As I’ve been saying for the past few reviews, Batman: The Animated Series got a lot more narratively adventurous in its final few short seasons, but also became somehow safer. They’d found a formula that worked for them, and the upped involvement of Robin implemented by the network meant that at least half the episode’s action had to have a Boy Wonder component. All of this is to say that “The Adventures of Batman and Robin” did things the earlier episodes probably never would have. Case in point, today’s episode, which is at once one of the dumbest premises ever on the show and one of the deepest and saddest character studies they ever attempted. But, that’s “Baby-Doll” for ya.
Written by Paul Dini (of course) and directed by Dan Riba, “Baby-Doll” has one of the strangest set-ups in the whole series with references to The Brady Bunch, Diff’rent Strokes, and a finale straight out of, of all things, Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. At times creepy, at times intensely juvenile, and at times incredibly sad, this episode is often hailed by fans and critics as a classic, but watching it again for this review, I think it might actually just be weirdness saved by a visually striking and emotional final few minutes.
We begin with an actor walking out from a stage door after a performance. He hears a little girl crying in the alley and walks over to see what’s wrong. She suddenly becomes familiar with him and he gasps “You!” before being clubbed in the head and taken away. We then cut to a TV expose by Summer Gleason about Mary Dahl, the former star of a popular family sitcom from twenty years earlier. It involved the little pigtailed girl, “Baby,” and her family. However, the show was canceled and Dahl fell into obscurity. It turns out the actor who was kidnapped played the older brother in that sitcom. I think we know where this is going. Commissioner Gordon tells Batman and Robin that he was just the latest in line of actors from the show being kidnapped, the father and mother actors having already been picked up.
Just then, Detective Bullock radios in to say that armed goons were attempting to kidnap the next cast member who played the older sister. The Dynamic Duo show up and very nearly save the actress, but a large armored car bursts onto the scene and picks up the goons and the girl. Batman calls for the Batmobile but it almost hits a little girl playing with a ball in the road. When Batman goes to see if she’s okay, he sees that it is, in fact, Mary Dahl. She has a rare genetic disorder that makes her unable to age beyond a small child, even though she’s in her 30s now. She throws gas at the good guys and gets away with the help of her hired muscle, a woman named Miriam.
It turns out that Dahl has holed up in a television studio and had the sets for her old series remade and the other actors forced to wear their old costumes. She wants to relive her glory days and is forcing the others to do the same, not just when they were making the show, but as though they were actually IN the show. If any of them try to leave, they get roughed up. This is Baby’s world and they’re just along for the ride. Batman and Robin, meanwhile, go to see Summer Gleason to get the scoop on Dahl and learn that she’s the one who got the show canceled because she wanted to do dramatic work. They watch a clip of her doing Macbeth and it isn’t pretty.
Robin agrees to watch all the tapes of the Baby-Doll show for clues. He learns that not every member of the cast has been picked up; in the final season, to combat declining ratings, they introduced Baby’s cousin to the show, a jerky little nerd named Spunky. That actor had yet to be kidnapped, but he’s definitely next on the list. Miriam and Baby get him, the now-overweight rocker dude, while he’s shredding on his electric guitar. Once he’s added to the scene, it’s time for Baby to reenact the episode where Spunky ruined everything — her birthday episode. She puts a stick of dynamite in the cake and puts it right in front of Spunky, who quickly picks it up with his teeth and throws it far enough away to not hurt anyone.
Then, Batman bursts in through the ceiling and takes out the goons while Spunky stands up and reveals himself to be Robin in disguise (some disguise; he didn’t even take off his cape or mask to wear it). After a fight with Miriam, Batman runs after Dahl, who has gone off to the nearby carnival on her big wheel. He chases her into a funhouse and they end up in the mirror room. Dahl sees different versions of herself in the mirrors until she sees on that shows her as a fully grown adult woman. She’s despondent and begins firing her gun (which is built into a doll, by the way) on all the mirrors when Batman appears behind her. Her frantic cry is “Why couldn’t you just let me make believe?!?” She sobs and clings onto Batman’s leg once the gun is empty, saying her TV catchphrase, “I didn’t mean to.”
Now, that’s a pretty powerful ending, I grant you, but I actually don’t think it’s earned by the preceding ridiculousness. Mary Dahl is certainly meant to represent some of the other child actors of sitcoms past who did in fact suffer such a disease, or similar, the obvious one being Gary Coleman from Diff’rent Strokes. Robbie Rist provides the voice of the older brother actor but he was also the actor who as a child played Cousin Oliver on the final death throes of The Brady Bunch, irritating Cindy week to week. Obviously, he was the inspiration for the Spunky character and even kind of became a long haired rocker dude as an adult.
I guess like all Batman villains, Baby Doll is plagued by a past she wishes she could go back to and attempts to make it so through the threat of violence. She’s criminally insane, but also very pitiable, which is the hallmark of a good villain, especially for the show. However well Baby’s psychoses are depicted, though, I can’t shake the silliness of having Batman and Robin forced to enter this plot. It just seems so beneath them. And Batman chasing Baby through the carnival shouldn’t have been a chase at all, him being literally four times her size, gun or not. He shouts to her during the chase “I want to help you!” which is how we know he’s a good guy, and then it’s the ending of The Lady from Shanghai. Despite a few really striking visuals and a great performance from Alison La Placa as Baby, I think this episode might actually not be good. Hmm.
On that confusing note, we turn our attention to next week which sees the second and final appearance by the Crowned Prince of Time (see what I did there?), the Clock King, whose plan to kill Mayor Hill goes super sci-fi. “Time Out of Joint” is next week.