A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 2

To start the second part of my nostalgic trip back to the 80s I would like to look at what we have seen so far: Science Fiction, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, in which friendship in the face of overwhelming odds will see you to success; Action, in the form of The A-Team, in which camaraderie in the face of corrupt, oppressive government will see you to success; Action/Science Fiction, in the form of Knight Rider, in which a refusal to use guns and a certain purity of heart (as well as a technologically advanced Pontiac) will see you to success; Action/Comedy, in the form of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which a strong family unit in the face of corrupt, if inept, law and government will see you to success.

I’m seeing a pattern develop…

So, moving on from these well-known shows, I thought I’d throw in a couple of lesser known ones that I have fond (if vague) memories of. I’ll kick off with Manimal and Automan. These were both very short-lived, with Manimal managing just eight episodes and Automan racking up twelve. Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a rich traveller with the ‘mystical’ (i.e. unexplained) ability to turn into any animal. He used this remarkable talent to (yep, you’ve guessed it) fight crime! He would assist his friend, Detective Brooke MacKenzie, in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice by turning into a hawk. Or a panther. Mainly those two. Honestly, it’s almost as if they blew their budget for transformation sequences pretty early on, and besides, they only had access to a hawk and a panther for much of the filming anyway. This was pretty much what had happened. Chase would sometimes turn into another animal in each episode, but they wouldn’t show it happening. Stan Winston (of Terminator, Predator and Aliens fame) created the transformation effects, but, if we’re being totally honest, it isn’t his best work. Not even close.

Stan was kind of phoning it in at this stage

Automan was perhaps even worse. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) as Walter Nebicher, crappy cop but computer programmer extraordinaire, who creates an Artificial Intelligence programme capable of generating a solid, real-world body (played by Chuck Wagner, best known in Britain as ‘Who?’). Together, Walter and Automan would drive around the city in a computer generated Lamborghini Countach which could somehow make 90 degree turns (probably with the magic of computering), and solve crimes. One could be forgiven for suggesting that the show’s creators were trying to jump on the Tron bandwagon, because they totally were, even to the extent of hiring senior crew from the film. Visually, there were obvious similarities (although the movie used expensive hand painted animation for their suit effects, while the television series used reflective tape and spotlights), and thematically Automan was essentially an inversion of the Tron concept.

"Dude. This is a really crappy show."
"I know, man. I know."

On the slighty less shitty side, we have vehicles other than cars to entertain us. Firstly, a motorcycle. Street Hawk was another short-lived series starring Rex Smith as the unlikely sounding Jesse Mach, injured cop and dirt-bike rider, who is selected for a Secret Government Project (TM) involving a prototype motorbike. He becomes The Street Hawk, vigilante crime-fighter. Yeah, it’s basically Knight Rider with a much smaller budget and only two wheels. The bike had a ‘hyperthrust’ mode, which supposedly propelled it at speeds of three hundred miles per hour, but it was mainly used for jumping traffic at junctions. There was little in the way of uniqueness about the show, following as it did the same formula as the far more successful and iconic Knight Rider, and it folded after thirteen episodes. It wasn’t a bad show, as these things are measured. It was just eclipsed by a bigger budget and better concept.

In 1983 a movie starring Roy Scheider was released, called Blue Thunder. It featured a high-tech stealth and combat helicopter (called Blue Thunder) being tested by a Viet Nam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the streets of LA. Yeah, good call. This film inspired a short-lived television series following pretty much the same format. James Farentino took over the Roy Scheider role, and was supported by Dana Carvey (better known as Garth from Wayne’s World) and Bubba Smith (better known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies). The helicopter itself was a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle, with a front end so ugly only its mother (or possibly a very drunk Apache Longbow) could love it. Although it had the moderate success of the movie to build on, it too only lasted for a disappointing eleven episodes. Why was that? Well, compare this:

To this:

That’s right: Airwolf. Airwolf thrashed Blue Thunder in the ratings war, and it’s not too hard to see why. Firstly, the helicopter itself looked so much more high-tech. Secondly, the actors were much better (insomuch as Ernest Borgnine and Jan-Michael Vincent can be considered ‘better actors’ than anyone). And thirdly, character names. Blue Thunder‘s hero revelled in the name Frank Chaney, while Airwolf blasted that into obscurity with the fabulous Stringfellow Hawke. Yeah, that’s right. Stringfellow Hawke: any name that conjured up a bird of prey and a lapdancing club couldn’t have been more masculine unless his middle names were Chuck and Norris.

The plot was slightly more complex than that of Blue Thunder, in that Stringfellow Hawke used to be a test pilot for the FIRM, a division of the CIA. His collection of artwork is stolen by the FIRM and he is tasked with retrieving the stolen helicopter from its inventor, Dr Moffet, and returning it to Archangel, Director of the FIRM. Except, rather predictably, Hawke doesn’t return it. He stashes it in the desert to use as leverage against Archangel for the return of his brother, who is missing in action. Archangel offers him protection from the other interested parties in government if Hawke agrees to fly covert missions for him. Cue much flying around the desert blowing shit up.

Series one was a serious examination of Cold War politics, with the FIRM (dressed in white) sending Hawke to deal with threats to the US Government, while always looking for an opportunity to reclaim Airwolf from him. But the studio decided that it was too dark, and from the second series toned it down into another action-adventure show, Knight Rider with rotor blades, with the FIRM and Hawke acting as partners in a crime-fighting organisation. This took something away from the show, removing the antagonism between Hawke and the ‘good guys’, and lowered the show to more standard fare. It struggled on for two more seasons with the original cast, and one season with an entirely new cast (and recycled shots of the helicopter flying), before finally being cancelled.

Flight is one of the themes of the next show on the list, albeit clumsily done. This Stephen J Cannell produced show starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), a high school teacher who is given a suit by alien beings which grants him superheroic abilities. The Greatest American Hero was a primarily a comedy show, centered around the premise that Ralph didn’t know how to use the suit properly (he lost the instruction manual) and had to learn its abilities by trial and error. Much hilarity ensued.

Would you really want to be rescued by this guy?

The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons, making it one of the more successful shows on this list, but there were differences in opinion between Cannell and the series executives about the direction that the show would take. Cannell envisioned it as a way to explore realistic, normal, everyday problems, but the executives wanted a more mainstream, simplistic hero show. The executives won, for the most part, although Cannell did score a few points along the way. It remained an interesting show to watch, and it was genuinely funny in places, but it was always struggling to be better than it was allowed to be and eventually failed as a result.

Our final show has already been referenced, and since we started with a science-fiction show we might as well end on one. At the end of the 70s, Star Wars was busy shattering records and rewriting the sci-fi bible, so the studios cast around for a way to cash in. We have already seen how Battlestar Galactica was sued by 20th Century Fox, but despite this Universal Studios released a feature based on one of their old properties, one that had been knocking around in various forms since the 1920s. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was well-received, which prompted a TV series that survived for two seasons. It centred around an astronaut, Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers, who was piloting a space shuttle that suffered a malfunction, freezing Rogers for over five centuries. He was rescued by the inhabitants of New Chicago and joined the Earth Defense.

Could this be much more of a Star Wars rip-off?
Or more obviously 80s?

Buck, played by Gil Gerard, was a truly heroic character. He was both a lover and a fighter, sweeping a succession of ladies off of their silver shoes while being chased by the beautiful but evil Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). His close companion was the beautiful Wilma Deering, a Colonel in the Earth Defense played by Erin Gray. Just in case you don’t know, she looked like this:

Any excuse...

Although sometimes she looked more like this:

Ok, I'll stop now...

Anyway, Buck and Wilma spent much of their time defending Earth from invasion, while trying to get Buck to fit in to 25th century society. They were helped in this by Twiki, the child-sized robot, and Dr Theopolis, the hyper-intelligent Speak & Spell. Buck Rogers… was highly camp space-opera. There was no depth, no social commentary, just space ships, spandex and robots. It was cheesy and fun, although the second season attempted a more serious tone, largely as a result of Gerard himself pressuring the producers. The character of Hawk, a member of a bird based alien race, was introduced, allowing the programme makers to explore religious and mythological themes, as well as ecological and racist themes and ideas on evolution. Unfortunately, the show stalled due to falling ratings and was cancelled after the second series.

So what have we learnt on our trawl through the American imports? Hopefully, we can see a formula developing. We know that a hero, or heroes, are often, in some way, rebellious or anti-authoritarian. This sits well with the American image, or at least with the image that Americans like to believe in. They are the rebellious country, after all, born from colonial oppression and the subsequent revolution. The A-Team were wrongly accused and imprisoned. Stringfellow Hawke was blackmailed into working for ‘The Man’. Michael Knight was fighting crime under a false identity. Starbuck and Apollo broke the rules to get the job done. The Duke Boys were petty criminals fighting government corruption. Even Buck Rogers was fighting royalist oppressors.

Next, we can assume that Americans like their heroes male. None of these shows have female leads, and none of the female stars are particularly strong. Except this one:

What?

Sorry.

Anyway, most of these shows were decidedly masculine, not only in casting but in attitude as well. On the set of The A-Team, George Peppard famously told supporting actress Marla Heasley (who played reporter Tawnia Baker on the show), “we don’t want you on the show…for some reason they think they need a girl”. This sentiment was echoed much later by Dirk Benedict, who called it “a guys show” and “the last truly masculine show”. This underlying sexism ran through most of the 80s shows, certainly the American ones that were shown on British TV. I suspect our homegrown shows were no better, although I do recall a lot of Miss Marple being watched in our house.

Did this affect us growing up? I believe it did. So many studies have shown what a profound influence television can have on a young mind that it seems impossible that it didn’t have an effect. But what? How were we changed by what we watched? Well, I suspect that our view of heroic activity was certainly influenced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I think of when the words ‘action hero’ are mentioned, and it isn’t Mark Wahlberg. Am I sexist? No, I don’t think so, not in the way most people think of as being sexist, although I do subscribe to a reasonably old-fashioned ideal of manhood, whereby you hold doors open for women, let them go first, give up your seat on a bus or train and so on. These actions are sometimes considered sexist, which I think is a little harsh. After all, I also hold doors open for men.

Well, the point is that these shows are bound to have coloured our views of heroism. A real hero (a real man, if you like) is a bit of a rebel. He doesn’t bow down to ‘The Man’, doesn’t give in to the oppressor. He will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and will risk his life for a righteous cause, all while wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans (or possibly spandex or suede). Moustaches are heroic, goatees are evil. Any group will consist of people who are experts in their particular field, and whose skills compliment each other perfectly.

And if there is a woman in the group, she’ll probably look like this:

Last one, I promise

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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