“Zelda the Great” / “A Death Worse than Fate”
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Directed by Norman Foster
Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10
Production code 8705
Original air dates: February 9 & 10, 1966
The Bat-signal: The First National Bank is robbed by someone wearing a bulletproof vest that’s so strong it doesn’t even make an impact on the wearer when the guard tries to shoot the thief. This is an annual occurrence: every April Fool’s Day, an unknown bandit steals exactly $100,000 from somewhere in Gotham. After two years of this, the cops throw up their hands and call Batman.
Bruce, Dick, and Alfred are on the roof of Wayne Manor, peering through a telescope, so they don’t hear the Batphone. Luckily, this is the one and only time Gordon decides to try both the phone and the Bat-signal, and so the Dynamic Duo head off. (Oddly, they go in the back way, rather than pull up to GCPD HQ’s front door.)
They retrieved the bullet that ricocheted off the bulletproof vest, but the lab report turned up negative. Batman, Robin, Gordon, and O’Hara ponder the motives of a thief who only steals a hundred grand every April. O’Hara suggests that they’re stealing to pay their taxes, but Batman rejects the notion that a tax-paying citizen would resort to crime. O’Hara hangs his head in shame at that utterly ridiculous notion.
Since they don’t have a lead, Batman suggests they make a lead. (That’s not unethical at all!) He plants a story in the Gotham City Times that the money stolen was counterfeit.
Batman’s equipment finds multiple fibers on the bullet that somehow were completely missed by the GCPD lab. (Budget cuts?) It includes thirteen layers of multicolored silk, and also ambergris, which is used in perfume. They deduce that it must be a woman committing the robberies—and it’s not Catwoman, as she’s still in jail.
We cut to the Gnome Book Store, which is a front for Eivol Ekdol, an inventor. He is joined by Zelda the Great, the magician who moonlights as the April Fool’s thief in order to pay Ekdol for the equipment she uses in her act. Ekdol is livid at the newspaper report of the counterfeit money, especially since he has a fantastic escape act for her—the “Doom Trap.” He won’t tell her how she can escape from it until he gets paid. Since Batman and the police will be watching every bank in Gotham like hawks, Ekdol suggests she steal the Star of Samarkand, which will be on display.
Batman and Robin head to the shop where the Star is being displayed, replacing it with a fake that has a homing device inside. Batman, Robin, and a couple of undercover cops will be nearby, as is the Batmobile. But Zelda sees through the ruse, and sets a trap of her own, luring Aunt Harriet out of Wayne Manor with a story of Dick being hit with a baseball. Then, disguised as an elderly widow, she enters the jewelers, sprays purple gas from her cane, and when the smoke clears, she’s changed back into her trademark orange outfit and the emerald is gone.
The Dynamic Duo leap into action, but the image of Zelda is an illusion created by mirrors, and they find the fake Star ditched outside. Gordon then calls with the news that the aunt of Bruce Wayne’s ward has been kidnapped, with a ransom demand for $100,000—but nobody can find Wayne! (Big shock…)
Aunt Harriet is being held over a fire by Zelda, who calmly sits nearby knitting. Batman goes off to “find” Bruce Wayne, leaving Robin behind with Gordon and O’Hara—the latter having called every club a millionaire might be at. But then Bruce shows up, and Gordon brings him to a TV station, where they provide a phone number for the kidnapper to call. Zelda calls the number and is going to give ransom instructions, but first they inform her that the money she stole is actually quite real. She doesn’t need the $100,000 ransom because she actually has that amount already. (Outrage is also expressed that a woman would stoop to such trickery. Bruce, Robin, and Gordon are evasive on the relative morality of their own trickery, both with the fake Star and the fake story about the not-really-fake money.)
Zelda agrees to free Aunt Harriet, which she does so by leaving her blindfolded on a street corner. They get her home, and a doctor gives her a clean bill of health. Alfred feels guilty, as he was down in the Batcave when the fateful phone call arrived, although he makes up for it by producing a matchbook from the Gnome Book Store that fell out of Aunt Harriet’s pocket when they brought her home.
Bruce, however, does his butler one better—he knows that Zelda is the perpetrator. Batman and Robin zip down to the Batcave and hop into the Batmobile, where Batman explains how he figured out who it is. They already knew it was a female magician, but there are more than two dozen female magicians licensed to perform in Gotham. But the kidnapper’s description of Aunt Harriet’s peril perfectly matches that of the closing act Zelda the Great performed on Dick’s birthday the previous year.
At the Gnome Book Store, Ekdol admits that he has no idea how to escape from the Doom Trap. Ekdol’s plan is to put Batman in the trap; once the Caped Crusader figures out how to escape, they’ll know how to do it. And then they’ll kill him. Or, rather, the two hoods who have paid Ekdol for the privilege of killing Batman will kill him.
Zelda’s iffy on the killing part—the kidnapping and robbery was bad enough—but she also anticipated Ekdol’s (stupid) plan and planted the matchbook on Aunt Harriet. She expects Batman will be by any second.
The hoods hide in two sarcophagi with peepholes for their machine guns, while Ekdol and Zelda hide in the former’s control room. When the Dynamic Duo shows up, they are lured by a note to the back room, where they’ve left a fake bat in the Doom Trap. Batman and Robin walk right into the trap and Ekdol closes it and locks it with the hilariously large magnetic padlock.
Ekdol releases the gas, and they keep their heads down, as the gas is lighter than air, which means it must have hydrogen in it. So they can use their utility belts as a conductor for the electricity in the grille to cause the gas to explode, breaking them out.
Impressed by their bravery, Zelda warns them about their impending doom, and so they duck. The hoods wind up shooting each other dead, as the sarcophagi were facing each other. Oops.
They capture Ekdol, but Zelda surrenders on her own.
Some time later, Bruce visits Zelda at Gotham State Penitentiary. (Her prison outfit includes a pillbox hat in black-and-white stripes.) He’s impressed with Zelda’s saving Batman and Robin’s lives, and so he offers her a job doing magic at a children’s hospital after she serves her time.
Fetch the Bat-shark-repellant! We never do find out what exact tools Batman and Robin use to try to get out of the Doom Trap, but whatever it is (sounds like a bat-drill?) can’t get through the “jet-age plastic.” And he does use a bat-a-rang to klunk Ekdol on the head and takes Zelda away in bat-cuffs.
Holy #@!%$, Batman! When Bruce uses a lecture on Latin American Studies as a cover to abandon Aunt Harriet, Dick says, “Holy Venezuela!” Upon discovering the multiple layers of multicolored silk worn by the thief, Robin cries, “Holy rainbow!” Robin yells out a particularly enthusiastic “Holy Hallelujiah” after they come to terms with Zelda for Aunt Harriet’s release. Upon realizing that the bad guy is the same woman whom Dick saw perform on his birthday, he exclaims, “Holy birthday cake!” When they’re trapped in the Doom Trap, Robin cries, “Holy phone booth!” and when the gas is released, he laments, “Holy graveyard,” thinking this might be it. After the hoods shoot each other, he says, “Holy crossfire” (to which Batman responds, “Hoist on their own murderous petards”).
Gotham City’s finest. The cops have failed for two years to nail the April Fool’s thief. Also when Batman informs Gordon that the thief is a woman, the commissioner is shocked at the very notion of a female criminal, even though Robin just mentioned Catwoman a few minutes earlier.
Most embarrassing, though, is the crime lab. They find no traces of anything on the bullet, yet Batman’s able to find more than a dozen different fibers on it. You have to wonder if Bruce Wayne might have done more good for the war on crime if he donated some of his fancy-shmancy equipment to the cops, who are obviously woefully underequipped…
No sex, please, we’re superheroes. The woman who runs Stonewin Jewelers is dewey-eyed and captivated by the very presence of Batman and Robin. Later, so is Zelda, to the point where she gives Bruce Wayne a flower that she wishes him to give to Batman.
Special Guest Villainess. Academy Award-winning actor Anne Baxter plays Zelda. Baxter will return as Olga, Queen of the Cossacks in several season 3 episodes. Both Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bette Davis were considered for the role of Zelda; Gabor would eventually turn up as Minerva in the series finale, “Minerva, Mayhem, and Millionaires.”
Na-na na-na na-na na-na na. “Hello, criminals, wherever you are out there. Do you hear me, criminals?”
Gordon’s hilarious opening to his TV broadcast to Aunt Harriet’s unknown kidnapper.
Trivial matters: This episode was discussed on The Batcave Podcast episode 5 by host John S. Drew with special guest chum, Dan Persons of Cinefantastique Online, Mighty Movie Podcast, The Chronic Rift, and Hour of the Wolf.
This episode was adapted from “Batman’s Inescapable Doom-Trap” by John Broome, Sheldon Moldoff, and Joe Giella, in Detective Comics #346. In the original story the magician was a man named Carnado the Great.
Originally, this two-parter was to be called “The Inescapable Doom-Trap”/”Zelda Takes the Rap,” using the original comics story as the inspiration for Part 1’s title.
Catwoman is referenced, even though she won’t appear until later in the season.
This is a rare occasion when the cliffhanger doesn’t involve either of the Dynamic Duo being in danger, and an equally rare occasion when sound-effects-laden fisticuffs do not ensue.
One of the hoods is played by Victor French, who would later make a career out of standing next to Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
Alfred’s guilt over Aunt Harriet’s kidnapping is at least in part due to his changing his usual day to dust the Batcave from Wednesday, as there’s a TV show on Wednesday nights that he has become addicted to. Ahem.
Pow! Biff! Zowie! “Aw, c’mon, you crook, you can’t be all bad.” This story has a most interesting example of the hypocrisy of Batman.
I hear the shock from my noble readers even as I type this. There are incarnations of Batman that could be accused of such, but surely not the Adam West version! He is a paragon of virtue! He wouldn’t even park in a no-parking zone until a cop moved the sign away! He wouldn’t throw a bomb in a particular direction because he might hurt some ducks! He regularly lectures Robin on all sorts of nonsense!
And all that’s true. In fact, just a little while ago, in “The Joker is Wild”/”Batman is Riled,” one of those lectures was about the press, and how their job is to report the facts, not serve as the Dynamic Duo’s publicity agents. The point was that the press is where you get facts, not spin.
Yet here we are with Batman—having said that he’ll “make a lead,” which sounds pretty dodgy just on the face of it—asking the Gotham City Times to commit fraud. He asks them to print a lie in a major American newspaper and pass it off as truth. The very notion of a free press is compromised by Batman’s actions.
Then insult is added to the injury by putting a fake emerald out and telling Stonewin Jewelers to pass it off as the Star of Samarkand, thus lying to all the customers who came to look at this one-day-only display.
Now in most Batman stories in which the Caped Crusader employed such a tactic, I wouldn’t say a word. But this particular iteration of Batman is so self-righteous on the subject of what is right and what is wrong, what is proper and what isn’t. In this very two-parter, he expresses amazement at the very notion of a tax-paying citizen also being a criminal. Yet here’s Batman perpetuating a fraud. Shame, Caped Crusader, shame shame shame!
In any case, despite the title character’s horrid behavior, this is a fun story, partly because of the novelty of a female villain. Of particular note is that this is an early case of genderbending, as the magician in the original comics story was a man. Better still, Zelda is more than a match for Batman, since she proves herself an excellent schemer. She sees through the ruse with the Star of Samarkand, and still manages to steal the piece and kidnap Aunt Harriet. Later, she anticipates Ekdol’s (stupid) plan, and lured Batman to the bookstore before Ekdol even explained why he wanted Batman lured there.
I must admit to eliciting great glee from Ekdol’s hilarious plan: building a trap so amazing that the guy who built it can’t get out of it. But Batman’s so awesome that he can do it for him! It almost makes up for how awful Jack Kruschen is in the role with his not-very-Albanian Albanian accent…
Best of all, though, is that the story doesn’t rely on a lot of the show’s worst crutches: very few bat-devices, no leaps to unconvincing conclusions, and they escape from the Doom Trap by using their brains, not an oh-so-convenient device in the utility belt.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is at 2050 Events this weekend in Daytona Beach, Florida. He will have a table where he’ll be selling and signing books, and also be doing some programming, including a Farscape panel with Gigi “Chiana” Edgley. His full schedule is here.