Gort vs pretense: We look back at cult TV series The Pretender

Commander's log, Stardate 16072013.2:

"What are you doing?" I asked Gort. I had wandered into the Mothership's galley and found him standing, still as a statue and buzzing to himself. I wondered if his ethical circuit had made another attempt to re-assert itself, but no...

"I'm training myself to infiltrate human culture," he said. "I am getting closer to being able to adopt the mindset of a food refrigerator." For a moment, I very nearly responded, then thought better of it and left him buzzing to himself.


If there is one TV genre that has stood the test of time, it is the savant detective show. Essentially, this is any TV series about a person who has a unique talent that allows them to solve a different mystery and help a different person each episode. In its heyday, the charge was led by shows like Columbo and Ironside, and the trend runs right up to the modern day with series like Lie To Me, Unforgettable, Numbers, Touch and so on. Even Quantum Leap, Knight Rider and The Littlest Hobo technically qualify.

These shows tend to surge to popularity and then disappear very quickly as their formats get tired. Few are ever missed, but The Pretender is an exception - maintaining a cult following and rumours of a Serenity-style return, 13 years after its cancellation.

"The Pretender maintains a cult following and rumours of a Serenity-style return, 13 years after its cancellation"

A young boy named Jarod is kidnapped from his parents by a sinister secret organisation called The Centre. Jarod is a prodigy known as a Pretender, who is capable of empathising with others to such an extent that he can completely change his personality. Essentially, Jarod can read a manual on open heart surgery, put on a white coat and go perform an operation without anyone ever suspecting he's not a doctor. Patrick Bauchau spends years using Jarod as a guinea pig, having him "pretend" to be other people in order to predict their actions. For example, he pretends to be Lee Harvey Oswald and works out the assassin could not have killed JFK alone.

Eventually, Jarod grows up into Michael T Weiss and discovers that The Centre, despite telling him the experiments were for the greater good, has been selling the results to the highest bidder to use for malicious purposes. He escapes and goes on the run, insinuating himself into a different profession every episode like a big-nosed Leo DiCaprio, and finding a way to manipulate a bad guy who got away with it into incriminating themselves. All the while Bauchau and The Centre's superbitch enforcer, the disturbingly attractive Andrea Parker, are hot on his trail.

The weekly plots were usually fairly dull, but a combination of Weiss' charm playing the developmentally challenged Jarod - who has grown into a man without ever watching TV, playing a video game or kissing a girl - and X-Files-style conspiracy plots involving menacing emphysemic villains kept viewers watching. The revelations kept on coming, casting Bauchau and "Miss" Parker as sympathetic anti-heroes more than villains, leaving them on Weiss' side as often as not. Alas, most of the series' big mysteries, such as who Jarod's parents were or what The Centre was actually up to, weren't solved before its cancellation after four series, or even in the two follow-up TV movies, but the creators keep threatening to bring the show back to wrap it up and we can only hope the funding comes in, Veronica Mars-style.

The Pretender isn't easy to find, but has been released on US and UK DVD