If they remade this now, you just know they’d get Owen Wilson.
I turned 12 in 1980, which means I spent my childhood in the brown polyester 1970s and hit the 80s right at that crucial age, when geekery had exploded into the mass media via Star Wars, Star Trek (the new movies), Battlestar Galactica and the movie that introduced video games to the world: Tron.
TV networks spotted this trend pretty fast, and the years before 1985 saw new splashy science fiction/adventure/superhero shows popping up on the networks. They never lasted. I think that’s because networks didn’t know how to cater to the kinds of people who want these shows, sticking instead to episodic adventures with status quo restored at the end of each.
Years later, show producers would introduce the concept of the story arc and rigid continuity to these kinds of shows, making things like Lost and Pushing Daisies viable. But back then, it was formula, formula, formula.
These programs didn’t last. But their influence did. On me, on other fans, and on the people who would grow up to create the science fiction we watch and read today. So here they are: 10 early-80s TV shows that helped get the ship out of spacedock:
- Whiz Kids: I have never anticipated a television show more than this one. And I’ve never been so quickly let down. In the wake of WarGames, some studio tool came up with a series that combined that early hacker movie with the BMX-riding adventure sequences in E.T. and added a kid from Little House on the Prairie and Wojo from Barney Miller. The main set was a kid’s bedroom full of computer gear, early-80s style. Whiz Kids should have been great. It really wasn’t. By the time this came out I had a Vic 20 and was learning to program in BASIC, which had taught me just enough to know the Whiz Kids didn’t know shit.
- Manimal: This had so much promise, but the producers cheaped out in a big way. Simon McCorkindale could turn into any animal he wanted, but he tended to become a hawk or a panther, with the show re-using the same stock footage every time. Besides those transformation sequences, all I really remember is the plots were pretty dull. Still, it was a good early example of a superhero show without costumes or gadgets.
- Otherworld: Another half-season wonder, this was a fantastic series about a family lost on an alternate Earth. The Sterlings (TV families in the 80s had super last names) moved from zone to zone on this Otherworld, each one distinct from the one previous. In one episodes, teenagers Trace and Gina Sterling brought rock music to a repressed culture. In another, the men stayed home and cooked while the women worked. It was radical stuff. This show ignited my interest in alternate realities and alternative history fiction.
- Automan: I just saw this again recently and it was beyond bad, but at the time I thought it was brilliant, largely because I had no clue how computers actually worked and so everything seemed like it could actually happen. Basically, an actor named Chuck played Automan, a glowing hologram created by, uh, Desi Arnaz Jr., who was some kind of police science whiz. Automan and his glowing, flying sidekick, Cursor, fought crime while insisting they weren’t just a cheap ripoff of Tron.
- Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: Dead before its time. This was released first as a theatrical movie, which someone took me to see in the nearest city. Then it hit TV. Unlike most of my friends, I had a full knowledge of Buck Rogers; I owned a large hardcover collection of the original daily comic strips. This new series, starring second-rate Lee Majors impersonator Gil Gerard (wait, how is that even possible?) bore little resemblance to the strips, but it was still a fun sci-fi romp. I remember hearing “Captain Christopher Pike” paged at a space station in one episode. None of my friends knew why that was funny. Most of those guys are rich and successful now.
- The Phoenix: The blonde guy from The Wrath of Khan is an alien frozen in suspended animation who comes to life, has strange powers, wears a glowing magic amulet and walks the earth, meeting people and getting into adventures. It was really shitty, but the blonde guy had cool hair. I can’t remember the blonde guy’s name because he wasn’t in the credits for TWOK; his agent fought for higher billing and lost, so he ended up being pretty anonymous. This show didn’t help.
- The Powers of Matthew Star: Another alien with great hair and strange powers walks the earth, meeting people, getting into adventures, but this time with Louis Gossett Jr. I still see Matthew Star sometimes now on the covers of soap opera magazines, so I guess he did okay. He had great hair.
- My Secret Identity: A quirky little half-hour adventure/comedy about how Vern from Stand By Me (Jerry O’Connell) gets superpowers, grows taller, slowly stops being fat and freckly and then tries to call himself Ultraman, but nobody goes for it. In the first season, he sort of drifts instead of flies, and it’s really fun to watch.
- V: Hells yeah! I just read this is coming back. This show (which began as a miniseries) was the peak of 80s TV science fiction. It had everything; stupendously corny cast (Michael Ironsides, anyone? Marc Singer?), Green alien people-eaters, cool red suits, excellent special effects (for TV) and a serial plot that kept us coming back. It died too soon. I have the comics, though, and they’re actually pretty solid for a TV adaptation. I am looking forward to the new V in a big way.
- The Greatest American Hero: What more can be said? This is classic television. A nerdy teacher finds an alien powersuit, but loses the instruction book. Working with a crotchety FBI agent, Ralph (he never gives himself a superhero alias) flies around, crashes into buildings, shrinks accidentally, turns invisible and manages to bungle pretty much everything he touches. Plus he was skinny and looked ridiculous in the suit, and he had stupid hair. I still watch this one all the time.
Whiz Kids. So much potential. So much whiz. And not the good kind.