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The Twilight Zone 1.8 – Time Enough at Last

Here’s a strange coincidence: in the first eight episodes of the show, The Twilight Zone featured three future Batvillains. Pretty neat little average there.

“Time Enough at Last” is the famous one where Burgess Meredith finds himself with all the time to read all the books that he never can enjoy only to break his glasses in a gloomy little twist. But it’s not a satisfying one. I’d misremembered this completely – I saw this one just once, more than thirty years ago – and thought his finale was a comeuppance. It certainly isn’t. It’s a very mean-spirited little story. Our son hated it – he bellowed “Boring!” at the end – and I didn’t like it much either.

I wondered how in the world his character, the hapless Henry Bemis, could have ever ended up married to somebody who hates books when all that he wants to do is read. Many decades ago, people would get engaged after holding hands at the newsreel, but these two people are miserable. Some folks complain the divorce rate is too high these days. Some folks shouldn’t have married each other in the first place.

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The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978)

I’m a nostalgic and forgiving kind of guy, and so I’m pretty certain that every single thing from my childhood that I loved as a child is something I can look at from the dull light of middle age and see what appealed to me when I was small. Then there’s The Return of Captain Nemo, which ran for three episodes on CBS in 1978. I saw the first two installments and loved that show like you wouldn’t believe.

This morning, we watched The Amazing Captain Nemo, a compilation movie made from the three TV episodes, whittled down from about 150 to 105 minutes. If I didn’t have my six year-old son hopping with excitement from the laser gun fights, underwater action, and explosions, I would have wandered away from this turkey to go play mublety-peg or something. I’d say that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve watched for this blog, were it not for the unfortunate reality that I know what we’re watching next week.

The Return of Captain Nemo seems to have come about because CBS was very much aware of bandwagons, but they were too timid to actually jump on any of them. In the spring of 1977, NBC showed a series of TV movies called Man From Atlantis. They starred Patrick Duffy as a comic book-type hero, with a former Batvillain, Victor Buono, as a recurring enemy. These were so successful that NBC ordered a weekly series, and CBS and Warner Brothers followed suit with an idea for a clone, even casting another former Batvillain, Burgess Meredith, as their show’s baddie. Captain Nemo was in the public domain, and while Irwin Allen had left weekly TV production behind for big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, he knew how to make bottom-of-the-sea television without a lot of money, so they asked him to produce it.

Then Star Wars happened. Suddenly Burgess Meredith got an alien robot henchman and a lot of golden androids. The important rooms of his submarine, the Raven, got turned into black-curtained “limbo” sets like everywhere in the third season of Batman so the set designer could spend money making all the corridors into Death Star hallways to stage laser gun shootouts.

Then Man From Atlantis died as a weekly series. CBS decided that they maybe only wanted three episodes, and called it a pilot mini-series. The mini-series flopped, and Irwin Allen and Warner Brothers got to make a little money back by turning the three hours into a film version, cropping the 4:3 picture into widescreen. The three-part version has apparently never been screened anywhere since an April 1981 broadcast in the UK; the film is the only way to see it. Only Irwin Allen completists need bother.

I’m assuming some of the intricacies must have been lost in the editing, because the speed with which the kind and patient Nemo works out a deal with naval intelligence to be their go-to man to battle the evil Professor Cunningham is really the most amazing thing about this movie. We never learn anything about Cunningham’s alien buddies or weird technology, Lynda Day George is present only because if she wasn’t, there would not be a single female character in this movie at all, and Atlantis itself is treated as a mild curiosity and depicted with a no-budget-at-all white set with two Greek columns. All of the dialogue is hilariously macho – “I’m going alone,” “no time for explanations,” etc. – and the two action man leads, played by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, look like they were cast because there weren’t any cop shows that needed them that month.

But holy anna, our six year-old loved it. He was hopping up and down and shouted “This is AMAZING!” at one point. He liked the underwater gunfights so much that he’ll probably pass out when he sees Thunderball one of these days. He did creep behind the sofa at one point when Captain Nemo was captured and Cunningham uses one of those mind probes you see in sci-fi shows to get the equations and blueprints for the Nautilus and its laser(!) from his brain. We’ve seen Captain Nemo in four films now, and this is the most ridiculous thing to happen to him in any of them.

And it was always thus. In the seventies, my parents were good friends with a fellow named J.D. Faulkner, who always confused me by being unmarried. My folks knew nine thousand people and I swear J.D. was the only bachelor among them. He always arrived unannounced, and one terrible Wednesday – March 22, 1978 – he showed up raving about this restaurant in Marietta, insisting that Mom and Dad drop plans and join him there. It is perhaps amazing that I grew up loving food and restaurants as I do after what happened next. This insidious trip to whatever that restaurant was – my parents never admitted its name under interrogation – cost me the third episode of the show, but I guarantee I ruined their meal by whining about it. I started crying because the second part had a cliffhanger ending. I mean, it said on the screen “TO BE CONTINUED,” so that meant my parents were obliged to let me see what happened next.

Somehow, in that strange logic of six year-olds, I concluded that the cost for missing part three of The Return of Captain Nemo was twenty-four dollars. My father agreed to pay it to shut me up, and I ate my spaghetti in silence. It wasn’t even good spaghetti. Mom made better spaghetti than this. Mom made, and continues to make, better spaghetti than anybody else on the planet. I don’t know why I ordered it.

Then my dad refused to pay the twenty-four dollars. Then there wasn’t an episode four of The Return of Captain Nemo. Somehow I didn’t become a serial killer.

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Batman 3.20 – Penguin’s Clean Sweep

This is a phenomenally dopey episode, but at least it’s a fun one. This time, the Penguin contaminates some of the newly-printed money at the Gotham Mint with a sleeping sickness. It’s immediately collected for distribution, and one bank circulates $13,000 in the space of a couple of hours. A panicked populace dumps all their currency in the streets for Penguin, his moll, and two goons to sweep up. But he can’t spend any of it because Bruce Wayne warns all the world’s financiers that Gotham’s money is no good. Somehow they don’t find time in 25 minutes to address the economic upheaval that this might cause and still have time for a fight scene.

Daniel enjoyed this episode, which was the final outing for Burgess Meredith and the Penguin, in part because the heroes are almost not put in any real danger. Batgirl is almost entirely superfluous to the plot this week, but she does get a face full of knockout gas to lead into the commercial break, and that caused him to growl a little. I thought it was all kinds of fun because unlike some of the recent villains – Rudy Vallée, Barbara Rush, and Milton Berle in particular – Meredith was always having a ball on this show, yelling and making threats and running rings around everybody. No, the plot’s just plain dumb, but anybody bored of watching Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is bored of life itself, I say.

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Batman 3.5 – A Horse of Another Color

For what it’s worth, Yvonne Craig really did seem like she was having a ball as Batgirl. If she didn’t enjoy this job, then she was a far, far better actress than anybody credited her. Above, she’s just about to smash one of the Penguin’s goons in the face with the door of a locker.

Ethel Merman wins the unfortunate award as the villain with the least interaction with the heroes. Honestly, apart from telling Batgirl that she can’t go into the men’s locker room, and opening her umbrella in Chief O’Hara’s face, she doesn’t have any lines with any of them. Her principal shtick seems to be, whenever anybody calls her by her name, Lulu Schultz, yelling “I am Senora Lola Lasagne!”

I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for the writer, Charles Hoffman, especially after yet more weary, wacky Batcomputer gags in part one, but this story clearly did not require a female villain at the first draft, and Lola Lasagne’s presence is pretty clearly bolted on. It resulted in some funny exchanges between Meredith and Merman, but she really is completely superfluous to what plot there is, and Hoffman probably had the sense to know not to even bother giving Lola Lasagne a character, since that would require some subtlety and of course Merman was just going to bellow all her lines at the cheap seats.

For what it’s worth, even though the outcome of the horse race is never in doubt at all, our son really got into it and found it tremendously exciting.

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Batman 3.4 – The Sport of Penguins

Somewhere, deep in the darkest archives of Hollywood, there’s a book full of dirt on all the producers and network executives. Within that book’s pages, perhaps we’ll learn what was going on when ABC and William Dozier were thinking when, deciding that they needed to appeal more to young adults, they cast Ethel Merman as the villain in week four, and then followed her up with Milton Berle in week seven. Now look. I’ve loved many of their performances – Berle and Merman actually shared my favorite scene in the brilliant It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World four years before they showed up on Batman – but the last time Ethel Merman and Milton Berle were a draw for young audiences, nobody had any televisions yet.

As always in Penguin episodes, there are chances for Burgess Meredith to run rings around everybody with convoluted logic and fifty-cent words. The best scene in this episode has him conning a horse out of a character played by Horace McMahon, who was Lt. Parker on Naked City, and oddly is uncredited here. Also uncredited is Gary Owens, playing a radio broadcaster. Way to cast against type, guys. Anyway, Meredith runs away with the episode and Ethel Merman gets to yell a lot. There’s a plot here, and it continues next week – without a cliffhanger – but the draw is watching the veteran villains be silly and have fun.

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Batman 3.1 – Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin

The breath of fresh air that Batman badly needed, the incredibly gorgeous and sexy Yvonne Craig comes high-kicking her way into the show in the first of the self-contained episodes. Daniel was thrilled, figuring out that a new superhero had joined the show, and loved her motorcycle. “She is so cool!” he shouted as she drove after the bad guys.

This is actually much better than I remembered it. It’s incredibly zippy, doing the job of introducing Barbara and Batgirl really well and still having a bit of room to breathe. Some of it doesn’t make sense – who the heck built the secret Batgirl base on the eighth floor of a midtown apartment building, and why doesn’t Penguin recognize Alfred, despite having interacted with him at least three times previously – but it doesn’t matter much. It’s just plain fun and it’s always a treat to watch Burgess Meredith yelling at everybody.

What does look troubling is the immediately obvious slashing of the budget. In order to get renewed, ABC and the producers worked out an awkward compromise, cutting the numbers from what they’d pay for a one-hour drama to the cost of a half-hour sitcom. So apart from the new Batgirl theme, the music is all repurposed from earlier episodes (and, apparently, from The Green Hornet), Madge Blake was let go to pay for Yvonne Craig, other speaking parts get dropped except where absolutely necessary, and the set designers were thanked for their trouble. The Penguin’s lair is the first of many stark, minimalist sets, with a black curtain for a background, stairs to nowhere except a solitary door, and random colorful walls. It looks like a blown-up game of Mouse Trap done on a high school stage. Sadly, we’ll see lots more like it before we finish.

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Batman 2.44 – Penguin’s Disastrous End

This deeply odd story finally comes to a ridiculous end in the third part, when we finally learn the Penguin’s billion-dollar plan. Everything has been arranged to get him into a subterranean treasury where $10,000,000 in gold bars await him. There, he, Marsha, and Aunt Hilda all kick back locked in the vault for three days while his finks, using the WW2-era plans that he stole from the military last time, fashion the bars into a solid gold tank.

This is a really amusing visual, and of course, for a kid under the age of ten watching in the 1960s or 1970s who has a small collection of military toys and a stack of back issues of G.I. Combat, tanks are completely unstoppable and the most amazingly awesome things in the universe. So, if you’re under ten, there’s probably some undeniable eye-popping wowness to come from the Penguin’s new toy, which the police instantly label as completely impregnable.

So you’d think it would be a bit of an anti-climax when Robin takes out the tank with a single shot from the Batzooka to its treads, but Daniel was paying complete and total attention and said that was the best part of the whole story. Well, just as long as he’s happy, that’s what matters!

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Batman 2.43 – Penguin Sets a Trend

You know, I found out about the existence of this three-part story about twenty-five, twenty-six years ago. The least it could do is not be so absolutely brainless. It’s occasionally really funny, but it sure is dumb.

I am actually very curious about its production. Batman and Robin spend almost the entire episode trapped by the Penguin, and Marsha and Hilda get just a single short scene. (They’re looking for old toads for one of Hilda’s dopey spells.) Obviously production of this series was a brutal and busy one – thirty hours in about eight months – and any chance to give the stars a day off from shooting one story so they could get ahead somewhere else was one they couldn’t afford to miss.

So Burgess Meredith gets to walk away with everything in this half hour. He’s having a ball, of course, but I couldn’t help but wish the two officers at the “Hexagon” gave him a little more of an acting challenge. It’s a treat watching Meredith do his thing, but he’s more fun to watch when his opponents are not simpletons.

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