The boxset of the whole series can be ordered from The Anorak Zone online store. As the series celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, what better time to revisit the programme, and see how well it stands up all these years later? Please join me as I rank the entire first season from worst to best...
Several episodes in the first season of The Incredible Hulk use stock footage from existing movies - 747 borrows from Airport 1975, for example. However, in getting the rights to Steven Spielberg's 1971 TV movie Duel, this episode goes one stage further and actually builds an entire narrative around it. This results in drivers making constant demands that passengers duck down in order so that it matches Duel footage where only one occupant is in the car and truck.
There's a higher level of camp than usual in this one, and a certain amount of self-awareness, as Bill Bixby laments that he hasn't bought any shirts that can stretch. Yet, while reaching the bottom of the rankings here on objective quality (it's not really a story, more a patchwork episode thinly threaded together from existing footage) it should be noted that it's one of the most entertaining of the first season, purely in a "so bad it's good" way. Lastly, it's one of two first season episodes that don't feature brilliantly nosy reporter Jack McGee... although credited, and one of the characters mentions at the end that he's prowling around, actor Jack Colvin doesn't put in an appearance here, along with 747.
A fundamental problem with the series that may not have been apparent to the child audience is that we must accept that wherever Banner goes, he runs into trouble. If he's picking up work as a janitor, he'll be unwittingly employed by gangsters... or if he works in a zoo laboratory, he'll find that it's really just a front for a multi-million diamond smuggling operation. This is a man so unlucky that if he had a job flipping burgers he'd probably find it was a covert arms manufacturer.
However, back in August 1978 this plot of murderous doctors and baby trading may have seemed more plausible, as the episode features a caption that reads "all characters, organizations and events in this story are fictional." Genre fans may appreciate seeing Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry/Hellraiser/Deep Space Nine) as the doctor, sporting the season's most dated hairstyle, which is no mean feat. However, the real highlight of the episode lies with seeing the Hulk staggering through hospital corridors, under the influence of morphine.
For each episode, David Banner adopts a fictitious surname to hide his real identity, as he's wanted for a murder he didn't commit. This one sees him work for Jeremy Brett and Loni Anderson under the guise of "David Blaine"(!).
The real interest in this one is that viewers are shown flashbacks as told by Brett and Anderson, which later turn out to be things that didn't actually happen... in effect, presenting the audience with a visual depiction of the "unreliable narrator". However, such narrative tricks (and even an unintentionally hilarious Hulk fight with dummy Dobermans) can't disguise the fact that this is the blandest and flattest of the series, lit and shot without real dramatic intent.
Any new series will take time to find its own identity, and if there's one thing that the first season of The Incredible Hulk is guilty of, it's taking its inspiration from other sources and using standard tropes. This tale of a boxer called Rocky – just fifteen months after the film aired in cinemas – features all the standard clichés of the sport: the heart-of-gold but not that bright boxer and the crooked managers that want to exploit him. Their plan to give him a fight at a days' notice seems unlikely, but then realistic plot mechanics probably mean little to heroin traffickers.
Bixby's understated, new man persona is a bad fit with Martin Kove's likeable but larger-than-life performance as the boxer, and in all this seems a little too "safe" an episode for a series that should be exploring its own nature. Banner of course gets too close to the truth, and is conveniently suspended in a cage above the boxing ring as the rigged fight commences. What happens next? It's all pretty predictable...
The season finale, and the first of eight episodes to be directed by Reza Badiyi. Featuring Banner as a bartender caught between various union men, and a boss with romantic overtures, it's one of the broadest and most comedic of the season.
Executive Producer Kenneth Johnson had no real interest in superheroes, and took on the project from the head of Universal Television simply as a favour so he could get other projects made. Envisioning the series as a "Greek tragedy", it was high on realism and low on the colour melodrama of the comic strip, with only one story of the original run (season four's The First) featuring another super-powered character. Sadly, no one outside of Bixby and Sheila Larken appear to be taking it very seriously, and the fundamental ludicrousness of the situation is played up for laughs, veering towards spoof. The romance subplot is carried off better than in a lot of episodes, though the most notable element is the clearly visible slippers that Ferrigno wears for his final run on the docks.
The Incredible Hulk was made up of 50 minute episodes, yet it began with two feature-length pilots. This 91m follow-up sees the higher quality of the initial pilot discarded, as we become more acquainted with the bad dubbing and flat lighting/direction that is sadly a frequent feature of the programme. Although the episodes here aren't awful, they do tend to feature similar plots and somewhat sub-standard production values, only the immense charm and likeability of Bill Bixby keeping some of them afloat.
That charm is stretched here, as Banner selfishly checks into a centre for cancer research to attempt to cure himself of the Hulk, seemingly uncaring that he could turn into the monster and wreck the place for other people undergoing treatment. Undoubted lowlight of the episode is the Hulk's fight with a bear, as pictured above. The docile creature gets a green face throughout the "fight" as Ferrigno's body paint starts to wash off in the water, before jump cutting, Benny Hill style, to a fake bear that's hurled through the air. It's hysterical viewing, but it's not one for the series' highlight reel.