Monthly Archives: June 2015

Batman 1.11 – A Riddle a Day Keeps the Riddler Away

Let’s get one thing out of the way to begin, shall we? Frank Gorshin is just plain bugnuts as the Riddler. He genuinely seems completely unhinged and incredibly dangerous. No wonder he worries Daniel so much.

Knowing that Daniel’s most hated foe would be returning in this story, I made a special trip to the neighborhood Dairy Queen and got him a green slushie drink, and told him that would be his reward for making it through the story. He balled up his fists when Gordon and O’Hara started talking about the Riddler, and climbed in Mommy’s lap and blew raspberries pretty much the entire time that Gorshin was on screen.

From what we could make out over Daniel’s sound effects, this is a heck of a good story, with the Riddler playing insanely high stakes – kidnapping a visiting king! – just to get Batman and Robin in a trap. I don’t think that they ever really played much with the chess theme beyond this episode, but Batman and Riddler are playing chess, with King Boris demoted to a pawn, via a great line: “The better the bait, the shorter the wait.”

The end of part one features the very first planned “deathtrap” in the series: Batman and Robin strapped to giant wheels in an obsolete power plant, about to be spun to death as the turbines build speed. This obviously had a huge effect on me: I spent years strapping my Mego superhero dolls with rubber bands to whatever great big wheels I could find.

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.6 – The Golden Key

“The Golden Key” is the first appearance of a regular Krofft trope: the hero, trying to escape, is given every opportunity to do so, but gets delayed by a plot complication and the villain, solves the problem, and then gives up on that opportunity. This is really weird. The first episode of Lidsville has exactly the same construction, and so do a couple of other Krofft shows, and all the lousy 1970s cartoons from Hanna-Barbera and the like that riffed on Krofft plots did the same thing.

This time, Ludicrous Lion sells them a map off the island for ten buttons. The map leads them to three parts of a key, which act as a compass to a golden door. But they stop using the key when they find a sign that Witchiepoo has altered to point to her dungeon delivery door instead. After escaping and leaving Witchiepoo and the “gruesome twosome” locked in her own dungeon, they all go back to town, the episode finished, and this way off the island forgotten.

This is the first episode that attempts to give some scale to Living Island’s enormous size, and try as they might, they just can’t pull it off. All of the costumes and the sets for interior places simply ate up all the budget, so all of the Living Island exteriors are simply the same “bright outside floor” dressed with different two-dimensional cut-out trees and plants, and different little dumps of moss or something.

Earlier episodes established that the witch’s patch of the island is lit more darkly, but the Evil Trees and the talking mushrooms always seem to be in the same place. For suspension of disbelief, I’m willing to pretend that the same slightly redressed “sunny day” floor is intended to be lots of different areas, but come on, there’s only so many times you can interact with a cigar-chomping mushroom who cannot actually move around and who speaks with a Jimmy Cagney voice before you say “I’m in the same place, the witch’s castle is a hundred feet from here.”

Speaking of the witch, Daniel is firmly no longer frightened or unnerved by Witchiepoo, and looks forward to seeing how she gets her comeuppance each time. Whew! I never thought she was going to scare him in the first place!

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Thunderbirds 1.5 – The Uninvited

The first ten or eleven episodes of Thunderbirds seem to have been produced haphazardly, with none of the orderly flow of information and background that programs of the present day have. The fifth episode is the first one where we see Grandma Tracy, for exactly one shot, after she was mentioned for the first time in the previous episode.

But that’s very like TV of its day, which was often made with the understanding that, once it was syndicated, it would mean that an independent TV station would get 32 films and their technicians did not want to be burdened with running them in any particular order. Thank heaven times changed, but it does mean that, five episodes in*, we still haven’t seen Thunderbird 4 outside the title sequence, and we haven’t seen Lady Penelope and Parker since the pilot, and we don’t even know the name of the bad guy, who we last saw recovering from the wreckage where he was left for dead.

I thought, wrongly, that we were about due for that bad guy – who’s called The Hood – by now, so I reminded Daniel of him before we sat down to watch “The Uninvited.” Remembering the film unspooling from his hat-camera, he said “Yeah, all that rope twirled out!” I thought that I’d remind him how International Rescue doesn’t let their vehicles be photographed, and told him that in the 1960s, cameras were much less common than they are today, and they used that film to make pictures. I said I thought it was silly that they didn’t let pictures be taken, and Daniel agreed: “Thunderbirds is about rescuing planes and spaceships! Not cameras!”

He also said that he likes Thunderbirds best of these three shows, because there isn’t a bad guy. “But we just talked about the bad guy whose car Lady Penelope and Parker shot. “Oh, yeah, him,” he said. Then we sat down to watch a story with more bad guys. Some unnamed terrorist group in fancy costumes have built a huge underground factory and jerry-rigged a pyramid that archaeologists have been trying to find for decades into a combination access point and missile-launcher.

You accept that the villains in childrens’ entertainment do dumb and illogical things, but really, choosing a secret headquarters underneath the one place that every scientist in the Middle East and North Africa wants to find was a bit stupid of them.

It’s a really good, action-packed episode, with great big explosions and gunfights. The bad guys all seem to be blown to smithereens at the end, so I don’t believe we’ll see them again in the show… but whatever happened to The Hood, anyway?

*Assuming you’re watching them in production order like these A&E DVDs are packaged. Some episode guides list the stories in the first transmission order used by the ATV Midlands region, but A&E (and we) use the production order, as established by Chris Bentley in his 2001 book The Complete Gerry Anderson: The Authorised Episode Guide.

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Batman 1.10 – A Death Worse Than Fate

To get the lingering question out of the way, yes, part two of this story was every bit as good as I hoped. It’s a great story.

This is the last that we’ll see of Zelda, the first one-and-done Batvillain, but not the last that we’ll see of Anne Baxter. The actress, who coincidentally enough appeared with the previous villain in the show, George Sanders, in the classic 1950 film All About Eve, will return in season three as a different baddie. But Baxter’s role in this story ended up having long-term ramifications for the comic books. I have long believed that “Zelda the Great” was the impetus for the creation of one of Batman’s best-known and popular villains, Poison Ivy.

Don’t believe me? Consider: as with the previous four stories, this is an adaptation of a recently-available comic book adventure, this one Detective Comics #346. Like the issue of Batman that contained the reprints that inspired the previous two stories, it had a December 1965 cover date, and was on newsstands when the show went into production in September-October.

“Batman’s Inescapable Doom-Trap” had many of the elements of “Zelda the Great”/”A Death Worse Than Fate,” including the money-hungry Eivol Ekdol, but the principal baddie is different. In the comic, the stage magician is a fellow called Carnado. The TV producers in Los Angeles knew what the comic book people in New York hadn’t figured out: audiences wanted female foils for Batman, and the only one in the comics was Catwoman, and even she had apparently not been seen in a new story since 1954.

(In fact, we may be darn lucky that the December 1965 issue of Batman also contained a reprint of a Catwoman story along with its Joker and Mr. Zero/Mr. Freeze reprints, otherwise the show’s producers might not have even known the character existed!)

Say what you will about the people at DC/National, once this show started and Batman became an overnight pop sensation, they got on board really quickly, dusting off unused characters from the rogues’ gallery – like Catwoman, who started regularly appearing throughout many superhero books in 1966 – and creating new characters who were not too far out and weird and who could very easily be adapted for television*. One of these was Blockbuster – I can imagine the actor Ted Cassidy playing him – and another, in June 1966’s Batman #181 and August’s #183, was Poison Ivy, the first new female villain in the comics in years. And yes, the comic book people were certainly responding to the TV show; the cover of #183 shows Batman sitting down to watch the latest episode of his TV series.

Pretty much everything you know about Poison Ivy – mad botanist Pamela Isley, crazy about plants, sometimes has green skin, hates people, immune to toxins, hangs out with Harley Quinn – came years after her original appearances. The first version of Poison Ivy is a va-va-voom girl who takes that name because she gets under men’s skin, an itch they can’t scratch. According to Wikipedia, her creator, Robert Kanigher, was inspired by Bettie Page, but I read her as Tina Louise. She could have been adapted for the TV show with no change whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Both issues are reprinted in black-and-white in Showcase Presents: Batman, Vol. 2, and the first one, in color, in Batman: In the Sixties. Check ’em out.

So if the comic book people made this character to be used on TV, why didn’t she ever appear? Simple: once Julie Newmar knocked every straight male in America over as Catwoman, and the Bat-Cat flirtation became a regular part of season two, there simply was no need for Poison Ivy and her identical “tempt Batman to be bad” relationship. After Newmar, you couldn’t introduce a character with exactly the same “bad girl” shtick to the TV show, and, in 1966, that’s all that Poison Ivy was. Any TV story with her would have been just a second-rate Catwoman imitation.

Although… in some parallel universe… there’s a world where Julie Newmar and Tina Louise teamed up for a story that everybody remembers… Ahem. Anyway, that’s my hypothesis. Recasting Carnado as a woman was the wake-up call that the comic book people needed. Without Anne Baxter, there never would have been a Poison Ivy.

*Of course, there was also the Outsider, who certainly WAS too weird for TV, but that’s a story even further out in the wild for this blog.

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Batman 1.9 – Zelda the Great

Holy anna! This episode is fantastic! I hope part two’s as good.

I genuinely remember disliking this story as a kid, because, clearly, it doesn’t have a comic book Batman villain in it. And, as I intend to report in the second post for this story, that’s actually really notable, for an interesting reason or two. There is one really neat visual element that I do remember from my childhood, and more about that in a minute.

The thing that makes part one so interesting? Batman has no idea who the villain is. As much as we like the Batman formula, this thumbs its nose at it. Batman and Robin are totally stumped as to who steals $100,000 every April 1, and when they discover fibers from women’s clothing on the bullet deflected by what they thought was a bulletproof vest at the crime scene, they’re really surprised, because Catwoman, the only known female criminal is “up the river.” That’s an interesting thing to note; Catwoman wouldn’t appear in the show for another five weeks.

From there, Batman is attempting to trap an unknown foe, who runs rings around him. You know, it’s possible that I also did not enjoy this episode as a kid because it’s almost cerebral compared to a usual Bat-adventure, with no fight scenes but lots of discussion of traps and fiber and counterfeit money, and the surprising motive – Zelda, a stage magician played by Anne Baxter, has to pay a fellow called Eivol Ekdol $100,000 every year to keep building her latest magic crafts. Since Batman, and the local paper, convince Ekdol that the money she stole this year was phony, she has to come up with another 100 grand, leading her to abduct Aunt Harriet and hold her for ransom…

So this cliffhanger, this is why I remembered this story as a kid even as so many other details of the series faded. Watching the repeats around 1976-77 on WGNX-46, I was right at the age where I understood that the fiction was performed by actors, a point that’s going to come very vital in a few stories’ time. I did not, however, understand “stunt doubles” or “dummies” or things like that. I distinctly remember thinking about this cliffhanger and, for years, understanding that was really Madge Blake hung up over the vat of boiling oil. A few years later, when I caught some repeats at the age where I didn’t like this show, I remember yelling and hollering with my friend Blake, who also didn’t like it, how we wished the interfering busybody Aunt Harriet would have been dumped in the oil because she was “stupid.” I think that she also reminded Blake of his mother, with whom he never got along, too…

A couple of weeks ago, boiling oil factored into a frightening moment in H.R. Pufnstuf, but Daniel wasn’t really rocked by this moment, or much of the story, really. Like his old man decades ago, he honestly was not taken by this episode, although he was baffled why Alfred suggested that he might vacuum the Batcave while the heroes were out. He informed us that the Batcave is supposed to be messy and dirty, and that Batman likes it that way.

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.5 – Box Kite Caper

Not much to say about this story, except to note how remarkable it is that they even attempted the big aerial duel between Jimmy and Freddy, floating on a box kite, and Witchiepoo and her gang, on her Vroom Broom. Every episode of the series was written by Lennie Weinrib and Paul Harrison, and they must have been supremely confident of director Hollingsworth Morse’s ability to actually convey what’s happening when both Jack Wild, on one stationary prop, and Billie Hayes, Joy Campbell, and Angelo Rossitto, on another stationary prop, have to act as though they’re moving around each other. They’re filmed separately, with only camera angles suggesting movement.

Sure, it’s primitive and phony, but what a lot of moxie to know how very limited the resources at Paramount Gulf + Western Studios were in 1969 and to say “We can do this.”

Daniel has mostly gotten over his fear of Witchiepoo. He’s realized that she loses, hilariously, every time, but he was still pretty restless tonight. We may try watching the next thing before dinner if possible, before it gets too late for him.

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Thunderbirds 1.4 – Sun Probe

Because Daniel is spectacularly impatient, he’s been wondering since episode one when we’ll see Thunderbirds 3 and 4 in action. After an agonizingly long introduction – we’d rather have had some character development, you know, more of Alan flirting with Tin-Tin instead of the hours-long testing of all the thrusters and gadgets on the Sun Probe rocket, thanks – we finally get moving and into a really, really convoluted scenario. Sun Probe needs a powerful radio beam to switch on its retro rockets. Thunderbird 3 can get much closer to Sun Probe, and has to, because it has a very weak signal. Thunderbird 2 has an incredibly powerful transmitter but only has a chance of reaching the ship from a remote peak of the Himalayas.

So Thunderbird 3 fires the Sun Probe’s retro rockets, but loses power to its own, so Virgil and Brains, in Thunderbird 2, have to redirect their own beam and rescue their friends. Daniel thought this was incredibly exciting, but, in that charming way that the program spectacularly failed to predict the future, it prompted lots of eye-rolling from the grown-ups. In the Himalayas, Brains has brought along a robot called Braman which he hopes to program to beat a human at chess. (In 2065.) Since Braman can act as an auxiliary computer, he can feed it the most remarkable line of gobbledygook and redirect their radio beam:

“Calculate the following equation: What is the square root, to the power of 29, of the trigonometric amplitude of 87 divided by the quantitative hydraxis of 956 to the power of 77?”

The answer, of course, is 45,969. Well, obviously.

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Batman 1.8 – Rats Like Cheese

I want to come back to this idea a few stories down the line, when something specific angered me as a middle schooler – there is nobody easier to anger than a middle schooler – but I’ve long believed that most people go “off” Batman between about the ages of 10 and 16, when it doesn’t make sense to them. After all, nobody takes themselves as seriously as a kid between the ages of 10 and 16.

But the Batman that I watched before I hit that serious, stupid age did stick with me, in the bizarre images that we used to get in the late afternoons on WGNX-46 in Atlanta. There’s a thunderous one in the next episode, but Mr. Freeze’s “hot path” is a real corker. Dr. Schimmel is forced to live in temperatures of fifty degrees below zero, but he’s rigged his house with a path controlled by a series of buttons that create areas of 76 degrees so that other people can interact with him.

The special effects are primitive, but they’re also incredibly effective. By mixing action in a mostly blue-lit set with “icy smoke” overlays, and shooting parts of the same set with red lights, and using clunky animation to change the size and shape of the path, it works tremendously well. I remember playing superheroes with my kid brother in villainous lairs just like this for years, with parts of various rooms that nobody could enter because the air was freezing, or acidic, or the floor was turning to lava, or whatever kids want to come up with. The show absolutely fired up our imaginations, and there’s nothing better for children.

And from the cold – sorry – the cold light of adulthood, this is still a fantastic episode. Sanders doesn’t go over the top with mania and self-awareness, as many – way too many – of the later bad guys would, taking their cues from Gorshin, Meredith, and Romero. While they were making the episodes but before any of them actually aired, there was a tiny window where the guest villains had the chance to play their roles in a wider variety of styles, as I believe we’ll also see next time. Sanders is sympathetic, ruthless, and intelligent in a style that is totally at odds with the stereotype of the show. The character doesn’t even leave his hideout in this episode, and the spacesuit seen in part one isn’t used. Sure, Sanders is playing in a kiddie show and he knows it, but he plays it straight, and the result is really fantastic.

Watching this story and knowing how much repetition would later set in, it really kind of breaks your heart. Batman is great, but if it could have been this unique every week, it could have been much, much greater.

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