I’m watching my way through the first series of The Incredible Hulk, mostly with Fiona. When I’m in the mood for an episode, I invariably invite her to join me in the following way: “Would you care to watch the terrible late-seventies Incredible Hulk TV series?” In part, I suspect I’m unconsciously aping both Andrew Rilstone’s habitual references to “the dreadful Torchwood“ and Bob the Angry Flower’s reference to “Mille Bornes, the terrible French card game“. But the thing is, it really is terrible.
And yet somehow we’re sort of enjoying it.
The series debuted in 1978, when I was ten, and I remember the anticipation from back before it screened. I certainly knew the names Bill Bixby (who played Banner) and Lou Ferrigno (who played the Hulk) before I saw the show on TV. The odd thing is, I don’t remember where from. There was — of course — no Internet then, so I must have either seen previews on the TV or read about it in newspapers or magazines. I am guessing the latter, because I distinctly recall thinking the Hulk’s actor was called Ferringo: a mistake you could make when reading, but not when listening.
Bixby was an actor. (Not a particularly good one, but then no-one was back then. The general standard of acting in this series is very poor by modern standards, but that’s true of basically all 1970s TV.) Ferrigno was not an actor, but a body-builder. And, to be fair, a really really impressive one. he stood six foot five, and was built very solidly, but also athletically. He didn’t look unhealthily muscle-bound, just very powerful.
The thing is, he’s sort of superfluous to the show.
Here’s how it works. In each episode, we discover David Banner in some new location — maybe working as a janitor in a boxing gym in Delaware, or collecting coins in a pinball arcade in New York. He adopts a different alias every time: always David, always a surname that begins with B. In each episode he discovers that someone is in trouble: a boxer who has been unknowingly acting as a courier for the gym owner’s drugs, an arcade owner who’s being shaken down by the mob. In each episode, Banner helps the person in need, then moves on to a new location. Two or three times along the way, he will be in some physical danger, so he’ll turn into the Hulk and get out of that danger.
This is actually a perfectly good premise for a TV show. The thing is, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the Hulk. In fact, you could cut the Hulk bits out of most episodes and lose almost nothing, if you just made Banner a decent rough-house fighter able to take care of himself.
Note: we are talking here about David Banner, not Bruce as in the comics (and in the other three Hulks we’ll be discussing in this series). It’s not completely clear why the TV people changed the name. It’s been suggested it was to avoid the classic comic-book device of an alliterative name, but it’s nice to think that it was in part a recognition of the fact that the character is a completely different person from the Bruce of the comics.
For a start, the origin story is completely different. Where Bruce Banner is a military scientist caught in the blast of an experimental gamma bomb when trying to save Rick Jones, David Banner is researching how humans sometimes manifest supernatural strength in emergencies, because he is haunted by the memory of being unable to save his wife from a crashed car. He experiments on himself, and that’s what enables the transformation. Where Bruce is bashful around women (or, more precisely, around Betty Ross, who is the only woman in Banner’s universe), David is a bit of a lady-killer, and not above gently breaking the occasional heart as he moves on. He’s a physician as well as a research scientist, and his research also (it turns out later) encompasses how rage is controlled in animals.
But if TV Banner seems different from Comics Banner, that’s nothing to how TV Hulk differs from Comics Hulk. First, they don’t look much alike. Ferrigno is merely a very impressive human, not built on anything like the super-powerful lines of the proper Hulk. TV Hulk is a much, much weaker than Comics Hulk: about as strong as Lou Ferrigno, by a convenient coincidence. In the very first episode we see him wounded by a gunshot. TV Hulk does not speak, only growls — almost constantly. He does not jump, but he runs a lot. (An awful lot, during the very slow-moving climax of Terror in Times Square, which might perhaps more honestly have been titled Tedium in Times Square.) Maybe worst of all, TV Hulk does not smash. TV Hulk flings. He’s always getting in fights with low-grade hoodlums — never the military, never a super-villain — and he always, always deals with them by picking them up and flinging them across the room.
So it’s badly acted, the special effects are as dreadful as you’d expect, the music is heavy-handed and cheesy, the plots are clichéd, the stories move with terrible slowness, and none of it has anything to do with Bruce Banner or the Hulk.
And yet … I sort of like it. I can’t really justify it, but it’s true. There’s an element of nostalgia, sure, but that’s not enough to explain it. I think there is something strangely restful about how everything meanders its way through the inevitable set-pieces to the inevitable outcome. And I like how different episodes exploit such different genres, all within the series conventions: Final Round is a pretty obvious Rocky pastiche (the boxer even calls himself Rocky); The Beast Within is a smuggling thriller; Of Guilt, Models and Murder is a straight-up murder mystery; 747 is basically Airplane without jokes but with an incidental Hulk.
At any rate, I like it enough that I expect to finish watching Season 1; though after that, I make no promises.
Anyway, The Incredible Hulk came to an end in 1982, having racked up five seasons. After a six-year gap, it was followed by three standalone movies with the same principal cast in 1988, 1989 and 1990. And then … that was it. The Hulk disappeared from our screens for 13 years.