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Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart starred in a movie version of The Invisible Man.
Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart starred in a movie version of The Invisible Man.

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The Invisible Man on TV: H.G. Wells is nowhere to be seen Add to ...

The average science-fiction fan was not well-served by the 1975-76 TV season.

Several years after Star Trek and just before Star Wars, the broadcast landscape was glaringly bereft of imaginative storytelling.

Beyond sporadic airings of the execrable low-budget series Space 1999, the 1975 fall TV lineup was awash in sappy sitcoms (Happy Days, Good Times et al.), formulaic crime dramas (Baretta, Police Story, Cannon) and turgid medical soaps (Marcus Welby, M.D.; Medical Center). On a good week, Ray Bradbury might appear on The Tonight Show.

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For true sci-fi devotees, the only flicker of hope was The Invisible Man, NBC’s response to the

breakout ratings success of ABC’s TheSix Million Dollar Man the previous season. ABC had already booked a spinoff series, The Bionic Woman, for mid-season, but NBC presumed that the fanciful concept originated by H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel would fully captivate a viewing audience in the mid-seventies.

They were right, for at least half a season.

Ambitious and expensive-looking for its time, The Invisible Man was a TV vehicle for Scottish actor David McCallum, already known to viewers from his costarring role on The Man from U.N.C.L.E from 1964 to 1968. In the teen fanzines of the sixties, he was routinely referred to as “the blond Beatle.”

Owing nothing to Wells’s original story, the series cast McCallum as the soft-spoken scientist Dr. Daniel Westin, who toils for the ominous KLAE Corporation on the condition that his work not be deployed for military purposes. Westin’s closest confidante is his scientist wife, Kate (Melinda Fee), who works alongside him in the lab and looks terrific in a polyester pantsuit.

The flashpoint comes early in the movie-length pilot setting up the first and only season of the series, which benefits greatly from remastering in the box-set collection.

While conducting experiments in particle theory and molecular disintegration, Westin stumbles on the formula for invisibility. It’s just that easy! His boss Walter (Jackie Cooper in the pilot; Craig Stevens later in the series) immediately recognizes the discovery’s military applications. This does not sit well with Westin, a mop-haired pacifist.

The concept takes a curious turn in the regular series. Now permanently invisible, and wearing a flesh-like mask and gloves only for special occasions, the Invisible Man is shipped off on a series of secret missions by his employers (who turn out to be the Pentagon), thereby initiating a steady succession of green-screenish special effects.

As might be expected, invisibility factors hugely into every episode of The Invisible Man, which also features some solid storytelling. In one memorable outing, a disreputable medium, played with glowering menace by Canadian actor John Vernon, attempts to influence politicians to support alternative energy sources (apparently a bad thing in 1975). Does Westin show up to discredit the fraud at his own séance? It’s obvious from the opening credits.

Viewers, sadly, did not show up. The Invisible Man was trounced in the ratings game by the CBS sitcoms Rhoda and Phyllis, both spinoffs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Even the ill-conceived ABC drama Barbary Coast – starring former Star Trek fixture William Shatner as a roguish 19th-century government agent – drew more viewers in the same Monday-night time slot. After a dozen episodes, NBC pulled the plug on The Invisible Man and replaced it in mid-January with The Rich Little Show.

And as always seems to happen in network television, nobody learned a lesson. For the 1976-77 TV season, NBC went back to the exact same well with The Gemini Man, an action series starring Ben Murphy as a spy guy who could turn invisible at will through a click of his high-tech wristwatch.

It lasted five weeks before disappearing forever.

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