I put the cat out (Cat Scratch Fever)

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It’s November 5, 1992, the day after “Beware the Gray Ghost,” so see that episode for chart-toppers and news.

“Cat Scratch Fever” is that rarity, a notoriously bad Batman the Animated Series episode. Bruce Timm reportedly listed it as one of the worst episodes in the entire DCAU. The animation is noticeably subpar for the series: the trial scene at the beginning is particularly bad, with a bizarrely drawn judge and a gallery full of what appear to be crude wooden carvings of people. Surprisingly, this is actually the improved version of the episode; the original was so bad that the show’s producers took the rare step of sending it back to the animation studio, AKOM, and demand it be redone from scratch. They then fired AKOM; other than a couple of episodes that were still in production at AKOM when this one was completed, the studio–which was also responsible for the dip in animation quality in the second part of “The Cat and the Claw”–did no further work on the DCAU.

But other than the animation, this isn’t actually a terrible episode; it’s more entertaining than “The Last Laugh” (which was also animated by AKOM) and less problematic than “Pretty Poison.” It’s even got some good visuals: Kyle’s visible deterioration as she watches Batman fighting on the ice is well-done, as she becomes sweatier and her hair is more disarrayed each time the camera returns to her. (Unfortunately, the effect is ruined by the comically melodramatic way she flops back into the bed afterward.) But ultimately there’s no character work being done here, and it is in its character work that this series shines.

And there is potential here for interesting character work, because Dr. Milo is noticeably different from the several past “mad scientist” characters the show has included. Scarecrow, for example, effects a hint of a mid-Atlantic accent, while Poison Ivy speaks like the society woman she originally presented herself as. Langstrom uses the same generic middle American accent as Batman. All of these accents are either marked as “sophisticated” or “upper class” or, in the case of Langstrom, unmarked, which is to say marked as “normal.” But Milo speaks with a Jersey accent of the sort usually reserved for the kind of unnamed minor character who gets one line before he tries to hit Batman with the nearest heavy object and then gets beaten up himself–a henchman, in other words.

Which is fitting, because Milo, unlike the other mad scientists, is a henchman. He has no grand schemes or vengeance to pursue; indeed, he has no backstory given at all. Instead, he appears to simply be an employee of Roland Daggett whose particular job, rather than shooting people or punching them, is to devise viruses (inexplicably referred to as toxins) that somehow cause cats and dogs to become more aggressive but merely make people sick. (The title, incidentally, refers to a real disease caused by bacteria of the Bartonella genus, which live harmlessly in cats but can be transferred to humans by a scratch or bite; adults with healthy immune systems usually recover without treatment, but the disease can be dangerous to children or people with immune disorders.)

Unfortunately, the lack of backstory to Milo connects with this episode’s crippling flaw, which is that it is broadly uninterested in its characters. Mention is made of the Wayne-Kyle-Batman “love triangle,” but little comes of it except an almost-kiss between Kyle and Batman, and an advance by Wayne that Kyle rebuffs, but it all falls flat, devoid of the chemistry that enlivened “The Cat and the Claw.” Milo, as already mentioned, receives no development, and Daggett is his usual money-hungry, amoral self.

The problem, ultimately, is that the episode doesn’t focus enough on Catwoman trying to go straight, emphasizing instead Batman and Catwoman’s efforts to stop Daggett’s scheme to infect the city with plague and then sell the cure. Indeed, halfway through the episode Catwoman effectively drops out of it, since she is infected and spends the final act bedridden while Batman tries to bring her the cure.

This is really too bad, as this is the first time we’ve seen one of Batman’s rogue gallery actually try to give up their criminal identity. As we’ve seen before, this is Batman’s ultimate hope, that his enemies can be redeemed, and here in Kyle we see an apparent success story. (Though, of course, the relentless logic of the serialized work means that her reformation can only last until her next appearance.) She is now a law-abiding citizen, a hero, sharing headline space with Batman himself.

Early in the episode, Renee Montoya appears to arrest Kyle and Daggett’s two employees. This is an important moment, because just like Montoya in “P.O.V.,” Kyle is here in the process of becoming a second Batman, a wealthy, animal-themed vigilante with both investigative and crime-fighting skills. In this she also becomes a kind of anti-Harley Quinn. Like Quinn, she resists (at least in this episode) the objectifying femme fatale depiction of Poison Ivy, but where Harley Quinn is a second Joker, a transgressive figure seeking to become more transgressive, Catwoman is, as already stated, a second Batman; she donned her costume to fight for a cause, and in this episode moves rapidly from her originally morally ambiguous depiction to being straightforwardly heroic.

Yet we know she will revert to criminality later on. The logic of comics demands it; characters must always revert to their original premise so that the story can repeat indefinitely. In this we see one of the reasons behind the anachronisms of Batman the Animated Series, visible in this episode with the juxtaposition of old-fashioned cars and black and white televisions against a plot involving bioweapon development. But such anachronisms are inevitable in the world of comics, where characters like Batman, created in the 1930s, can still have their origin stories told anew in the 1990s. Time does not progress in a line in comics, nor does it in comic derived media: it loops back on itself continually.

Which means that Batman’s hope will always be dashed. Sooner or later, no matter how they try to reform, his villains will always return to villainy, because they’re just more interesting that way. The reformation of Catwoman is necessarily temporary.

At the same time, reverting to her criminal ways, or crime-fighting at all for that matter, will be difficult now that she’s been on trial, and so her identity is a matter of public record. The police know where to find her if a woman dressed as a cat start freeing animals from laboratories, and so do people like Daggett if she interferes with him again.

That is the usual logic presented within comics for the secret identity: it gives the hero a way to hide from those who might seek to control or punish them for their actions, protecting both them and any loved ones they might have. But there’s another reason, a secret one, and it is that reason we will begin to examine in the next episode.


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