In “Sylvia,” the first episode of the TV series, The Immortal (1970-1971), Ben Richards (Christopher George) -- a man with blood that serves as a kind of fountain of youth -- comes out of hiding to help his former fiancé, Sylvia (Carol Lynley), who is on the verge of her marriage to a man named David Hiller (Glen Corbett).
Ben is unaware, however, that he has a new enemy. A business tycoon named Arthur Maitland (David Brian), has picked up where Jordan Braddock left off, and is desperate to possess his unique, immortality-granting blood.
To that end, Maitland has hired a cunning mercenary, Fletcher (Don Knight) to procure Richards for his personal use, and survival.
Knight’s first gambit is, not surprisingly, to use Richards’ attachment to Sylvia Cartwright against him. He plans to capture Richards at her engagement party, where Maitland is a guest. Richards walks into the trap, but receives unexpected help from Hiller, who turns out to be a decent and moral man.
After escaping Fletcher’s grasp, Richards must say a final goodbye to Sylvia, and the life they once shared.
The first hour-long episode of The Immortal opens with the following narration, voiced by Paul Frees:
“This man has a singular advantage over other men. Ben Richards is immune to every known disease, including old age. Periodic transfusions of his blood can give other men a second, third, lifetime…maybe more.”
After these words, we hear Richards notes: “I gotta live free.”
Welcome to The Fugitive 2.0, with a science fiction veneer.
Ben Richards is our man-on-the-run (substituting for Richard Kimball), and Fletcher is the latest “hapless pursuer”-type, filling in for Lt. Gerard. Here, it is Paul Frees who narrates, not William Conrad, as was the case in The Fugitive.
Finally, the quest in The Immortal is not to find the “One-Armed Man” who killed Kimball’s wife, but rather Ben Richard’s brother, who could possess the same, special type of blood as his sibling.
Of course, by locating his brother, Richards is actually leading his pursuers right to him, but that’s an argument for another day.
In terms of specifics, “Sylvia” is superior to some later episodes of the series because there are connection, even if tenuous, to the TV movie.
For instance, Carol Lynley reprises her role as Richards’ one true love, Sylvia Cartwright. The teleplay also makes mention of Jordan Braddock, the first tycoon to seek to control Ben’s future (and his blood).
The episode also does a good job introducing Don Knight’s Fletcher, a real cut-throat character.
Knight’s performances in the series are always delightful, and worthwhile, but the actor must continually struggle against an archetype that makes him seem incompetent. In other words, if Fletcher were to succeed in capturing Richards, the series would come to an end. Therefore, Fletcher must forever be outwitted, out-smarted, and outmaneuvered by his opponent. This fact means that, no matter the dignity of the performance, the character comes across as somewhat incompetent, even insipid. Knight does his best to overcome this structural/formula deficit.
David Brian's Maitland, by contrast, does not come off well here at all. He seems far less sinister and distinctive a nemesis than his predecessor, Braddock, was. His heart doesn't seem to be in the pursuit.
Like the TV movie that preceded it, the emotions and intrigue of “Sylvia” all resolve in…a car chase.
It’s just a sign of the times, and 1970's television, I suppose, but it is disappointing. “Sylvia” sets up an interesting love-triangle between Richards, Sylvia and Hiller, and then -- instead of following through -- takes to the road for crashes and high-speed pursuits.
In the end, Richards voluntarily gives up Sylvia after she admits she can’t live on the run, as a fugitive. Richards leaves, alone, and Sylvia can find happiness with Hiller, instead. Convenient for her, no?
The episode culminates with Hiller wondering if Richards has a chance to outwit his enemies. Sylvia replies that “he has a change, as long as he won’t quit.” When a formula is applied so strenuously to a series, there is little chance of that.
Richards, like Kimball before him, will always run because The Fugitive format requires him to do so.
Next week: “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees.”