Every pop culture icon must have a low point, and I submit "The New Adventures of Batman" to fill such a role for the Caped Crusader. Premiering in February 1977 on CBS, this animated series contained a mere sixteen episodes - a lineup that, after the original series expired, would be mercilessly rerun for four grueling years as part of an ever-changing cartoon lineup, including "The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour" and "Batman and the Super 7" (the latter airing on NBC after CBS cancelled it). All sixteen episodes are ruthless in their awfulness, victims of lame writing, cheap animation, and overall dumbed-down-ness.
The series was the work of Filmation, which had previously handled "The Batman/Superman Hour" years earlier. By the 1970s, the heroes of DC Comics had found their way to Hanna-Barbera and ABC with "Super Friends." Olan Soule and Casey Kasem, who had voiced Batman and Robin in Filmation's 1968 series, had joined the migration, reprising their roles on "Super Friends" and its later incarnations. So when CBS and Filmation got around to whipping up their own Batman animated series (don't ask how two rival studios and two rival networks could work out a deal on sharing characters), it was decided to bring back the "real" Dynamic Duo: Adam West and Burt Ward.
Such a casting coup should have provided the series with the weight of authority. Alas, the network insisted "The New Adventures of Batman" (a title that would become meaningless too quickly) be a non-violent show, while Filmation insisted on bringing in the impish character Bat-Mite to appeal to young children. Both decisions effectively neutered the whole series before it even started, leaving it an action-less, obnoxious mess.
The arrival of Bat-Mite is what most fans use to illustrate the absolute awfulness of the show, and in a way, they have a point. I have no problem with the Bat-Mite character itself when used sparingly and smartly (for non-fans: Bat-Mite is a tiny being from a magical dimension who obsesses over Batman; in this cartoon, he becomes Batman's sidekick), but the Filmation crew use the character to fill their obligatory "troublemaking yet magical comic relief innocent" role, like Orko from "He-Man" or Gremlin from "Flash Gordon." In "The New Adventures of Batman," Bat-Mite gets dangerously close to becoming the lead character, so much attention is dropped his way. (Batgirl, meanwhile, would only be used sparingly, even though she makes a grand appearance in the opening credits; you'd think a studio so eager to include her would remember to actually do so.)
Bat-Mite's a kiss of death for this series, which was already deliriously sloppy and almost entirely unwatchable. Penny-pinching animation techniques resulted in mediocre-at-best material being recycled to an absurd degree, while the writing staff, already restricted by standards and practices over what the not-so-Dark Knight could do, never even seemed to be trying at all. (One episode, in which the Joker sends out a series of Riddler-esque clues to Batman, is hilariously mystery-free; the Joker's rhymes, intended to hint at his next location, amount to "My next crime will be at the opera house. Can you figure out where my next crime will be?") West and Ward aside - while the scripts bring back the "Holy [blank], Batman!" one-liners, both actors manage to tone down the campiness from the live action series and turn in reasonable performances here - the cast is as lazy as the writing; Lennie Weinrib provided the voices of both Commissioner Gordon and the Joker, and they sound exactly the same. And purists will bemoan the increasing use of sci-fi/fantasy elements in the series, although I wouldn't mind the monsters and such, except that here, they're poorly written, brutally dull monsters and such. (Zarbor? Really??)
Add Bat-Mite on top of all this? That's the last straw.
And yet the playful doofus is not the worst thing about this series. No, that fateful title goes to the show's "Bat Message," an epilogue intended to supply the kiddies at home with a morality lesson they can apply to their own lives. A fine idea, to be sure, and anyone used to retro cartoons know this to be a norm. But in "The New Adventures of Batman," the epilogues are embarrassingly useless. An early episode suggests the moral of the story (in which a decent fella gets caught up in some bad doings) is that if you're willing to seek help when you're in trouble, you won't wind up tangling with bad guys. Or something.
Each "Bat Message" was a total stretch, obviously written as an afterthought, the writers poring over the rest of the script, desperate to find anything they could mangle into workable advice for youngsters. Later in the series, this idea would be completely abandoned, and the epilogue was used for last-minute shenanigans featuring Bat-Mite - and yet even without any morals to dish out, the epilogue would still be labeled as a "Bat Message."
So consider this my "Bat Message": "The New Adventures of Bat-Man" is fifty kinds of terrible, wearing thin after a few episodes, even if you approach it on a pure nostalgia level. At least "Super Friends" had the decency to be fun while it was being stupid; "The New Adventures of Batman," meanwhile, only has the decency to stop after sixteen episodes.
Warner Bros. collects all sixteen episodes on two discs, housed in a single-width digipak, the two discs overlapping on a single tray. Disc One is single-sided, while Disc Two is double-sided, with all the episodes on one side and the extras on the other.
The episodes contained in this set are:
Disc One: "The Pest," "The Moonman," "Trouble Identity," "A Sweet Joke on Gotham City," "The Bermuda Rectangle," "Bite-Sized," "Reading Writing & Wronging," and "The Chameleon."
Disc Two: "He Who Laughs Last," "The Deep Freeze," "Dead Ringers," "Curses! Oiled Again," "Birds of a Feather Fool Around Together," "Have an Evil Day (Part 1)," "Have an Evil Day (Part 2)," and "This Looks Like a Job for Bat-Mite!"
Video & Audio
Warners has kept this series looking well. The animation is a bit soft and the colors a bit muted, as to be expected, but there are otherwise no flaws in the transfer, which maintains the original 1.33:1 broadcast format. The soundtrack is equally impressive, the original mono holding up quite well. No subtitles are included, although the discs are closed-captioned.
"The Dark Knight Revisited" is a cheery apology for the series. Batman vets Paul Dini, Dennis O'Neil, Mark Hamill, and others spend a full nineteen minutes chatting about how while others don't care for this happy, bright version of Batman, they dig it in a nostalgic sort of way. What's missing from this featurette, sadly, is any real history of how the series came to be; Filmation honcho Lou Scheimer pops in to say a few words, but not nearly enough on the subject. It's an instantly forgettable piece, giving you no reason to ever return to side B of the flipper disc. (To think what BCI, who have delivered many excellent DVD sets of Filmation titles, could have done here!)
Also included is a set of previews for other Warner/DC releases, including a fairly lengthy (and impressive) look at the upcoming "Superman/Doomsday" movie.
Batman completists (myself included) may feel compelled to own this set out of a pathetic sense of fanboy obligation, but really, you should avoid it if you have the self-control. Parents looking for some nifty old school cartoon action for their kids, meanwhile, should Skip It - you'll do fine with those "Super Friends" discs instead.