Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Incredible Hulk S1 Ep4: The Beast Within

"People can't identify with the CG Hulk because it's not human. You can't compete with the human Hulk." -Lou Ferrigno accurately reflecting on why his portrayal of The Hulk will always reign supreme [SFX #206]-

The latest, aptly-titled installment shines a light on the crux of the series thematic strengths–man's struggle with the self and the demons within. The Incredible Hulk is the perfect vehicle for portraying that internal conflict and our effort to balance and control our lives. As entertainment, the odyssey of a man named David Banner continues both from without and within as a symbolic, physical drama. Control is at the very heart of Banner's journey and his efforts to contain his powerful alter-ego and that is what made The Incredible Hulk so compelling to both adults and children, because children too, on a very subconscious level, understood what was going on. They understood anger and emotion and empathized with the plight of a man at odds with his own demons. Who better to understand pain, doubt, the unknown and the tricky tightrope of fitting in than a child?

Bill Bixby was largely responsible for that emotional investment. He immersed himself into the character and was able to transcend age with his sympathetic performance. Who knew the comedic and dramatic actor that was Bixby would be led down the silver path to the role of one of Marvel Comics' iconic classics? The decision to invest in Bixby was an easy one for Kenneth Johnson, but what about Bixby? Was he feeling confident in the material and the role? Initially no as discovered in an interview with Kenneth Johnson in Starlog Magazine #312. "When Bill saw the script, he said, 'Are you kidding? I'm not going to do that!'"

If there's one thing we knew about Bixby using the eyeball test for My Favorite Martian [1963-1966], The Courtship Of Eddie's Father [1969-1972] and The Incredible Hulk for five seasons [1977-1982], it was how much he gave of himself to every role. Bixby takes the material he commits to seriously and his passionate devotion to the role of David Banner would become no exception.

As it turned out, Bixby, like Leonard Nimoy with Spock on Star Trek: The Original Series, was very protective of how the Banner character was portrayed and that it rang true to the human condition. Bixby was skeptical and "intense" at first remembers Johnson. "He asked me, 'This isn't going to be a comic book, is it? This script is what you're really going to do?' I told him that it was, and he took the role."

Bixby eventually came around, and as I said, ironically, became a very big proponent of the series eventually directing the final two movies of the series just years prior to his untimely death. The late Bixby told The Chicago Tribune in 1978 via Starlog Magazine #312, "At first everyone was on my case, saying, 'You're doing what?' I said, 'Just watch the show.' You hear the words 'Incredible Hulk' and it brings out the intellectual snobbery in the viewing audience, and most of all, in the critics. But we have overcome not only our title, but that negativism. What I love most about the show is that children are not afraid of the Hulk. They understand."

The Beast within or the human within? That's irony. Bixby was the perfect voice selected for the series and the material. He immediately understood the inevitable intellectual arrogance that would impact their efforts upon its introduction and was assured of the support he would receive as he gradually convinced the naysayers and the skeptical that The Incredible Hulk could work. Bixby knew how to reach both young and old and applied himself to the Hulk vehicle as entertainment and psychological journey. Somehow the man who made us laugh in My Favorite Martian or touched our hearts smiling in The Courtship Of Eddie's Father, knew he could help children understand the complexities of internalized emotional turmoil. Who better to reach a generation subjected to an explosion in divorced nuclear families than the man who raised a child named Eddie on his own? Yes, Bixby was right, as children we understood. His impact was profound and the role of David Banner in the hands of a lesser actor and a lesser man might never have made that connection and the series might never have prospered. All things considered, Kenneth Johnson and Bill Bixby got it right.

David Banner seeks answers in the latest installment as a Zoo keeping assistant in The Incredible Hulk, Season One, Episode 4, The Beast Within. Caroline McWilliams guest starred as a researcher/ anthropologist at the zoo facility. As The Incredible Hulk's 1970s formula would have it Banner's journey of self-discovery was sure to find trouble once again.

Banner, as David Bradburn, expresses his interest in Doctor Claudia Baxter's research into animal aggression or animal aggression being induced bio-chemically rather than psychologically-induced. Banner meets Elliot, the monkey man [literally a man in the monkey suit]. There are some elements you simply have to forgive or concede to within the series to enjoy the strengths of the Banner character. Baxter indicates to Bradburn that he should read the theories penned by the late Dr. David Banner. Fortunately for Banner there's no photo with those theory papers. Once again, how things have changed.

Baxter indicates she has expanded upon Banner's work, but with frightening results for the rodents far of which are far too familiar to Banner.

Later, while on routine zoo maintenance Banner stumbles upon Dr. Malone and a man named Carl carrying a "dead" chimpanzee. Banner warns the animal isn't dead, but comatose. Clearly the men discard Banner's input with intent to conceal a truth.

Later Baxter and Banner work on experiments with Elliot, the monkey [man]. Elliot may be just a step up from the stuffed bear found in the second Pilot episode, Death In The Family, but that's a stretch. There search continues for an anti-rage compound. Baxter is hard on herself disappointed she is missing the viral infection attacking the dying animals. Banner suspects something more and knows a cover-up is in the works by Malone who is handling the autopsy chores.

Naturally, one could only start to wonder a little bit about the incredibly knowledgeable Banner masquerading as Bradburn and why he's a mere zookeeper, but pay no attention to such meager holes in logic, this is The Incredible Hulk! But Baxter does wonder about him, but never pursues her line of questioning that would seem only logical in an effort to know more about this essential stranger. Banner does his best to charm her away from anything too revealing about himself personally.

Later, Elliot is injected with ADG-4, a compound that induces anger. Carl takes Banner to the office and throws him in the cage with Elliot. A beating by Elliot ensues and the monkey man brings about a ferocious transformation. Elliot bites off a little more than he can chew and is scared back to his cage after a physical punishment.

Lou Ferrigno makes the rounds through the zoo meeting a little girl in a lovely scene for the actor. Ferrigno does the pensive, curious beast within better than most. Banner inevitably lands himself in a tiger's den and transforms back to Banner as he holds a small cub. Banner always looks wasted following the transformation back and does dazed better than most.

Claudia is given the news about a zebra with the virus. She insists she wants to re-examine the zebra, but Malone informs her she's suspended. The walls are closing in.

Banner points Claudia in the right direction regarding the ADG-4. Unexpectedly, reporter McGee arrives and throws a monkey in the works. Banner manages to evade McGee's prying eyes. Claudia informs Banner the animals that are dying are all from South Africa, site of a major diamond heist. So there you have it, The Beast Within is a good example of your classic 70s-driven heist mystery story passing as nefarious evildoers.

Banner and Baxter are taken prisoner and tied up. An ADG-4 injection brings back the beast within! As usual, Bixby absolutely brings full-on believability to his transformation. You never doubt for a minute he isn't the tortured David Banner.

Enter the Hulk! With Baxter on her way to the lion's den, the Hulk saves the day. The generally good nature of Banner always managed to shine through the rage of this misunderstood and surprisingly heroic beast.

So it's farewell to Banner once again keeping one step ahead of reporter McGee. Banner kisses Baxter goodbye. He's like the cerebral, '70s version of Captain James T. Kirk. There was something infinitely lovable about Banner. While the zoo motif was a good one, the latest installment lacks significant script time with Bill Bixby and the substance that would appear in some of the series finest. Still, it's a big, green, old bag of fun.

The One To Be Pitied: "I can't believe people were paid a salary for making this stuff." She's always right there. That beast within is positively brutal!

The Beast Within: C. Director: Kenneth Gilbert. Writer: Karen Harris & Jill Sherman.

Hulk Transformation Reason #1: Banner is beaten by a giant zoo monkey named Elliot. It is a man in a monkey suit.

Hulk Transformation Reason #2: Banner is tied up and forced into a rage over the safety of a friend.

Actress footnote: Caroline McWilliams [1945-2010]. The actress, once married to Michael Keaton, starred in Benson [1979-1981], Soap, Guiding Light, Another World and even appeared in Beverly Hills 90210.

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