Beware the Gray Ghost
Batman and an actor fight a bomber copying the plot of an old TV serial.
Story by Dennis O'Flaherty & Tom Ruegger
Teleplay by Garin Wolf & Tom Ruegger
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Music by Carl Johnson
Animation by Spectrum
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred
Mari Devon as Summer Gleeson
Joe Leahy as the Narrator
Bruce Timm as Ted Dymer
Adam West as Simon Trent
At the time they originally aired, of course, there were probably no two shows less likely to be confused with each other than the William Shatner Star Trek and the Adam West Batman. One was an earnest, even preachy, exemplar of pious American liberalism; the other was a pop parody, a camp sendup of America's cheez-whiz culture. One championed enlightenment as the highest form of wisdom; the other championed knowingness and irony. Not least, one was a ratings smash and the other a basement-dweller.
And yet, filtered retrospectively through thirty years of nostalgia and haze, how easily the two shows can be confused with each other, not least because of the way the two lead actors merge in one's imagination. William Shatner and Adam West. Have there ever been two bigger stars with less talent? Big, meaty hams both, broad of gesture, clipped of speech, and prone to the oddly . . . punctuated phrase. And each perfectly suited to roles that, again in hazy retrospect, merge together. James Kirk and Bruce Wayne: Privileged, technocratic cowboys, earnest, avuncular, and zealously devoted to the cause of justice, liberty, and technological superiority over their foes. We're talking John Wayne territory here, folks, the man with the broad swaggering stride and biggest shotgun in the West. So maybe it is the way that each tries to step into the Duke's enormous boots that leaves us thinking of Shatner and West as mere stylistic variants on each other.
Of course, they grasped at Wayne's mantle with different purposes, Star Trek to wrap itself in it, Batman to trample it into the dust. Wayne of course was a famous reactionary, a man devoted to the single thought that evil must be vanquished, and whose intellect was too coarse to trouble over shades of gray. American liberalism at its Vietnam/Great Society apogee of arrogance struck much the same pose, even if it set its face against different evils, and Star Trek optimistically extrapolated the same outlook into the future. But Batman saw through the pose and mocked the grandiloquent heroics: Batman, after all, was a joke, and Batman was its butt.
And Batman set the tone for what came next, of course; for thirty years the tide has run strongly toward jeering at "heroes." That may partly explain why Shatner and West, for all their similarities, are esteemed so differently, with one held in contempt while the other is coddled. West never presented himself as worth looking up to, so we're grateful he spares us the effort of tearing him down.
How ironic, then, that "Beware the Gray Ghost," an episode that has Adam West playing the lead actor in an iconic television show, should be so devoid of irony. The Gray Ghost is a Kirk figure, the granite-jawed defender of rectitude, and Simon Trent is its Shatner, the actor trapped by a career-defining role. This is a ripe target for sociological satire, an opportunity to discover anew how short of expectations our heroes actually stand, and a chance to relax with the complacent knowledge that, really, no one is superior to the savvy media child who smugly sees through all appearances.
And, thank heavens above, we are spared it. For while "Beware the Gray Ghost" recognizes how shy of grandeur is the real Simon Trent, it does so not by mocking him but by humanizing him. It knows that in truth there are no "heroes," not because there is no such thing as heroism but because heroic acts are always practiced by mere mortals doing the best they can under trying circumstances and who return again and again to the fight. Or, to put it another way, it knows that heroes are actors who hope to grow into the role and never give up even when they know they can never fully succeed. Instead, it turns a satirical eye on the "smart" crowd, making its villain one of those savvy creatures who esteem an icon like the Gray Ghost not for the ideals he exemplifies but for his kitsch valuean ironist whose love of toys is finally only destructive.
Of course, BTAS is itself a show in the mode of "The Gray Ghost" and could hardly shoot spitballs without casting an uneasy glance over its own shoulder at its own audience. But it makes no special pleas on its own behalf by softening its characters. Simon Trent is far from an admirable human beinghe's selfish, peevish and easily frightenedand Batman says hard things with no intention of ever retracting them. The argument is not for pity but for understanding, the recognition that before we can appreciate the greatness that human beings are capable of we must appreciate how rotten and callow they can really be. Before anything fine and straight can be made of it, you must see just how crooked the timber really is.
Such is the architecture of the script, but it is West's presence that makes the episode breathe. Probably other actors could have brought greater conviction to the role, more nuance to the line readings, and more subtlety to the conception. But none could have brought the same iconic force. Wittingly or not, West has been the symbol of knowingness and superiority; here, eschewing irony and pathos alike, he decisively repudiates those attitudes in favor of humility and constancy, the foundation blocks for those who would strive to make the world a better place while suffering no illusions as to the ease of the task they have taken up. The young Bruce Wayne could not have chosen a better model; producer Bruce Timm, no more appropriate performer.
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