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Fun show, dodgy US DVD and an atrocious US Blu-ray
on 26 June 2012
1975's The Invisible Man boasted some top TV talent - producers Harve Bennett (The Six Million Dollar Man, Rich Man Poor Man, Star Trek II), Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits) and Steve Bochco (Hill Street Blues, McMillan and Wife, L.A. Law) and the other Man From U.N.C.L.E, David McCallum, with music by Henry Mancini - but still only lasted 13 episodes before being cancelled. It's certainly an enjoyable show but, like The Six Million Dollar Man, one that shows clear signs that the studio hadn't really made up their mind how to approach it when they went into production: while it doesn't have the three feature-length pilots with wildly differing tone and approaches that the bionic man did, there's a very noticeable move from the anti-authoritarian cynicism of the pilot episode to the subsequent series that sees our transparent hero part of a corporate family subcontracting to a benign government on impossible missions.
The pilot is easily the best episode, with a much darker tone tying in with the political paranoia of the day as McCallum accidentally discovers invisibility as a by-product of different commercial research and finds that boss and backer Jackie Cooper can't wait to break his word and sell it to the military. Add to that his phone being bugged and shadowy figures keeping watch on him and its no surprise that he wigs out and sabotages his invention, but not before temporarily rendering himself invisible. Only this time it turns out not to be temporary...
It's quite a bleak approach with much more emphasis on the characters. McCallum's scientist may not be dangerously mad but he's an unfocused character, mind rushing off in different directions, never thinking his actions through because he's already mentally racing ahead and subsequently driven by despair. By the end of the pilot the basic premise is established - in return for access to the resources he needs to find a cure he'll hire out to perform special assignments suited to his particular unique abilities - as is his fractious, mistrusting relationship with Cooper that's driven purely by necessity. Yet by the second episode the tone has lightened considerably as Universal tried to turn the show into an invisible Six Million Dollar Man. The backstory has been changed in the credit sequence - this time it was an accident rather than deliberate sabotage that destroyed the machine - and Jackie Cooper has been replaced by the more Oscar Goldman-like Craig Stevens, with McCallum and screen spouse Melinda Fee more of an undercover espionage version of McMillan and Wife, dispensing banter between dangerous assignments involving reluctant traitors, crooked truckers, penitent defectors, phoney psychics, corporate kidnappers, escaped madmen, card sharks and drug-dealing prison wardens. Yet if you can accept the sudden u-turn, it's a fun show, playing its fight sequences largely for laughs as heavies are winded or sent flying by invisible sucker punches or Ross Martin's randy but unconscious diplomat-cum-art thief is moved around like a puppet by our translucent hero.
Guest stars include Henry Darrow, Robert Alda, John Veron, Bobby Van, Nehemiah Persoff, Paul Shenar, Nancy Kovack, Farley Granger, Monte Markham and Oscar Homolka all but reprising his loveable Russian premier from an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, this time evading assassination attempts from hard liners while in an American hospital for secret plastic surgery.
Perhaps it was all too similar to The Six Million Dollar Man and the producers' other shows to thrive in the ratings at the same time, with its small episode count keeping it out of circulation for years even in syndication. And sadly that indifference has carried over to VEI's disappointing US NTSC DVD release, which has extremely problematic picture quality with a lot of motion issues - that look as if every 18th frame or so has frozen that isn't so noticeable when someone is walking towards the camera but looks horrible staggered in panning or tracking shots giving it a kind of stop/start juddering every few frames on any horizontal movement in most episodes. Even if you can live with that, the picture quality isn't that good either - no remastering here. There's even a bad mid-shot layer change in the pilot that skips over a couple of words of dialogue. The only plus that can be said for the DVD is that, unlike the atrocious Blu-ray release from the same company that puts every episode onto a single disc and presents them in shoddy widescreen versions, at least it's in the original fullframe ratio. No extras either. By all accounts all the other edtions of this title released by other labels in Germany, Australia and the UK are apparently much better picture quality. Certainly the English language German Blu-ray, splitting the show over two discs and including both a shorter synicated version of the pilot and the uncut version as an extra, is much better quality with none of the motion issues despite a bit of visible noise reduction.