I think it’s safe to say that the past couple of weeks was a long decade. No review today, but Lost in Translation will return next week.
As a year, 2020 managed to be a dumpster fire on top of a flaming pile of crap. However, a few things worth looking at did come out of it. Some were even remakes. One of the remakes, Spitting Image may have been needed, a shot in the arm to handle current affairs.
Spitting Image first aired in 1984, debuting on the British network ITV. The series was a satire of current affairs featuring puppets in the image of the movers and shakers of the day, hence the name. Creators Peter Fluck, Roger Law, and Martin Lambie-Nairn pulled no punches during the run of the show, which, at its height, was one of Britain’s highest rated series. However, the high numbers couldn’t last as politics changed and Spitting Image was cancelled in 1996 due to low viewership.
The politics of the 80s took a shift to the right. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK; Ronald Reagan was President of the US. Terrorism was a threat, with the Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization being notable for the era. Dark times, but there were distractions. The Royal Family was always good for a scandal, and Princess Diana provided a human side of the family. In entertainment, Michael Jackson was carrying the fame from 1982’s Thriller and was only beginning to show signs of eccentricity. Andrew Lloyd Webber had a smash hit with Cats, opening 1981 and still on Broadway during the run of Spitting Image, and would have another smash with The Phantom of the Opera in 1986. In the 80s, if you had a niche musical taste, there was a band filling it.
And Spitting Image satired all of it. The Royal Family, with Her Majesty being the only sane woman while the Queen Mother gets into the gin and the Princes getting into all sorts of trouble. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, ruling Britain and her own cabinet with an iron fist, not caring about who gets hurt. Neil Kinnock, head of the Labour Party and the Opposition, who is not quite there. Ronald Reagan, who was portrayed as being senile. Spitting Image didn’t take sides; all was fair game. Even international politics were skewered, with Prime Minister PW Botha of Apartheid-era South Africa making appearances. Leaders of the USSR got puppets, from Chernenko, who may or may not be dead, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who pioneered Glasnost and Perestroika, opening up the Soviet Union.
Satire holds up the elevated for examination, flaws and all. Satire can be funny, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, the hardest impact is to slip a satirical, serious moment in between the moments of ridicule. Music can drive the point home faster and harder. In the series’ popularity, Spitting Image had Sting and Genesis perform for the show.
Not all songs were hard hitting. Sometimes, the song parodied the music industry. Take “The Chicken Song”.
Originally written to skewer pop novelty songs that hit top ten in the summer, “The Chicken Song” became a pop novelty song that hit number one for three weeks. Sometimes, satire becomes what it satirizes, and there’s no predicting how that will happen.
Politics, though, changes. It’s the one constant of the field. Thatcher stepped down, Reagan finished his second term, leading to George W. Bush’s single term, Apartheid ended, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union disbanded, sort of. The 90s brought a softer touch and a leftward swing in global politics, and the quality of politician changed. There was no cruelty for the sake of cruelty, no senility, just normal scandals like sexual favours in the Oval Office. Nothing earthshaking.
As mentioned, 2020 may be one of the worst years on record, up there with 1348 when the Black Death[https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death] killed a third of the population of Europe alone, and similar numbers in Asia and the Middle East. Fascists marched in American cities. Britain left the European Union without a plan. In a bleak year, something was needed to give hope, or at least laughs. Spitting Image returned.
This time, Britbox became the series’ home, with a parallel YouTube channel. While a new cast of characters were needed, there are some returning characters. Her Majesty will be celebrating the 69th year of her reign on February 6, 2021; her children have gotten older and have had their own kids. For the new characters, Boris Johnson is no Margaret Thatcher, and Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.
The new series, much like the original, doesn’t pull punches. Even Greta Thunberg appears, though the new series is exaggerating her more than anything else. Boris Johnson is portrayed as a mindless lout, not able to make a decision, with his cabinet more out of control and looking to replace him, ideally with themselves. Trump is venal, stupid, and incapable of learning. His marriage to Melania is loveless. Ivanka is vapid, and Jared Kushner is a mannequin.
Both series require a good knowledge of current affairs from a British point of view. There’s no getting around that. With the new series, the case in point is Jürgen Klopp, who manages the Liverpool football club and has a generally cheery outlook on life that the series exaggerates. The series can take a light look at things as well.
Political satire requires politicians who aren’t staid and competent. Unfortunately, 2020 didn’t have staid and competent politicians. The Spitting Image remake returned when it was needed. The 80s hid the darkness of the Thatcher regime and the Reagan White House with glitzy entertainment, something that 2020 did not have. The remake keeps the irreverence of the original and provides a beam of, if not hope, laughter, in a hell of a year.
With the holidays over, let’s ease back into the reviews. Two and a half years ago, Lost In Translation covered the audio drama adaptation of Star Wars. NPR and LucasFilm teamed up two more times, bringing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to radio. Today, we’ll examine the radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back.
When Star Wars was released in 1977, it could stand alone. The plot was resolved, though there were a few plot lines still left dangling. The end was satisfying, with the Empire’s planet-killing super-weapon destroyed. Sure, the Empire wasn’t completely defeated, but the Rebellion had struck a major blow against it.
In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back came out. The Rebellion was on the run. The base on the fourth moon of Yavin was known, thanks to Vader escaping after the Death Star’s destruction. The Empire is busy looking for the Rebel Alliance’s headquarters, sending out probe droids to planets in the Outer Regions, a sparsely populated part of the Galaxy Far Far Away that includes Tattooine. The Rebels have started making a new HQ on Hoth, a frozen planet with its own problems like hostile local lifeforms. Then the Imperial probe droid arrives.
The movie can be broken down into X main parts. The first is on Hoth, ending with the Rebel Alliance fleeing the planet with Empire in pursuit. The characters split up. Luke heads to Dagobah to learn from Yoda, a little green Muppet of great wisdom. Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are chased by Vader, through a dense asteroid belt. While Han, Leia, and Chewbacca try to figure out what’s wrong with the Falcon’s hyperdrive, Luke begins his training. Through shenanigans, the Falcon loses the Imperial pursuit and flies sublight to Cloud City on Bespin, where Han knows the Baron-Administrator, Lando Calrissian.
However, thanks to Boba Fett knowing the same shenanigan that Han used, Vader is alerted to where the Falcon is. Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are taken prisoner to be held to draw Luke out. On Dagobah, Luke’s training is intense as he has to unlearn his bad habits and relearn using the Force. A trip through a tree filled with the Dark Side of the Force warns that Luke may become his worst enemy, replacing Vader. However, he feels the pain of his friends and leaves to Bespin.
On Bespin, Han is handed over to Fett, Leia and Chewbacca make their escape, and Lando shows whose side he really is on. Luke arrives to have a lightsabre fight with Vader, who is trying to turn him to the Dark Side. The major revelation – Vader is Luke’s father – comes out, and Luke sees that there is a way out that doesn’t involve becoming Vader’s apprentice. He lets himself fall through Bespin’s ventilation system. Leia picks him up and the Falcon returns to the Rebel Fleet.
Empire ends with Han in carbonite in the hands of a bounty hunter, Luke missing a hand, the Rebellion on the run without a home. The movie is very much the middle of a trilogy, with the heroes on the edge of disaster, despite the previous win. The movie is also very tight in its plot. Luke has his training and Han and Leia are pursued by the Empire. The film keeps things personal for the characters. There is no massive climactic space battle. The final action scene is the heroes trying to escape.
The audio adaptation brings back Brian Daley to write the script, and the same cast for the returning characters. Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels again reprise their roles as Luke and 3P0, respectively, and Billy Dee Williams joins the cast to play Lando again. Ann Sachs, Bernard Behrens, Perry King, and Brock Peters are back, and are joined by new cast members John Lithgow as Yoda, Peter Miachel Goetz as Admiral Ozzel, Gordon Gould as General Veers, Nicholas Kepros as Captain Needa, David Rache as Admiral Piett, Don Scardino as Wedge, and Alan Rosenberg as Boba Fett. The cast is interesting, almost an alternate universe dream cast for the film. John Lithgow at times sounds more like Cookie Monster, another of Frank Oz’s characters, than Yoda when being playful, but takes on the wisdom of the ages when Yoda turns serious.
The radio play starts earlier than the film, with the ambush of a Rebel convoy protected by Renegade Flight by the Empire, ending with the complete destruction of all fighters and freighters in the convoy. There’s more depth given to the Imperial officers, including Needa wishing to see some action before the Galactic Civil War is over and a rivalry between Ozzel and Piett. The format does require dialogue to paint the scene. The use of the Force gets narrated by the user. Luke calls his lightsabre to him, and Vader explains that he his channeling his anger when he chokes. Luke destroying an AT-AT single-handed was done through the point-of-view of the Command Centre.
Not all actions were explicitly narrated. Some were handled through an off-comment. One that worked well came from an interchange between the Deck Officer at Echo Base and Han when the latter was trying to find out if Luke had returned despite having 3P0 nattering about the Falcon‘s hyperdrive.
Deck Officer: “Why are you holding your hand over the protocol droid’s mouth?”
Han: “He’s got a cough.”
3P0: muffled complaints
With Luke’s training, Yoda is giving instructions on what to do, which is what is seen in the movie. The sound effects are straight from LucasFilm, with Ben Burtt supervising. Music is John Williams, and like the movie, the soundtrack is part of the storytelling of the audio drama.
Casting is again important. The non-film cast members may not sound exact, but they do have the proper delivery. What helps here is that the cast is familiar with playing the characters already and that they have the movie to work from. Han isn’t as flamboyant this time around, but he is still ready to go off to do what needs to be done, whether it’s paying off Jabba or escaping TIE fighters. Ann Sachs has Leia’s leadership; nothing is going to get in her way if she can help it. Brock Peters brings a new dimension to Vader. Lithgow does sound like Frank Oz, even if he’s not quite on point with Yoda. The character, though, can go from frivolous and curious to serious within the span of a few lines, and Lithgow can keep up with the change.
What does help with the adaptation is that the movie is personal. The plot hangs on the characters. There isn’t much room to branch off, unlike R2 and 3P0’s escapades while waiting for Luke and Ben at the Mos Eisley cantina. There still is added depth, like the Piett-Ozzel rivalry, but that comes from needing dialogue to carry the scene instead of visuals.
The radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back puts in an effort to recreate the movie into a medium that lacks the visual spectacle expected from Star Wars. This effort pays off as the radio play still keeps things tight and tense to the end, even when the ending is known.
This past year has been a royal mess of a dumpster fire. No one is going to remember 2020 fondly. A pandemic mishandled by many governments. Far too many beloved celebrities passed away. The American election just. Would. Not. End. Really, if an election lasts more than four weeks, consult a constitutional expert. There have been bright spots, such as the return of Animaniacs and Spitting Image, but those seem few and far between.
Next year, 2021, has some hope to it. There is a vaccine for COVID-19, though it may take until September to finish vaccinating the populace. The US may have a functional president in the New Year, though the UK is still stuck with Boris Johnson. The New Year isn’t going to be an immediate panacea for 2020.
Movie studios are preparing for an extended period where theatres are either in lockdown or audiences are avoiding potential contact with others. Warner will be releasing all of their films, including Dune and The Matrix 4 in theatres and on HBO Max. Disney has done the same, with Hamilton, Artemis Fowl, and Soul moved to forthcoming to Disney+ exclusives and has already released the live action Mulan that way. Studios with access to streaming of some sort are covered.
What about theatres, though? Theatres rely on the output of studios to bring in an audience. Streaming means the audience doesn’t have to leave home. While some megablockbusters may fare better in theatres instead of streaming – who wants to pay $15 to stay at home? – smaller, more personal film may work best streamed. Theatres have been on shaky finances for a while; studios get all of the film proceeds leaving theatres to increase the price at the concession stand. Movies just aren’t staying as long as they used to and no film today will ever stay a year in theatres, unlike in 1977 and 1978, when Star Wars did just that.
Theatres will have to be more than a place that shows movies. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse provide an entire evening out, adding dinner and drinks with the movie. There’s room for expansion. Not every theatre needs to be the full night out with dinner and dancing after the movie, but having a full night out once the pandemic ebbs is an option to keep in mind.
Studios, though, will still have to produce content. While megablockbusters mught get held back to when and if audience levels make it worth a release, studios will need a near certainty to draw audiences out. Megablockbusters like Star Wars and Marvel’s Avengers series are too big to risk reduced audiences because of lockdowns or imposed restrictions on the number of people allowed in a theatre. The optics of an opening that is depressed because of the pandemic could have franchise-wide effects. However, with anticipated films that might not have the pull that the megas have coming, such as /Dune/, there are some adaptations that can be put on the sacrificial altar to judge audiences or used as the canary to determine if it’s safe to bring the megas back.
Television, including streaming services, will see a few changes. Some genres of television just won’t fly right now. Thanks to social distancing, reality TV. The producers and audience of Survivor won’t want to see the contestants all come down with a severe case of COVID-19. Late night talk shows survived the summer social distancing rules by having the hosts and crew work from home where possible, interviewing guests using remote cameras. Smaller casts and crews with constant monitoring for the coronavirus can let a show be put together. Experimental formats could make inroads; the series doesn’t have to perform well, just fill a timeslot. The One Day At A Time remake had animated an episode to get around COVID restrictions.
Content is going to be sparse for a bit. Television has the advantage of being used to getting an episode done within a week, but with social distancing rules in effect, getting cast and crew together is problematic. Writers can use technologies like Skype, Zoom, and Discord to keep in touch with each other, though online meetings are more exhausting than face-to-face. It won’t take long for studios to get back to full production, though.
This coming year is going to be in flux, ultimately. The past year disrupted everything, from how people lived to how people worked, at all levels. There may be no going back to the old normal; if so, a new normal will be established through trial and error. Studios are going to lean heavily on adaptations to carry them, but the megablockbuster will wait until after audience levels are determined. Television and streaming will keep going strong; no one has to leave home to watch series on either. The aftermath of 2020 will play out through 2021, turning next year into a nice ball of unknowns that might work out as people expect or might go more pear-shaped.
Time for the now traditional year-end wrap up with a look at the top ten movies of 2020, thanks to the list compiled by Box Office Mojo. The top movies are
1) Bad Boys for Life – sequel to 1995’s Bad Boys.
2) 1917 – original, inspired by the stories the scriptwriter’s grandfather told about the Great War.
3) Sonic the Hedgehog – adaptation of the video game franchise.
4) Jumanji: The Next Level – sequel to the 1995 movie, Jumanji, itself a loose adaptation of the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg.
5) Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – sequel to the 1977 film, Star Wars.
6) Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – adaptation of comic book characters.
7) Dolittle – adaptation of the character created by High Lofting in a series of books.
8) Little Women – adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name.
9) The Invisible Man – loose adaptation of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man.
10) The Call of the Wild – adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name.
First, to take care of the obvious, 2020 is going to have a huge asterisk on it. None of the films listed above will appear in a top twenty list for the decade. The pandemic and subsequent lock downs hurt the box office. None of the films listed were released after March of 2020. 1917, Jumanji: The Next Level, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Little Women were released late in December 2019. The Rise of Skywalker is the only movie to be on the list for both 2020 and 2019. Blockbusters just didn’t happen in 2020. Studios shelved them in the hopes of being able to wait out the pandemic.
There was one original work in the top ten of 2020, 1917, benefiting from the lock downs. There were two sequels to original works, Bad Boys for Life and The Rise of Skywalker, one sequel to an adaptations, Jumanji: The Next Level, and the rest are adaptations. Possibly another effect of the pandemic lock down, four of the adaptations are based on classic literature, something not seen in a while. Only one comic book adaptation and a moderately successful video game adaptation round out the top ten.
There might be hope that an original film can break into the top ten again this decade. The problem here is that 2020 is an atypical year compared to the previous decade. Audiences were encouraged to stay home to prevent spread of the coronavirus, which is infectious before it becomes symptomatic. Typically, the early months of the year are used for smaller films, with studios saving the blockbusters for holidays when audiences will have the extra time to go out to see them. Sonic, thanks to a delay to correct the effects of the main character, was delayed. The corrected trailer may have generated interest to get audiences to see how things turned out. For literary adaptations, release during the school year may get classes out to watch to compare the original to film, which sounds like an amazing idea. Someone should do that for all adaptations, maybe as a blog series.
This past year was not kind to film studios, nor was it kind to people in general. Everyone took a hit, so it’s no surprise the box office did, too. The top ten of 2020 reflect the restrictions needed to fight the coronavirus. As a result, films that normally wouldn’t make a showing did get noticed, so there’s a bit of a silver lining.
Back in September, Lost in Translation reviewed a number of fan works. Near the end of the month, one fan work was found that needed a bit of extra care, something that time wasn’t allowing at the time. Time to rectify that. This week, let’s look at the Quantum Leap fanfilm, “A Leap to Di For”.
Quantum Leap was a science fiction anthology series created by Donald P. Bellisario, with the episodes tied together by the show’s premise, that it is theoretically possible to time travel within one’s own lifetime. To prove it, Dr. Sam Beckett, played by Scott Bakula, head of and designer for the Quantum Leap project. Once the acceleration chamber was ready, Sam stepped in and disappeared. He now travels from time to time, putting right what once went wrong, and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home.
Helping Sam out is Admiral Al Calavicci, played by Dean Stockwell. Al appears to Sam as a hologram that only Sam can see and hear, though there are times others can see him. Al acts as the anchor home and is the more flamboyant of the pair. Al also acts as a backup memory for Sam, as the leaping process Swiss cheeses Sam’s memory. There are others on the project, including Gooshie (Dennis Wolfberg) and the computer Ziggy (voiced by Deborah Pratt, who also wrote 20 episodes for the series).
A typical episode begins during the pre-credits sequence as Sam leaps into a new person in a flare of actinic blue light. Once the light clears, Sam needs to figure out who he is now and where he is, usually before something go wrong. The sequence frequently ends with his trademark, “Oh boy,” mostly after he realizes just how odd the situation is. After the credits, Al arrives to fill in details of what’s going on, though the reason for the leap takes time. Ziggy, while powerful, isn’t infallible and has made a few mistakes.
Project Quantum Leap was set a few years into the future, in part to give the series its science fiction feel and in part to allow Sam to leap into someone of the then-current era. Most of the leaps were historical, within Sam’s lifetime. Because of the power requirements and the likelihood of attracting attention when at full power, the project was located out in the New Mexico desert. This also meant that visitors displaced by Sam couldn’t get far and learn too much about the future while Sam lived their lives.
Being an anthology allowed the writers to explore a range of issues, from the serious to the light. Sometimes who Sam leaps into gives an indication of the level of seriousness, but not always. Sam leaping into a mother of three in “Another Mother” explored serious issues families could run into. Time travel allowed for period pieces, some modern takes, and looks at key historical events. Some leaps were personal for Sam or Al. Other leaps were important for the characters involved, but not necessarily to the bigger picture of history. And some leaps had a oblique ties to history, such as “How the Tess Was Won”, where, ultimately, he just had to help young Buddy with a song lyric.
Quantum Leap ran from 1989 until 1993, a five season run. Ultimately, the main problem for the series was NBC leaping it around on the schedule, making it difficult to find regularly. Bellisario was given enough notice that a final episode could be shot that wrapped up some plot lines, though Dr. Beckett never returned home. The finale allowed for a last-minute renewal, but the series was not picked up for a sixth season.
The series was cancelled, but not forgotten. Dean Stockwell often appears in a guest role in series that star Scott Bakula, including Star Trek: Enterprise. Quantum Leap gets referenced in other series and even movies. The show left an impact on viewers. Naturally, that leads to fan works, including fanfics and fanfilms. Time travel, though, requires a quick look at the period of the film.
Diana, Princess of Wales, born Diana Spencer, gained international fame on her engagement with Charles, Prince of Wales, and heir apparent to the throne of England. The press treated the engagement as a fairy tale, including the wedding. However, the British tabloids have no clue on what the word “boundaries” mean. After having two children, William and Harry, problems appeared in the marriage that the tabloids pounced on. Diana and Charles separated then divorced, and the paparazzi went into overdrive. Diana died on August 31, 1997 in a car crash trying to flee paparazzi.
The romance between Charles and Diana was the first royal relationship to occur in the era of twenty-four hour cable news. The couple was good for filling time with footage of their appearances, together and separate. While British tabloids were never known for integrity, the paparazzi had a wider range of potential customers thanks to cable news. Diana was also friendly, if reserved, around the public, endearing herself with people in general. Princess Diana was a popular member of the Royal Family. Her loss was a blow.
With that background, here is the 2009 Quantum Leap fanfilm, “A Leap to Di For”:
The episode begins with Sam (Joshua Ramsey) leaping into a situation in media res, with the classic, “Oh, boy,” scene ender. The year is 1997, three years after the last episode aired. August 30, 1997, to be specific. Sam pulls back on getting intimate, in part because he’s not sure what’s happening, in part because of his upbringing. He slows things down to try to figure out who he is and wait for Al (Ed Ernestes) to arrive. Al does, but Project Quantum Leap is having technical issues, including Windows XP-era error beeps and a blue screen error as Al leaves.
Sam and the woman, Meredith (Niki Hurrle Warner), try to figure out what to do. Sam tries to explain without giving away that he’s not who he looks like and is from the future that Princess Diana is in danger, that she should not go out during the early morning hours of the 31st. With a bit of work, Sam sends a message to Al in the future.
In the present day, the message for Al gets intercepted by a security guard on patrol, who bypasses the chain of command to take the message up to the highest levels. The President of the United States (David Grant Briggs) reads over it and realizes there’s a chance to save Princess Diana. The budget for the Project Quantum Leap, which had been slashed to $10 000 per year, gets a shot in the arm in order to try to prevent the tragedy.
Project head Dr. Samantha Fuller (LaDonna Pettijohn) brings the equipment up to date, leaving the Windows XP-era computers to something more powerful and brings Ziggy (voiced again by Deborah Pratt) back online. Al provides the handlink, one that he kept. With the project back online and working, Al heads back into the imaging chamber to help Sam.
Sam, though, has gotten into some trouble. Meredith turned to her father, Howard Jamieson (Dennis Crosswhite), a Member of the British Parliament, for help. However, Jamieson takes the warning as a threat and has Sam detained. Sam escapes the guards and, then, with Al’s help, finds Princess Diana. Sam tries to warn her, but Diana (Chelsea Rogers) needs time.
Ultimately, the reason for Sam’s visit is tangential to Diana’s death. He does get to meet Dr. Fuller, and places her as Sammy Jo, from the episode “Trilogy Part III: The Last Door” just as he leaps out. The final scene has Sam arriving in a dressing room in the body of a woman about to go on stage in a bikini.
The first impression of the fanfilm is that Christopher Allen, the writer and director, knows /Quantum Leap/ well. It helps that the series is an anthology, but he manages to get details in that adds to the proper feel. With Project Quantum Leap, the equipment retains the appearance of being a cross between a Rubik’s Cube and Tetris. While not mentioned by name, Gooshie can be seen in the background at Project Quantum Leap. Sam’s lines fit the character. The cast works, too. Joshua Ramsey has Sam’s mannerisms down. The same can be said for Ed Emestes’ Al. Chelsea Rogers has the shy reserve of Diana.
Setting wise, the fanfilm uses its limitations to its advantage. There’s no need for extravagant sets when they’re not needed, so a redress of a hotel room or someone’s bedroom is enough. Project Quantum Leap’s sets are the more unusual, but even there, the main thing is lighting and the control console. The fashion of 1997 can easily be recreated.
The fanfilm itself would fit in with the series, if the series had lasted until at least 1997. The original series didn’t show anything beyond the production year, in part to avoid having to make up events. “A Leap to Di For” is definitely made by fans who care about Quantum Leap, and the effort pays off.
Over the past four week, Lost in Translation theoretically remade TV series from the Eighties. This week, a look into the reasoning behind the choices.
Last week’s look at the Knight Rider franchise was to explain why Lost in Translation wasn’t touching remaking the original. Knight Rider was popular, but has had a number of remakes. The question isn’t how to remake the series but why remake it yet again. The answer is, the remake has a good chance of making money. There’s no real other reason until there’s a new approach to be taken. Knight Rider fell off the list early.
With /Knight Rider/ gone, though, that left the super-vehicle genre empty. Super-vehicles did happen, and included shows like Automan and Viper for ground vehicles and Airwolf and Blue Thunder for helicopters. Airwolf looked to be the best choice. Automan verged on the edge of science fiction and superheroes and Viper was a promotional series for Dodge’s then-new muscle car. With the helicopters, a remake of Blue Thunder would have the baggage of the militarization of police departments. A remake may be possible, but the writing would have to be precise. The original Blue Thunder movie might handle most of the problems, but even then, there are issues to thread.
That left Airwolf, which ran four seasons. The series had its own internal drama, and didn’t have the baggage for a modern remake that Blue Thunder had. A cut-out for an intelligence agency holding a high-tech helicopter in return for finding his brother? There’s always a foreign war, there’s always prisoners-of-war and servicemen missing in action, there’s always someone playing chess at the global level. Updating just means upgrading the electronics in the helicopter. Gender flipping is always a possibility.
Remington Steele was a popular series during the Eighties, introducing an American audience to Pierce Brosnan. The series is timeless, using the esthetics of classic film to frame episodes and sets. Laura needing a masculine boss is, unfortunately, still possible today. The flipping of the classic roles, the tough detective and the figurehead, can be kept fresh. Steele would likely have the least number of changes to be made, just taking account how today’s technology affects private investigators.
With Misfits of Science, the show was ahead of its time. In the Eighties, comics were still seen as being for kids, not adults, despite works like The Watchmen. Today, though, the series would fit in. It’s an original superhero series with the tone of a superhero story. It’s not gritty, not dark, just a group of people making their way in life in spite of their powers. It’s a story that is needed today, not attached to an existing property.
There were a number of series that I ignored. The Eighties saw the sitcom bloom as comedians saw a way to popularize their routines. Cosby, Rosanne, and Night Court are prime examples. Other sitcoms tended to be set at work, a holdover from series like WKRP in Cincinatti and Taxi in the Seventies. And while it is possible to remake Cheers or Wings, it may be easier to just set a new comedy with new characters in a new location to do the same thing, with a wink and a nod to the older shows.
The Eighties had a range of shows for audiences, especially with the VHS boom, the advent of first-run syndication, and the expansion of cable channels producing new content. Choosing even three was difficult. The choices made were representative of what was available, popular or not.
The past three weeks, Lost in Translation has looked at a number of TV series from the Eighties that could be ripe for remakes. One series, though does stand out from the era that has been remade several times. Let’s take a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of the Knight Rider.
First airing with a two hour pilot in 1982, Knight Rider starred David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight, a man who does not exist. The Foundation for Law and Government, or FLAG, was founded by Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart), who takes a young detective, Michael Long, who had been shot near fatally in the face and gives him a new name and face to become Michael Knight, the prime agent for the organization. However, Michael won’t be working alone. He’ll have with him a prototype, the Knight Industries Two Thousand, an artificially intelligent autonomous car, voiced by William Daniels. To maintain KITT and be available to assist Michael, FLAG has a semi-trailer with high tech lab, where Dr. Bonnie Barstow, played by Patricia McPherson, serves as head technician and Devon Miles, played by Edward Mulhare, provides mission details to Michael and KITT.
The series was episodic, but there were a few recurring villains. The most notable was the Knight Automotive Roving Robot, or KARR, first voiced by Peter Cullen, an evil version of KITT. KARR’s programming focused on self-preservation, leading to the vehicle being mothballed. Learning from the failure of KARR, KITT’s core programming focused on the preservation of human life. KITT cannot allow a human life to be lost, through action or inaction, similar to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.
Knight Rider ran for four seasons, with a few changes each year to the concept. Season four saw KITT upgraded with a “Super Pursuit” mode, which modified the car for faster speeds. KITT, though, had a number of standard functions, triggered by button or verbal command from Michael or by KITT when programming allowed, including Turbo Boost and Skiing.
The series had a spin-off series, Code of Vengeance based on a two-part episode that was a backdoor pilot, and a follow-up TV movie in 1991, Knight Rider 2000, which wrapped up what happened to Knight Industries, FLAG, Michael, and KITT, though leaving room for a sequel. Code of Vengeance ran as a mid-season replacement in the 1985-86 TV season, with a pilot movie and four episodes; the series was similar to Knight Rider in that a lone man travelled around to right wrongs.
Moving away from the series, the 1994 TV movie Knight Rider 2010 took its queues from Mad Max. Jake McQueen, played by Richard Joseph Paul, was a smuggler who was tagged to retrieve Hannah Tyree, played by Hudson Lieck, who worked for the Chrysalis Corporation as a programmer. Hannah, to save herself, downloads her consciousness into a crystalline memory core. Jake installs her into a modified Ford Mustang, and the pair go out into the desert to fight for justice.
In the 1997-98 TV series, when syndication was still going on, yet another attempt to reboot Knight Rider came about. Team Knight Rider didn’t buy into the “one man can make a difference”. Instead, TKR was a team of five drivers and their AI cars. Ford had replaced Pontiac as the supplier, so the vehicles represented what could be found at Ford dealerships, with the exception of Kat and Plato, the motorcycles that combined to make the High Speed Pursuit Vehicle. The concept is sound; after all, Michael wasn’t really working alone. He had KITT, Devon, and Bonnie working with him, even if they weren’t always out on the pointy end. A team can do more than a single person. TKR also had a subplot running through the episodes which led to a cliffhanger at the end involving the theft of KITT and the return of Michael Knight. However, early quality issues led to low ratings that even the cliffhanger couldn’t overcome, so TKR ran one season.
In 2008, NBC remade Knight Rider yet again, with Justin Bruening as Michael Knight and Val Kilmer as the voice of the Knight Industries Three Thousand, a modified Ford Mustang. Bruening’s Michael had a link to Hasselhoff’s; he was the estranged son of the original Michael Knight. The new KITT had abilities similar to the original, plus the ability to transform into a Ford F-150, a Ford E-150, a Ford Flex, a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, and a 1969 Mach 1 Ford Mustang. Three guesses who was a sponsor for the new series. The single sensor bar the original KITT had became two bar above the grill, like a Cylon Centurion being upgraded to an IL-series. Again, the series ran for one season before being cancelled.
Why is Knight Rider the go-to when remaking a series from the Eighties? Granted, it had some longevity in a decade where tastes changed a lot year to year. Hasselhoff’s charisma certainly has a role here, and the apparent chemistry between him and William Daniels despite not meeting until a cast party long after shooting had started. Knight Rider, though, resonates a little deeper with audiences. At its core, the series is about a lone man travelling from town to town and righting wrongs. Several TV series have been built around this concept; from TV westerns like Have Gun, Will Travel and Maverick to science fiction like the Incredible Hulk and even Quantum Leap, which did the same thing with time travel.
Michael Knight is essentially a man on a mechanical horse, whose job is to fight for justice. The series hearkens back to Westerns, but also to Arthurian legends, where a lone knight stood against the barbaric Saxons threatening to ravage the countryside. It’s build into the series name, Knight Rider. KITT isn’t just a mechanical horse; he’s the hero’s sidekick. KITT exists to show how heroic Michael is. KITT, too, is another draw, being a talking car that can drive itself. Today, engineers are working on the nuts and bolts of autonomous cars, running into issues that KITT had no problems with. Horses are better at avoiding pedestrians than self-driving vehicles today. KITT is still just out of reach, but represents a future where driving is made far easier and safer.
The remakes seem to have forgotten the core of the series. TKR had a team, not a lone man fighting for justice. Knight Rider 2010 figured out the concept, but drifted away from the trappings of the original series by going post-apocalyptic. The 2008 remake series picked up from the original series, but reliance on CGI for special effects and KITT being more aggressive left viewers cold. And yet, there are two more potential remakes in the works. The first is a Machinima series helmed by Justin Lin via NBCUniversal. The other is a potential feature film from Spyglass. No other series from the Eighties have had this much attention.
Knight Rider may be the most remade series from the Eighties. Replicating the original success has been difficult because the follow-up series haven’t figured out why the original resonated with audiences. Yet, studios will try to recreate it.
Continuing in the Remaking the Eighties miniseries, a look at an earlly attempt for an original superhero series, Misfits of Science.
Today, superheroes are big. Blockbuster big. Movies, TV series. Tie-in novels. It’s impossible to check theatre listings without seeing an ad for a superhero movie. In the Eighties, though, while superhero comics were seeing a resurgence, but the characters really didn’t cross over to any other medium beyond animation. There were exceptions; The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno ran 1978 to 1982, with three follow up TV movies from 1988 to 1990 is the main one. DC had sequels to the 1978 Superman film and the spin-off, Supergirl with Helen Slater, and the 1989 Tim Burton helmed Batman with Michael Keaton. The phenomenon of today didn’t exist in the Eighties.
However, the success of the Superman sequels was enough to get a studio wondering how to cash in on superhero popularity. Special effects were catching up to the what could be seen in comics, and practical effects could deal with most powers. Misfits of Science debuted October 1985 with a pilot movie and ran for fifteen more episodes before being cancelled for low ratings. The series starred Dean Paul Martin as Dr. Billy Hayes, Kevin Peter Hall as Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln, Mark Thomas Miller as “Johnny B” Bukowski, Courtney Cox as Gloria Dinallo, and Max Wright as Dick Stetmeyer.
Billy was the leader of the group, despite having no powers. He specialized in “human anomalies” and worked at the Humanidyne Institute. That mean that Billy was looking into creating superhumans, though within the bounds of ethics. His partner at work, El, went one step further and underwent a hormonal treatment to shrink himself. El’s goal was to get down to a normal height; he was tired of being asked to play basketball because of his height, never mind that he was not any good at the sport. The problem with the treatment was that it went too far. Instead of regressing El’s height, it allowed him to shrink down roughly to the size of a Ken doll, and just him. He had to carry around a spare set of clothes for when he did shrink.
Gloria, Cox’s first main role on TV, is a telekinetic who has to see her target in order to affect it. Blindfold her, and she won’t be able to affect anything around her /except/ the blindfold, which became a plot point in one episode. Gloria is also troubled teen with a history of delinquency and crime, having a probation officer, Jane Miller (Jennifer Holmes). Johnny B who Gloria has a crush on, is a rock musician who gained electrical powers after being electrocuted on stage.. He is capable of tossing lightning bolts and superspeed. Johnny B also drains all electrical and electronic devices, so he tends to live in isolation in the desert, where he can charge thanks to static electricity. Finally, Stetmeyer is the put upon director of Humanidyne. He’s the face of the company and while Humanidyne might have some ethical issues, it is not an evil corporation. Stetmeyer is there for the research, not world domination.
The episodes were all stand-alones, as was typical for the era. The series was an action comedy, with some episodes being parodies. The use of powers did get creative, but some solutions called for a specific abilitiy one of the characters had. Some character’s issues were dropped along the way, getting in the way of episode plots. However, the show had potential that was never brought forward
That potential makes Misfits of Science ripe for being remade. Superpowered people are no longer seen as just for children. Marvel/Disney in particular is having great financial success diving into Marvel’s characters, even if certain X-titles are off-limits thanks to earlier deals. At the same time, Misfits of Science might not thrive on the main four networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX. It could work on the CW, where the Arrowverse – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, and Batwoman – are thriving or have succeeded. The flip side is that the CW may not have room for a non-DC superhero series, leaving streaming services. There are only so many streaming services a potential viewer can afford, and after paying for Netflix and Disney+, for example, another streaming service may not be affordable.
That said, a potential Misfits of Science can fill a gap. While the Arrowverse does have some lighter series in The Flash and Supergirl, most superhero series tend to be serious. In order to not be seen as childish, the pendulum swings the other way by going a little grittier. This way leads to the Zack Snyder version of the Justice League, dark to the point of needing a flashlight to see the movie. Having a lighter superhero series isn’t a bad thing, provided it’s well written. The characters in the series have a good base to start from, with motivations and backgrounds that can lead to interesting arcs. Johnny’s drawback adds a new twist in the 2020s where we carry around far more electronics than we did in 1984. Any potential viewer will know the feeling of a cell phone running out of battery power at an inopportune time.
The series is set at the origins of superpowered beings, the human anomalies. While the original had Billy and his team get into plots to try to help, the new series could explore the impact of regular people with powers. Johnny B can’t walk around downtown without draining every cell phone around him. Gloria is dealing with a mother who has had a mental breakdown; she’s also on probation, so needs to keep her nose clean, or at least maintain that appearance. El and Billy, being the researchers, have the reason to stay close with the anomalies they work with, especially after El becomes one. There is room for episodic and season-long plots to combine while still keeping a light touch. Keeping Humanidyne as a neutral company instead of evil will allow for less ethical companies to pop up as rivals, with their own misfits.
Misfits of Science was ahead of its time, foreseeing the superhero boom we’re now in but not able to properly exploit it. A remake today can update some of the premises, bring the concepts to a new audience, and be entertaining. The only real issue is finding it a proper home.
Continuing the mini-series of remaking TV shows from the Eighties, next up is Remington Steele. The series is responsible for introducing Pierce Brosnan to a broader audience, leading to him becoming 007 for three films and a video game. Remington Steele ran for four full seasons and a truncated fifth. Brosnan’s popularity got him noticed by Cubby Broccoli as a possible Bond, so NBC took advantage to get the last six episodes made. As a result, Brosnan’s debut as 007 was delayed until Goldeneye instead of being in The Living Daylights.
Steele starred Brosnan as the title character and Stephanie Zimbalist as Laura Holt. Holt, being a professional detective, found that traffic wasn’t making its way to her door. She created the fictional Remington Steele to head a detective agency where she handled all the cases and customer relations for her “boss”. Brosnan played a conman who slipped into the role while escaping a complication in a past life. Holt, while annoyed initially, accepted “Steele” as useful, someone to be the fictional character and meet clients while she did the job.
Each episode was a mystery, which is natural for a mystery series. Holt used professional skills to deduce the solution. Steele, however, used his vast knowledge of classic film noir films, making connections to the mystery to a film. Most episodes weren’t tied to one specific film, but there are exceptions, such as “Vintage Steele” with The Trouble With Harry. The draw was the onscreen chemistry between Zimbalist and Brosnan and the show’s light touch, turning it into almost a romantic mystery comedy.
A remake of Remington Steele is going to succeed or fail on the casting. Whoever is hired to play the leads need to work well together. For Steele, it’s not enough to get someone with the looks. Brosnan also had a sense of humour running under the suave exterior. The new Remington Steele would have to be a modern Cary Grant, capable of being debonair and still carrying comedy. The new Laura needs to be able to portray a capable investigator, someone who has no qualms about getting dirty while still being able to fit in at society events.
The premise of the series, a woman private investigator using a male name to attract clients, is sadly believable today; society has slid back a bit since the Nineties. Episodes should be light, even when murder is involved. The “Will they or won’t they” needs to be done with a deft touch; answering that question tends to signal the end of a series as the driver of drama fizzles out. However, couple the romantic subplot with Steele’s mysterious past, and there can be a running subplot that ties the episodes together.
/Remington Steele/ had a couple of remake projects come up. Brosnan explored the idea of a Steele feature film in 2005. NBC looked at remaking the series as a half-hour comedy. While Brosnan’s project would have been faithful, neither resulted in a finished product.
Remington Steele had a good run in the Eighties, with memorable characters. Recreating that chemistry is the key to a remake. Everything else is bonus.