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.