Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Search me

by Rob - February 4th, 2014.
Filed under: Pop Culture.

Today, Warner Archive released the complete 1972-73 NBC TV series Search on DVD (manufactured on demand) for US$49.95 (23 hour-long episodes on six discs). I loved this series (and loved its pilot movie, Probe, even more). In honour of today’s release, some reminiscences of watching the show in first run. Lockwood, do you copy?

Today, with almost all Canadians getting their TV via cable, the cable operators simply delete the US signal and simultaneously substitute the Canadian one — meaning we see the same episode of the same series, but with Canadian, instead of American, commercials.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, things were different. Canadian stations had to entice us to watch their broadcasts of the program (with the ads they’d sold), rather than the American ones. To do that, they showed the American-made programs earlier in Canada (yes, Star Trek‘s world television debut was not September 8, 1966, as usually claimed; rather it was September 7, 1966, in Canada).

When I was 12, in 1972, my favorite new series was called Search, starring Hugh O’Brian and Burgess Meredith (best known as the Penguin from the 1966 Batman TV series). It was an intricately plotted caper series, with high-tech agents, linked by miniature cameras and radios to a mission-control center, working to recover missing objects. In Toronto, we got the Canadian broadcast of the latest episode on Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. on local channel 9 (CFTO, the Toronto CTV affiliate), and then, the next night, at 10:00 p.m., we got the American broadcast, spilling over on channel 2 from the NBC station in Buffalo, New York.

I never missed an episode on Tuesday nights, but I wanted more. Every Wednesday night I had a fight with my mom, because I wanted to stay up to watch Search again — the exact same episode I’d seen the day before. It was an hour-long series, meaning it wasn’t over until 11:00 p.m. — way too late, my mom felt, for a 12-year-old on a school night. But I whined and wheedled, and she would usually give in.

Back then, I couldn’t articulate why it was so important to me to watch the same episode a second time — but I understand it perfectly now. I was learning how to write. On Tuesday nights, I’d be surprised by the twists and turns the plots took — and on Wednesday nights, knowing how the story turned out, I was able to see how the writer had developed the plot.

Now, television drama may not be the greatest form of literature — but the structure it uses is wonderful for learning plotting. There was always something else on and, at every commercial break, there was an opportunity for you to switch to another program, so TV writers had to end every act — indeed, just about every scene except the last — with a little cliffhanger, to keep you in suspense, to keep you from turning away.

Today, of course, no one has to go through the difficulties I did to see the same program twice in rapid succession. Still, I think watching a program twice — or reading a book twice — is a great way to see exactly how the writer accomplished what he or she had set out to do.

For the uninitiated, here’s what was so cool about Search:

First, remember, this was the Great Drought for television science fiction. Star Trek had gone off the air in 1969; Next Generation was still 15 years away. So, we were starving.

And we got this gift: a stylish super-good-looking show. The set for PROBE Control, especially as depicted in the pilot, was the second-best science-fiction TV set ever done for TV (the best was the bridge of the original Enterprise). They only kept that set for the first half of the season, but it was gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, this was a show of amazingly good looking people. Besides the three handsome male leads, there were stunningly beautiful women working in PROBE Control (at various times, Angel Tompkins, Ginny Golden, Stefanie Powers, Cheryl Ladd, and Deanna Lund). Add to that beautiful guest stars that included Jo Ann Pflug — oh my!

Then there was Burgess Meredith, who is absolutely riveting in everything he does (and gives one of the very best performances of his entire career in the one episode that really focuses on him, “Moment of Madness,” in which he’s captured and tortured by a deranged man who served under him during the Korean War).

Also, just like 2001: A Space Odyssey, these guys were doing computer graphics before there was any such thing as computer graphics (beyond the very, very primitive). The visual futurism was stunning and prophetic.

And then there was the PROBE Scanner — coolest device ever: tricorder, iPhone, etc., all small enough to fit on a ring or tie-tack, envisioned — again, very prophetically — in 1972.

And, finally, of course, the writing, with Leslie Stevens of Outer Limits fame penning many of the scripts, which were fast-paced, clever, witty (with lots of risque double entendres, mostly from Burgess Meredith’s character and his shapely assistants back in PROBE Control).

It was escapism, pure and simple, but stylish as hell, and a whole lot of fun.

Warner Archive‘s description of the series:

Hugh O’Brian, Doug McClure and Tony Franciosa rotate leads as elite high tech espionage operatives for Probe Division of World Securities Corporation in this spy-sensational SF-flavored actioner from Leslie Stevens (creator, The Outer Limits) and Robert Justman (Producer and one of the guiding lights of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Each agent, dubbed a “Probe,” is wired for worldwide surveillance thanks to a Scanner (miniature video camera) and dental/ear implant. Tracking their telemetry and giving real-time mission advice is a team of specialists at Probe Control directed by the brilliant, irascible V.C.R. Cameron (Burgess Meredith).

O’Brian plays Lockwood, Probe One, an ex-astronaut. McClure plays CR Grover, Standby Probe, brilliant beachcomber goofball. Franciosa plays Nick Bianco, Omega Probe, a street savvy ex-NYC cop tasked with organized-crime capers.

The Probes hunt stolen moonrocks, missing agents, a deadly Probe defector, and more alongside special guest luminaries like Stefanie Powers, Bill Bixby, Mary Ann Mobley, Sebastian Cabot, Barbara Feldon, Mel Ferrer, and Joanna Cameron.

Three very different agents, one very out-of-this-world show.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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3 Responses to Search me

  1. I loved this show as well! I wasn’t happy when they changed its name from PROBE (which stood for something which I can’t remember) to SEARCH, but I gather it was a Trademark issue (maybe the Milton Bradley game Probe (which I still have)). Thanks for letting us know.

  2. Hi, Rich. Actually, it didn’t have to do with the M-B game. Rather, the problem was that there was already a TV show called PROBE on the air, on PBS.

    And, actually, we only ever learned what the first three letters stood for: Programmed Retrieval Operations; the rest of the acronym was never revealed (although I favor the guess By Electronics).

    But, as it turned out, “Search” became the go-to function and central paradigm of the online world — search engines, searching for things, etc. So, again, the show turned out to be prophetic. :)

  3. Hi Rob! It’s interesting how much the show show Intelligence (currently airing on CBS) has adapted elements of PROBE/SEARCH for their own show. And Intelligence is not doing a very good job at it. I think they need to hire some real SF authors as consultants. Know of any? ;-)