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.