Monday, November 21, 2011

Ben Murphy Rides With Death

When THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN became an instant ratings success for ABC in 1974, all three major television networks followed suit in attempts to do similar superhero-type programs. One such example is GEMINI MAN, which aired only five times on NBC in the fall of 1976 before it was cancelled. Eleven episodes were shot, and all were later aired in syndication and on the Sci-Fi Channel in the 1990s.

GEMINI MAN should have been better, considering the talented men who brought it to the screen. It was created for television by Leslie Stevens, who created the magnificent OUTER LIMITS of the early 1960s; Harve Bennett, who produced THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and, later, the early STAR TREK movies; and a young Steven Bochco, who went on to create NYPD BLUE, L.A. LAW, and HILL STREET BLUES, among other classic dramas. Bochco and Bennett had just produced THE INVISIBLE MAN, a shortlived series for NBC in 1975 that was undoubtedly the inspiration for GEMINI MAN.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (starring MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum) was cancelled in January 1976 after 13 weeks. In March of that year, NBC telecast GEMINI MAN, a 90-minute pilot that starred Ben Murphy (ALIAS SMITH AND JONES) as Sam Casey, an agent for a government thinktank called Intersect.

On an underwater mission, Casey is caught in an explosion and rendered invisible through mysterious radiation. A pretty doctor (played by Katherine Crawford) creates a super wristwatch that makes him visible again, but only when it is attached to his wrist. By pressing a button on the watch, Sam can make himself invisible again, but only for up to fifteen minutes during a 24-hour period. Under the watchful eye of gruff, middle-aged boss Leonard Driscoll (William Sylvester), Sam uses his invisibility powers to undertake secret missions for Intersect.

Frankly, THE INVISIBLE MAN had the exact same premise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if unused scripts for INVISIBLE MAN turned up as GEMINI MAN episodes, especially considering both were produced by Universal Television for NBC.

I have a weird attraction to stupid-looking robots, and GEMINI MAN delivers big time in its episode, “Minotaur,” one of the few episodes that were actually seen on NBC. Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) guest-stars as Carl Victor, a mad scientist and vengeful ex-employee of Intersect who builds a killer robot and demands $500 million from the U.S. Secretary of Defense or else he’ll use the robot, named “Minotaur,” to zap a skyscraper with its built-in laser and level it.

To prove he’s not kidding, Victor lures Sam to an abandoned warehouse and uses Minotaur to blow it up. Following Victor’s daughter (BLUE SUNSHINE’s Deborah Winters) to his secret laboratory, which appears to be located at Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power (one of L.A.’s most ubiquitous low-budget film locations), Sam spends the episode dodging Minotaur’s laser blasts and sensor probes.

“Minotaur”’s story was co-written by Robert Bloch, a noted horror author whose book PSYCHO inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 motion picture. Staff producers Frank Telford (THE VIRGINIAN) and Robert F. O’Neill (QUINCY, M.E.) wrote the teleplay, and Alan J. Levi, who later replaced director Richard A. Colla during filming of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pilot for Universal, helmed the episode, which closely resembles a segment of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN in terms of story, structure, look, and tone.

“Minotaur” is—let’s be honest—not really all that great, but it does have a clunky-looking robot that talks and shoots lasers. So what’s not to love?


R.A.M.'67 said...

I loved the basic concept of Gemini Man when I was little; what kid wouldn't want to turn invisible and control it with a watch like Sam Casey's? (I'd pass on being bombarded with radiation, however.) Too bad it came hot on the heels of that Invisible Man show, which may be why it was gone so soon, both were just similar enough. (It didn't help GM was on opposite Donny & Marie, too.)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 socked it to GM when they made fun of the featurization Riding with Death, taken from two episodes guest-starring "thespian" Jim Stafford!

Seriously, this is one series that could thrive today if done as a "reboot"!

Amanda By Night said...

I was going to mention MST3K, but RAM beat me to it. I've never see a version without those guys, and would love too. I like Gemini Man, but I'm a huge Ben Murphy fan, so I'm probably watching it for different reasons!

Fun review! I like silly robots too! :)

Anonymous said...

I too saw the 'MST3K' version of 'Riding With Death' and it was absolutely pathetic. They could not even find anything amusing to say about Jim Stafford's hopeless attempt at acting. I disagree about a 'reboot'. You only have to look at the rececnt 'Bionic Woman' fiasco to see it is just not feasable. Leave 'Gemini Man' alone.