Originally broadcast Febuary 18, 1974
Written by Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee
Directed by Alf Kjellin
When Dr. Cahill, the head of a scientific think tank, learns that a rival intends to expose his son as a plagiarist on the eve of his receiving a major award, he decides that the solution is to murder him before he can blow the whistle…
Robby the Robot was a character created for the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. His highly iconic appearance and surprising amount of personality gave the character enormous appeal and the costume was reused in other MGM pictures and TV shows. One of the earliest was an episode of The Thin Man named Robot Client.
José Ferrer had won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. He didn’t have a lot of mystery credits but he did make an appearance of an episode of Murder, She Wrote.
Jessica Walter made a number of appearances in mystery TV shows in the seventies and eighties including Ironside, Magnum P. I. and yes, Murder, She Wrote. I was most familiar with her though for her role as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development and as Mallory Archer in the animated spy comedy show Archer.
It has been a number of months since I last wrote about Columbo which was quite unplanned. As I seem to be continually noting, there has been a lot going on these past few months and I fell behind in writing up my thoughts about things. This was particularly tragic in the case of this show as it meant that I had to rewatch Mind Over Mayhem to refresh my memory of it – which I think gives a suggestion that you’re not looking at a rave review…
The premise of the episode is fine enough. Dr. Cahill’s motivation to murder, to protect the reputation of his son (and, in the process, his own), is convincing enough and the circumstances meant that a little untidiness in the planning would be understandable given it is set up as a pretty spur-of-the-moment decision.
The writers even build in some interesting conflict with the victim’s wife, a psychiatrist treating Dr. Cahill’s son, being aware of his plagiarism and some other information that will pertain to this story yet being unable to reveal it because it was shared in a therapy session. This makes for an interesting element of the story, even if it feels a little wasted because it never really impacts Columbo’s investigation – only the actions of the other characters involved in the story.
Ferrer is interesting casting as Cahill and he does a pretty good job of showing both the intelligence and also the egotistical and domineering parts of his character’s personality. He is by no means one of the more colorful Columbo murderers and I would not call him a particularly memorable villain but he performs the character as written pretty well.
Unfortunately any subtly he was reaching for with his performance is quickly forgotten the moment Robby the Robot wheels forward to present himself. This is one of those cases in which a piece of stunt casting goes wildly awry. It is simply impossible to look at Robby and take him seriously in the role he has been given. This is not helped by pairing him with a boy genius-character who supposedly invented him, nor by the inconsistent manner in which he receives his ‘programming’. When he appears I found it utterly impossible to take him seriously and, what’s worse, I felt that Cahill and Columbo look really silly whenever they are called on to interact with him.
Robby turns out to have a really critical role in the murder sequence which, once again, may seem rather unconvincing. Certainly I think it confuses things as to what degree this crime is supposed to be commited on the spur of the moment as Robby should require considerably more programming than Cahill could surely give him before taking action. This might have been forgiven though had the murder method been more interesting – instead this episode delivers what may be the most underwhelming example of such a sequence since the start of the show.
The best Columbo murders are clever. As a viewer I want to believe that the case is uncrackable. That the killer would get away with it if it wasn’t for our hero’s strange mix of gut instinct and dogged determination. That is clearly not the case here though as the problems with the story Cahill is trying to tell are apparent from the start. What’s more, the plan hinges on an idea that we had seen just a few episodes earlier done far, far better – an unfortunate comparison.
Accordingly there is no wonderfully clever piece of deduction or observation needed to set him on the right track. There’s not even anything approaching a good gotchya moment. It is all rather depressing given how good some of the previous episodes had been and certainly far from the show’s best.
This is a shame because the episode does offer a few entertaining moments, even if they are a bit peripheral to the plot. Falk, for example, is in fine form and has some great bits of business with Dog as well as the recurring gag of his attempting to use a voice recorder to make notes on the case. It’s disappointing he doesn’t have more detection material to work with though as this story hinges on just one or two small observations…
I also quite enjoyed the performance by Jessica Walter as the victim’s wife and thought she was an interesting character but felt that she was ultimately rather wasted in what amounted to a bit role.
Sadly these few bright spots ultimately feel rather inconsequential because the murder plot feels so underwhelming. There is little imaginative or compelling here beyond its ill-advised and ill-fitting guest star turn. The result is an unbalanced, simplistic mess that has little to commend it. It is, in short, by far the worst episode of the show I have seen up to this point which given I have seen Short Fuse is really saying something!