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.
This week, as part of a short series hypothetically remaking TV shows from the 80s. The gap between original work and remake appears to be about 30-40 years, so the shows will fall into that gap. Since Lost in Translation took a look at Airwolf a few weeks ago, specifically the fourth season as a reboot, it’s a good place to start.
A quick refresher: Airwolf starred Jan-Michael Vincent as Stringfellow Hawke, Ernest Borgnine as Dominic Santini, Alex Cord as Archangel, and Jean Bruce Scott as Caitlin O’Shannessy. The titular helicopter was a one-of-a-kind prototype, capable of punching up to the point of taking on jets. Hawke, in order to put pressure on Archangel and the Firm, a spy agency, takes Airwolf for himself after recovering it for the Firm. The deal is that the Firm find Hawke’s brother St-John and Airwolf gets returned. The fourth season saw serious changes to the show as it switched networks, studios, shooting locations, and even cast. The fourth season did wrap up Hawke’s search for his brother, bringing in Barry Van Dyke as St-John, but the series ended with the last episode of the season.
Airwolf was one of two TV series featuring high-tech gunships, the other being Blue Thunder, based on the movie of the same name. Why Airwolf and not Blue Thunder? The latter might not work well today when the issue of the militarization of police looms large. Remaking the original Blue Thunder film would take a deft hand today and may work better in film to get the point home instead of speading the message over weeks of episodes. Airwolf, however, remained in the realm of the Cold War. Several of the original episodes of Airwolf had Archangel using the helicopter and her crew as a promoted pawn for endgames in the Great Game.
The link to espionage work is the key. While the Cold War may be over, there’s still Cold Border Skirmishes happening. There’s room for writers to work with; there’s always dictatorships threatening liberty. The original series had a melancholy mood to it, which will need to be carried over. The show was dark for its era; turning the remake into a dark and gritty version ignores that Airwolf is already moody. While the Eighties sitcoms were light, the dramas explored aspects that series in previous decades didn’t, the big event being the fallout of the Vietnam War. Sure, M*A*S*H spearheaded the way in the Seventies, but used the Korean War as a proxy. The Eighties were a time of opening wounds to start healing them.
The big stumbling block is establishing proper backgrounds for the characters. String was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam War, meaning a roughly ten year gap between losing his brother and the pilot episode. In the past ten to fifteen years, the main conflicts for the US have been in the Middle East with the invasion of Iran and the invasion of Afghanistan. The latter is much more the quagmire that the Vietnam War was for the US, so we can have String serving there. However, his brother, St-John, is more likely to have run into a improvised explosive device (IED) than being left behind during an air evecuation. The fourth season, though, gives an out.
St-John is military intelligence, working for the Firm or possibly the rival agency, the Company. He’s also active in Afghanistan, where he’s able to meet up with String from time to time. However, when String’s tours are over, St-John remains behind, and eventually contact is lost with him. In the meantime, String is working for his friend/mentor/father figure Dom Santini, who in the origina; was also a veteran. Dom served in WWII and Korea, or thirty to forty years before the start of the series. The Eighties, though, had more covert wars than overt, thanks to the threat of nuclear annihilation. The War on Drugs was going strong, with the CIA working on destabilizing Latin American countries. Here comes the Firm again, and how Archangel works in. Dom was one of the pilots ferrying in agents with Archangel being his contact.
Airwolf itself is still a high-tech stealth helicopter. The capabilities of computers have expanded since the Eighties, so Airwolf could be capable of far more than shown in the original. The pilot could be used with the same beats, with String holding Airwolf as collateral to force the Firm to find St-John. Plots can follow similar found in the original, just updated for today. Adding the Company as a rival allied agency can introduce some added conflict that can emerge from time to time, with hints about St-John woven through.
Casting is important. String needs to be someone capable of being moody yet capable of being a regretful killer. The original series showed that he would give his opponents a chance to surrender before shooting them down, with a few exceptions. Dom needs to be a mentor figure. Archangel is the equivalent of 007‘s M. Can some characters be gender-flipped? It’s harder with Stringfellow and St-John, mainly because the names don’t flip well. Dom and/or Archangel could, though, and having a woman as a mentor figure would be an interesting change.
Airwolf has potential for a remake. For a series that was centered around a high-tech vehicle, the show’s focus was on the characters. The series is ripe for a remake today.
Taking time out this week to prepare for a mini-series for November. Lost in Translation returns with Remaking the 80s.