Columbo took a sci-fi twist (of sorts) on 10 February 1974 as the doughty Lieutenant was thrust into a world of supercomputers and robots in his attempts to crack the case in Mind Over Mayhem.
With a support cast boasting Oscar winner Jose Ferrer and silver screen veteran Lew Ayres, a cameo from Forbidden Planet‘s Robby the Robot and a writing credit to the incomparable Steven Bochco, on paper this ought to be a thrilling romp allowing us to set our phasers firmly to ‘fun’.
But is Mind Over Mayhem at TV’s cutting edge, or is it an obsolete dud destined for the scrapheap? Let’s take a look!
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Marshall Cahill: Jose Ferrer
Professor Howard Nicholson: Lew Ayres
Neil Cahill: Robert Walker
Margaret Nicholson: Jessica Walter
Steven Spelberg: Lee H. Montgomery
MM7: Robby the Robot
Ross: Lou Wagner
Dog: As himself
Directed by: Alf Kjellin
Written by: Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee (from a story by Robert Sprecht)
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Episode synopsis: Columbo Mind Over Mayhem
Cybernetic research institute director – and bona fide genius – Dr Marshall Cahill is presiding over a nuclear war simulation from an isolated computer room awash with blinking lights.
He’s clearly outsmarting the collective IQ in the war room below, reporting that their bungling tactical approach has led to 75% of the western hemisphere’s population being wiped out. Eat defeat, Brainiacs!
Cahill dismisses the oafs upon receiving a note from an underling that fellow genius, Professor Howard Nicholson, wants to see him urgently – and this ain’t no friendly chinwag.
No, old Howard is about to rain on the Cahill family parade BIG TIME! Cahill’s son, Neil, is just about to claim the Scientist of the Year Award for his ground breaking theory of molecular matter. But Howard knows Neil plagiarised the work of the now-dead Carl Finch and claimed the work as his own. Why? To win the affection of his cold-hearted, tyrannical father.
If Neil won’t admit this fraud himself and refuse the award Howard will spill the beans, heaping shame on the Cahill clan. Do we think Marshall will allow that to happen? Not on your nelly! Howard’s obstinance means he’s just signed his own death warrant.
Cahill swiftly puts a fiendish plan into action. Sending boy genius Steven Spelberg out for an evening at the drive-in with car pool mechanic Merv, Cahill commandeers Spelberg’s super-intelligent robot MM7 to man the war simulator and create his alibi. Then, pinching his assistant’s designated pool car, Cahill heads out to Murderville, population 1.
His target, of course, is that old gadger Howard, who is cooing at his young wife Margaret. A psychologist, she’s heading out to an all-night group therapy marathon, leaving Howard to an evening of pipe smoking and government-approved heroin experimentation in his garage-cum-chemical lab. As you do…
Margaret’s a minimum of 30 years younger than Howard, but the love seems genuine. She pecks him a farewell, assuring him she’d never trade him in for a younger model and promising him a kipper breakfast the next day, which, reading massively between the lines, can only be a euphemism. Kinky devils…
However, I digress…
After she’s beetled off, who should we see lurking in the shadows in the ‘borrowed’ car but Dr Cahill. He boops his car horn a few times, piquing Howard’s curiosity sufficiently for the old rogue to wander out onto his driveway to investigate. It’s the last thing he ever does as Cahill rams into him with the car, smashing the ancient chemist’s fragile form and slaying him outright.
Cahill then slings Howard over his shoulder and carries him indoors, leaving him as a hot mess on the living room floor. He steals Howard’s watch and wallet (later dissolving them in a vat of acid), and sets up the living room table with two brandy glasses and a burnt match in an ashtray to set a scene of convivial chatting gone awry.
Having also taken Howard’s confidential file on Carl Finch’s research plus a canister of heroin to suggest a crazed addict’s involvement, Cahill busts a groove back to the institute to relieve MM7 from its war room duties and before you can say ‘Bob’s your Uncle’, the killing is all wrapped up in plenty of time for a pre-bed Ovaltine.
Could there be a fly in the ointment, though? Cahill notices that the pool car has a huge, corpse-shaped dent on the hood. Yet the sly rascal covers his tracks by backing his regular car into it amidst a sea of witnesses. “I just can’t get used to these transmissions,” he whimpers in faux shame. Yes, that’s some nice cover-up work, Marshall.
Lieutenant Columbo is alerted to the crime the following morning from the office of a dog obedience school, where Dog has been expelled for ‘demoralising the other students’. As a result, Columbo is forced to head to the crime scene with the lovable mutt in tow.
Popular opinion on da street is that old Howard was given a good clubbing in his own living room by assailant unknown, who made off with watch, wallet and heroin. Of course Columbo is soon seeing things his fellow officers have missed. There’s a match in the ashtray that is peculiarly burnt. Howard’s pipe is missing from his rack, but is not in the living room. Where could it be? Columbo even spots scuff marks from polished shoes high up on the living room door. How did they get there?
The newly widowed Margaret (not nearly emotional enough for my liking) answers a few of the Lieutenant’s questions. No, Howard wasn’t expecting visitors that evening. Yes, the living room had been spotlessly clean at 5pm, so the burnt match must have been placed there later. In any case, Howard didn’t use matches to light his pipe – he used a special lighter.
Who should then arrive at the scene but Dr Cahill! He shoos Margaret away and fields Columbo’s next round of questions. Things are bothering Columbo already. If Howard was working in the garage, why did a struggle take place in the lounge? If Howard knew someone well enough to be having a tete-a-tete in the living room, isn’t it odd that that person would dish out a violent death to the old timer? And if the killer was a chum of Howard’s, wouldn’t they have cleared up the drink glasses after the killing to make it look like no one was there?
“Popular opinion on da street is that old Howard was given a good clubbing in his own living room by assailant unknown.”
“It was probably a psychopath,” suggests Cahill unhelpfully, before going on to suggest that Howard was a stubborn old git who irritated lots of people. He then exits stage left to return to the institute.
Left to his own devices, Columbo hits something akin to the jackpot: he finds Howard’s smashed pipe on the driveway. Combined with the shoe polish on the door and it’s starting to look a lot like Howard was killed outside and carried in to the living room. But (to quote Riley Greenleaf) WHO, WHY? He heads off to the institute for answers.
His first target is ‘ace’ mechanic Merv, who is tinkering with Pool Car #6 – AKA the murder weapon. Columbo notices the dent on the hood, which Merv attributes to Dr Cahill backing into it – a fact the Lieutenant mentally squirrels away.
Could anyone else have taken this car last night and used it for foul play, Columbo wonders? Not a chance, says Merv. His meticulous key guarding and log-keeping skillz mean he’d definitely know if anyone other than the car’s designated user (Cahill’s assistant, Ross) had moved the car so much as an inch. So how come there’s three extra miles on the odometer, Columbo asks when Merv produces the log book? Either someone has moved the car, or Merv is an absolute incompetent. Either possibility seems plausible…
Leaving Dog with Merv (his intellectual equal), Columbo heads off to find Dr Cahill, who is fresh from a furious argument with Neil, who has abandoned the award presentation in the aftermath of Howard’s murder.
Columbo reveals that he found the smashed pipe and that it looks for all the world like a deliberate hit-and-run killing. But the set-up in the living room is most confusing. Could it be a blind to confuse authorities? If so, only someone with a devilishly high intellect could have concocted it. And guess what – we’re in an institute full of geniuses, so the killer could be anyone!
Cahill’s assistant Ross is summoned to be grilled about his pool car’s mystery extra mileage. Ross, clearly a shaved wolfman, is instantly flailing in a panic as he has no decent alibi. But Columbo eliminates the wimp as a suspect. He’s not tall enough, you see, so could never have hoisted Howard high enough off the ground to have caused the scuff marks on the door.
Cahill, now smoking a handsome Cuban cigar, then moves to strike himself off Columbo’s suspect list. Taking the detective to the war simulation control room, Cahill presents his alibi: at the time of Howard’s death, Cahill was in this room overseeing virtual global Armageddon. The folk in the war room will be able to corroborate that the simulation took place, and only Cahill knows how to run that particular program, so he’s certainly in the clear, right?
Columbo seems disappointed. “You know, Doctor, I’ve been running into people by the dozens who couldn’t have murdered Professor Nicholson,” he mourns. ” I wish I could run into one who COULD have.”
His disappointment is soon tempered by a meeting with that resident boy genius Steve, who amazes Columbo by introducing him to lumbering robot MM7. They even shake hands, and Spelberg assures Columbo that the automaton can do ‘almost anything a man can do.’
Rather than immediately disproving the young oik’s theory by challenging the robot to gallop down a staircase, Columbo instead leaves Dog in their custody and starts poring through Howard’s classified files, which have all been returned to the institute from his garage. He finds that the Carl Finch file is missing!
Margaret walks in, claiming to have been looking for him; a fact Columbo disputes because only the judge who granted his search warrant knew where he was. Ergo Margaret must have been looking for classified information herself! The mysterious dame doesn’t deny it, but claims doctor/patient privilege means she can’t say anything more. She turns tail and departs.
They meet again shortly after, though, as she gatecrashes a discussion between Columbo and young Neil, who is himself a patient of Margaret’s. Neil admits under cross-examination that he’d been to secretly see Margaret the night before just prior to taking his flight to the science jamboree, but he won’t say why.
Neil, naturally, is terrified that Columbo is trying to fit him up for the killing. Spurred on by Margaret, he admits to his father that he plagiarised the theory of molecular matter. Rather than going berserk, Cahill Senior orders Neil to keep this revelation a secret in order to avoid implicating himself in Howard’s murder, and he assures his trembling son that he’ll deal with the Lieutenant himself.
But where is Columbo? He’s hangin’ with young Steve again as the wunderkind is trying to crack the case by entering evidence into his lab’s supercomputer. Sadly, the only feedback the machine has to offer is: Does not compute.
Don’t despair, bruh, Stevie Boy tells Columbo. He’ll program MM7 to continue running evidence through the computer. After all, he can do almost everything a man can do if programmed correctly. And that gives Columbo a flash of inspiration, or, as he memorably puts it: “Something just computed.”
Cut to Dr Cahill showing some UN delegates how the war room works. All of a sudden the simulator goes haywire, beeping like crazy and flashing its lights like a downtown disco. Cahill thunders up to the control room in a fit of pique to find MM7 boobing around with the controls as Columbo and Steve look on.
Switching off the robot, a seething Cahill sends Steve away in disgrace before turning on Columbo. When the detective attempts to absolve Spelberg from blame, claiming the idea was all his, Cahill even retorts: “I doubt it, you haven’t got the brains for it!”
But Columbo has brains enough to have proved two things: MM7 can operate the war simulator; and Cahill knows how to operate the robot. That means his alibi ain’t worth a pinch of salt. Still, Cahill isn’t worried. Columbo can’t prove MM7 was at the simulator controls when Howard was killed, and the cops can’t beat a confession out of a robot, can they? “A theory isn’t worth a damn unless it can be proved,” he hisses.
Columbo won’t give in, though. Minutes later he’s on the phone to Neil, wanting to ask him questions about Carl Finch. Dr Cahill, now with Neil, snatches the phone away and threatens to report Columbo to his superiors! Cahill Snr then urges Neil to remain calm and keep quiet until he returns from a trip to Portland the next day, when they’ll find a way to put it all to rights.
This never happens. On his return to LA the next evening, Dr Cahill is accosted by men of the press who reveal that Neil has come clean about plagiarising the theory. Alarmed, Cahill races back to the institute, presumably to give Neil a damn good thrashing.
Columbo and a gaggle of fellow officers arrive at the same time. Stitching Neil up like a kipper, the Lieutenant arrests him for murder while accusing him of having an affair with Margaret. He had motive, method and opportunity, plus a ‘witness’ who will swear Neil and Madge regularly met at a motel, signing in as man and wife.
“THAT MAN IS LYING!” bellows Neil, to no avail. He’s frogmarched off downtown, leaving Cahill alone in the lab. As the realisation dawns on him of what he’s brought upon his own son, he gives chase – only to find Columbo waiting for him in the deserted corridor outside.
Utterly defeated, Cahill admits his guilt. But Columbo already knows. How? It was all down to the match left in Howard’s ashtray. The Lieutenant knows better than anyone that the match had to have been left by a cigar smoker given how burnt it was. “That first day I couldn’t give a hoot in hell about a thief,” Columbo reveals. “I was looking for a cigar smoker and there you were.”
Assuring Cahill that Neil will be released within an hour, and acknowledging that he believes Cahill acted out of love for his son, Columbo presents the Doctor with a Cuban and the two sit back to enjoy a final, companionable smoke as credits roll…
Mind Over Mayhem‘s best moment
It’s an episode low on standout moments, but the best of the bunch must be Columbo’s introduction to MM7. Falk hits just the right level of amazement and bafflement as the colossal android lumbers out of a cupboard to shake hands. It’s also a credit to the writers that they didn’t overplay the novelty of the robot and have it overshadow the whole episode, or do something ridiculous like have it actually solve the crime.
Network plans for a spin-off series with MM7 as a crime-fighting LAPD robot amazingly never made it off the ground – a tragedy that still casts a long shadow over global TV history to this day.*
My opinion on Mind Over Mayhem
From its opening scenes of supercomputers ablaze with flashing lights and a big-screen war simulation complete with flashy graphics, Mind Over Mayhem thrusts us into a near sci-fi world that seems a million miles away from the locations usually reserved for Lieutenant Columbo.
At one point this may have looked cutting edge. To the modern audience, though, it all seems amazingly dated. Indeed, given that the laptop or mobile device you’re reading this on is more powerful than all the computers and robots in the cybernetic research institute put together, this is a hard episode to now take seriously.
That might not matter if this was a typically excellent Columbo, with its usual perfect mix of intrigue, humour, well-written characters, a brilliant clue and fine chemistry between leads. Sadly Mind Over Mayhem boasts none of the above. In fact I’m going to set my stall out early and say that this is easily one of the poorest Columbo outings of the entire 70s’ run.
It falls short in many areas, so I’ll get the lesser ones out of the way first. To start with, this looks and feels cheap. It’s predominantly set in a research lab, so there are plenty of grey corridors and featureless rooms. This denies the viewer the very real pleasure of seeing Columbo poking his nose into the homes and lifestyles of LA’s filthy rich.
“Mind Over Mayhem is easily one of the poorest Columbo outings of the 70s.”
It’s also deeply unstylish compared to the norm. The crazy 70s’ fashions are part of what makes watching Columbo such a pleasure today. Here it’s much more subdued, with lab coats and grey suits much more in evidence. Zzzzz…
Much more damning than all this, though, are the weirdly written characters. Margaret Nicholson, in particular, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. She professes to love her husband, but shows no sadness at his loss. Instead she stolidly refuses to answer Columbo’s questions about who might have reason to kill her husband, citing doctor/patient privilege.
The patient in question is Neil, but the two have a very odd relationship. Is he dependent on her, as result of unrequited love and years of bullying by his father? Does she have feelings for Neil at all? Have they been leaping into bed behind Howard’s back, or is it strictly professional?
There’s certainly more going on than meets the eye, and quite what we’re supposed to make of it all is baffling. More likely than not, Margaret’s dark edge was added in as a feeble attempt to make her seem aloof and mysterious enough to add a layer of complexity to Columbo’s investigations that the episode otherwise lacks.
Her role ultimately poses more questions than answers, leaving the viewer scratching their head trying to figure out what the hell she’s playing at with Neil when she should be mourning her husband who, lest we forget, she found dead only that morning!
Indeed the average viewer would be more moved at Howard’s death than his widow seems to be. Because although Howard is made out to be something of a crotchety old meddler, his death comes close to wrenching the heart strings when you consider what must be running through his head in his final moments. As he shambled out onto the driveway in response to the car horn honking, he can only have assumed it was Margaret bearing down on him – very sad thoughts to carry to the grave.
That moment aside, it’s hard to feel much emotional attachment to this episode and its characters. Neil manages to evoke our sympathy, and Robert Walker does a decent job of portraying his sad desperation to finally please his father, but once the episode’s over he doesn’t linger long in the memory like some of the truly great supporting characters.
Far more disappointing is the great Jose Ferrer’s portrayal of Dr Marshall Cahill. The Oscar-winning actor is hardly at his best here. His character is supposedly a genius but does knack-all to support that premise, and offers little beyond growing irritation to spice up his relationship with Columbo. Above all he seems like a mean-spirited nag and is no fun to watch. In fact he’s one of the most lifeless adversaries Columbo takes on in these early seasons.
It’s left to Falk (typically good), Dog (who outshines most of his human counterparts), and young Spelberg (named in homage to Steven Spielberg, the ‘boy genius’ director at the helm for Murder by the Book) to inject the energy and fun into this drab affair.
When they’re all together is when the episode is as its most watchable, with man and boy swiftly building rapport as they bond over dogs and robots. Spelberg even raises some smiles as he shamefully admits that his biological father is ‘a barber in San Jose‘, and that he built his first robot – a Mickey Mouse robot – at the age of three and created a further six before his ninth birthday. Good effort, son!
Quite what led Spelberg to begin his life anew at the institute is a puzzle never solved, but he certainly seems to have more smarts than anyone else there – including Dr Cahill, who makes such a mess of the crime that he deserves everything that’s coming to him.
For it is the crime itself, and the subsequent evidence that is left at the scene, that damns this episode the most. To put it bluntly: Cahill totally bungled it. His course of action was entirely illogical for a so-called genius.
“It is the crime itself, and the subsequent evidence that is left at the scene, that damns this episode the most.”
Sure, do a hit and run, steal the watch, wallet, heroin and classified file – but then get the hell out of Dodge! Returning Howard to the living room and setting up a cosy scene to suggest pals have been chatting over brandy makes no sense at all. It can only have been written that way as a means of justifying Cahill’s lighting of a cigar, therefore leaving the ‘pop’ clue of the burnt match in the ashtray for Columbo to find. But there was absolutely no logical reason for Cahill to do this.
If he hadn’t left the match there, could Columbo have cracked the case? Certainly it would have been a whole lot harder. And it’s this aspect of the episode that is most disappointing to me. The clue had too much influence over the telling of the story, ultimately resulting in one of the biggest Columbo duds to date.
Not that Peter Falk seems to share my concerns. According to Mark Dawidziak’s 1989 book The Columbo Phile, this was one of Falk’s most cherished clues. To me it shows that a decent clue doth not a classic episode make. It surprises and disappoints to know that Steven Bochco has his name attached to this swill.
If anything, the clue restricted the potential of the episode because the backdrop of the cybernetics institute could have offered us something really different. How about somehow using all of that AI to actually cause the death of Howard? Could MM7 have been programmed to pull a trigger, or squeeze the life out of a man, before returning to his cupboard? That could have been a delicious twist, and posed some interesting morality questions about man using machinery to play God. The possibilities offered up by the futuristic setting were barely scratched.
Still, and despite all the nonsense, the episode still manages to round out on a poignant note. In killing to protect his son, and in admitting his guilt to free his son, Dr Cahill was, at last, acting out of love.
Can we consider this the first step on the path to redemption for Cahill after years of dominating and browbeating his son? I rather hope so. And that may ultimately be the episode’s biggest success: leaving the reflective viewer with a sense of sadness and deeper questions to ponder well beyond the closing credits.
Did you know?
Robby the Robot set a world record in November 2017, becoming the most expensive movie prop ever sold at auction at a cost of $5.3 million! Rumour has it that his starring role in Columbo added $2 million to the price tag…
Remarkably, Peter Falk’s iconic raincoat and shoes (that he wore throughout the 70s run – including in Mind Over Mayhem) failed to sell at the same auction after having been expected to fetch between $80,000-$120,000.
How I rate ’em
As you’ll have gathered from the above I’m so little enamoured with Mind Over Mayhem, that it plunges right down towards the murky depths of the list, where I anticipate it may stay until we start dredging through some of the dross served up in the ’80s and ’90s comeback episodes.
Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
Better luck next time, eh? And next time will be Swan Song, starring perennial crowd pleaser Johnny Cash. It’s many a fan’s absolute favourite, so check back in soon! Until then, keep outta trouble!
Did you view Mind Over Mayhem when it originally aired in 1974? Did it ever appear to be cutting edge? Let me know in the comments below!
*This is absolute fiction.