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Posts Tagged ‘The First’

You find your correspondent at a bit of a low ebb, I’m afraid, partly due to my habitually-misbehaving brain chemistry, partly due to the fact that – once again! – Jason Statham’s latest film is effectively unavailable for me to watch in Oxford. (Even typing those words is making me start to sigh and grumble.)

However, doing sterling work in keeping me cheerful is the fact that the Horror Channel is now available on Freeview. It is, in fact, mounting a strong challenge against BBCs 2 and 4 as my routine go-to channel of a weekday evening. Now, as I’m sure has occurred to you, finding things to put on something called the Horror Channel during the day has led the schedulers to adopt a fairly broad definition of what constitutes ‘horror’.

So the evening shift kicks off just before six with an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series which – some of Riker’s acting excepted – rarely approached the horrific (I can think of the episode where Howling Mad Murdock turns into a giant spider, and that’s about it), while a little later comes – oh bliss of blisses – some repeats of 20th-century Doctor Who, which I suppose frequently sneaks in under the horror bar. (As I’ve said, I usually shy away from referring to it as ‘the classic series’, but as I type episode three of City of Death is showing, and there can be few higher pinnacles in the entire history of the series.)

However, the real surprise package of the evening schedule has proven to be re-runs of the 1970s and 80s version of The Incredible Hulk, with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. When I was a lad, this was a ubiquitous, iconic piece of TV, a real banker of the commercial network, and the extent to which it has branded itself onto public perceptions of the character is telling. A lot of the mainstream criticism the 2003 Hulk movie drew mainly boils down to people saying ‘it’s not like the TV show’ – and it’s indicative that the 2008 follow-up made a concerted attempt to address this, even to the extent of incorporating some of the imagery and musical cues from the TV series.

Watching Hulk again now, one is transported back into an earlier age of TV, at least a decade prior to the idea of an ongoing story even entering the minds of US network executives. These were the days when individual episodes were as self-contained and interchangeable as beads on a wire, with the obvious exceptions of the launch episode and (very occasionally) two-parters and series finales. All TV was made this way until about 20 years ago, while virtually none is now: I wonder if we haven’t perhaps lost a little something as a result.

Certainly Incredible Hulk‘s formula is almost instantly discernible to anyone, virtually at once: David Banner (Bill Bixby) turns up somewhere new and gets dragged into the troubled lives of the people he meets. Frequently there are small-time crooks involved. Halfway through the episode there will be a crisis and he will Hulk out, turning into Lou Ferrigno in a peculiar wig and a ton of body paint. The Hulk will engage in some small-scale property damage and slow-motion running but everything will be happily resolved inside fifty minutes, but not before another climactic Hulk-out.

Cue many jokes about ‘he must get through a lot of shirts’, plays on ‘don’t make me angry’ and ‘it isn’t easy being green’, and fond reminiscences about the poignant closing theme. However, the fact is that even today The Incredible Hulk stands up surprisingly well, mainly because it knows what it wants to be and sticks to it – namely, a moderately restrained and fairly thoughtful mainstream drama, albeit one with a large green monster featuring in every episode’s climax. It’s impressive in the way it takes one of the darkest and strangest comic-book superhero stories and turns it into something very akin to The Fugitive: an emotional drama more than anything else.

The first episode I caught was King of the Beach, which sticks pretty close to all the basics of the series: as things open, Banner is working as a dishwasher in a restaurant in California. The chef at the restaurant is Carl, a good-hearted and ambitious young man who wants his own eaterie and is saving to do so. He is also a big lad, however, and this leads him into the clutches of a young female confidence trickster and some small-time crooks, all intent on influencing the result of an upcoming body-building contest. Can Banner help Carl preserve his savings and win the contest? Or does anyone else even have a chance with the Hulk in town?

Well, the thing that makes King of the Beach really distinctive is the fact that it’s one of the very few episodes in which Bixby and Lou Ferrigno share screen time together, for Ferrigno has a double role as both Banner’s monstrous alter-ego and nice guy Carl (Ferrigno even gets two credits at the top of the episode). Quite sensibly, the episode doesn’t attempt to be too clever or subtle about this, although it can’t resist slipping in a sequence in which Ferrigno comes face-to-face with himself.

Lou Ferrigno was obviously hired for his physique, but three years of hanging around with Bill Bixby (who is an utterly dependable and very reassuring screen presence) had clearly rubbed off, for he gives a very decent performance as Carl. One should resist the temptation to be too fulsome in one’s praise, on the other hand, for this is, after all, hearing-impaired Italian-American bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno playing hearing-impaired Italian-American bodybuilder Carl Molino: they couldn’t have made the role much less demanding without also making Carl a monster-actor on a hit TV series.

But, as I say, he does a solid job in an episode that was clearly built around him: so much so that Bixby as Banner is reduced almost to a peripheral presence in the plot – Bixby participates in various scenes where Ferrigno reposes in very brief shorts and receives massages from Banner with an admirably straight face. Needless to say, however, it’s the presence of the Hulk that resolves the plot amicably. The special effects guys do a surprisingly good job of making the Hulk look significantly bigger than Carl when the two of them are on screen at the same time, while the script and direction are equally heroic in the way they stop the whole thing from collapsing into utter camp when the Hulk crashes the bodybuilding contest and the audience start demanding that he pose for them. Apart from the presence of Ferrigno, though, this is a fairly standard Hulk episode: which is to say that it’s solidly made and solidly entertaining.

Rising a few points above that, and even possessing a decent claim to actually belong on the Horror Channel, is The First, a two-part story from a little later in the show’s fourth season. Now, I first saw the opening part of this story in 1981 or 1982, on its first UK appearance, but – traumatically, given it has one of the great cliffhangers in TV history – I don’t think I ever properly caught the conclusion until this latest re-run.

The tone of proceedings is admirably established by a prologue in which a carful of teenagers break down in a storm. ‘There’s a light, over at the Clive place!’ shouts one of them, which – if you’re anything like me – tells you all you need to know about what’s afoot. Sure enough, one of the kids discovers a proper B-movie laboratory in the house, immediately before meeting a sticky end off camera.

One year later, Banner arrives in the same town (named Vissaria, another wink to those in the know), drawn there by decades-old stories of another Hulk-like creature which appeared in the area. This first Hulk was linked to local scientist Dr Clive, who was carrying out his own research into boosted human strength. Clive is long-since dead (it is implied he had an unfortunate encounter with an angry mob of townspeople) – but even so, he claimed to have found a cure for the monster he had created. Could the same cure rid Banner of his own Hulk?

Naturally, his investigations do not run smoothly, and an assault by the dead boy’s brother results in him Hulking out in front of Clive’s now-elderly, former assistant, Frye (Harry Townes). Rather than being appalled, Frye turns out to be very sympathetic, and with good reason: Frye was the first Hulk, and has spent the intervening decades keeping Clive’s lab in good working order. He offers to help Banner identify the cure… but does he have an ulterior motive?

Well, of course he does. It turns out that Frye is a bitter, resentful old man, who misses the power his other self possessed – and, more prosaically, he believes the healing factor of the Hulk can help the arthritis which has nearly crippled him. Soon enough, Frye is bopping Banner on the head and using the lab to re-Hulkify himself (as the procedure only seems to require turning a few switches, pulling a lever and then climbing onto a table, it’s a bit unclear why Frye has had to wait for Banner’s help).

Being the responsible, decent fellow he is, Banner feels responsible for doing something about the problem of the Frye-Hulk (the second creature is portrayed by veteran stuntman Dick Durock, later to play Swamp Thing for the opposition at DC, in an even more startling wig than Ferrigno’s). While the Banner-Hulk reflects Banner’s natural personality and is an essentially benign creature, the Frye-Hulk has all of Frye’s repressed viciousness and is wantonly destructive and a savage, feral killer (even if he is a bit less shirt-averse). Matters are complicated still further by the arrival on the scene of Banner’s regular nemesis, the reporter McGee (Jack Colvin), who inevitably gets his Hulks mixed up. Needless to say, it turns out that it will take a Hulk to stop a Hulk, and a clash of the monsters is on the cards…

Frye_creature_h6

As I said, The Incredible Hulk generally functions very much as a mainstream emotional drama, and much of The First‘s considerable entertainment value comes from the way in which it departs from this, subtly but distinctly. The show was made by Universal, makers – decades earlier – of the James Whale-directed version of Frankenstein, starring Colin Clive and Dwight Frye, and the script is obviously loaded with sly references to this film. This excursion into SF-horror is a terrific change of pace and a lot of fun.

That said, it’s not a complete departure, for the script is full of moments of humanity and unexpected subtlety – Frye isn’t a complete psycho, and his desire to be rid of his arthritis is entirely understandable, while – in a lovely touch – it isn’t simply being roughed up by the Frye-Hulk that provokes Banner’s climactic transformation, but the trauma of seeing the hope of a cure for his condition being smashed before his eyes. The final rumble between the two Hulks is obviously not the stuff of a Joss Whedon blockbuster, but still a lot of fun – the fight is not quite carried through to a finish, but it seems to me that the Banner-Hulk was definitely getting the upper hand towards the end. It makes up for a couple of episodes in which Ferrigno had a slightly lower profile than usual – of the four Hulk sequences in The First, two of them focus exclusively on the evil creature (in the same way, the second episode is rather more about Frye than Banner himself).

The story hangs together pretty well, although one still has to accept the conventions of the TV show – Banner and Frye both have instant access to an endless supply of new shirts and shoes, and so on. And the reason for a couple of slightly cheap-looking episodes immediately prior to this one is apparent, for it benefits enormously from a lot of location filming and the impressive lab set. This is still much more of a Universal Horror pastiche than anything particularly like a story from a Marvel comic, but it’s enough to make one wish the series had pushed the envelope just a little further, just a little more often. On the evidence of these episodes, The Incredible Hulk is a series thoroughly deserving of its reputation as a classic and extremely watchable piece of TV.

 

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