The short-lived but better than you might expect TV series of the 1970s.
It wasn’t easy making fantasy TV in the 1970s. While there were a few notable successes like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Incredible Hulk, it’s notable how many shows crashed and burned thanks to the ratings-hungry networks and their lack of patience. Loads of shows were dumped midway through their first season – Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Spider-Man, The Man from Atlantis… and a pair of invisibility-themed shows that appeared around the same time also died midway through their planned run. While The Gemini Man was pretty rubbish, the 1975 version of The Invisible Man perhaps deserved more than thirteen episodes. Not that this is a great show by any stretch of the imagination, but it had potential and was just starting to find its feet when it was dropped.
H.G. Wells gets an ‘inspired by’ credit, although beyond the title and the idea of invisibility, the show has absolutely nothing to do with his novel – presumably, the title was too difficult to resist and still in copyright back in 1975. Instead, the pilot episode – written by Harve Bennett and Steven Bochco – has Dr Dan Westin (David McCallum, sporting a basin haircut that will get bigger as the series progresses) who is working with feisty wife Kate (Melinda Fee) on a new technique of molecular disintegration for the shadowy Klae Corporation, headed by Walter Carlson (Craig Stevens). But instead of disintegration, the giant machine used (an impressive bit of kit sadly underused in the series) somehow turns things invisible. Carlson is naturally excited by the possibilities of this, but Westin insists that the discovery can’t be used for military purposes and rather naively believes his boss when he agrees. So when he is called to Carlson’s office for a meeting and finds the room full of military brass, he’s not very happy.
Locked out of his own lab, he breaks in one night and uses the machine on himself before smashing it. Unfortunately, due to a malfunction, he finds himself permanently invisible. On the run, he turns to old friend Nick Maggio (Henry Darrow), a brilliant plastic surgeon who has invented a skin-like latex substance called Dermaplex. He paints the stuff on Dan’s face, and with the addition of a wig and contacts (which, oddly, both seem to be a part of the mask), allows the invisible man to have a visible presence – essential for a weekly show with a name star at its centre. After being captured by – and escaping from – foreign agents, the Westins reach an uneasy settlement with Carlson, who will fund research into curing Dan in exchange for him working for the Klae Corporation.
Like The Six Million Dollar Man, the show underwent a significant tonal shift from pilot to series to make it less confrontational and anti-establishment. By the time of the first episode, Walter Carlson is no longer a shifty, sinister government stooge propelling the war machine, but instead has become a jovial Oscar Goldman-type figure, sending Dan and Kate out on the sort of government-led espionage missions you imagine the Dan Westin of the pilot would have objected to. But equally, the Klae Corporation now seems to be a more respectable institution, supporting world peace and certainly not up to underhand militaristic activities – apparently, the military interest in this amazing discovery that they had been financing just faded away. In typical 1970s style though, the protagonists are still willing to cause near-international incidents to rescue people from the clutches of evil Communism, battling a number of one-dimensional Eastern Bloc villains from unnamed countries along the way. Westin is referred to throughout as ‘The Klae Resource’, a top-secret last-resort method of getting things done when conventional methods just won’t work.
For no good reason other than to give McCallum face time, Westin often goes undercover when his invisible nature would have almost certainly made things a lot easier, and the stories run the gamut of 1970s US TV tropes – as well as the fiendish Commies, there are corrupt local police forces, blackmailers, escaped criminals and phoney psychics. Each episode also comes with that annoying ‘highlight reel’ before the opening credits, giving a potted version of the episode for people who are too impatient to sit through the whole thing without knowing what is going to happen. As with most shows of the era, each episode is self-contained, so you could watch them in any order – it’s probably this lack of a continuing story that helped so many of these shows fail, as it really didn’t matter if you missed an episode – and so equally didn’t matter if you missed several. There was nothing to pull viewers in and keep them beyond the central concept and for many shows of the time, that just wasn’t enough.
The special effects are passable for the time – the invisible scenes were shot on videotape against a blue screen and then added to the film-shot footage that made up the bulk of the episode, making them jar somewhat visually, but I’ve seen a lot worse – and McCallum does a good job of twisting his head and face to create the illusion of the mask being pulled on or off. He sometimes seems a little bored by events – I guess it couldn’t be easy knowing that the best action scenes would only have your voice in them. Melinda Fee, on the other hand, gives it her all – she’s fun, flirty and sexy in a very Seventies way, and her character is a lot more proactive than many women in similar series were. The couple seems as though they have an active sex life – which must be interesting – and the show even allows the odd double entendre to slip through.
Of course, there are wild inconsistencies. Westin must have an endless supply of masks and hands, given how often he seems to just leave them behind while on a mission, and while early episodes keep him in a turtleneck sweater, later ones get sloppy and have him in an open-neck shirt. These are minor points that you’ll only pick up on after a while – but it’s typical of the rather sloppy nature of continuing TV of the era. It’s this throwaway attitude that suggests there would be little development in the series had it lasted several seasons – there is potential here for Westin to start questioning his government work but that was almost certainly not going to be something that was developed. A pity.
The Invisible Man will provide a nostalgic thrill for people old enough to remember it from TV. Younger viewers who are used to an altogether more sophisticated, continuing and cynical form of USTV drama might find it a bit trashy. But what do they know?
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