If you’re thinking “… and Robin”, then I’m sorry to disappoint you, because the title of this story refers to a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as his personal servant. The deceased was a “batman” to Steed in the second war, and to the very aristocratic Lord Basil Teale in the first war. If you’re wondering how an elderly man who has just died was the servant of the much younger Steed, you probably don’t know much about the class system in the UK and how that relates to the military. Let’s just say breeding is everything, or at least it certainly was at the time. Anyway, don’t watch this one expecting the batmobile to appear.
I was delighted to see the cast for Death of a Batman included the endlessly versatile Philip Madoc, and Quatermass himself André Morell, so I was very surprised to find this one was just about the most boring Avengers episode I’ve seen so far, at least for about half the running time. So little happens for the first half hour that the most interesting thing was the shoddy set design, with the flimsiest ever doors. On one occasion Cathy takes three attempts to close a door that doesn’t fit the frame properly, and it still opens itself again. I also amused myself thinking about how I could probably compose and perform incidental “music” like the drum bashing used in The Avengers myself. How does it go again? Bang bang bang bang bang. No, wait, it’s bang bang bang bang bang bang.
The only mystery is where the dead batman’s money came from, and that’s not enough to sustain the story for so long. His estate was worth £180,000, a fortune at the time, and if he had saved every penny he ever earned he couldn’t have reached that figure, so where did the money come from? Nobody seems to know, although eventually his son works it out. Once we start to get some answers, the episode springs to life, and I enjoyed the last 20 minutes enormously, although I was slightly distracted by John Wrightson’s magic radio, which cleverly fades itself out and stops when it’s time for a serious conversation with Lord Teale.
It turns out that Teale (Morell) and his sidekick Eric Van Doren (Madoc) and doing some dodgy share dealing, using insider information, which was being provided by (Nananananananana, no not that) Batman, who was getting to see new share certificates early because he was tasked with printing them. Reviewers of this episode tend to seize on Teale’s motivations and claim that he’s somehow one of the good guys, and it’s not hard to see how that misunderstanding comes about. He is doing what he does to support British scientists and engineers, making their shares rise and strengthening their companies, which is why he only ever invests in electronics shares, so the money earned is the icing on the cake rather than the reason for baking it. He says he is a “patriot, not a traitor”. But note how he mentions rockets and missiles. Yes, he is investing in the future of those kinds of scientists and engineers. He’s a believer in the arms race, and as anyone who watched last week’s episode will now know, that’s not the mark of a hero in The Avengers. That’s somebody clinging onto his military past, who is on the wrong side of history now. With the deceased being batman to Teale and Steed in the two wars, there’s an interesting WW1 vs WW2 vibe going on here, a sort of old vs modern undertone, which is perhaps hard to understand now that both wars are so distant in time, but I think a contemporary viewer would have enjoyed the nuances of this episode perhaps a little more than we are capable of today, over a hundred years past the end of the war Lord Teale fought.
The ending of the episode is a class above what normally happens. The big fight to end a story is starting to become a bit stale, but here Cathy’s rescue attempt is largely redundant, because Steed has already persuaded Eric to do the right thing and hand over his gun. This recognises that he’s a numbers man, not a murderer, and it’s a good example of how this series is so strong with characterisation. We don’t just have heroes and villains. We have shades of grey, often on both sides. Steed still has his own war to fight, but it’s a different fight from Teale’s “reasonable life’s achievement”. The remarkable thing about The Avengers is how it presents us with a hero who is doing what’s right for the human race, not just his country, making “patriotism” look like a dirty word. The last two episodes provide a tainted view of militarism, and in doing so prove once again that The Avengers was years ahead of its time. RP
The view from across the pond:
It’s a little depressing that we’re back to the standard bad guy of the week format with another basic money-making plot for some semi-scrupulous villains. Philip Madoc is back and, let’s face it, that adds something because the guy is surprisingly watchable, but the departure from the hints of the last 3 episodes makes me think they were indeed nothing more than disconnected ideas. That’s a shame because I think there could have been a lot more added to the overall story arc of this series if handled correctly. The fact is, however, that arc-storytelling is an element of today’s television more so than it was in the early 60s. So does that make this wrong?
Well time does play a surprising part in this story and it really drives a point home about any heist story of our time. Let me illustrate with the fantastic tale of the great spy Austin Powers. When Doctor Evil is thawed out of cryogenic storage, he tries to hold the world hostage for $1,000,000. Everyone laughs. That’s not really a lot of money anymore, they tell him. He ups the ante… When this was written £180,000 was a lot of money but I realized, in the overall scheme, I had no idea if that was massively over the top or just about right. An estate valued at 180K struck me as nominal, however Steed helps make some sense of that later when he discusses how much the deceased man made and, allowing for never using a penny of it, I realized we were looking at a lot of money. But when you need that math to fully enjoy the story, I think it qualifies as a product of its time; much like the loss of the potential series-spanning villain that I was hoping to find. So, do I get upset with an episode for doing what it was always intending to do? That would be silly, so instead I’ll just try to enjoy the plot but it does leave me a little downtrodden.
A duo of unscrupulous (or in Madoc’s case, semi-scrupulous) bankers are finding ways to make money off other people… um, how is that different than any bank really? I mean, to some extent, the villains even say it: “Banking has always been civilized since it was started by the Italians.” Well we know what that’s all about, don’t we? And yet, that’s another part that bored me: we’re not really coming up with anything ingenious here. Yes there are good elements: Cathy, unsurprisingly, offers me some of the highlight moments when she casually beats a larger assailant into unconsciousness. I also love hearing her speak Spanish; not because I have any specific love of the language, but because it again establishes what a skilled character she is. I got a kick out of Steed suggesting that he might open a dog kennel, considering how often he has a dog in his company; often an unspoken star of these episodes. And for the first time that I can recall while watching this series, I had a laugh-out-loud moment when Steed sees an armless statue and says, “that’s what comes of biting your fingernails.” Truly, I guffawed. And I won’t deny that hearing Steed refer to Polo ponies brought about a humorous flashback to another old television show, The Honeymooners. Anyone who knows that show knows about polo ponies and I’m fairly sure they will chuckle to think of them.
There is hope however! The primary villain of the piece does make a comment about making the country great again and he doesn’t have any issue with killing a man for the greater good. He then talks about helping scientists which is why he’s willing to back anyone in an electronics company. Now, on their own, they could still be throw-away lines; focusing on the cultural zeitgeist of the time, but I’m still holding out hope that we are seeing, albeit perhaps slower than I’d like, a move towards a larger, season-spanning villain. Unfortunately, like most episodes of this series, the resolution all comes about within the last 3 minutes, often feeling rushed and tacked on. Was the man who was listening to Gale’s phone call a good guy or a bad guy? Was he given a chance to escape because he changed sides? I’m not sure the resolution entirely works and by the end, I was just glad to have the episode ending; I wasn’t up for going back to listen to all that was said; it was just another standard villain story as far as I could tell, and not a very good one at that. The sense of jeopardy that had been built in the last few episodes just wasn’t there for this one leaving me with that sinking feeling that the high point of the season is already behind me. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: November Five