Batman: The Filmation Years

As I’ve been looking at Batman: The Brave and the Bold a lot recently, comments have come up about different iterations of the Bat, so I thought I’d look at some of them. Today, Filmation’s takes on them, with an episode from the 1968 Adventures of Batman and two episodes from the 1977 New Adventures of Batman.

How Many Herring in a Wheelbarrow? Parts 1 and 2 (by Bill Keenen)

These two parts comprise the first two thirds of the first episode.

Warning – if you have epilepsy, skip the intro! The logo is set against a background that flashes red and blue, which is a trick Filmation relied on TOO MUCH in their early series.

The Joker raids some technology companies in his Jokermobile to steal plans to create a laser weapon. First problem – the Jokermobile has a giant fist that springs out of the front of the car… well, where’s the engine? Filmation doing things on the cheap is immediately noticeable, with them avoiding animating walking motions where they can so that it looks like people are on roller skates a lot of the time. Add in production errors like Batman missing the symbol off the front of his costume or Robin’s gloves painted a flesh colour instead of green and you get the idea.

However, things move so quickly that you can barely notice. It’s cut, cut, cut, transition, cut, cut, cut, transition, cut. The pace is almost frenetic for a show of its era, with the half hour allotted divided up into three and artificially creating “parts”. The writing is generally fine, if not stellar. The characters have personalities that match and the actors don’t slack. Casey Kasem in particular as Robin is incredibly energetic and gets some funny lines (upon arriving at a burning building: “Holy smoke, Batman!” – it’s obvious, but I laughed).

Olan Soule is a pretty straight Batman while Larry Storch goes for a Joker that sounds about right for the time, a bit like Cesar Romero but not too much. Ted Knight rounds out the cast as a variety of characters, even emulating Neil Hamilton’s Commissioner Gordon. In an anecdote on the commentary for He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword bigwig Lou Scheimer talked about how Knight performed LOTS of characters for their shows without any objection if needed, to the point that CBS executive Fred Silverman said to stop using him the next year. When Scheimer told his friend Ted the bad news he came back and sued them, having kept a list of ALL the characters he’d done as freebies. They settled out of court and brought him back for another show later.

Back to the episode in question, the wheelbarrow of the title relates to the wheelbarrow riddle (look it up, I’d heard of it) as a metaphor for Joker distracting Batman and Robin from what his real plot was. The laser weapon is the one case of where they try to energetically animate it, but it just ends up looking like it’s bouncing up and down on springs. If Filmation scrimped on animation, they were at least good at character designs and backgrounds, except for one case in this episode – Robin out of costume as Dick Grayson looks like he’s eight!

As I said, the fast pace means it’s never boring, even though it’s not particularly challenging to watch either, except for that fit-starting intro.

A Bird Out of Hand (by George Kashdan)

The final third of the episode is rounded out with a segment about the Penguin, who has gone straight, or has he? It’s all part of a plan that doesn’t really develop too far or become too complicated, but of course it is a ruse all along. Penguin jogging along the rooftops of high buildings looks funny, but funnier than that is his henchmen dressed as eagles that make the Gobbledygooker look like the Undertaker by comparison. Do they get extra pay for that? Batman then gets trapped in Penguin’s hideout, which all of a sudden springs tentacles inside that trap him and Robin has to use the Batjet engines to melt the building from the outside to get the tentacles to relax their grip, although Batman isn’t burnt alive inside at the same time. I don’t know what George Kashdan was smoking, but I’ll take a drag.

The Moonman (by Chuck Menville)

To 1977 now. I chose the two episodes from this series to look at on account of their titles. Adam West and Burt Ward have replaced Soule and Kasem by now, but we also have Bat-Mite for our sins. Melendy Britt stands in for Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. The pace has been massively slowed down now for the longer episode, leading to lots of trademark Filmation panning and zooming shots. Run cycles aren’t quite rotoscoped at this point, but they’re more realistic than they were.

A strange, glowing, featureless being steals a moonrock from a museum. At the same time, we’re introduced to Bruce’s old friend Scott Rogers, an astronaut. Are you seeing a connection yet? It’s a little bit Scooby-Doo, with Bat-Mite as the Scrappy-Doo a year before the little dog doo existed. Anyone who wanted to dump on Snarf or Orko should take a look at this guy.

The eponymous Moonman is quite interesting and sufficiently menacing, although better suited to the Spider-Man rogues gallery. Chuck Menville, who was the father of Scott Menville ( the voice of Robin on Teen Titans among other roles), was a good writer, so this episode has a decent plot and script with Batman having to stop his friend.

Bat Message! We even get a pro-social message at the end of the episode about the benefit of talking about your problems, unlike Scott did. So it didn’t start with He-Man!

The Deep Freeze (by Mark Fink)

The ultimate version of Mr. Freeze is the Michael Ansara version from Batman: The Animated Series, but here he’s described IN THE EPISODE as a fourth-rate felon. Hard to argue that, as he’s basically a Germanic-accented buffoon who steals ideas off his underling Professor Frost and gurns. In this episode he hears about a submarine and decides to steal it, using his ice weapons to complicate things.

Much like Batman in Heart of Ice, Robin of course has a cold while having to battle this cold villain. This had me waiting for Alfred to give him a flask of chicken soup. I wasn’t impressed by this episode, which with Freeze’s depiction was giving me Batman and Robin flashbacks. Batman gets a good line at one point (“Freeze, Freeze!”), played as straight as Adam West could do, but instead I was wondering about stuff like why Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD are operating out of the Civic Centre and if the Batcomputer talking so slowly when played by Lou Scheimer (like a stoned Attak Trak from He-Man) was a cost-cutting measure so that they could stretch a dialogue scene out to a minute to save animating anything else.

Well, it was disappointing, but at the same time it wasn’t that boring, so thank goodness for small mercies.

Let’s call it 50/50 overall for Filmation’s efforts towards bringing Batman to the small screen.