Search: The History of a Forgotten Spy Show

Warner Archive finally issued Search: The Complete Series, and it’s more relevant today than it was 40 years ago. Even with Doug McClure.

In 1972, Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens and Star Trek producer Robert Justman noticed two things. First, following the cancellation of Star Trek a few years earlier, the network television landscape had become a vast wasteland in terms of science fiction. There simply wasn’t anything out there. Sci-fi being their bread and butter, they decided to do something about it. They also noticed the explosive and ongoing popularity of shows about spies. There were the Bond films of course, but also Secret AgentThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.Mission: ImpossibleI SpyGet Smart!, and in a strange but deeply influential way, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. So what could be better than a sci-fi secret agent show, right? There were hints of science fiction in most spy shows, but theirs would be different. It would still be character-driven, but they’d push the futuristic technology into the foreground. The result was Probe, a two-hour pilot picked up by NBC.

This is where things start to get weird. The core premise was this: World Securities Corporation is an independent civilian security firm armed with an array of high tech surveillance techniques that would make the NSA puke with envy (well maybe not anymore, but at the time definitely). They have agents known as “probes” scattered all over the world, and each probe is equipped not only with spy cams hidden in rings, tie clips, medallions, whatever’s handy, but telemetry sensors, electronic remote eavesdropping devices, and implants in their ear and teeth allowing them to zip real-time video images and recordings back to their boss at Probe Control.

The great Burgess Meredith plays the boss, Cameron (get it?) who sits in the cramped quarters of Probe Control with a small group of techs surrounded by video screens, computer monitors, phones, buttons, command consoles, switches, dials, more video screens, and lots of blinking lights. Cameron stays in constant audiovisual contact with his Probes in the field, following their progress and offering advice, orders, research findings, and background info through their ear implants. At the same time, his techs are punching up research data and tracking the telemetry and vital stats not only of the agents, but of the people their agents encounter as well. Beyond that Cameron can also pull up video footage, phone taps, and background info on anyone he wants from a series of massive government databases, often with the help of facial and voiceprint recognition software.

In short, it’s a pervasive worldwide surveillance network owned and operated by a single corporate entity (who’s mysterious CEO only appears on video screens) and controlled through that one dark little room where the jovial and elfin Burgess Meredith is sitting. World Securities’ mission is not law enforcement exactly. They’re more your go-to guys when it becomes necessary for whatever reason to circumvent more traditional government intelligence agencies, clean up potential international incidents before the press gets hold of them, prevent assassinations, find missing important rich people, recover missing moon rocks, save the economy, that sort of thing.

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Okay, the first thing that struck me as odd given the premise was the show’s timing. In ‘72 nobody had yet heard of Watergate, but still, in the wake of the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations, Chicago ‘68, Manson, Altamont, Vietnam, the whole big sloppy mess that was the late ‘60s, the general mood of the country wasn’t exactly what you’d call “chipper.” Things had taken a sharp turn toward the paranoid and anti-government sentiment was running ugly. So to put out a show about charming quasi-governmental agents spying on everyone they meet in order, mostly, to protect people in power? You’d think it would be a hard sell. Watching it today after the Snowden leaks it strikes home even harder and is much more troubling given we no longer have that “sci-fi” cushion to protect us from the show’s implications. It’s like the flipside to The Prisoner, but told from Number 2’s perspective. It’s less a show about freedom and rebellion than one about complete control. What’s more, it seemed an odd direction for show creator Leslie Stevens, given that in the very first season of The Outer Limits he oversaw an episode entitled O.B.I.T., about the dark side of overarching, invasive surveillance. But there you go.

The second problem the show encountered was the name. You watch the show, it’s obvious it should’ve been, and was supposed to be, called Probe. It’s the only damn name that makes sense. But between the pilot and the first of the regular series’ 23 episodes, PBS of all people popped up with a subpoena. It seems they’d run a science show a few years earlier also called Probe, and demanded NBC’s show change its name to avoid confusion. After getting a mighty chuckle out of the idea that anyone might confuse anything on NBC for anything on PBS, the network’s lawyers sighed, and the title was changed to the tepid and baffling Search (which, if you ask me, sounds a hell of a lot more like a PBS show than Probe).

But if you can put the name and the nagging political weirdness aside (something I struggled with every episode), Search is addictive. What’s more, the folks over at Warner Archive, who just released a six-disc set of all 23 episodes for the first time ever, did a masterful remastering job, and the shows look and sound better than they did when they first aired.

The premiere episode, “The Murrow Disappearance,” sets up a number of fundamental tropes that would work their way into most of the subsequent episodes. After the deliberately Bondian opening credits, the unfortunate early ‘70s light TV jazz theme, and that sci-fi font everyone was using those days when they wanted to cast a futuristic glow over the goings-on (man I dig that font), Cameron (Meredith) lays out that week’s mission and selects the Probe best suited to handle it given his specific unique qualities. Although dozens of Probes are introduced throughout the series, the show focuses on three. Tony Franciosa plays ex-NYPD cop Nick Bianco, a specialist in international organized crime. Doug McClure, that future B-film leading man, is Grover, a fuck up and a beach bum who’s also an electronics genius. And Hugh O’Brian is Lockwood, a suave, smooth-talking former astronaut who gets anything that isn’t a mob or a tech case. Each episode focuses on one of the three in turn, all of whom are fully developed from the start, as horny as all secret agents must be by nature, and charming and charismatic enough to help you forget they’re working for Satan…sorry to harp on that, but it’s a thing with me. Although the show is about electronic surveillance, at no point does Stevens ever hint at the possibility it might be used for evil purposes.

Anyway, as the first episode opens, Lockwood is asked to investigate the disappearance of a US Foreign Affairs committee chair. Rumor has it he may have run off with some foreign national floozie he met at a private diplomat’s club. If he did, it might trigger a new Cold War (for some reason we are told the Cold War is over, though there is no other evidence of this anywhere else in the series). Loaded down with his scanners and mini cams and ear implants and tracers and what the hell all else, Lockwood sets out for the club to ask a few questions.

After some major twists and turns (including the discovery of the committee chair’s body), the story hones in on a crooked card game. That’s something that holds true for several series entries. Whatever the primary mission may be, as big and exciting as it sounds when Cameron lays it out in the opening minutes; it will all but be forgotten by the first commercial break as the Probe gets sidetracked into another, smaller and much less exciting mission. I mean, a crooked card game as opposed to a new Cold War? C’mon, buddy, focus! In a later episode Bianco is sent to uncover the identity of the man who seems to be bumping off the heads of crime syndicates across Europe, Asia, and South America in an effort to take complete control of organized crime around the WHOLE DAMN WORLD, but instead spends the episode investigating the apparently faked death of a fellow Probe. While he’s all tied up with that, we have to assume there’s still some Dr. No type out there trying to become Godfather of the World. The shows are still, admittedly, hugely entertaining and smart and fast and fun and well-written, but after five or six episodes I got to thinking that among all the other personality quirks exhibited by the Probes, ADHD must’ve been some kind of job requirement.

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Another interesting oddball touch that made itself quietly apparent in the first episode, the Probes never use weapons of any kind. There are no Bondian teargas pens or laser hats or any of the clever gizmos you expect all secret agents to carry. Not even a pocketful of blow darts. These guys don’t even use guns, for godsakes. They get shot at themselves regularly, there are the requisite car chases and fistfights, but at heart the Probes are themselves extremely non-violent, relying solely on surveillance technology to trip up that week’s villain.

It also strikes me that World Securities, for as much international clout as they obviously wield, spends an awful lot of time trying to cover its own ass. Every few weeks they have to spend lord knows how much money and time and manpower tracking down their own agents who’ve gone missing or been kidnapped or just defected to Eastern Europe. In “One of Our Probes is Missing,” an agent vanishes while investigating a counterfeit ring that could bring down the world’s economy. In “Live Men Tell Tales,” another Probe fakes his own death, reportedly to run off with some chippie and become a courier for the mob. In “Operation Iceman,” Bianco’s efforts to stop a notorious mob hitman before he kills a US ambassador (James Gregory) are stymied at every turn when another Probe starts leaking information about the investigation to the assassin. After a while you’d think someone in HR would start re-evaluating the whole screening process, right? If they aren’t vanishing or ratting on their own, they’re getting killed left and right, and those who remain have ADHD. 

With a track record like that it makes you wonder how World Securities manages to snag all those lucrative government contracts. If they’re spending so much of their time cleaning up their own messes, how can they be expected to rescue imprisoned Eastern European scientists who want to defect? But I guess that’s one of those questions I shouldn’t ask, and why you shouldn’t look at an episodic series through the wrong end of the telescope.

In “Short Circuit,” an episode that remains a personal favorite for all the wrong reasons, Grover (Doug McClure) is brought in to find a mad techno-whiz determined to set off a new small bomb he’s invented. The twist here (and this brings us back to that “covering their ass” business) is that the techno-whiz in question (veteran character actor Jeff Corey of Battle Beyond The Stars and Little Big Man) is the one who designed all the crazy surveillance equipment used by World Securities. Now feeling betrayed by the corporation he wants to try out his new bomb on Probe Control. Neat thing is, it’s a miniature EMP device which, when detonated, will frazzle all electronic components within a quarter-mile radius, effectively putting an end to the corporation’s ass-saving, privacy-squashing shenanigans.

Well, seeing as there was a new episode the following week, you can pretty well guess how that went.

Another standout episode is “In Search of Midas,” in which Grover is given the job of determining whether or not a reclusive billionaire who bears an uncanny resemblance to Howard Hughes is still alive or not. To do this he teams up with gossip columnist Barbara Feldon (who made sense given she co-starred in Get Smart!) and together they try to infiltrate the billionaire’s organization. A number of fairly clever twists and unexpected tricks follow. McClure was never the strongest acting presence in the show, but here his mumbly, loosey-goosey style works somehow. Much of it is played for laughs, and while there are a few too many dancing scenes for my taste, as the episode’s villain, a sleazy real estate developer, Logan Ramsey is as oily and frog-faced as ever. Plus, given the story concerns reclusive billionaires and newspapers, the episode is littered with buried (and not-so buried) Citizen Kane references.

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In “The 24-Karat Hit,” a Probe is shot and seriously wounded while investigating a million-dollar gold heist. When his wife is killed and daughter kidnapped because Cameron neglected to arrange the protection he’d promised, the Probe, still bleeding profusely, goes rogue to find the killers and rescue his daughter himself. Bianco is sent to stop him (and find the girl and the killers and the gold while he’s at it). William Smith guest stars, as does the great Wally Cox in his final performance. Cox died two weeks after the show aired, and I was glad to see at the end he was finally allowed to play against type, here appearing as a preacher who runs a shabby soup kitchen. As much of the story is set in and around the docks, this is one of the grittiest, most violent, and most atmospheric episodes the series had to offer.

When a World Securities-sponsored deep sea mission returns to the surface in “Countdown to Panic,” all three divers aboard have been infected with a deadly and unknown virus. One dies, one is near death, and one goes a little funny in the head, escapes from the hospital quarantine and hits the streets. Given they were in astronaut school together Lockwood is sent to find the crazy diver before he can start an epidemic everyone would blame on World Securities. So once again, the nut of the show is that the corporation is racing against time not to save humanity so much, but to protect itself from bad publicity. Then it becomes something a bit more intriguing than that, when we learn the diver has fled the hospital for a very good reason. This time there’s Howard Duff and Anne Francis in the guest starring roles, both of whom are always great. One thing you gotta give the series is its never-ending list of great guest stars, from Bert Convy and Whit Bissel to a criminally young Cheryl Ladd and a surprising number of people who appeared in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood. But anyway…

As the series progresses past its twelfth and thirteenth weeks, Cameron and the techs in that little Probe Control room become a much less prominent presence in each episode as the Probes themselves, who as the series began acted as mere cyphers for the info being fed them by Cameron, take center stage. We get fewer and fewer shots of video screens pulling up archive footage and computers spitting out biographical data on suspects as Search edges closer to becoming a straightforward spy/detective show. The Probes themselves start doing more of the work, and Cameron is reduced to shouting things like “Where are you going? Answer me!” and “Why isn’t your scanner on?” into the ear implants of misbehaving agents to remind the audience that yes, there is a lot of super cool hi-tech sci fi stuff going on here, even if you can’t see it.

It’s around week fifteen that we get real signs there’s some bad trouble afoot. It was at that point NBC nudged Leslie Stevens off the show he created after learning he was working on a deal with another network (a big no-no at the time). Although Stevens’ name remains in the credits, story editor Anthony Spinner, who’d previously worked on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.The Invaders, and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, was moved in to take his place. Watching the show closely, you can almost see this happen, as the onscreen changes are immediate and tangible. The previously dark, cramped, and claustrophobic Probe Control, which always felt like it was located at the bottom of a missile silo, suddenly becomes a bright and airy office with cinder block walls. Cameron’s on-hand staff of techs is abruptly reduced from five to two. It’s almost as if World Securities ran into some serious cash flow problems and was forced to make cutbacks, shrinking the staff and moving their headquarters to a four-story prefab office complex just outside Columbus.

Cameron’s remaining techs, who used to make their own mark in each show, have been scrubbed clean of personality and now rarely speak (maybe the result of all their co-workers getting canned), the cinematography shifts from the deep saturated color of the early episodes to a more washed-out and grainy look, and even the very tone of the show changes in those final eight episodes. It becomes grimmer and more serious, and it begins to feel more like a standard action/adventure series, though World Securities’ mission still seems to focus on protecting the rich and powerful.

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“Suffer My Child” opens as a traditional kidnapping story, with a girl being snatched during her 21st birthday party. The heart of the story, however, is that her outrageously wealthy stock broker father could ruin the nation’s economy if he has a breakdown, so Lockwood has to find the girl and bring her home safe before this happens.

One bright spot as the show closed in on the end was “Ends of the Earth,” guest starring Sebastian Cabot in a story inspired by John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966). Bianco is brought in to investigate the death of a corporate executive which might’ve been a suicide, might’ve been a murder, or might’ve been something else entirely. Franciosa is especially good and funny here as Bianco takes on the identity of a mob underling trying to do business with a different kind of travel agency. It’s a doozy, especially if you haven’t seen the Frankenheimer film.

Despite bright spots like that, the series was cancelled after one season and 23 episodes. There was no zap-pow ending, no whopper finale, not much of anything. Just another episode, then no more. Some diehard fans say it was because Search’s 10 o’clock time slot made it difficult for younger potential viewers to see it. Myself, I think the show’s bland, awful name sure did its part in encouraging would-be audiences to ignore it. Or maybe it was the times. With Watergate seeping into the public consciousness by the end of the show’s run, maybe surveillance with a smiley face, charming secret agents protecting the powerful from bad press was the last thing anyone wanted to watch. Still, when the show went off the air it left a hardcore cult following behind that only grew over the years.

For all my jibes and the nauseous revulsion I felt at the premise, I couldn’t stop watching the fucking show. It was prescient at the time, and now 40 years down the line even if the high tech toys at play are commonplace (even inescapable) it’s aged extraordinarily well. It remains an extremely intelligent and intriguing series, with great visuals for the time and top notch acting across the board. The stories and characters still make sense, even if the clothes and hair are a little dated. Most importantly, watching it over four decades since it first aired the message has not changed, but has only become more timely. In fact Search is almost a bit too timely. World Securities Corporation may well have been the model for Google, but damn those spies of theirs are charming devils. I love Big Brother.

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