For Emergency! completists and fans of 70s disaster films, some must-have made-for-TV movie specials. Kudos to Universal for completing the DVD run of Emergency! by releasing Emergency! The Final Rescues, a two-disc collection of the six 90-minute "movies of the week" specials NBC commissioned after the weekly series was cancelled in 1977. Movies included here (in their air date order) are The Steel Inferno, Survival on Charter #220, Most Deadly Passage, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing...?, Greatest Rescues of Emergency! (a clip show with Roy and Johnny, now promoted to "Captain" status and no longer paramedics, officially wrapping up the show), and The Convention. No extras here, but the transfers look sharp. Let's look very briefly at each telemovie.
THE STEEL INFERNO
"A full-alarm response is in order when a high-rise office tower erupts in flames and a Rampart hospital triage team and the Coast Guard race to assist in the rescue efforts. Danger awaits everyone as Gage and DeSoto get trapped in a broken elevator, rescue workers get injured in the line of duty, and the crisis hits especially close to home when a paramedic's fiancée is among those trapped by the fire." - episode guide notes.
I've rhapsodized about Emergency! in reviews for seasons four and five (please click here if you'd like some background on the series), so I won't re-cover too many of my steps with the show. Suffice it to say, creator Jack Webb's and producer Robert A. Cinader's combination of copious detail and authentic procedural elements, married to straight-ahead, no-frills dramatics that emphasized professionals doing their jobs day-in and day-out, with both mundane and exciting results, made Emergency! a family "go-to" series for five and a half years...and one that helped shape the way TV looks today. Emergency! is a series that actually shows you how things are done (that's why kids particularly love it), whether it be the proper procedure for getting a cat out of a tree, or rappelling down the side of a dam to rescue a hanging workman. It's appeal is primarily visual, with its "big machines, big thrills, big explosions" aspect obviously dominating. Thinking about today's television, there are entire cable channels and networks that owe their programming days in part to Emergency!'s influence, for what else are shows like Cops or Ice Road Truckers other than variations of Webb's and Cinader's devotion to showing professionals reacting to outsized problems through the use of rigid procedure and the implementation of technology (and often, brute strength) to solve those problems?
While Emergency! never managed to crack the Nielsen Top Twenty (the highest rating it received was 30th in its fourth season), it was a solid demographics winner with young viewers. Even after the series was cancelled, these Emergency! ratings' "sweeps" telemovie specials make sense, then, as big-budget spectaculars (at least the first two efforts) that would hopefully entice viewers to break away from their regular viewing patterns to sample NBC (as well, even though they may have cost some money for the special effects, overall they had to be cheaper than producing an entire season of episodes). As well, it looks like a few of the other telemovies here (Most Deadly Passage, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing...? and The Convention), may also have functioned as prospective spin-off pilots, killing two birds with one stone for NBC: a ratings sweeps' "event," and a possible shot at a new, successful series.
This first Emergency! made-for-TV special, The Steel Inferno, originally airing on January 7th, 1978, obviously owes a lot to arguably the king of 70s disaster films: 1974's The Towering Inferno. While that film became one of the biggest box-office successes of all time, four years can be a long time in the evolution of a popular film genre. By 1978, the disaster genre had already peaked on the big-screen, with Universal's own Two-Minute Warning inexplicably fumbling at the box-office the year before (Universal's submarine disaster film, Gray Lady Down, would fair no better in '78; the reception for The Concorde: Airport '79 was even worse), while the "Master of Disaster" himself, Irwin Allen, failed spectacularly with 1978's big-budget, The Swarm and 1980's When Time Ran Out... over at Warner Bros. (Allen did better with his smaller scale TV disaster flicks, like Flood and Fire).
So, by 1978, The Steel Inferno wasn't going to set any new standards for dramatic originality, nor surprise viewers with something novel and outside the disaster genre's conventions. The characters and subplots leading up to the high-rise fire are already familiar and entirely predictable, with Universal saving money for the fire scenes by skipping high-priced talent (the most familiar one here is Linda Gray...and that's before she became famous with Dallas). Fortunately, director Georg Fenady and his second unit cameramen, once the stage is set and the fire begins to rage, capture some large-scale action sequences that are remarkably realistic. Just like other Jack Webb shows, the thrills here are entirely non-exploitative (despite the bigger budget and solitary location for the rescue, this plays just like an episode from the weekly series, right down to a typical bickering scene between Johnny and Roy back at the station). Unlike The Towering Inferno's admittedly perverse (and fun) "shake and bake death toll game," where we relish seeing the lesser stars picked off one by one in spectacularly gory fashion, The Steel Inferno, limited by television standards of the time and Webb's and Cinader's commitment to family-friendly programming, has none of that. The appeal is in the action itself, and the procedures the firemen employ to put out the blaze. Indeed, the central sequence of the movie, where the firemen methodically go from room to room, checking on occupants before slapping an "All Clear" sticker on the doors, is beautifully editing, creating suspense and tension without one burning victim screaming at the camera. The fire "gags" themselves are entirely realistic in their execution and framing (those scenes feel like documentaries), while the staged set pieces are pulled off with aplomb (there's a good sequence where the firemen have to be lowered down an elevator shaft). While The Steel Inferno won't win any awards for originality, its producers' insistence on realism during the action sequences is commendable―and highly entertaining.
SURVIVAL ON CHARTER #220
"The rescuers become the rescued as on-duty paramedics Gage and DeSoto find themselves in the line of fire when two planes collide and crash in Compton. It's all hands on deck when the off-duty "C" shift is called upon to help the team race to the aide of passengers and citizens on the ground as well as their own colleagues." - episode guide notes.
Certainly the most spectacular entry in the Emergency! The Final Rescues, Survival on Charter #220, which originally aired March 25th, 1978, may owe as much to Universal's Airport '75 as The Steel Inferno owed to The Towering Inferno, but it ups the realism quotient considerably by a remarkable final sequence where an entire block of Compton is devastated by plane crash, with no CGI work (it didn't exist then), no model work, and no matte paintings: just a fantastic, full-scale mock-up. Survival on Charter #220's backstory set-up isn't any more original than The Steel Inferno's; however, the subplots are enjoyably pulpy. Jason Evers has a good role as a cynical political handler controlling a weak-minded California governor (now who was California's moonbeam...I mean governor, back in 1978....?), while Dee Carroll is hilarious spitting out, "You're a stinking, rotten, leach!" to her handsome, married lover/pilot. And when that baseball hit the little girl in the head (she's still smiling as she keels over into the dirt), I hit the floor laughing (unfortunately, David Ladd's and Jay Hammer's faux-Johnny and Roy paramedics were a total bore). It's the aftermath of the crash, though, that really delivers here, with the production designers creating an astonishing disaster site, complete with a full-scale fuselage plowed into a block of crumbling homes, while director Christian Nyby II orchestrates several exciting rescue scenarios (this movie sticks to realism in its aftermath, too: people die here, unlike most Emergency! episodes). A solid, visually impressive disaster film.
MOST DEADLY PASSAGE
"A fueling error sets a ferry on fire, a skydiving daredevil jumps off a tower, a man is trapped atop the King Dome...and a simple observe-and-learn visit to Seattle turns into one risky rescue after another as Gage and DeSoto are enlisted to aid in the local crews' emergency responses." - episode guide notes.
Leaving behind the hot, arid SoCal locales for cold, overcast Seattle, Washington, Most Deadly Passage (shown April 4th, 1978) differs from most Emergency! outings in that Roy and Johnny are guests of another city's fire department (an inter-departmental learning experience, we're told, is the reason for the visit), and thus, not licensed to practice their skills there. They largely have to stand back and watch as Seattle paramedics Rocky (Anthony Herrera) and Swede (Jesse Vint) do the heavy stuff―a strange, distinctly unsatisfying compromise that goes against the basic appeal of the show (we like Mantooth and Tighe, and we want to see them in action). Still, of all the new paramedic teams introduced as Roy's and Johnny's possible replacements in these Emergency! telemovies, Herrera's and Vint's is the best. Had the prospective series stayed in Seattle, with its gorgeous, unfamiliar (at least to 1970s TV audiences) locales, Vint and Herrera are charismatic enough and have the acting chops to have carried off a new Emergency! spin-off. They seem tough enough to be firemen, and their smart-assed chemistry together is good (I also like 70s favorite George Wyner as the doctor), while the differences in laws for paramedics (the movie makes a point of explaining how much more paramedics can do out in the field in Seattle, rather than in L.A.) would have opened up new dramatic possibilities for the format. As for the central gag here―an explosion on a ferry dock―it's handled well...but it's also pretty familiar, and not at all "outsized" enough to anchor a special telemovie; it would have been perfectly at home in a regular-sized outing of Emergency!
WHAT'S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING...?
"An educational visit to San Francisco turns dangerous when Gage and DeSoto ride along with the local crews as they race to rescue a stranded citizen on the Golden Gate Bridge, extinguish a boat fire in the bay, and contain mass hysteria at a nightclub." - episode guide notes.
Going the location route again, Gage and Desoto, off on anther educational exchange program, learn how reigned-in the paramedics are in San Francisco (in what the law allows them to do to a patient), in What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing...?, which originally aired June 26th, 1978. The one telemovie here that seems the mostly likely to have been conceived as a potential series pilot (relatively developed characters, a sequel which aired a year later, "burned off" in the summer months), this go-around is redeemed largely by the cool Frisco location work and one or two relatively exciting scenes. Again, though, it's disconcerting to see our leads, Mantooth and Tighe, reduced to just their bickering scenes without donning their helmets and uniforms and getting out on the ropes. Outside of the stunt gags, the screenplay is a toss-up between which subplot is more hopeless: the feminist squabblings between paramedic Dierdre Lenihan and macho fireman lug Paul Sylvan, or pretty Patty McCormack mystified as to why her brainy husband David Westberg doesn't pay enough attention to her (with "Basket-ful of Hugs" McCormack in form-fitting uniforms, it must be an eyesight problem for ol' Davey-boy). One of the weaker entries here.
GREATEST RESCUES OF EMERGENCY!
"Newly promoted Captains Gage and DeSoto recall some of their most heroic rescues, including a plane crash-landing, a crane tower suicide jumper, and a trapped little girl." - episode guide notes.
A fun, exciting, nostalgic telemovie for fans of the show (if you don't already have the season box sets), Greatest Rescues of Emergency! wraps up the series on a typically Webb-ian note: professionals Roy and Johnny have excelled at their jobs; they're promoted; they dance around telling each how much they've meant to each other, working together as a team...before diffidence and reticence takes over, and they shake off the emotion. Nice to see a series wrap-up for this show, with Johnny and Roy making "Captain" rank, but I remember feeling a little sad when I first saw this back on New Year's Eve, 1978, when they both said they couldn't be paramedics anymore; that they had to be leaders now―kids hate to have their TV heroes...grow up. A great selection of clips, too, of some of the best rescue sequences in the series marks this as one of the most enjoyable movies in this collection. So grab a hankie when you realize that final freeze-frame, with Johnny and Gage in their dress blues, is it for Emergency!.
"Attending another convention in San Francisco, Gage and DeSoto once again join the local crews to assist a choking victim, deliver a baby while under sniper fire, and respond to a Marin County research lab fire." - episode guide notes.
More boring hijinks―Frisco style. Mantooth and Tighe, yet again in San Fran for a some lecture, ride along with Patty and Dierdre and Paul, but to no avail. This Emergency! telemovie didn't even air until seven months after the series' final wrap-up clip show, burned off on the night before the Fourth of July in 1979 (another indication it was a left-over the network wasn't interested in). If plans were made for a spin-off, they had to have been scrapped by this point. The psycho sniper is probably the show's best bit, but it has little to do with the Emergency! format (it plays more like a Mannix subplot). We hear more blathering from un-couple Dierdre and Paul, and the final chemical plant blow-up is stilted and not very convincing (on the other hand, the barbeque sequence, complete with some clown singing Bill Bailey, makes getting caught in the chemical plant inferno look like fun). The gags are small-scaled and disappointing. Certainly the worst entry here in the collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.