This 1975 US series produced for NBC, was the second attempt to adapt H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction novel for the small screen, following the 1959 black and white British series of the same name which, like this better known ‘70s iteration, also ditched almost everything original to the 1897 novel, aside from the basic invisibility scenario which affects the main protagonist, resorting instead to the by-then standard espionage and action-adventure approach that ran along the same lines as producer Harve Bennett’s other successful ‘70s shows of the period, “The Six Million Dollar Man” and its spin-off “The Bionic Woman”. Although it only ran for twelve episodes that appeared three months after the slightly longer TV pilot movie had been aired -- and was cancelled mid-season to be replaced by a similar show with an invisibility theme -- the series retains the affections of those of us who remember seeing it on its short-lived original run, mainly because of the innovative gimmick it introduced in order to enable the series to sidestep the obvious problem inherent to the core concept: that the show’s star, ex "The Man from UNCLE" lead David McCallum, would otherwise have to spend the whole series wrapped in bandages if not entirely invisible, and therefore off screen for the majority of each episode. This key wrinkle in the format involved McCallum’s research scientist lead character Daniel Westin, basically being required to wear a special mask of his own face and hands, supposedly made from a newly invented substance called ‘Dermaplex’ that was originally developed by a plastic surgeon pal of Daniel’s as an aid to achieving more natural-looking skin grafts in surgical operations. I can well remember the high point of every otherwise formulaic episode always being that moment when it was time for McCallum to once again strip off his polo neck jumper and slacks and remove his rubber face and blonde wig in order to go on his next undercover mission, making him the world’s first permanently naked undercover spy on TV -- although this was never an aspect of the scenario that was particularly emphasised all that much! The time and effort required to realise the blue screen special effects needed to make these scenes work, obviously, in retrospect, soaked up most of the budget, and the same producers ended up replacing the series with a cheaper-to-make revamp the following year (which only ever played in its entirety in the UK) called “Gemini Man”, in which Ben Murphy starred as a secret agent with a denim jacket and a special digital watch that endowed him with the power of invisibility for brief periods of time during the course of every episode. This too got the chop, despite the novelty and the aura of sophistication that was automatically generated circa 1976 by the sight of LCD display Seiko, Timex or Casio digital watches: then coveted consumer items until they became cheap and ubiquitous during the early 1980s.
Both “The Invisible Man” and its “Gemini Man” successor were collaborative efforts, co-created for television by Bennett and Steve Bochco, the latter of whom at this time was just starting out in the TV producer role for which he was later to become better known as the creative force behind shows such as “Hill Street Blues”, “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue”, after having spent a lengthy period working as a screenwriter and story editor on classic era US TV shows like “Ironside”. Bochco contributed to the scripts of both the initial pilot movie and the first episode of the series of “The Invisible Man”, but the set-up laid in place by the pilot is pretty much completely abandoned in the main body of the show, which reverts to a standard format already in use by Bennett’s previous success “The Six Million Dollar Man”. In fact, almost exactly the same process of gradual transformation had occurred during the development of “The Six Million Dollar Man” itself, with the pilot offering a much darker tone in the course of supplying an ‘origins’ story for Steve Austin, than that which came to be essayed in the five seasons of the series which followed it. In the pilot, Austin is made an unwilling pawn of a sinister agency financed by the US Government and a research wing of the military-industrial complex sanctioning the development of his bionic powers, that aims to force him to work for it as a secret weapon. This is part of the Faustian bargain struck in the wake of the crippling disaster that nearly kills him, allowing Austin to survive after a terrible test flight accident leaves him without legs, one arm and an eye. Similarly, in the pilot movie of this series, Dr Daniel Westin (McCallum) works alongside his beautiful research assistant wife Kate (Melinda O. Fee) on a ‘matter tele-transportation’ device which he hopes to one day use for the good of humanity. He discovers invisibility as a side effect of this work, and after recklessly testing the machine on himself, Westin discovers that the initially short-lasting effects later become permanent, and even the serum he’s developed to speed up the process of recovery ceases to work after a time. Unfortunately, by this point he has also discovered that his boss, Walter Carlson (Jackie Cooper), the head of the vast Klae Corporation which has been employing him to develop the machine, has informed the Pentagon in the face of Westin’s insistence that he doesn’t want his work to be used as a weapon. In fact, it turns out that the U.S. military has been financing the research all along, and now owns the right to use his machine in whatever capacity it sees fit.
After breaking into his own lab and sabotaging the machine in order to stop it being developed as a military weapon, Westin comes to be permanently trapped in his invisible state and is made a fugitive from his own Government, as well as a potential target for enemy foreign powers who might like to use his research for their own purposes. The scenario suggested by the use of this dark and rather cynical industrial espionage theme, hints at a show that might have run along similar lines to “The Incredible Hulk” TV series, which was later to be developed by Bionic Woman creator Kenneth Johnson; this would have been a scenario in which Westin is forced to exist permanently on the run, and only gets involved in weekly adventures while trying to stay one step ahead of the various sinister elites who might like to exploit his invisibility for their own dubious purposes. The general tone of the pilot is consistent with this, being fairly downbeat and serious -- with Westin being put through an arduous ordeal over the course of it, near freezing to death in the back of a laundry van and getting wounded by a gunshot during the course of trying to evade the powerful forces of the Klae Corporation with only his plastic surgeon friend Dr Nick Maggio (Henry Darrow -- whose character never appears again despite his crucial work in developing the lifelike mask, contact lenses and teeth caps which allow Westin to pass for normal) and his devoted wife Kate as his potential allies.
However, the series that followed this pilot a few months later, ended up being much lighter in tone, and seemed to have sprung from a completely different outline than the one that provides an explanation for Westin’s invisibility and the mask he uses to disguise it with in the initial TV film: a catchy, memorable and tuneful theme by composer Henry Mancini -- accompanied by images culled from the pilot and the first few episodes of the series -- sets forth a much frothier ambience, while supplying an abridged and amended explanation for the story so far, in which the Klae Corporation now appears to be a benign US-backed Government Agency, tasked with investigating international counterfeiting scams and suspect arms deals, etc (the standard stuff of US ‘70s adventure shows in other words), while Westin and his wife now willingly work for it as a top husband-and-wife spy team. Daniel’s invisibility is once again a top secret in this version of the scenario (in the pilot it had already been exposed by a spy working inside the corporation, which meant that Daniel would always be forced henceforth to hide from all state authority) and Daniel’s ability to get into places no one else could becomes the agency’s main asset or ‘resource’ in its Government-backed espionage activities.
Daniel and Kate’s boss is still Walter Carlson here, but actor Jackie Cooper has been replaced by the much more affable-looking Craig Stevens, who turns the character into more of an Oscar Goldman archetype figure -- with all the duplicitous, venal and cynical traits seen in the pilot version now utterly removed. Episodes revolve around small-time Bond villain types selling weapons' technology to hostile foreign powers, or art thieves replacing presidential portraits with forgeries. Mr and Mrs Westin strike up a flirty relationship during the course of fulfilling their joint missions, much in the vein of “Hart to Hart”; but there’s an aura of kinkiness around the pattern of their playful investigations that I never picked up on as a kid watching this series, but which is undoubtedly there in retrospect: this is a happily married couple who at one point think nothing of Kate using her womanly wiles to distract that week's criminal mastermind with some very heavy petting in order to give her husband enough time to ease out of his clothes (and rubber mask) so that he can go about his naked invisible espionage-related business! If these two weren’t preoccupied with spying they’d definitely be into the Californian swinging scene!
“The Invisible Man” is unchallenging, rather formulaic, but likable 1970s TV, with some fairly routine storylines but three audience-friendly leads who manage to sell its unremarkable nature without too much difficulty while keeping it feeling entertaining. The special effects are crude but well-executed and often very effective, occasionally resulting in some entertaining slapstick elements being woven into the mix as well. This four-disc DVD box set from Acorn Media UK features the pilot and all twelve of the episodes that followed it; filmographies of the cast and galleries of production stills are the only extras, but fans of ‘70s cult TV will jump at the chance to relive this brief, minor but enjoyable slice of TV nostalgia.
Read More from Black Gloves at his Blog, Nothing but the Night!