What’s The Story?
The Riddler manages to trick Batman into arresting him when he’s not guilty, and files suit for wrongful arrest — Batman will have to reveal his true identity in court!

Batman
“I don’t know who he is behind that mask of his, but I do know when we need him — and we need him now.”

Batman is a square-jawed hero, a “duly deputised agent of the law”. He always puts concern for others first, and this is as true in his secret identity as Bruce Wayne — while Wayne has been a playboy in earlier iterations of the character, here he’s a philanthropist, loved for his charity work and attempts to prevent crime.

He is as far from a sinister figure as can be, drinking nothing stronger than orange juice, being respectful of the law, and doing everything he can to help others.

Played here by Adam West, he’s a child-friendly version of James Bond or Captain Kirk — an all-action, suave, charming, hero, but one who lacks any of the angst or sexuality of those characters.

Well, he lacks almost all the angst — he mentions in his first scene how his parents were murdered by a criminal, and at the end he regrets the death of Molly, the Riddler’s henchwoman.

When drugged, Batman dances badly — the Batusi — to generic 60s twist music.

Robin
Batman’s ward is slightly brighter than him, and is the first to solve the Riddler’s clues. This version of the character is clearly inspired by Tom Swift, and has a fondness for minced oaths — his “Holy X!” schtick isn’t fully formed yet, but he uses such expressions as “It’ll be a cold day in August before…”, as “hell” was still considered unbroadcastable in 1966.

Robin’s Aunt Harriet lives with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, and they keep their secret identities from her largely in order to prevent her worrying.

Here he’s played by 21-year-old Burt Ward, who doesn’t totally convince as a teenager, but who does bring an exuberance to the part.

Alfred

Bruce Wayne’s butler is no longer comic relief, but as yet doesn’t have much of a role in proceedings. Here he merely helps answer the phone and provide cover stories for Batman and Robin’s crimefighting absences. Alan Napier’s performance is very much in the same mould as William Austin’s, without the cowardice.

Commissioner Gordon

Commissioner Gordon is here a standard Irish cop, whose role in the plot is to be baffled and to call Batman on his hotline to let him know that the Riddler is active.

The Baddies
The Riddler

“We all know how this quizzical criminal operates. He deliberately leaves clues to confound us.”

The Riddler was an odd choice to open the series with, having only ever appeared in three comics — two from 1948, and then one from 1965 (Batman 171, a couple of elements from which are reused here). Frank Gorshin’s performance here, though, turned the Riddler — a character who had not appeared much for the rather good reason that his whole modus operandi is to give Batman clues as to his future crimes — into one of Batman’s more popular villains.

And Gorshin is good here — this is not a series which deals in gritty realism, but Gorshin’s Riddler is quite scarily deranged, and a wonderful physical performance, leaping and contorting himself constantly. It’s not a realistic performance — very far from it — but it’s a convincing one.

Molly
The Riddler’s henchwoman, played by future Bond girl Jill St. John, is a master of disguise, able to make herself look (but not sound) exactly like Robin. Unfortunately she meets her comeuppance when, too scared to grab onto Batman’s hand or Batrope when dangling above a nuclear reactor, she instead plunges to her death.

The Gadgets
For the first time we have a full range of Bat-gadgets in use. We have our first Batarang (here spelled Bat-A-Rang) — a bat-shaped boomerang that can be attached to a rope and used to climb up buildings, and which folds away neatly into Batman’s utility belt; a mini oxyacetylene torch used to cut bars away from a barred window; a Bat-hook (a metal hook in the shape of a batwing, attached to a sucker) on which said bars are hung; smoke bombs; batcuffs; the Batscope (a device in the Batmobile used to spy on the inside of a nightclub); a “hidden Bat la-sar beam” used to destroy the firing pin on a revolver; a “universal drug antidote”; a Bat-gauge, used for taking measurements; and a laser gun (which may or may not be the same as the Bat laser beam).

This is Batman in the James Bond mould, with a gadget for every eventuality.

The Batmobile
At last they have one — and it is in many ways the most memorable of all the Batmobiles. Based on a futuristic concept car created by Lincoln in 1955 but never put into production, for the first time Batman is driving something unique and different from anything else on the road, and easily the best bit of production design in the series.

It has a mobile crime computer connected to the computer in the Batcave, a Batscope, and fireworks in the exhaust which go off when the Riddler tries to steal it.

Gotham City
Looking more like a Hollywood TV soundstage than LA now, though the shots of the countryside near Gotham show that it’s still clearly somewhere in California. Gotham has an underground subway train system, and all its police appear to be Irish. It also has “A-Go-Go” bars in the style of the popular LA club the Whisky A-Go-Go.

What’s New?

In some ways nothing; other than Chief O’Hara, who here doesn’t have much to do, almost everything here is from the comic. In other ways, though, everything — this was the series that defined Batman for a generation, and without which it may well be the case that the character would have faded into obscurity decades ago.

Review
“Foolish girl, you were so intent on your murderous scheme, you failed to notice in the Batmobile I burned off your revolver’s firing pin with a hidden Bat-laser beam”.

Much of what we’ll have to say about this story will be stuff that will show up again and again during the sixty-six stories in this series, and much of the analysis will wait until further episodes, but it’s worth noting that at this stage the show is not quite the camp buffoonery that fan lore makes it out to be.

The Batman TV series was conceived as a piece of pop-art camp, though also as a big commercial moneymaker (there was a huge controversy when it first aired as ABC expanded the commercial breaks from the normal three commercials to four), and it’s clearly made with its tongue very much in its cheek, but here at least it’s not quite at the Austin Powers level people remember it as.

Rather, it’s carefully straddling a line between, on the one side, outright comedy series like Get Smart, and on the other, witty, knowing action adventure stories like The Avengers and the James Bond films, none of which took themselves too seriously, but which winked at the audience while still trying to tell an action story.

This is clearly inspired by the 1940s serials, especially the first serial — William Dozier’s narration could be straight from the 1943 story, and the cliffhangers are on a similar level — but seen through twenty years’ more sophistication. The 1966 Batman, at its best, was on a level with, say, the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who, but with its camp value coming from the fact that its absurdities were played deadly seriously. As the series went on, it became more than a little repetitious, but here, when the series is starting out, we can see exactly why it was so popular — this is something with more energy, wit, and invention than almost anything on TV at the time.

In future essays we will look at some of the influences that went into this series — the Bond films, Roy Lichtenstein, the “new look” Batman comics, the LA music scene, the 1950s Superman TV series, Marvel comics — in more detail, but for now we can say that this opening story, intended to be the pilot episode, captures the 1966 zeitgeist as well as The Monkees. This may not be the serious, broody, Dark Knight beloved of Batfans, but it’s damn good TV.

Personnel
Cast

Adam West: Batman
Burt Ward: Robin
Frank Gorshin: The Riddler
Jill St. John: Molly
Alan Napier: Alfred
Neil Hamilton: Commissioner Gordon
William Dozier: Narrator

Crew
William Dozier: Executive Producer/Creator
Lorenzo Semple, Jr :Writer
Robert Butler: Director

[These are being published several weeks in advance on my Patreon, where I've just posted the fourth Batman 66 TV series post, which will not appear here until the new year. If you want to find out what I think about Mr. Freeze's diamond-based crimes, sign up to support my writing at $1 per month or whatever you can afford. If you can't afford anything or don't like the idea of me having money, they'll all turn up here for free eventually anyway.]

11 Responses to “Batman On Screen: Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack In The Middle”

  1. Zakaria Says:

    He really is a malleable thing that Bat-Man.

    Just looking back to 2011, what a year. Morrison was going full pop-art/spy-fi with his original Batman Inc run and at the same time Scott Snyder (pre-reboot) was writing noir/crime Batman in Detective Comics with art by Francesco Francavilla.

    One was surreal, optimistic adventure and the other was naturalistic, dark horror. Both came out at the same time, both were well written and both were distinctly Batman. The same main-universe Batman even.

    I do wonder if there’s room for the Technicolor Batman(iac) outside the comics any more. There was that very well crafted cartoon (Batman Brave and The Bold) but I wonder if there could ever be a “winking at the audiences”, “heightened reality” Batman on TV and a more sombre one on the big screen?

    Ah yes, we are getting greedy aren’t we.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    How did you see this? I’ve not found a way to buy episodes of the Adam West series without getting a complete DVD box-set of all 120 episodes — which may be a few more than I need.

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Mike, I’m afraid I saw it naughtily and illegally, as anyone had to until the beginning of last month when the series was finally released on DVD and BluRay. I will, however, be getting the series now it’s out.

    Zakaria — I think if anything it would work better the other way, with a TV series doing dark and brooding, and the big screen kept for flashy Technicolor pop-art…

  4. Matthew Craig Says:

    Mike, Blinkbox has it by series (well, series 2 is split into two, each of which is as big on its own as s1 and 3), and it’s quite heavily discounted at £15 a pop (Arrow is £9 per, fwiw). I’d be surprised if one or more of the streaming services haven’t got it now, or won’t have it soon.

    Alan Napier is the original Brummie superhero. Defining combination of quiet compassion and even temper.

    Loeb and Sale put a more bullish O’Hara in one of their smoky Bat-tales.

    //\Oo/\\

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Matthew, thanks for the pointer.

    BTW., for some reason this post doesn’t show up under
    http://mindlessones.com/tag/batman/

  6. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Thanks Mike, fixed

  7. Zakaria Says:

    @Andrew

    You are so very right as far as content/medium pairing goes. Big screen is made for pop and flash, serialized content is where we get our:
    “It’s Gotham, Gentlemen. The Gods Will Not Save You”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNLKG_XIqMk

    I think that’s apparent with the TV-revolution post Sopranos/Peaks. You can only go so deep in 120 minutes.
    Whereas TV allows you to excavate a mine.

    This is also why it annoys me when some people complain about modern cinema going for the common denominators and spectacle.
    Well of course they are!

    Why would you go to a giant screen to watch a well written drama in the first place? You know it will soon be available to you at home to properly take in, without a man coughing behind you. TECHNOLOGY!

    The studios know this and are betting on spectacle. Spectacle is of course expensive so to make it’s money back it has to appeal to as many people as possible.

    I see no problem in this division of labour between the big screen and the small screen.

    (Cinema has gotten “simpler” but audiences haven’t gotten dumber. Computers have simply gotten smarter and we now get flash at the cinema and content at home.)

    But bringing it back to Batman. While the small screen would work better with the Dark Knight and the big screen could better hold a Caped Crusader.. do you think the big-screen audience would want anything other than the Dark Knight?

    It seems one version is more popular. So while it would fit better content wise. I think it would be almost impossible to do light for the big screen and dark for the small. Whereas I could imagine a more or less camp cult TV show (It’s been done) and a dark blockbuster epic (I seem to recall having seen that as well) ..

    That was a lot more words than I was initially going for.

  8. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I think a flashy, fun, screen Batman could work. What people liked about the Nolan films was that they — at least the first two — were good films, not that they were dark. Other than those, in general, the superhero films that have had any kind of success have been things like Iron Man, Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, while even something like Captain America 2, by far the “darkest” of the recent Marvel films, is infinitely more optimistic and bright than any film with a DC character since the Clooney Batman.

  9. Zakaria Says:

    You’ve convinced me. Now tell Snyder to put down TDKR and pick up a Morrison Bat&Rob TPB.

    If Affleck is playing a more mature Batman, perhaps they should retire him in the JL films. Shake it up with a flying Batmobile, Dick-Bats and Damian for the solo Bat flicks. That would distance it from Nolan.
    Good excuse for a more manic-pop aesthetic as well.

    Eh, eh?!

    I’ll be over here daydreaming…

  10. Tilt Araiza Says:

    I think Napier’s taking a different tack from Austin. Austin is the standard silly servant of 30s and 40s movies, Napier is Jeeves with less meddling in the life of the BW that employs him.

    I’d love to see some Batman story about the slide of Gotham from noir to pop-art and just how horrible it would be to go through. Jim Gordon has a nervous breakdown as the old certainties became overtaken with pink gas and giant props.

  11. Zakaria Says:

    @Tilt Araiza

    “old certainties became overtaken with pink gas and giant props”.

    I can dig it.

    Maybe it was Vladislav Surkov who fell into the vat wearing a tuxedo and a red helmet/hood.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od4MWs7qTr8

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