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.
According to the credits, William Christopher (Father Mulcahy of MASH) is in this one. But I think I’ve seen it too many times to miss him, especially of course his voice. Was he edited out.
I watched this one with two friends of mine right after Publish or Perish. We’re all in our early to mid twenties and I think that combined with the poorly-aged technology primed us to spend almost the whole episode cracking jokes. MM7 in particular really took us out of the immersion. We all had at least some level of familiarity with Columbo and the sci-fi leanings of this episode in a show we’re used to being set pretty squarley in 70’s reality was really jarring. Steven said something about programming emotions into MM7 and I blurted out “You’re saying he’s better than Data?!” (Yeah, TNG isn’t really comparable to Columbo, but still! I’m a hardcore Data fan, I can’t take something like that sitting down!)
We also relentlessly made fun of Cahill’s actions after the murder, questioning his supposed intelligence as he scrapes a dead man’s shoe against the wall without cleaning it, and takes a smoke break halfway through for not a dang reason.
And finally…man, I was SURE Dog was going to actually play into this one! Columbo spent the whole episode saying how noisy Dog gets if he’s not with another person. I was convinced the Columbo would “leave” Dog with Cahill, who would have to go do something that would drum up a further alabi and leave MM7 in his stead again; Dog’s barking would have been the proof that he wasn’t where he said he’d be. I guess The Most Dangerous Match set my expectations for Dog’s involvement a tad too high. Oh well, that sauasage of a mutt is still a crowdpleaser regardless.
Good episode to watch with friends if you like to poke fun at things, not so much if you’re looking for the best that Columbo has to offer.
I do agree Mayhem is not a strong episode from the 70’s originals.
But it goes by fairly quickly; that’s a plus in my book. The light-comic touches involving “Dog” help.
Mr. Ferrer isn’t at his best (not very emotional, save for the end) and Ms. Walters isn’t well-written, as mentioned.
Columbo catching her in a lie (while he was looking over files) was a highlight, as are the interactions between the Lt. and the “boy genius.”
I would give Mayhem a C+ based on me liking the episode, but recognizing it’s flaws (the crime-scene staging; no attempt to erase/hide evidence, etc.)
I never understood why staging the scene was so elaborate. It was overdone which was what got him caught. Simple is better. I still really enjoy this episode.
I also loved this episode very much. Not for the scrap heap !
Loved it because it was another setting than always those big houses. More variation. I found it refreshing.
Because Columbo played very well. I liked the twist at the end. He even made me hesitate on who was the murderer LOL but I did not forget that he’s always a step ahead.
Because there were computing and robot technologies in in that are now old fashioned, and we gaze at it like we gaze at Star Trek and Star Wars. It is vintage. It would have been fun if the robot had done some more thing to solve the case.
Because there was Dog again as a character – how I love him. I wish he would have done essential things in some episode to solve it. Here, it would have been fun with that child.
I also liked the child very much.
The doctor seemed to have a normal behavior to me. Did not suspect any love affair between them.
A bit strange camera and noise editing at the ending, but did not care.
And strange also that this robot or computer did have no memory tapes that might have been useful to Columbo.
In other words, with possibilities for robots, children and Dog doing things together or even Dog alone to give indications to Columbo, this episode could be very inspiring to make a whole new series.
Very good episode. 🙂
I liked this episode despite the gaping flaw. Maybe because I previewed a review on this site saying the episode was bad that my expectations were set low.
But I immediately thought it was silly for Cahill to stage the crime scene. It made absolutely no sense. It never occurred to me that it was contrived to set up the clue about the cigar, though. I was thinking more that the autopsy would have indicated that the injuries were caused by an automobile, and that ridiculously unnecessarily staging of the crime scene would lead to the killer’s undoing. This was a marked contrast to the elaborate and meticulous planning of previous killers.
Some of the actors are wearing big buttons. What are they supporting or what is up with the buttons? Thank you
I love Jose Ferrer (no one will ever play the Emperor in Dune better) but this episode is not great. A lot has been covered already, but I am surprised the review didn’t make more of the ending. Did Columbo actually frame Neil to get Dr. Cahill to confess? Did he plant tobacco on the tire of Neil’s car? Did he actually get a witness to lie about Neil checking in to a hotel with Margaret repeatedly?
I had always thought that Neil was having an affair with Margaret and Columbo’s only duplicity in the episode was arresting Neil when he knew the son was innocent. But on a rewatch, the tobacco clue and Columbo’s apology over the “frame up” makes that seem less likely. I still prefer to believe my explanation, but I can’t reconcile the tobacco clue with my preferred plot.
How on Earth could Columbo keep his job after this? There’s no way that Cahill would be convicted. And Neil would have very serious charges to level at the LAPD if Columbo faked two clues.
This episode is just very poorly written.
Watching it tonight on “Cozi TV” in the US immediately following “Publish or Perish”, in which I enjoyed seeing several familiar actors such as Mariette Hartley, and I am (again) enjoying this equally (Mel Ferrar and Jessica Walter are two comforting pros) without analyzing the techno references. Appears well executed.
One thought as to why
this episode reminds me
so much of a (bad) episode of the ’60s show,
“Lost In Space”, besides a robot being in it.
The producers may’ve intended this episode
for Saturday morning kids’ television. Or as
an attempt to attract younger viewers to
the primetime series. That might explain the
fantasy science and technology, and the presence
of Lee H. Montgomery (co-star of films “Ben” and
“Burnt Offerings”) as the boy genius. It also
jives with the clear motive and too obvious
clues. Just a theory.
If you found Lew Ayres, the name of the actor who
played the murder victim, or/and his face familiar,
but couldn’t place him, there’s a reason.
Believe it or not, he is one of the stars of 1930’s
“All Quiet on the Western Front”, an acknowledged
film classic which won for Best Picture. Although
a talkie, it had a silent film version also, and
came out the year before Charlie Chaplin’s great
silent film classic “City Lights”.
Incidentally, Ayres was also the film version of
Dr. Kildare in several movies decades before
the ’60s TV show with Richard Chamberlain.
With this episode, the series falls
to the level of farce, which I hope
I won’t see again.
I’ll give the same advice as John Scalzi’s for the “Starship
Invasions”, a low budget Canadian sci-fi movie: “only see
this if you’ve been bad and need to punish yourself”
Entertainment: 3 out of 5
two penalties of 1 each:
Bad or Bogus Science – computers aren’t fed programs
by robots as they are input with tape/cards nor do they
require a human at run time as they may be batch
scheduled. Speech recognition and human language
comprehension in AI not yet invented. Computer simulations
of attack scenarios don’t usually require humans responding
as it is computer simulated also. The theory of “molecular
matter” makes no more sense than one of “stellar stars”.
Unconvincing Production Values – interiors looks like a sound
stage not a typical think tank with austere interiors and guards.
Exteriors here looks like sheds on a back lot, with the crew’s
cars in all makes and models stencilled for institute vehicles.
No access control gates visible anywhere. Cheesy computer
graphics showing attack display. Robot a familiar recycled
prop from 50’s SF films.
Clues Leading Columbo to the Killer: 1.5 out of 2.5
Killer’s Actions as Obvious Red Flags – crashing a car to cover
damage of vehicular homicide, someone removing a personal
file but not the index card, a suspect giving a nonsense excuse
for their lack of an alibi, the public confession of plagiarism
by the suspect’s son after the murder of the ethics overseer
Columbo’s Misreading of Key Clues – not eliminating other cigar
smokers as the source of the burned match, or reading too much
significance in something which may’ve been planted along with
the brandy glasses and the moved body,
Final Gotcha: 1 out of 2.5 (penalty of 2, and bonus of 0.5)
Penalty of 2 as the gotcha is a false arrest, not a smoking gun,
as there’s no way to predict that it will cause the confession of
Cahill Sr. (which does still count as an extra ‘clue’ though),
But the false arrest is certainly extra surprising, counting for a
bonus of 0.5, as it is a clever logical tactic, though possibly
illegal. A hint of the solid premise for a good episode here,
but a poor effort.
Final Rating: 5.5 out of 10
I’ve mentioned it on these threads before, but the regression of technology in “Columbo” is both frustrating and amusing. Columbo’s zenith arrives very early in the series when he speaks with Lee Grant about how one can order tickets over the phone via computer. Later in the episode he adroitly works the timed phone call and edited-tape ruse. That was in 1971. By 1974 (also the same year as “Mind Over Mayhem”) he alternates in “Exercise in Fatality” between being clever enough to mimic Janus’s phone/tape manipulation, while also being flummoxed by an answering machine. Cut to “Agenda for Murder” 16 years later and Columbo finds a fax machine to be utterly mystifying. Sgt. Wilson would be disappointed.
The fax machine I think
is the least credible for
a police detective to be mystified by.
The old police scanners, which every
police department used at one time to
send mugshots on request, were early
forerunners.of them. Both are just
souped up printers.
Re: Bad or Bogus Science – myself being an old science fellow, popular depictions of science in film and television often rankle me as well. While I agree with most of your points, I’d like to respond where my understanding differs.
1) “computers aren’t fed programs by robots as they are input with tape/cards nor do they require a human at run time as they may be batch
Disagree: At the time of the episode’s airing (Feb 1974), the ‘batch processing’ era of high-end computing had largely given way to ‘time sharing’ systems. In these, multiple users had interactive access to the computer. In the 50s-60s standard ‘batch operation’ mode you refer-to, one program at a time was fed to the computer (via tape/cards) for the CPU to process exclusively. With the advent of time-sharing systems of the late 60s multiple people could get work done in parallel on the computer, by interleaving CPU time between multiple running tasks.
The ‘typewriter device’ featured around the 15 minute mark was a teletype. (I once had to program using these.) They functioned as an interactive computer ‘terminal’ accepting real time commands and printing output from the computer. Although fully electronic terminals (using CRT or Gas-Plasma screens) had existed for at least decade at this point (see the brilliant 1964 gas-plasma ‘PLATO’ terminal by Donald Bitzer) , the teletype was still a standard mainframe console at this time. (See for example the popular IBM System/370) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_System/370
As a plot device, we must imagine the ‘super advanced’ robot to be necessary to convincingly replace Dr. Cahill at the teletype console as it is capable of reacting dynamically to the situation in a way that a pre-recorded batch-script of inputs could not.
2) “Speech recognition and human language comprehension in AI not yet invented.”
True, but is it really objectionble? Voice recognition wasn’t a thing yet, but why not let the show go beyond what was possible in 1974? It was already a longstanding TV-trope that ‘futuristic’ computers could interpret spoken instructions, and nobody really knew how many years in the future real-world speech-recognition would arrive.
3) “Computer simulations of attack scenarios don’t usually require humans responding as it is computer simulated also.”
Though I was not a participant of nuclear war planning exercises in the 1970s (if you were, please correct me), it seems plausible to me that during a simulation, computers would be used for all kinds of data analysis and synthesis while human participants carried out the tactical decisions in response to the generated data. This allowed the writer to give Dr. Cahill an alibi by apparently participating in the exercise, while actually having substituted the ‘amazingly advanced’ robot for himself at the keyboard.
4) Molecular Matter -> Stellar Stars Got a laugh out of that. Nice +1.
The most cringe inducing elements for me were reusing a leftover mid-60s Sci-Fi robot prop, and having the inventor be a kid not even old enough for coffee. Had they ditched the buck-rogers kid+robot and let Dr. Cahill simply patch-in a program of his own writing to the terminal to simulate his presence, the tech would have been plausible for the 1974 state of the art.
It was hackish and lazy for them to take Columbo into science fiction territory. But there was nothing wrong with ditching the punchcards of the 1950s and 1960s mainframe computers.
Since it’s my first post, let me add a heartfelt congratulations to ColumboPhile for this blog, and a salute to all the thoughtful and polite commenters here. It’s the internet as it should be.
Very enjoyable, great acting and very decent lines. Ms. Walter was eye candy despite the dated hairdo and I was sorry to hear that she passed away earlier in 2021. Robert Walker Jr., who played Neil, passed away in 2019. The first dog scene had me laughing out loud; it looked like they were talking about Columbo’s son! LOL. As for all the negative comments… c’mon people, this is fiction and we need a degree of suspension of disbelief. When the murderer retrieves the Finch file, I thought, how idiotic! Even a high school drop out would have figured out that a missing file would have looked very suspicious; he should have simply removed the folder contents, or the part that may have compromised his son, not the whole thing. So, no, a TV show is not going to be like real life. Another example, the robot knowing what a dog was without having been programmed for it, and even taking voice commands, was not years but centuries ahead of its time! OK, enough ranting from me. We need to enjoy these episodes for what they are: fine acting, entertaining dialogue, good looking psychologist, etc.
Thank you, Diego. I am enjoying this episode and have never considered changing channels when it is broadcast. Good relaxing fun. As far as technical inaccuracies, or my beloved Columbophile’s “datedness”, well, they have never seemed that relevant when assessing the engaging original episodes.
I’m no scientician or chemicological guy, but “molecular matter”? Aren’t all molecules considered matter? As opposed to say, gravity. I feel like Cahill Jr’s award-winning paper could have just as easily been called “Wet Ocean” or “Direction Vectors”.
A stinker episode. No tension, poor acting, absurd situations. Every so-called clue telegraphed and done for the purpose of identifying the killer. Plus perhaps the most unnecessary and phony “confession”. Ferrer would of known Columbo violated ethics with his fake hotel clerk witness. Why would Columbo care about the staff car? No reason. The number of times he said “One More Thing” was annoying.
This one was probably
mainly for the kids. Even
so, it has since been sold as a regular episode
for adults, rather than the pilot for an expanded
audience that might’ve been the intention.
Perhaps they were trying to judge from the ratings
whether there was any chance of success for an
Columbo cartoon series for Saturday mornings.
My own guess, is that
considering the obvious
limited budget as well, the episode was an
attempt to see if they could keep the series
going by expanding viewership. Rather than
lengthening episodes, and more ads, what
the series became.
I hate to say it again, but…..extremely successful, probably-rich White guy, with zero history of violence or mental illness, and with everything to lose, suddenly and inexplicably becomes a remorseless murdering psycho. It’s actually quite ridiculous.
And in this case, it all turned out to be for literally nothing.
Still, always fun to watch.
(Yes, I know that José is Puerto Rican, but check out his total-opposite-of-Puerto-Rican childhood).
White and Puerto Rican are not mutually exclusive. Someone from PR could be black, Taino, Spanish, Jewish, etc. Jose left the island at age 2 and moved to NYC, which explains the lack of an accent.
Isn’t it possible that the Dr.’s intention was to frame the assistant Ross? It’s Ross’s car that he uses for the murder. I was hoping till he covered up the car damage that he expected the ruse of bringing the corpse inside to be discovered. Alas, Columbo puts the kibosh on that frame by saying Ross was too short. But we never find out if Ross smokes cigars…
I even hoped at one point that the doc wanted to frame his son, to punish him for the scientific shame (and maybe also for his affair with Margaret -maybe he wanted her himself!). That would have made a stronger episode. I prefer narcissists to loving fathers as killers on Columbo…
Has anyone ever attended an all-night group-therapy session?? I’d like to see that as e setting for a murder…
Sadly, Jessica Walter, who played Margaret Nicholson in “Mind Over Mayhem,” passed away today, March 24, 2021 at age 80. I always thought she was a fantastic actress ever since I first saw her in “Play Misty for Me” (1971) co-starring Clint Eastwood, in his first directorial role.
This episode used to freak me out a little because of Neil’s look.
The same way I was a little scared of the oompa- loompas in Willie Wonka movie as a kid.
I’m proud to announce that I am (finally) no longer scared of neither Neil nor the oompa- loompas. (I think they share a slight resemblance!)
I’ve only seen Robert Walker (Neil) in this episode of Columbo.
I’m no raving beauty, but I think I could beat both Neil and Ross (wear wolf-man) in this episode in a three-person beauty pageant.
Robert Walker (Jr. at the time) was in the original Star Trek episode “Charlie X,” playing a spoiled brat with tremendous powers. His father, Robert Walker, is probably best known as the murderer Bruno in Hitchcock’s classic “Strangers on a Train.”
No wonder Neil looked familiar! His name too. I watched the Hitchcock classic earlier this year. RW Jr. passed away in 2019.
Not a standout episode by any means though had its fair share of delightful moments. Paradoxically for an overall dreary-ish effort, the highlights were primarily comical. Falk was particularly sharp in his line deliveries.
I was thrown by the abrupt segue between the scene where Margaret refused to answer Columbo’s inquiry and the next scene where Columbo interviews Neil in his apartment. What led him to Neil’s doorstep? Margaret gave him no lead and he never found the Finch file. Was it just part of Columbo’s rounds throughout the institute and we’re to assume several other interviews occurred between the two shown encounters? Did I miss something there?
I found that jump rather jarring, probably because the rest of the episode so blatantly laid out each clue in step-by-step fashion.
I think you’re correct when assessing each scene as they progress, but after viewing the entire episode it’s then evident that Columbo had already zeroed in on Dr. Cahill and was working concentrically to locate a motive. I think the scene when Columbo introduces himself to Neil and congratulates him on receiving the award is where, again looking in hindsight, Columbo suspects the link is between father and son. Much in the same way Columbo intercepts Joan Hudson as she’s leaving Dr. Flemming’s office.
True, though by that logic you’d think Columbo would have interviewed the son well before obtaining a search warrant to paw through a filing cabinet that may well have been of no importance. Plus, Margaret showing up while he is at Neil’s further ties the back-to-back scenes together. Did they take the same car? 😉 The son-as-motive suspicion Columbo suddenly senses did not feel earned to me.
IMO, simple fix would have had Columbo overhear or be told in passing at first meeting that Neil used to be Finch’s assistant. Then later, when he sees the Finch file is missing and Margaret stonewalls him, he would naturally go to Neil for more info on the file’s contents. At that meeting, the professional relationship with Margaret comes out and now the ball’s rolling downhill.
I find it uncomfortable the number of times that columbo, after making the collar, has a convivial moment with killer as the credits roll: in this episode the two cigar lovers sir down and enjoy a smoke. Irrespective that the father did it out if love – he still murdered in cold blood a totally innocent individual and callously covered his tracks!
I wouldn’t characterize the deceased as being all that innocent. He was quite bold, arrogant, and playing dirty, threatening, right to his boss’s face, to humiliate and ruin his boss and his boss’s son. I just don’t have much sympathy for him.
We learned that he supposedly had enemies, but I wouldn’t characterize his request as “playing dirty”. He was trying to correct a major injustice (the plagiarized research), and did suggest that the son come clean rather than accept the award.
By the way, Lew Ayres, who played
him (Howard Nicholson), was a co-star
of the 1930’s landmark film, “All Quiet on the Western
Front”. Probably why viewers find his name and face
He was also Dr. Kildare in several movies, years before
Richard Chamberlain took the role on TV.
I guess it’s so obvious that “Steven Spelberg” is a play on the name of the famous director who helmed several Columbos, including the first one, that there was no need to comment on it.
I did reference the Spielberg homage in this, if that’s what you mean?
May I gently request that you correct the name of the actor who plays Neil to Robert Walker Jnr? The “Junior” is important as Robert Walker, his father, played the psychopathic killer in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”
It’s far from the best and not full of ton of life but it’s a Columbo which is still pretty good.
One moment I liked which I didn’t see mentioned is when Columbo makes one final look at Cahill after the son is “arrested” and being taken away. Like – here is your chance to confess.
Of course, he was waiting for him down the stairs but still I enjoyed that look. Such disappointment.
Funny, but when I mix together the old and new episodes, it’s clear that Murder over Mayhem, which you rate as one of the weakest old episodes, is far better than most of the new episodes.
In any case, I really enjoy this episode, largely because of the interactions between Columbo, the kid, and the dog.
I agree that we don’t really get a good motivation for the tinkering with the crime scene. I can only surmise that the logic was to create a smokescreen of fake evidence that had no logical cohesion to it.