One of those glorious trends of US TV in the 70s and 80s was “Me, too!” One network had a hit show on a certain subject – cat juggling, spoon sculpting, fish dating, whatever – and all the other networks had to have one, too (cf Blue Thunder, Airwolf, Knight Rider, Street Hawk, et al). A related trend was “More please!”, in which a network would try to capitalise on its own ideas. The Six Million Dollar Man on ABC begat The Bionic Woman on ABC (and then NBC), for example.
But that was a spin-off. Sometimes it was just the idea that got revived. To demonstrate, let’s look at two examples of “More please!”: NBC’s 1975 show The Invisible Man, with David McCallum, and its 1976 show Gemini Man, with Ben Murphy, in which two men perform secret agent-style missions thanks to the gift of invisibility.
Here are their weird old title sequences with very 70s theme tunes:
Now David McCallum was a big star in the US by the mid-70s. Best known now for his appearances on NCIS, the Glaswegian-born McCallum came to fame there on 60s spy show The Man from UNCLE, in which he played the almost Spock-like Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin. After a stint on Colditz in the UK in the early 70s, he returned to the US to star in an updating of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man.
Created by legendary producer Harve Bennett (The Six Million Dollar Man, The Mod Squad, Rich Man, Poor Man, Salvage 1, the Star Trek movies) and the equally legendary Steve Bochco (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, Murder One, NYPD Blue), The Invisible Man aired in 1975 and starred McCallum as scientist Daniel Westin. The pilot sees Westin working for a company called the Klae Corporation that is doing experiments in molecular disintegration. He discovers it has a side effect: turning objects invisible.
Obsessed by his invention, Westin wants to be invisible himself but his boss wants to sell the project for military purposes, so Westin tries to destroy it. He becomes invisible for a second time, but the process is unstable and he can’t return to his visible state anymore. He then goes to a friend, plastic surgeon Nick Maggio, who creates a face mask and a pair of hands using a material called “Dermaplex” that has the same properties as human skin. This enables Westin to appear visible, but he can remove the mask and hands to return to his invisible state.
There were subtle differences between the pilot and the series. The pilot depicts Westin as a tragic figure, the victim of the invisibility process; despite his continued efforts, he essentially remains invisible all the time and must use technology to fake being visible. However, the series, in which Westin returns to the Klae Corporation to perform secret spy type missions as “the Klae resource”, was lighter, featuring invisibility-related gags and scenarios, and ignored the tragic side of Westin’s predicament.
The show lasted for 12 episodes, before ending in January 1976 and McCallum headed home to do Sapphire and Steel and other UK shows. But why was The Invisible Man cancelled? Well, if you believe Stephen King (allegedly), it was because there were objections from certain religious types that when Westin was invisible, he was naked, which was immoral.
So just around the corner was Gemini Man, in which a man could turn invisible – and so could his clothes. This starred Ben Murphy who’d come to fame on the Western “bad guys turned good” show, Alias Smith and Jones. In it, Murphy played secret agent Sam Casey, who was injured when a laser-based satellite crash-landed in the sea and exploded while he was working to recover it. The side effect? His DNA is messed up and he becomes invisible (and so do things around him). But a government agency, called Intersect, finds a way to control his invisibility using a nuclear powered wrist watch called a “DNA stabilizer”. Pressing a button on the watch turns it off, making him invisible again, but he can only do this for 15 minutes per day or else he dies.
Eleven episodes of the show, which aired from September 1976, were made and they were largely formulaic action affairs in which Casey saves the day by turning invisible – the result being that only five of them were aired. All the same, it was a fun show, and as a kid, the digital watch (even if it was imaginary) soon became a must-have playground toy in the UK (or at least in the schools I went to).
That was the last of the invisibility shows for now, with new trends taking TV in a different direction. Of course, invisibility came back to the Sci-Fi Channel in the late 90s/early 00s with The Invisible Man, but that’s another story.