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Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Johnson’

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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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 rippling of Lou Ferrigno’s abs and the flexing of his triceps and delts are as nothing to the colossal, some might even say desperate efforts 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.

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 decided 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 tire in the middle of a thunderstorm results in a written-off car and the first in a very long line of ruptured shirts…

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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.

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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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