Character Studies 26: Five Unsolved Mysteries

“Starsky and Hutch” was not created for the PVR or the DVD. I can’t imagine the writers and producers wasted much time worrying about the audience revisiting the series time and time again to freeze a scene at a pivotal frame in order to examine continuity, or speculating about an obscure line of dialogue. The scenes were shot and in the can in a brisk, efficient way, with as much attention to detail as was considered prudent at the moment, leading to small errors with props, stunt doubles, and other tricky bits and pieces. While many people find enjoyment pointing these out, I always feel there are larger and more interesting mysteries to puzzle through, mainly gaping holes in logic, missing explanations and philosophical conundrums which have no easy answer. The real reasons for these ambiguities vary: rushed editing, narrative opportunism (“let’s give Starsky a brother!”), network conflicts, poor script writing, budget constraints, all of which are rational explanations for the head-scratchers to follow. But finding contextually-appropriate explanations is much more fun. However they came to be, the presence of these mysteries, large and small, adds a splash of piquancy to the mix. Here are five that make the shortlist.

1. The Invisible Man
Who invented Terry Nash?

“The Set-Up” is a sprawling two-part episode with so many quirky elements it’s the literary equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. Sure it can fly, but it looks ungainly and ridiculous doing so – and that’s the fun of it. After two hours of duplicitous nuns, biplanes and Black Barons and machine guns in castle turrets, we are left with many more questions than answers (the exploding Torino, the fresh fruit in an apartment abandoned for weeks, etc). But the most troubling mystery is who Terry Nash really is, and why so much trouble was taken to recruit/kidnap him in order to pull off what would be a fairly straightforward assassination.

This is ostensibly a story about dueling criminal empires. Joe Durniak is going to testify against his rivals. After law enforcement officials carefully hide him in the back of a rig for his cross-country journey, Durniak is inexplicably deposited in a large, unsecured hotel to await the trial, leaving him vulnerable to a hit. There are fifty relatively easy ways to do the deed without going to the expense and trouble of researching and then selecting an innocent victim and subjecting him to weeks of brainwashing and hypnosis to turn him into the perfect assassin. No, the killers did not know Durniak would end up in a hotel, but it seems there were extraordinarily complex plans in place no matter where he was. This sort of sustained and imaginative cruelty is not really the mob’s style, as they tend toward the more brutal and efficient concrete-based solutions to their problems. So, okay, now we’re not dealing with warring mobsters. Instead, we now have an unknown enemy with unlimited financial resources and a fascination with psychological torture, whose mob-style businesses Durniak knew about – and was ready to testify against – were merely a fundraising arm of a much larger organization. Which means Durniak’s testimony at most would chop one tentacled limb off the beast without hurting the whole entity. So was the execution of Joe Durniak using a dehumanized Terry Nash all an experiment, rather than a means to an end? If so, then why leave Terry Nash alive, the dangling thread that could prove troublesome if he ever got his memory back? Do we ever find out his identity? Do the masterminds of this caper sit back and think, yeah, that was all worth it? We will never know.

2. Forgotten Victim
Who killed Jane Elexy?

“Murder on Stage 17” is an homage to the waning era of the western and echoes of the tragic story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, comedic star of the silent era whose career – and life – was ruined after being unjustly accused of rape after a wild party (and there are minor references to the infamous 60s social circle “Rat Pack” as well). Wally Stone (Chuck McCann), like Arbuckle, is a rotund comedian whose life and career are destroyed by a scandal. Thought to be dead, he has been methodically murdering every member of his former Wolf Pack cronies in retribution for … well, that’s up for debate.

Even though Steve Hanson says “nobody proved” who murdered Jane Elexy by throwing her from a ten story window, Wally still went to jail on charges that are never explained in the episode. One has to speculate, therefore, Wally might have been charged with rape (carrying the Arbuckle comparisons to their logical conclusion), and her subsequent fall could not be proven a crime. Wally says he “took the rap” for Steve – meaning he truly believes it was Steve Hanson who killed her. Neither Starsky nor Hutch ask him to clarify this, nor do they treat Steve Hanson as a suspect or attempt in any way to investigate the charges – or even go to the newspapers to look at microfiche. Wally also says “they turned their backs on me”, meaning he killed the other Wolf Pack members as retribution for their apathy – a pretty thin reasoning for mass murder, if you ask me. It’s clear Wally is not only psychotic, but disorganized, illogical and childish. It’s left up in the air whether someone capable of five murders, maybe six (Jane’s husband is also dead following a suspicious car accident, although why Wally would kill him too is unclear) could also be capable of Jane’s murder. Are we to believe his story is a straight-up lie? Is this some nutty performance art Wally Stone is engaging in, a desperate last attempt at immortality? Or are we to accept that Steve Hanson got away with murder? My own version of the story goes like this: a bunch of immature, drunken idiots were all implicit, in one way or another, with the rape of poor Jane Elexy at that party, and she either fell by accident or Steve Hanson, in an attempt to restrain or “reason” with a hysterical or intoxicated Jane, fought with her and she fell. It’s either that or Starsky and Hutch knowingly let a killer go free, which is unthinkable. In the end, Wally Stone is captured, Hanson is safe, the film is finished, but there is no justice for the woman whose death set the story in motion.

3. It’s all Academic
What motivated Professor Gage to commit murder?

Allan Richards, car salesman, and Jack Morris, owner of the dealership, attempt to blackmail Professor Gage when they “discover” he’s a professional hit man. In turn, they are both killed by Gage and his femme fatale Mickie. Hutch goes undercover as a student in the professor’s class on criminology in order to lure Gage into a confession. Hutch tells Gage he was in on the scheme the entire time, and wants Gage to pay. Mickie has her gun sights trained on Hutch but Starsky takes her down instead.

This is the story, but let’s just ask the big question: what if Professor Gage is not a hit man? What if this is all a gruesome fantasy played out for kicks? What if he simply picks out his most imaginative, vulnerable students and plays with their heads, much in the same way he hones in on Hutch and berates him in front of the class? This seems far more likely to me than if he really was some kind of international assassin, flying off to jobs on the weekends or taking a sabbatical to bump off a Cabinet Minister. Making stuff up is more in line with someone as intellectually inclined as this cardigan-wearing academic, a sexual kink he shares with his equally messed-up girlfriend. Richards and Morris simply take it to the next level, upping the ante through blackmail, thereby unknowingly instigating the very thing they thought was real all along. If not for their threats, and their provocative taunting that they will get the better of Gage, none of this would have happened. Gage would continue to bask in the lurid glow of rumor, he and Mickie would fantasize at length over candlelight, and nobody would ever die. It’s very possible that the activities of the two former students gave life to what was an academic exercise. Yes, Gage and Mickie’s cool demeanor following each murder marks them as “professional”, as Hutch remarks, but it seems to me this is more about luck and relentless visualizing than actual skill.

Following this argument, how would Morris and Allan know Gage was a killer? Gage is not an official suspect in any crime, and a true professional would never leave evidence behind. It’s more than likely they wanted very much to believe the worst about their creepy professor, perhaps because they were awarded low marks for their tests, or humiliated in front of their classmates, or maybe because their mutual obsession with crime and criminals (which is why they signed up to the class in the first place) had gotten out of hand. Maybe they feverishly “investigated” some recent shootings and came up with their own conclusions. Rather than going to the police to report their suspicion, they reveal their own criminal nature by confronting Gage himself. He could have laughed it off, patted their shoulders and urged them to get some sleep, but maybe he thought it would be amusing to lead them on. And then, when irritated by blackmail and perhaps urged on by an increasingly bored Mickie, murder seemed like a natural evolution from theory to practice.

4. The Puppet Master
John Colby and the leopard’s spots.

In “Deadly Imposter”, old police academy pal John Colby appears as a serviceman desperate to track down his ex-wife so he can see their son. You see, he’s been a prisoner of war for years, as good as dead to family and friends, deserted by his wife who is now marrying another man. Colby is sad but understanding. He knows she deserves a good life. All he wants, he says, is to see his son one more time. He begs his former best friends to help him, and of course they do. They express deep, unshakable faith and trust in Colby, and the towel-snapping and mock-insulting shows how much affection they have for him. But of course Colby is a conscienceless killer, and counting on their friendship to unknowingly lead him to hidden witness Warren Karpel, due to testify against mob boss Nate Garvin.

The mystery here is how John Colby went from beloved pal to conscienceless killer, when it happened, and who helped peel away any last strands of humanity he may have had. A clue may be in the fact he claims to have joined the Air Force rather than pursue a career in law enforcement. What if he didn’t? We only have his word about his subsequent military career and his word means nothing; anyone can scrounge up an impressive uniform. And you can bet neither Starsky nor Hutch checked his story with the DND. You have to wonder, too, how they could be so friendly with someone who turns out to be a stone-cold killer. Did Colby exhibit a psychopath’s charm throughout that time, or was he really, at one point, likable enough to secure the affection of the detectives? Is this the case of blinding nostalgia rather than an accurate recollection? Are they in fact glossing over the memory of their old pal’s strange silences and suspect views, the chilly core of the man? Both Starsky and Hutch have been known to overlook severe personality issues in those they have anointed as heroic – look at Hutch’s blind spot with mentor Luke Huntley. John Colby most likely had the same problems he has today, at least in part: a lazy opportunist, always looking for the easiest way out. Ethically suspect, treating women poorly, switching from genial to cold at the slightest provocation, feeling superior, liking absolute control, pouting to get what he wants or adopting a poor-me attitude when things don’t go his way. These are the building blocks of a man such as John Colby. The idea that he changed significantly after leaving the police department doesn’t hold water, unless the military subjected him to the same brainwashing techniques as those practiced on Terry Nash. I would have loved to see a prequel to this episode, with the Three Corsicans at the academy, and two of them uneasy as the third one casually stomps on an escaped mouse during a daytrip to the psychiatric institute.

So, John Colby had at least a smidgen of those ugly personality elements while a youth in the police academy, elements Starsky and Hutch saw and chose to ignore. But who took those elements are refined them? Instead of the Air Force, might Colby have joined the CIA? He certainly has the skills. If he did, is accepting the job from Nate Garvin a ruse? Colby shows absolutely no fear of the notorious gangster, is rude and insubordinate. Maybe he’s taking Garvin’s money but is actually acting for a greater, more nefarious organization. Maybe. We’ll never know.

5. Who Remembers “Medical Center”, Anyway?
The Case of the Missing Statuettes.
The final mystery is why “Starsky and Hutch” never received an Emmy Award for its extraordinary actors, writers, and directors. Of course, these institutional gestures are deeply suspect, and fairly meaningless, but recognition is warranted all the same.


3 Responses to “Character Studies 26: Five Unsolved Mysteries”

  1. Daniela Says:

    Hello Merle,
    just a comment to remind you that we are all still here waiting for more posts, at least I am….
    I hope you will have something to post soon, because I am beginning to have serious withdrawals for your posts…
    Just saying… :0)
    Thanks and I hope to read you soon.


    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you so much, Daniela. I feel I am nearing the end of this little project and will most likely put a full stop to it soon, although I will continue to enable comments. I have one last Life Lesson to write, and perhaps I should revisit one or two episodes that got the short shrift the first time around.

      Thanks again. I enjoyed myself.

  2. stybz Says:

    Reading the section on John Colby, I maintain my analysis that I posted for the episode. 🙂 I think he’s just good at fooling people. He knows how to tap into others soft spots and use them to his advantage. He never was truly friends with Starsky and Hutch. He made them think he was one of them, when he wasn’t. It’s all a game to him. 🙂

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