Revisiting ‘The Forgotten’ From ‘Batman: The Animated Series’

Revisiting ‘The Forgotten’ From ‘Batman: The Animated Series’

In a flawed episode, Batman does not arrive until the final act. The wait is worth it, even if parts of the plot are hackneyed and overdone.
Warren Henry
By

While developing this series, co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (along with writer Mitch Brian) developed a “show bible” which set forth a vision for the entire team. In describing how these cartoons would differ from past takes on Batman, they declared: “Our stories will be hard-edged crime dramas with villains who play for keeps. Yes, many of them will come from Batman’s well-known Rogues Gallery, but they will be as wild, dark and sinister as we can make them.”

Focusing on Batman as a detective, they describe him as “a consummate master of disguise. In addition to Bruce Wayne, the Batman has other alter egos.” The handbook advises: “Although most of our stories will take place in Gotham City, we will occasionally follow the globe-trotting Bruce Wayne to distant locations which will serve as settings for additional Batman adventures.”

“The Forgotten” is an early attempt to put these precepts into action. Wayne, disguised as a homeless man while investigating a case, suffers amnesia and is dragooned into the service of Boss Biggis (George Murdock), a crime lord created for the series. Imprisoned a at work camp seemingly some distance from Gotham, Wayne does not suit up as Batman until the third act of the story.

The episode pushes the creative envelope even further that its predecessors in production. Unfortunately, as is often the case with early experiments, it is not as successful as a narrative. “The Forgotten” has failures of ambition, but it occasionally delivers on those ambitions.

The Plot

The drama opens with Wayne volunteering at the Dock Street Rescue Mission, which he also supports financially. The supervising priest mentions a series of recent disappearances, not only of the homeless, but also one of his regular volunteers. The priest adds the police are busy and the disappearance of the homeless are not news. (Producer Alan Burnett has been quoted as saying the show sought to avoid social stories, but the occasional bit of commentary finds its way into some of the early episodes.)

In the evening, Wayne transforms himself with makeup and wardrobe into the homeless Gaff Morgan. After driving a Studebaker into the Bowery, he walks the streets. Gaff is approached in an alley by two goons who offer him long-term employment. The goons assault Gaff, who subdues the pair before a third goon appears and knocks him unconscious with a blackjack.

Gaff awakens, chained to a cot in a dormitory-style shack (reminiscent of “Cool Hand Luke”) at a remote location. He is greeted by Dan Riley and Salvo Smith, who inform Gaff he is now part of a chain gang at a work camp. Riley and Salvo ask who Gaff is, but the blackjack blow has caused Gaff to lose his memory. (It is a good thing the primary audience for this cliche is young.)

The crew assembles for breakfast, but are interrupted by the camp’s owner, Boss Biggis––a morbidly obese man gnawing on a turkey leg. His white suit and floppy, wide-brimmed hat suggest he may hail from Central America.

Biggis orders the men to work. For motivation, he selects a man at random to suffer in a metal “hot box” that magnifies the desert heat. The work camp is hidden in a setting like Monument Valley, presumably far from Gotham City limits. (The hot boxes again recall “Cool Hand Luke,” or, for younger viewers, “Django Unchained.”)

Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor, Alfred enters Wayne’s bedroom to serve breakfast, only to find Wayne missing. Alfred, knowing Batman to be nocturnal, is concerned.

Gaff and the others are taken down into a gold mine. As they work, Gaff learns Riley and Smith are from Gotham––and Smith was kidnaped after volunteering at the Dock Street Rescue Mission. This strikes a chord with Gaff, but any memory recovery is short-circuited when the mine shaft caves in. None of the men are seriously injured.

In Gotham, Alfred makes excuses to people seeking meetings with Wayne. He visits the garage and notes the Studebaker is missing. Alfred activates the car’s tracking device, revealing it is in the Bowery.

Gaff dreams he is in a hall of mirrors. Hearing laughter, he turns to see the reflection of Wayne taunting him. The reflection transforms into The Joker, who reaches through the mirror to seize Gaff, sending both plummeting from the top of a skyscraper. Yet Gaff, now appearing as Wayne, finds himself unharmed at street level. Wayne is swamped by homeless people and sheds a tear as he tries to hand money to them. Gaff awakens in a sweat but has yet to recover his memory.

The next day, Biggis orders Smith thrown into a hot box for blowing a raspberry at Biggis. Gaff and Riley fight the camp guards to prevent what might be fatal torture of the slighter man, but they are overcome and take Smith’s place in separate hot boxes.

Alfred locates the Studebaker in a junkyard and retrieves the tracking device. He also spots two goons preparing to leave in a truck. Alfred crawls under the truck and attaches the tracking device.

Gaff and Riley sweat profusely in their hot boxes. During their conversation, Riley despairs over his missing family. The phrase triggers Gaff’s memory of losing his parents (the closest the series has come to date in recounting Batman’s origin).

Wayne regains his memory and kicks open the door to his hot box. Chased by guards and their dogs, he escapes into a box canyon and begins to climb out of the seeming dead end.

Meanwhile, following the tracking device, Alfred approaches in the robot-controlled Batwing. He orders a landing in the canyon, over objections from the plane’s artificial intelligence about the rocky terrain. (The “bible” describes the Batwing as having vertical take-off and landing capability, so this is internal dramatic license.) Following a hard landing, Alfred rests outside the cockpit when he is met by Wayne.

At the camp, Biggis gnaws on a steak while berating his guards over the escape. His rant is interrupted by the Batman, who wreaks havoc on the shack. More guards respond, chasing Batman into the mine after Biggis offers a $1,000 bounty for the giant bat.

This proves to be an enormous mistake, as the Caped Crusader begins serially dispatching guards, appearing suddenly and vanishing into the darkness in classic Batman style. Biggis compounds the error by switching off the remaining lights in the mine, believing his guards will gain the advantage. Instead, Batman easily avoids the guards’ lanterns and helmet lights, subduing the entire gang.

Biggis attempts to escape, but drops his oil lantern, igniting a fire that threatens to detonate explosives stored in the shaft. Batman throws Biggis onto a water flute which carries both of them clear of the explosion, but ultimately sends them into an underground lake. Biggis easily captures the corpulent villain.

Back in Gotham, Riley and his family meet Wayne and Smith at the mission. Riley offers them a home, but Wayne reveals his true civilian identity. As Wayne enters another expensive car, he suggests Riley and Smith contact him for work. Smith jokes to Riley that if he suffered from amnesia, he too might recover to find himself a millionaire.

Hackneyed But Worthwhile

The plot devices in “The Forgotten” tend toward the hackneyed. The episode’s villain is distinctive, but not particularly compelling.

Nevertheless, the episode has its strong moments. The “Cool Hand Luke” elements are slightly implausible in the sense that the camp cannot be located near Gotham (which has already been shown to have a wintry Christmas). Yet it is difficult to criticize the show for introducing dangers generally unseen in a cartoon.

Gaff’s nightmare is also suitably surreal. It is not clear why Wayne would transform into The Joker, but the man clearly has identity issues which lend themselves to a certain dream logic.

Lastly, the final set piece is artistically striking: Batman’s serial elimination of the camp guards is shown almost entirely in greys and blacks, interrupted by the shafts of light from the lanterns and mine helmets. It is dramatically effective even without the types of gymnastics seen in prior episodes.

Warren Henry is the nom de plume of an attorney practicing in the State of Illinois.

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