December of 1983 saw American television auteur, Glen A. Larson, broadcast his new project. It was directly inspired by Steven Lisberger’s inspirational Tron movie which had proved a big hit with the kids. Larson, of Battlestar Galactica and Magnum PI fame, figured on capitalizing. He had the canniness to avoid potential litigation through the show’s similarity with Disney’s IP, by involving the producer, Donald Kushner. Kushner had been an operating producer on the Tron venture. The result was Automan. Where Larson’s other shows, such as the Hoffmeister-fest, Knight Rider rode runs of up to 90 episodes, Automan managed a more humbling 13 wrap-parties. Of course, that is only one less than the episode run of Joss Whedon’s fantastic Firefly. Rewatching the pilot, courtesy of youtube, its realistic to say that the show was probably canned because it was crap.
The pilot show is an absolute hoot to watch, in the shit-tastic sense. The awful dialogue, penned by Larson himself, in combination with the grotty sets and cheap special effects make for quite an entertaining venture. Of course, in the 1980’s, people’s expectations of quality in their tv-programming were much lower than the standards we have today, so the show didn’t seem so stand-out shabby at the time. It’s even harsh to pick an argument on the special effects front, as the first two movies to incorporate computer animation, (Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) were only released the previous year.
The main plot concerns a police invesigation into the activities of a private security company called ‘Global Guard’. A suitably sinister adversary, and easy to relate to the modern day operations of Blackwater. Police officer, Walther Nebicher is the nerdy hero of the show. A computer programmer, looked down upon by his commanding officer, Captain Boyd, and by his peers. Nebicher is pathetic and has such low self-esteem that he desperately complains to his attractive blonde co-worker, Roxanne Caldwell that, “You think I’m crazy, that’s why you won’t go out with me”. However, his computer exploits have culminated in the creation of a sophisticated hologram program, that manifests itself as the remarkable Automan. Automan steps into the real world to Walter’s surprise. A lantern-jawed, so-called perfect version of a human being, portrayed by the limited, beefcake actor, Chuck Wagner. In his own words, he absurdly states, “On a scale of 1 to 10, think of me as 11”, in true Spinal Tap-esque fashion. His abilities are unsurpassable, with a sleuthing brain inspired by Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. His good-looks are attributed to a collection of celebrities of the period. Namely, Robert Redford, Christopher Reeves, Burt Reynolds, Richard Burton, Lee Majors and Tom Selleck. An interesting portrait of the 1980’s view on the epitomy of the perfect man. And of course, he drives a Lamborghini Countach; the dream car of the day. One quite bizarre aspect of the show is the underlying sexual tension between Automan and Walter. While Walter is clearly a man who rarely gets laid, Automan is never short of compliments for his creator: “You have a poetic mind, I like that…”. This strange, bromantic link was to reappear in the far more successful Knightrider.
In a swamp of terrible acting and dialogue, the one bit of credit goes to the portrayal of the bad guy, and boss of Global Guard, played by Patrick McNee of The Avengers fame. His lines and delivery stand out as he runs away with the wittiest lines of the whole show (surely an adlib departure from Larson’s primitive scribblings?). Larson can be let off the hook for this rubbish, if amusing show, just on the kudos he attains for being the brains behind Battlestar Galactica. The show that set a standard when its rebooted form proved to be one of the greatest sci-fi tv shows ever made. Somehow, I don’t think that Automan is going to sneak in a cheeky reboot reappearance…