A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet: Addendum

Further to my reflections on American TV shows over the last few days, someone pointed out that there is not much of a commentary included. I added a few thoughts to the end of the second post, but clearly that was not enough. So I thought I’d try to expand on that.

What effect did these shows have on me as an individual, and my generation?

This is going to be problematic. I can certainly try to explore the effect that they had on me, but beyond that it will have to be conjecture at best.

Firstly then, what is the nature of a hero? Traditionally, a hero was semi-divine, featuring in the mythology of ancient Greece. They were superhuman in some way, admired for their courage or other noble qualities, and often engaged in a feat of self-sacrifice. This definition has been modernised somewhat, taking into account literary heroes, which are simply (and slightly erroneously) seen as the main protagonist of a work of fiction, someone who is generally associated with positive qualities. Often a modern hero will be an everyman, an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation who rises to the challenge facing them. In the real world, of course, a hero is just someone who is respected for some kind of achievement, often showing bravery by risking their own life, but we aren’t interested in real life here!

John McClane: Not a real-life hero

Heroes are central to our emotional landscapes, meaning that we need heroes (either real or imaginary) in order to give us something to aspire to. They have the touch of perfection, but almost inevitably with enough of a flaw to be attainable by mere mortals. At least, that’s how it seems. Most of us are actually far too real, too normal, too boring, to ever achieve heroic status, however hard we may try. Besides, most of us look ridiculous in spandex. But we have invented heros ever since we started thinking, almost. The ancient Greeks had heroes, the Egyptians, the Scandinavians, the Celts. We have always needed someone with the physical and mental strength to stand up for the little people, to face down the tyrant, to win the day.

An action show, or movie, needs a hero (or possibly an antihero, but more of them in a bit), as well as a foil for them, a villain of some sort. This could be, in the case of some of the TV shows discussed before, a villain of the week, a one-off bad guy who is defeated before the hero moves on. Or it could be a recurring bad guy, or succession of essentially identical bad guys working for one uber-villain. Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of the latter, with the Cylons repeatedly throwing themselves at the fleet, following the orders of the Imperious Leader, while an example of the former would be Knight Rider, where Michael Knight would drive around looking for desperate people that he could help. The A-Team, of course, would fall somewhere between the two, as they would often be fighting a villain of the week while simultaneously trying to avoid capture by the military police led by Colonel Decker. Heroes need someone to fight who represents the bad in the world. This could be repressive authority, the ‘tyranny of evil men’, corporate greed. It needs to be something that affects ordinary people, people who, for whatever reason, are powerless against it.

This man is Satan's representative on Earth.
Possibly.

80s heroes embraced the anti-authority angle with gusto. The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Airwolf all feature heroes who work against the accepted face of government in some way, although all are sympathetic characters. Hannibal and co. are wrongly convicted of a crime, the Duke boys are charming rogues guilty of nothing more than a little illicit booze smuggling and Stringfellow Hawke was being blackmailed to work for a distinctly dubious and secretive arm of government. The audience is firmly on the side of the rebel, especially in America, where the rebel is part of their national history. The American nation was born out of rebellion (specifically rebellion against the British – just watch any Mel Gibson film of the last fifteen years), so it is fitting that their heroes should now take on that role. Quite often, various branches of Federal government are used as the villain, be it the CIA, the FBI, local law enforcement or whatever. This shows us that although Americans are fiercely proud of their rebellious beginnings, they do not necessarily trust the systems put in place for the protection of their nation. This was especially odd in the 80s, when America was deep in the Cold War, following a strong anti-communist policy. The idea of heroes going around helping people who were unable to help themselves was a deeply communistic one, totally at odds with the capitalist American dream. And yet these heroes flourished.

Yee-Haw, as I believe the phrase is.

The rebel is iconic, it runs through folklore and history. American history in particular is full of these men – and they are almost exclusively men: Patrick Henry; George Washington; Sam Houston. This carries through into television and film: Han Solo; Jim Stark; Tyler Durden. The 80s were more open to the idea of the rebel in television than earlier decades, partly because of the oppressive political climate, partly because of the decreasing cost of producing television shows combined with larger budgets, which made it easier to churn out action and science-fiction shows with reasonable (if not excellent) production values. Glen Larson and Stephen Cannell, among others, were used to capitalize on this situation with their huge outpouring of shows. But these shows were made by men, starred men and dealt with male relationships. The female roles were generally little more than eye candy, without any depth or importance to the plot, mostly there just to be kissed by the heroes and occasionally get kidnapped. The A-Team in particular was criticised for being sexist, and indeed some of the stars were openly hostile to the idea of including regular female cast members. It’s true that very few action shows from that period had female leads: in the late 70s, Wonder Woman, as portrayed by Lynda Carter, had pranced across the small screen in her satin tights, Lindsay Wagner was playing The Bionic Woman at around the same time, and the classic Charlie’s Angels kept karate kicking for a year or two longer. But as the 80s dawned, these shows disappeared, leaving women to fill the fluff roles, supporting the more traditionally ‘heroic’ men.

Good morning, Angels!

The depiction of violence is another area where these shows stand out. Famously, The A-Team never killed anyone, despite spraying bullets and explosives around like champagne on the winner’s podium. Michael Knight rarely (if ever) fired a gun, but did manage to run half a dozen cars off the road in every 45 minute episode (this may be an exaggeration). Airwolf launched missiles and rockets with wild abandon, Blue Thunder‘s cannon almost never stopped firing and even the Duke boys forced Hazzard County to spend the GDP of a medium-sized South American country on replacement police cars. And yet no-one ever died. No blood was ever spilt. The reason for this was obvious, of course: prime time television couldn’t allow it. The exceptions to this rule were Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as they were only shooting aliens and robots, which was somehow more acceptable to the censor’s sensibilities. This violence, harmless as it may appear to a generation dulled by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, was problematic at the time. Networks worried that even this level of ‘cartoon’ violence would be disliked by parents, although relatively few complaints were received. It has been suggested that the over-the-top violence was the cause of the demise of these shows, as viewers eventually preferred less ‘masculine’ shows, turning instead to more family themed programming.

The 80s action style lived on for a few more years in the cinema, evolving eventually into the antihero movies of Leon and The Boondock Saints, characters who will do whatever it takes to do the right thing, even if that means shooting a whole bunch of people in the face. No A-Team style cartoon violence there, although the motives (help people who cannot help themselves) remain the same. The targets changed too, becoming more focused on organised crime rather than corrupt government or local criminals. Today, of course, we have a range of villains to shoot at. Our post-modern take on the action movie means that we can’t throw a brick into a crowd without hitting someone that we can call a villain: lawyers, capitalists, terrorists, gangers, activists, bent coppers, the list is virtually endless. But the reasons, and the rebellious nature of our heroes, remains. How many cop shows or movies haven’t featured a cop arguing with his or her superiors about the best way to deal with a criminal? How many shootouts don’t involve hundreds of bullets missing their targets? How many car chases don’t involve one of the chasing cars crashing into civilian traffic at an intersection? These shows have helped to shape the collective unconsciousness. We now expect to see these conventions acted out, even if we dismiss them as clichéd, and feel somehow cheated when they are ignored.

Chicks with guns: Sexy. And a little worrying.

The sexism angle is still with us. Strong female characters are more accepted, but still not common, and the argument remains that most of them are simply masculinised, rather than being strong in their own right. Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day has lost the femininity and innocence of the first film and bulked up, becoming muscular, dressing in baggy, form-hiding combat trousers, and failing to be the mother-figure that young John Connor needs. Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series is a combat expert with some superhuman abilities, turning her into nothing more than a robotic killing machine. Some films are more effective, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, which attempt to show women operating in a masculine society without losing their femininity. Crouching Tiger… presents the character of Yu Shu Lien as submissive to the masculine society but still able to operate as a warrior, maintaining both her masculine role and her feminine one.

But did the 80s shows change us? Did they make us see the world in a certain way? Judging by the recent run of 80s series being rebooted or made into Hollywood movies, I’d venture to suggest that they have made a lasting impression on my generation: The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, G.I. Joe, Battlestar Galactica. The rebel-as-hero archetype is still with us, as is the antihero, although both predate the 80s by hundreds of years, it was that decade that saw them truly come into their own. Heroes are not infallible, and we don’t want them to be. Superman is the least interesting of the mainstream superheroes, largely because he is too close to perfection. There is no way for us to relate to him. In the recent reboot of that franchise, the film-makers had to give him both a son (to give his enemies a new way to hurt him) and a literal mountain of Kryptonite! Batman, on the other hand, is really quite damaged and flawed. He is much darker and the audience likes him for it, recognising some of their own flaws behind that mask.

The 80s heroes were more innocent in many ways, hovering on the fringes of criminality without ever venturing in too deep. That would have been too disturbing for the young audience. Somewhere along the line, we lost that innocence. As a result, TV heroes have lost a lot of their power to thrill and excite us.

I think that’s a bad thing. What do you think?

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 1

I watched TV in the 80s. Lots of TV. In Britain, a lot of the TV that children watched (except for the stuff shown on children’s TV on weekday evenings between 3 and 6) was American. The stuff produced for kids in Britain was often quite… odd. I remember the obvious shows, the famous ones, like Bagpuss, Danger Mouse and Fraggle Rock, but I also remember some more obscure ones, like Jamie and the Magic Torch, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and The Adventure Game. Not to mention Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Metal Mickey, Cheggers Plays Pop, King Rollo, Mr Benn, Rentaghost… the list goes on! Many of these titles I remember with fondness, some with a cringing horror and a couple with genuine confusion. Check out the opening titles to Jamie and the Magic Torch on youtube if you don’t understand why.

Look at this picture and tell me that someone wasn't on drugs

But these shows, rose-tinted though my recollection may be, are not the ones that were truly formative. These just formed a backdrop to my early years, when there were far more interesting things to do than watch telly (there were only three channels back then anyway, at least until 1982). Riding bikes and climbing trees were much more exciting! But then something changed. Friday and Saturday evenings, usually at the beginning of what they would term ‘Prime Time’, started being taken over by the Americans. A couple of names drifted across British televisions a lot in the 80s: Glen A Larson and Stephen J Cannell. Between them, they produced a huge percentage of the iconic TV shows that British children ended up watching: The Rockford Files, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, The Greatest American Hero, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy and The A-Team, as well as several less known and short-lived series (Manimal, Automan, The Highwayman). These two men, just names on a screen, shaped a generation of British kids with their heroes and villains. Yes, the shows were largely cheap crap, with recycled stock footage and the same four stunts shown from different angles, but that didn’t matter. They created an entirely fictional America, in which the sun always shone, convertibles were the coolest thing ever, everything was slightly too yellow, and every woman looked fantastic in a shiny jumpsuit.

Any excuse to show a picture of Wilma Deering (Erin Gray)

These shows were incredible to my young eyes, although if I watch them now I can see just how much television has moved on since the 80s. I genuinely believed in the formula that they were selling. I believed that the good guys would always win, even if my heart was in my mouth the whole way through each episode. I believed that facial hair often indicated a bad guy (and now I have a beard – what does THAT mean?), and women needed men to rescue them, unless they were Wilma Deering, in which case she’d kick a bit of ass (before needing to be rescued). There were other issues, ones which the child didn’t notice but the man can’t ignore. The shows were almost exclusively white (Mr T’s inclusion in The A-Team being the most obvious exception). Any racial minority was either a bad guy or a one-off supporting character at best, often appearing in a storyline about how racist everyone except the hero was. Remember that this was two decades after Sidney Poitier won his first Oscar, so black actors were not unknown, just unused. The black community shouldn’t feel alone though, because women were pretty poorly treated as well. Relegated to supporting characters, or more usually a bit of eye candy, they were invariably the love interest for the main hero, or a glorified secretary. Even the supposedly ‘strong’ characters, like the aforementioned Ms Deering, were always getting into trouble by being too impulsive or careless, and the hero would need to come and rescue them again. The 80s weren’t a great decade for female empowerment, it must be said.

Ok, now that the critique (such as it was) is out of the way, let’s have a look at what made some of these shows so great. We’ll start with an easy one: Battlestar Galactica. I won’t be talking about the new series, partly because it offends me, with its high production values and sets that don’t wobble, but mainly because I haven’t bothered watching it. I remember the original with too much fondness to watch a new version. If it’s bad, it will taint my memories of the original, but if it’s good, I’ll feel like I’m betraying the original! So we’ll stick with the original in this article.

Apparently, both cigars and shit-eating grins are in plentiful supply out in deep space.

Battlestar Galactica was pretty much a rip-off of earlier, and more succesful, science-fiction stories. Universal Studios were sued by 20th Century Fox, who claimed that they had plagiarised a large number of ideas from Star Wars (a slightly rude claim, considering how much Star Wars had stolen from earlier shows). Glen Larson was given the nickname Glen Larceny by Harlan Ellison for this very reason, and Galactica failed to make a huge impact on American television. It was a modest success in Britain, where it was repeated for a good few years. It never made it to a second season, although Larson certainly had plans for one, including bringing Isaac Asimov in as Science Consultant (which may have involved throwing pretty much everything about the first series out of the airlock!) and trying to bring in some female viewers by strengthening the characters of Athena and Cassiopeia. We’ll never know if this would have worked, obviously, but it’s worth noting that this plan did apparently introduce several elements that were picked up in the remake.

As a child, Galactica was great. Even the brown suede jackets and guns that looked suspiciously like the Stormtrooper pistols from Star Wars. Even better were the Viper fighters. A poor man’s X-Wing, maybe, but undeniably awesome. They looked brutal, dirty and cool, like they would actually fly (even if they did only have three buttons), and had huge flaming jets out of the back when the pilot hit the Turbo! Oh, and the pilots were replaced by female shuttle pilots in one two-part episode, when Blue Squadron succumbed to a mystery disease. This gave the producers an excuse to show what the flight suits looked like under the suede and velveteen.

Damn, I love my job!

Sexist? Never! The Apollo/Starbuck friendship was the classic mix of straight-laced and easy-going, with Dirk Benedict schmoozing his way across the screen with his trademark cigar clamped between his (impossibly white) teeth. These were cookie-cutter hero templates, with righteousness oozing from every pore, and their only flaws being just too damn irresistable to the opposite sex. Oh sure, Starbuck would get into trouble by being too impulsive, and Apollo would disobey orders so he could ‘do the right thing’, but it would all be fine in the end. There wasn’t really any conflict, and even the Cylons weren’t that much of a threat – having forced the fleet to traverse the galaxy looking for a new home by destroying the colony worlds, the Cylons seemed incapable of blowing up a few ships and would constantly be foiled by a handful of ‘plucky Viper pilots’ (TM) despite having an overwhelming numerical advantage. But this is the Way of the TV Hero. No matter what, you will live to win another day.

This is very clear in what is arguably the most famous of the 80s TV action shows: Frank Lupo and Stephen J Cannell’s The A-Team. It told the story of four Viet Nam veteran ex-commandos who were “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground”. The four men, Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Lieutenant Templeton Peck – otherwise known as Face, Captain ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch and Sergeant B.A. ‘Bad Attitude’ Baracus, became mercenaries, hiring themselves out to any good cause that wanted help. There were a few subsidiary characters (notably reporters Amy Allen and Tawnia Baker – the only two recurring female characters who had both ‘left’ the show by the third season – and Frankie Santana in the fifth and final season), mainly made up of the military police officers assigned to hunt the A-Team down. The final important member of the team was big, black and made by GMC: the iconic A-Team van.

If you don't want to take this thing sideways on a dirt road, I don't even want to know what's wrong with you.

The A-Team spent a large proportion of their time firing fully automatic weapons at the bad guys, causing huge explosions and making jeeps spin out of control, leap a parked car and explode, yet somehow managed to avoid killing or even seriously wounding anyone! Helicopters would spiral into the ground, exploding in a ball of flame, and a few moments later the occupants would crawl out of the fire-blackened wreckage. This was a deliberate ploy on the part of the programme makers to ensure that the show was acceptable for early evening, prime-time broadcast. The violence was kept to exciting but safe levels, almost comic-book style, big explosions and wild gunfights, with no blood or death to disturb the young viewers (or the censors).

Each character filled a very specific niche, both in terms of their skills and their personality. Hannibal was the sensible leader, the man with the plans. Face was the smooth-talker, the fixer. Murdoch was the crazy one, the pilot who could fly anything. And B.A. was the strong man, the mechanic, who wouldn’t take no shit off fools! They would almost invariably get captured at some point in each episode, and end up inexplicably locked in a shed which just so happened to have all the parts and tools with which to construct an armoured, fire-breathing, racing tank (or similar). As a team, they had all the bases covered and had the righteous courage to stand up to any bully, and this was the core of the series: a group of comrades with no fear, as long as they worked together. They may not always have been friends (Murdoch was always deliberately winding B.A. up, for example), but they always pulled together like the battle-hardened soldiers that they were.

An iconic vehicle was the order of business for our next show: Knight Rider. The car in question was KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a truly pimped-out Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was fitted with pretty much anything it would need, most of which would only be used in one episode and then forgotten, but the usual gear included a turbo boost, flame-throwers, smoke-screens, ‘Super-Pursuit’ mode, impenetrable armour plating and, of course, an Artificial Intelligence Unit with Voice Synthesizer. KITT was capable of driving itself around, so quite why it needed the presence of that mop-haired buffoon, David Hasselhoff, is anyone’s guess.

No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you will never be as cool as this picture. FACT.

The story was that Michael Long, an LAPD officer played by Larry Anderson, was shot in the face while investigating the murder of his partner. Long was declared dead, but was actually transferred into the care of FLAG (the Foundation for Law And Government), a secret organisation set up by billionaire and philanthropist Wilton Knight. Long’s wounds were healed and he was given a new face (that of Wilton Knight’s presumed dead son) and a new identity (that of Michael Knight, played by The Hoff(TM), with The Hoff’s Hair(TM) in a supporting role) with which to go out and fight crime. Michael Knight had support, in the shape of Devon Miles, the Director of FLAG played by Edward Mulhare, and Dr Bonnie Barstow, FLAG’s chief engineer, played by Patricia MacPherson. Knight would drive around California (usually) as a high-tech knight-errant, fighting crime and solving mysteries. It was pretty formulaic, and eventually lost out to The A-Team in both the ratings war and the nostalgia war.

In another case of ‘The Car’s The Star’, a 1969 Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, with an orange paint job and welded-shut doors became an iconic piece of 80s action history. The Dukes of Hazzard was a highly enjoyable romp around Hazzard County in Georgia with the Duke Boys, Bo and Luke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat), as they drove like lunatics and annoyed the local law, portrayed as the incompetent redneck Roscoe P Coltrane (James Best), under the control of the corrupt Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), the county commissioner. The Duke Boys were forever foiling Boss Hogg’s money-making scams by…well, by driving around mostly. I have to admit, I have only a tenuous grasp on the actual plot, beyond the fact that the Duke Boys were moonshine runners originally, and now had a thing about foiling Boss Hogg’s plans. Look, there was a lot of driving around, and skidding and jumping over things.

I was ten years old, leave me alone.

Ok, maybe there was another reason...

Yeah. Cousin Daisy, played by Catherine Bach and her two supporting co-stars. She drove around in her white Jeep spying on Boss Hogg for her cousins and generally kept Uncle Jesse company. There was basically a lot of driving and vehicular stunt work in the show, as Bo was supposedly an ex-stock car racer and the General Lee was modified for racing. There was also the famous ‘hood-slide’, where one of the Duke Boys (usually Luke) would slide across the bonnet of the General Lee in order to get around the other side of the car more quickly. I don’t really know why, because it didn’t really impart much of an advantage. It just looked awesome.

All I know is that it didn’t work so well on a 1983 Austin Ambassador.

END OF PART ONE