The Incredible Hulk Classic TV Series Pilot (1977), Still Great Drama Today.
The Incredible Hulk pilot was conceived as a two-part television movie that would stand alone or pave the way for a weekly television series, if the ratings were good enough. The ratings were good enough, and the pilot spawned a 5 season television series.
This pilot did what any good pilot should do - it set the tone for the core storyline of the series. Unfortunately, not all episodes followed the tone or carried the themes through.
The pilot stars Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner, Susan Sullivan as Dr. Elaina Marks, Jack Colvin journalist Jack McGee (the series nemesis), and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk.
WARNING: Beyond here lie spoilers! Watch the episode first if you don't want to ruin any surprises.
In the Beginning...
The pilot begins not with any fanfare, or even what would become the iconic theme. Instead, it begins with a simple quote:
"Within each of us,
ofttimes, there dwells
a mighty and raging fury."
The story opens with idyllic scenes of a couple in love; walks through fields of flowers; holding hands; walking in rain sharing umbrella; getting a kitten; breakfast in bed; looking longinly into each others eyes.... These are visions of Laura, David's wife.
The visions end with couple getting in a fiery car crash, with Laura trapped inside while David tries to free her but proves to be too weak.
Images repeat with increasing speed and build to a crescendo, ending abruptly with David sitting up in bed, with tear filled eyes in a silent, empty bedroom. The way many days begin for him since the death of his wife.
The cinematography works really well here. The idyllic scenes suddenly turn frightful with the car crash, and the crescendo of quick image replay mixed with the cacophony of sound is especially powerful when when both are brought to a sudden and complete end and we are left staring into the face of Bill Bixby with a gut wrenching look of sorrow and loss.
Things just got real.
Obviously, this is one of the episodes not really intended for children. But it realizes Ken Johnson and Bill Bixby's desire to make a serious, mature version of Stan Lee's trademark, gamma green comic book hero.
This opening scene caught me completely off guard. It was nowhere near what I was expecting when I sat down to watch. I was also entirely hooked by the depth of emotion at the opening scene that I put down my laptop and actually watched the episode.
Part I. A Day in the Life.
The first part of this two part pilot episode is all about the backstory. The intro serves to pull the viewer into what really drives Dr David Banner - loss.
From there, we follow David through a typical day in his life since Laura's death. He's doing research at the Culver Institute. His research is focused on finding the source of human strength, specifically the kind super-human strength people have exhibited in times of panic or crisis.
His research seems professional enough, but we know the personal drive behind it.
The pilot focuses primarily on David as a scientist and doctor, so there's plenty of science jargon but it never seems gratuitous and always strengthens the narrative.
The Incredible Hulk pilot also scores high marks for its portrayal of research scientist Dr. Elaina Marks as a peer to Dr. David Banner - a big deal for a time when women were typically cast as secretaries, models, waitresses and mothers.
This episode, being the pilot, establishes the main themes of the series. Namely:
- Loss and loneliness
- The scientific quest for answers - first; what is the source of human strength in times of crisis; later: what is the cure for David Banner's condition.
- Is the creature (Hulk) dangerous? Is it a killer?
- Avoiding Jack McGee; initially because his paper is a sensationalist rag, later because McGee knows Banner's identity and thinks him to be dead.
Most of the episode that follow, and certainly the best of the episodes, focus on one or more of these themes. The avoidance of Jack McGee is also used numerous times to further the plot along in subsequent episodes.
The pilot also shows David to be a genius who is at times impulsive, impatient and given to fits of anger. He is a sympathetic and flawed character, but not unlike most people.
The genius of Bixby and Kenneth Johnson is in making Dr. David Banner a real and believable character, one who is a victim of his own making.
This story is so many things. It's the story of one man's obsession with a scientific problem - complete with false solutions and many struggles. And in the end, that final "Ah-Ha!" moment when science triumphs...tragically so in this case.
This story is also a modern day Greek tragedy, and it's an absolutely brilliant way to add depth to an otherwise shallow comic book character. This provides many of the elements that make the series enjoyable today, more than 36 years later. The underlying themes of loss and struggle are timeless and universal.
The series is also fond of science fiction that has gone before it, and scenes like the one at a lake with a young girl, as an homage to Frankenstein, are a nice touch and injected into the storyline quite naturally.
"David Banner is not a killer!"
-Dr. Elaina Marks
Where part one gives us backstory and the foundation for David's actions, part II gives us a taste of what has been wrought. David and Elaina attempt to recreate David's transformation in a controlled environment with the hopes of learning what causes it and if it can be controlled.
The results are predictably disastrous and culminate with Elaina's death and the destruction of the Culver Institute. It sets David on the run, and he will remain running until the final television movie, The Death of The Incredible Hulk, some 12+ years later.
Part II is when we are first introduced to the haunting piano theme, "The Lonely Man."
It also introduces the theme of "Hulk as Killer" debate; the question that later plagues David in episodes like Of Guilt, Models and Murder, Deathmask and The Pyschic.
Also present in this episode is the famous tag-line:
"Mr. McGee... don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Adding to David's already tragic backstory, Elaina dies in the arms of the Hulk, but not before she tells him that she loved him. Later, after he has transformed back into human form, he visits the grave site for Elaina and David. (he is presumed to have died in the explosion of the Culver Institute.) David tells Elaina he loved her, adding "I think you loved me too, although you never said it."
That line is a punch to gut for the audience, who knows the truth. It's a bittersweet moment that not only heightens the drama, but also drives home the fact that David is unaware of what the Hulk does - they are two minds in one body.
"My task is to make my character so believable that the audience readily accepts the Hulk when he appears."
-Bill Bixby, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS…… June 24, 1979
Not so special effects
Lastly, I need to address the special effects, such as they are.
The Hulk effects are poor by today's standards, but you must remember that they had little more than makeup, post-production editing effects were minimal, and there was certainly no CGI. In fact, Lou Ferrigno is still the only live actor to portray the Hulk on screen- all others since have been CGI.
In an odd way, this sometimes works in favor of the series. For example, consider the cinematography in the 1st transformation scene, on a moonless and rainy night. There is a definite influence of contemporary slasher films of the day (think Halloween and early Friday the 13th movies) that lend a sort of realism to the terror. Many times, early CGI produced effects that were too precise and unreal looking. By contrast, this scene has a dark and gritty realism to it.
If you can accept the limitations of the effects and see beyond the dated atmosphere (i.e. music, cars, hairstyles, etc..) , then the 1978 version of The Incredible Hulk is still an awesome work of sci-fi drama, and well worth a view.
Where to watch this episode
- Amazon.com: The Incredible Hulk: -Pilot
Amazon.com: The Incredible Hulk: Season 1, Episode 1 "The Incredible Hulk-Pilot": Amazon Instant Video
- Watch The Incredible Hulk Online | Netflix
You can watch The Incredible Hulk instantly on Netflix. Sign up for access to a wide variety of Movies & TV Shows streaming instantly to your TV, computer, tablet or favorite device.
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