Former Navy SEAL Thomas Magnum attempts to prove the innocence of an old Navy friend who was found dead with cocaine in his body. His investigation takes him deep into Hawaii’s smuggling trade and brings him into contact with an old face from his past serving in Vietnam.
Even if you have never watched this series, I’m willing to bet most people would be able to hum the theme tune and tell you what type of car Magnum drives (a red Ferrari 308GTS, in case you were wondering). Having grown up with the show – it ran from 1980 to 1988 and was a staple of the Saturday evening ITV schedules for a number of those years – I was curious to see how it had stood the test of time.
This opening double-length episode ticks all the usual boxes you expect from a pilot, providing an introduction to the main characters, with an additional series of Vietnam flashback sequences tied into the main plot. (At that time, you couldn’t be considered a TV ‘hero’ if you hadn’t been shown to have served in ‘Nam.)
Magnum (Tom Selleck) is a private investigator and former Navy SEAL who resigned his commission after realising that “I woke up one day at 33 and realised I had never been 23”. He is a permanent guest resident on the estate of absentee novelist Robin Masters (voiced by Orson Welles), who is occasionally heard from but never actually seen. The estate is overseen by a majordomo, Jonathan Higgins (John Hillerman), a stuffy, stiff-upper-lipped British army officer and his two Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, who share a mutual dislike of Magnum.
We’re also introduced to Magnum’s former Marine colleagues Theodore Calvin (Roger E Mosley) – known simply by his initials T.C. – and Orville ‘Rick’ Wright (Larry Manetti). The former is a helicopter pilot running an island-hopping tourism operation, the latter a bar-owning Rick Blaine (Casablnaca) wannabe. It says something about how things have changed since the early 1980s that Rick is the only one of the four principals not to have a moustache!
In this opening story, the focus is more on the odd-couple relationship between Magnum and Higgins. Indeed Rick does not appear at all until nearly halfway through the story. (Although watch out for a pre-Beverly Hills Cop Judge Reinhold in a small part in the second half of the story.)
The general modus operandi of the series is also laid down clearly here. Magnum is frequently heard narrating scenes to provide a degree of both exposition and insights into his own thoughts. And the story-telling tone is leavened with a greater degree of humour than the average procedural.
30 years on
More than three decades later, how well does the Magnum pilot stand up to the test of time?
Not that well, to be honest. In common with many of its contemporaries, the story serves its purpose but is facile, pedestrian and feels positively clunky at times. Many current shows pack in more convoluted plots and establish a larger ensemble cast in their pilot in the space of a television hour than this does in two. That’s a function of the era rather than a specific fault of the show, but it does remind you how streamlined the story-telling in a good modern series is.
Otherwise, though, the potential is there for viewers to see. T.C. and Rick are drawn only in the broadest of brush strokes here, but there’s a pleasing contrast between all four main characters and the beginnings of a strong rapport, although it would be almost unthinkable in a contemporary show for there to be no regular female character. If anyone did want to create an up-to-date remake, no doubt one of the quartet would have to be recast, in much the same way as its island stablemate Hawaii Five-0 recreated Kono as a female character.
Magnum shares clear links with Hawaii Five-0. One of the reasons the show was set in Hawaii was so that the network CBS could keep its Hawaii production offices running when H5-0 ended (in 1980, the same year Magnum started up). It also contained occasional references to Steve McGarrett and Five-0, establishing that the two shows inhabited the same universe. The nod was returned during the most recent season of the new H5-0, with four of the major characters likening themselves to Magnum characters and singing the theme tune while flying over Oahu in a helicopter.
And here is the title sequence of the original in all its glory:
So, it’s not the greatest of pilot episodes and I suspect the show I remember with such fondness won’t compare that favourably with contemporary procedural dramas. But do you know what? I don’t care. TV storytelling may have been less sophisticated back in 1980, but these are four uncomplicated characters I grew to love during my teenage years and who weren’t weighed down with the same heavy back-stories and angst that my current favourites are. I’ll be back for more, humming that theme tune under my breath as I go.
Magnum, P.I. is being repeated on ITV4, weekdays at 4pm.