Glen A. Larson rode the science fiction wave for a good few years, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, with varying degrees of success. The veteran TV producer – he was behind everything from The Fall Guy to Magnum P.I. – gave the genre a serious stab with Battlestar Galactica and a more cartoonish one with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century between 1978 and 1980, with only minor success. His 1980s shows would abandon the expensive Star Wars-inspired space opera and instead revert to the science fiction lite of earlier shows like The Six Million Dollar Man – a fantasy, vaguely superheroish concept at the centre of things, but mostly very down to Earth adventures stories week by week. He struck gold with Knightrider, where the talking car was not too outlandish to scare off viewers, but his other two shows of the same time did not fare as well. Both Manimal and Automan fizzled out mid-season.
Automan ran from the end of 1983 through to 1984, with twelve episodes airing before it was cancelled (the final, thirteenth filmed episode wasn’t broadcast). Inspired by the visuals of Tron (and with that film’s producer Donald Kushner on board alongside his partner Peter Locke, to assuage accusations of plagiarism), Automan was hyped as a cutting edge science fiction-superhero-adventure show, which was probably a mistake. Because while it is all of those things, the show also had its tongue firmly in cheek, and who knows, if the comedy aspect had been pushed more, it might have found its audience. As it was, the surprisingly extensive range of Automan merchandise probably sat gathering dust in toy shops around the world as viewers looked elsewhere for their entertainment.
The premise of Automan is that police computer expert and frustrated crime fighter Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr) has created a lifelike hologram called Automan (Chuck Wagner), who materialises as a sparkly blue figure – with an unexplained regular human head. He’s joined by a floating sprite called Cursor, who is able to generate physical objects like the Auto Car, The Auto Copter, the Auto Plane and, as the series progressed, various outfits for Automan to wear as a disguise. The pair are joined by Walter’s female colleague and crush Roxanne (Heather McNair), and by Lieutenant Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing) and Captain Boyd ((Gerald S. O’Loughlin), to whom Automan is passed off as federal agent Otto J. Mann.
All this origin is set up in an opening post credit sequence, which seems a bit rushed for the pilot – you normally expect a bit more of a back story to these things – and then becomes a pointless bit of padding at the opening of each episode, meaning that we are three and a half minutes into the show before the story actually starts. Once the weekly adventure finally begins (and these are all stand-alone episodes that you could watch in any order), it usually follows more or less the same path – Walter and Automan investigate some crime or other, often involving ‘the mob’, Automan dons his computer-generated ‘regular’ clothing and then gets carried away in his role, embarrassing Walter before the bad guys are brought to book. When the writers remember, Automan is made vulnerable by his need to draw on electrical power to exist, though as the series progresses, this becomes less and less of an issue.
Most of the humour comes from Automan’s lack of understanding of the real world and his attempts to learn and adapt to it. So we see him eagerly watching movies and getting carried away with the characters he sees, and then behaving in ridiculous ways (dominating the dancefloor, becoming a male stripper, getting obsessed with a soap opera) that draw attention to himself – often from swooning women who make their desires very clear! In fact, for a family show – a 1980s American family show at that – Automan is surprisingly lecherous – Cursor is little more than a sex pest, chasing women and buzzing around their amble cleavage, while the final episode, Club Ten, revels in close-ups of bikini clad boobs and butts.
Not all the humour in Automan was intentional, it must be said. Aside from the woefully dated computer technology (the machine you are reading this on is probably more powerful than the room full of computers Walter uses to whip up Automan) and the explanations of what a hologram is, there are moments that will make you snigger at the out-of-touch nature of the production. Episode two, Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever, has a white-suited Automan wowing the patrons of a nightclub with his John Travolta moves. This is, remember, 1983, when disco had long stopped being cool. In Murder MTV (and I bet they couldn’t use that title today), Laura Branigan makes a guest appearance as a member of girl group Sweet Kicks, and as you’d expect, the representation of rock ‘n’ roll culture is cringeworthy.
Elsewhere, the show runs through the usual plot devices found in action-adventure TV shows – biker gangs and corrupt local sheriffs, blackmailers, gangsters and counterfeiters – with some twists. The influence of the Chippendales can be seen in Zippers, where Otto goes undercover as an ‘exotic dancer’, while Death By Design is an amusing spoof of Dirty Harry and The Biggest Game in Town actually has computers at the centre of the story – a rare nod to what you might think would be the central theme of the show, though I imagine in 1983, cyber crime wasn’t even the stuff of science fiction, let alone a genuine threat.
At the time of production, Automan seemed pretty hokey stuff and those of us who you might have assumed the show to be aimed at – teenage boys – quickly lost interest. But time is a great healer. Watched back-to-back now, the show is painlessly entertaining. As the series progresses, the characters do develop a certain charm. Wagner seems painfully wooden, but then that is what his character is supposed to be, so he’s probably acting really well, and Arnaz has good comic timing. The supporting cast have little to do – Lansing seems a bit embarrassed by it all, and his character does little more than snoop around, get captured and beaten up, while McNair is mostly reduced to being a bit of fluff and O’Loughlin seems confused by the whole thing. The special effects are, of course, painfully dated, but the look of the Automan character is weird enough to get past that, and the vehicles are impressive.
If you enjoyed Automan at the time, you might get a nostalgic kick out of this. I can’t see it appealing to anyone who isn’t awash with 1980s nostalgia, but I’ll admit that having seen this series, I wouldn’t have objected too much if there was a second season to sit through.