Legend 1.1 – Birth of a Legend

Back when we first started watching MacGyver for the blog, I mentioned that my wife is a big fan of Richard Dean Anderson. I was initially surprised that she hadn’t heard of Legend, but I shouldn’t have been. Most people never heard of Legend.

The series was developed during late 1994 as one of the second wave of series for the soon-to-launch UPN. As that network went live in January 1995, the show went into production in Arizona. It was created by Michael Piller and Bill Dial, who first met when working on Simon & Simon a decade previously. Piller went on to be one of the producers and showrunners for the nineties Star Trek syndicated series for Paramount, who needed lots of new ideas to keep affiliate stations on board with their new network.

So their series stars Richard Dean Anderson, who had just finished the two MacGyver movies, and John de Lancie, with whom Piller had worked on one of the Star Trek shows. Anderson plays a character pretty far against his goody-two-shoes MacGyver type. In 1876, Ernest Pratt is an alcoholic, troublemaking gambler when he isn’t writing dime novels starring a larger-than-life goody-two-shoes called Nicodemus Legend. But since his thrillers are written in the first person and credited to Legend, and since his publisher keeps sending him on personal appearances sobered up and dressed as the goody-two-shoes, his large audience thinks that he’s a real person.

When Pratt reads that Colorado authorities have a warrant out for Legend’s arrest, he takes a stagecoach to investigate. Everybody swears that Legend was in town recently, and that he took the side of some immigrant farmers in a land dispute, and that he used his incredible scientific know-how to change the course of a river. The trail leads him to de Lancie’s character, who is the non-union equivalent of Nikolai Tesla. He’s called Janos Bartok and is Hungarian instead of Serbian, has the requisite grudge against Edison, and I have not read anywhere why Piller and Dial didn’t just use Tesla in the first place. Maybe the real Tesla shows up in a later episode.

Anyway, after Bartok explains what he’s been doing underground and why he needs the services of a celebrity goody-two-shoes who always champions the little guy, with Bartok’s know-how and Pratt’s imagination, they turn Legend into a real person, with all his wild non-lethal weapons and steam-powered quadrovelocipedes to drive across the desert frightening the horses. Pratt’s first assignment is to finish the case that Bartok started without him, matching wits with guest villains Stephanie Beacham and Tim Thomerson.

I’ve now seen the ninety-minute pilot three times, but haven’t made it to any of the weekly episodes yet. I watched it when it first aired in April 1995, and enjoyed the dry wit and found it cute but not incredibly engaging for some reason. It’s also likely that UPN programming may have been on at a ridiculous time on whatever station we got it in Athens GA. I picked up this set when it was released three years ago to show Marie what she’d missed, and she fell asleep just as Legend soars into town on a hot air balloon. That wasn’t promising.

But this morning, it went over better with everyone. There was enough action, wit, and mystery about what the heck is going on to keep the eight year-old budding scientist completely fascinated. Rooms full of artificially-generated lightning will certainly catch a kid’s eye, and he’s seen many of the super-early ancestors of automobiles, like this show’s quadrovelocipedes, at the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville GA, and thinks they’re neat. More awake this time, and with the caveat that she does not like Richard Dean Anderson’s mustache at all, Marie found this much more charming. As for me, it’s certainly more whimsical than thrilling, but Anderson and de Lancie have great comic chemistry together. Probably not a show for anybody who lacks patience for steampunk, but it’s cute and I wonder what the next eleven episodes will bring.

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