Getting the Most Out of Life: Revisiting Television’s Forever

Join us for a series of essays about science fiction TV series that, while popular with viewers, were cancelled early on by the networks. Some of the programs to be covered include Threshold (2005), Moonlight (2007-8), and the U.S. version of Life on Mars (2008-9).

Dr. Henry Morgan tells the television viewer, “Just imagine all the things you could do with eternity. See the world. Speak countless languages. In fact, there’s almost nothing in this life I haven’t done… except leave it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for those around me. Try watching as the people you love most in the world go off to another. Only then would you know what I do. That eternity is not really a blessing… but a curse.” In those few words, actor Ioan Gruffudd as Henry Morgan presents the premise of the ABC television series Forever. With his soothing, British-accented voice, the actor portrays the immortal Henry with great optimism about having to live through an abnormally great multitude of human experiences. And, in almost the same breath, the actor expresses Henry’s despair in having seen a long, unending life where he feels the loss of those who have inevitably passed on. Gruffudd embodies those things extremely well.

Produced by Warner Bros. Television, Forever was shown on Tuesday nights at 10:00 P.M. on ABC from September 22, 2014 to May 5, 2015. Impressed with the early episodes, ABC requested a full 22 episode run in November 2014. Created and executive produced by Matt Miller, its excellent main cast (besides Gruffudd) includes Alana de la Garza as Detective Jo Martinez, Judd Hirsch as Abe Morgan, Henry’s son, Joel David Moore as assistant medical examiner Lucas Wahl, Donnie Keshawarz as Jo’s partner Mike Hanson, and Lorraine Toussant as Lieutenant Joanna Reece, a sharp but compassionate precinct commander. Two recurring roles of note: actor Burn Gorman plays ‘Adam,’ the only other immortal in the series, and Mackenzie Mauzy portrays Henry’s second wife, Abigail, circa 1950s, with verve and a sympathetic understanding of Henry’s secret.

I’ve found the pilot episode to be a wonder of economy. Within the first five minutes, the episode shows Henry’s Sherlockian reasoning, his charm with the ladies, his first death in flashback aboard a nineteenth-century slave ship, the sudden crash of the subway train he is on, followed by iterating life images as he goes through a kind of rebirth, and then his appearing naked in a nearby body of water. All of this while accustoming us to Henry’s engaging narrative voice.

Dr. Henry Morgan is a medical examiner for the NYPD, working out of the 11th Precinct in Manhattan. He appears to be a man in his mid-thirties and lives with his seventy-year old son Abe (Judd Hirsh) above the antiques shop that Abe owns. In the episode “Dead Men Tell Long Tales,” Henry’s nemesis, who calls himself Adam (Burn Gorman) recounts what he knows about Henry: “Henry Morgan, born 1779, presumed lost at sea—Empress of Africa, 1814—you resurfaced, 1815. Committed to an asylum in the same year. The ship was your first death, wasn’t it?” We see that first death in flashback in the pilot episode written by creator Matt Miller. Henry had been the ship’s doctor. Protecting a slave who is in a fever, Henry dies when the captain fires his flintlock at him at point blank range. We then see Henry’s body fall into the ocean.

“You see, something happened that night,” Henry narrates in the present time. “I was transformed. I still feel love, pleasure, pain. My life is just like yours. Except for one small difference. It never ends.”

Henry gives this narration while he is dying in a subway crash in the present. Moments before, he’s on the floor of a wrecked subway car, dead bodies around him, and the next moment he breaks the surface of the East River. “Since that night, nearly two centuries ago, every time I die I always return in water… and I’m always naked.” Henry casually walks through a New York park in daylight nodding at people staring at him. “Lends itself to some slightly awkward situations.” Two uniformed policemen approach Henry. Henry gives what will become his signature line: “It’s a long story.”

In the pilot episode, ME Henry Morgan is assigned to perform an autopsy on the dead conductor of the wrecked train that Henry had been on. As he begins, Detective Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza) enters and meets Henry for the first time:

Henry [breaking open corpse’s ribcage]: Sorry for your loss detective.

Jo: Sorry, I think you’re confused. I didn’t know any of the victims.

Henry: No, I meant your husband.

Jo: Excuse me?

Henry: I noticed a slight discoloration on your left ring finger. Could be divorce, but most divorcees don’t wear their wedding band around their necks. I’d put his death at under a year.

Jo: How would you know that?

Henry: Well, my assumption is that your drinking is a recent development. Squinting suggests a sensitivity to light; slight decrease in respiratory function; the mascara under your right eye is crooked.

Jo: I was in a hurry this morning.

Henry: And there’s none under your left.

Henry’s ability to observe minutia and deduce things about people’s lives are clearly meant to be disarming, to us as well as to other characters. Of course, Sherlock Holmes comes to mind. Both Henry’s son Abe and his assistant Lucas make reference to Holmes in talking about Henry’s talent. Henry himself accepts the skill as coming from long years of experience. He surprises an attractive young woman on a subway by speaking Russian, explaining that he determined her nationality from a box of Russian chocolate she is carrying. He wishes her good luck on her musical performance and then proceeds, like Holmes would do, to explain what he had observed about her that led to his conclusions. To the girl’s remark that he sees a lot, he replies, “Well, I’ve… seen a lot.” As viewers of Forever, we come to expect Henry’s applying this skill and we enjoy the understanding that it comes to him so readily—not because he’s studied Holmes’ methods—but because he has lived such a long life.

Producer Matt Miller designed the series as a police procedural so that Henry’s history could be highlighted; in most of the episodes, Henry solves murders that allow him to make associations with past events that we see in flashback. At times, we are carried on a wave of nostalgia along with Henry as we watch characters at different stages of life. We get to see Abe, for instance, as a young boy learning to play piano in one episode, as a youth choosing to go to war in Vietnam against his parents’ wishes in a second, and as a twenty-something adult who argues with Henry about searching for the missing Abigail in a third episode. These serve to illustrate the passage of time and to underscore the odd concept that Abe, who we’ve come to know as an older man, is still Henry’s son.

The procedure of the series’ crime solving plot, when boiled down to its basic elements, forms a definite pattern. Most often, Det. Martinez and Henry pursue a suspect until he or she is eliminated; at which point another suspect comes to the fore; then, usually, a third suspect enters as the second is freed of suspicion. The actual murderer often turns out to be someone Jo and Henry meet earlier in the story.

Case in point: the aforementioned episode “Dead Men Tell Long Tales,” written by Chris Fedak and Matt Kester. Rick Rasmussen, ship captain who runs a salvage company, is harpooned to death after bringing up a treasure of gold coins from a sunken ship, the Empress of Africa, the slave ship Henry was on in the 1800s. At the wake for Captain Rick, Jo, Hanson, and Henry bring in three of his crew who had worked on that last salvage job: Davey, a veteran crewman who worked with the captain before, and two new shipmates, Chappy and Margo. I count the trio as representing the ‘first’ suspect in Rick’s murder. All three are questioned and then released. None of them knows where Rick hid the gold, so they are exonerated. Next, Jo and Hanson bring in Rick’s former partner, George Speece, after he is caught in the salvage warehouse searching for the gold. Speece had had a falling out with Rick and hadn’t been on the last salvage job. He claims that they were friends since boyhood and Speece wouldn’t have used a harpoon the two of them were known to have found together when they were eighteen years old. Number Two suspect eliminated. Third is a wealthy financier, Isaac Monroe, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. He financed the salvage job and received the treasure. At a gala at the Explorers Club where Monroe is being honored, he donates the gold coins to charity. Monroe is thus also eliminated. Then, who did it? And why?

Someone Jo and Henry had seen before; a suspect they considered and released. Someone whose motive wasn’t the gold. It was…

Someone Henry noted at the bar where the captain’s wake was held. Using his powers of observation, Henry remarked to the new crewmember, Margo, that she had a unique genetic marker, different colored eyes. Later, in a humorous conversation with Lucas where Lucas likened himself to Holmes and saw Henry as Watson, Henry discovers a magazine photograph of a diver who died during the expedition that located the sunken ship. In a Eureka! moment, Henry says aloud, “Heterochromia. He has different color eyes.… Brock Healey, the diver who perished nine months ago. He has a genetic abnormality.” To which, Lucas responds, “Okay, fine. You’re Sherlock.… but I’m still Watson, though, right?”

The culprit is Margo, of course. Elementary, my dear viewer. Her motive isn’t the treasure. It’s revenge—she blames her brother’s death on Captain Rick. And at the episode’s climax, she goes after the multi-millionaire who financed the expedition, Isaac Monroe. When Margo gets into Monroe’s apartment, Jo Martinez is with him. After a fight, Jo gets control and holds Margo at bay just as Henry and Detective Hanson break in.

This is the basic pattern in the series’ crime-solving methodology as I see it, with necessary variations, of course. Nevertheless, the sleuthing simply provides a venue for revealing significant aspects of Henry’s history, those things that we really care about in his story arc.

One of the mysteries Henry’s personal story is the question of how he was gifted to be an immortal. The first episode doesn’t explain the how or why of it, only that he had tried to protect a slave on board the Empress of Africa. In Henry’s narration, he states that he thought his living forever was a curse. He emphasizes this in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales,” when he talks to Abe. In flashback, Henry steals a key to free one of the slaves who speaks English, and whose teeth are filed into points. As he explains to Abe in the present, Henry believes his immortality came upon him as a curse for not fulfilling his promise to get the key to the slave. And he believes all the slaves were killed as a result.

But Henry learns the truth about what happened to the slaves aboard the Empress of Africa near the conclusion of this episode. When he’s alone with Monroe, Henry suggests that seeking the location of the shipwreck was not Captain Rick’s obsession; it was Monroe’s. Monroe explains that he had found a diary written by one of the slaves, a man with filed teeth. The man’s name was Ejiro, a scholar and teacher. Ejiro had been able to reach a key dropped by the ship’s doctor and used it to free all the slaves, who then took over the ship.

Monroe continues, “The ship was damaged beyond repair. They made it north and made it to freedom when the ship sank. The handwritten map and their story survived. They made it far enough north to live as free men. And two hundred years later, one of their descendants could find that ship, tell their story—our story. All because someone dropped a key.”

That gave Henry his answer. His eternal life wasn’t a curse. It was a blessing.

An intriguing part of Henry’s gift of immortality is the matter of his death, time and time again. To my way of thinking, it’s a mystical thing that defies logic for Henry to disappear upon death and then reappear in a nearby body of water, naked. Still, the often humorous condition in which Henry finds himself is endearing to viewers.

After his deaths and reappearances in the first episode, we come to expect seeing it in the next episode, “Look Before You Leap,” written, again, by Matt Miller. As Henry dangles from the 59th Street Bridge, we anticipate his falling. But he doesn’t. No, he climbs back up, bends to retrieve his bicycle on the bridge, and—is killed by a truck slamming into him. And then reborn in the East River again. Quite a tease.

This mystical phenomenon is used meaningfully in a flashback to the 1950s, early in Henry’s courtship of Abigail in the series’ final episode, “The Last Death of Henry Morgan,” written by Miller and Chris Fedak. Finding out that Abigail had been physically abused by a former boyfriend, Henry seeks him out. He finds the man, Johnny Haygood, in a bar and challenges him. They go into an alley and fight, the crowd from the bar gathering around them, watching. Abigail comes upon the fight just as Johnny pulls out a knife and stabs Henry. As everyone runs away, Abigail goes to Henry who is dying in the street. She stays with him, cradling his head, until he vanishes. Later, when Henry returns, Abigail embraces him, saying, “You poor man.” It’s a confirmation of Abigail’s enduring love that she accepts his condition.

In the eleventh episode, “Skinny Dipper,” written by Chris Fedak and Phil Klemmer, the police finally recognize and deal with Henry’s problem of winding up in the river and walking around naked. Why it took that long for the police to note that the city medical examiner is frequently brought in for indecent exposure is beyond me.

The episode begins with Henry getting into a taxi and being taken for a ride. It’s ‘Adam’ in the driver’s seat, after doing away with the young taxi driver, speeding Henry through city streets. Adam wants to prove that he, too, is immortal. He plunges into the Hudson River, where Henry, unable to break free of the cab, drowns and rises again in the East River. Two police officers pick him up and Henry finds himself in Lt. Reece’s office.

Reece: Doctor, do you often swim naked in the East River at night?

Henry: Right, well… It’s complicated.

Reece: You know, I have rarely found the truth to be complicated.

Henry: I’m a somnambulist.

Reece: A sleepwalker?

Henry: That’s right.

Reece: I’ve pulled your file. This is not the first time.

Henry: Well, it is a serious condition. Sometimes I walk for blocks and still wind up in the water. It’s terribly inconvenient.

Reece: And what were you doing naked?

Henry: ‘Cause I sleep naked.

Reece: You know, doctor, I’ve been willing to tolerate your… eccentricities because you do produce results but I cannot have your credibility challenged. No more night swims. Am I clear? [Henry nods.] And doctor, please. Invest in some pajamas.

The metaphysical concept of Henry disappearing at death and then reappearing elsewhere without a stitch of clothing bothers me in an everyday practical sense. Does he therefore lose the keys he had to be carrying in his pockets? His wallet with all his identification? That certainly WOULD make it “terribly inconvenient.” The only thing I can think of to work out that problem—assuming that Dr. Henry Morgan would try to work out that problem somewhere along the way—is to prepare duplicates of these things and have them safely stored away in his apartment above Abe’s Antiques.

And what about that pocket-watch he keeps dropping at death? If he didn’t keep losing it, that object would disappear forever too, right? It clearly serves a purpose in the series. We learn in “Hitler on the Half Shell,” written by Sarah Nicole Jones, that the pocket-watch was a family heirloom Henry’s father gave him on his deathbed. The viewer can see that it’s an important artifact, not only to Henry personally, but also for his story arc. It is a symbol of the wrong that Henry had tried to correct on board the Empress of Africa, where he suffered his first death. It represents Henry’s continuing need to make amends. And, since a watch’s function is to mark the passage of time, it is a distinct metaphor of Henry’s long life. In terms of dramatic action to further the storyline, the pocket-watch enables Jo Martinez to draw a connection between Henry and his ‘deaths.’ In the final episode, “The Last Death of Henry Morgan,” Jo finds the telltale pocket-watch at the scene where Adam fatally shoots Henry with the flintlock that caused his first death two hundred years ago. Moments before Jo had come upon the heirloom, Henry was dying in a kind of double agony, hoping for death before Jo finds him. In the last scene, Jo arrives at the antique store with the pocket-watch, full of questions. Abe coaxes Henry: “Tell her.” Henry seems finally ready to reveal his secret, and he begins: “It’s a long story…”

With that tag line of Henry’s, TV viewers looked forward to a second season of Forever. We wanted to see how Jo and Henry’s lives would intertwine after Henry reveals his immortality. But, sadly, that was not to be. “Though the Forever series had some very passionate fans, that devotion didn’t translate into positive ratings. The numbers were pretty poor for much of the season and the show ended up averaging a 1.12 rating in the 18-49 demographic with 4.93 million viewers. As a result, ABC has decided against ordering a second season of Forever.” (Trevor Kimball, “Forever: TV Show Cancelled by ABC: No Season Two,” May 7, 2015, TV Series Finale) Our modern technological advances and changing television viewing habits may have been to blame, if we believe Wikipedia, reporting: “Television critics believe that other factors explained the network’s decision as the show gained viewers who watched the show up to seven days later on their DVRs.”

For some actors, the cancellation of their TV series means merely the loss of a job, but that isn’t always true. Forever’s lead actor expressed deep sorrow at losing the role of Dr. Henry Morgan. He kept silent initially while his wife, actress Alice Evans, tweeted: “Ioan is a little shaken right now but he wants to reach out and thank the wonderful loving fans who made the whole experience so magic.” (9:35 PM—7 May 2015).

Ioan Gruffud sent a message on Instagram the next day, saying, in part: “I knew the numbers hadn’t been great, but I also knew the studio and the network both loved the show, and of course that it had an incredible fan base.… So I thought we were in with a pretty good chance.” Gruffud told viewers that he was grateful for “a chance to play the role of my dreams, even if it was only for a year. To have been given the chance to bring Henry to life.” (Andy Swift, “Forever Cancelled at ABC,” May 7, 2015, 6:50 PM PDT, TV Line).

Rewatching the series on DVD has been especially meaningful to me at this age. Forever’s message that we should seek a fulfilling life by learning all that we can from our experiences is one that resonates with me.

At the conclusion of the episode entitled “6 A.M.,” written by Dean Carpentier and Matt Kester, Henry tells us: “It has been said that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken. That we are only truly gone when we’ve disappeared from the memories of those who loved us. Meaning, a great artist never dies. As long as his books are read, his paintings admired, as long as our songs are sung, we may each of us live forever.” This struck me as a profound statement, one that, I thought, had perhaps come from another source quoted by the scriptwriters. It just felt that way. I was also struck by the reference to artists and writers. I sought the reference out.

Part of Henry’s statement comes from a novel written by a well-known science fiction/fantasy writer. Someone who, I wager, many of you know. That writer is no longer with us. He died on March 12, 2015 at the age of sixty-six, a young man by my lights. I had met him once when we both were on a panel about fantasy world-building at LoneStarCon 2 in San Antonio, Texas, 1997. He was a generous and affable man known for his fantasy novels filled with high good humor. His name: Terry Pratchett. His words—and his trading of this old world for newer worlds—will be long remembered. I hope forever.

Ted Krulik was born at the beginning of the television age. As a child, he watched first-run episodes of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, starring Richard Crane, and the 1950s Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland. A new and exciting series of the late 1960s, a little known TV show named Star Trek, filled Krulik with dreams of a someday world of aliens and remarkable technical devices. In the 1970s, Krulik attended the earliest Star Trek conventions in Manhattan. At one of these, he met George Takei, Ensign Sulu himself, who told him that Star Trek was never coming back to television except, maybe, as a new animated series. “You see,” Takei said, “all the sets have been struck; all the uniforms are gone. There’s nothing left to go back to.” Famous last words.

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