Sunday, April 20, 2014
The Incredible Hulk (1978 - 1981) is a real rarity in cult-tv history.
It is a comic-book adaptation that is completely unfaithful to the details of its literary source material, and yet remains beloved by fans. For example, the series presents a different origin for the Hulk, omits the comic's supporting characters, and features no comic-book villains whatsoever.
Worse, the series adopts the tired, oft-recycled format of The Fugitive (1963 - 1967), about a man on the run from the law, with a hapless pursuer forever on his trail but never catching him.
Despite such obvious creative deficits, the stories on The Incredible Hulk, such as "Married" with Mariette Hartley, are enormously affecting and well-written. Similarly, the late Bill Bixby is remarkably good as David (Bruce) Banner, and Lou Ferrigno is the perfect living embodiment of the Hulk, no CGI required, thank you very much.
The carefully-crafted opening or introductory montage for The Incredible Hulk nicely reflects the series' virtues. At first blush, it may seem like an outright copy of the intro for its contemporary, The Six Million Dollar Man (1974 - 1978), since it features a voice-over narration explaining the main character's "accident" and then new predicament.
Yet on close examination, one can see how adroitly and artistically The Incredible Hulk montage introduces the artistic and dramatic parameters of this revered superhero series.
The first shot is among the best and most critical of the entire montage. It is a close-up view of an indicator flashing red, reading in all-caps "DANGER."
But, intriguingly, the framing of the word "DANGER" largely omits the "D" at the front of that word. So, the first image we see is a red flashing indicator that says, basically "ANGER."
And "ANGER," of course, remains a key concept for this interpretation of the Hulk mythos. It is extreme anger, after all, that precipitates the transformation from mild-mannered scientist David Banner to gamma-ray-infused juggernaut, the Incredible Hulk.
Following a zoom back from the word "ANGER, we get a view of the high-tech scientific equipment being used in an experiment by Dr. David Banner. The next several shots focus on the nature of the danger (an increase in "Gamma Units," and reveal that David is, himself, the test subject.
Two additional things to note in the following shots: First, there is a frequent focus on hands throughout the montage.
In this case, framing or featuring two hands in the shot represents or symbolizes "balance." At this point, David's psyche is ordered and balanced, and so when we see both hands positioned are they are, we are to understand that this is, literally, Ground Zero, of the experiment. David is starting from stability, and moving towards, alas, grave instability.
The second visual we see here is one of equipment being prepared for the dangerous experiment.
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.
At this point, David is suffused with gamma rays during his experiment to "tap" the hidden strength he believes all humans possess, and the X-ray shot of a human skull suggests that his very body chemistry is altered.
In the next series of shots, we understand that the experiment has been carried out, and that David has been altered by the gamma rays. We understand this from a view of his cells, which undergo transformation and change.
Next, we get a shot of lightning in the sky at night, an indication that David's experiment is unnatural. It has made God angry.
Together, the following shots juxtapose inner nature (David's changed psyche and physiology) and Outer Nature, or Mother Nature.
Together, the following shots juxtapose inner nature (David's changed psyche and physiology) and Outer Nature, or Mother Nature.
Next, the narrator reveals that, post-experiment, when David grows angry or outraged, the change to the Incredible Hulk involuntarily occurs.
We see one example of this happening. David attempts to fix his car on a rainy night, and again, we see two hands, representing balance, undertaking repairs.
Then, we see just one hand, as David is injured during his attempt to change a tire. The focus on one hand at this juncture suggests his imbalance, and we get a close-up of him screaming in pain and rage. Once more we see the x-ray skull and his altered cells, to remind us of Banner's transformed nature.
Next, as the change from David Banner to The Hulk commences, we move into our first opening title card, indicating performer credits: "Bill Bixby in...."
As we wait for the title of the series (and are left hanging by the word "in..."), we get our first view of the titular character, the Incredible Hulk. Not surprisingly, it is an asymmetrical view: a view of one arm -- much like one hand -- indicating imbalance.
Thus we understand, psychological and physical balance is lost as Banner's muscles grow, clothing rips, and the Hulk erupts. The creature is revealed in all his glory, but not before demonstrating his strength by over-turning the damaged vehicle.
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).
The following frames feature an intense conversation between prey and pursuer, McGee and Banner, that has become iconic, even a trademark of the series.
David tells McGee not to make him angry, and, furthermore, that the reporter would not like him when he is angry.
The word "angry" very clearly ties into the opening shot of the montage, which flashed "ANGER" at the audience.
In the next series of shots in the intro, we see fire and explosions, an indication that David has faked his own death, so he can look for a cure to his condition without being hounded by the police, or anyone else.
Again, the visual of fire seems to symbolize the Hulk's nature too, the anger and rage burning inside. The creature represents a form of anger that burns out of control.
Similarly, the scenes of fire seem to validate Banner's warning to the reporter. Don't get too close to him -- or the flame -- or you''ll get burned.
Next we get our supporting performers credited...
The story continues below, as we see David visiting his own grave.
His defiance of Mother Nature for the advancement of science and medicine has led not to glory or hope, but to the death of his life as it was, a death symbolized by the headstone and the locale.
The inference? David cannot live a normal life so long as the monster boils and burns inside of him. The man who he was is now dead.
Finally, a great split-screen shot that I absolutely love.
In the graveyard, David looks up sadly from his own casket, and we see his face juxtaposed -- split in half, actually -- with the Hulk's face.
This shot represents a different kind of balance than any we have seen in the montage thus far. David has split himself, Jekyll-Hyde style, and he will know no peace until he is restored.
The Incredible Hulk opening montage does a terrific job, in 90 seconds or so, of establishing David's back-story, and the nature of the experiment that ruined his life.
More than that, it highlights ANGER as the thing that he cannot contain, the quality that brings out the monster within. And again, that is a key concept of the series, going forward.
Below, the montage in its entirety:
Saturday, April 19, 2014
In “City of Evil,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel chase down Skullis, a diabolical wizard who has acquired a magical gauntlet from a human village near the ruins of Boston.
They retrieve the gauntlet, but Skullis stumbles into an experimental research laboratory from the twentieth century, and discovers a miniaturized city inside. If he can get the gauntlet back, the sinister sorcerer will have the power to restore the metropolis to its full size, and turn its people into his new army.
Skullis makes a deal with the citadel’s leader to help them return to the normal world, but he has not reckoned with Thundarr’s tenacity…
“City of Evil” is an interesting story, even if does raise some intriguing historical questions.
Foremost among these is, simply, why is the Citadel is so advanced and futuristic when we know that the apocalypse occurred in 1994, when the world looked much as it does today.
In other words, how come a city existed in 1994 with the technological to miniaturize itself?
And since the city has survived in all the 2000 years since, why bother with returning to normal size?
The miniature city or society meanwhile is a great and familiar genre trope. A famous episode of The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) “And There Were Giants” concerned astronauts discovering a miniaturized city. And a Year Two Space:1999 (1975 – 1977) story, “Seed of Destruction, similarly, deals with the “Seed of Kalthon,” an object which, with massive infusions of energy, can restore an entire civilization to the universe at large.
In the DC Supergirl mythology, the city of Kandor was miniaturized, as well, and held captive by Brianiac.
In Thundarr the Barbarian, the city -- I believe called Thebes -- is restored to normal size, and then almost immediately destroyed, with its denizens made homeless in a space of hours. So the people who live there basically waited 2000 years safely for a return to normal size, and in less than a day, their city was destroyed. That’s a pretty tragic story.
The visuals in this episode of Thundarr are as exciting and resonant as ever. We see a battle on a bridge and interstate highway near Boston, and there’s some great imagery of the Barbarian battling tiny warriors from the city on their jet glider vehicles. They strafe by Skullis's face like angry bees and Thundarr notes “We’re under attack…but I see no attackers!” Then Ookla the Mok swats the ships away handily..
Monster Squad (1976 - 1977) -- not to be confused with the late 1980s movie, The Monster Squad (1987) -- is a one-season Saturday morning series developed by Stanley Ralph Ross, one of the key writers of the Adam West Batman (1966 – 1969) series.
Like Batman, Monster Squad’s style is high-camp, meaning that all the heroes face their various crises with melodramatic solemnity, a solemnity that plays to adults as funny but kids as serious.
Also like Batman, Monster Squad is famous for its rogue’s gallery of celebrity villains. Some of the actors who wore crazy get-ups and twirled their metaphorical mustaches on the program included Julie Newmar as “Ultra Witch” and Jonathan Harris as “the Astrologer.”
Briefly stated, the premise of Monster Squad is that a young and hopelessly earnest criminologist, Walter (Fred Grandy) has developed a fantastically advanced crime computer at the Chamber of Horrors exhibit in the basement of Fred’s Wax Museum. This large-scale computer can rise out of a sarcophagus platform when in operation, and features a “secret government” channel and radio transmitter.
One day however, the “oscillating vibrations” of Walter’s crime computer awaken three of the museum’s figures, Dracula (Henry Polic II), the Frankenstein Monster (Michael Lane) and The Wolfman (Buck Kartalian). These figures are apparently the real deal, resurrected, and not merely wax representations of them. However, it is never explained why the wax museum was housing the bodies of such dangerous monsters.
Regardless of their precise nature, these three “monsters” from history wish to atone for their sins by solving crimes with Walter, and thereby making reparations to society.
With Walt operating out of the Chamber of Horrors, Dracula, The Wolfman and The Frankenstein Monster are thus frequently dispatched -- in a black 1970s van -- to combat evil-doers around the city.
The first episode of Monster Squad, “Queen Bee” -- which aired on NBC the morning of September 11, 1976 -- stars Alice Ghostley as the insect matriarch, the aforementioned Queen Bee. As the episode commences, she has ordered her bee minions around the world to attack unsuspecting humans. This “unexplained rash of bee stings” is noticed by Walt, who captures a bee and attempts to interrogate it with the Crime Computer.
One will notice here that the Crime Computer has a slot designed and labeled for insect analysis. This makes one wonder how often evil bugs show up in town…
After a time, Walt frees the bee, and Dracula tracks it in bat-form to Queen Bee’s headquarters. There, he and his monster must stop the Queen Bee’s plans before the United Nations can surrender the world to her.
The 1970s represents the great era of “killer bee” entertainment, from the movies Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and The Swarm (1978) to TV series such as The Starlost (1973-1974) which featured an episode about giant bees called “The Beehive.”
In terms of “Queen Bee,” the Monster Squad episode reports about the South American killer bee briefly, but otherwise conjures up little in terms of fact. Instead, the installment features about a hundred bad “bee” puns for Ghostley and her buzzing minions.
“I bee-seech you,” says one character. “Bee-ware your fate,” says another.
After a while, we also get “bee-lieve me,” “bee-guiling,” “bee-wildering,” “bee-headed,” “bee-trothal,” “bee-tray” and other variations on the theme. One non -“bee” joke is Queen Bee’s comment that one of her minions always “bumbles.”
As you can probably guess, this witless approach grows tiring after a while, though it anticipates the approach to Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997). The episode -- like all Monster Squad episodes -- plays as particularly arched, and not overly amusing. Everyone is in on the joke, but the joke isn’t as amusing as it is on Batman, and this Saturday morning series also lacks the resources, and hence production values of that camp classic. For instance, here Dracula is put in a vat of honey, and the vat is a tiny little barrel.
Viewers who were kids in the 1970s may be most interested here to see a Mego toy re-painted and used as a prop in “Queen Bee.” Ghostley’s “bee” communicator is actually a Star Trek walkie-talkie from the age, but painted gold. The prop -- with a different paint job -- recurs as Walt’s crime computer remote control in the next episode, “Mr. Mephisto.”
Although Monster Squad doesn’t hold up particularly well-today, I remember that I absolutely loved it as a seven year old, and that I wished and hoped for action figures, playsets and other toys featuring these lovable and familiar monsters. There was, as memory services, a board game available at one time.
As bad as some of these episodes are, the opening theme song and introductory montage still provide me a nice kick of nostalgia…
Next week: “Mr. Mephisto.”