Monday, July 30, 2012

THE INVISIBLE MAN - THE COMPLETE SERIES

In response to 1974's smash-hit ABC sci-fi adventure series, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN - which chronicled the adventures of a former-astronaut with cybernetic (i.e. bionic) limbs working for the U.S. government as a secret agent - competing network NBC turned to the same creators and studio (Universal) and set out to duplicate the magic formula. This time, instead of an ex-astronaut with experimental robot parts, the creators looked to Victorian author H.G. Wells, and came up with a scientist turned permanently invisible in an experiment gone wrong. Unfortunately, THE INVISIBLE MAN (1975) wasn't the success the network hoped for, lasting a mere 13 episodes.

In the pilot film, we're introduced to Dr. Daniel Westin (David McCallum, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) an idealistic physicist working for a private scientific think-tank called KLAE. His assistant is his wife, Kate (Melinda O. Fee), and his overbearing boss is KLAE administrator Walter Carlson (Jackie Cooper in the pilot, Craig Stevens in the series). In the long tradition of film and TV scientists, Westin tests his new invisibility ray machine on himself, only to find that he's been permanently rendered un-seeable. A friend of his makes him an extraordinarily life-like rubber mask and pair of gloves so he can still function in society, and while he works on a cure for his condition, his employers exploit his condition by marketing him as "the KLAE Resource," renting him out to conduct various missions for government agencies and corporate clients.

In 1975, the show was considered innovative for its use of blue-screen special effects, which were shot on video and then cut into the traditionally filmed episodes. Those video inserts really stand out today, and the "peeling off the mask to reveal... nothing!" shots look more than a little hokey to modern eyes. Most of the other effects - floating objects and such - were handled exactly the same way that Universal handled them in their 30s and 40s INVISIBLE MAN black & white movies - with often all-too-visible wires. Still, in context of the time (and bearing in mind lower-resolution 70s television screens) the effects serve the stories effectively enough.

Unfortunately, it's in the stories that the show really falls flat. At first thought, invisibility seems the perfect power for a secret agent, but in execution, it's actually got very limited applications. Also, it's - and this should be obvious - not very visual. What you end up with is lots of tracking shots through hallways and sets, supposedly following the titular invisible man... but that gets boring fast. At least on the "bionic" shows, the heroes could punch people, knock down doors/walls, pick up and throw people and heavy objects... an invisible guy, on the other hand, can't really do anything, much. Even talented writers and producers like Steven Bochco and Harve Bennett seem to struggle with the concept, and you very quickly end up with such obvious plots as Westin and his wife using his invisibility to cheat in a crooked casino or foil the schemes of a fake psychic by messing up his rigged seances.

McCallum is fine as Westin, although he occasionally seems bored (and why not, since his performance is so often just a voice-over). Melinda Fee, on the other hand, is delightful and charming as Westin's long-suffering wife and partner in adventure. And, as she's actually on-screen more than her unseen hubby, it really falls on her to carry most episodes. Fortunately, she's up to the task, bringing a warm humor to her role, regardless of the quality of the stories themselves. Craig Stevens (PETER GUNN), is slightly smarmy as their manipulative boss, but that's more the nature of the role as written than any failing on the actor's part. 

Canadian label VEI brings to THE INVISIBLE MAN to Region 1 DVD under license from Universal, in an acceptable, if unremarkable, four-disc set. The episodes, which do show their age with intermittent specks, minor wear and fluctuating colors, are presented in the 4x3, 1.33:1 "full-frame" format of their original airings. Despite the noted minor print imperfections, the overall presentation is reasonably solid, although the shot-on-video effects sequences, are of noticeably lesser resolution and quality. The 2.0 mono audio is equally serviceable. There are no extras provided.

(VEI has also offered the show on Blu-ray, but that edition is a disaster, with all 13 episodes crammed onto a single disc, and the image stretched to fill a 16x9 aspect ratio.)

I was a big fan of THE INVISIBLE MAN when I was ten, and was eager to get my hands on this DVD set. I'm still glad I did, but I can now see why it had such a short run. The best part of the show is the portrayal of the Westins as equal-partners in both science and adventure, and the easy, adult chemistry between McCallum and Fee almost makes up for the show's other shortcomings. If you remember and enjoy the series from its original run (or later, Sci-Fi Channel reruns in the 90s) and want to add it to your collection, the VEI DVDs aren't bad - although I'd suggest avoiding the disastrous Blu-ray release altogether.

BUYThe Invisible Man (Complete Series)