March 5, 2011

Automan, episode 7: "The Biggest Game in Town"


Hack the planet!

Okay, kids, lets hop in the WABAC machine and travel back to February 12th, 2011. Ignore the dog.

Here is what I said about my increasing frustration with the villains on Automan:

The basic problem with Automan is that you have this fantastical premise about a sentient hologram with these extraordinary powers, and he spends his time fighting crimes more suitable for Barnaby Jones or Hart to Hart. If you’re going to have a “super” hero, you need to have “super” villains and stakes to match...

...Automan needs bigger stakes, longer odds, and a larger stage. Grounding a show like this in “reality” totally defeats the purpose. I’m not saying it has to be taken to the absurd, but what about a villain who doesn’t look like he gets winded just looking at a set of stairs.

Now hop back in and let’s return to the present. Keep ignoring the dog.

This week, we finally, finally get a villain with higher aspirations than perpetrating a Ponzi scheme. Ronald Tilson (played by either Mr. Bean or Congressman Dennis Kucinich; I’m not sure which) is a pissed off computer genius who is out to make Los Angeles pay.

Sounds promising, eh? Someone who can go head to head with Walter and toe to toe with Automan. Raised stakes. A ticking clock. It’s everything I’ve been asking for... except for the execution.

Where to begin? This episode is such a missed opportunity that it’s almost more frustrating than the others. What should have been a tense chess match between the villain and Walter is more like a game of checkers. There’s no cat and mouse; it’s mouse and mouse.

Tilson’s motivations are so stupid, so high school, that it robs him of any menace. Not to mention he literally has about two minutes of screen time. We don’t even get a showdown with, or comeuppance for, the villain.

This episode is total Automan blue balls.

A few show notes:
  • Actor Felton Perry guest stars as Bart Johnson, one of Tilson’s reluctant conspirators. Perry is best known as ass-kissing OCP executive Donald Johnson in RoboCop. It must be said, Perry is good at playing a Johnson.
  • This is the first episode that I can recall where there’s no use of licensed pop music.

And recapping last week’s predictions:
  • There will be rioting in the Middle East. Check!
  • Charlie Sheen will say something batshit crazy. Check!
  • In an upset, True Grit beats The King’s Speech to take home the Best Picture Oscar.....

Two outta three ain’t bad.

White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: Holding at 4


"Don't you think I have feelings?"

"Auto, you're a hologram."

"With electronic perceptions, including discernment. You've even given me likes and dislikes."

"Sure. After all, I made you like everything I like."

"That was a little close-minded of you, don't you think? Why, there might be some perfectly good things out there that I'm missing because of your own bias."

"Auto, I'm not biased."

"Then why is it that I only like blondes?"


"There are some very attractive brunettes out there."


"And they do nothing for me, because you--"


This! This right here is the Automan episode I've been waiting for, where he chases after people who aren't just stiff dudes in suits! They're hackers! And just like everyone always says hackers may do some day (they won't), they cause a massive blackout that triggers shirtless rioting, they open the floodgates of a massive dam, and they line up two airplanes on the same runway by messing with flight control radars. The writers have taken every single fear about what hackers might be capable of and blown them up into a worst case scenario finally worthy of our holographic hero and his programmer sidekick. On premise alone, it's rousing and epic. On execution.... eh, it gets by.

The big problem with the episode is that, while everyone else is scrambling, Automan himself is his usual casual calm. There's a ridiculous bit where the villains shoot him with a random anti-hologram laser they just happen to have lying around for no reason, but he quickly recovers and is otherwise personally unaffected by matters. The hacks do nothing to affect his polite rapport with other computers, who still greet him as he goes walking by, and he still has no problem hitting them up for information (despite having their memories wiped, they still know who he is). Worst of all, he's never hacked. At one point, Automan says nothing could be done to prevent the disasters because, once a computer has been programmed for a task, it must see it through. Well, imaging what would happen if, through his connections with the police computer, the baddies had managed to hack Automan himself and filled him with new programming. It's a real missed opportunity but, since they do reveal Auto's nature to the remaining hackers by episode's end, I wouldn't be surprised if there were plans for a return down the road among the stories this show never got to tell.

And who are these hackers, these members of a counter-culture underground movement, who wander the halls of electronic gaming conventions and see society itself as a game to be manipulated for profit? Stiff people in suits.

Dammit, Automan! Must even our hackers fall into the category of white collar and tailored? I'll give the show credit for a little diversity, though, since only one is white, the others being a black man and a woman in a lovely violet business dress. And I like the little believable detail that, no, they aren't actually hacking into the city's computer systems. You see, the leader of the band, Ronald Tilson, was the man the city hired to install the system in the first place, so he's just exploiting back doors he propped open in the programs. That said, they are still boring, bland business people just in it for the money.

So, no, it's not a perfect episode, but the creators did finally find a threat worthy of the show's lead. And it doesn't hurt that it's exciting, surprisingly wide-scale, and there's a great twist leading into the climax which ties into what seemed an otherwise unrelated opening.

Some random thoughts:
  • I still have issues with Walter being able to phase through walls just because he's enveloped by Automan, but there's two bits here that I love. 1) They sneak into a baddie's room and hide in the wall itself, but don't realize until they're caught that the toes of Auto's shoes are still sticking out. 2) After the episode's exhausting events, Wally literally faints out of Automan.
  • No, getting control of a computer doesn't let you physically move levers or brake pedals or steering wheels. Hell, there's an entire chase scene based around this idea that had me rolling my eyes.
  • I always thought Roxanne was a secretary or something, but here they confirm that she's a full on police investigator. It suddenly makes a lot more sense why she's always on the scene.
  • They go through an awful lot of trouble to set up Automan watching the John Wayne flick The High and the Mighty, even dressing him in the same uniform, but they never pay it off.
  • Automan in a beige sweater. 'Nuff said.

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Anthony Williams said...

I wonder if the sudden shift in direction here A.) Was a course adjustment to try and boost ratings [Like with "Matthew Star"] and B.) If it will continue next week?

NoelCT said...

I don't really get the sense of a "course adjustment" this episode, since all the character dynamics are still the same and the crime is still largely white collar based. I think they simply managed to land on the right plot for this show, regardless of how well they executed it.

And, Tony, you hit the nail on the head with your line "There’s no cat and mouse; it’s mouse and mouse." A chess match of the minds between Walter and Tilson would have been fantastic, but they never go there. Hell, Walter doesn't even do much of anything to stop the bad guys. When he takes one look at the police computer, he says it's locked, and that's that until the baddies let it go again. Doesn't say much for our master programmer's abilities.

Anthony Williams said...

I don't really get the sense of a "course adjustment" this episode, since all the character dynamics are still the same and the crime is still largely white collar based. I think they simply managed to land on the right plot for this show, regardless of how well they executed it.

Good point. But you know they had to be aware that the show was on thin ice by now. I'm surprised we haven't seen more overt changes, like dropping Curis and Roxanne or ramping up the action.

Anonymous said...

Given that The Driver is used in the intro, I wonder where the LA riot scenes are from. An earthquake flick?

I agree with Noel in how the premise is well set up—then falls flat in execution. Still, on the first run, as a 12-year-old, this was great viewing.

NoelCT said...


Huh, didn't realize The Driver was sourced here. That's awesome. I'll have to take another look at it.

Yeah, this certainly gets credit for being the most ambitious episode of the bunch, even if it doesn't ultimately pull it off. I totally agree that as a 12-year-old I would have eaten it up. Shame I never stumbled across this show during its moments of SciFi syndication when I was younger.

Thanks for giving our piece a read and sharing your thoughts. :)