Batman: The Animated Series, “Time out of Joint”

04Dec11

When I was a kid, I loved the Clock King episode of the Animated Series. It had a really neat villain, an interesting motivation, and was just well done. I kept wishing they would bring that guy back. When I finally got to watch this episode, I was excited as hell. But by the end, I was wondering why this wasn’t as great.

All this time later, having rewatched the episode, that’s still the question on my mind. Why doesn’t “Time out of Joint” live up to its predecessor? It’s not a terrible episode by any measure. But it definitely lacks the spark that “Clock King” had, and I think it’s because it doesn’t fit with the series as a whole. It fits with the character of Temple Fugit, but this is more like a Superman script that got repurposed for Batman.

Of course, it would help to talk about the basic plot before we say it doesn’t work for the series. It’s a very simple idea: thanks to acting as a butler for a reclusive Japanese scientist, the Clock King is able to get access to a portable time dilation device, which allows him to effectively move at super speed, or place people and objects into a form of stasis. Naturally, he uses this to plot the death of his original nemesis, the mayor. Thanks to a convenient personal sighting of the Clock King, Batman and Robin have some idea of what he’s doing, but they have to figure out how to stop him, at least until they find out where the devices came from.

As a general character concept, Batman has been in so many different stories that I couldn’t say that time travel (or in this case, time dilation) is a bad fit. But it is a bad fit with the Animated Series. This is a setting that has some fantastic elements to it, but almost everything is rooted in science at this point, and even the impossible/improbable science is close enough to reality that we can forgive it fudging things. This, on the other hand, moves firmly past that line. One can try to extrapolate better ways to use a device like a freeze ray than Mr. Freeze uses it, but it’s a pretty specialized technology, so you’d have to extrapolate other aspects of the device to find general uses. However, something that can speed up or slow down time moves firmly into a utopian category, especially when they’re not presented as requiring massive amounts of energy, and can be carried comfortably in one hand. The creator even wonders in the episode if humanity can be trusted with his tech, while making it easy for a random thief to take it, let alone his butler. You don’t even need to be criminally minded to think of reasons to “borrow” such an amazing device. For that reason, it feels a lot like a story for a character like Superman or the Flash, where the baseline is already fantastic enough that questioning how someone could make a time dilation device is silly compared to a man being able to run faster than the speed of sound without taking any physical harm in the process.

Furthermore, it’s something of a disservice to Temple Fugit. His primary method of attack in his introductory episode was his precision and control-he could predict things with uncanny accuracy, and study details to the point of obsession. He couldn’t defeat Batman physically, but he was able to bring him to a stalemate through careful study of his opponent’s fighting style and physical speed. By giving him a magic device to slow down time, all of those traits are negated. Why should he be careful when he can just hit a button, appearing and disappearing as he pleases? It’s thematically appropriate on the surface, but anyone with a grudge could come up with the same plans Fugit does here.

So with all of my harping on why this isn’t as good as “The Clock King,” why isn’t it just bad? Because outside of those big issues, it’s fairly well written and animated. The animation in particular helps to emphasize the strange nature of the device, as we get long stretches of time from Fugit’s slowed down perspective, along with a few times where we see the difference in perception: his slow, methodical knocking becomes an impossible rapid pounding to everyone who hears it. And it’s paced well, skipping unnecessary exposition for the most part to keep hitting the action beats, even if Batman and Robin don’t get much of a chance to actually fight Fugit.

It’s worth watching “Time out of Joint” just for the pure entertainment value. It’s nothing amazing, but it’s still a decent episode. And if it doesn’t live up to “Clock King” in terms of quality, I have to admit that it’s hard to think of how anything could have. Even without the thematic issues of the time dilation plot device, his debut was singular enough that almost any follow up would have suffered from diminishing returns. In a sense, I’m glad it took them as long as it did to bring him back.

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