Posts Tagged ‘The Incredible Hulk’

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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If you look at a typical episode of a Marvel Comics TV show nowadays, it will likely concern some sort of ninja death cult, or high-tech arms dealing, or demonically-inspired parallel world capers about evil androids. But it was not ever thus, and the most successful of Marvel’s shows from years gone by was usually a little more quotidian in its emphasis – sometimes jarringly so, from a modern perspective.

A Child in Need (written by Frank Dandridge) is an episode transmitted as part of the second season of The Incredible Hulk, late in 1978, although it was apparently intended for the first season (held back for behind the scenes reasons). The past is another country, of course, but given the subject matter of this particular episode, it seems particularly ironic that at its start perennial drifter and serial utiliser of transparent pseudonyms David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) has managed to land a job as groundskeeper at an ordinary school in Everytown USA. Personally I would have said that dealing with dozens of children every day was not a good idea for someone with his particular anger management issues, but this is what the plot requires.

Anyway, Banner befriends Mark (Dennis Dimster), a lonely 10-year-old boy, and notices his arms are badly bruised. The school nurse (Rebecca York) casually mentions that Mark falls over and bruises himself quite a lot, which of course sets Banner with his brilliant medical brain to thinking there may be something unpleasant going on in Mark’s domestic situation – he tracks down Mark’s mother to ask her about this, only to find she shows signs of having been beaten up as well.

It is, needless to say, Mark’s dad Jack (Sandy McPeak) who is responsible (although the episode is painstaking in making it clear that responsibility is a relative thing in this situation). He comes from a rough background himself, likes a drink a bit too much, and so on. Needless to say, he does not take kindly to Banner inserting himself into his family’s business, and various confrontations ensue, some of which turn violent and conclude with Banner being pushed over fences and into closets, and generally finding himself in obscure locations from which the Hulk can emerge a few moments later, intent on doing his somewhat simple-minded bit for child welfare.

You might think the episode itself sounds rather simple-minded, but I would rather describe it as heart-felt and it is, as usual, driven along by an exemplary performance from Bixby. You do question quite why Banner finds himself so driven to help Mark with his problems – it’s not just a case of Banner’s usual incorruptible decency, he almost seems to be taking it quite personally. Anyone savvy with the later years of the comic may recall that the book’s Banner was the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father (it was suggested this was to some extent the root cause of his odd condition) and it would be tempting to speculate that Banner sees something of himself in Mark – however, a later episode focusing on Banner’s own family background would suggest otherwise.

As I say, Banner does seem to let his concerns get the better of him, rather – I’m guessing this is not the episode they show to ancillary school staff as part of their induction training. Banner admittedly has his own very good reasons for wanting to stay off the authorities’ radar, but even so, for him to be doing such a Lone Ranger act, spending so much one-on-one time with a vulnerable minor, and even taking him back to his apartment – I normally tune most of the way out during welfare training where I work, but even I know these are exceptionably unwise things to be doing.

But hey, it was the 1970s, and the episode also makes the conspiracy of silence Banner has to contend with quite clear: the school nurse doesn’t want to get involved, fearing she’ll lose her job, and nobody else in the neighbourhood wants to bring down the wrath of Jack on themselves, either. If nothing else, I suppose episodes like this did a valuable service in opening up serious issues like child abuse to general discussion.

This is a solidly written and well-played episode, with moments of directorial ambition, too (director James Parriott has a damn good go at a trick shot where the Hulk changes back into Banner actually on camera, but can’t quite make it seamless). And the Hulk-out sequences are exceptionally effective, not because they’re especially lavish or inventive, but because they work extremely well on a thematic level.

Kenneth Johnson, creator and overseer of The Incredible Hulk, always said that one of the ideas of the show was that many people have to deal with their own metaphorical Hulk – some weakness or problem that sometimes makes them lose control, with destructive results. And that’s never clearer than here – the first Hulk-out occurs when Banner realises Jack is about to start beating up his son (his alarm and frustration about this is what ultimately causes the change) and it’s just as Jack is about to turn violent with Mark that the Hulk smashes through the wall into their living room. The metaphor could not be much clearer. The same is true of the climactic Hulk-out, in which Jack eventually attacks the Hulk, and it’s clear that from his point of view the monster represents his own abusive father. Catharsis ensues; Jack gets the help he needs, McGee (who turns up for one scene, but doesn’t contribute much to the drama) doesn’t get his story, Banner walks off into the sunset with the piano tinkling mournfully.

As I say, perhaps not the kind of kick-ass thrills you get on Netflix nowadays, but (a few dubious moments excepted) it is an extremely well-made episode which sets out to cover a serious issue in a serious way. In some ways its very earnestness is what makes it so effective as a piece of drama.

The next episode, Another Path, doesn’t quite feature a ninja death cult, but it’s still likely to feel much more familiar to modern viewers. Nicholas Corea’s script gets underway with Banner finding himself locked in the back of a refrigerated truck with an elderly Asian man who is deep in a meditation trance. This is a fairly improbable situation for someone to find himself in, and Corea doesn’t bother trying to be clever about it – indeed there’s something almost admirable about the no-nonsense way he bulls through the set-up.

Well, in a bit of a deviation from the Hulk formula, being trapped in a refrigerated truck is enough to bring on one of Banner’s episodes very early in the episode, and he and the old man bust out. His companion proves to be Li Sung, a blind Chinese philosopher, teacher, and martial arts expert, who has spent the last couple of years exploring the USA. Striking up a friendship, Banner and Li Sung realise that a few meditation techniques might help no end when it comes to keeping the Hulk under control. (The elderly Chinese character is played by Mako, a Japanese actor who was only about 45 when the episode was made. But it was the 1970s, and Mako was one of those guys who seemed to spend most of his career playing much older than his actual age.)

The two men eventually end up in San Francisco, because Li Sung founded a school here some time earlier, and he wants to see how it has been getting on in his absence. However (and here the plot kicks in), Li Sung’s old pupil, Silva (Tom Lee Holland), has fallen to the dark side and the school is now a front for a protection racket. When they realise this, Banner (quite sensibly) urges Li Sung to go to the police – but this has become a matter of honour for the old man, to be settled face to face…

The slight oddness of this episode becomes apparent very early on, with one of the Hulk-outs done and dusted inside the first ten minutes or so. You almost never get more than two Hulk-outs an episode on this show (they’re the single most expensive part of the programme), so this means it’s a very long time between appearances by Lou Ferrigno. This just adds to the sense that the episode is at least as much about Li Sung as it is about Banner. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course – it’s a tack The Incredible Hulk goes for more than once. But it is a bit of a change of pace and tone. (A sequel to this episode was actually intended as a backdoor pilot for a martial-arts themed action-adventure show, and you wonder whether they were thinking along those lines even at this point.)

And, very unusually, the climax of the episode concludes with Li Sung himself taking on Silva and his followers, kung-fu style, with the Hulk himself in a very subordinate role. Still, the martial arts stuff is reasonably good – I’d say it works as well as the fight choreography in Iron Fist, not that this is necessarily saying much – and it’s really just a case of expectations not being met. This is a show called The Incredible Hulk, after all, not The Deadly Hands of Li Sung. In the end it’s all good knockabout fun, with no particular depth or insight to it, and a winning performance from Mako. Not quite a Hulk episode of the first rank, though.

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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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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…


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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 3rd 2008: 

Friends, I have a confession to make. Mild mannered though I may appear, a terrible monster lurks inside me. I try to control it as best I can because I know the terrible suffering it can create when it runs out of control… but sometimes, no matter how I struggle, events conspire against me; a horrible mist obscures my vision, and I just… feel the urge… to REVIEW! Rarrgh! Awix review!!! Awix reviews everything in sight…!!! …until the critical ire of the beast is exhausted and I can relax and watch a Milla Jovovich movie without fear of an aneurysm.

Well, as luck would have it, today I found myself watching a film about a man with a similar problem, to wit The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier. This movie is a bold new concept as far as a wannabe summer blockbuster goes in that it’s a special-effects-laden adaptation of a classic American comic book. A bit of a gamble, I know. Who comes up with these crazy ideas?

Anyway. Edward ‘You’re Not Just Hiring An Actor, Even If That’s All You Actually Want’ Norton plays Bruce Banner, a fugitive scientist with anger management issues, who has fled the US and is hiding out in Brazil, presumably so he can get a tan, not because the other Bruce Banner (played by Eric Bana) ended up there at the end of the first Hulk movie (this gets complicated. Stay tuned). He is hiding out from the Army, and in particular General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) and his moustache. This is because Banner has, rather nonchalantly, blasted his own brain with high-powered gamma rays (fairly unusual behaviour for a brilliant scientist, but bear in mind this is a Marvel movie), which means every time he gets ticked off or even just a bit excited he goes green, grows to about nine feet in height and demolishes everything in a two-mile radius. Banner can do without this, probably because the need to control his heart rate is wreaking havoc with his love life and there’s a very cute chick (Debora Nascimento) in his building who has a bit of a thing for him. However, the US Army, committed as ever to the precise and proportionate use of force, thinks that an army of berserk super-strong invulnerable ogres is just what they’re looking for and would quite like to talk to Banner about his giving a blood donation or twenty. As Ross is too American to be villainous enough for this kind of movie, he has recruited special forces expert Emil Blonsky to help him out in this department. Despite his name, Blonsky is British, mainly because it saves Tim Roth, who plays him, from having to do an accent. An inevitable freak accident, involving an even more inevitable cameo by Stan Lee, alerts Ross and Blonsky to Banner’s whereabouts, and off they go to Brazil to bring him home…

As you may recall this is Marvel’s second crack at a Hulk movie: the first one came out five years ago, was directed by Ang Lee, was rather overpraised by your correspondent at the time, and did rather indifferent business, probably because it was slow and talky, and the Hulk didn’t really start doing his stuff until the last forty-five minutes or so. The decision to do another movie may well come as a bit of a surprise then, but only to someone who’s forgotten the enormous name recognition and strength of the Hulk brand. (And it took Stan Lee two goes to get the comic right back in 1962, so it would be churlish to grumble.) This time, Marvel aren’t taking any chances as this is machine-tooled to be an absolutely mainstream blockbuster with some jokes, a proper bad guy, lots of stuff exploding, and absolutely no lingering close-ups of clumps of lichen growing on rocks.

This extends to completely ignoring the events of the first film, for all but that this starts roughly where that finished. The Hulk’s origin is retold in the opening credits and has been redone to be much more like the one in the TV show. The whole movie has been structured so as not to confuse people who only know the Hulk from the small screen – even Ed Norton’s hair has been redone to be much more like Bill Bixby’s (Bixby played Banner on the telly) – while still catering to purists who prefer the comic version. The movie covers all its bases to the extent that, at one point, Jack McGee and Jim Wilson (supporting cast from different parts of the franchise) cameo in the same scene. Their appearance, like that of Doc Samson (bear with me, normal people), is pretty much an in-name-only affair, solely calculated to push fanboy buttons.

Now that Marvel have their own film studio they have much more latitude to do this sort of thing. The main example of this in this movie is the way in which the origin of the main bad guy, the Abomination, has been redone. No longer is he just an evil version of the Hulk! No, now he’s a hybrid of an evil version of the Hulk and an evil mutant version of a recently deceased Living-Legend-of-World-War-Two (who’ll be getting his own movie soon, I shouldn’t wonder). It’s something to give Marvel Comics fans a nice gosh-wow moment, while not being so obviously geeky as to repel mainstream audiences. The same goes for the very final scene, which has all the hallmarks of something originally intended to run after the credits, presumably shifted into the movie proper on the grounds that you don’t put Robert Downey Jr (ooh, what a giveaway!) in the one bit most people aren’t going to bother to watch. Speaking as a comics fan, it’s a very cool moment, even if it does seem to be setting up a movie that’s still at least four or five years away. (The one time the movie oversteps the line when it comes to playing to the fans is when it foreshadows the – Box Office willing – ‘proper’ Hulk sequel. I ‘got’ the scene introducing Hulk 3‘s probable villain, but I doubt many normal people will.)

Enough fanboy wibbling! You want to know if it’s any good. Well, as I say, I overpraised the first Hulk at the time, which makes me cautious when it comes to this one. I will say Yes, it’s pretty good, in an unpretentious, CGI-heavy way. There are nice performances from Norton and Liv Tyler as his sweetheart, some amusing gags about stretchy trousers, and – as connoisseurs of the sublime Transporter series will know – while Leterrier may struggle a bit when it comes to character scenes and, to be honest, dialogue, he absolutely knows what he’s up to when it comes to doing action sequences. (Part of me thinks it’s a shame that Jason Statham isn’t in this movie, too – on the other hand, the Hulk’s hard, but he’s not that hard.)

However, Tim Roth’s part is atrociously underwritten, to the point where he can do literally nothing with it. His dialogue is simply terrible. It makes his role in the rubbish version of Planet of the Apes look like a masterpiece of character development, and I’ll bet now more than ever he’s regretting turning down the role of the Half-Blood Prince back in 2000. Purists may also complain that, for most of the film, Thunderbolt Ross is a bit too close to being actually evil, rather than the good-intentioned but thick-headed pain in the neck he generally is in the comic. And, for all its narrative flaws the Ang Lee Hulk had clearly had a lot of money thrown at it – the CGI here is impressive, but it seemed to me to lack the verve and scale of the action sequences in the earlier movie, as well as their primary-coloured comic-bookiness. Things are a little bit darker and more restrained this time round.

On the whole, though, The Incredible Hulk is solidly entertaining stuff which deserves to find an audience in a way the previous film didn’t. If you’ve encountered any version of the Hulk before and enjoyed the experience, there’s probably something here for you too. If you haven’t – well, it’s an efficient fantasy-action film, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the Marvel Universe shadings of the movie that make it truly distinctive, though, and after the very-much standalone Iron Man (seemed okay to me, but I saw it in Italian, alas) it’ll be interesting to see which direction Marvel Studios opts for with future projects.

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