"Zelda The Great/A Death Worse Than Fate" (S1/E9 & 10) Author: Chris Clow (Follow @CHRISCLOW)
Date: December 6, 2014
SYNOPSIS PART 1: Zelda, The Great returns to town to steal her yearly stash of money. On her visit she tricks Aunt Harriet into believing that Dick is hurt and lures her into a trap which leaves her suspended over a vat of boiling oil.
PART 2: Bruce Wayne convinces Zelda the money she stole is actually real and Aunt Harriet is returned. A clue leads the Dynamic Duo to Zelda's accomplice, Eivol's lair where they get captured. Zelda informs Batman and Robin about the trap and capture Eivol and his men. Zelda surrenders and is given a reprieve as a magician.
“Zelda The Great/A Death Worse Than Fate” was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and directed by Norman Foster. They were first broadcast on Wednesday, February 9, and Thursday, February 10, 1966, respectively, on the ABC television network.
You could win your fair share of bar bets with the question “Who was the first female lead villain on BATMAN?” The obvious answer would be Julie Newmar’s Catwoman. I suspect you would have your fair share of guesses for Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, Olga, Queen of the Cossacks, and Ma Parker. Of course, if you’re reading this you know the answer is Zelda the Great. That the answer doesn’t leap immediately to mind probably tells you that the episode wasn’t a complete success, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting points about the episode to discuss.
For starters, this is one of the few stories that was adapted straight from the comic books, specifically DETECTIVE COMICS #346 “BATMAN’S INESCAPABLE DOOM-TRAP!” from December 1965. The gist of the comic book story is that a magician is annually stealing $100,000 in order to buy great “death traps” from Eivol Ekdol for his act. The magician and Eivol run afoul of Batman and Robin when Eivol comes up with a trap that he can’t figure out an escape from. They scheme to trap Batman in the device, observe how he escapes, and then plan to machine gun down Batman and Robin.
There’s a certain logic and cleverness to that plot if you buy into the premise which must have made it enticing for a show focusing heavily on the ability of Batman to escape from any trap. Why not have a pair of episodes with a villain trying to use Batman’s escape mastery for their benefit?
DETECTIVE COMICS #346 (December 1965)
The television show follows that plot relatively closely with the major change of substituting Anne Baxter’s Zelda the Great for the male magician of the comic book story. Anne Baxter, a granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, had one of the great resumes of a BATMAN villain with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in THE RAZOR’S EDGE and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role in ALL ABOUT EVE as the titular Eve (with co-star Bette Davis taking home the statue). Not to mention, a big role in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Her star wasn’t on the ascendancy by the mid-sixties, but she was still regarded as a more than capable actress.
Baxter is, of course, fine in the role but the part as written really requires a larger than life personality to really bring the part to life rather than a committed, skilled actress. Zelda is a somewhat reluctant villainess with ordinary goals, basically just to make some money, rather than a larger than life arch-criminal that gets off on putting one over on Batman. Baxter’s good, but it would perhaps have been better to say that “Baxter as Zelda was fun.”
Baxter also bears the weight of being a solo villain without henchmen for Batman and Robin to fight. Ideas that look good on a comic book page, such as Batman pursuing a criminal who vanishes in the blink of an eye happen too quickly and without elaboration in a television show to be really memorable. As a result, there’s lot of procedural filler, perhaps more than any other episodes of the show, while we wait for Batman to confront the supposed inescapable death trap.
Anne Baxter as Zelda The Great in "Zelda The Great/A Death Worse Than Fate"
I’ve dwelled on the negatives on why this two-parter isn’t one of the best episodes so far, now let’s get around to all the positives.
For one, with a death trap promised at the end of the story, this episode has a really terrific and novel cliffhanger. For the first time, the cliffhanger doesn’t revolve around whether Batman and Robin can escape from a perilous situation, but whether they can save someone else, that they’re not even in the same room with. It’s made even better with the innocent that they have to save being the kidnapped Aunt Harriet, which makes the stakes personal. It’s nice to see the show break out of its formula, yet adhere to the cliffhanger format, in a fun way. And to create a problem that can’t be solved by Batman whipping something out of his utility belt.
The public appeal to Zelda’s inherent goodness during a televised press conference to negotiate Aunt Harriet’s release is both a legitimate plot point and an exercise in showing how flimsy the secret identity business is. In Susan Sontag’s famous essay Notes On Camp she writes about camp as follows: “What Camp taste responds to is "instant character" (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence - a person being one, very intense thing. This attitude toward character is a key element of the theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.” Adam West, as Batman, is always one, very intense thing, which makes the secret identity business one big joke. Every line reading, no matter how ridiculous, is given the same degree of gravity. Burt Ward is always ridiculously enthusiastic. That extends throughout the production and defines the show. And, at this stage, it’s still very funny.
The Batsignal summoms The Dynamic Duo during "Zelda The Great!"
As a throwaway, Alfred admits to neglecting his duties because he was enamored of a certain show that aired on Wednesday nights, a meta reference to BATMAN.
The scene where Eivol Ekdel talks to some dim mob hit-men who arrive to rub out Batman if he manages to escape the doom trap is fun. It’s a fine example of the show being serious for kids and funny for adults as Eivol explains that the “contract” to knock off Batman is “in writing.”
The doom trap itself, which Batman and Robin walk into in a very dunderheaded manner, is actually a pretty clever one without an obvious flaw. At least until Batman arrives at a reasonable, by comic book logic, solution. Given the world that’s established, 1 + 1 = 2 works in this situation and is actually satisfying, not deus ex machine whipped out of the utility belt, and fun.
It’s also worth noting that death is actually part of the world of BATMAN at this stage of the show. Zelda partially redeems herself by warning Batman and Robin of the hit-men in Egyptian mummy sarcophagi who rub themselves out when Batman and Robin duck out of the way. BATMAN may be silly and fun, but there are still actual stakes in the show at this point.
Zelda’s redemption, an actual character arc, is completed during a coda where Bruce Wayne visits her in prison and promises her a job as “lady magician” in his children’s hospitals when she completes her sentence. Of course, this redemption writes Zelda out so that there’s never a need for her to return. It’s perhaps notable that Zelda is the only villain that seems to actually reform.
That didn’t mean that Anne Baxter couldn’t return though. It’s obvious Anne Baxter was well regarded for her turn. She’d return as Olga, Queen of the Cossacks and get to let loose as an unrepentant, un-conflicted villainess.
Batman does some detective work in "Zelda The Great!"
I think the positives outweigh the negatives for this story, although there’s not much of a case for a sequel. Still, it tells a coherent, mostly fun story albeit one that’s light on the action that is part of the show’s identity. But, stepping outside the show’s usual formula shows some of the possibilities of what the show was capable of and creates some novelty, which perhaps would have helped the show’s longevity. - Robert Reineke
Robert Reineke watched BATMAN as a child in the 1970s and the scientist Batman may have had an influence on him pursuing a career in the sciences. Now he’s a Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin.
He’s recently finished writing a monthly column on the films of Akira Kurosawa at Where the Long Tail Ends where he also hosts the "Still Watching the Skies" podcast and can be found regularly at Modern Myth Media expounding on superhero movies and television.
ORIGINAL AIR DATES: February 9 & 10, 1966
SCREENWRITER: Lorenzo Semple Jr.
DIRECTOR: Norman Foster
BAT-FIRSTS: 1st First female lead villainess
BEST BAT-GADGET: Hyper-Spectrographic Analyzer
BAT-QUOTE: “I fear you’re growing cynical, Chief O’Hara. The notion of a faithful taxpayer robbing a bank is clearly ridiculous.”