Dr. Daniel Westin (David McCallum) is a scientist for the Klae Corporation who makes himself invisible but is unable to make himself visible again. His boss at Klae, Walter Carlson (Jackie Cooper in the pilot, then replaced by Craig Stevens) makes him and his wife Kate (Melinda Fee) work for them as spies in order to keep up funding for his research. The show starts off with a strong pilot, but afterwards it becomes a serviceable, though routine, blend of fantasy and espionage. Running only 13 episodes on NBC in the 1975-1976 season, VEI has brought the entire series to Blu-Ray in a rather dismal fashion. All episodes are cropped to 16x9, and the entire series is squeezed onto a single disc, resulting in overcompression that makes it virtually unwatchable.
Studio: VEI (originally produced by Universal)
Length: 650 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 (MAR)
Languages: English 2.0 Dolby Stereo
Series Premiere Date: September 8, 1975
Disc Release Date: June 19, 2012
Review Date: June 11, 2012
Some movies get remade, but other properties, particularly those in the sci-fi and fantasy realm, get “rebooted.” To those who think this is a new phenomenon, think again. The Invisible Man, which began its life in 1897 as a novel by H.G. Wells, is no exception. The tale of an English scientist who finds a way to make himself invisible, but cannot find a way to make himself visible again, the dark story was first adapted to the screen in 1933, when Claude Rains portrayed Dr. Jack Griffin. The film became one of the most popular Universal horror films, spawning several sequels and a meeting with Abbott and Costello. In 1975, Universal revisited the story as this short-lived TV series set in the US in the present-day.
The series starts with a feature-length pilot that sets up the situation. Dr. Daniel Westin (David McCallum) is a scientist for the Klae Corporation. Working alongside his wife Kate (Melinda Fee), he took the job only on the condition that they do not use his work for military purposes. His current work, on trying to move things around the room, has not worked, but it has produced an interesting side effect: invisibility. When Westin’s boss, Walter Carlson (Jackie Cooper), sees it, he immediately sees its potential as a military tool, but Westin objects. After making himself invisible while working late at night, he learns the only place that would fund the project was the Pentagon. He also learns the hard way why the technology’s instability makes it useless in either the public or private sectors, so he must continue his research. With a script by Harve Bennett, who went on to produce five of the Star Trek: TOS films, and Steven Bochco, who went on to create Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue, the story holds one’s interest very well and does an admirable job of setting up the modern-day update to the story, while playing on themes that were very much in the public’s mind: corruption and paranoia, as well as Dr. Westin’s pacifism, the root of his conflict with Klae. Undoubtedly, the nation’s loss in the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Nixon after Watergate had something to do with their presence herein.
The show starts with a lot of promise. However, after the pilot, the show’s focus changes and the tone lightens; it becomes less about Westin’s quest to reverse the process and more about him using his invisibility to become a spy for the same people who sold him out. Subsequently, the show loses its emotional impact and becomes a husband and wife spy drama with a gimmick. The gimmick is effective, but the scripts are seldom better than average. The show would have been much stronger if it had continued to explore his moral objections to the system that forces him to do their dirty work in order to keep up his research, but we seldom see that research.
The show is certainly well-cast. David McCallum, best known as Illya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., does a commendable job with the role, underplaying his anger at his boss’s betrayal especially well in the pilot. Melinda Fee is fine as Kate, his affable, thoroughly modern wife, and she makes a nice contrast to McCallum’s stoicism. Craig Stevens, erstwhile star of Peter Gunn, replaces Jackie Cooper in the second episode; he does what he can with his role, but the scripts just don’t give him that much to do. Guest stars include Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West), Conrad Janis (Mork & Mindy), Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati), Helen Kleeb (The Waltons) and Monte Markham (The Second Hundred Years).
The series had a short life up against two top 10 shows on CBS: Rhoda and Phyllis, both spinoffs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. By January, a declining NBC decided to let the show vanish from the airwaves. The Rich Little Show took its place. The following season, NBC revisited the invisibility concept again with Gemini Man, starring Ben Murphy. It fared even worse, getting canceled after only a month.
The show is presented at 1.78:1. Yes, it’s MAR. In 1975, the idea that TVs would ever be widescreen, never mind have higher resolutions than NTSC and PAL offered, was a pipe dream. Although some shows started shooting with the widescreen, high-definition future in mind in the 1980s, it’s unlikely this was one of them. Comparisons of this Blu-Ray to any clips I could find elsewhere show no gain of picture info on the left and right. Oddly enough, parts of the pilot film (which bears an early 1990s Universal theatrical logo at the beginning) look unnaturally squeezed.
Regardless of the aspect ratio, the transfers are not much to write home about, either. There is some grain in evidence, but it looks unnatural, like it has been scrubbed away. Sharpness is minimal, and DNR is likely, considering the fact that VEI has attempted fit the entire series on a single disc at the cost of major compression. Color saturation is average, while the picture is fairly dark overall, even in daytime scenes.
Another factor in the picture quality, for which neither the current management of Universal or VEI are responsible, is the fact that some of the special effects shots appear to have been done on videotape for cost reasons, then kinescoped to cut into the 35mm negatives. While those watching the show on small CRTs getting NBC affiliates over antennas may not have noticed the difference, the larger size of modern screens and increased resolution of Blu-Ray bring this to light.
UPDATE: According to HTF member Neil Brock, the DVDs are NOT cropped to 16x9, making the decision to do so on the Blu-Ray all the more puzzling and insulting.
While the box claims the sound is in stereo, it sounds more like mono, thus true to the original broadcast. It’s a good representation of mid-1970s TV audio: clear, undistorted dialogue (though Jackie Cooper is obviously redubbed in the pilot) and music, and probably much better than it sounded in its original broadcasts, despite the fact that these are only compressed, DVD-grade Dolby Digital tracks. Henry Mancini’s theme song sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.
There are no extras whatsoever.
Very loosely based on H.G. Wells’ novel and, to some extent, James Whale’s celebrated 1933 film, The Invisible Man is not a bad show, but despite a promising pilot it misses the opportunity to exploit its main character’s quest to regain visibility and his anger at being used by his bosses who betrayed his trust, becoming a conventional spy show with a fanciful twist. I was really looking forward to seeing a non-current show, and a short-lived one at that, get a Blu-Ray release. But, quite frankly, VEI’s treatment of The Invisible Man is embarrassing. Cropped episodes compressed to the point of no return do not give me hope for the future of 20th century TV on Blu-Ray. All one can hope for is that VEI learns its lesson with subsequent releases of other shows and includes OAR transfers that give the episodes room to breathe.