Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

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Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Broomstick » 2018-06-25 06:43pm

Here is yet another TV show I recall from my youth, said memories being solely in black and white because that was the sort of TV we had in the 1970's. It was SF, which was the first reason it caught my interest, and it starred David McCallum. Now, I don't normally go for blondes, but for McCallum I'll make an exception. And he's also a good actor.

I need to reiterate that this is the TV series about an invisible man from 1975-1976 (one season only, starting in September 1975 and running through January 1976 in a weekly 1 hour format). There have been several TV shows featuring invisible men. Five of them that I've discovered so far, from 1958 (UK), 1975 (US), 1984 (UK), 2000 (Sci-Fi, so US), and 2005 (French and animated). Then there are the movies... apparently it's one of those ideas that keeps coming back.

The premise is simple: Dr. Dan Westin is working on teleportation and stumbles on invisibility instead. Outraged to find that his project has been funded by the military even though his boss promised him it wasn't, he destroys the machine after turning himself invisible so he can make a getaway. Whoops! Turns out the process isn't as predictable or controllable as he thought and he's now permanently invisible. It's a running theme in the rest of the series that Dr. Westin (and his wife, who is another Dr. Westin) are trying to recreate his work and reverse the invisibility. In order to help pay for the new equipment and on-going work (male) Dr. Westin is turned into a secret agent and his employer charges large fees to have the company "resource" fix other peoples' problems. A friend who is a genius plastic surgeon comes up with very convincing masks and gloves so Dr. Westin is a visible character for at least part of the time.

I enjoyed the show then. Having just received my DVD of the series I can now say I still enjoy it (and this time I get to see it in color! Woo-hoo!) However, there are some problems with the show.

Not so much the special effects. Yes, they're dated - this was made in 1975 - but for the time they were actually very well done. Remember, this was before CGI, all of the effects are done either blue-screen or by wire work/practical effects. And, despite being blown up from (by our standards) tiny 1970's TV's to my big 70 inch screen the video holds up pretty well in quality (not today's standard, but quite watchable) and even better the effects survive translation to a larger size.

The first problem was that at some point the religious types figured out that when Dr. Westin was running around invisible he was naked. Well, yes, he's invisible, not his clothes, or any clothes (during the pilot his clothes were temporarily invisible but while the invisibility wore off the clothes it did not wear off Dr. Westin). Good thing he lives in Southern California,if he was based up near where I live he'd freeze his invisible ass off at least half the year and lose bits to frostbite. The thing is, though, that a certain portion of the US audience freaked out not at the notion of an invisible man, but a naked man. Nevermind that you really didn't see anything, and during filming McCallum wore a full-body suit including mask the exact color of whatever chroma-key they were using. It was the concept that got them up in arms.

The second problem is that I'm not sure the folks running the show really thought through all the implications.

For example - the episode "Go Directly to Jail" has Dr. Westin undercover in jail. Which works when he's wearing prisoner overalls and boots and his mask and gloves.... but the first time he has to take a shower there's going to be a lot 'splaining to do... so the episode is conveniently written so as to take place over less than 24 hours and no showering required. Lucky for him, because this is him doing a "mission" on his own to help out a cleaning lady at the place he works. Which does not make his boss happy. Because Dr. Westin, although well intentioned and really really smart at the science stuff, is a bit clueless and naive in other respects and really did not think the whole thing through.

That is one respect in which this differs from many of the other (for lack of a better term) super-powered protagonists of the 1970's - unlike the Six MIllion Dollar Man or Bionic Woman Dr. Westin is NOT a super-spy by nature, or very good at keeping things secret. Which sort of fits in with him being a scientist first and a secret agent second, but I think it was a weakness in the overall premise of the show.

So... it's an odd show in that it's done seriously, but the main protagonist is a bit of a bumbling secret agent. He's limited because he's naked which leaves him quite defenseless in many respects and physically vulnerable to injury (and if he bleeds the blood shows up after it leaves his body, so a couple episodes have little bloody trails and tracks showing where he's been and where he's going. And, as I said, the implications aren't always thought through. And the star and main character is not visible for much of any given episode. Given how many actors crave to be seen and get screen time it's sort of an odd choice for someone considered leading man material.

The writing is also a bit weak here and there. As this is a 1970's era show there is no season-long arc or progressive character development so it really makes no difference what order you watch them it, and if you don't want to watch an episode you don't care for it's no problem, you can enjoy the rest of them.

One thing that in retrospect is sort of pleasing is that Dr.Westin's wife is also a doctor, scientist, and smart lady. Even though Melinda O. Fee did not get top billing she appears more often on screen than the star - well, yeah, the female Dr. Westin is not invisible. She's an active participant in the super-agent hijinks. I'm not terribly thrilled with how often she distracts the Bad Guys by more or less throwing herself at them (often with her invisible husband in the same room), but really, she's a more realized and smarter character than a lot of females in American TV of the era. Which isn't saying a great deal, it's a pretty low bar to get over.

That said, there are some rather charming and well done moments in the series. But for now I'm stopping because this initial post is long enough.
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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Elheru Aran » 2018-06-25 07:21pm

Regarding video quality: all the old shows, obviously enough, were filmed on actual film, which has pretty reasonable image quality. Where the quality starts breaking down is the transfer from film to whatever recording medium they broadcast TV shows from. If the original film can be snagged, the conversion to modern media can be pretty reasonable. On the other hand, if they're just showing later versions of the show that were re-jiggered for modern TVs with haphazard results, it can suck.

Babylon 5, for example, Amazon managed to negotiate a contract that stipulated that they get the original film versions of the episodes for uploading to streaming media, so the show is overall pretty decent even if the effects are amazingly horrible even by mid-90s standards thanks to WB's shitty conversion to TV-rerun-quality that pretty much ruined the VFX for HD.
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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Broomstick » 2018-06-25 07:32pm

Actually.... in this particular TV show a lot of it was filmed in video. The video technology of the time apparently allowed the blue-screen work to be done simultaneously with the other actors on set. The comparisons I've seen are to what weather forecasters do, presenting the weather in front of a "blue" screen (there are actually several colors it could be) and the weather information edited in live (and if they wear the wrong color that bit of their clothing does, indeed, seem to disappear). So for scenes when Dr. Westin is taking off/putting on clothing, masks, gloves, etc. it's McCallum doing it while interacting with others on set. Why? It was a relatively inexpensive way to get the shots and, like I said, it looks pretty decent even by today's standards. So most of the original was in fact done on video for this show.

The down side is that apparently at the time the ability to further edit the scenes was quite limited. But it allowed for an effects heavy show on a regular TV budget.

Given the quality of the copy I have I wonder if they had access to the original video?
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Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid.- Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity, which sums up my feelings regarding the lawsuit discussed here.

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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Elheru Aran » 2018-06-25 07:45pm

Fair point, yes, I tend to forget that on an industrial level a lot of technologies start getting used earlier that only filter to the consumer market later on down the road, so it makes sense that they would have used video at this point, particularly given its utility in incorporating the necessary effects. I don't think it would have worked as well if they had used photographic film.

For obvious reasons editing the video would've basically been limited to cutting and pasting, or doing some scenes on film, editing *that* for any required special effects, and then transferring it to video-- no digital effects other than some very basic stuff at this point!

I see no particular reason the original video couldn't have still be around for someone to rip at some point in the 2000s or 2010s; I remember a lot of old TV shows and movies coming out on DVD in the late 2000s, actually bought my parents a few of those. I'd imagine this comes from a similar source.
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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Broomstick » 2018-06-25 10:46pm

1975? There were no digital effects at all back then. Pre-Star Wars and all that. The alternative to in-camera video editing was film and matte paintings, like what they use in the original Star Trek series.
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Leonard Nimoy.

Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid.- Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity, which sums up my feelings regarding the lawsuit discussed here.

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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Broomstick » 2018-07-01 12:21pm

In between an unexpected trip to a family funeral and dealing with a heat wave that is sucking the energy out of me I've watched a few more episodes.

One was "Pin Money", which featured Walter Carlson's aunt (Walter being the boss of the Doctors Westin) which involved the old Auntie getting involved in high stakes poker to increase her retirement/life savings. Regrettably, she'd fallen in with card sharks and wound up embezzling from the bank she worked at. Dan Westin follows her one night (invisibly, of course) and discovers both that she's a poker player and she's being taken. He uses his invisibility to defeat the cheaters and the little old lady goes home with all the money she's lost and then some. This is important, because bookkeeping at the bank is being converted from a person doing all the recording (that's dear old auntie's job, in fact) to a computer, which will eliminate the old lady's job. The biggest problem for Auntie is that the guy doing the computer conversion discovered her embezzling and wanted half the money or he'd turn her in. Hence, even more poker playing.

Well, the Westins have a sit-down with Auntie who did a terrible job of hiding the money (it's literally falling out of cabinets, 50's and 100's randomly strewn around the floor of her home, etc.) and they hatch an insane plan to stage a bank robbery to put money IN the vault instead of taking it out. Doctors Westin plan to smuggle the money in with Mrs. Dr. Westin disguised as a customer, Mr. Dr. Westin disguised as a bank robber in a Frankenstein mask and black clothes holding the "customer" and Auntie bookkeeper as hostages. After putting money in Dan would disappear (but Auntie is NOT told the Big Secret) leaving the hostages unharmed.

Of course this starts to go off the rails - because, really, there is an element of humor in this episode. While the Doctors Westin and Auntie are doing their thing Carlson, who is completely clueless, comes in looking for his Auntie, and then another pair of bank robbers, also in Frankenstein masks and black clothes, come in to hold up the bank. Hilarity ensues. The evil blackmailing computer guy winds up taking the fall for the bookkeeping irregularities, and Auntie gets to keep her job.

This really is one of the more amusing episodes. There's the little old lady walking into a bar full of hard-as-nails rough types drinking various hard liquors and being greeted as a regular high-stakes poker player and being offered a pot of tea on the low-key humor side. There's Dan, in his bank robber outfit, afraid to go into the bank lobby because his boss is there and he's afraid of being recognized (Mrs. Dr. Westin: "No, he won't dear. You're wearing the wrong mask". Mr. Dr. Westin "Oh" ::: feels face :::: "Yeah, that's right". ::: almost skips out the door of the vault on the way to the lobby :::: Auntie: "Wrong mask?"). Much depends on the situation and timing. Which, again, is another way this show differs from the more "serious" secret agent shows. The Doctors Westin, for all their smarts, are amateurs and it shows. And there's an element of situational comedy in this episode that makes it surprisingly lighthearted.

Of course, let's not delve too deeply into Auntie embezzling at all, or leaving her still in charge of the bank's bookkeeping in the end because, after all, she's such a nice old lady.... Again, the implications are not fully thought through here, and clearly there's no expectation for the audience to do so. I'm not sure if audiences back then actually didn't think that deeply about the show (I certainly didn't, but then, I was pretty darn young at the time) or if this was part of why the show didn't survive after the first season. This is definitely one of the lighter episodes, and it's fun as long as you don't think too deeply.
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Leonard Nimoy.

Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid.- Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity, which sums up my feelings regarding the lawsuit discussed here.

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. - John F. Kennedy

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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-07-01 02:53pm

Still, way better than the shitty SyFy series of the same name from the early 2000s, the one starring that reject from Prey, Vincent something or other.
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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Broomstick » 2018-07-02 12:08am

I may have to check that one out just to have a comparison.
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Leonard Nimoy.

Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid.- Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity, which sums up my feelings regarding the lawsuit discussed here.

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. - John F. Kennedy

Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice

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Re: Old TV Show: The Invisible Man (1975)

Post by Broomstick » 2018-07-03 11:36am

This may be my final post on this series.

I think there are several reasons for why this show only lasted one season.

- The times and culture - in our current world where SF is big and comic book based movies make billions it can be hard to remember, but prior to the 20th Century SF really was a ghettoized genre. Sure, Star Wars was a big breakthrough but it was very much an exception for the time and relied heavily on its admittedly mind-blowing special effects. SF conventions were small, inexpensive, viewed as eccentric at best, and small. Did I mention they were small? Audiences for SF on TV were small and series few. The series that did succeed in the 1970's, like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, were genre-straddlers. Arguably, they were more secret-agent series with an SF gimmick than purely SF.

- It didn't know what it wanted to be - this show veered from the darkness of the original H.G. Wells novel in the pilot (where Westin is a desperate figure who gets seriously injured, including shot by a blind man) to the situational comedy hijinks of "Pin Money" to a serious drama in "The Klae Dynasty". I think that if it had had a steady "tone" from the beginning it might have done better in gathering a consistent audience. Of course, that is partly an artifact of the writing, which as usual for TV shows was done by multiple people who may or may not have had a good understanding of either the show or the genre(s).

- Inconsistency in where the "missions" came from - while on paper the doctors Westin were acting as secret agents for massive amounts of money, in practice a lot of the shows revolved around them going off on their own. Are they working for someone, or free agents? Do they do this for money or out of the goodness of their hearts? Mission Impossible and Highway to Heaven were very different shows of the "mission based" type, but both were consistent in where the "missions" came from ("spy agency" and "god" respectively). The Six Million Dollar Man was largely consistent, and got away with a few outliers because it was such a long-running series. This show was all over the place in the first season and I think that hurt them.

- Like several one-season shows I have great fondness for, the concept was good but the execution wanting. There were so many really good moments in this show, many of them dependent on McCallum's delivery of the lines (Casual comments like "pardon me while I remove my head" when taking off his face/head mask to some really sinister sounding nursery rhymes in "A Man of Influence") or the chemistry between McCallum and Fee (the latter needing to frequently interact with someone who "isn't there" and selling it well). That said, I don't feel that the writers really explored either the good/bad aspects of Dan Westin being invisible, or the chemistry between the Westins and their boss. Granted, that sort of thing is more a feature of modern TV series with season-long arcs and actual character development in the program leads - such things were uncommon to non-existent in TV of the 1970's. and earlier.

Some things I wish they had explored more:
- home life for the doctors Westin: what accommodations did they have to make for the fact Mr. Dr. Westin was completely invisible? Unfortunately, effects that amateurs can easily do now were entirely unavailable to the show makers back then (water running over an invisible body, for example, which would have been an interesting shower scene - except a shower scene would have been extremely unlikely on prime-time TV at the time - or just having Westin wash his hands under running water) but I think more could have been done with this. Not that it was non-existent - there were multiple scenes of Mr. Dr. Westin wandering about with no visible head or hands in either the lab or at home.

- blind people can "see" the invisible man: this was a major thing in both the pilot (where Westin tries to take refuge in the home of a blind man and winds up getting shot) and a later story, "Sight Unseen" where Westin rescues a kidnap victim. Not to mention in "The Klae Dynasty" at one point Mrs. Dr. Westin says "You're limping" and when Mr. Dr. Westin asks how she can know that she says "When a wife can't see her husband she starts to know what he sounds like". They did at times emphasize that Westin was only invisible - several times he's pursued by dogs that can smell him, heat sensors can detect him, and as noted he does make noise.

- Wardrobe failures: They're in southern California and no one mentions the propensity of Mr. Dr. Westin to wear sweaters all the damn time? I realize they do have a winter of sorts, but really? This guy is wearing high neck sweaters all the damn time. Also, no one ever notices that Mr. Dr. Westin is wearing a mask and gloves at all times? Yes, they're supposed to be of some super-great artificial skin type stuff, but he should be having "wardrobe failures" more often than he does. No one ever seems to find the clothes and masks he seems to leave lying all over the place. Sure, he makes some effort to conceal them (stashing them in drawers, cabinets, etc.) when possible but no one ever seems to find his leavings.

What they did really well:
- Westin has no "secondary powers" - as noted, he's JUST invisible. He's not bulletproof, super fast, super strong, or anything else. He's actually sort of on the small side, his strength is average at best, and he's running around bare-ass naked so stepping on stuff becomes a problem at times. He's very vulnerable.

- The effects - it's a mixed of the early in-video effects combined with camera angles, cut-shots, and McCallum manipulating masks and his own acting but they really are top shelf for the time and still not bad these days.

And I think I'll stop here, unless folks have some interest in more. If anyone wants to watch it, full episodes can be found on YouTube at present.
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Leonard Nimoy.

Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid.- Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity, which sums up my feelings regarding the lawsuit discussed here.

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. - John F. Kennedy

Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice

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