Posts Tagged ‘Jack Colvin’

Episodic TV was (and perhaps remains) an all-consuming monster, devouring time, talent and money in order to produce 45 or 60 minutes of product every week. People get tired, money runs out, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So how do TV producers cope? Well, obviously, on ensemble shows you can rotate the cast, so some people aren’t featured so prominently some weeks; other programmes have the option of doing what they call ‘bottle shows’, a money-saving measure whereby an episode features only the regular cast and sets. A third possibility, mainly intended to save time, is ‘double banking’, where two episodes are produced simultaneously (both carefully written to feature largely different sets and characters). The most derided shortcut, however, and one of the most obvious to the audience, is the clip show.

Clip shows are basically thinly-disguised re-runs, where a selection of highlights (or not) are presented once again to the audience via some sort of frame story. Clip shows used to be more common than they are today; Gerry Anderson seemed particularly keen on them back in the sixties. The last live-action instance I can think of is the gruelling Shades of Grey episode of TNG (known in some circles as Riker’s Brain), although I believe The Simpsons still persists with the form.

The Incredible Hulk‘s first contribution to the odd world of the clip show is probably a better example, mainly due to the circumstances which led to it. The episode in question, Proof Positive, came about because Bill Bixby, the show’s star and central presence, was unavailable for filming due to court dates for his divorce. They had all the usual time and money, they just didn’t have a lead actor. So what were they going to do?

Proof Positive (written by Karen Harris and Jill Sherman, two of the series’ stalwarts) opens in a manner which quickly makes it obvious this is a very atypical episode. The cold open starts with the Hulk roaming an arid desert, apparently in pursuit of the reporter Jack McGee (an ironic role reversal). The impact of the sequence is somewhat reduced by the fact it’s clear that while Lou Ferrigno is obviously on location (I think this is reused footage from the start of season two), Jack Colvin is filming his contributions in a sandpit somewhere and the two never share the screen. Anyway, the Hulk catches up with McGee, gets ready to do him an injury –

And McGee wakes up in a cold sweat. Clearly he has been letting the Hulk get to him. This would be bad enough, but his obsession with tracking the creature down means he is ignoring all the juicy sex scandals his employers at the paper expect him to cover as well. Trouble is on the cards, especially when the paper gets a new publisher, Pat Steinhauer (Caroline Smith), who wants to take the tabloid up-market and sees stopping publishing Hulk stories as an essential part of this (Steinhauer was the name of the show’s producer – the series has a certain penchant for this kind of in-joke).

Well, Jack McGee takes the news as well as you might expect and threatens to jump off the roof of the building. His editor is quickly on the case, both as a humanitarian and a pragmatist – ‘Call the police and the fire department! And get a photographer out there!’ Quite how much of this is a ploy by McGee is left open, but Pat agrees to let him try to persuade her the Hulk is the stuff of serious news, so he can keep the story.

And… roll those clips! Actually, this clip show works better than most, partly because the clips make up only a small proportion of the episode, and also because they’re quite well chosen to recap the history of McGee’s encounters with the Hulk and their subtly-changing relationship (by this point McGee knows that someone else turns into the creature, he just doesn’t know who). We kind of rub up against one of the limitations of the format, in that Pat seems almost wilfully sceptical about the Hulk even existing (he’s popped up in front of whole crowds of people by this point), but I suppose that’s necessary to make this episode work.

If nothing else Proof Positive is a chance for the writers to develop McGee’s character a bit more, and it’s one which they enthusiastically grab: this may mark the point at which he becomes more of a secondary protagonist of the series, and less of a menace to Banner. On the other hand, this does take a rather melodramatic form – Colvin gets to deliver long, heartfelt speeches about just what his pursuit of the Hulk has cost him, personally. There’s also a rather odd shift in that the episode starts as McGee trying to persuade Pat of the Hulk’s reality, but somehow ends up as a romance between the two of them, chief impediment to which being that he believes in the Hulk and she doesn’t. The problem is that they start talking to each other in highly impassioned terms apropos of pretty much nothing, almost as if a scene has been omitted from the final cut.

Hey ho. In the end there is a quite well-staged Hulk-out in a blast furnace (McGee inevitably falls down some stairs and drops his tranquiliser gun), with Lou Ferrigno running through a pile of foam rubber painted to look like scrap metal, and a pretty good episode results without Bill Bixby having to involve himself at all.

(Although, one has to wonder – did they even consider doing a Ferrigno-centric episode where our hero spends the whole time as the Hulk? Could this have been an opportunity for the story, which Lou Ferrigno was apparently desperately keen to do, where the Hulk develops the ability to speak? I can think of a couple of ways this could have been attempted, but I expect there were very sound reasons for doing a McGee episode instead.)

Then again, sometimes you can have all your stars available, a decent budget to hand, and some interesting ideas, and still end up producing something with the ineffable aura of duffness about it. This brings us to Deathmask, written by another of the show’s lynchpins, Nicholas Corea, which aired in early 1980 (around the time it’s actually set). This episode gets off to an uncompromisingly dark and very atypical start, with a masked killer standing over the corpse of his recent victim, a young blonde woman, who has had a plaster death-mask placed on her face. It transpires that a serial killer is preying on the female students of a minor university – the students are uneasy, with groups of vigilante young men patrolling the grounds after dark and suspicion inevitably falling on any quiet drifters who may have recently arrived in the area.

Stand up, then, David Brent, which is the rather unfortunate and mood-breaking alias adopted by Banner this week. He is working on the campus (and taking the opportunity to do some genetic research of his own in his spare time), and, being the sensitive, charming babe-magnet that he is, managing to carry on at least two low-key romances as well. One of these is with campus figure Joan Singer (Melendy Britt), who in her own spare time runs the women’s self defence club. The local police chief (Gerald McRaney, making his fourth guest appearance in three seasons), who’s a big city cop recently relocated here for a quieter life, seems to have misgivings about this project, suggesting that fighting back may only incite a male attacker to worse violence. He also seems to carry a bit of a torch for Joan, which does not incline him to look cheerily upon Banner.

The Incredible Hulk is a show which is not afraid to head into some unusual territory, but this episode really does feel like it’s pushing the envelope – the tone is dark and sombre, and the script tackles some complicated issues concerned with violence against women head on. It’s still a show from nearly 40 years ago, so don’t expect it to be exactly enlightened, but this is still heavy (and thus interesting) stuff for a Marvel superhero TV show.

However, things go badly wrong round about the mid-point: Banner has just said goodnight to one of his amours when she is attacked by the death-mask killer. Our hero being the kind of chap he is, he charges in, the stress levels rise, and before you know it the Hulk is flipping over cars and both he and the killer are running away from cop cars. David’s young friend is left in a state of shock, repeating his name again and again, the kind of thing you just know is going to be misinterpreted…

The next morning Banner is dragged in by the police, having been a person of interest already due to his studied vagueness about his background. We don’t see him actually being arrested, and the question of why he didn’t just get the hell out of town as soon as he de-Hulked is skipped over; we know this was already his intention. Common sense and logic would suggest that at this point the game is up for Banner, as having his mug-shot taken and being finger-printed would be awkward enough, before we even consider the results of a proper investigation into his identity. (Even before we consider that his companion would surely vouch for his good character.)

But the series cannot allow its format to be shattered in this fashion, and desperate contrivances are introduced to dodge all these points. The local mayor is up for re-election soon and, for somewhat obscure reasons, believes that having the death-mask killer interrogated locally will help his chances of swinging the vote. So all those usual procedural niceties are conveniently waived. And what of the witness who can clear him of the crime? Aha, well she is unable to do so, as she is kept drugged into a coma – this is not even revealed until the last moments of the episode, when it feels like an afterthought.

To be honest, revealing it earlier might have tipped off the resolution of the episode. I’m not sure ‘twist’ is quite the right word for this. The conventions of US TV drama in 1980 mean that the killer has to be caught, but also that he can’t just be some guy off the street; he has to be an established character. There are not many candidates to be the murderer – in fact, there is only one, and this is (spoiler alert, and I use the word ‘spoiler’ in the broadest possible sense) the police chief. A troubled childhood, together with many years on the mean streets of Chicago, have left him as deranged as the current state of British politics, and it is he who has been killing all the blondes.

How do we know about the troubled childhood, and so on? Aha. The scenes in which Banner is interrogated about his obscure background and the selection of fake IDs discovered in his possession are initially quite interesting, but soon – and rather preposterously – turn into the police chief delivering various hollow-eyed monologues about the untrustworthiness of women, striking a rather Travis Bickle-esque note as he does so. Banner, being Banner, seems to be more concerned about helping his captor with his issues than with the fact he could be on the verge of very serious trouble.

More serious than he knows, as disgruntled locals, led by the father of one of the victims, have decided to deliver their own brand of justice by storming the police station and lynching Banner, conveniently doing so just after the killer chief has departed to kill Joan. Yet again the format of the series creaks under the strain: we are supposed to accept that the Hulk is an urban legend, his existence and nature subject to debate: but in this episode Banner hulks out while under a pile of people, and the Hulk smashes his way through at least two walls on his way to rescue Joan. He is a peculiarly solid and destructive urban legend.

I do really like The Incredible Hulk, in a genuine and non-ironic way, but I have to say that Deathmask is one of its weaker episodes – there is a lot of potential here, and there are glimpses of the much better episode this could have been – I’m not sure about whether the whole ‘violence against women’ angle is really a good fit for this kind of show, but someone taking a serious interest in Banner’s identity obviously lends itself itself to some dramatic moments. But in the episode-as-made, the script bangs up against the restrictions of the format and the results of the collision are not pretty. All I can say is that, even when it’s not very good, The Incredible Hulk is at least bad in an interesting way.

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There seems to be a bit of a pattern developing, at least to the extent that whenever I end up writing about The Incredible Hulk TV show it’s more than likely to concern episodes from the fourth season. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – with any long-running, somewhat-formulaic series, most of the episodes tend to blur together and become fairly indistinguishable. The thing about the fourth season of Hulk is that there seems to have been a genuine attempt to push back against the constraints of the existing format, with episodes that break new ground or explore the characters in a new way.

This tendency is there from the very start of the season, which opens with the two-part story Prometheus. This is so radically different from the typical Hulk episode that it almost looks like the series is undergoing a significant reformat – for good or ill, this turns out not to be the case.

The story is written and directed by series overseer Kenneth Johnson, and opens with US military radar detecting an object heading for Earth out of deep space. It must be an asteroid, but… it’s a strangely symmetrical cylinder! What can it be? At least the radar techs are certain where it’s going to come down: northern Utah.

Which is where, naturally, we catch up with our man David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course), who is doing a spot of fishing. This turns out to be rather incongruous, given we later learn he has recently had one of his episodes and is planning to make his usual rapid and discreet departure, but I suppose even irradiated fugitives are allowed a fish supper now and then. Anyway, Banner comes across a young woman who has fallen in the river, and ends up fishing her out as well.

She turns out to be Katie, a recently-blinded pianist who has retired to the wilderness to be alone with her bitterness (even in one of the more genre-oriented Hulk episodes, they find time for some slightly sentimental melodrama, but this is one of the series’ charms if you ask me). Katie is played by Laurie Prange, who clearly specialised in this sort of thing: she played an heiress suffering from hysterical paralysis in the series’ second pilot.

Well, unbeknownst to Banner and Katie, the military are preparing for the arrival of the mysterious space object, although running the show is an equally mysterious agency known as Prometheus. McGee (Jack Colvin), who is in the area checking up on the recent Hulk appearance, smells a story, and starts to poke around.

Sure enough, the meteor enters the atmosphere as predicted – ‘A shallow trajectory! Almost like it’s being piloted!’ says someone in uniform. As you can see, the episode seems to be foreshadowing something highly unusual about the object, possibly even the appearance of a genuine extraterrestrial. But this is all a bit of a red herring: on this occasion, a rock is just a rock, albeit one with some unique properties.

As luck would have it, Banner and Katie are in the area when the meteorite strikes, and – thinking it may be a plane crash, with survivors needing help – Banner selflessly trots off to investigate. All he finds is a big rock – but it’s one that seems to cause him severe discomfort, the closer he gets to it. Being Banner, he ends up tripping over a beehive and turning into the Hulk (Hulk smash bees!). It has to be said that this is an extremely well-done set piece, especially considering that not very much happens.

Katie is less than thrilled when the Hulk bashes his way into her cabin, and frankly non-plussed when he reverts back to Banner. Or does he? Here the episode unveils its biggest new idea: the meteorite is giving off unique gamma radiation which screws up Banner’s body chemistry even more. Banner hasn’t fully changed back; he’s stuck in a transitional form between his human form and the Hulk, with somewhat enhanced strength, limited mental capacities, and a bestial appearance. This Demi-Hulk is mostly portrayed by Bixby under prosthetics, but there are frequent and somewhat instrusive moments where bodybuilder Ric Drasin plays the Demi-Hulk in long shot.

With the army combing the area, Katie decides to take the Demi-Hulk into town where her brother can decide what to do with him – but she ends up wandering past the meteor crater, where the army, McGee, and representatives of Prometheus are congregating. Another big set piece ensues, with the Demi-Hulk going back into his full-on green form, and a full-scale clash between the Hulk and the army on the cards. However, Prometheus has another option, dropping what is called the ‘Alpha Chamber’ (basically a dome made of foot-thick steel) on the Hulk and taking him prisoner (probably best not to worry too much about how the dome works as a piece of machinery). The episode ends with the Hulk and Katie being flown away to parts unknown…

You could probably argue that Prometheus‘ first episode is built around some suspiciously static set-pieces, but the combination of big ideas, lavish production values and excellent direction still make this one of the best episodes of the series. Of course, the second episode has the job of paying off this set-up, and it’s here that the story stumbles a bit.

All over the country, scientists attached to Prometheus are being activated and brought to the agency’s secret base, in the belief that the Hulk is actually an alien who arrived on the meteorite (there’s a very X-Files/Andromeda Strain vibe going on here). Meanwhile, the (now badly dented) dome is brought in, Katie is whisked off for examination, and the Hulk is placed in an observation area inside a microwave force-field (quite how the Hulk and Katie are separated is, once again, perhaps best not worried about).

Meanwhile, McGee has also managed to infiltrate the complex and is watching what happens with interest. Unfortunately, the Prometheus scientists meet with little success in their attempts to establish intelligent communication with the Hulk, and their bright idea of sticking a chunk of meteor rock into the chamber goes badly wrong when the enraged creature escapes by ripping a hole in the concrete floor and goes on the rampage through the complex…

This is still a very strong and distinctive episode, not least because it is so Hulk-centric – Lou Ferrigno gets much more screen-time than usual, possibly even more than Bixby. And the big new ideas keep coming, with the revelation that Prometheus is a secret government agency tasked with handling possible alien contacts and exploiting any discoveries in the American national interest (a bit like the Torchwood Institute from that other show, in fact). There’s the prospect of a team-up between McGee and Prometheus in order to capture and study the Hulk.

But all of this… doesn’t really go anywhere, unfortunately. The big climax of the episode largely concerns Banner’s relief at discovering that, away from the meteor fragments, he can fully de-Hulk himself. Which is fine, but the Hulk has been the object of so much of the episode, that for it to conclude with him as its subject is a slightly jarring shift.

And there is a lot of padding and filler in the episode – the Prometheus scientists are introduced in detail and at length (slightly sleazily, in one instance), there are endless scenes of the Alpha Chamber being moved about by crane, and so on. Even a scene in which McGee discovers the shady hidden agenda behind Prometheus doesn’t contribute much to the plot.

You almost wish the episode had really gone all the way with the sci-fi B-movie vibe and had the meteorite disgorge some kind of gamma-guzzling alien monster for the Hulk to have a proper fight with. There’s certainly slack in the episode that could be used to accommodate setting this up, and I’m sure it would have been a great climax. There was also clearly a big budget for this episode, so producing another monster suit could certainly have been possible. The series wasn’t afraid to go down this route just a few weeks later with the Hulk-on-Hulk battle at the end of The First. So one wonders why Prometheus doesn’t just go for it a bit more.

In the end, though, everything just resets back to normal come the end, with the exception of Katie being less of an embittered recluse: Banner magically replaces all his stuff and goes back on the road, McGee goes back to hunting the Hulk, and so on. Given the Hulk has just demolished a multi-million dollar base, one wonders why the US government don’t pursue him much more actively from this point on, but that’s TV from this point in time: the episodic format was king, even if it could productively be pushed against sometimes.

This is why I say that Prometheus is only halfway-brilliant – it’s full of potential which never quite gets fully realised. But even a halfway-brilliant Hulk story is still extremely watchable TV.


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I have occasionally commented in the past on the meatgrinder nature of episodic TV, the constant need to find new and interesting ideas and situations that work within a particular format. Sometimes you can tell that people are just grabbing concepts from different places and slapping them together – when this works, it can produce really interesting material. But when it doesn’t, quite…

Which leads us to Deep Shock, an episode from early in the fourth season of The Incredible Hulk, originally broadcast in late 1980. The show was sixty episodes in by this point, so perhaps it’s understandable that a) the series should feel a little formulaic by this point and b) the makers should be trying to shake things up a little bit. We find ourselves at the Tres Lobos power plant, which is currently being converted to automatic control, something causing no end of grumbling amongst the workers who suspect they are conniving in their own redundancy by making the alterations. Also helping out, which if nothing else proves there was a major shortage of labour in the early 80s, is our man David Banner, employing one of his trademark wafer-thin alibis (‘David Benton’ this week).

Well, Banner finds himself co-opted into helping the gruff-but-caring shop steward Edgar (Tom Clancy, but not the famous one) on a tricky part of the job – but it turns out that Edgar has an undisclosed heart condition and things do not go according to plan. Soon a high-voltage cable is spitting sparks everywhere, endangering both men. Despite the fact the episode has only just started and it’s really much too early, Banner turns into the Hulk and saves Edgar’s life – but in the process he is exposed to a massive burst of electricity, enough to flatten even the Hulk.

After a day or so in a coma, Banner wakes up in hospital, where the attending physician (Sharon Acker) is pleasantly surprised by his resilience (Banner stays deadpan about this). But she is also concerned about his mental state – apparently being electrocuted can have strange side-effects, and she’s also noticed that his brain contains a high level of a chemical associated with split-personality syndrome – does he have any history in this department? (Banner stays deadpan about this too.) I’m not sure the neuroscience in this episode is really up to much, even by the standards of 1980.

Banner checks himself out and moves in with Edgar, just in case he does have any side-effects, and also to progress the plot. Edgar is about to be forced to retire, because of his heart, but there is still the future of his guys to resolve! And also the issue of how safe the plant will be when it’s run solely by machines. The heartless suits who run the place just don’t seem to care.

Meanwhile, Banner finds himself suffering from tinnitus, and something more – apparently, and this really is the plot, the Hulk’s electrocution has given Banner temporary precognitive powers, and now he has visions of the future (just for this episode). It’s not at all clear, but they seem to involve some sort of crisis at the power plant, with the Hulk on the rampage at the heart of the complex. Maybe it’s time to get out of town and start listening for that piano music…

It doesn’t work out that way, of course, and the episode concludes with the Hulk tearing through the odd wall and smashing up a few consoles, after Edgar basically hijacks the plant in an attempt to show how vital human involvement in managing the place is. It all feels a bit contrived, and an attempt to do the end of The China Syndrome on TV with a rather low budget (The China Syndrome was in movies the previous year, around the time of the Three Mile Island incident – I will just mention again that Banner is working at the ‘Three Wolves’ power plant). Also, with the first Hulk-out shifted to the start of the story, the episode feels like it has a rather flabby middle, with arguments about industrial relations and the usual low-comedy business with Banner and McGee just missing each other in hospital lobbies not doing much to help.

In fact, other than the movie pastiche and the slightly odd structure, the most distinctive thing about Deep Shock is the Banner-becomes-precognitive element, which is certainly a curve-ball and quite atypical of what’s usually a studiously down-to-earth programme (or as studiously down-to-earth as a programme about a green gamma monster with an infinite supply of jeans can be). I can’t help wondering if the whole psychic-powers element of the story was a late addition to pep the rest of it up. It doesn’t really impinge on the main storyline and could easily have been cut without too much difficulty. In any case, it produces an episode which is ultimately distinctive without being especially distinguished.

I’m not entirely sure the same isn’t true for the next episode, Bring Me the Head of the Hulk (not something anyone says, or seems likely to say, in the story itself), for all that it regularly pops up in ‘Top Ten Best Hulk Episodes’ lists. This is yet another shake-up-the-formula episode; the start of season four had a lot of these. I suppose it is especially noteworthy for being directed by Bill Bixby, the star of the series. You would have thought that a consummate actor like Bixby would have been a shoo-in to direct one of the more character-driven episodes, but this is almost pure action-adventure stuff.

It begins with a Hulk-out already underway, with the creature demolishing another laboratory before vanishing into the night. But news of this latest Hulk-sighting is delivered to Paris, France (stock footage from the Universal library duly sets the scene), where psychopathic mercenary La Fronte (Jed Mills) seems to be tracking the Hulk’s appearances. ‘Another genetics lab,’ says his (apparently) faithful lieutenant, Alex (Sandy McPeak), seemingly unsurprised.

The thing about Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is that it does rather ignore all the conventions of the series as established up to this point – that the Hulk is an urban legend like Bigfoot, primarily. Here it’s strongly implied the Hulk goes around wrecking genetics labs on a fairly regular basis, and that this makes it into the media somehow or other. If so, why aren’t the police and army hunting the Hulk, instead of just the lonely and quixotic McGee? The episode also implies that working out the Hulk’s real identity is not that challenging either.

Well, anyway, La Fronte goes to the offices of McGee’s paper and promises to kill the Hulk for them, in exchange for a truckload of cash. McGee demurs, partly because he has come to realise the Hulk is essentially benign, but also because he knows the creature is also a normal person most of the time. So the mercenary heads off to the paper’s competitor, who agree to bankroll his Hulk-killing scheme.

Here we do step rather a long way from credibility, if you ask me. La Fronte’s cunning plan is to set up his own genetics research lab, advertise for staff, and then give preference to hiring people who match his Hulk profile. If he’d talked properly to McGee, he’d know just to hire people with the first name David and a surname beginning with B, but I digress. Needless to say, Banner (using the cunning pseudonym David Bedford) applies and makes it onto the shortlist of Hulk-suspects, together with five other guys.

(Really? There are five other people with the same skill set and a history of being in town when the Hulk shows up? Who are these people? What must they think of their sheer bad luck? There’s potential for a whole episode here that barely gets touched on.)

Banner ends up as chief assistant to Dr Cabot, a geneticist known for her interest in phenomena such as werewolves and other odd transformations. She is played by Jane Merrow, a British actress who appeared in The Avengers, plus various Hammer horrors and other British genre movies; the kind of person who’s a fixture of the heritage section of this blog, if we’re honest. Needless to say there is a lab accident, leading to our first proper Hulk-out of the episode, and the confirmation for La Fronte that his plan is working. But with McGee on the verge of tracking down La Fronte’s operation, he may have to force the issue if he wants to get the Hulk in his sights…

Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is, obviously, a rather different episode: it has three Hulk-outs (well, two and a half, at least); it has someone actively pursuing the Hulk, with considerable success; we actually get to see Banner on the phone applying for another of the endless jobs he drifts through (and his interview technique is so dreadful it’s a miracle he ever gets work); we get to see McGee actually saving the Hulk’s life, for a change. But is there quality to match the novelty?

Well – I’m not sure, like I say. La Fronte’s plan works so quickly and perfectly that you do wonder why McGee, supposedly a brilliant investigative reporter, hasn’t managed to catch up with Banner yet. And La Fronte is such a one-dimensional loon that it does kind of hurt the credibility of the episode. This series doesn’t often do full-on villains, and La Fronte isn’t in the first rank of them – he doesn’t convince in the same way as Sutton from The Snare, or Frye from The First. (Being French can only excuse so much.)

And, to be honest, I kind of miss the down-to-earth naturalism and character stories which this series usually does so well. The closest we get to that here is a subplot about Alex and Banner becoming friends, leading the somewhat world-weary mercenary to question his allegiance to La Fronte. It’s good stuff, well played by McPeak, but rather peripheral here. The main plot is so atypical and busy that everything else gets squeezed out – this might have worked better and had more space to breathe had it been a two-parter, but this season already had two of them – the brilliant The First and the nearly-brilliant Prometheus. As I say, it’s hard to keep this kind of series fresh, so I suppose the makers of The Incredible Hulk deserve credit for trying so hard. In the end I would have to say that Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is the better of these two episodes by far, but is it a classic? I’m still not sure.


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I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzyingly diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.



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While I’m waiting for the next DVD box set to arrive (keep your little fingers crossed, it should be here some time next week) I thought I would go back and look in a little more detail at some of those episodes of The Incredible Hulk which I singled out as being particularly noteworthy just the other day. The logical place to start is with the pilot movie, and so, uncharacteristically, I have decided to start by looking at the pilot movie.

The efforts that went into the creation of Lou Ferrigno’s rippling abs and bulging triceps and delts are as nothing to the colossal, some might even say desperate ones this movie makes to be as un-comic booky as humanly (or superhumanly) possible. Kenneth Johnson, the writer/producer/director, is very open about the fact that he didn’t want to do The Incredible Hulk; and indeed what he actually ended up making is a sort of Americana-inflected variation on Les Miserables where Jean Valjean swells up like a balloon twice an episode and knocks his way through a wall now and then (although The Fugitive is clearly also a massive, and probably more proximate influence).

Certainly, even the opening font and title card of The Incredible Hulk are more like the stuff of Masterpiece Theatre than a typical action TV series, and the pilot opens with, of all things, a flashback montage, shot in soft-focus: a pretty brave choice, especially considering it concerns the soppily happy marriage of David Banner (Bill Bixby). However, things take a more ominous turn as the sequence goes on – Banner and his wife are in a car accident; he is thrown clear, she is trapped in the wreck. He tries desperately to lift the car and free her – the flames leap higher – and the widowed Banner awakes from his recurring nightmare, ten months later.

In what some might call an unwise career move, given his personal issues, Banner and his colleague Elaina (Susan Sullivan) are researching cases of people displaying phenomenal strength or resilience in moments of extreme personal crisis. What’s largely left unsaid, of course, is that Banner is still consumed by grief and guilt over his failure to save his wife, and is not trying to find an explanation for his subjects’ miraculous strength but his own weakness.

Anyway, it turns out that everyone they investigate was subject to a rare combination of a freak DNA mutation, coupled to an abnormally high level of atmospheric gamma radiation (sunspots, or something) at the time of the crisis. Banner has the DNA mutation, but gamma levels on the day of his accident were unusually low.

You’d think that would have resolved it all, but Banner has his eureka moment late at night and, as often happens to me when I have a good idea late at night, goes a bit mad about it rather than getting some sleep and reviewing it rationally the next morning. In true Marvel Comics fashion he decides to test his hypothesis by – oh, Banner! – blasting his own brain with gamma radiation and seeing what happens. This sequence is well-mounted and Bixby’s performance is, as usual, immaculate, so much so that you happily overlook how hokey and more than a little contrived it seems. It leads into Banner’s interrupted journey home, when a recalcitrant flat tyre in the middle of a thunderstorm results in a written-off car and the first in a very long line of ruptured shirts…


This first Hulk-out leads Banner and Elaina to move to a more secluded lab, but also draws the attention of reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), a guy who they’ve been giving the brush-off to for ages as his newspaper is just too downmarket for them. McGee is intrigued by the testimony of the first people to see the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, though you can just make out original performer Richard Kiel in one shot), and quickly figures out the boffins are hiding something (to be fair, they’re pretty bad liars).

Banner has his recurring nightmare again, which leads to a second Hulk-out and a terrifically well-mounted sequence in which the Hulk smashes his way out of a reinforced observation chamber before being placated by Elaina. This convinces the duo to try and find a cure for Banner’s condition, but before they can get very far with this, McGee sneaks into the lab and accidentally starts a disastrous fire…

Watching the pilot for The Incredible Hulk, you’re not really surprised that this show went on to run for nearly five years (as Johnson has noted, the most successful show of its kind): there’s really very little wrong with it at all. All you can really criticise it for are some of the dodgier moments of the Hulk-transformations, and even these were state-of-the-art back in 1977. The rest of it is an extremely polished and intelligent production, made with considerable skill and thoughtfulness.

Its success is largely down to Johnson’s script and direction, both of which are serious without being overly earnest or too po-faced, and the performances of the leading actors: a large part of the film is composed of a series of two-handed scenes between Bixby and Sullivan, and they succeed in creating a couple of believeable, sympathetic characters. You kind of know from the start that Elaina probably isn’t going to make it to the closing credits in one piece, and Sullivan does such a good job of making her intelligent, caring and likeable that you’re still rather saddened when she eventually meets her end.


Rather less sympathetic than he would later become is McGee, who for the purposes of this movie is essentially the bad guy, sticking his nose into Banner and Elaina’s business for his own reasons. McGee is notably sleazier and less scrupulous than in later episodes, and his motivation for pursuing the Hulk is left unsaid. Had the show ever had a ‘proper’ final episode, one hopes they would have addressed the issue of McGee’s own culpability in the death of Elaina Marks and the disappearance of David Banner – because, ironically enough, it’s all quite clearly his fault! As it is, no-one ever wonders much about the exact cause of the climactic fire (although they do have other things on their minds).

On David Banner’s mind, one might guess, is Guilt; something that features as a bit of a motif in some of the weekly series’ most memorable episodes. He starts the movie consumed by his failure to save his wife, and it’s clearly this which is driving his research. Perhaps it’s this sense of failure which makes him so stress-prone, in which case the Hulk is birthed as much by guilt as by rage. There’s no ironclad reason given on screen for Banner to go along with everyone’s assumption that he’s dead and begin his lonely existence as a drifter searching for a cure, but it is entirely in keeping with his characterisation in the rest of the movie. Feeling responsible for one death turned him into the Hulk to begin with; it’s not surprising that a second might provoke such an act of self-chastisement. You really do feel for the guy: in an almost too-poignant final twist, Elaina confesses her love for David – who’s Hulked-out at the time – with practically her dying breath (Lou Ferrigno portrays the Hulk’s confusion and grief extremely well, by the way), but it’s later revealed that he has no memory of her telling him this.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into what is, after all, just a TV pilot about a slightly absurd superhero, but the quality and tone of Johnson’s Hulk is such that it invites this sort of speculation, and you don’t feel ridiculous for thinking about it in these terms. Although this was made for TV, it got a theatrical release in Europe – and if you judge it as such, then simply in terms of its success as a piece of drama, this is still the best Hulk-centric movie ever made.

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Anyone who has been amused/interested/left indifferent/driven to apoplexy by my past moseys through such TV SF and fantasy greats as Babylon 5 and Original Trek will probably have noticed things have been quiet on that front of late. Well, you know, Life: but, if you must know, I have spent the past four or five months slowly making my way through the complete run of The Incredible Hulk on DVD. Truth be told, this was never a show I felt a particular urge to revisit, until seeing a handful of episodes on rerun made me suspect it might be rather better than its reputation.

The Incredible Hulk remains a well-remembered and generally well-liked show, I think: though it seems to be an indulgent sort of liking. You probably won’t get far in any reminiscence about it before encountering a reference to the sheer number of shirts and boots David Banner gets through, a play on ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry’ or a snipe at how formulaic the series was.

Well, I suppose the show is guilty as charged when it comes to all of the above. The format does demand a large degree of indulgence from the discerning viewer, because – for a drifter without a steady income – Banner does seem able to re-equip himself with clothing with startling ease, while many of the scenes where he improbably changes back into his normal self and gets dressed again without anyone noticing are given a free pass simply because they occur off-screen during the original transmission’s commercial break. The ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry’ line has justifiably become iconic, not least because it’s in the title sequence of virtually every episode, while, yes, it is a pretty formulaic series: there are almost always precisely two Hulk-outs per show, usually at the same points in the narrative – you can nearly set your watch by them, to be honest.


And yet once you get past all this, the rest of the series is a much trickier beast to pin down, with a lot more going on than you might expect. The stories take in a range of settings, tones, and genres (you tend to remember The Incredible Hulk as not much more than a string of crime melodramas, but there are many episodes which function as personal drama, comedy thriller, full-on thriller, SF-fantasy and even disaster movies), and draw upon a range of influences. Sometimes these are quite obvious, especially when the episode in question makes heavy use of stock footage from the movie in question (Duel, Airport 1975, and Earthquake are notable donors), but there are also stories drawing heavily upon more surprising sources: the original film version of Frankenstein, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Masque of the Red Death all seem to have inspired episodes – and superior ones at that.

Which is not to say that the show doesn’t appear to struggle for plots a bit, especially towards the end of the run. Some of the later episodes are oddball (the one about dwarf wrestling, or the one where Banner is taken hostage by heavily-pregnant escapees from a womens’ prison), or lacklustre and obviously cheap, or simply peculiar (the one where the Hulk gets a severe electric shock, with the odd side-effect that Banner briefly develops precognitive powers).

However, the truth is that, even when the scripts wobble, the series has the absolutely reliable asset of Bill Bixby’s central performance. Bixby walks the tightrope of making Banner sensitive and humane without actually turning him into a wimp and barely ever puts a foot wrong; even when the scripts are iffy, Bixby keeps the show completely watchable. Given a really strong script, he is breathtakingly good – Banner’s grief and despair in the episodes where he (erroneously) believes the Hulk has killed someone are completely convincing.

Bixby is so good as Banner that you’re not left kicking your heels waiting for him to turn into the Hulk, as I remember was the case with similar shows from the same period (the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man and Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman). In fact, you might almost argue that the show is somewhat skewed in Banner’s favour – he almost always gets more screen time than the Hulk, added to which the Hulk never actually gets any dialogue, and thus has very little depth or character (most of the time). This inevitably makes the TV version of the Hulk the least interesting version of the character – any tension between Banner and the Hulk is left entirely implicit most of the time, apart from in the odd dream sequence and hallucination. Perhaps it’s also a problem that there’s really so little facial resemblance between Bixby and Lou Ferrigno; you never completely believe that Banner and the Hulk are genuinely the same person.

Rounding out the cast, on a semi-regular basis at least, is Jack Colvin as the reporter McGee. I have to confess that while watching this show as a child, McGee never really made much of an impression on me – I suspect I was just tuning in for the ripping shirts and the Hulk trashing stuff – but on reflection he is one of the show’s greatest assets, and the slow development of the complex relationship between Banner and McGee is one of the most satisfying elements of the series. A trashier show would have made McGee an immoral sleaze, a genuinely bad guy – instead, he becomes almost as sympathetic as Banner by the time things conclude, as well as serving as the audience’s point-of-identification in more than one episode (he even gets to carry his own episode at one point, season three’s Proof Positive, in which Bixby only appears in flashback).


Wikipedia suggests that the most popular episodes of the series with its fanbase are the pilot, Married, Mystery Man, Homecoming, The Snare, Prometheus, The First, and Bring Me the Head of the Hulk. I have to say I find myself not entirely in agreement with this list. I don’t have anything like the stamina to write about every episode of this show in detail, but if I were to choose my top ten it would be:

  1. The Pilot. In which it all kicks off, obviously.
  2. The Hulk Breaks Las Vegas. In which the Hulk doesn’t actually break Las Vegas, but ends up having to save McGee’s life.
  3. The Antowuk Horror. In which the Hulk takes on Bigfoot. Or does he…?
  4. Stop the Presses. In which Banner finds himself obliged to break into the offices of McGee’s paper. What could possibly go wrong…?
  5. The Snare. In which a psychopathic millionaire whose hobby is hunting and killing drifters picks very much the wrong target…
  6. The Psychic. In which a woman with paranormal powers uncovers Banner’s secret, just as it seems that the Hulk has committed a murder.
  7. Equinox. In which Banner and McGee find themselves attending a decadent costume party on a private island, and a showdown is on the cards.
  8. Bring Me the Head of the Hulk. In which a demented French mercenary sets out to bag himself a monster, and McGee may just find himself saving the Hulk, for once.
  9. The First. In which Banner discovers the truth about legends of a savage green-skinned creature from the 1940s, and a battle of the Hulks is on the cards.
  10. The Harder They Fall. In which Banner is left paraplegic after a car accident. Dare he risk using the power of the Hulk to restore himself?

An honourable mention really should go to the two-parter Prometheus, the first episode of which is up there with the very best of the series: it clearly enjoys a much bigger budget than a regular episode, and is stuffed with interesting ideas – the Hulk is captured by a shadowy agency within the military-industrial complex who suspect he may be an alien, while further exposure to gamma radiation leaves Banner unable to completely de-Hulk-out. Unfortunately, the second half really has nowhere to take these ideas, beyond a lot of running around.

Also, a mention for a couple of episodes which went unmade due to the abrupt cancellation of the series, but one can only speculate as to what the conclusion of the series might have looked like, as it was never properly conceived, let alone scripted and filmed. We know a little bit more about the planned fifth-season episode in which Banner’s sister was supposed to receive an infusion of Hulk blood. One is compelled to speculate – is the non-appearance of this episode responsible for the actress in question (Diana Muldaur, probably best known for playing Pulaski in the second season of Star Trek: TNG) showing up in a different role in season five? The similarity to the origin of the She-Hulk in the comics barely needs pointing out, although the comics character appeared eighteen months before the fifth season started airing (it’s telling that in the debut issue of Savage She-Hulk, Banner’s cousin refers to him as ‘Doc’ throughout, presumably to avoid confusing anyone not aware that the TV and comics versions of the characters have different first names). I can’t honestly believe the show would have gone all in and actually introduced a version of the She-Hulk, but this surely qualifies as a great lost episode.

It would have been a rare example of the TV show following the comic, anyway: perhaps the greatest legacy of the show, and the sign of its success, is that it has permanently influenced mainstream perceptions of the Hulk. I watched part of the Ang Lee Hulk movie the other night, and it’s really not as bad as its reputation: but one gets a strong sense that it’s perceived as a disappointment largely because it’s presenting a take on the Hulk primarily based on the comic, with the TV show not really a consideration. As I’ve said before, one of the notable things about the second Hulk movie is the much greater pains it takes to play to fans of the TV show: Bill Bixby appears on a TV screen, some of the set designs deliberately recall the TV pilot, a character named McGee has a tiny cameo, and the famous theme tune is referenced as well.

Bill Bixby with Kenneth Johnson, creator of the series.

Bill Bixby with Kenneth Johnson, creator of the series.

None of the other MCU characters have anything like the Hulk’s pedigree when it comes to live-action storytelling, and yet the Hulk seems to be the one they have the hardest time developing vehicles for. I wonder if these facts are entirely unrelated. Maybe, maybe not. But until Marvel Studios figure out what they’re going to do with him, for many people he will always be hitch-hiking his lonely way from one city to another, with a lone piano playing on the soundtrack, and while he may look like Mark Ruffalo on the outside, within he will always be Bill Bixby.

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The relentless demands of a highly formulaic weekly TV show can, sometimes, result in the strangest of progeny. Yes, it’s time for another look at some episodes of The Incredible Hulk – on this occasion, beginning with The Harder They Fall, a story with almost too much going on for its own good, thematically at least.

The plot gets underway very briskly indeed, beginning with Banner going about his usual hitch-hiking business – this stuff usually goes on between episodes, but not on this occasion, for a simple and entirely random traffic accident results in our hero being hit by a car and hospitalised (the bump is clearly not hard enough to provoke a Hulk-out, but then the series is always just a bit vague about exactly what the trigger is: he often gets hit on the head without anything occurring, for instance). Somewhat shockingly, the prognosis of the doctors is not good: Banner has sustained permanent spinal damage and will be a paraplegic for the rest of his life!

Or, let’s face it, a fair chunk of the rest of the episode, at most: I don’t think anyone was under any illusions on this count, even when the episode was first broadcast in 1981. The big red (or in this case green) reset button was king, and the paralysis idea is a fairly hokey plot device anyway. Bill Bixby, naturally, gives a terrific, heartfelt performance as a man struggling to come to terms with a terrible psychological blow, and is easily good enough to make you temporarily forget that it’s a dead cert that Banner will be fully mobile by the end of the episode. It’s not exactly the most heroic or sympathetic of characterisations, either – Banner is clearly deeply in denial and retreats into himself, rejecting all offers of help in favour of deep self-pity.

In the depths of his despair, Banner eventually recalls the phenomenal healing factor of his emerald-hued alter-ego and actively contemplates intentionally triggering a transformation into the Hulk in the hope that this may help with his affliction. But memories of the kind of havoc and damage the Hulk can cause gives him pause – would it be right of him to unleash the beast for such selfish reasons? It’s a fascinating moral dilemma and offers the hope of a real insight into Banner’s personality – is he really the selfless, considerate man he always seems to be?

Sadly, the episode rather cops out when it comes to this particular angle, and moves on to be more about Banner’s relationship with his counsellor, another paraplegic named Paul (played rather well by Denny Miller). Paul is a former businessman attempting to get back on his – er, attempting to re-establish himself, but struggling in the face of patronisation and prejudice from the able-bodied folks around him. He is, at least, a good counsellor, and – another brilliant touch – Banner almost seems happier in the sequences where he makes progress with his physical therapy than in most of the rest of the series when he’s able-bodied.

Then, of course, Banner and Paul go out for a beer and – somewhat improbably – a fight breaks out between the guy in a wheelchair and a patronising drunk. Banner gets pushed down a flight of stairs, and, well, you can guess what happens next.


Or maybe you can’t: for in what’s surely one of the more striking Hulk-out sequences of the series, the creature is initially as paralysed as Banner, and the sight of the Hulk pounding his own own useless legs in fury is remarkably moving. But he’s the Hulk, after all, and while the exact extent of his invulnerability remains vague in the TV show, he can clearly regenerate a spinal column like nobody’s business. Soon enough the Hulk is staggering around and wrecking the joint as usual, before running off into the night.

Here, of course, the episode’s biggest plot hole opens up, for following the commercial break Banner is back in the hospital, his spine having somewhat healed as a result of spending time as the Hulk: he still can’t walk unassisted, but he’s got some feeling and muscle control back. How exactly did he get back to the hospital? Were there no awkward questions to be answered, concerning how a paraplegic managed to get from the bar to wherever it was that he de-Hulked, unassisted? One is almost tempted to assume the Hulk gives off some sort of gamma energy that makes everyone around him unbelievably dumb.

Oh well. The second half of the episode is really about society’s attitudes to the disabled – one of the slightly awkward things about The Harder They Fall is that, being made in 1981, it uses the word ‘cripples’ instead – and Paul’s travails trying to get a bank loan as a man in a wheelchair. It all gets a little bit histrionic, not to mention melodramatic. McGee turns up and, somewhat nonplussed, agrees to try and get his tabloid newspaper to run a story on disabled rights in return for Paul spilling the beans on the Hulk. In the end Paul decides to show society it’s wrong to underestimate the disabled by – good grief – staging a fake bank robbery, and of course it’s up to Banner to stop him. In an outrageous bit of plotting, Banner ends up stealing McGee’s car in order to stop Paul, and – but of course – trouble en route results in the car getting smashed, from the inside out.

Needless to say, the second Hulk-out completes the miraculous recovery of David Banner’s spine and at the episode’s conclusion he is back on the road, seemingly heedless of the various unanswered questions all this has raised. Again, is no-one at the hospital even slightly curious about this man’s spine spontaneously regenerating itself? Wouldn’t they at least keep him in for tests? And one thing the episode does rather neatly is reemphasise that the Hulk isn’t just a big green guy who growls a lot and smashes stuff up: he’s a superhumanly resilient and vital being, capable of more than just feats of strength. There’s surely a moral dimension here that the story doesn’t really address – one of Banner’s doctors actually comments on his miracle recovery and says there are lots of other people who could use the same thing. Shouldn’t Banner be trying to find a way to harness and control the power of the Hulk for the benefit of others, rather than just cure himself of his Hulkish tendencies?

This is a striking and memorable episode, with at least one outstanding sequence. And I can’t fault the intentions of the story, or the strength of the performances involved – but at the same time, the episode is a little bit melodramatic and obvious, going for the human issues surrounding what it means to come to terms with being paraplegic, rather than Banner’s more particular issues with his gamma-related condition. I can understand why they did that in a show as mainstream as this, but it’s still a bit of a shame to see the chance for a look at a different and perhaps less saintly aspect of Banner go somewhat underexploited.

Not much sign of such psychological complexity in Half Nelson, another mixture of heartfelt social commentary and uproariously contrived Hulk-outs. This was written by Andrew Schneider, the executive story editor on the series, who also wrote the very superior SF-horror episode The First. Half Nelson is not SF-horror. Instead, it’s… actually, I’m not entirely sure there’s a name for what it is. It starts with Banner pitching up in Baltimore, where he intervenes in a mugging being perpetrated on a dwarf. (For God’s sake, Banner! What are you thinking of, man? Don’t you know that’s how plots get started?)

hulk nelson

Oh well. Banner loses all his money but keeps his shirt and shoes, and befriends the victim, Buster (Tommy Madden), who introduces him to – dearie, dearie me – Baltimore’s seemingly-flourishing dwarf wrestling circuit. Buster may be short on legs but he has tall tales aplenty, to say nothing of braggadocio, and sure enough his big mouth gets him and Banner into trouble before too many commercial breaks have elapsed. Soon enough the mob not only believe that Tommy knows the identity of some wrestlers who ripped them off, but also that Banner is a famous money launderer in town to help dispose of the money.

The chased-by-mobsters plotline doesn’t really get going until after the first Hulk-out, prior to which the story revolves around Banner getting mixed up in the dwarf wrestling circuit and being the tallest person at parties on the dwarf social scene. (I was almost put in mind of that Garth Ennis-scripted issue of The Punisher where Frank Castle and Wolverine team up to fight a gang of psychopathic vigilante midgets, but even Half Nelson never gets quite that weird.) The look on Bill Bixby’s face suggests either a very deadpan comic performance, or an actor who can’t quite believe the script he’s being required to perform.

Anyway, the mobsters rough Banner up outside a dwarf party, with predictable results – predictable, that is, until the Hulk meets the little people. He seems rather baffled by and sweetly curious about the dwarfs and even gets into a fight with one of them (a trashcan lid rebounds off his shin), before the plot requires him to run off in slow motion. The second half of the plot sees McGee putting in his usual second-half appearance, where Jack Colvin’s reaction to learning the Hulk is now apparently hanging out with little people is not that dissimilar to Bill Bixby’s, and includes this episode’s bit of Proper Drama, where Buster laments the stereotype mainstream society has of little people. He never wanted to be a wrestler! He wanted to be a doctor, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be taken seriously, and so on. This all goes until the mobsters and McGee track Banner and Buster down to the wrestling area. This, of course, leads to another preposterous plot development where Banner ends up disguising himself as a masked luchador to evade the reporter, only to end up in the ring, with more predictable results.

(Here the format really creaks a bit: Banner hulks out in front of a crowd of hundreds of people and proceeds to throw a two-hundred-pound wrestler into the balcony, and yet we’re expected to believe that McGee is the only person involved in pursuing the Hulk, and is regularly mocked for doing so. On the strength of this episode, tracking down the Hulk should be a national obsession.)

Well, it is nearly all ridiculous nonsense, as you can probably tell, and even some of the principal players occasionally seem to be struggling to take proceedings seriously. But after a few quite seriously dramatic or actionly-adventurous episodes in previous weeks, it is at least genuinely funny at quite a few points throughout its running time. Still, this is such a bizarre fit for a show like The Incredible Hulk that it’s hard not to conclude that the series is showing signs of creative exhaustion. It is at least a fun way to get wasted.

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