Thursday, February 28, 2013

Incredibly Well Done

I recently had a chance to re-watch “The Incredible Hulk” (no, not that one, although I did like the movie).  No, I mean the TV show with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, specifically the pilot episode.  I was quite pleased with the level of writing involved and how well the translated the premise to a believable show that both adults and children could enjoy.  There be spoilers ahead (although I don’t know if revealing information about a 30+ year old show counts as a spoiler) so be ye warned.

The episode opens with a musical montage of scenes with a man and a woman, obviously husband and wife or in some other kind of relationship, going through a variety of life events.  Overall, they seem to be happy.  The montage comes to a close when they are involved in a car accident, the man being thrown from the car (remember, seat belts were still optional in the ‘70’s).  The car lands on its roof and flames have started to appear.  The man can’t get the door open, no matter how hard he tries.  Finally, he wakes up in bed, alone.  He has had a nightmare.

In case you haven’t guessed it by now, that man is Dr. David Bruce Banner.  We learn that his wife, Laura, died in that car accident 11 months ago and since then he has not only bee having nightmares (for which he has seen a psychiatrist multiple times) but he’s been obsessed with his research.  That research is trying to find out why certain people manifest incredible strength in times of desperate need and, more importantly to him, why he didn’t.  Banner and his partner, Dr. Elaina Harding Marks, examine blood from people they have interviewed about these occurrences.  They use an electron microscope, boosted in power by the resident tinkering maintenance guy, to see the DNA (yeah, we’ll just gloss over that bit of mis-science) and discover that they all possess an abnormal sequence. 

Banner feels relieved, since that means he couldn’t have saved his wife after all, but Marks points out that they don’t know that he doesn’t possess the same abnormality.  Of course, testing Banner’s blood reveals that he does have that abnormality.  In fact, it’s larger than all the others.  So why didn’t Banner turn the car over?  That’s right, gamma rays.  Banner discovers that during each instance of incredible strength, sun spots had been producing a high amount of gamma radiation.  Banner’s car accident occurred during a low point on the readings, hence no strength.

As any good scientist would, he decides to experiment on himself by exposing his body to a high amount of gamma rays.  Since Marks has gone home, and is not answering her phone, Banner does this all on his own, not noticing that tell-tale tape on the dial that indicates that tinkering has been done.  He turns the gamma ray projector all the way up and turns it on.  Since he’s alone, he doesn’t see the “Danger” light flashing.  (One would think that there would have been some kind of alarm sound as well, but maybe the maintenance guy took that off-line.)  After the exposure … nothing happens.

Frustrated, Banner leaves for home, walking out into a downpour and heading for his car.  On the way home he gets a flat tire.  While changing it, the tire iron slips and he hits himself with it.  This makes him angry.  Cue transformation.  The car, the focus of the Hulk’s anger, is flipped down into a ravine and he runs off.  He apparently wanders in the woods until morning because the next scene is in the daylight.   The Hulk, much calmer, runs across a little girl fishing in a lake.  He approaches her, hoping to make a friend, but she screams for her father and gets into a boat to row away.  The boat tips and she falls in.  Unable to swim, or just too scared, she starts to flounder.

It is at this point that her father returns to the campsite and sees the Hulk pushing a tree over on to his daughter, although we know he’s trying to save her.  After shouting for him to get away, the father pulls out his rifle and shoots the Hulk.  Now he’s done it.  The Hulk runs towards the father, a wound on his arm, while the daughter grabs a branch of the felled tree.  When the Hulk reaches him, the father goes for a swim as well, being thrown 30 yards into the lake.  The Hulk runs off and, eventually, calms down and changes back into Banner.

Banner shows up at Dr. Marks’ apartment in his tattered clothes, explaining what he did and how he blacked out on the way home.  She is, understandably, upset at his recklessness.  He shows her his gunshot wound and she tells him that it looks like it’s been healing for almost a week.  While he’s there, a reporter, Jack Magee, knocks on the door looking for an interview with Dr. Marks.  He sees Banner in a mirror and, seeing as how he works for a tabloid, he figures he’ll follow them and see what juicy details he can find out.

Thinking that they are alone, Marks and Banner head to a remote laboratory, part of the same institute for which they work, where a deep sea lab module has been tested.  Banner wants to recreate his transformation under laboratory conditions, so they know what they’re dealing with.  Marks just wants to try an x-ray cure, but Banner resists.  He locks himself in the lab and tries to recreate all the circumstances of that night, while Marks monitors his vitals from outside.  It doesn’t work and, frustrated, Banner tries to sleep.  He has the same nightmare as the beginning of the episode and transforms, destroying the lab module.  Marks is able to get a blood sample (apparently smashing the inch thick glass cut the Hulk’s hands up) and calm him down, reverting him to Banner.

It is eventually discovered that Banner has absorbed 3 million Gamma Units (whatever those are), not the 200,000 he had intended.  This, combined with his DNA abnormality, has created the Hulk.  They decide to try the X-Ray cure, and so return to the main lab.  While they are out, Magee breaks in, after having failed to obtain entry while the doctors were there, and hides in a storage closet.  Of course, the cure doesn’t work, so Banner and Marks return to the remote lab to plan their next move.  When they arrive, Magee overhears them talking about their “friend”, which he pieces together with the damaged lab and Banner’s wrecked car, and concludes that the Hulk is an artificial being that was created in the lab and hence escaped.

When he exits the closet to confront the doctors, Magee knocks over a bottle of acid, which flows over to some broken bags of chemical compound.  Banner escorts the reporter out, warning him that “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”  Marks, still in the lab, smells the acid and yells for Banner, just as the whole lab explodes.  Banner leaves Magee and tries to get in.  He transforms and rescues Marks, who he then carries off to the woods, past a stunned Magee.  Marks dies of her injuries, but not before telling the Hulk that she has always loved Banner.  The Hulk leaves the body and runs off.

Magee prints a story recounting how Banner and Marks were killed by their own creation, for which he is berated at their funeral by a laboratory colleague.  Banner is shown, over his own grave, ready to begin his journey to cure himself.  It is left unsaid, but I presume that the reason he can’t return to the institute would be that he would then have to explain what happened to him, and why he was using himself as a guinea pig.

Overall, I think that this episode holds up very well.  The changes from the comic are all very well done and help to lend more believability to the story.  Banner is no longer an aloof scientist not caring what his research brings about (such as the gamma bomb), but someone who genuinely wants to find the answer to why he couldn’t save his wife.  The Hulk is no longer invulnerable, even though he does heal quickly, making for more tension in those scenes.  All of my memories of the series are from when I originally saw it as a child during its original run, and the variety of repeats during the years, and I am quite pleased that the show holds up extremely well.  Yes, there are some fantastic leaps and bad science, but no one was going to watch The Incredible Hulk expecting hard science fiction, so I can forgive them.

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