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A High Tech Treat, '70s Style: 'Probe'

Leslie Stevens tried to come up with fresh, intelligent angles within formulas, and sometimes TV was a little brighter for his efforts.


Probe

Director: Russ Mayberry
Cast: Hugh O'Brian, Burgess Meredith
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1972
USDVD release date: 2011-5-3

This TV movie served as a pilot for a swanky adventure series called Search (1972-73). Probe is a high-tech detective agency whose agents are equipped with miniature cameras that take infrared and ultraviolet scans. They can measure the vital signs of the agent and other people in the area. An inexplicably darkened control room of multi-ethnic technicians monitor the situation and communicate with the agent via the "neural transmitter" implanted behind his ear. It's a wiggy idea that hasn't dated yet, and this pilot throws in some groovy colors and visuals (even a flashy split-screen in one early scene) just to be cutting-edge. This is a show in love with the concept of showing us stuff on monitors, with lots of lettering flashing over it like in Terminator-vision, and of course plenty of flashing computer lights and electronic beeps to prove that we're working with computers!

The absurd opening scene is meant to establish the action-hero credentials of agent Hugh Lockwood (Hugh O'Brian), who rescues somebody in the middle of roaring machine guns, all in a day's work. After the flashy credits with all kinds of optically printed colors and graphics and a groovy theme by Dominic Frontiere, he's relaxing in James Bond territory with a bikini'd babe before being called to another assignment. The story is a standard-issue McGuffin about recovering lost diamonds stolen by Nazis and now owned by a Johannesburg company that hires Probe. Apartheid is never mentioned, but one wonders if any geo-political implications are intended. Lockwood and a South African diamond expert (Sir John Gielgud!) jet to Austria to palaver with a Nazi's old squeeze (Lilia Skala) and her daughter (Elke Sommer). A bunch of stuff happens, and the final scene has one twist too many.

The value of the story lies in its doubleness, as every event is analyzed and commented upon by the small army of technicians virtually inside Lockwood's brain, feeding him info as he goes along. It's like having a superpower. The wily Cameron (Burgess Meredith) is boss, while foxy blonde Gloria Harding (Angel Tompkins) registers thoroughly unprofessional jealousy over Lockwood's amorous antics. With O'Brian's hero, these all carried over into the series, along with Kuroda (Byron Chung), Griffin (Albert Popwell), and Miss Keach (Ginny Golden). The pilot's Carlos (A Martinez) was replaced by Ron Castro in the series, and the series also threw in two other main agents played by Tony Franciosa and Doug McClure.

The director is Russ Mayberry, but the real auteur is producer, creator and writer Leslie Stevens. He wrote, produced and/or directed several films, including Incubus with William Shatner (the only feature in Esperanto), but his major career was in TV. He began as a writer of 1950s anthologies such as Playhouse 90. His most famous creation is The Outer Limits. Other TV projects include detective shows (Stoney Burke, It Takes a Thief, McCloud) and science fiction (Gemini Man, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), so we can see how Search combined the impulses. He tried to come up with fresh, intelligent angles while working within formulas, and sometimes TV was a little brighter for his efforts. Search is fondly remembered by those who caught it, and we can hope the whole series materializes one day from Warner Archives' made-on-demand service.

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