Every decade has a few standout movies or shows that wind up influencing everything. "Smurfs" was one example. After the regular series debuted in 1981, the 80s were dominated by a never-ending stream of cartoons about a fanciful community of mythical creatures who were divided by strictly defined personality types and called themselves "The Somethings." There was also ET in 1982, which brought forth bad knockoff after bad knockoff riding on the theme "cutesy thing from outer space has to be kept secret from the government." It went far enough that their names HAD to be acronyms referring to their origin. "Alien Life Form." "Mysterious Alien Creature."
It seriously can't be understated how influential ET was or how HUGE it was in its premiere year. When I was transferring my dad's TV recordings from 1982 to digital, I couldn't believe how many times ET was mentioned aloud by people, even when it made no sense. ET would randomly be brought up in celebrity interviews. There were ET references thrown into serious news reports about war. ET was the only thing anyone could talk about.
So with all that in context, this is why a pilot like 1983's "Wishman" exists. Executives at ABC looked at all the noise that movie was generating and said, "Get us a show like ET!" Then they viewed the results and were like "You know what, never mind."
I've wanted to see "Wishman" ever since clips of it were briefly shown during the "TV Shows That Never Were" special many years ago. But it's not usually easy to find TV pilots, even though the networks used to air their rejected ones in the summer to fill airtime. "Wishman" was aired June 23, 1983, but why would anyone tape it when there was an attractive repeat of Magnum PI on at the same time? Logic aside, one person apparently did. The pilot was briefly on YouTube, and I grabbed it for today's article.
Contrary to what the title might make you think, this is NOT about an alien that grants wishes. The name "Wishman" is derived from the name of a human character, a genetic engineer named Dr. Wish. And the creature the series is focused around isn't from space...it's one of his experiments gone wrong. So unlike a lot of ET ripoffs, they find some ways to differentiate it, but it's still obvious what the inspiration was.
Dr. Wish is the head of a research team that is trying to create the first intelligent life form entirely from scratch. The first thing we see is a montage of scenes depicting its development over several months, with captions: "Subject stable without life support systems." "Subject taking first steps." "Subject controls electricity." It's that last one that throws the team for a loop, as they hadn't planned their creature to have any powers.
Throughout the montage and into the first third of the pilot, we're never actually shown what Dr. Wish's creation looks like. We're given POV shots from the creature's perspective, or angles where our view is partially obscured, or shots from so far away that details are blurred out in 480 lines of resolution. In this case Dr. Wish is testing the creature by handing it some toys and giving it a simple instruction: "Put the logs in the truck." The creature picks up some action figures with its doughy hands and places them in the truck instead, then applauds for itself while gurgling like a baby.
The boss is not pleased, and tells the scientists why over intercom. We learn the creature has yet to properly obey a simple instruction. We also learn why they are doing this: the company funding the project wants to breed hundreds of these things to sell as cheap labor. It's crucial that the beings obey instructions as commanded. Slavery may be illegal, but hey, what if you had slaves that served the same function as humans yet couldn't legally be classified as them? Loophole! Profits!
That should be enough to convince Dr. Wish's assistant, Alex MacGregor, to smuggle Wish's experiment out of there, but he doesn't feel truly pushed until he's ordered to start the whole experiment over again and dissect the current model to find out what went wrong. MacGregor finds killing the creature immoral, now that it's truly alive. He resolves to bust it out -- tonight!
As the team preps for dissection, MacGregor walks into another room where the creature is lying on a gurney. He knocks it out with gas, then covers it with a sheet and wheels the gurney into a room with several rabbits in cages. There, he unloads an entire sack of dog food, stuffs the creature in the empty sack and makes a break for the exit...but not before opening all the rabbit cages and telling them "Here, have a feast, Happy Easter." These bunnies eat dog food, I guess.
By the time Dr. Wish figures out what MacGregor has done, he's long gone. He's now at another building, where he walks to the front desk and asks to see Maddie, his wife. Upstairs a model shoot is going on, and I thought "wow, that scientist has done WELL for himself!" But it turned out his wife wasn't the model, she was the one directing the shoot.
BUT she's Linda Hamilton, and
that's not a bad catch either. "What a pleasant
surprise!" Maddie calls down from the balcony when she sees
her husband in the foyer.
"Umm....could we have lunch?" Alex asks.
Maddie looks at her watch. "Alex, it's after five o'clock."
"A DRINK?" he offers.
Maddie now looks concerned and knows something's going on. Of course she would never truly guess what.
As they're driving away, Alex
starts with, "I quit my job today."
"Oh, so that's it." Maddie is thrilled, not disappointed. "I know the pressure of that job was weighing you down, and for what it's worth, I hated all that secrecy."
Alex continues, "It was more....something I DID."
There's a cut to Dr. Wish, who
is now taking an angry call from his boss. "Doctor MacGregor
and the experiment have ESCAPED," Wish confesses.
"I want you to tell NO ONE," the boss says in a sinister voice, from his limo phone next to his fur-coated spouse. "Neither the government nor the media can know what's now out there. I'll take care of it MYSELF. I know who to call."
"Yes, sir," Wish says before hanging up.
That scene was only thirty seconds long but when we cut back to Alex and Maddie in the car, it's nighttime now -- and they're still having the same conversation. How long did he take to drag this out?
"Alex, what did you
steal??" Maddie wants to know.
"It's not bacteria, is it? I don't want to get sick."
He figures he might as well ease
her into it. "Honey, almost everything we are is genetically
programmed by DNA, you see...well, we used human genetics as a
model, but we made everything else from scratch...it was all
theoretical, I thought there was no way we'd come close to
succeeding...." He starts laughing nervously. "...but
we got it! WE GOT AN ORGANISM...."
"Honey..." Maddie says, with half her face lit by the road streetlights, ".....where is it?"
Then she notices there's heavy breathing behind her, and turns around to see the thing JUST as it throws the dog food bag off itself. It's time to reveal the creature! Are you ready?
Now, I don't know if they had plans to improve this model if "Wishman" was picked up for series. But I'm sure the freakiness of this big-eyed thing was a factor in the show going nowhere. ET had a certain appeal to him that made his stuffed dolls not terrify children. This one just wouldn't look good on a Sears toy shelf.
Anyway, Maddie doesn't like it
either. She SHRIEKS! The creature also freaks out! It shoots
lighting from its antennae and shorts the car out!
At this point Alex confirms its name. "Maddie....meet Wishman."
Turns out, it's not pronounced "Wish MAN," like you'd think. It's "Wishmun," like someone's last name would be pronounced.
Alex, Maddie and Wishman are now shacked up in a motel. Alex is trying to keep Wishman from jumping on the bed or shorting out the lights (he fails at both) while simultaneously trying to keep Maddie calm (which he can't do either). Maddie is angry that Alex would do something like this without consulting her first, but Alex explans there was no time. "They were going to kill him!"
"Alex, I never agreed to
suddenly live a life on the run. All I want is to go to bed, wake
up tomorrow and head to work."
Alex says he understands and hands Maddie the car keys so she can leave. Uh, I think the chance to live a normal life has long since passed for you, Maddie, The cops will be looking for you as a potential accomplice, Dr. Wish's evil boss will be trying to catch you and potentially torture you to get Wishman's location...face it, Sarah Connor, you're in.
Maddie hesistates at the door, though, and changes her mind at record speed when she sees Wishman reacting to itself in the mirror. "Why, it's just like a little kid!" she says, and her heart melts for Wishman.
Wish's evil boss arrives via helicopter to inspect the lab and grill Wish for answers. "Now you say this MacGregor person...lost his temper and used profanities. It sounds to me like he was emotionally unstable." Wish tries to defend him, but he's the guy who stole the project, so his case isn't good. "Says here he occasionally ate lunch with his co-worker, an [Asian] person. I'll have her phone calls tapped and traced." The word he actually uses there starts with O and is considered derogatory today; I have no idea what the consensus on it was in 1983, but I have seen a TV show from 1987 where a man used the word and was clearly meant to be a racist.
Bad Boss has a team of evil accomplices working with him in a black van just outside the lab. They load some confiscated equipment, including Alex's Apple II business computer, into the van and one man gets to work "hacking" the Apple. "ACCESS TO PRIVATE BUSINESS DATABANKS IS NOT PERMITTED," the screen reads. To get around this, the man types "BREAK BUSINESS CODE." That's some world-class hacking skills right there. When nothing happens, because why would it, the man types again "RESPOND! BREAK CODE." This time the computer gives him what he wanted. I guess he just needed to be more forceful.
Alex and Maddie think a lawyer would help their cause. I don't think there's much that could be done about a clear case of theft, but what they COULD use are allies, and Maddie says she knows the lawyer's wife, Karen, from college. They pull up in the driveway of the lawyer's house, and Karen greets Maddie with a hug. Karen's foster son Bruce is also outside, holding a skateboard. Deciding to make small talk, Alex walks over to Bruce and remarks, "Nice wheels."
"WHAT'S IT TO YOU?" Bruce abruptly says, and walks away with his back to him. I like this kid already.
Alex doesn't. Karen explains what Bruce is doing there. "He's had a rough life, going from home to home...we just want him to feel secure."
Meanwhile, they haven't been watching Wishman in the last 30 seconds, so it's just casually stepped out of the car and wandered into their backyard. Karen is pouring tea for Maddie when she suddenly hears Bruce yell "HEY, LOOK AT THIS!"
Wishman is just standing there, staring at a small tree. They aren't very good at keeping this thing a secret. Now Karen and Bruce are part of it.
Nor are the couple any good at
covering their tracks. The main in the van suddenly gets a ping
from his trace on Alex's credit cards. The amateur paid for the
motel WITH A CARD. Come on, this is Fugitive 101 stuff.
By the way, the moment before the man gets the ping, he's playing some kind of handheld video game. They did not have handheld games this small in 1983, beyond LCD Game and Watch devices, and the Atari sound effects coming from the device mean it can't be one of those. Weird.
Wish is informed they have a good lead on Wishman's location now. Once you know the general area, it's then just a matter of scanning for Wishman's electric field, which is rather large. Like it or not, they're heading straight for you guys!
Maddie shuts the drapes in
Karen's house while Alex does his best to explain the situation.
"So....you MADE this thing?" Bruce comments.
"Yeah, kind of," Alex admits.
"He's weird," Bruce states with a look of disgust.
But Alex finds a way for Bruce to bond with Wishman when he shows him how he taught the creature to high-five him (or high-four, as he correctly calls it). "Can I try that?" Bruce asks.
No sooner has the tension slightly been diffused than it rises again. The doorbell rings. Bruce runs to answer it, thinking it's his dad coming home, but Karen grabs him, revealing "Nat NEVER rings the doorbell!" Everyone hides in the kitchen area while Karen cautiously answers the front door.
The good news: it's just a delivery man at the door. The bad news: they're very bad at keeping Wishman in one place even when they're RIGHT IN FRONT OF IT. It slips into the kitchen and starts using its electrical powers to bring the appliances to life.
Maddie races to the counter and unplugs the blender. But then Wishman turns on the dishwasher. She's thrown for a bit until she realizes opening the rack will shut it off.
Meanwhile at the door:
Delivery Man: "So, how's the little monster?"
Karen: "THE WHAT?"
Delivery Man: "Bruce!"
Karen: "Oh! Oh, he's fine!"
This is still a weird thing for a delivery man to be saying.
After that exchange, the doorbell starts ringing again and continues to ring over and over. It's Wishman, electronically pushing it from a distance. I have to admit...even if these people weren't so incompetent, this thing would be hard to hide.
The bad guys are all the way to
the motel now. But at the lawyer's house, things seem a bit more
relaxed. They're all sitting down to dinner, including Wishman,
who is not having what everyone else is.
Bruce, eyeing Wishman's plate: "What's THAT?"
Alex, cheerfully informing him: "It's a special NUTRIENT PASTE."
At that moment Nat, the lawyer they went through all this trouble to meet, comes home from work. This is gonna be interesting.
And it indeed is. He actually does not notice Wishman until he walks across the room and sits down at the table for about ten seconds. And when he finally does, his reaction is probably the best scene in the pilot. Check it out yourself:
Nat is very shaken up at first, but once Alex informs him of the whole situation, the gears in his head start turning. Nat cites a nonexistent Supreme Court case where it was decided that patents could be issued out for genetic experiments. "Right now it's a product, and property law applies....so you are a thief. But if I can convince the courts that he's MORE than a product, then they could consider giving him rights! And THEN you would legally HAVE the right to protect him from bodily harm!!" He gets excited at the possibilites for his career.
Nat thinks the best move for Alex and Maddie to make with Wishman at the moment would be to keep him hidden and out of sight. Alex asks how long they might have to do that (I mean, it's not exactly easy). "I don't know," Nat admits. Maybe for 13 episodes, maybe longer. Depends.
They better figure something out. The baddies have now pinpointed Wishman's location down to the town (Montecito, CA). Dr. Wish is on his way, in a helicopter, to retrieve his specimen. Meanwhile Wishman is....
....um....never mind what Wishman's doing. We get incredibly close to seeing a naked Linda Hamilton here, so much so that if this were a higher resolution, you'd probably glimpse boob for at least one frame before she sees him and rushes for the towel. And yes, I said this aired on TV.
And later that evening when Alex and Maddie are in bed and things start getting hot between them, there it is again. Haven't these two ever heard of a door that locks? It clearly has no sense of boundaries; it's going to walk in on Alex pooping next.
I'd be pretty fed up by this point, but the MacGregors are as chipper as ever, and even invite Wishman to sleep with them (at the foot of the bed, I have to point out).
Come the morning, Nat is preparing his case, but Alex is having second thoughts. "What if this DOESN'T work?" he frets while standing by the back door. "You can change the law, but you can't change the world."
Then Nat and Bruce have a corny bonding moment I don't feel like typing about. The point is that it distracts everybody long enough for Karen to forget about the doorbell rule when Maddie hears it ring again and answers the door. IT'S THE COMPUTER GUY!!!
"Hey, do you know where I
can find....the Galvins?"
Maddie doesn't know who he is. "Hey Karen? Where do the Galvins live?"
"Four doors down," says Karen's voice.
"Thank you, ma'am," he says, and then leaves, not recognizing Maddie or realizing his information was slightly wrong. That was anticlimactic.
But it doesn't take them long to
get it right. Another day passes and another dinner is being
served when the telephone suddenly rings. Bruce answers it and
says "Someone wants to talk to Alex MacGregor."
They immediately sense something bad. Everyone who could want to talk to Alex MacGregor and is a friend is already in the room.
Nat picks up the phone instead and demands to know who's calling. The voice just says, "Turn on your television set, please. Any channel."
Holy moley, he told the world
about Wishman?? What a twist!
...Actually, he did not. What the caller meant was that Bad Boss is jamming their TV signal to broadcast a message for their house only.
"Good evening. My name is Galan Reed. You have something that belongs to me. It's my responsibility to see to it that you give it back. It would be foolish of you to try to escape. If you turn the experiment over to Dr. Wish and my security within the next five minutes, no one will be harmed. Incidentally...your telephone is temporarily inoperative."
Exactly five minutes later, the
front door opens and three figures, two tall and one miniature,
emerge. The men march onto the front lawn to meet them.
"We're sorry it had to come to this, Mr. MacGregor, but--"
He stops himself there. Now that he can see them in better light, he can tell the three are Karen, Nat and Bruce, and he can also hear the sound of the MacGregors' car taking off. Apparently, storywise, the whole reason for bringing another family into this mess was to make this moment possible.
And cue the thrilling car chase! ....or not. Wishman is nervous and short-circuits the battery again. They have no choice but to bail out and rush into a nearby building. It's a warehouse building, and opening the gate sets off an alarm. This makes it super-easy for the bad guys to notice where they stopped. Alex and Maddie are cornered now, and it's all Wishman's fault! Can't it use its electrical powers to NOT sabotage itself for once?
Guess it listened to me. Wishman is now using the electrical devices of the warehouse against the intruders. And in the next room, there's a bunch of transformers -- Alex knows exactly what to do with those. When the men charge into the room, at Alex's command, Wishman unleashes fury and every box in the room starts shooting fireworks. Finally having the upper hand for one second, the couple uses the ensuing confusion to escape with Wishman.
All is resolved? Not even remotely. This is a pilot, not a TV movie. Galan swears to Dr. Wish and Bad Boss that he can still retrieve the experiment. "You have 72 hours," they tell him. In the meantime, Alex and Maddie are at a chicken shack grabbing a bite to eat while searching the want ads. It must be a pain to lose such cushy jobs -- note how nonchalant Maddie was about Alex just bailing on his. She must have made the majority of their income -- or did, anyway.
Nat and Karen gave the MacGregors a tip on somebody they could trust up in Seattle, so they're on their way there, Wishman in tow. What happens after that was never written.
Altogether, it's as embarrassing as it was rumored to be. There was no way ABC was going to let "Wishman" get any further than this, lest they become a laughingstock. Hamilton tries the best with the material she's given, and she has good lovey-dovey chemistry with Joseph Bottoms, the actor playing Alex -- but if "Wishman" had gone to series, she might never have landed the lead in The Terminator and who knows what would've happened to her career after that.
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