Let us skip ahead a bit in time. I have no particular grand overriding reason for this beyond the fact that I feel like it and mentioning “Whackets” last time reminded me of something. You know that thing you have in shows sometimes where you’ve got one character who’s a kind of an intellectual weirdo, possibly a high-functioning sociopath or even someone with a spectrum disorder, and they’ve got a partner who is (at least in an academic sense) not as smart but is able to act like a normal decent human being, and They Fight Crime? It’s not exactly an unusual trope — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle kinda made it the default way to write crimefighting duos back in the 19th century. Holmes and Watson. Poirot and Hastings. KITT and Michael Knight.
Some time around the turn of the ’90s, though, it seems like one particular configuration became really popular — popular enough that I’m kind of surprised I can’t find a TVTropes page about it. I’m specifically talking about the Mulder-n-Scully combination: a smart but weird and offputting man and a more traditional, socially-ept woman.
You see this pattern repeat a bunch of times over the following decades: Abby and Connor on Primeval; Linley and Havers in The Inspector Linley Mysteries; Jane and Rachel in The Mentalist; Grissom and Catherine (or Sarah. Whichever) in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; Johnathan and Maddy, Carla or Joey in Jonathan Creek, Castle and Beckett in Castle; Monk and Natalie in Monk; Jacob/Ian and Rachel in Eleventh Hour; and probably the most recent and obvious example: Sherlock and Joan Watson from Elementary. (By the way, is it just me or are a lot of these examples British? Is this a thing British people particularly like?)
There’s a lot of variability in the way the roles are played, but the setup boils down to “Holmes and Watson, only Watson is (shocking twist music) a girl!“. The stereotype is for The Watson to be kind of stupid, thanks largely to the flanderization Nigel Bruce took the character through over the course of his long career as sidekick to Basil Rathbone. But plenty of instances of the trope avoid that, drawing from the canonical Watson instead: obviously, Mulder and Scully are both hypercompetent professionals, but due to the world they live in, her job for the first five seasons or so is pretty much “to always be wrong, except in the clever subversion episodes.” The real constants seem to be that the male character is a “defective” genius, and the female character is “normal” — by which I mean “not a genius”, though she could still be entirely competent in her field. Indeed, one of the more common variations is for the female character to be, say, a police officer, fully competent at being a police officer (while her counterpart lacks, say, the discipline for it), just lacking the special gift that makes the “real hero” worth keeping around. (In this regard, the female Lestrade of Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century might count too.) It’s absolutely a sexist trope, drawing on the whole mythology of women being “closer to earth” and men “closer to heaven”, with the male genius needing, in essence, a woman to keep him from floating off on flights of fancy, while, naturally the woman would be more socially ept and more possessed of “common sense”. It’s a shame, too, since it seems pretty clear to me that where the trope comes from is a genuine attempt to be more egalitarian, taking the traditional “Holmes and Watson” or “Man Friday” setup and making it less of a sausage party (The rather noisome thought occurs to me that this too may be a bit problematic, as I imagine some of these started out by someone wanting to do Holmes and Watson but suddenly worrying that it might be “a bit gay”) by swapping one of the men for a woman. But of course, it’s only ever the “Watson” who is a candidate for gender-swapping. The only example I can think of that goes the other way is Bones, and then she’s surrounded by a team of also-insufferable genius lab rats.
What seems a little strange to me is the difficulty I’m having thinking of older examples. You could maybe stretch The Avengers or Adam Adamant Lives! to fit, but neither Adam nor Steed really fit the “defective genius” mold. You could maybe stretch Sapphire and Steel to fit, but Steel doesn’t really fit the “genius” mold and Sapphire only fits the “normal” role by comparison to Steel. And maybe you could fit Doctor Who into this mold, but the dynamics are a lot different there. Also, that last little litany of examples really hammers home just how British this trope is. In fact, I can only think of one really unambiguous example predating the ’80s: Encyclopedia Brown. And he didn’t get his own show until 1989.
I don’t rightly know what kicked it off. The earliest TV example that’s a real solid match I can remember is a backdoor pilot made-for-TV-movie called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which aired (checks IMDB) Well holy crap. 1987. The nexus of all realities strikes again. In this adaptation, Margaret Colin, who has been in lots of things none of which I have seen, plays Jane Watson, the great-granddaughter of the Ur-Sidekick. She inherits some of her ancestor’s belongings, leading her to the cryonically preserved Sherlock Holmes (Played here by Michael Pennington, who has also been in a bunch of things I’ve never seen, but also played “The guy Vader says ‘The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am,’ to in Return of the Jedi), who’d placed himself in suspended animation after Moriarty’s brother infected him with the bubonic plague using the exact same trick that Holmes had easily seen through in The Adventure of the Dying Detective. Modern antibiotics sort the problem out easily enough, leaving Holmes to travel to the US with Watson to solve a particularly tricky case based on deduction, since he apparently doesn’t remember that it’s the exact same plot as The Sign of Four. Also, there’s a really funny scene where Holmes tries to update his knowledge of the world by visiting a bookstore without giving Jane a chance to explain what an “Adult Bookstore” is. And they go to London Bridge in Lake Havasu. Also, little bit of trivia: Margaret Colin guested in an episode of Elementary‘s second season.
Unless you count those times Basil Rathbone’s Holmes fought the Nazis, I think that was actually the first time someone did a literal “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day.” (It is not, oddly enough, the first female Watson; there’s two separate, unrelated movies from the ’70s which both revolve around a modern man suffering from the delusion that he is Holmes under the care of a female psychiatrist named Watson). I mean, the actual literal Sherlock Holmes rather than “A modern crime-solving duo clearly based on Holmes.” This is the original Sherlock and the original Elementary. And since the setup is “The canon Holmes is resurrected many years later by a gender-flipped descendant of a a canon character to solve crimes lifted pretty directly from the canon, though Holmes doesn’t recognize this despite the assumption that the canon stories also all happened,” rather than just the modern day being his natural time and place, it’s even moreso the original Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (Though, in a weird move for a children’s cartoon, their Holmes was not frozen, but dead; Lestrade uses 22nd century nanotechnology to reanimate and restore youth to his well-preserved corpse centuries after he’d died of old age. The fact that the police can cure death is never brought up again.). That said, this was “Sherlock Holmes collides with the audience’s actual world” in a way that neither Sherlock nor Elementary are: the “present day” Sherlock occupies is one in which Sherlock Holmes exists as a character. It’s “our world” (or at least, the world where the Literary Agent Hypothesis is true, and Doyle was really just the “editor” for a real Watson) in that if a tall man in a deerstalker cap with a calibash pipe introduced himself as “Sherlock Holmes”, everyone would assume he was a cosplayer — and indeed, Holmes uses the pseudonym “Siegerson” when dealing with strangers, realizing that no one would believe him if he used his real name (Whereas only a Holmesian would tick to something being up if a tall, thin guy who’s good at sleuthing called himself “Siegerson”).
The pilot never went to series, which isn’t too surprising (What is surprising: they did pretty much the exact same movie again in 1993’s 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns). It was good enough for a TV movie, sure, but the idea wasn’t quite baked enough to keep going for more than a week. There’s too much of an inherent problem in having Sherlock be both the world’s greatest detective and also a fish-out-of-water who has to stop and marvel at things like electric lightbulbs and pornography if you stretch it out past about ninety minutes. If Holmes remains a kind of “funny foreigner” archetype who doesn’t understand the world he lives in, it undermines his intelligence: the whole thing becomes a succession of “Oh yeah? If he’s so smart why doesn’t he know what a digital watch is?” jokes. Alternatively, if he acclimatizes himself to his surroundings, he ceases to feel authentically Holmsean, so why bother with the whole reanimation nonsense instead of just creating a new Holmes-like character? Besides, Michael Pennington is, again, a perfectly good actor, but I don’t think he has the charisma to carry the series — at least not this series. He’s playing your classic-style Sherlock, in the deerstalker-n-calibash tradition that originated with William Gilette in 1899. But Jeremy Brett had already been doing his more book-authentic “straight” version that for a few years now, and frankly, once you’ve watched Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, there is really nothing new anyone is going to bring to the role until Robert Downey Jr. Robert Downy Jr.s the character up a few notches in 2009. With its Watson as a capable private detective in her own right, the setup is within spitting distance of trying to be Remmington Steele: a competent female detective, despite being good at her job, can’t quite cut it on her own without that little something extra that only a man can provide. That setup has some nasty implications in it. Remmington Steele works around this because the details of its setup make it a critique of the problem rather than simply embracing it: Laura Holt invents Steele as a public face for her agency because society won’t accept a woman in the role of a detective. He is her judgment on her culture’s gender roles: you won’t hire a good detective because she hasn’t got a penis? Fine. Here’s a vacuous moron with testicles. Hire him instead. (It’s a little interesting to me that this is almost exactly the same premise of the Holmes parody Without a Clue, with “respectable physician” in place of “woman”) The joke just doesn’t work as well here. They get it right by making Jane Watson a competent detective in her own right, but for this whole “Defective Genius Man / Effective Babysitter Woman” thing to work, they need to move away from the model of “She needs him because a woman isn’t good enough on her own,” to the model of “He needs her because his genius isn’t worth much if he can’t function in society.”
Which brings me, finally, to the point of this article. It is March 7, 1988. Divine and Robert “Bob” Livingston die. Star Trek The Next Generation is on week 2 of a two week break. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future ended on a cliffhanger which I will get to in time. We are in the back nine of the nexus of all realities, but we have hit upon a key moment in musical history, because some time between last Friday and this Friday, George Michael’s “Father Figure” will be unseated from the top spot on the BIllboard Hot 100 in favor of a little ditty by a fellow named Rick Astley, making YouTube as we know it possible.
This week’s episode of MacGyver is “The Negotiator”, a story in which a woman murders a dog to prove to the audience that she’s evil (This is a thing in TV. Villains and natural disasters will go out of their way to avoid killing dogs or babies, so showing a villain actually deliberately kill a dog is a shorthand to signal that someone is utterly irredeemable and isn’t going to pull any of that “Lady villain has a change of heart because the male hero is so studly,” bullshit). Immediately afterward, a new show premiers.
Friends since junior high, William Link and Richard Levinson had a long history of successful collaboration in the mystery genre. They’d created Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, Murder She Wrote, and a pile of television movies. Levinson had unexpectedly died almost exactly a year earlier, so for this one, Link teamed up with Isaac Asimov.
Depending on how versed you are with his work, you might find that a strange pairing, but it’s not. Golden-Age Science Fiction and Whodunnit-style Mystery aren’t really all that different as genres: they both rely heavily on very clever and intricate set-ups, they tend to prioritize world-building over plot and character, they both tend to build toward a big reveal at the end, and they both tend to be judged good if the reveal is something the audience could have anticipated but didn’t, such as “The butler did it” or “It was Earth all along”. When they’re good, writing these kinds of stories is a bit like building a theme park, essentially a matter of setting up an enjoyable ride and then inviting the audience to come along with you (people like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon are supremely good at this). But Science Fiction and Mystery both suffer from the tendency, when they’re done inexpertly, to rapidly devolve into the writer waging a one-sided competition against the reader, waiting to jump out and yell, “Gotcha!” as they reveal that they’re so much cleverer than the audience, and haven’t they earned a cookie and a gold star? You see this with the kind of mystery writers being mocked in the movie Murder By Death, or, say, season 7 of Doctor Who (Except that one, oddly, kept oscillating between screaming “Look how clever I am!” and “Silly nerd! You keep expecting it to make sense? Clearly you’re just supposed to turn off your higher reasoning and just enjoy the cheap emotional manipulation!”).
More to the point, Isaac Asimov wrote mysteries. On balance, I personally prefer his mysteries to his science fiction. For example, his “Black Widowers” series revolves around a cadre of men who meet once a month for dinner, and have taken to playing amateur detectives as they try (and fail) to solve a problem posed by a guest attendee, until the correct solution is inevitably deduced by their steadfast butler, a man described as being so pathologically honest that he is hypersensitive to deception. The stories read very much like Encyclopedia Brown stories if Sobol had been as good a writer as Isaac Asimov.
The two of them came up with a show that was a kind of science-themed Whodunnit, using the “Defective Genius / Babysitter” model, a model which, as close as I can tell, they invented. That show was Probe.
Parker Stevenson, winner of the Katee Sackhoff Award For Successfully Growing Out of Looking Like Dirk Benedict, plays Austin James, a reclusive eccentric genius, who founded the Random-hi-tech-stuff company “Serendip” but detests actually getting involved in its goings on. For reasons I can’t quite understand, the company doesn’t like their reclusive genius letting them do pretty much whatever they like except when he occasionally gifts them with a profitable new invention. I mean, I think it has something to do with them not wanting to pay the bills for the many projects he never brings to fruition, but no one ever comes out and says this in a way that doesn’t sound short-sighted and cartoonishly evil. To reign Austin in, Serendip foists a secretary on him, Mickey Castle, played by Ashley Crow (Who, in another ironic twist, would later guest on The Mentalist, another one of these shows about a reclusive weirdo genius and his female babysitter). They fight crime!
I mean, that’s about the size of it. Austin either happens into a mystery or Mickey nudges him onto it. Austin uses his superior knowledge of
science science-flavored TV bullshit to solve the mystery, while Mickey does a lot of being wrong, being ditzy, suspecting ghosts, or saying, “What is it Doctor Austin?”
It probably sounds a bit CSI, and it is, but it’s even more The X-Files, bordering on Scooby-Doo Where Are You? with just a touch of MacGyver. We’re not talking about Austin and Mickey taking on your traditional serial killers here: Austin and Mickey face off against homicidal computers, faked alien invasions, and a killer who uses holography in his crimes. The modern show it reminds me of most is Eleventh Hour, which similarly had its detective/babysitter duo investigate crimes based around TV-superscience such as human cloning, cryonics, and weather control.
Eleventh Hour is perhaps a bit less whimsical. They’re going for a more “Ripped from Gizmodo headlines” sort of deal, where they take actual headline-making science, and just present it as being slightly better by delivering a thing which real-world scientists genuinely think they might soon accomplish, and just handwaving away practical rather than theoretical unsolved problems. So in Eleventh Hour, you have a rogue geneticist who’s found a practical way to do human cloning — we’ve been cloning animals since at least the fifties, and really by the time the show aired, the technical impediments to human cloning had been mostly solved (The actual genius thing their mad scientist had done is actually fallacious; she’d “solved” the problem of clones made from adult donors being born “genetically old”, that is, with the shortened telomeres of the donor rather than the longer ones of a newborn. But clones aren’t born with short telomeres; that was just popular unfounded speculation when Dolly the Sheep, cloned from a 7-year-old, died at 6 rather than at the more sheep-normal 12. But there was no evidence that early senescence was involved; she died of a common sheep cancer at the age that cancer usually kills sheep.). In Probe, by contrast, you’ve got an orangutan with artificially-boosted intelligence who murders an animal-rights advocate (She didn’t want those PETA folks shutting down her cushy gig) because her sense of conflict-resolution came entirely from watching Westerns, and then frames herself because her knowledge of criminal justice came entirely from cop shows (Since we all know, the person who seems obviously to have done it in the first five minutes is always innocent). You laugh, but it’s like 2/3 of the way to being the plot of The Murders at the Rue Morgue.
If we imagine “science-flavored mystery” as existing along a spectrum, at one end, we can put a show like Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, a fun little teen series from around the turn of the century which is basically what you’d get if you took leftover Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or more likely, the animated spin-off they’d talked about making at one point) scripts, crossed out “magic” and pencilled in “science”: a boarding school is built on top of a
hellmouth wormhole, and shenanigans ensue, which the heroes pretend are fully explicable as being due to Science! and which they solve using their own greater Science!, such as “a computer virus makes the species-jump to infect buildings,” or “If you don’t feel like people notice you, your quantum state changes causing you to stop interacting with light, thus turning invisible” At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got stuff like CSI and MacGyver: approximately real-world situations being solved by real applications of real scientific principles, it’s just that putting those principles into practice works a whole lot .better than they would in the real world: PCR DNA amplification is a real thing that really works, it’s just a lot slower in the real world. Luminol is a real thing that really works in the real world, it’s just not as visually impressive and you need a lot more control of the ambient lighting. And you really can make thermite from rust and aluminum shavings, but scraping a rusty bicycle with your Swiss Army Knife is not a feasible way to do it. Eleventh Hour is up near the CSI end. Something like The X-Files is down toward the Blake Holsey end.
Probe falls somewhere in the middle. The first episode, retroactively titled, “Computer Logic” pits Austin against a mainframe that’s been placed in charge of public utilities. The computer’s developed an intelligence, as mainframes sometimes did in the ’80s, but rather than wanting to take over the world or anything like that, it just wants to maximize shareholder value by murdering pensioners, the disabled, and anyone else whose continued survival doesn’t meet its threshold for being a positive contributor to society. That’s a really beautifully ’80s science fiction concept and all, but we’ve probably moved past “Modern-day Holmes and Watson fight crimes with science” as this show’s high concept. Though we do get to see Parker Stevenson take a fireaxe to a computer while shouting “Sing Daisy!” There’s actually a vaguely similar episode of Eleventh Hour, but instead of an AI mainframe, the culprit is a child prodigy who’s killing off under-performing classmates to bring up test scores.
In the second episode, “Untouched by Human Hands”, Austin has to investigate a death when he can’t get to the body due to radiation from a proton decay experiment gone wrong. This is kind of a blast from the past: the setup is very “Ripped from the cover of Popular Science.” The equivalent would be if someone did an episode of, say, the Mentalist, where someone is murdered by someone sabotaging a Higgs Boson experiment. Proton Decay was an exciting area of research back in the ’80s. Like the Higgs, it’s one of those things which the popular theories of how the universe works predict, but which had never been observed. Unlike the Higgs, it still hasn’t been observed, and the evidence suggests that the universe isn’t old enough for a proton to have actually decayed yet. The big twist comes up when Austin uses his Sherlock Holmes skills to determine that the murdered man isn’t who he appears to be. The alleged victim does turn out to be dead, though, murdered by his accomplice: a lab robot. He’d intended to fake his own death by having the robot kill a hobo, but then foolishly triggered the murder-program while making his escape. Then Austin gets the definition of a palindromic prime wrong. He gets it so wrong that he claims prime numbers are divisible by 11 (Palindromic numbers which aren’t prime are divisible by 11. Except for 11, which is palindromic, prime, and divisible by 11).
Episode 3, “Black Cats Don’t Walk Under Ladders, Do They?” is, on the surface, the B-plot from Metal Gear Solid: a series of murders are carried out using deadly bacteria that have been genetically modified to attack a specific victim, with a B-plot about the power of suggestion. Then we get “Metamorphic Anthropoidic Prototype Over You,” which is the one about the killer ape, and “Now You See It”, the one about holograms — someone looking to ruin Austin’s company fakes deadly elevator malfunctions using holograms to lure people into empty elevator shafts. Unfortunately, this show is no Star Trek the Next Generation: the “hologram” effect is a pretty amazingly cheap split-screen shot. I mean, technically, I guess it may actually look a bit more “realistic” by virtue of the lack of visual swirlies and suchlike, the same way that the ’70s live-action Spider-Man looked more realistically like a dude wearing a home-made spandex costume. Except right at the end where Mickey’s hand passes through a holographic file box and comes out the other side about ten feet closer to the camera than it entered.
Episode 6, “Plan 10 From Outer Space,” is practically a Scooby-Doo homage. An eccentric writer reveals that his novels have all been coauthored by an alien visitor, who has now turned violent, and promptly murders him. Austin determines that the “alien” is actually ball lightning caused by the presence of a large chunk of meteoric iron under the house, coupled with the writer’s presumed schizophrenia. For his next trick, he manages to trigger a ball-lightning strike, during which he tricks the real murderer into a confession using a slide projector. There’s a variation on the urban legend about a murder victim’s eyes retaining the murderer’s image, as Austin’s set-up is a farce based on the claim that the victim’s electrocution could cause sunglass lenses to act like film.
For my money, the best episode of the series is its last, the reason we’re talking about it today: “Quit-It” pits Austin and Mickey against a small community whose denizens have turned into Stepford Smilers and have become strangely subservient to their delinquent children.
This episode is one of my strongest early memories of major plot misdirect in a show like this. As the title suggests, Mickey and Austin spend most of the episode working from the theory that the culprit is a smoking cessation aid. The twist comes near the end when Austin analyzes the “Quit-It” pill and finds it to be a placebo. The actual mind-control vector is subliminal messages hidden in the cassettes being played on the Hi-Fi’s in nearly every scene. It turns out that the smarmy ad exec dad in town had lucked onto discovering a method of embedding ultra-powerful, ultra-precise subliminal messages, only to fall victim to his own creation when the neighborhood’s many delinquent children discovered the equipment and started recording messages of their own. You can see now why “Whackets” put it in my mind. I think it was the two of them happening within a few months of each other that burned this pair of episodes into my memory. “Whackets” and “Quit-It” are the episodes of their respective programs that I remember the best, and concept of subliminal mind control is something I worked into a half-dozen short stories I wrote over the next few years. Austin produces a counter-message, freeing the town, then uses one last message to induce everyone to forget the whole thing, lest this technology be exploited again.
Unfortunately, Austin may have turned his subliminal signal up too high: the show vanished without a trace six weeks after its premier. It’s so vanished that I couldn’t even find any fansites whose web design didn’t scream late 90s (A few had dates later than that, but it’s hard to deny the evidence of the <marquee> tag) and were full of broken geocities links. It’s not really hard to see why. It was up against The Cosby Show for one, which either shows a great deal of faith by the network, or that they’d already given up. The theme music is almost painful. I can’t find a name for it, so I don’t know if it’s an original composition; it sounds classical, (but then so does the theme from Knight Rider, if you ignore the synth), but performed on a Cassio keyboard during a long, long, long, long, long, long collage of black and white photos that young Parker Stevensons and Ashley Crowes have been airbrushed into. And, to be completely honest, I have an easier time buying Parker Stevenson as a lifeguarding lawyer than as a super-genius.
But that’s all superficial. Really, the show is just much better on paper than in practice. I love this concept. I love it every bit as much as I would love it twenty years later when they called it Eleventh Hour. But this wasn’t the right way to do it. There are a few problems here. First, half the plots in seven episodes involve Austin begrudgingly stepping in to help his own company out of a jam. There’s a pleasant old-timey “Wealthy Self-Made Man who Loathes Actually Being Involved in Business” vibe to Austin’s backstory — the sort of “rich guy slumming it” routine that used to be a popular adventurer backstory. It’s more than a little problematic, but if you can bracket it, there’s a well fleshed-out tradition to enjoy dating back to its origins in the “Victorian Gentleman Adventurer” archetype. But to a great extent, Probe wants to be not just “Holmes and Watson in the 80s”, but “Columbo with superscience” — with Austin clearly drawing from Columbo’s “Clever weirdo whose eccentric behavior exasperates criminals into revealing mistakes.” That’s a setup that just works better when you juxtapose the upper-class criminals with the working-class detective. When the plots compel Austin to leverage his role as the president of Serendip Inc., it becomes difficult to bracket the fact that Austin is, essentially, a rich white guy protecting what’s his in those stories.
Really, they just don’t hit the sweet-spot for the “Defective Genus and Normal Babysitter” trope. Austin isn’t defective enough and Mickey isn’t normal enough. Austin’s described as an eccentric, misanthropic introvert. But in practice, he’s more of a smug asshole. It takes very little effort to get him involved in things and his social awkwardness boils down pretty much entirely to “He’s pathologically unable to let any chance to show off his superior intellect or insult someone else’s inferior intellect.” The setup notwithstanding, there’s no clear reason why Austin needs a babysitter; yes, he’s weird. He sleeps in a cabinet (A habit he’d developed as a child because he wanted a sensory deprivation tank). He makes silly gadgets. But it’s not clear who his behavior inconveniences or how exactly Mickey is supposed to make things better.
And conversely, Mickey isn’t “normal”; she’s almost serenely clueless. Her basic purpose here is strictly to be wrong. All the time. I mean, there’s a few attempts to have her be the one who pulls Austin back on his flights of fancy, but the show always qualifies this by throwing out the suggestion that Mickey was in fact just falling victim to some of Austin’s obfuscating weirdness: he’ll turn around at the end and insist it had all been a clever ruse, either to trick the villain of the week, or, in some cases, purely to shame her. That’s ugly enough in itself, but when you couple it with the fact that she’s basically playing Nigel Bruce at his worst (Bruce played Watson quite a lot, and sometimes he does play a compelling and/or canon-accurate Watson, but at other times, he’s basically responsible for the until-recently-universal notion of Watson as a complete moron), only cast as a “ditzy secretary”, it’s just painful. Her purpose is to be pretty and provide sexual tension and to make Austin look smarter by virtue of her being profoundly, profoundly stupid. I want to like her. I almost like her. But the person I actually like is a sort of imaginary “meta-Mickey”: one who’s engaging in a bit of obfuscating stupidity of her own, and is actually subtly manipulating Austin this whole time. Unfortunately, there’s no actual evidence for that interpretation based on the handful of episodes we got.I don't know if this show could have been made to work here in the nexus. Maybe it's just too early to pull it off. But Probe feels to me like it's within spitting distance of The X-Files. Maybe, just maybe, they could have pulled it off. But not without some tweaking. Austin needs to be more, well, defective. When Austin James deigns to come down off his cloud and walk among the common man, he's fine. A jerk, yes, but able to easily dominate the world of mere mortals. It's all a bit Adam Adamant Lives!
In case you're not familiar, Adam Adamant Lives! was what Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert did with themselves after creating Doctor Who. It's about an Edwardian superspy who gets himself frozen for sixty years, waking up in the swinging sixties, whereupon he resumes his duties as a super-spy, foiling your standard James Bond-style plots with a small amount of "help" from his mundane, kidnapping-prone, mod secretary, and lots more help from his superlative skills at murdering people with his bare hands. Yes! It pretty much exactly is Austin Powers except serious and with the '60s at the wrong end of the story. Except that Adam doesn't do the "fish out of water who learns to appreciate that the modern day is better," thing; he spends the entire series convinced that the '60s suck and his time was much better. It's like 90% a very straight 1960s Spy-Fi Thriller in the mold of The Avengers or Danger Man -- with perhaps even more a bit of similarity to Star Trek's backdoor pilot "Assignment: Earth", only with just a small hit of psychedelia to make the whole thing that much weirder. Season 1 is available on DVD, but the final season, sadly, is mostly lost due to the use of an archival system developed when a time traveler suggested they store it on Amazon's color tablet system and the 1960s BBC misunderstood what was meant by "Kindle Fire"., with brilliance replacing a penchant for violence. But to the extent that Adam Adamant Lives! succeeded, it succeeded because it juxtaposed the superhuman Adam with a highly stylized, sort of camped-up version of the 1960s; it wasn't trying to be a serious drama set in a recognizably real world: it was trying to be psychedelic spy-fi.
That approach doesn’t really work for Probe, which wants to play by the rules of crime drama rather than spy-fi: it may have AI supercomputers and enhanced apes, but it’s still a world that works by our world’s rules, where people kill people for love or money or anger, not one where supervillains want to take over the world by turning parliament into plant monsters. Adam was a man who was extraordinary in one direction in a world that was extraordinary in the other. Austin is just an extraordinary man in a mundane world. He needed to be vulnerable. The closest we get is in “Plan 10″, when Mickey deduces that he’d been terrified at being placed on a Mall Santa’s lap as a small child — a throwaway moment that’s gone in a flash and never followed up on. No, for this show to work, he needs an actual overt flaw. Make that (alleged, not demonstrated) introversion into a pathology. Give him social anxiety disorder. Make him actually need Mickey because he can’t handle stressful human interactions. Make it Mickey’s job to cover for him and jump on grenades for him. That can be the character arc for these two: rather than the clumsily forced sexual tension, which three episodes in has already extended to “Austin covertly sabotages her dates out of petty jealousy,” focus on their professional relationship: Austin starts off uncomfortable around her and resentful of her presence; Mickey interprets his anxiety as him being an asshole. But very quickly we get to a point where Austin has to proactively ask her for help. Then, later, as their relationship progresses, we show Mickey increasingly anticipating his needs and knowing when to interpose herself to “rescue” him, but leaving room for Austin to occasionally surprise her by unexpectedly being able to handle a tense social situation — only to reveal that he’s learning to cope because he has the security of trusting her to have his back.
The other half of this of course, is that we’d need a more competent Mickey. Drop the whole bit about her being credulous and assuming aliens (“Plan 10″), psychic powers (“Black Cats”) and pod people (“Quit-It”) are at work. Don’t conflate “Has no scientific background” with “Is an idiot”. Make her confident and competent: she doesn’t understand the science, but she doesn’t care; it’s not her field. She doesn’t engage in speculation about the science in the crime. What she knows is people. I’d even say that Austin should be wrong for the first half of the episode. He only sees the science, and it leads him astray because he’s applying it without understanding the context. He can sort out the what and the how, but only when Mickey provides the why (and, I hope it goes without saying, she does this because she understands human psychology, not because of “womanly intuition” or something.) The setup of her being a secretary hired by Serendip to reign him in doesn’t really work either. One of Elementary‘s cleverer innovations is to introduce Joan Watson as Sherlock’s “sober companion”, hired to help him recover from his drug addiction. It gives her a reason to be there that amounts to more than “She’s his sidekick.” I don’t know what would work for Probe. I abstractly like the setup of her being, say, a private detective, but that’s a bit fished out. Having her be his therapist works well with the dynamic I’ve described, but I don’t know how you’d set it up. Maybe Austin has a panic attack at a shareholder meeting and she’s forced on him to keep the investors happy. I don’t even know if that is a thing that can happen, but this is a show with murderous super-apes after all.
I think it could work. Because it has worked. Just not yet. The nexus is haunted. Like so many of the things we’ve encountered here, Probe is like a ghost sent back from the future. Austin James and Mickey Castle are like half-formed specters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. This show could have been something. Some people blamed its failure on an audience that wasn’t ready for the kind of intellectual, attention-required storytelling that Probe was doing. I don’t know if the audience was ready to watch Probe in 1988, but I’m pretty sure the Hollywood TV industry wasn’t ready to make it.