Since this is one of the most eagerly anticipated TV-on-DVD releases in the history of the format, I'll say right off the bat (please consider that awful pun an homage) that Warner Home Video delivers with Season 1 of the 1966 Batman series! It gives us what we've never had: All 34 uncut episodes in great quality. Nearly 50 years after its debut, the program holds up as lively entertainment and dazzling eye candy. When this set arrived, I loaded the first disc just to do a quick check of how it looked, but I couldn't resist watching a whole two-parter.
After years of rumors, reports of legal battles, and patient (and impatient) waiting from fans and collectors it's finally here! Almost a decade after the run of The Adventures of Superman ended,DC Comics' next most iconic character came to ABC for another half-hour superhero show, albeit one with a different approach. In fact, the result didn't resemble anything else on television. It was ABC that brought in 20th Century Fox, it was 20th Century Fox that brought in producer William Dozier, and it was the combination of so many vested interest parties that made Batman impossible to find on home video for all these years.
Here's what you get in this collection, and to me it's the most important thing: Excellent-looking transfers of all first-season episodes, clocking in at just over 25 minutes, and as far as I know, presented in original broadcast form. There is none of the editing and/or time compression that so often plagued the reruns.
Many would argue that this set represents the show's creative peak. Batman was a huge phenomenon, spawning massive merchandising efforts and becoming a genuine pop culture craze. However, by the third season, the strain of creating scores of episodes was showing and budgetary and creative issues made it harder to sustain the excitement. Season 1 is a little tighter, fresher, and...well, the word realistic is a bit much for a program that has its titular superhero dance in a go-go club with Jill St. John in the premiere episode, but this initial year is its least self-conscious. Yet from the very beginning we see all the iconic elements that make Batman so memorable 5 decades later. Let's break down some of those attributes and how they stand out in the first season:
The overall tone: Batman is often described as 'camp,' but that's a loaded word. The show is certainly tongue in cheek, and many fans of the character long resented its apparent mockery of, if not contempt for, its source material and for influencing the mainstream media's perception of comics. I went through a similar phase in my teen years before realizing I had no problem letting all the different incarnations of Batman coexist. This particular version is ridiculous, but it's also fun.
The 1966 TV version tips its hand early in its pilot episode, 'Hi Diddle Riddle.' Batman and Robin are preparing to enter a building in search of the fiendish Riddler. They're about to scale a wall when suddenly the big red phone in the Batmobile rings. The Caped Crusader stops, walks over to the phone, and casually answers, 'Batman speaking,' only to be taken aback upon hearing a recording of Riddler laughing and talking trash. To me, everything about that scenario is hilarious, and viewers' reaction to it is probably a good signal of whether or not they will embrace the tone. Later on, the aforementioned go-go dancing scene and the sight of an inebriated Batman slumped over the steering wheel slurring, 'Got to find Robin,' aren't bad indicators, either!
Robin offers all kind of goofy exclamations like 'Holy explosions!' Characters break the fourth wall and address the camera. Seemingly every object imaginable is potentially named a 'Bat-' something or other. The fight scenes are stylized with sound effects that actually show up on screen in big letters, words like 'POW,' 'KABOOM,' and even 'ZLOPP.' It's all punctuated with puns and deadpan humor, but the action still works. Sure, there's a little too much air showing in some of the punches, and maybe the stunt doubles are obvious at times, but the wild brawls in each episode are well staged, and at least you can see what's happening.
The structure: Season 1 has 17 stories consisting of two half-hour installments each, originally airing Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 P.M. Each Wednesday Batman and/or Robin (sometimes a civilian) ended up in some kind of deadly trap laid by the guest villain, leaving viewers waiting for the resolution the next night. It's great to be able to see part two right away on DVD. Over the years, many stations have aired reruns back-to-back, but I remember in my youth having to wait until the next day!
William Dozier's narration is a constant but not overbearing presence. Its boldness really serves the cliffhanger style well. Dozier implores us to tune in tomorrow, same time, same channel, to see what happens. Then in the following episode, he offers a recap, accompanied by highlights including dramatic freeze frames. I don't care if it was meant to be mocking in 1966; it won me over when I was a kid, and years later it's still an essential part of the package.
The style: Part of what made the show so distinctive in 1966 was its look. Each episode begins with a title card proudly proclaiming it is 'IN COLOR,' and the bright colors must have sold a lot of new television sets. This release does justice to the impressive visuals, displaying the bold costumes, logos, and makeup in all their glory. It's safe to say that considering the relative quality of televisions in the 1960s, we've never seen this series look this good. It's cliche to point out how Cesar Romero as The Joker didn't bother to shave his mustache for the role, but you can really see it on this DVD. Less obvious are the relative shades of makeup on the 'regular folks.' You can't help but notice how close Bruce Wayne's shave is on a given day.
Another standout element of Batman is the frequent use of tilted camera angles, often in fight scenes but sometimes just because. Then there are the wall-scaling scenes that tilt the camera 90 degrees to make it look as if the Dynamic Duo are walking vertically using their Bat-ropes (The famous window cameos, in which a celebrity would peek out and say hello to the heroes, were mostly a season 2 staple, but you do see Jerry Lewis in 'The Bookworm Turns').
It's also a pleasure to soak in the set designs on these discs. It's fun to look for details in the villains' secret hideouts or even in whatever ballroom or bank is going to be the site of a heist. The real star, naturally, is the Batcave, which may be the all-time best television series interior. It has everything: elaborate computers, Batpoles, a big Lucite map of Gotham City...Somehow it never looks as damp and cold as you'd expect it to be, maybe because loyal butler Alfred is always there to do upkeep. He even expresses relief that the guys are heading out on assignment because it gives him a chance to run the vacuum cleaner. Plus the Batcave has a nifty 'atomic pile,' the power source for the Batmobile. This alone gives the place a 'wow' factor, although I don't think I'd be as chipper as Alfred is when he's dusting around it.
The Batmobile: Speaking of the wheels, I have never been a 'car guy,' but even I love the Batmobile. Besides the endless array of gadgets and weapons, it flat-out looks cool. There's nothing like seeing it zoom out of the Batcave heading those fourteen miles to Gotham City.
The music: If the cold openings with the bad guys' dastardly deeds don't pull you in, then Neal Hefti's classic theme song will. The only real lyric is 'Batman,' not counting a bunch of 'Na Na Na Na's,' but that's all you need. The intro, with the cartoon renderings of Batman and Robin and the energetic tune, is one of the best. The incidental music and underscore on the series, credited to Nelson Riddle, is also effective. The collection's mono audio presentation isn't spectacular, but it sounds fine on my decidedly non-high-end setup. In addition to the music, the dialogue is crisp, and all those punches connect loud and clear.
The villains: The show was built around the special guest villains, and this first season includes the cream of the crop. What stands out as you look at these 34 episodes / 17 storylines is how often they repeated the big guns. Frank Gorshin is a particular delight as the cackling Riddler, and he has four stints in this set. The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and The Joker (Romero) have three storylines each, so if you take out the big three, that leaves only seven other villains of the week: Mr. Freeze (George Sanders), Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter), Catwoman (Julie Newmar), The Mad Hatter (David Wayne), False Face (Malachi Throne, who in the first episode gets my favorite TV on screen credit ever: '? as False Face'), King Tut (Victor Buono), and Bookworm (Roddy McDowell).
Don't get me wrong, I love what Gorshin, Meredith, and Romero bring to the series. I never could get their memorable portrayals out of my mind despite growing up a big Batman comic book reader and seeing the print versions. It's not surprising the producers gave these flamboyant, amusing baddies so much screen time in season 1. However, watching these in batches, I appreciate the odder villains.
A made-for-TV character like Zelda the Great will never make a top 10 of Batman's rogues' gallery, but it's fun to see Anne Baxter in the role. Similarly, the likes of Mad Hatter and King Tut make nice changes of pace in this collection. The False Face story surprises me with its overall quality, and George Sanders' Mr. Freeze is great because he's George Sanders, though his episode has a great gimmick in which effects and colored filters make it look like the 'cold' side of the room is blue and the 'warm' side is red. Julie Newmar's Catwoman is simply the definitive incarnation (Sorry, Eartha Kitt, fans - she doesn't show up until season 3, anyway), and I would gladly have seen her in four storylines.
Other guest stars: In addition to the 'Special Guest Villains,' Batman offers an assortment of other familiar faces in supporting roles: folks like Frankie Darro, Francis X. Bushman, and Dan Seymour. Plus just about every popular starlet of the era turns up on the show sooner or later, often as molls for the main villain. Season 1 offers Sherry Jackson, Nancy Kovack, and Myrna Fahey, among many others.
Last but not least, Batman and Robin themselves: For many fans, those colorful villains upstage the heroes, but I disagree. For me, the funniest moments are often the exchanges between the two heroes or the mundane conversations between Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson at Stately Wayne Manor. Whether he's instructing his ward about the merits of philosophy, botany, or linguistics ('Language is the key to world peace. If we all spoke each others' tongues, perhaps the scourge of war would be ended forever,' he tells Dick when the lad is frustrated by his French studies), Bruce's musings are always a highlight.
The moral lessons Batman/Bruce gives Robin/Dick may have been corny even back in the sixties, but today this righteous, relatively simple, non-gritty Caped Crusader and his vision of Gotham City is refreshing. Consider when he exposes False Face by noticing he must be the villain in disguise because he parked in front of a fire hydrant. For this to work, not only does Batman have to recognize the indiscretion, but he must be confident that the average upright citizen wouldn't commit that indiscretion. Even if such an era never really existed, it's nice to see it on a superhero show you can share with your kids.
Here's what you don't get in this Season 1 collection: bonus features. Warner Home Video limited the inclusion of extras to the Blu-Ray complete series set. A series this culturally significant and so long awaited deserves more than generic menus and no-frills presentation (The optional subtitles in multiple languages, including English, are appreciated, though). This is my only complaint with the set, but it stands out since the fifth disc only contains two episodes and has plenty of room for extras. Perhaps Warner will be more generous with supplemental material in future seasons.
While it's one of the most entertaining programs of its era, Batman isn't a series that lends itself to 'binge watching' as much as some other classic TV shows. The repetition of the villains is noticeable if you plow through the season, but the bigger factor is the reliance on formula. For example, as a child, I loathed the made-for-television Aunt Harriet character. Why didn't Robin just sit down with Batman and tell his poor aunt their secret identities? Now, I appreciate that her presence forces them to come up with inane excuses like bird watching to get away from her each time Commissioner Gordon calls. It's a hilarious running bit, but it happens in virtually every adventure. This and some of the other elements that made the show so distinctive in 1966 may have helped burn it out after a few seasons, and that was when people were only seeing an hour a week.
But maybe a show this good in a presentation this impressive deserves to be savored. Warner Home Video has done right by Bat-fans, finally bringing them a high-quality package of episodes for home ownership. We now await standard DVD releases of the next two seasons, which will bring Batgirl; the famous Green Hornet crossover; many more of those window cameos; and villains like Egghead, Shame, and Siren. Meanwhile, I give a strong recommendation to Batman Season 1, which remains a blast almost 50 years after its sensational premiere.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.