The Batman ’66 Episode Guide 1×02: Smack In The Middle
The 1966 Batman television show was one of the most successful and influential adaptations of comic books to mass media of all time. Over the course of three seasons and 120 episodes, the series became a cultural force with its unique combination of tongue-in-cheek humor, thrilling superhero adventure and celebrity guest stars, and shaped the way the public would view the Caped Crusader for the next five decades. Now, in the midst of a well-deserved renaissance of the show, ComicsAlliance is proud to present The Batman '66 Episode Guide, an in-depth examination of every single adventure, arch-criminal and deathtrap cliffhanger of the series.
This week, the Riddler and Molly enact their fiendish plot, and someone... dies?!
Episode 1x02: Smack In The Middle
Script: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Director: Robert Butler
Original Air Date: January 13, 1966
Special Guest Villain: Frank Gorshin as The Riddler
When we last left our heroes, we had just gone through a series of events that can only be called "bizarre," even by the Silver Age standards of Batman '66. Batman went to a dance club and was drugged by the Riddler's henchwoman, Molly, leaving him to drunkenly sob about Robin being kidnapped while he was busy doing the Batusi. With Desmond Doomsday's promise that the worst was yet to come, I imagine expectations were running pretty high when the second episode debuted to close out Batman's inaugural television adventure.
As the Riddler continues to keep Robin strapped to his table for undoubtedly nefarious purposes, we rejoin the story the next morning at Wayne Manor, where Batman, recovered from whatever it was that the Riddler's goons slipped into his orange juice, has been keeping a vigil among his clearly labeled equipment.
One thing that I never really noticed until I saw it on the DVD is that there's stuff in the Batcave labeled "LUNAR SCANNING SCREEN" and "INTERGALACTIC RECORDER," and that is amazing. For starters, that implies that Batman is not ruling out the possibility that the Riddler could've dragged Robin to a secret hideout on the moon rather than just dropping down into the sewers of Gotham City. Eve more than that, though, it's a weird acknowledgment of the Sci-Fi Batman era of the '50s that makes me think that there may have actually been plans to take the TV show in that direction before they settled on the familiar formula. It's doubtful, of course -- if nothing else, Harlan Ellison's recently unearthed pitch for a Two-Face story has shown us what the show might look like if it didn't have to worry about the budget that it so clearly did -- but can you even imagine how bananas this show would've gotten if they'd taken it into space?
Anyway, after a conversation with Alfred where Batman tells him to explain away his absence to Aunt Harriet by telling her he and Dick are spending the night with his uncle -- a throwaway line that's mainly notable for being an on-screen acknowledgement of Uncle Phillip Wayne, the obscure Silver Age character who raised Batman after his parents were killed -- the vigil is rewarded with a phone call from the Riddler.
For his part, the Riddler has been busy, keeping Robin sedated while he made plaster mold of his face:
It's not until this is done that he wakes up Robin -- using the show's go-to aerosol knockout gas antidote, in its first appearance -- and tells him to call Batman so they can have a little chat. What follows is another of Gorshin's amazing performances:
ROBIN: You've flipped your lid! You think I'm going to help you with some rotten criminal scheme?!
RIDDLER: [Laughing] You're scared! You're really scared that I'll outwit your Batman yet again. All right!
ROBIN: It'll be a cold day in August when we're scared of you, Riddler! Give me that telephone!
It's a pretty simple exchange that plays on the idea of Robin being a hotheaded teenager and therefore easily manipulated, but the way Gorshin and, to his credit, Ward play it is fantastic. Gorshin's patronizing "you're scared!" is just about perfect, and the way his face immediately drops its façade of glee as soon as he turns away and realizes his ruse has worked is pretty stellar.
The call goes through, and the Riddler baits a trap with a pair of quandaries, "What kind of pins are used in soup?" (terrapins) and "What was Joan of Arc made of?" (Maid of Orléans), which obviously point to "the old Turtle mill on Orleans Cove!" I mean, we all knew that, right? Right.
As Batman departs the Batcave, using a rarely seen shot of the Batmobile's exit onto the highway that doesn't feature Robin in the passenger seat, we cut back to the Molehill Mob's hideout to find out exactly what the Riddler's sinister scheme is: He's gotten Jill St. John to dress like Robin:
Please note that they did not bother to take Robin's domino mask off in order to make a mold of his face.
Incidentally, I've seen it suggested elsewhere that this was a visual inspiration for Carrie Kelly in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. I wouldn't doubt it, given how much of DKR is influenced by the TV show. I mean, it certainly made an impression on me when I saw it as a kid, but to my knowledge, I don't believe Miller himself has ever confirmed or denied that. For the record, Comics Should Be Good's Brian Cronin gives the credit to a sketch by Jaime Hernandez, but I think it's a combination of the two. Someone ask Miller next time you see him and we'll get it all sorted out.
Molly puts on the mask, which miraculously covers her face and alters her entire body shape, indistinguishably disguising her as the Boy Wonder:
We'll come back to this in a bit, but you can add that onto the list of truly bizarre choices that was made for the pilot episode -- not the scheme itself, but the fact that one of the first things Burt Ward had to do while playing Robin was to play Jill St. John playing Molly playing Robin. That's gotta be a weird thing to get your head around on your first week of filming. Either way, he does it pretty delightfully, even if his approach to femininity is so over the top that they probably had to get clearance from the FAA.
Molly activates the homing transmitter hidden in Robin's belt buckle, and she and the Riddler hit the road in order to spring their trap. Sure enough, Batman's speeding to the Turtle mill when the Riddler's car -- a black Rolls Royce, I think, if you happen to be keeping score at home -- passes him going the opposite direction, prompting the first-ever use of the Emergency Bat-Turn Lever:
I've always loved those drag-race parachutes that would pop out for the U-Turn, and even moreso because of the dudes with vans who show up as the Bat-Parachute Retrieval Service, who, along with the dedicated airport crew waiting at the Bat-Copter in the movie, hint at a pretty decent amount of support personnel for this whole Crimefighting operation. Usually Batman can get by with an extremely industrious butler.
The chutes, however, are not the Bat-Gadget that the Riddler is concerned with. As revealed in a conversation that invnolves putting on a pair of crash helmets, he and Molly are attempting to get Batman to hit their car with the Bat-Ray, which he obligingly does, disabling the Rolls with lasers from the headlights.
The car wrecks and promptly bursts into flames, leaving Molly and the Riddler to ditch it, staging the "accident" so that it looks like Robin was thrown clear and injured so that he couldn't speak -- it turns out that the mask's effects can only go so far and don't affect the vocal cords, although given the difference between Brut Ward and Jill St. John's bodies, I think we can say that it was a rousing success nonetheless.
Batman takes "Robin" back to the Batcave for treatment, but once they've arrived, she pulls a pistol, only for Batman to reveal that he knew it was her all along, thanks to a defect in the mask caused by the straws they inserted in the mold so that Robin could breathe.
According to Batman, he "spotted the defect immediately," and while that raises the question of just why he would take a crook directly to the allegedly secret location of the Batcave, but at least he took the precaution of burning off the firing pin on her revolver with "a hidden Bat-Laser beam."
It should be noted that Adam West pronounces "laser" as "LAY-ZAR," which we should probably go ahead and make the standard.
Robbed of her weapon, Molly makes the inexplicable choice to start climbing up the Batcave's clearly labeled Atomic Pile, the nuclear reactor that powers the Batmoblie and one assumes, the Lunar Scanning Screen, etc., as well. This is, needless to say, an extremely dangerous place to be, and while Batman tries to rescue her by swinging up to the catwalk in a bizarre shot where West is kicking his legs while he's hauled up there by a harness, tragedy strikes. Molly panics and drops directly into the center of the reactor, where she is promptly vaporized in the show's only on-screen death. At this point, West looks into the camera and delivers the line "What a terrible way to go-go."
In several places, including at the press conference at last year's Comic-Con International and the Adam West: Naked DVD -- a truly strange episode-by-episode commentary for the show that West filmed himself in his basment and around his house -- West has taken credit for ad-libbing this line on set, and claimed that it set the tone for the rest of the series. Sharp-eyed viewers (and episode guide readers) will recall, however, that the dance club in the first episode was called the What A Way To Go-Go, with the name written in big letters on an awning. Whether the show was filmed out of order and that was added after West's ad-lib or West got the idea from seeing the awning and used it for a later shot, I don't know, but he's certainly right about it setting the tone. As callous as it might be for Batman to deliver a post-death pun, the rest of the show fits the line better than the pilot does.
With a jaunty musical sting punctuating Molly's death, Batman heads to Police Headquarters, where Batman uses the subway schedule and the noises in the background of a recording of the Riddler's call to pinpoint his lair's location with the help of the Mobile Crime Computer in the trunk of the Batmobile. Thus, the Caped Crusader heads to Coolidge Square with the Bat-Gauge connected to his utility belt to find the hidden room, and once he finds it, it's a simple matter for the Laser Gun (or LAY-ZAR GUN) to set off an explositve and blast the wall open.
Batman charges in just as the Riddler is about to straight up murder Robin for talking trash about how crime doesn't pay, and while this action definitely prevents a homicide, the Riddler escapes, taunting Batman by drawing a question mark on a pane of bulletproof glass.
It is presumably also lay-zar proof.]
The upside is that the Dynamic Duo is back together, and Robin overheard the Riddler planning his final caper with the following clues: "How many sides has a circle?" (Two, inside and outside) and "What President of the United States wore the biggest hat?" (The one with the biggest head). In a stunning bit of apophenia, the Boy Wonder puts it together and comes out with "The famous skyscraper head office of the Gotham City National Bank! The Riddler's going to go inside and cart the loot outside!"
Batman's response is the truly amazing line "We've come a long way from the Prime Minister's cake... or have we?" They have not, for as the GCPD closes in on the bank, the crooks are really tunneling under the Moldavian Embassy, prompting a rare "Holy _____" expression from Desmond Doomsday rather than Robin. The target, it seems, is the Moldavian Fiesta Week's Prime Minister's Climax Dinner, and cousin, that is a mouthful.
The Fiesta Week Climax Dinner is, it seems, playing host to one of the country's most valuable treasures, a mammoth found in ice that has since been taxidermied and decorated with priceless jewels and "stuffed exclusively with used postage stamps from ancient kingdom of Moldavia. Very cheap stuff then, but now, worth unspeakable fortune to stamp collectors!" And listen, I don't want to blame the victims here, but if you bring that to Gotham City, you're pretty much asking for trouble.
And trouble does come, in the form of the Riddler, releasing tanks of laughing gas through the ventilation system and crashing the party in a truly amazing suit, complete with elephant mask.
To be honest, the whole thing plays way more "Joker" than "Riddler," to the point where a partygoer refers to the Riddler as a "vulgar comedian," and the Riddler tells an actual joke:
RIDDLER: Has anyone seen my friend Kirsch?
PRIME MINISTER: Kirsch who?
There's also a joke about Greta Garbo wanting to be a lawn, just to hammer it home. The two characters were virtually interchangeable for most of the show's run, but never moreso than in this scene. In all fairness, though, Gorshin was a comedian when he wasn't plotting sinister Riddle Crimes, so it makes sense letting him show his stuff on that front as a guest star in the show, assuming they didn't know he'd eventually be a regular. It makes me wonder if the Garbo joke was actually part of his act -- it certainly didn't come from the issue of Batman the story is loosely based on.
Having knocked out the whole Fiesta with laughing gas, the Riddler blows a hole in the floor so that the Molehill Mob can escape to their subterranean lair with their prize. And that's when Batman jumps out of a mammoth.
It turns out that Robin's bizarre leaps of logic are slightly less probable than Batman's, who had the whole case cracked back at the subway station. And with that, we launch into the show's first fight scene, which means it's time for the inaugural Bat-Onomatopoeia Matrix:
The Riddler makes his escape down the hole, taking a shot at Batman that punctures one of the gas tanks, leaving his second shot to cause a huge explosion.
Back at Wayne Manor, Alfred reveals that the Riddler has failed to appear in court for his lawsuit against Batman, leaving Robin to assume that he died in the explosion. Batman isn't so sure, especially given that the police didn't find a body.
What a bizarre episode.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about just how weird it was, mostly because it doesn't even fit in with the rest of the series. By the end of this episode, the Riddler is presumed dead and Molly is definitely dead -- and not only that, but she died in the Batcave, with Batman failing to save her and definitely never mentioning it again. There's more gunplay than I remember seeing in other episodes. While there's a lot of the show that's fully formed even at this point -- Gorshin's performance would remain largely unchanged for the duration of the show, the campy attitude and over-the-top crimes are all in evidence, and there's plenty of the silly comedy that would become the show's trademark -- but the tone feels disjointed, and it ends up being one of the weakest episodes of the show despite great performances from everyone involved.
Of course, that's to be expected for a pilot episode, no matter how good the show gets. So stay tuned, readers -- the best is yet to come!
Episode 1x02 Index:
Homing Transmitter Belt Buckle
Emergency Bat-Turn Lever
Hidden Bat-Laser Beam
Mobile Crime Computer
"Holy Red Snapper!" (Desmond Doomsday)