Thursday, March 01, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "By Gift of Chance" (November 19, 1970)

In Mexico, Ben Richards (Christopher George) is attacked and shot in an alley.

The badly wounded immortal is aided by Garland Colley (Herbert Jefferson Jr.), a drifter who offers to help him get across the border to America using an ‘underground railroad’ of sorts for illegal immigrants.

Once across the U.S. border, however, Ben and Colley are quickly sold into servitude at a tomato ranch, where a draconian task masker, Loomis (Michael Conrad) works his field-hands to death, even exposing them to a toxic pesticide. Loomis’s prized crop is under attack from pin-worms, and the workers, who have no rights because of their illegal status, have no voice in the matter.  They can work, and die. Or they can refuse to work, and also die.

As Ben recovers from his injuries, he learns he is at the Henderson Ranch, and that Loomis is just as brutal to the owner of this “hard-scrabble farmland” as he is to the workers: Alpha Henderson (Jacqueline Scott).   

After Colley dies, saving Richards’ life a second time, Ben and Alpha work together to stop Loomis from his continued exploitation. They burn down the tomato crop, destroying Loomis’s ability to harm any others so he can make a profit.

Well, after last week’s compelling episode “The Queen’s Gambit,” it’s back to business as usual on The Immortal (1969-1971) in “By Gift of Chance.”

Once more, the audience finds Ben Richards in an adventure that has absolutely nothing to do with his unique blood, or unusual situation.  Instead, he’s just the generic man on the run, encountering people, this time immigrants, who need his help.

As we have come to expect, there’s also a romance (or pseudo-romance, this week), with the female guest star of the installment, and a touch of social commentary too. In regards to the latter quality, “By Gift of Chance” is certainly timely, since it involves illegal immigration, and exploitation of immigrants, once they have arrived in the United States. Because of their illegal status, they are easily manipulated and mistreated by unscrupulous business interests

“By Gift of Chance” is enlivened, largely, by the presence of a sci-fi cult-TV favorite, Herbert Jefferson Jr., who played Boomer on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), and is this week’s sacrificial lamb character. 

The sacrificial lamb, in case you are wondering, is the character in series such as this one whose decency and friendship -- and then untimely death -- lead the rugged man-on-the-run to act affirmatively for the defense of others. 

We had a sacrificial lamb type named Charley a few weeks backed in “The Rainbow Butcher.”

At this point, all the story and character elements: man on the run, hapless pursuer, female love interest, and sacrificial lamb are so firmly ensconced in the formula that episodes of The Immortal seem to write themselves. That’s the greatest disappointment of this series, no doubt: the utter reliance on an old formula.

Sooner or later, that mortgage payment comes due” one character laments in “By Gift of Chance,” and I can apply that statement to The Immortal, as well. The series relies so heavily on a tired formula that many weeks the episodes are just time-wasters.  We learn nothing about Ben. We learn nothing about his condition. We learn nothing about his future, either. 

But here’s the thing that really vexes me when I think about the series: are episodes like “Man on a Punched Card” or “The Queen’s Gambit” only so strong because of the fact that most other episodes are run-of-the-mill man-on-the-run tropes like “By Gift of Chance?”

Would the good episodes even register as such without all the formulaic ones?

I don’t know for sure, but this week, while watching, I thought of how imaginative The Immortal could have been. Each episode could have jumped ahead a decade or so since Ben Richards could have been the same age, in each decade, and there would have been no need to use old-age make-up on Christopher George.

It would really be fascinating to catch up with him twenty, or thirty years, into his fugitive run.  Of course, Fletcher would have aged at a much faster rate.

Next week: “Dead Man, Dead Man.”

1 comment:

  1. Hi John,

    There was a point during the viewing of this episode that I could almost feel the malaise setting in. Not as a viewer. One can almost sense a weariness of sorts, as if the grind of production was starting to wear on everyone involved with the show. This might indeed be a result of the repetitive nature of the stories. How many times can we see the same tropes, week after week, before indifference sets in? Were those making The Immortal feeling it, too? I mean, come on...the girl in every port do you manage to make that boring? Why is every antagonist so one-note when we've seen the actors playing them do so much better elsewhere?

    Even so, I can't question the production values on display each week. It's a total gas seeing Herb Jefferson, Jr. and Michael Conrad. The music is as strong as ever. The scenery can be breathtaking. The time capsule nature of the series is intriguing. There's much to admire here. We judge the series as we would like it to be, but not within the constraints of the time in which it was made. I'd submit that the episodes you point to as exemplary would still hold up when examined individually, not as part of the whole. I don't think the folks watching television at the time expected more than a simple story, a little action, romantic subplots, and not much in the way of mental challenges or deep thinking. Some of these worked better than others.

    I agree that The Immortal could have been so much more, but we are seeing why its longevity was brief (ironically enough). Yet, if it strove to be more than this, to challenge its viewers, would they have been ready for it? It's a quirky concept with a mainstream conceit, trying to walk a tightrope between what it is and what it wants to be. When it falls, it falls hard. But when it succeeds, we appreciate what we've just seen.

    By the way, whatever happened to Ben's brother? He hasn't mentioned that little plot device for several weeks!



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