Deep Thought: Thinking Along with the Fugitive
We've just finished watching all 120 episodes of the 1960s television series The Fugitive, courtesy of a kind soul on Internet Archive. We'd seen some of it when it originally aired, of course, but as kids we'd missed some of the fun points. It's a wild ride, and I highly recommend it.
Dr Kimble went through a lot as a fugitive. Another kind soul on the interwebs totted up the damage for us:
Over four years and 120 episodes he had been blinded by an explosion, run down by a car, knocked unconscious 10 times and stabbed four times. He had survived 30 fights, three concussions, eight gunshot wounds (four in the arms, four in the legs), acute cases of amnesia and pneumonia, and the affections of numberless sympathetic but entirely untrustworthy ladies.
They didn't add, and saved the life of his relentless pursuer at least three times. Once, a bunch of gleeful hillbillies led by Bruce Dern, of all people, tried to lynch Lieutenant Gerard. Kimble stopped them. Even in the show, everybody liked Kimble better than Gerard. Even Gerard's wife and son (Kurt Russell!) liked Kimble better. That was okay: Barry Morse enjoyed having people growl at him in public. Even in the 60s, Brits made the best villains.
Most Fugitive episodes went like this: Kimble, on the run, takes up some dead-end job somewhere. He's a fisherman. Or a bartender. Or a truck driver. Or a veterinary assistant. He's using some silly name like Jim Baker or George Carter, something obviously fake like that. He gets involved with the problems of the locals. Somebody wises up and calls Gerard. Before Gerard can arrest him, though, he helps the locals to understand their problem. While they make their decisions, Kimble slips out the back and hops a freight or thumbs a ride down the road.
Occasionally, Kimble, who is a doctor, delivers a baby. Or saves a sick child. Or even casually delivers a lamb. He patches up gunshot wounds – even Gerard's. He does all this without much fuss. Kimble probably says less than anybody else in the show. That was wise of the screenwriters. By keeping quiet, the main character forces everybody else (including the audience) to do the hard thinking. That's one of the reasons I enjoyed the series so much.
Yes, there was the obligatory boxing episode. And three with a nun in. We were spared the 'carrying nitroglycerin over the mountains' story, but only barely. One character had nitroglycerin pills. One time the characters were stuck, not in a mine, but in a missile silo under construction. I suppose that was an upgrade. But even the cliches were well-played.
The thing about Dr Richard Kimble was that he had to be on the move. He had to be detached. He had to be wary: some people would help him, and some would try to turn him in. It was hard to predict. But above all, he had to stay true to the Hippocratic Oath. No matter how much danger Kimble was in personally, if there was a patient, he was the doctor. He even performed a C-section in a wildfire zone. He'd been harvesting onions with the migrant farmworkers.
Kimble is exonerated at the end: they find out who really killed his wife. Reporters ask him what he's going to do now. 'See some of my family and go back to work, I guess,' he says. It seems undramatic. One critic complained that Kimble was a dull character. But the point is that there was never anything wrong with Kimble. There was a lot wrong with the world he lived in. And in spite of the agony he went through, Kimble made that world better because, even in his direst predicament, he accepted the fact that everything wasn't about him.
What I would like to have seen was a flashback episode in which characters from past episodes paid tribute to the difference the Fugitive had made in their lives. It would have been interesting, I think. At least more interesting than the usual TV 'clip show'. There would certainly have been quite a few actresses congratulating Diane Baker for being the one who snagged the elusive, but apparently quite attractive doctor.
The really weird thing about that series is that it shows us something about how to be in the world. That's not a usual occurrence in primetime. It does it without being preachy or phony or hypocritical, too, like some TV shows I could name (but won't). You could find the story very zen, if you were so inclined. A Catholic blogger named Mark McCann compares Kimble to Jesus. And yes, the plot was a 'haircut' (meaning 'ripoff') of Les Miserables. I don't care what archetype you apply: I suspect there's something in there for everybody.
Even if it's only wondering how Lieutenant Gerard managed to turn a cute kid into Snake Plissken. He must have been a terrible father, even by 1960s standards.