❉ The not-so-jolly green giant’s small-screen escapades spiffed-up in a hulking 16-disc HD Blu-ray set.
Before the CGI revolution, when the capabilities of film finally caught up with the fertile imaginations of the Marvel Bullpen, Marvel heroes were peculiarly unsuited to screen. Whereas Batman faced off against strange but human grotesques Marvel’s characters came with an array budget busting fantastical abilities. Nicholas Hammond’s Spider-Man came up against ninjas and terrorists rather than insane businessmen dressed as goblins or mad scientists with extra limbs; the only superpowered opponents he came up against had budget-friendly mind control powers.
Similarly the other big Marvel icon with his own TV series wouldn’t be facing off against fellow gamma powered mutations or journeying to the heart of an atom. All those comic book shenanigans were deemed too silly for a sophisticated 70s TV audience. Instead this series is very much a product of the Me Decade. The incident which turns Banner into the Hulk is solipsistic: an obsession with why he didn’t manifest super strength that could have prevented his wife from dying in a car accident leads him to bombard himself with an overdose of gamma radiation which stimulates some DNA abnormalities. Cue a convenient blowout in a rainstorm on the drive home which proves awkward to fix and enter the Hulk.
This sounds somewhat banal; on the basis of that incident you tend to hope that you won’t be around if Banner stubs his toe or hears some news he doesn’t like. What sells it is the transformation; a terrifically well-directed scene that retains its power nearly forty years later. From the moment Bill Bixby’s eyes go white it lingers on the detail of tearing clothes and suddenly green skin; the terror’s built with animalistic growls and urgent synth stings. The Hulk roaring into the camera still unsettles; still brings back a Proustian rush of terror from seeing it weekly on the opening titles. There’s no reassurance; we don’t know that this creature is anything more than an animal.
The format is one of the hoariest in American TV: the stranger from out of town who comes in, solves the imminent problem and rides off again into the sunset. It’s there in an uncountable number of Westerns, in ‘The Littlest Hobo’ and even in SF style in ‘Quantum Leap’.
This isn’t the jolly green juggernaut of the comic books though. He doesn’t travel halfway across America in a few leaps, he’s vulnerable to bullets and he’s restricted to guttural growls. It’s a more realistic world and this Hulk doesn’t need to be a grumpy tank to show his power. Instead he’s simply physically stronger than any human. He becomes a karmic avenger doling out justice to scoundrels; the one who bullies the bullies. It’s wish fulfilment really – who hasn’t fantasised about unleashing their inner fury and smashing the bad guys? This Hulk, however, is not the force of pure anger his initial appearance leads us to believe. Despite the ominous opening titles of the regular series the limitations imposed by Banner’s morals mean he’s a friendly, misunderstood monster, something emphasised by the pilot’s homage to one of the more famous scenes from James Whale’s 1931 version of ‘Frankenstein’. Don’t make him angry? You might actually like him when he’s angry if you gave him a chance.
It’s Bill Bixby’s show more than Lou Ferrigno’s… Bixby’s terrific in a relatively thankless role and is good enough to keep you watching even the most mundane episode while you’re waiting for the Hulk.
The pilot ends, as all good pilots should, by setting up the format of the series. After an accident at the laboratory where Banner works, a colleague is killed in an explosion (as, it is thought, is Banner) and gutter journalist Jack McGee pins it on the Hulk. The format is one of the hoariest in American TV: the stranger from out of town who comes in, solves the imminent problem and rides off again into the sunset. It’s there in an uncountable number of Westerns, in ‘The Littlest Hobo’ and even in SF style in ‘Quantum Leap’.
The direct model Johnson was following though was almost certainly that of the hugely successful ‘The Fugitive’ where an innocent hunted man was searching for his wife’s killer and can’t stay anywhere for long. It’s a durable model too, one you can spin into an almost infinite variety of stories and keep going until either the audience grow bored or it’s arbitrarily ended. This means that it’s Bill Bixby’s show more than Lou Ferrigno’s; Bixby does the heavy work of carrying the drama of each episode and Ferrigno has all the fun sorting things out with plenty of property damage and bruised bad guys. Bixby’s terrific in a relatively thankless role and is good enough to keep you watching even the most mundane episode while you’re waiting for the Hulk.
For the most part the show then works repetitively to the formula: Banner arrives in town, adopts an alias (cunningly, all ‘David’ followed by a surname beginning with ‘B’), gets involved in some local skulduggery and sorts it all by Hulking out. Once that’s done he’s off again to the strains of the most melancholy theme ever devised for TV, the aptly titled ‘The Lonely Man’. Much of the series therefore comes across as a superior form of 70s melodrama, which varies from the superior schlock of Married (worth watching for Mariette Hartley’s Emmy Award winning performance) to nonsense such a A Death in the Family and The Phenom.
While this can lead to the circumstances to summon the Hulk being contrived (The Beast Within features a gorilla as convincing as Gerald from ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’) it’s when the writers begin to fiddle with the formula that things get fascinating. Much of this comes in the fourth season, in episodes such as Prometheus, The First and The Harder They Fall which play with the main character’s dual nature and its consequences. Sadly this promise of finding new tricks for what, by then, was an old dog of a series gets wasted by an uninspired final year.
The three TV movies which later brought the series to a conclusion aren’t included here; a shame given the last one provides the series with a definitive ending. It’s the only real flaw of this boxset though – there’s pin-sharp picture quality, making of documentaries and some excellent commentaries from Johnson on key episodes. In the age where every superhero tale has to be epic this is a fine, nostalgic reminder that less can be more.
Extras: Creating an iconic character: The Hulk. Remembering The Incredible Hulk: An American Classic. Behind the success: The story of The Incredible Hulk, Gag Reel. Lou Ferrigno intro. Introduction with Kenneth Johnson. Audio commentary with Kenneth Johnson on the pilot The Incredible Hulk, Married and Prometheus. Inside an episode: Prometheus photo gallery.
❉ ‘The Incredible Hulk: The Complete Collection’ Blu-ray set was released on 5 December 2016 by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises, RRP £119.99