We, Robots! (Part 14): Freaks and Finks

Time to close out the prolific 60’s, and move on. Robots were literally a dime a dozen, cropping up everywhere, and we have a few left to dredge up (or sweep under the rug). Most of today’s coverage is in a “super” vein, capitalizing in the popularity of several DC franchises – though the majority do so in satiric fashion, as one series exceeds its quota of contributions to the subject. While Hal Seeger came close (but not quite) to creating a mechanical man with his network Milton the Monster series, he more than made up for it by populating the world of his next creation with an array of mad scientist’s robots to play with – providing the central fodder for today’s reviews.

Given second thoughts, I feel obligated to begin with a Yogi Bear episode previously overlooked, Wound Up Bear (Hanna-Barbera, 12/28/59 (as part of The Huckleberry Hound Show). Its inclusion here is a bit dubious, as there is no actual robot – merely another of Yogi’s clever frauds – but the result is nevertheless fun, with a good pay-off, so we’ll throw it in for kicks. After receiving yet another lecture from Ranger Smith on the the Do Not Feed the Bears policies of the park (Smith in this episode being drawn in unusually dour fashion, with very narrow mouth area as if overshadowed by the hanging jowls of Droopy), Yogi happens across a souvenir shop for the tourists, with a display of toy wind-up bears. Although the toys are only about a quarter of the height of his buddy Boo Boo, Yogi gets an inspiration, and returns to his cave to construct a combination of an oversize key resembling those in the backs of the toy bears, and a plunger’s suction cup. He attaches the gimmick onto Boo Boo’s back. Boo Boo, against his better judgment, is sent to “mingle with the tourists” by performing a mechanical walk (a feat accomplished with a “bear” minimum of animation, consisting of only about three or four cels of jittery motion, blurring facial and body details in almost “smear” fashion from frame to frame), with objective to return with some goodies. A first tourist couple is so impressed with the ingenuity of today’s toymakers at creating such a marvel, they nearly fail to notice Boo Boo making off with their chocolate cake. A second duo in the tourist cabins are not quite so oblivious to Boo Boo opening the oven and leaving with their freshly-baked pie, and call the Ranger Station. Ranger Smith begins to get a run of strange calls about the wind-up bandit, and slams down the phone, revealing for possibly the only time in the show his married status, with the remark, “Mabel and her charge accounts. We coulda had that chicken ranch by now.” Smith proceeds to the souvenir shop, muttering about “Last year, the flying saucer. The year before, the serpent in the lake, And now, toy bears!” He has the shop owner demonstrate one of the wind-up dolls, which merely marches a few steps backwards and forwards. “Is that all these things do?’ asks Smith. “You were expecting maybe a floor show?” responds the shopkeeper. “You wouldn’t have one that steals picnic baskets, would ya?”, asks Smith. “No, but I’m working on one that washes cars and whistles ‘Yankee Doodle’ at the same time”, responds the shopkeeper with underplayed sarcasm. Smith mildly cautions the owner that te park doesn’t allow rackets, then departs.

A weary Smith confides his problem to Yogi (while the wily bear tells Boo Boo to lay low in the bushes). Yogi feigns supportiveness of the Ranger: “I never did trust those toy bears, with their shifty little shoe-button eyes.” Smith departs, uttering a vow overheard by Boo Boo, that if he ever catches up with the toy bear, he will take him apart spring by spring. Boo Boo chickens out, not wanting to meet such a fate. “Never send a little bear to do the work of a big bear”, states Yogi, removing the key/plunger from Boo Boo’s back, and affixing it to his own. Yogi stages his own raid on the tourist lodge, making off with the whole refrigerator – an example of “thinking big”. Smith has meanwhile confiscated all the wind-up bears in the park, their number confirmed by a head count, and assumes the problem solved, until the call comes in of the theft committed by a big wind-up bear. It takes a moment for dawn to break, but Smith’s demeanor finally brightens, as the solution hits him. Reacting with almost hysterical laughter, he shouts, “Yogi! Who else?” Smith loads a picnic table full of goodies as bait, and Yogi appears right on cue. “Here comes the mechanical marvel. He walks. He talks. He breathes. He eats.” “Hello, Yogi”, says Smith, appearing from behind a tree just as Yogi seizes a strawberry-iced layer cake. “I am not a Yogi, sir. I am a wind-up bear”, says Yogi in a mechanically-punctuated voice. “Good – ‘cause I’m, a wind-up ranger”, responds Smith, fully emerging from behind the tree with a duplicate key and plunger stuck to his own back, “and I’m winding up your park career!” “Uh oh”, responds Yogi, turning and running in robotic style as Smith pursues, matching his mechanical gait, in the direction of the nearest zoo. “I’ll see you in St Louis, Louie”, says Yohi for the curtain line, as he and Smith jitter their way at top speed over the hills.

Filmation’s The New Adventures of Superman included several installments dealing with robots – but none of them seemed to show particular spark or creativity. It would include such firsts as Superman Meets Brainiac (12/31/66, aired out of sequence after a follow-up episode), yet falter in design, casting Brainiac as looking in appearance like any other routine green humanoid space alien, seeming to be a living creature with pliable shin and facial features, only revealing verbally that he is supposedly a robot built by the last survivor of his planet, to collect two of every life form to repopulate his vacant world. Superman would also encounter mechanized menaces in first animated appearances of the Toyman (who was actually played more subtly and realistic than current-day portrayals, which tend to make him an over-the-top Joker ripoff), such as in The Two Faces of Superman (12/24/66), where a robot duplicate of Superman stages a crime wave. However, the duplicate is no real match for the Man of Steel in a fight, and the Toyman even has to resort to a kryptonite ray to weaken Superman, just to get his robot out the door to wage another crime spree. An occasional stray robot from outer space would also appear, such as in The Robot of Riga (10/8/66). But Filmation’s solution to robots appeared to always be either a swift punch or getting inside their head to cause a short circuit – a trope overused to death by other studios. So the effect of these metal intruders didn’t add up to any great degree of suspense or drama, and would only have been entertaining to the youngest of viewers. While the veteran voice actors of the radio series still attempted to give their best reads, the general weaknesses of the production (hurried writing, cheap animation, and running times not allowing for complicated storylines) all added up to make what seemed slightly innovative in the 1960’s less than memorable when compared to the in-depth storytelling of the various series and feature productions which have followed. (I’ll not cover here any possible robots who may have strayed into the world of the various Super Friends series, which I never followed.)

Hal Seeger never cut corners more than he did in mass-producing the 100 episodes of Batfink. There were seemingly more reused shots per episode than most Filmation product could be accused of. One could almost always count on Batfink answering “The Hot Line” with the same response of “Batfink here.” The Chief would always be in the identical pose on the screen, no matter which villain or peril he was discussing. “Karate, the Batillac” would always be summoned. Karate was the politically incorrect Oriental sidekick, a master in the martial arts -likely intended to lampoon Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, killing two William Dozier series with one stone. The same stock shots of the Batillac (a glorified pink Volkswagen with fins) emerging from the batcave and traveling to the scene of crime would follow. Batfink would stick his head out of the Batillac’s sunroof, and repeat (often in an ambiance that didn’t match the new dialogue of the episode being presented), “My supersonic sonar radar will help me”, then emit one or two visible words “Beep” which would travel through the air. About forty percent of the time, Batfink would be spotted by mad scientist Hugo-a-Go-Go from a periscope at his lair, and Hugo would repeat, “Right into mine trap”. (Strangely, this line does not appear in any of the five episodes reviewed below.) And Batfink would face a useless hail of bullets, or something similar, with Batfink hiding behind his wings, with the standard catch phrase, “Bullets cannot harm me. My wings are like a shield of steel.” Feels like we’ve already covered half the plot for the stories that follow. Strangely, however, Seeger seemed to be able to use what footage was left to generate a reasonable amount of smiles, and occasionally present a clever idea or two, so that the series wasn’t entirely a waste – just cheap. Paramount veterans Myron Waldman, Jim Tyer, and Dave Tendlar also offer their animation assistance to keep the series from becoming totally pedestrian.

In the course of his many adventures, Batfink would deal with a fair share of robots, all of them the creations of Hugo a Go Go. In Nuts of the Round Table (1/20/67) the city is plagued by an odd wave of crime – perpetrated by knights in shining armor on horseback. Batfink receives the call, and is a bit frustrated that no one got the license number of any getaway car (since they used getaway horses). Batfink sends out his sonar radar – which comes back sooner than usual, the letters of the word “Beep” speared on the jousting pole of one of the knights. The knight sets himself for a charge at Batfink where he stands in the sun roof of the Batillac. But Batfink folds his wings of steel around him, and the knight’s pole is unable to penetrate, stopping the knight cold, and knocking him from his mount. Batfink and Karate drag the knight back to police headquarters for an unmasking, but discover under the helmet nothing but transistors and wires. “It’s a transistorized, computerized, energized, mechanized automaton”, observes Batfink. “It looks like a robot to me”, remarks Karate. Batfink gets an inspiration, and he and Karate remove the hi-tech innards from the suit of armor, and slip themselves inside. They then mount the white charger (who at least is the only thing real about the attackers) and let the horse carry them back to whoever is master of the robots. The fiend is of course Hugo, who criticizes the entering “robot” for failing to bring him any “goodies” from town. “For two cents, I’d take all of your transistors out”, he rants. “They’re already out”, responds Batfink, as he and Karate emerge from the armor. Hugo, furious that Batfink has infiltrated his lair, declares that he hates Batfink to pieces, and calls out his robot reserves. Karate takes a chop at one robot’s midriff, but it bends at the waist and clobbers him with a mace. A similar blow knocks Batfink unconscious. He lands upon a steel grid from which manacles emerge to clamp around his waist, while a dozen spear points from jousting poles slowly descend toward him from the ceiling above. In the nick of time, Batfink breaks his bonds, stands up, and performs a ballet twirl with the razor-sharp tips of his steel wings pointed upwards. The wings sever off the tips of the spears, sending them flying across the room – where they pin Hugo to the wall by his clothing. Batfink straps Hugo to the back of one of the robots, then sets the controls for the robot to carry him to the police station. As the robot departs, Hugo repeats that he still hates Batfink to pieces.

A Living Doll (1/31/67) – A beauty contest is disrupted when a thief steals the valuable crown right out of the judge’s hands, and flies away with it – a thief that appears to be Batfink. The thief flies into the window of Hugo’s lair, presenting him with the prize – then bows to reveal a key in its back, awaiting a recharging wind-up from Hugo. The thief is another robot, matching Batfink in every detail except for the key. The real Batfink insists to the chief on the hotline that he does not have a key in his back – as Karate always carries the keys. Our heroes drive out to investigate, and the sonar radar is sent out again. This time, it fails to come back – as it is fooled completely by the robot Batfink’s realism, and reports to him by mistake. Instead of Batfink learning where the villain is, the villain thus learns where he is, and sends the robot flying overhead, with a bomb. The weapon is dropped upon the Batillac, but the car withstands the force of the explosion.

“It’s a food thing the Batillac is equipped with a thermo-nuclear plutonium-insulated blast shield”, remarks Batfink. “It’s also good it was a small bomb”, replies Karate. They follow the flight of the robot back to Hugo’s lab. Batfink enters by the front door, instructing Karate to stay where he is. But a few seconds later, the door opens again, with Batfink silently summoning Karate to enter. Unquestioningly, Karate follows him inside, though remarking that its odd he never noticed the key in Batfink’s back before. The real Batfink chooses this moment to burst into another room where Hugo sits at the robot controls. Hugo tels Batfink he’ll have to take him by force, and Batfink charges toward him – straight into Hugo’s surprise – an invisible wall, into which Batfink crashes, knocking himself cold. Karate too finds himself surrounded by invisible walls, which he can’t chop through. A wall of the room slides back, and rwo figures are revealed, each identically strapped and hooded. They both appear to be Batfink, securely bound, with each hood fully covering each figure’s face. Also dropping into the room is a disintegration ray gun on a platform mount. The voice of Hugo is heard over a loudspeaker. He informs Karate that he will have ten seconds to make a choice, and to use the disintegration gun to blast one of the Batfinks into oblivion. Hugo adds the proviso that if Karate fails to shoot, Hugo will blow up the entire room. Hugo makes the deal point that if Karate shoots the robot, Hugo will give himself up. If he shoots Batfink instead, then Hugo will send Karate a thank-you note. Karate nervously takes hold of the gun’s stock, and vacillates in his aim between one bat and the other, as the seconds tick down. Karate finally makes a choice, and, amidst beads of his own nervous perspiration, takes aim and fires. One bat vanishes forever, and Karate nervously approaches the other, lifting the hood. It is the real McCoy. A mad scientist is as good as his word, and, now minus his robot, Hugo surrenders. Back at police headquarters, the Chief and Batfink congratulate Karate, and ask how he managed to make the right choice in his aim. Karate responds that, knowing Batfink’s life was in his hands, he had to be very scientific. “I went eenie, meenie, miney, mo!” Batfink and the Chief faint dead away.

The Bat Patrol (3/13/67) – Title is a pun on current hit army drama, “The Rat Patrol”. An army post has sprung up overnight on the outskirts of town. More of Hugo’s work, as he is now playing general in a Napoleon’s hat, with an army of three unicycle-wheeled cylindrical robots who loot banks for him on command. Hugo is general on account of his array of medals – the Medal of Dishonor, the Iron Double-Cross, and the Purple Heart/Yellow Belly. When Batfink’s “Beep” arrives on cue, Hugo has his troops pepper it with bullets, on the command, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their ‘E’s.” Karate thinks himself adept at military situations, having stored in his utility sleeve a Green Beret, a Black Jack, and a white flag. The robots attempt an “aerial attack”, leaping into a trench with bayonets extended while Batfink and Karate hide within. Two crash in near misses, and the third hits squarely into Batfink’s wings of steel, meeting the same fate as his comrades. With the army vanquished, Hugo lowers his fort flag – bit pulls the support pin on the flagpole, causing it to crash down on our heroes’ heads. Hugo binds them side by side in a vertical spread-eagle between metal poles, to have them face a firing squad. Batfink inquires what squad, since his army has already been destroyed. However, Hugo still has a navy, and reveals two cannon mounted side by side within the mock hull of a ship. Hugo pulls the firing pins on both guns – bit the poles to which our heroes are tied snap and fall backwards just in time to avoid the cannonballs – thanks to the force of Karate fainting. The boys free themselves, and Karate gives Hugo and his “vessel” a swift kick into the aur. Hugo has no choice but to go down with his ship. Hugo is brought back to police headquarters, where the Chief promises he’ll get ten years. Karate surprisingly asks if he could get a lighter sentence, and Barfink and the Chief both ask in unison, “Why?” “After all, “Karate concludes, “he is a veteran.” Hugo beams a broad smile at Karate’s stupidity, for the fade out.

Bride and Doom (5/1/67) is perhaps the oddest of the episodes reviewed here. Beyond the fact that Jim Tyer animates it, this one has Hugo acquiring a “wife” – a robotic one. “Naturally. Do you think a real one would marry me?”, says Hugo. She is handy at picking out wedding rings with her extendable metal arms, through the windows of closed jewelry shops. And in her spare time, she adoringly runs her fingers through Hugo’s sparse hair.

This time, knowing the villain’s identity, Batfink doesn’t need his radar, and proceeds straight to Hugo’s lab to break up the “marriage”. Hugo’s bride speaks for him, opening her mouth to reveal a firing pistol. The bullets bounce off the wings as usual, and Hugo tells his bride to stop shooting her mouth off. Instead, he has her toss a bridal bouquet – with a hand-grenade inside. Our heroes awaken to find themselves in the clutches of robotic arms, and seated with robot atop a platform suspended underneath a helicopter piloted by Hugo. Hugo announces they’re going along with him on his honeymoon – to Niagara Falls, and begins to cut the rope as the copter hovers over the falls’ steep drop-off point to the valley below. “You mean you’d sacrifice your own bride?” asks Batfink. “That’s not my bride”, responds Hugo, pointing out his own robot in the copter next to him – “That’s my mother-in-law.” The rope is severed. But halfway down the falls, an electrical spark emerges from the robot clutching out heroes, and her grip lets go – a short-circuit from water of the falls’ mist. Batfink catches Karate, while the “mother-in-law” is destroyed on the rocks below. “Serves her right for coming along on the honeymoon”, says Karate. Hugo is swiftly rounded up back at the laboratory, and the bride speaks her first words of gibberish to Karate, who relays a message to Hugo, that she will wait until he gets out of jail.

The Bomber Bird (8/3/67) – This time, Hugo whips up a giant robotic carrier pigeon, made entirely of steel, attaining flight by a helicopter blade which emerges from its back. Hugo tells the narrator that this bird carries “the most fiendish, diabolical thing known to man – ME!” Hugo seats himself on one of the bird’s feet, and fastens a safety belt around his waist. The two take off, as Hugo reveals the bird is also laden with egg bombs in its belly. Peering through a portable bomb site, Hugo selects an armored car below as target for tonight. Bomb bay doors open in the bird’s belly, as an “egg” drops upon the car. The blast of the explosion sends sacks of money flying into the sky, which Hugo catches in a net. The call goes out to Batfink, who again does not use his sonar radar, bit proceeds directly to Hugo’s lab. Batfink enters the observatory dome to check upstairs, while Karate breaks down the front door to check the ground floor. Karate encounters the bird, calling out to Batfink, “I’ve got it.” “Wrong”, speaks up Hugo from a hiding place. “The bird’s got you.” Karate is seized by one of the bird’s feet while Hugo hops onto the other one for his usual ride, and the bird takes off out the front door. Batfink pursues into the sky in response to Karate’s calls for help. The bird opens its beak and uselessly fires a machine gun at out hero. “Your birdshot cannot harm me”, says Batfink, making minor revision to his “wings of steel” catch phrase. So Hugo clobbers him with a Karate, throwing his sidekick at him, to knock Batfink out of the sky.

At Hugo’s lair, a radio broadcast indicates Batfink is still missing, and queries why he does not contact the Chief. “He’s tied up right now”, Hugo playfully answers the radio, as the camera reveal both out heroes tied securely to the feet of the bird. The radio report continues with a bulletin that the Chief has given orders to shoot the bird on sight. “I was wondering how to get rid of you – now I know”, states Hugo to his guests. With a belly of explosive bombs, a well-placed shot by the Chief should mean “bye bye, birdie” – and bye bye our heroes as well. The bird is sent in flight, to act as a sitting duck for the tanks ordered out by the Chief. “Fire”, comes the order, and a shell hurtles at our heroes. However, the shot falls short, missing the bird, but exploding close enough that the concussion waves break out heroes’ bonds. As Batfink catches the falling Karate in mid-air, a second shot does in the bird, leaving out heroes unscathed. Hugo, back at the lab, assumes his foes are done in, and begins planning the construction of a duplicate bird, when Batfink and Karate break in, to snap the handcuffs upon Hugo. Karate states that if Hugo thinks he can outsmart them, he must have a bird-brain.

I promised a favorable word about Tranzor Z, known to Japanese audiences as Mazinger Z, a creation of the mid-1970’s that premiered in America in the 1980’s. As documented in a previous article, my interest in the series resulted from a year in which every American animated product green-lighted for new production seemed to be nothing but a half-hour promotion for someone’s toy line – leaving Tranzor Z the sole new-kid-on-the-block that seemed not to be tainted by commercialism. The series was reputedly a ground-breaker even in Japan, featuring the first use of a giant robot piloted from the inside by way of a hovercraft unit docking with the robot’s head. Youthful teen pilot Tommy commands a robot constructed by a crack scientific team of scientists, out of a new super metal referred to as “Alloy Z”, stronger and more impervious to damage than any other substance. The robot features all manner of amazing weaponry, including a heat ray from red panels on its chest, detachable fists and fingers that fly independently as missiles, rays from its eyes and head, etc., that come handy in the battles it will face to defend civilization against the robotic creations of rival Doctor Demon from a remote island. Tranzor also uses the power of flight, when needed, through a separate rocket-belt unit called Scrambler which attaches to its waist upon command, adding both boosters and a pair of flying wings. Demon relies for his destructive dirty work upon two lieutenants – Devleen, a literal half-man, half-woman, divided neatly down the middle (and touted by the narrator to possess the worst properties of both), and Count De Capito, a dictatorial despot who has somehow survived his own execution scientifically, with a self-supported severed head in command of its separated body.

Tommy’s friends include girlfriend (actually sister in the Japanese original) Jessica, and their dim-witted tag-along friend (or is it rival) Bobo, a muscle-bound blob of blubber who always manages to get in the way. Jessica has her own “female” robot, Aphrodite A, who, despite firing missiles from the most sensitive parts of her chest, really isn’t much in battle without the assistance of Tranzor. Bobo eventually hijacks the professors to build him a robot as well – out of scrap metal from a junkyard – and acquires the Bobobot, a lumbering topheavy iron ball of a humanoid, who, despite possessing the brute strength of Tranzor Z, lacks all of the high-tech weaponry possessed by the larger robot, and, in his first battle, proves his best power to be to serve as dead weight, bu clamping onto the ankle of the enemy invader until Tranzor can finish him off. The trio of would-be heroes share an ongoing sometimes friendly, more often bickering rivalry as to who is the most heroic, while the villains keep throwing everything they’ve got at them. The battles are unusually well-staged for an anime product, and as fantastic and far-out as the creations and weapons get, the series continues to maintain an engaging degree of suspense, making the viewer constantly question whether Tranzor may finally meet his match, and pushing our heroes to their limits. I found most episodes to be surprisingly enjoyable, and refreshing during an animation drought, despite some character flaws such as the ever-present wailing of Devleen, that sounded in translation like the Wicked Witch of the West at a constant state of full cackle. Bobo (as highlighted in a previous post in my “Flights of Fancy” series, featuring an episode in which Bobo attempts to get the Bobobot to fly) generally provided effective comic relief, breaking up the Japanese intensity with a reasonable dose of Western slapstick. All in all, it was a different, but interesting, experience. While it may not hold up quite as well in retrospect after all that has followed in the industry, it at least provided a necessary “missing link” to keep a spark of interest in animation alive, until Roger Rabbit could re-ignite the flame.

NEXT WEEK: A new decade.