“The Bookworm Turns” / “While Gotham City Burns”
Written by Rik Vollaerts
Directed by Larry Peerce
Season 1, Episodes 29 and 30
Production code 8717
Original air dates: April 20 and 21, 1966
The Bat-signal: A new bridge has been built in Gotham City, the Amerigo Columbus Bridge, and the ribbon cutting ceremony has Gordon in attendance. Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce and Dick are watching the ceremony on TV, and Dick sees the Bookworm. Bookworm radios one of his henchmen, Printer’s Devil, to start “chapter one,” and Printer’s Devil shoots Gordon, who falls to his doom over the bridge and into the river. Bruce and Dick see this on TV and are outraged. Unwilling to wait for the Bat-phone on this one, they head out of their own initiative to avenge their friend’s death.
After they park at GCPD HQ, Bookworm’s moll, Lydia Limpet, leaves a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls on the passenger seat of the Batmobile.
Upstairs, everyone grieving over Gordon is interrupted—by Gordon, alive and well! He was given a traffic ticket and was unable to make the ceremony. The ticket was filled out by a cop (whom Gordon describes as “monumentally stupid”) with badge #1887, and the name A.S. Scarlet. O’Hara says there is no badge with that number on the force, but A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1887. That’s a typical Bookworm clue, relating to literature.
They’re interrupted by the Batmobile bomb detector, and Batman hits the eject button, causing the Hemingway volume to shoot up into the air to explode harmlessly. (And hey, at least it was Hemingway, and not an actual good book…)
Printer’s Devil, eating lunch on the stairs of police headquarters, reports in that Plot A was a washout, but Plot B is still “up in the air.” Sure enough, the Dynamic Duo find the cover to the book intact—Batman guesses that it’s made from asbestos, so he and Robin will probably be participating in mesothelioma lawsuits in their old age—and they assume it refers to the John Donne quote Hemingway was using for his title: that the bell tolls for thee.
Back at the Batcave, they find no clues on the cover, but then Batman finally remembers the plot of the Hemingway novel: during the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan (no, not that one) is assigned to blow up a bridge.
At his hideout—which is, of course, covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves—Bookworm refuses to give specifics to his henchmen. Lydia wonders why he doesn’t write his own novel, and he explodes with rage, coming within a hairsbreadth of beating Lydia to death with a large hardcover. Luckily for Lydia, the book in question is The Secret of Success: Self-Control, and he speed-reads the book, thus not braining Lydia.
Gordon alerts Batman and Robin to a disturbance at a warehouse involving a bridge, which turns out to be a huge image of the Amerigo Columbus Bridge projected onto the wall. In photographer’s lingo, it’s a “blow up” of the bridge. Play on words!
They climb the wall of the warehouse to get a better view of the area, so they can find where the image is being projected from. (En route, they briefly meet Jerry Lewis. Why Jerry Lewis is in a warehouse is left as an exercise for the viewer.) They see the projector in an alley, and they reverse-bat-climb down and head over to the alley in the Batmobile—only to find an abandoned bookmobile, complete with giant purple projector.
They hit the bookmobile with a sonic ray at 12,000 deciBels, which drives Bookworm and the henchmen—but not Lydia—from the van. Fisticuffs ensue—though not until Batman urges the henchmen to remove their eyeglasses, as you should never hit someone wearing glasses—but then the bad guys all escape through a trapdoor.
Batman and Robin check the bookmobile, to find Lydia bound and gagged. I sure hope they turned off the 12,000 dB ray before she got permanent ear damage. They “rescue” her by gassing her and bringing her to the Batcave. Batman worries that she might be a spy, so they hook her up to the Hypermetric Lie-Detector to interrogate her while she’s unconscious. She reveals that she is one of Bookworm’s employees, but she doesn’t actually know anything, save that whatever Bookworm is planning, he can’t do it until the Dynamic Duo are dead.
They bring her back to the bookmobile just as the gas wears off. She then says that she overheard the whole plan: he’ll strike at midnight! Bookworm will rob the replica of Independence Hall, stealing the original Declaration of Independence.
Batman knows it’s a trap, but he walks into it anyhow, because—well, why not? He goes off in the Batmobile, leaving Robin to guard Lydia. She tries to get him to untie her, but he says she might be hurt, and they should wait for paramedics. So she asks him to read her a story—say from the fourth book from the end?—and as soon as he opens it, he’s gassed unconscious. She calls Bookworm—and reveals that she knows Batman’s cottoned to them, because Robin rather stupidly called her “Miss Limpet,” even though she never (consciously) gave him her name.
Robin is tied to the hammer in the bell of the Wayne Memorial Clock Tower. When the clock strikes midnight, Robin will be beaten against the bell twelve times.
Batman arrives at Independence Hall to find O’Hara, who says that there’s no sign of the Bookworm—nor was Robin in the alley where Batman said he’d be with Lydia. Batman tries contacting him on the radio, to no avail. Batman goes into a weird trance-like state to remember what Lydia said, including the part about how “he strikes at midnight.” The clock inside the Wayne Memorial Clock Tower is called “Big Benjamin,” so it’s the only clock in town referred to as “he.” Remembering the For Whom the Bell Tolls theme Bookworm has been going for, Batman deduces that Robin’s in the bell. Sure.
He and O’Hara head over in the Batmobile (O’Hara looking nauseated and also deafened by the noise of the engine), and sure enough they see Robin in the bell. O’Hara tries shooting the clockworks, but they aren’t even dented by gunfire. They set up the Bat-zooka to fire Bat-ropes at both the lightning rod atop the tower and the clock hands. Batman then attaches both ends to leads that will give them both a positive charge from the turbines in the Batmobile, and thus repel each other, keeping Robin safe because SCIENCE!
Bookworm is furious to realize that the bell hasn’t rung, but he gets over it, misattributing a common proverb (“facts are stubborn things”) to Gil Blas, as translated by Tobias Smollett. (Smollett did actually translate an edition of Gil Blas, which had that line in it, which was also famously quoted by John Adams, but it predates both…) Bookworm then goes to Wayne Manor, posing as someone from the bookmobile service. Aunt Harriet requests something that will be good to read in bed, and he hands her Congressional Record 1919—which, like the history text Lydia gave Robin to “read,” gasses her. Then Bookworm steals a rare first-edition cookbook.
Gordon calls Batman and Robin to inform them of the theft (which is pretty embarrassing, since they were right downstairs in the Batcave the whole time) and also of a giant cookbook that just appeared at Cedar and 5th. Gordon assured them that no one in Wayne Manor was hurt, so the Dynamic Duo put their duty to the public over duty to family and head out in the Batmobile to check out the big-ass cookbook. They determine that it’s hollow and open it with a portable magnet. The hollow part is covered in paper, and they cut through to find a kitchenette, complete with something simmering on a stove. Bookworm says over a PA system that it’s bat-soup and then closes the door, trapping them inside the giant cookbook (writing that phrase will never get old).
Bookworm turns on the double boiler, which steams the innards of the tome. Batman tries to call the police, but the radio can’t get through the steel cover of the giant cookbook they’re trapped in (see?), and the bat-laser will make it even hotter inside, cooking them even faster.
Luckily, the cops show up anyhow, showing rare initiative. But they can’t seem to get through the cover, either. However, while police radios couldn’t pick up the distress call, the super-sensitive Bat-antenna in the Batcave is up to the task! It’s Alfred’s usual time to dust the atomic pile (!) and so he hears the mayday.
Bookworm has stolen the Batmobile (hey, remember when the car had an anti-theft device?) and is headed to the Morganbilt Library to use the Bat-beam to break into it. They have seven Gutenberg Bibles and eleven Shakespeare First Folios. Lydia is worried about their success, quoting the line about the best-laid plans of mice and men, and Bookworm angrily corrects her that it’s “best-laid schemes” in Robert Burns’s poem To a Mouse.
The cops mange to get the cookbook open, but there’s no sign of the Dynamic Duo. Turns out Alfred was able to determine that there was a manhole cover under the stove, through which the steam was introduced. They escaped that way and headed to the Morganbilt, since Bookworm’s gloating about the plan to Lydia in the Batmobile was picked up by the car’s security system.
Fisticuffs ensue, and our heroes are victorious.
Bruce and Dick go to Gordon’s office to provide a donation to improve the prison library. Bruce says he was inspired by reading about the Bookworm affair in the papers, and I would think he might have instead said he heard of it from the fact that Bookworm broke into his house. They get to see Bookworm and Lydia before they’re carted off to the penitentiary, and Bookworm can’t resist gloating about how clever he is, and he quotes “the poet”—but Bruce corrects him, as the line he quotes is from a prose writer, Cervantes, in The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Oops.
Fetch the Bat-shark-repellant! Batman keeps a Batmobile bomb detector in his utility belt, which comes with its own remote ejector seat activator. He also has gas that renders someone unconscious but has absolutely no side effects. The Batmobile has an ultrasonic Bat-ray that can go up to at least 12,000 dB, a high-energy radar that can tell something’s hollow but can’t tell that there’s an entire kitchenette inside, and a portable magnet (which is yellow and purple for some reason). Batman has a Hypermetric Lie-Detector, which means, I guess, that it uses a lot of metrics to detect lies? There’s also a voice-actuator for the Anti-Crime Computer, which is handy if you need to give voice commands to the computer while being trapped inside a giant cookbook (really, it just does not get old!). Oh, and we get two more uses of the Bat-zooka!
He also has a service that picks up the parachutes that are used for Bat-turns of the Batmobile (which is good to know, as previous uses of the parachutes indicated that he just left them there in the middle of the street, which is, if nothing else, littering). Said service is called, naturally, “Batmobile Parachute Pickup Service,” at least according to their van.
Holy #@!%$, Batman! Dick cries, “Holy homicide!” when Gordon is shot on TV, then “Holy reincarnation” when he turns up alive. “Holy explosion!” is his utterance when the bomb in the Hemingway book goes off over the Batmobile. When they deduce that Bookworm wants to blow up a bridge, Robin yells, “Holy detonator!” Upon seeing the giant projection of the bridge on the warehouse, he cries, “Holy magic lantern!” and when they use the Bat-zooka to fire the Bat-rope to the top of the warehouse, he yells, “Holy bulls-eye!” When they find Lydia tied up in the bookmobile, he utters, “Holy Cinderella!” and when he realizes how Bookworm plans to kill him within the bell, he mutters, “holy headache.” When they drive up to the giant cookbook, he yells, “Holy tome!” and when they’re trapped inside it, he mutters, “holy stewpot” and “holy pressure cooker!”
After meeting Batman and Robin, Jerry Lewis cries, “Holy human flies!” And William Dozier’s cliffhanger narration starts with, “Holy midnight!”
Gotham City’s finest. O’Hara actually proves a useful aid to Batman, establishing that Bookworm didn’t go to the Independence Hall replica at all, helping set up the Bat-zooka to free Robin, and actually getting the cookbook open. (Hilariously, if Batman and Robin had just been patient, the cops would’ve got them out which, if nothing else, would have spared them wandering around the sewers. Have you seen sewers? They’re icky!)
Special Guest Villain. Roddy McDowall makes his first and only appearance as the Bookworm—like King Tut last time, he was created specifically for the TV show, but unlike Tut, he would not return again. However, McDowall would go on to do the voice of the Mad Hatter on Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, and he also narrated the audiobook of Craig Shaw Gardner’s novelization of the 1989 Batman film.
No sex, please, we’re superheroes. Robin is unwilling to believe that Lydia’s a bad guy until the lie-detector proves it, because she’s so purrrrty!
Na-na na-na na-na na-na na.
“It’s just what it looks like—a perfectly ordinary asbestos book cover.”
–Robin, not getting what “perfectly ordinary” means.
Trivial matters: This episode was discussed on The Batcave Podcast episode 15 by host John S. Drew with special guest chum Gary Mitchel, co-director of the American Sci-Fi Classics track at Dragon Con and cohost of RevolutionSF’s RevCast.
This episode inaugurates the celebrity-cameo-in-the-window-during-the-Bat-climb motif that would become a running gag throughout the series: Jerry Lewis pops his head through a window in a warehouse. It was a fitting start, as Jerry Lewis also had his own DC comic (originally The Adventures of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis starting in 1952, it was changed to simply The Adventures of Jerry Lewis in 1957 when Martin & Lewis split up, and lasted until 1971; Batman and Robin guest-starred in issue #97). In addition, Lewis had worked extensively with Francine York, who played Lydia, as she appeared in six of Lewis’s films.
The Amerigo Columbus bridge mashes together the names of cartographer Amerigo Vespucci—for whom America is named—and sailor Christopher Columbus—one of the first Europeans to sail to the western hemisphere. Similarly, the Morganbilt Library is a mashup of the Morgan and Vanderbilt families, who have endowed numerous libraries in New York City.
Big Benjamin is a play on Big Ben, the famous bell in the clock tower in the Palace of Westminster in London.
Bookworm eventually did appear in the comics, initially brought into The Huntress in issue #7 in 1989. In addition, the character appeared briefly in the animated series The Brave and the Bold, as well as an issue of the Batman ’66 comic book.
Byron Keith returns as Mayor Linseed in the opening of “The Bookworm Turns.” He’ll be back in “The Yegg Foes in Gotham” in season two.
This was Rik Vollaerts’s only script for Batman. He’d go on to pen the longest-titled episode in Star Trek history “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”
There are forty-eight Gutenberg Bibles extant, but they are spread throughout the world. In fact, only four locations have more than one: the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City (which has three), the British Library in London, the Gutenberg Musseum in Mainz, and Bibliothèque National de France in Paris (two each). So the Morganbilt having seven is a neat trick.
Pow! Biff! Zowie! “My brain-drenched mind has done it again.” The only reason why this episode is worth watching is the great Roddy McDowall as Bookworm. This is one of the few Batman villains who comes across as genuinely dangerous, mostly because of his occasional mad outbursts. When Lydia reminds him of his failed attempt to be a novelist, he almost clubs her to death with a huge hardcover, and you honestly believe he’ll do it. When he realizes that Robin hasn’t had his brains dashed out against the bell, his fury is scary enough to send his henchmen into hiding, and the viewer is tempted to join them.
And hearing him spout quotations is entertaining, though the best part is when he corrects Lydia’s misquote of Robert Burns, which is one of the most common misquotes in the history of literature. Plus the design work on both Bookworm (with his leather outfit, hat with reading lamp, huge glasses, and magnifying glass) and his henchmen (all wearing glasses, and all wearing paper hats made from folded book pages) is superlative.
Unfortunately, McDowall is pretty much the only thing that recommends this incoherent mess. The story starts with a very nasty, promising opening, with Gordon being suddenly and violently shot—but it turns out to be a ruse that serves absolutely no purpose. Once Gordon is revealed to be alive, the whole thing’s never even referenced again. In fact, nothing Bookworm does prior to trapping Batman and Robin in the giant cookbook (it really doesn’t get old!) serves any useful function, since that is what allows him to steal the Batmobile to use the Bat-beam to break into the Morganbilt Library. Everything else just sorta kinda happens because the script calls for it, and it’s so overstuffed and unnecessary that even Batman says it’s overly complicated and amateurish in “While Gotham City Burns” as they’re driving toward the giant cookbook, in which they are later trapped (nope, still not old).
There are moments here and there. Neil Hamilton does a nice job selling the fake Gordon’s “death,” as well as the commissioner’s total confusion when he walks into his office to a bunch of people acting (from his POV) like idiots. And we get a rare look at badass Alfred, as 63-year-old Alan Napier leaps over the atomic pile railing to answer the Bat-radio. (Take that, Sean Pertwee!)
But overall, it’s a great vehicle for a great actor, and little else. Such a pity the character wasn’t brought back (McDowall himself in later interviews couldn’t recall why he never reprised the role, though it might have been due to an inability to schedule it, as he was quite busy) with a better script…
Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of the new Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy. Book 1, Thor: Dueling with Giants, is available now as an eBook, and you can preorder the print edition, which is due in March. You can also preorder the print edition of Book 2, Sif: Even Dragons Have Their Endings, and Keith is hard at work on Book 3, The Warriors Three: Godhood’s End.