Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
That watershed ABC series, undeniably a prime example of colorful, counter-culture pop art, had so shaded the format requirements for superhero and comic book TV initiatives that a new template -- sans "BAM!" "POW!" and "WHAM" -- was required.
Resourceful and literate, writer/producer Kenneth Johnson crafted that new template when adapting Marvel's The Incredible Hulk comic-book for television. Instead of depending on dynamic super criminals, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and out-of-this-world swashbuckling, Johnson grounded his new hero, David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby), in a more familiar, less over-the-top world.
Series producer Nick Corea was even more specific about the program's approach: "Any writer who comes in with clones or extraterrestrials, we steer in another direction." (John Abbot, SFX #18, November 1996, page 76).
Today, we happily take costumed and colorful heroes at face value, as part and parcel of the triumphant, 21st century superhero genre. We want to see super villains and super feats. So the superhero stigma once associated with the camp 1960s Batman is finally gone. And in something of a turnaround, some viewers might actually gaze at TV's drama The Incredible Hulk -- which rigorously followed a format similar to The Fugitive -- as a bit of a relic; as a time capsule of a different era.
Times change. Tastes change.
Yet The Incredible Hulk ran for four successful years on CBS because of Johnson's dedication to the "human factor." A latter day Jekyll-Hyde story, The Incredible Hulk explicitly concerned the divide between human emotions and human rationality.
Think about it this way: we exist day-to-day by controlling our emotions; by keeping them firmly in check.
Yet in the person-hood of the raging Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), our impulses are free...unfettered. For David Banner -- living in the last days of disco -- the struggle was an internal one; to manage that provoked Id; to restrain the instinct-based beast inside all of us who wants to react to every challenge, fear, and pain with raw emotion and brute force. Hulk smash!
One of the best and most touching episodes of The Incredible Hulk remains the second season opener, "Married" (written and directed by Johnson). A two-hour tale, "Married" originally aired on November 22, 1978, and guest-starred Mariette Hartley as Dr. Caroline Fields.
Caroline is a brilliant psychologist facing her own internal struggle: a terminal disease (like Lou Gehrig's Disease) that has reduced her expected life span to just six weeks.
Our protagonist, David Banner, arrives at Caroline's medical practice in Hawaii to seek her assistance in controlling his "monster," unaware of her own debilitating condition. In particular, Caroline is an expert in hypnosis, and David believes that she could hypnotize his conscious mind into trapping the Hulk within. In other words, he hopes to cage the Hulk with his brain.
Over a few weeks, David and Caroline fall in love...and are married. David tries to cure Caroline's disease, and Caroline tries to cure David of his affliction. And impressively, much of the episode's "action" occurs inside the mind-states of these two individuals.
As David is hypnotized, we see him physically encounter the Hulk in a barren, desert landscape. First, David tries to restrain the Hulk in heavy ropes. But the Hulk breaks out.
Then David tries a cage with steel bars. Again, the Hulk breaks free.
Finally, David attempts trapping the Hulk inside the mental construct of an impenetrable vault. But even here, the beast within him cannot be contained.
Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to use the mind-over-matter hypnosis technique to cure her defective "mitochondria" of the invading disease lesions.
She envisions her put-upon cells as an Old West wagon train; and the lesions there as invading Indian raiders surrounding it. When David formulates a new drug (taken from the Hulk's skin sample...) Caroline imagines the drug as the cavalry, coming over the hill. This is all weird and wonderful stuff, and it fits in perfectly with the 1970s obsession with hypnosis.
The Incredible Hulk always concerned the ways in which our mind responds to external stimuli. We can choose to respond with rage; or we can choose to respond calmly. We can choose to respond with violence; or peaceably. "Married" is very much on target in terms of the series' overriding themes then, since virtually every major scene concerns the way our brain faces conflict and interprets challenges.
Today -- 36 years later -- "Married" has indeed dated somewhat. No doubt there. There are two worrisome scenes during which Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley speak in atrocious Pidgeon English (talking about Chinese food...) and then perform bad John Wayne imitations. This is what seemed like witty and romantic banter in the 1970s, but today's it's just sort of cringe-inducing.
And also, "Married" evidences a big flaw common in many Incredible Hulk scenarios That flaw: the Hulk's presence isn't entirely warranted given the less-than-threatening circumstances.
For example, in "Married" two on-the-make "groovy" swingers wearing polyester pants two-sizes too small pick-up a drunk Caroline and take her back to their bachelor pad (along with a floozy...) for a night of casual sex. David arrives to take Caroline home, and then these two swingers suddenly become violent. They push David around. They pop a champagne cork in his face (!).
Then -- all kidding aside -- they violently hurl him from their second-story bedroom balcony...into a glass coffee table below, thus precipitating an appearance by the Hulk. The un-jolly green giant then proceeds to tear the bachelor pad to pieces. It's an impressive-enough action scene, but entirely unnecessary. Not to mention unmotivated.
Why would two relatively harmless guys with sex on the brain suddenly turn egregiously violent? (And destroy their own apartment in the process?) This sort of thing happened a lot on the CBS series: people who you wouldn't expect to immediately turn to violence suddenly become a HUGE threat so that the Hulk can appear and save the day.
But leaving aside these dated elements, "Married" remain an outstanding episode of the CBS series. Perhaps because of the two-hour running time, Caroline feels like a "real" person and not just the guest-star/love-interest-of-the-week. And the relationship she shares with David doesn't feel forced or silly. It's clear that Caroline and Bruce are both suffering terribly, and sharing what little time they have left together eases that pain. That's as good a reason for marriage as any, isn't it?
There's also one incredibly dark moment in "Married." With only two weeks to live, Caroline plays frisbee with a little boy (Meeno Peluce of Voyagers!) on the beach. The scene is much longer than it need be; and focuses a great deal on Hartley in close-shot. There's almost no dialogue. The scene is mostly silent.
But inscribed on her expression is the agony and regret of the life Caroline will never experience. She will never be a mother; never have children, as she once dreamed of. This is an issue "Married" raised early on, but then returns to with this unexpectedly sad and restrained moment. I can't deny "Married" is a tear-jerker, either, but then that was a perpetual quality of The Incredible Hulk too: it was, overall, a pretty melancholy show.
What I admire most about "Married," however, are those "dream state" sequences occurring in the desert of Banner's mind; as David and The Hulk face each other down. It may not seem like much of a comic-book-style adventure -- there's no Marvel-style mythology or continuity in place -- but the human drama is nonetheless fascinating.
We don't like ourselves when we're angry.
We don't like ourselves when we're bad tampered; when we let our "Hulks" out to roam.
The Incredible Hulk's impressive "Married" externalizes and literalizes the idea of the emotional battle raging within each of us, the battle for control with our barely concealed monsters.
Monday, January 18, 2021
Several of the shots featured above generate suspense as they feature the "ticking clock," counting down towards the moment in which David will be rendered unstable, and changed forever.
The next shot puts David in visual jeopardy, literally putting his brain in the cross-hairs of the experiment. Once again, we get an explicit shot reminding us of DANGER.
Together, the following shots juxtapose inner nature (David's changed psyche and physiology) and Outer Nature, or Mother Nature.
After the dramatic title card (above), it's onto the dramatic business of establishing The Hulk's back-story, and his hapless pursuer, reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin).
Next we get our supporting performers credited...
Sunday, January 17, 2021
Saturday, January 16, 2021
And indeed, if you are familiar with this bicentennial-era series, it may sound like a real stretch that the Gorgon Medusa would appear in the "closed" pocket-universe of the Land of the Lost. But 1976 was a year of significant format alterations for this series, as we've seen in the preceding weeks.
Specifically, star Spencer Milligan -- playing Dad, Rick Marshall -- left the program. On screen, Ron Harper (Planet of the Apes) took the lead as Uncle Jack, and behind the scenes, Sam Roeca, a veteran of CBS's animated Valley of the Dinosaurs, came aboard as writer and story editor. Also, writer/producer Jon Kubichan joined up.
"The first thing that Sam and I did was watch all the episodes," Kubichan reported when I interviewed him for Filmfax. "I wanted the series to be more fun, and to do something in every episode that was instructive in terms of science."
Roeca was on the same page in these desires and shared a mutual enthusiasm for mythology with Kubichan.
Together, the new team sought to present in each third season installment "something from the past, from some literature or children's narrative."
This shift in narrative/imaginative focus resulted in a controversial third season that saw the Marshalls grapple with mythological creatures and beings such as The Flying Dutchman, a unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon, the Yeti...and Medusa.
"Medusa wound her way into the Land of the Lost because that actress is my wife," Kubichan joked with me.
"A writer that I knew came in, Greg Strangis, and came up with his story. He said, 'How'd you like to do a Medusa story?' and I thought it was a good idea. He went home, worked out a story, and I made some changes. He re-wrote a little, and that was that."
One reason that humanoid mythological creations like Medusa appeared on the show so frequently in the third season involved matters of schedule and budget. "It was very difficult to do anything with the dinosaurs," Kubichan informed me. "It took a long time to shoot that stuff, so you can't have it done in a couple of days. It takes weeks..."
In "Medusa," Holly (Kathy Coleman), Will (Wesley Eure) and Cha-Ka (Philip Paley) are busy preparing a sort of emergency canoe on the river that the Marshalls explored in first season's "Downstream." Holly boards the craft, and when a dam down-river breaks, she end ups hurtling away from the others. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named "Meddie" (Marion Thompson), and escorted to Meddie's "Garden of Eternity."
There, in the Garden, Holly sees several very life-like statues, including a statue of one Jefferson Davis Collies, the Civil War soldier that Holly encountered with her Dad and Will in the aforementioned "Downstream."
Now, this is a really splendid and entirely unexpected bit of continuity in the series; a direct reference to a program two years previous. The statue of Collies is even seen with his beloved cannon, Sarah.
After Holly learns that "Meddie" has also turned the land's resident triceratops, Spike, to stone, she begins to suspect that she's in some real trouble. Meddie attempts to entice Holly to stay in the Garden by offering her a new, beautiful dress..
Elsewhere, Uncle Jack, Will and Cha-Ka, attempt to rescue Holly from Meddie -- Medusa -- but most grapple with the Gorgon's sentient mirror (!) and the ambulatory, crushing vines that crawl all over the Garden of Eternity. In the end, Jack defeats Medusa by forcing the monster to gaze upon her own horrifying reflection...
Today, Land of the Lost's dedicated sense of creative imagination and fantasy far outstrips the production's prehistoric special effects, which have not aged gracefully. The series is still incredibly enjoyable (the effects are no worse than Dr. Who's; or Blake's 7, for instance...), but "Medusa" is nonetheless hampered by some poor visualizations.
For instance, when "Meddie" turns into the Gorgon, it's clear that the snakes in her hair are just rubbery, inanimate, life-less things. And her gray, monstrous face make-up doesn't extend fully down her neck. In other words, you can see clearly where the make-up stops and real flesh color begin.
But again, Land of the Lost remains a really terrific Saturday morning's kid show because it is so endlessly imaginative, and because many episodes tend to concern great concepts, whether from science fiction (like time-loops, for instance) or from mythology. Greg Strangis's fantasy story is actually grounded in reality too, and has two very notable themes.
In a very real way -- and this is probably why this episode was so frightening to children at the time -- the episode concerns our childhood fear of strangers.
Here, Holly is alone and taken in by an apparently kind adult, but one with secret motives. She tries and tries to get away, but the adult is both demanding and apparently friendly simultaneously, and, well, it's hard for kids to go against the wishes of an adult. Here, the stranger is indeed a monster, and Holly must plot her escape carefully. So the story here, in veiled terms, is -- watch out for strangers.
The other sub-text in "Medusa" surely concerns vanity. "Meddie" is ultimately undone by her narcissistic obsession with her physical beauty. According to the teleplay, it is actually "ugly" to be too concerned with one's self. As Holly notes at the end, the problem with vanity is that you might -- like Medusa -- get "trapped" by it.
As a six-year old kid, Land of the Lost's "Medusa" terrified me to my core, but it wasn't just the Gorgon's appearance and frightening ability to turn people to stone that was so powerful; it was the idea that she was a dishonest, untrustworthy adult who was planning to do monstrous things to an innocent child.
Yikes...now that's disturbing in a real life way; a way that, well, dinosaurs or Sleestak are not.
Today, it's probably hard to conceive that an innocuous Land of the Lost from the disco decade was ever something that was legitimately "scary." But even today, you can detect how the series always attempted to ambitiously present a lot on a very small budget.
For instance, "Medusa" features one or two very impressive high angle shots of Medusa's lair. These difficult-to-stage angles get across the atmosphere of danger and dread in a powerful way. A kid's show in a hurry likely wouldn't have found the time to pick out the right angle in moments like these, but Land of the Lost remains powerful (especially to the young-at-heart...) because its stories were conveyed with care both on the page and on the stage.
"Medusa" is a strong entry for the third season, which has been some rough sailing thus far. It's imaginative and scary, even if certain questions about it persist. Like, for instance how did Medusa get into the Land of the Lost, and how has she so long eluded the notice of the Marshalls (or the Sleestak, for that matter?)
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