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Dick Van Patten,
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Austin James, an eccentric scientific prodigy, and his somewhat scatterbrained secretary, Michelle Castle, investigate a variety of murders, all with a scientific basis, whether it be a locked-room mystery in a nuclear reactor, or homicides committed with holograms. Written by
I remember being intrigued by this series before its premiere back in 1988. I also remember I quickly lost interest after a few episodes, although I couldn't remember why until now. Seeing this again, I can understand why I did. The show is rather like "Monk," with its eccentric, supposedly brilliant, antisocial, iconoclastic, grumpy lead character minus the OCD quirks, but still with the spunky female personal assistant and with worse writing. Austin James always sees tiny details that we the audience could not. To make it seem more intelligent, the writers peppered the scripts with scientific trivia and pseudo-scientific babble. The latter was especially embarrassing considering Isaac Asimov was listed as co-creator and scientific adviser. A supercomputer that can make neon signs explode and rupture gas lines at specific places? That has continuous speech recognition and natural language processing -- a goal that still eludes computer scientists today -- but not the much simpler speech synthesis? That can turn the dial on a cheap radio or an old TV set as if they came with motors installed on the knobs? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that most of the "science" in this show was nonsense.
Subsequent episodes were little better. The "smartest man in the world" keeps saying "nukular" and "nukulotides." He does burnouts when he has to get somewhere fast, instead of knowing that less smoking rubber means more traction and a faster start if you're not in a Top Fuel dragster. You can target a virus at a specific human by inserting that human's DNA into it??? Good grief. Some of the situations are painfully obvious and clichéd, like the hoary "videotape was substituted for live video but Austin noticed items on the tape didn't match." That was old when Mission: Impossible used to do it twenty years previous. Episodes mixed these shopworn plot devices with supposed scientific concepts but each time proved that the writers knew barely more than the names of those concepts. It was as if Asimov had no hand in the show after co-creating it.
The show seemed to rely mostly on the charisma of former "Hardy Boys" star Parker Stevenson, but that couldn't compensate for the contrived scripts. It wasn't even as good as an average Columbo episode from the original NBC run. Sometimes, information in the climax would just come out of the blue, rather than foreshadowed for the audience. The concept had promise, but was undercut by mediocre writing. But I guess scientific geniuses generally don't become television writers. What a waste. It could have been science fiction of the hardest kind, but instead turned out to be science fantasy folded into run of the mill murder mysteries.
If you want to see what TV mystery and suspense writers can really do with the science fiction genre if they really put their minds to it, watch "Earth II," the 1971 pilot movie from the writers/producers of "Mission: Impossible," or "Prototype," the 1983 TV movie from Michael Levinson & William Link, who created and wrote the classic "Columbo" and later "Murder, She Wrote." (Although inexplicably, Link served as executive story consultant for this series. I guess they took his advice only sparingly.)
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