to.
Bruce is left to assume that his life as Batman was nothing more than a dream. A very detailed dream. He’s resigned to accept this as his life is pretty great. After all, he’s still fabulously wealthy, has two living parents, and is engaged to a fine looking lady (we know from “The Cat and the Claw” that Selina is very much what Bruce finds attractive) who isn’t a cat burglar. Everything is fine until he opens up a book and finds it’s full of gibberish. He soon realizes all writing is just a nonsense collection of letters. He starts to get enraged and his parents are once again concerned about his well-being. He resolves that Batman is the key to what’s going on and he storms off to confront the caped crusader.
Wanting to get Batman’s attention, Bruce sets his sights on an enormous clock tower in Gotham Cemetery. To make things a bit more challenging, the Waynes called the police about their son, and when Bruce runs from the cops they decide they need to give chase. He never expressly states his plan, but by climbing to the top of the clock tower it’s implied that Bruce wants to make Batman think he’s contemplating suicide. Sure enough, Batman does show up and the two are forced to confront each other. Meanwhile, a storm rages in the background and the setting for Bruce Wayne vs Batman takes on a sullen feeling as opposed to an exciting one. Bruce then brings us all up to speed about what he’s realized. The garbled text indicated to him that he’s living in a dream world, since dreams and the ability to read are located on different hemispheres of the human brain (this is the part where everyone watching begins to wonder if they’ve ever read in a dream). Batman is indifferent to Bruce’s claims and the two tangle, but Bruce is able to wrestle the mask off of Batman to reveal the face below – The Mad Hatter!
The Mad Hatter explains that he’s not really the Mad Hatter, just an aspect of him in Bruce’s mind. He’s not really there, and thus not privy to the details of what’s going on in Bruce’s head (in other words, he doesn’t know Bruce is really Batman). He’s placed Batman, in the real world, into his dream machine. The goal is to keep Batman happy and comatose so he’s free to do whatever it is he wants to do – which we really have no idea what that is since the last time we saw him he just wanted the affections of his assistant. Satisfied that The Mad Hatter has no knowledge of what’s really transpiring inside Batman’s head, Bruce jumps from the bell tower as the police storm in with horrified expressions on their faces. The suicidal act jolts Batman back to consciousness and we see him hooked up to some Dr. Frankenstein kind of machine. Mad Hatter is beside himself with frustration and is incensed that Batman would pull himself from an idyllic world just to foil his plans. He’s The Mad Hatter, so there’s little resistance he can put up once Batman is free and the cops show up to take him away. When Gordon asks Batman just what the machine does he replies with, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” How poetic.
“Perchance to Dream” is largely fun because of the what-if question it poses. Like most of the episodes of this show, you can pick it apart incessantly in a bid to ruin it. Why didn’t The Mad Hatter unmask Batman once he had him restrained? Why not just kill him? He seemed to try and kill Batman in their last encounter so it doesn’t seem like he’s averse to murder. I suppose it is different to try and kill someone in the act of fighting them as opposed to killing a sleeping enemy. Basically, he had Batman beat and blew it. Also, the whole way the dream world unravels with the writing thing doesn’t really hold up in the real world. It’s the type of fact you might read about and form your own conclusions, it certainly sounds clever. If you’re actually dreaming you can certainly read things because it’s just your subconscious telling you what it is you’re seeing. I think what the writers were trying to get at is that the dream world inhabited by Bruce is partly created by his subconscious, but also partly created by the device he’s strapped into. If he were to pick up a random book that was put there by The Mad Hatter’s invention then Bruce’s subconscious wouldn’t be able to have a frame of reference to fill the book with words. It also would explain how Bruce would need to open a book or newspaper to realize this, as his subconscious could easily fill in the blank spot on a McDonald’s sign or something because it’s a familiar sight (though there is a background clue during the episode that features a jumbled sign briefly so maybe I’m putting more thought into this than the writers did).
There is a quiet tragedy to this episode as well. As a viewer, part of me wants to see Bruce give into The Mad Hatter and just be happy. Batman is cool and all, but what kind of life is that really? We know Bruce was very much taken by Selina in her prior appearance and I think most viewers root for the Bruce/Selina pairing. Obviously, it’s not to be. As a vehicle for The Mad Hatter, this plot is satisfying since it draws on his mind control device, though this is another example of villains just existing outside of Arkham with no explanation of how they got there. The Mad Hatter will not be a frequently relied upon villain, which I’m okay with since he’s kind of lame, and this is easily his best appearance of the series. I did find it funny that they use The Mad Hatter’s theme over the title card, something I didn’t notice in previous viewings, which blatantly gives away the villain of the episode. On television, The Mad Hatter’s first two appearances were only separated by a week so the theme was still fresh in the minds of viewers. The mystery isn’t what makes the episode a success though, so I suppose it doesn’t matter. You could replace him with basically any villain and the episode would still be fun. The episode worked so well that I have to believe it at least partly inspired the much later episode of The New Batman Adventures “Over the Edge,” which is often considered the best of that batch of episodes. It’ll be awhile before I get to that one.