Legend 1.5 – The Life, Death, and Life of Wild Bill Hickok

Regular readers know that this silly blog’s silliest recurring gag is our son’s ongoing inability to recognize actors. You’ll be relieved to know that when John Pyper-Ferguson popped up as this episode’s villain, Jack McCall, our son knew who he was. He shouted “Pete!” because he knows him from Brisco County, Jr. and then he just babbled and babbled over his next four lines of dialogue because he was happy with himself and because Pete was such a wonderfully dumb character. Pyper-Ferguson is also wonderful in this. Like some fanboys who need to let go in the present day, the grouchy McCall keeps reading Legend’s dime novels even though he hates every one of them.

Somewhere else in this silly blog, I once mentioned those Time-Life books about the old west, the ones with “the look and feel of hand-tooled leather.” Well, Peter Allan Fields wrote a corker of an episode here, including telegraphing a show-ending twist that I didn’t see coming, and I enjoyed it tremendously, but he took quite a few liberties with the circumstances of Hickok’s demise, so I don’t know that he ever ordered those books. It seems that the real Jack McCall was a miner that Bill Hickok had the misfortune of meeting just once. The McCall of this story is an outlaw that Hickok has sparred against for several years.

Then again, I clearly didn’t invest in those Time-Life books myself. The episode was nearly over before I realized I’d mistaken Wild Bill for Buffalo Bill Cody. Sorry, Bills.

Legend 1.4 – Custer’s Next-to-Last Stand

Our very early Christmas present came around 3:15 this morning, when we heard our kid shuffling around in the den. The poor fellow had been awake for half an hour, but was torn between wanting to get things started and not wanting to wake us at an unreasonable hour. So he sat on the sofa and got up and paced and stared longingly at the tree and paced some more. Fortunately – or not – I’m a very light sleeper and his pacing woke me.

About eleven hours later, by which time the more sensible grownups in the house had taken naps, we sat down to watch an episode of Legend, but the long day had done its best to wear our son out. Somewhere in the third act, we noticed he’d conked out. So this was a very rare instance of having to watch a program for our blog in two chunks with a two-hour break, and his exhaustion didn’t endear the story to him. He allowed that he did enjoy seeing a villain hoisted away from a stagecoach by a grappling hook lowered from a hot air balloon, but really, he was too tired to care about this. Perhaps after supper, he’ll be more awake to watch something else and enjoy it.

Anyway, this story was written by Bill Dial and has the unusual and not very envious task of making a controversial figure like George Custer the protagonist. They do this by not making him at all sympathetic – his bigotry and racism is front and center – but giving him a sympathetic cause, because somebody in the War Department is profiting by sending third-rate supplies and munitions to distant forts and pocketing the difference. Our heroes work to find some proof, while Pratt is also dealing with some mystery man from his past showing up with threats and a grudge. Custer is played by Alex Hyde-White, who had the misfortune of starring in that filmed-to-be-shelved Fantastic Four movie for Roger Corman the year before, and his wife by Ashley Laurence, who was in several big-budget horror films in the 1990s.

Legend 1.3 – Legend on His President’s Secret Service

Tonight’s episode of Legend has a delightful guest performance by Leah Lail, who plays Abigail Steele, the talks-all-the-time daughter of a former Confederate colonel who schemes to kidnap President Grant. This show’s principal flaw is the lack of a female lead. Lail would have been a fine addition to the cast. It does feature the first of two appearances by Ana Auther as one of the small town’s courtesans, Henrietta. Auther is gorgeous, and at least Pratt’s inability to actually find an opportunity, without interruption, to spend some time and money with Henrietta is really amusing. Having so little female presence does unconsciously reinforce the stereotype that westerns are all men’s work.

The best gag in the episode is one that literally brings the house down. Legend, Abigail, and Bartok are all attempting to eavesdrop on the conspirators using some steampunk amplifiers in an electric storm. Everything ends up backfiring and the whole side of the house comes down. I’d mentioned Wile E. Coyote last time, and this looks like another typical Looney Tunes moment – or something from a silent film comedy – in live action.

Our son adored it and found lots to giggle about and enjoy, especially Bartok’s new non-lethal weapon, which fires cannonballs of what the scientists name “ball lightning.” The balls don’t move as fast as the name implies, so sometimes our heroes may need to shove their targets into their path, which I thought was a nice touch.

Legend 1.2 – Mr. Pratt Goes to Sheridan

Tonight’s episode of Legend introduces Robert Donner in a recurring role as the mayor of Sheridan, the small town that Pratt and Bartok are using as Mr. Legend’s base of operations. Donner’s best known to me as the ridiculous Exidor on Mork & Mindy, but he’d appeared in MacGyver four times, so Marie probably knows him best from there. Donner’s character, Chamberlain Brown, is not only the mayor, but the undertaker and taxidermist as well.

The climax of the story comes when Bartok rigs an office safe with his fancy dynamite. The explosion propels it through the ceiling and across the street. The sound you may have heard around eight this evening was our kid laughing his guts out. You’d expect something like that from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, not a quirky western. What I’m getting at is that this show is a little sillier than I’d been led to believe so far, which is fine by us.

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.

The Six Million Dollar Man 5.2 – Sharks (part two)

Between the sharks and the stock footage of depth charges exploding, there’s certainly enough in part two of this story to keep kids entertained. I wasn’t as keen on it myself, since Steve spends almost the entire story a prisoner and doesn’t get much of a chance to be active, but our son liked it, with one qualification. He said it was mostly good and partly bad because he was very worried that Rudy Wells would have to stay forever at the bottom of the ocean.

I was right last time, by the way: the mercenaries end up taking over the piracy of the submarine. I did kind of love the casual way that the FBI let everybody know in part one that some nuclear missiles were stolen from Boston like the thieves had helped themselves to them along with some rims and subwoofers. I missed how silly that was last night, but the recap this time had me giggling.

The Six Million Dollar Man 5.1 – Sharks (part one)

So into the 1977-78 season and the final batch of The Six Million Dollar Man, still on ABC, and The Bionic Woman, now moved to NBC. I’ve picked thirteen episodes from the final runs of the shows, and we’ll see what surprises are in store.

One surprise for me: seeing Fred Freiberger’s name in the credits as a new producer for the show. I’d known this before, but forgot about it. Freiberger has a horrible reputation among sci-fi teevee fans-slash-loudmouths for the apparently subpar third and final season of Star Trek (I really have no idea whether it’s any worse than the other two and don’t care), and for the definitely inferior second season of Space: 1999 (the first season was grim and boring and the second was bombastic and stupid). So it used to be, among the sci-fi teevee fans-slash-loudmouths of the 1980s, Freiberger was associated with making beloved shows stupid before getting them cancelled, and here he is on Six. So is this going to be appreciably worse than what came before?

Honestly, not so far, and besides, I like the idea of challenging reputations and expectations. Using remote controlled sharks as part of a scheme to hijack a decommissioned nuclear sub is a little silly – and a little bit of a cash-in on mid-seventies Jaws mania – but it’s no sillier than many of the other far-fetched plots in this show. The villains are a disgraced US Navy captain (Stephen Elliott) and his marine biologist daughter (Pamela Hensley, possibly getting this role as a consolation prize since “The Ultimate Imposter” didn’t get picked up as a series), but they’ve hired some mercenary types to assist them, led by a guy played by Greg Walcott, and they kind of have the look of baddies who are going to take control of the situation. Walcott, incidentally, had been in the final episode of Land of the Lost about nine months before this, but he’s best known for being the square-jawed hero of Plan Nine From Outer Space. Also in the cast: John De Lancie in another small part, but at least this time, unlike part one of “Death Probe,” he warranted a screen credit.

Our son is at the age where the animal kingdom is incredibly fascinating. Of course, if you’re in your forties like me, you remember those How and Why Wonder Books on every subject from your elementary school library. He’s currently loving the modern equivalent series, called Everything You Need to Know about bugs, snakes, and dinosaurs. Sharks haven’t quite made the rounds yet, but that might be changing with this episode. He really enjoyed it. The underwater material is quite well done, although the nitpicker in me remembers from one of the initial movies-of-the-week that Steve can swim at super speed as well as run real fast, and probably could have left that last “guard dog” shark in the dust and made for the surface. Couldn’t he?

The Six Million Dollar Man 4.13 – Death Probe (part one)

There’s a lovely bit toward the beginning of this adventure where a farmer in a lonely corner of northern Wyoming, his horse and dog freaking out over some strange noise or other, is suddenly confronted with a Russian-made space probe that thinks it has landed on the planet Venus. The silent machine, looking like the bastard offspring of a Dalek and the tank-thing from Damnation Alley, sends the farmer scurrying to his pickup truck to get away, and the old codger takes a moment to roll up his truck’s window before starting the engine.

So the Death Probe is the last great recurring nemesis for the bionic heroes. The big machine kind of takes a back seat to the story of all the Soviet sleeper agents that are trying to track it down. The group is led by Major Popov, played by Nehemiah Persoff, and it was designed by a scientist named Irina, played by Jane Merrow. Irina had actually been introduced in a season one episode that we skipped, “Doomsday and Counting.” Merrow did quite a lot of American television in the seventies. Earlier in her career, she had been frequently cast as a guest star in many of the ITC adventure shows, and had been considered for the role of Tara King in The Avengers. And there in a single scene and not credited, you can’t miss John de Lancie as an army medic.

This two-parter was written by Steven E. de Souza. It was one of his earliest credits; he’d later find fame and fortune writing hugely successful films like 48 Hours, Die Hard, and, err… that crappy Judge Dredd movie with Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider. Honestly, I was pretty underwhelmed by this one. There isn’t nearly enough mayhem with the Death Probe smashing its way through farms and cars and houses, and far too much of Soviet sleeper agents running rings around hick sheriffs. On the other hand, our son was positively freaked out by the machine and was so excited – slash – worried by Steve looking like he wouldn’t be able to stop it that he missed the cliffhanger entirely from behind the sofa!