Monday, 21 July 2014

Flight Suit

 Believe it or not... it's still quite good

It's a midweek evening in 1981 and I'm watching TV with my Dad. There's a pilot for a new American show screening, and it's probably the movie-quality effects work which catches my eye. A glowing, Close Encounters-style craft hovers over a stalled car in the dark, Californian desert - familiar iconography which easily hooks me, but is hardly my father's usual cup of tea. The story which unfolds takes this premise into a completely unexpected direction however, and my most lasting memory is of my Dad laughing. It might be our family's British parochialism, or a degree of Scots dourness, but he never laughed at American TV. Ever.

The science fiction tropes, comedy and instantly likeable leads ensured that this programme became a favourite of mine over the next year, and was often enthusiastically discussed the following day at school. It had to be good, but otherwise none of us would have gone anywhere near a programme called The Greatest American Hero.

Reagan was in the White House, the Cold War simmered, the Space Shuttle ruled the skies and we were all distinctly jaded about Uncle Sam. But not only did we lap this programme up but it's legacy continues today. A surprising amount of people remember it, the repellant Sheldon Cooper often wears the insignia on his T-Shirt in the Big Bang Theory, and plans for a feature film adaptation re-surface every few years or so.

I rewatched the original pilot recently to see if there was more to this brief early eighties phenomenon than a screaming William Katt plummeting through the air in red and black long-johns, and was somewhat relieved to find that there certainly was. Although still engaging today, the concept, effects and comedy have all dated somewhat, but what will always mark this programme out is the casting - a holy trinity of perfect on-screen chemistry.

"That's a bad outfit, Jim!"

(An outpatient in the psychiatric ward which Ralph is taken to after his first 'flight' and subsequent arrest greets him with this line, lifted almost wholesale from Superman the Movie. Warner Brothers' attempts to sue The Greatest American Hero for breach of copyright lasted well into the programme's second series before being finally dismissed).

William Katt as recently divorced teacher Ralph Hinkley is miles away from the buffoonish depiction which superhero spoofs generally give us. In the inverse of Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, Hinkley is played absolutely straight - a recently-separated teacher, struggling to juggle custody of his young son, controlling a class of 'Sweathogs: the next generation' (complete with young Travolta-alike Michael Pare), and a new relationship with his divorce attorney. Being chosen to save the world is the last thing he needs or wants.

The trademark hysteria he displays when taking to the skies or having point-blank range guns fired at him is amusing, but can surely also be viewed as a perfectly realistic and justifiable reaction.

"At least sit on the cape!"

(Attorney Pam Davidson, still unconvinced of the suit's powers, exasperatedly asks Ralph to do
something about the wildly flapping accessory as she drives him from the hospital in her convertible.)

Said attorney is played by the beautiful Connie Sellecca, on her way to becoming a mainstay of 80's television. As talented actresses are finding all too true now, playing the superheroes girlfriend is an unrewarding role. Sellecca's Pam Davidson is no damsel in distress, having a wonderful scene where she forces Ralph out of her car and refuses to take him any further until he prove his ridiculous story. She then pratfalls with the best of them as Ralph embarrassedly picks the car up, causing her to pass out with shock.

"If you're looking for trouble, you've just come across
 the West Coast distributor."

Inside the car at the time is the shaken but irrepressible Bill Maxwell, played by veteran actor Robert Culp.
An FBI agent who witnesses the alien ship and subsequent gift of the suit to Ralph, Maxwell is completely unable to comprehend why it has been given to a hapless school teacher and not him. He loses no time in outlining his plan for Ralph to fly to Russia and single-handedly end the cold war, labelling 'Counsellor' Pam as "something of a feminist" (he never uses her name, and their salty relationship is one of the best features of the series) and christening the suit 'the red jammies'.
A grudging mutual respect has grown beyween the three of them by the end of the pilot, but Maxwell will forever remain an irreverant, curmudgeonly, but bluntly effective relic of less-sensitive times - and only an actor of the late, great Culp's calibre could make him so loveable.

The pilot was a smash hit when it aired in America, spawning a three-year series and an unaired TV movie revival in 1985. Stephen Cannell, the series creator, fought for stories where Ralph tackled real-life issues, but the network wanted more basic superhero outings. I have to admit, these more generic stories are the ones which stick with me: Ralph becoming a hapless human magnet after encountering an electrical creature on board a crashing space shuttle, or discovering a portal to a supernatural dimension where the suit cannot protect him.

But one episode also featured the return of the aliens, who take Ralph up into Earth orbit and show him just how much trouble our world is in, and why he needs to take his responsibilities seriously and try harder. A downbeat and thought-provoking story, it prefigured many similar storylines for 'more serious' superheroes in the years to come.

This series brightened many a midweek night in the early 80s, before the suit was put away for the last time (still without the instruction book) and presumably Ralph's class finally graduated. These days we are surrounded by caped avengers, but they all seem to take themselves rather too seriously at times and I for one miss the whimsy which Ralph and Co brought to the small screen. To quote no less a figure than Batman, (from a cartoon which Ralph's young son watches and proves instrumental in our hero's decision to accept his new role): "We need one more Superfriend who can fly!"

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