by Drew Kiess
“Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle” is the first two-parter of the Bill Dozier Batman series staring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. Frank Gorshin guest stars as Riddler. The episodes were directed by Robert Butler and written by Lorezon Semple, Jr., and premiered on January 12th and 13th, 1966.
When Gotham’s police force is intimidated by the return of the joyful devil Riddler, they realize they have only one choice: the Caped Crusader, deputy of the law, Batman and his faithful ward Robin must be called into action! Batman and Robin track down their arch enemy, and wrongfully accuse him of a crime. Riddler sues Batman, which threatens Batman’s secret identity- millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.
Frank Gorshin steals this first double-header. We know that Adam West’s earnest performance as Batman is legendary, but Gorshin sets the tone for all the villains in this show with an over-the-top, manic performance. His movements are like a cartoon character and are surprisingly more controlled than Jim Carey’s turn as the Riddler in Batman Forever. Through all the mania, you can see the intelligence on Gorshin’s face. In this world, he is the smartest man in the room. This madness improves the comedy of West’s earnest performance. The whole thing is gloriously ridiculous. In one corner, a deadly serious, deputized crime fighter in a cape and cowl who labels his utility belt so he doesn’t have to memorize the contents, and in the other, the most intelligent, maniacal cartoon character to ever wear flesh.
But Riddler has one weakness- he must prove that he’s the smartest man in the room, and that room must also include the Dynamic Duo. “Crime is no fun unless he’s outwitting us,” Robin observes. Batman and Robin fall into the Riddler’s trap at the “What a Way to Go-Go” discotheque (but not before giving the world the Bat-tutsi dance). Batman manages to escape, but Robin is not so lucky.
Here we have the staple trope of the Dozier Batman series- the dramatic cliff-hanger! Will Robin escape? Tune in tomorrow, same time same channel. Riddler enlists “Molly”, played by Bond-girl Jill St John to impersonate Robin using a rubber mold of his face. When Molly wears the mask, Burt Ward replaces her, meaning Ward is playing St John playing Molly. Ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is that a rubber mask can take someone shaped like Jill St John and turn them into someone shaped like Burt Ward. But the less said about that, the better.
Batman is never fooled, and when Molly realizes her plan was foiled, she attempts to escape by climbing on an atomic pile. Batman attempts to save her, but she falls to her death to the line, “What a terrible way to go-go.” Batman rescues Robin and puts an end to Riddler’s plot for good.
Bizarrely, Batman appears perfectly fine with the potential that Riddler was killed at the end of the episode, and perhaps even disappointed that he didn’t know for sure. That aside, what we see in this episode is an incredibly faithful representation of the Batman character from the 1950s. The 50s were a bad decade for comics, having been put under the Comics Code Authority after Seduction of the Innocent through mud on the industry. What resulted was a nerfed version of the medium that gained popularity during the second world war. That nerfing is what Bill Dozier’s series was satirizing. Understanding the show in that context and recognizing that, yes, it is supposed to be funny, can bring back the enjoyment of a series that many fans of the character’s more dark and brooding tone look sideways at.
Yes, this Gotham looks more like the kind of big city Sheriff Andy Taylor would visit rather than the hell breaking through concrete vision of Tim Burton or the dirty Chicago vibe of the Nolan series. But for viewers of Batman in 1966 who were familiar with the book, this was Batman. Serious enough for kids to be enthralled by, and funny enough for adults to be entertained by. Campiness as serious art.
“Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle” is a strong start. It introduces a classic, core villain, and sets the tone for all the major characters in the series. The pieces are in place for Batmania to begin.
Final Grade: A