Baffled! (1973) Baffled! (1973) -**½

     In the 1970’s, Leonard Nimoy wanted us all to know that he was not Spock. The guy even wrote a book called I Am Not Spock. In a way, it seems kind of dickish and ungrateful. I mean, for two and a half years, Nimoy had the privilege of playing the most compelling character on a show that was up to its boom mikes in compelling characters, and now he gets pissy that that’s what people remember him for? But at the same time, you can also understand it. Nimoy had had an entire career prior to 1966, and he intended to have an entire career subsequent to 1969, too. Whatever people (or indeed, Nimoy himself) thought of him, Spock was getting in the way of that. The solution, of course, would be to become known just as well for some other role, too, some character as unlike Spock as the pernicious power of typecasting would allow. For instance, how about a slightly caddish race-car driver with psychic powers he doesn’t fully believe in, who travels the world solving paranormal and supernatural mysteries in company with a sexy blonde occultist?

     That really was the premise behind “Baffled!,” another transatlantic production from ITC, the outfit responsible for “UFO,” “The Prisoner,” and “Space 1999.” When I lay it out like that, it seems unremarkable— maybe even wise— that “Baffled!” found no takers among broadcasters in either Britain or the United States. But let’s get serious for a moment here. Do you remember some of the freaked-out shit that was on TV in the 70’s? How about “Future Cop,” the buddy-cop procedural in which the grizzled veteran’s irksome new partner was a robot? Or “Lucan,” the “Fugitive” knockoff about a boy raised by wolves who has to go on the lam when he gets blamed for the death of a man who tried to rob the laboratory of the scientist who rescued and re-socialized him? Perhaps you recall the time the Six Million Dollar Man had to fight a robot Bigfoot from outer space, or the time Jack the Ripper got loose on Fantasy Island. Hell, the crew of the original Battlestar Galactica spent at least as much time visiting space casinos and intervening in the problems of the Space Irish as they did battling the Cylon armada. Set against that backdrop, “Baffled!” ceases to sound all that crazy. Nevertheless, none of the networks wanted it, nor did the BBC or ITV, and the direct-to-syndication model (which might have yielded a buy-in from a critical mass of local UHF stations) didn’t really exist yet. So in the hope of recouping some of its production expenses, ITC circulated the pilot episode to theaters in the UK and Italy, where it appears to have fared none too well. It was going to take more than Baffled! to get Nimoy out of the shadow of Mr. Spock.

     We meet Formula 1 racer Tom Kovack (Nimoy, who can also be seen not being Spock in Zombies of the Stratosphere and Transformers: Dark of the Moon) on the track, in the middle of the Pennsylvania 500 Mile Special. He’s the hands-down favorite to win, but then a very weird experience puts him out of the running completely. Pulling onto one of the track’s long straightaways, he suddenly sees the scenery before him replaced by a hulking old manor house. Then a woman (Vera Miles, from Psycho and A Howling in the Woods) says to him, “It’s Wyndham, in Devon, dear,” and the manor house fades out into an oncoming hay wagon. Kovack loses control of his car swerving to dodge the vehicle that only he can see, and as he loses consciousness in the ensuing crash, he hears the same woman screaming and sees a teenaged girl (Jewel Blanch) descending a staircase massive enough to fit the house from earlier in his vision. Spectators, color commentators, and rescue squad alike assume that Kovack must have been killed in the wreck, but he’s a diabolically lucky man. When the paramedics pull him free, there’s nothing wrong with him but a mild concussion and a lingering sense of disorientation.

     Kovack understandably babbles about what he saw to the rescue crew, and soon no journalist wants to talk to him about anything but manor houses and hay wagons. One such interview is seen on television by Michele Brent (Susan Hampshire, from The Trygon Factor and Malpertuis), dealer in rare books and student of the paranormal and the occult. Miss Brent is in New York on business at the time, which happens also to be the location of the studio where that interview was shot. She finds room in her schedule to track Tom down, swings by to visit him at his apartment in the city, and then lays one hell of a trip on him. It is Michele’s considered opinion that Tom’s vision on the racetrack was clairvoyant in nature; that the woman, the child, the house, and even the hay wagon really exist somewhere; and that the experience as a whole was a portent of danger toward the people Kovack saw. The proper thing for him to do, or so she says, is to seek the woman out, so as to help her face whatever threat Tom’s psychic powers have foretold. Kovack slams on the brakes at that point. He doesn’t know what happened to him in Pennsylvania that day, but to the best of his knowledge, he neither has nor ever has had any psychic powers. And even if he did, the notion that they would warn him of danger to people whom he’s never met (although the woman did seem vaguely familiar, now that he really thinks about it) stretches plausibility to the breaking point. Michele can find some other sucker. That night, though, Tom has a second vision of Wyndham, this one feeling much more urgent and having indeed the air of a cry for help. Kovack gets back in touch with Michele, and tentatively accepts whatever guidance she can provide.

     Meanwhile, B-list movie actress Andrea Glenn is on her way to Wyndham, in Devon, with her thirteen-ish daughter, Jennifer. Yeah, they’re the woman and girl from Tom’s visions. Wyndham these days is a resort hotel of sorts, the kind of place where the moderately wealthy and modestly famous go to escape for a while from the pressures of their privileged lives. Andrea has been summoned there by her ex-husband, Duncan Sandford, who after eleven years of estrangement has suddenly started talking (in his periodical letters to Jennifer) as if he wants to try getting back together. She’s guardedly excited about the reunion, but not half as optimistic for its success as her daughter. Strangely, though, Duncan is not at Wyndham when they arrive, and Mrs. Farraday the owner (Rachel Roberts, from Picnic at Hanging Rock and When a Stranger Calls) says that no reservations under his name have been made. Mrs. Farraday can, however, suggest that Andrea talk to Duncan’s spinster cousin, Louise (Valerie Taylor, of Repulsion and Faces in the Dark). She was the one who made the arrangements for the Glenns’ stay, so she ought to know what’s going on at Duncan’s end. And yet it turns out that Louise hasn’t seen Duncan, either. All her instructions came by mail, so it’s possible that he isn’t even in Devon. Louise, too, can only point Andrea toward somebody else— in her case, Duncan’s old friend, John Parrish, whom Andrea always loathed for reasons that never quite come into focus.

     Tom and Michele arrive at Wyndham not long after the Glenns, but they do so separately. Evidently Michele hopes to deflect the suspicion of whichever evildoer they’ve come to oppose by making sure that she and Kovack will have to behave as suspiciously as possible. There are also three other guests at the manor house. Verelli (Hawk the Slayer’s Christopher Benjamin) introduces himself as a highway engineer from Italy. George (Ray Brooks, from The House of Whipcord and The Flesh and Blood Show) and Peggy (Angharad Rees, from Hands of the Ripper and The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb) Tracewell are newlyweds who apparently seek to combine business with their honeymoon. At the very least, their car is packed full of parcels marked “Pharmaceuticals.” Theodore Apstein the screenwriter wants very badly for us to take these people seriously as suspects, but it never really works.

     As the film wears on, you see, Tom has further visions “clarifying” the mystery— somebody pouring poisonous oleander sap into a glass of orange juice, Verelli covered in blood, that sort of thing. And yet these don’t seem to have much to do with the weirdest stuff going on under Wyndham’s roof, which is clearly of a supernatural character. After a secret, late-night meeting with a man (Ebony, Ivory, and Jade’s Mike Murray) who claims to be her father, and who gives her a wolf’s-head pendant as a supposedly protective talisman, Jennifer matures overnight to Jewel Blanch’s true age of fifteen or so. Mrs. Farraday, meanwhile, loses years overnight, and continues to grow younger until she appears to be in her late 30’s or early 40’s. What more, she too has clandestine midnight rendezvous with the ostensible Duncan Sanford, except that she calls him John Parrish. While that’s going on, Michele pays a visit to Parrish’s shop in London, which turns out to be a burned-out, boarded-up ruin, but is nevertheless well stocked with occult paraphernalia— including a wall hanging with the same wolf’s-head emblem as Jennifer’s necklace. The cop who busts her for prowling around the wreckage informs her that the store’s owner died in the fire. Later, though, a psychic flash in the form of automatic writing informs Kovack that it’s Sanford who’s the dead man. This business of Sanford posing as Parrish or Parrish posing as Sanford, in cahoots with Mrs. Farraday to steal youth from Jennifer, is obviously the evil Tom and Michele are supposed to be stopping, and the other guests just as obviously have no part in it.

     Baffled!’s biggest problem is excess running time. Not that it’s extravagantly long or anything, but in accordance with the usual practice for 70’s TV pilots, it runs double the intended length of a standard episode, or 98 minutes— which works out to two hours once you factor in commercials. Unfortunately, it has only a single episode’s worth of story, so Apstein keeps having to invent distractions. Thus we get a protracted motor vehicle chase between Kovack (driving Wyndham’s famous 1927 Bentley roadster) and an unseen kidnapper in a black van. We get a tremendous amount of ill-motivated snooping around in Wyndham’s basement. We get time-spinning tangents about Verelli’s apparently innate Italian affinity for poisoning and the mysterious boxes of drugs or whatever in the Tracewells’ car. We get an inconclusive subplot about the villains trying to gaslight Andrea, culminating in the astounding what-the-fuckery of the Clavichord Incident. (It isn’t worth explaining, but you’ll know it when you see it.) None of it has any organic connection to the main plot, nor does it accomplish anything but to get Baffled! repeatedly lost in the weeds.

     Mind you, the main plot is plenty confusing— one might even say baffling— itself. The villains’ true aims are never precisely clear, and neither explanation put forward in the end (one occult, the other quotidian) adequately accounts for what we’ve been shown. Kovack’s preferred answer— that the baddies wanted to get their hands on Andrea Glenn’s money— fails because the villains are visibly quite wealthy enough to begin with. And Michele’s contention that the object was to gain control of Jennifer’s psychic abilities faces the teensy little objection that the girl doesn’t apparently have any! Whatever the true goal of the caper, though, there’s manifestly no reason for half the things Sanford-or-Parrish does while carrying it out, with his impersonation of yet a third character being the most pointless of all. The only way I can think of to explain it is as an inside joke between the filmmakers and fans of Psycho: once again, Vera Miles is menaced by a man in a dress.

     Just the same, though, if Baffled! had given rise to a series, I’m confident both that it would now be a fondly remembered cult item and that it would have improved markedly with time, even though I also can’t imagine it lasting longer than a season and a half. For one thing, the regular episodes wouldn’t have suffered from the aforementioned overexertion to fill running time. A tighter, more streamlined narrative would have done wonders for the pilot, and that’s something that should have come naturally to hour-long weekly episodes. I also think that Apstein and whoever else ITC had in the writers’ bullpen would eventually have perfected a formula for using the very odd plot structure imposed on them by the premise of Baffled!. This is a mystery at heart, but instead of solving a crime, Tom and Michele have to prevent one from occurring, and the principal clues are Kovack’s vague psychic premonitions. The question is not “whodunit?” but “what’s it going to be?” In the pilot, that subversion of the mystery formula is an obstacle that the writer never quite overcomes, but with time and practice, it might have developed into the thing that let “Baffled!” tell stories no other detective show could. And of course the unusual pairing of a skeptical psychic with a credulous normal held vast potential once Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire fully grew into their roles.

     As it stands, however, Baffled!. earns distinction mainly by serving up some of the ripest television cheese that the 70’s had to offer. For the Spock-lovers among us, it’s a unique treat to see Nimoy fumbling his way through the part of a sarcastic ladies’ man. Kovack’s wardrobe is a jaw-dropper, too, a stunning illustration of the taste implosion that swept the industrialized world in those days. The sweaters! The bellbottoms! The fedoras! The cravats! And all of them on someone whom we’re meant to perceive as stylish, hip, and thoroughly with it. I suppose it’s even possible that Kovack really did come across that way, too, as opposed to looking like someone trying way too hard to be cool; I was born the year after Baffled! limped into theaters, so my memories of the 70’s aren’t sufficiently trustworthy to support such tricky distinctions. Similarly peak-70’s is the score, with its bland yet cloying faux-classical orchestration alternating with misguided attempts at funk, and its complete emotional tone-deafness in toggling between the two modes. Dialogue tends toward the deeply unfortunate, best exemplified by Nimoy nearly dying of embarrassment as Tom calls Michelle “a good-lookin’ chick.” I can’t call Baffled! good except perhaps very fleetingly and almost by accident, but it assuredly is [arches eyebrow and drops voice to a Nimoyan rasp] fascinating.



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