April 30, 2011

Automan, The Novel!

"Wally, would you consider coming home with me after we eat?"

His heart skipped a beat, and he nearly choked on his pastrami. "What for?" he gulped.

Roxanne hesitated. "I don't want you living in that house all alone... At least, not for a while."

Walter couldn't believe what she'd just said. With dry throat and thumping heart, he moved over to kiss her. Gently, she took his head and pressed it against her chest. The room seemed to shake and tremble.

Another subway train had passed by below them.

Softly, she raised his head and moved slightly away. "We don't have that kind of relationship, Wally. I just want to mother you."

He swallowed and looked down. "It's better than nothing. If you knew how long I've stared at you from that computer room."

As with the merchandising Tony wrote about last week, the one and only print tie-in for Automan was exclusively available in the UK. Published by Target Books, the company best known for novelizing all but five storylines in the original Doctor Who series, this book is an adaptation of Glen Larson's pilot script by an obscure author named Martin Noble. I can't find much in the way of info regarding Noble, and he may in fact be a pseudonym, but he also penned novelizations for Ruthless People, Bloodbath at the House of Death, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (a novelization of a film that's already based on a novel - that's rare).

Nobel writes the adaptation well and captures both the gritty street cop aspects as well as the fantastical humor, at times blending the two even better than the show itself. The big problem is that he was obviously only working off the pilot as the book lacks any context of the episodes that followed, despite this being published the year after the show went off the air. After the first few episodes, Automan's power limitations became more random and vague, and the aspect of him going dead each morning was dropped. Here, Noble keeps the night based missions and the fading of Automan as the breakfast appliances are turned on. After a few episodes, Walter proved himself surprisingly capable in a fight, complete with spinning midair roundhouse kicks. Here, he's as meek as that guy getting sand kicked in his face on the beach. As the series went along, the romance between Walter and Roxanne grew and blossomed into something genuine. Here, as you can see in the excerpt above, they're nowhere near making out. Also, later episodes introduced people Walter knew from his programming days. While Noble does flesh out a backstory for Walter, none of these people are present in it.

Now, all of this is understandable as Noble was likely working of a script and/or video of just the pilot episode, so he himself probably didn't have any context from the stories that followed, but it's still a shame he wasn't given the opportunity to rework and tweak it a little so as to more closely follow what the show became than it does the awkward beginnings.

I mentioned before that Noble creates a backstory for Walter, and that makes up the largest chunk of new material he's added to the story. Here, Walter was childhood friends with a kid named Ralph "Donut" Donetti. Despite their physical shortcomings, they constantly roleplayed as heroic protectors of their neighborhood. One day, while huffing it to the school bus, Donetti was hit by a car and killed. Walter thus retreated into the world of computer programming. He put out a string of games called Mousetron and Guzzlemat, and though he wanted to join the police force, he caved in to his parents' fears of that career and instead received an electronics research scholarship to MIT. While there, he scored a huge success with the game Space Monkeys and used the earning to fund his experiments in holographic technology; first, for a new game called Starfighter 3D, second, for a certain you know who. He also managed to finally join the police force as head of their computer department, thanks to that section being partially funded by a grant from the parents of none other than the late Ralph "Donut" Donetti.

I think it's a good backstory. The Donut part is a little much, but it otherwise does a nice job of getting to the heart of our beloved Walter Nebicher, and I can't help but chuckle at his name being tied to games called Guzzlemat and Space Monkeys. The only bit of awkwardness is an introductory scene where Walter first demonstrates Starfighter 3D to a media agent named J.P. Hawkins, then blows his load by whipping out Automan, only to then pull back and say it's not ready. This is only after Automan makes his dramatic appearance, complete with the dialogue from the prelude bit of every episode. J.P. is, of course, blown away and thinks they can make a mint off of this technology, yet, when Wally turns him down, he's never heard from again. Why introduce this character if you aren't going to make a subplot about him? Maybe J.P. starts striking deals behind Wally's back, maybe he tries to steal the technology himself. There's so many places this can go, but it's never again brought up.

And that speaks to the entire novelization in that there's so much room for expanding things, but the majority of the additions are just little bits like Wally being a terrible driver so as to contrast with Automan; or Wally being a terrible dancer, leading him to bust out some expert Michael Jackson moves during his first merge; or a group of teens in a hotrod who spend half a page trying to take the AutoCar on in a drag race; or Walter owning a cat for no reason; or a prologue covering Walter's backstory that's written from the POV of Lt. Jack Curtis, from a point in time where he knows all about Automan; or the computer room being lined with coffee cup towers from Walter's late nights.

These are all fine, colorful details, but they don't really add much to the story. What I'd really love to see is an exploration of the past between Jack Curtis and Interpol agent Tanya Du Bois. Or what about the three kidnapping victims who hook up at the resort? I always thought a missed opportunity of the pilot episode was an escape attempt on their part, and this would have been a perfect place to build on that. Or even have Jack try to break loose after he's nabbed. We briefly hear of several attempts at freedom, but we never get to witness any first hand.

But that's a small complaint. For any fan of the show, this is a fun, colorful read, and still left me with the same smile I had during each episode. Just be aware that it follows the pilot and only the pilot, and that nothing you enjoyed from any of the following episodes are covered at all.

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April 23, 2011

Automan merchandise

[NOTE: All images (except the video game screenshot) are taken from the collection of Automan merchandise which you can read about at 80sKID.com. Seriously, it's an amazing site and we wouldn't have known about half the treasures mentioned here if 80sKID wasn't around.]


"Moichandising!" – Yogurt, Spaceballs

From The Lone Ranger and Lassie, to Friends and Seinfeld, as long as there’s been television, there’s been merchandising. And so it was with Automan. But if you lived in the United States in 1983, chances are you didn’t see any at your local toy store.

"A prophet is respected everywhere except in his hometown." - Mark 13:57

As a toy collector, there’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed about 80s American action/adventure shows: they're vastly more popular and well-loved abroad than they are here. If only that were true about Americans in general. Maybe we should elect Mr. T as our next President.

I'm not sure exactly why that is, but the result is that many well-known - and some not so well known - 80s shows were extensively merchandised overseas and, yet, we saw next to nothing here in the States. In terms of Automan merchandise, it seems to have been primarily, if not exclusively, released in the UK. Here's a rundown of some of the more interesting items available.

The Automan action figure – Action figures have long been a staple of merchandising, whether it be movies, cartoons, or live-action TV shows, and it’s not just limited to genre shows like Automan. Even sitcoms like Happy Days and Welcome Back, Kotter had their own line of "action" figures (it was the 70s, gang).

Like most Automan merchandise, the action figure was only available in the UK. Manufactured by Acamas, it stood nearly 5 ½ inches tall, had nine points of articulation, and came with no accessories (fun!). The likeness is a bit closer to Lee Majors than Chuck Wagner, but, overall, the figure captures the electro-glow look of the character.

The card back tells us to "Look for the Automan range," which isn’t where the deer and the antelope play, but a promised (yet never delivered) line-up of other figures based on Walter, Capt. Boyd, and Lt. Curtis. There isn’t a photo, but there is an illustration and, as you can see, they look positively exciting.

The figure appears to be somewhat rare. A check of eBay showed two auctions here in the U.S., each for a loose (un-carded) figure, with one listed with a "buy it now" price of $149 and the other $225. Neither example was mint/near mint and showed moderate-plus wear. My guess is that would put a mint, loose figure somewhere North of $300.

There were two more examples available in UK auctions, each carded, with one being listed as being MONMC (mint on near mint card) with a buy it now price of $455 U.S.

The Automan costume – It looks like your standard boxed 70s/80s Halloween costume, but given that it's listed on the back of the action figure's card as an "Automan Costume Set", I'm guessing this wasn't so much a Halloween costume as a year 'round role play outfit.

I'm not sure if the costume is made with any sort of reflective material, but it is outlined in white to help give it that halo effect. An interesting note is that Acamas re-used their mold for the Luke Skywalker Halloween costume mask to save money. I'm sure a lawsuit by Lucasfilm is forthcoming.

Finally I have to mention the box art. It's really eye-catching, with the sharp Automan logo and a cool shot of the Autocar and the Autocopter, but take a look at the illustration of the kid in the costume next to the picture of Chuck Wagner. Is that Automan or Mr. Spock?

The Automan video game – Made by Bug Byte (that's cute) for the Commodore 64 system. An Automan video game seems like a natch, right? It must be fairly rare, as my searches only turned up a handful of main menu screen shots and no reviews or videos.

[Edit from Noel: I did manage to find a brief clip of gameplay. Go to the 6:21 mark in the video below and shudder in horror for the next couple of minutes. Seriously, this looks awful and has jack all to do with Automan.]

[Further edit from Noel: Gah, video removed. But still leaving my line above in as it's referenced in comments below.]

The Automan car – This appears to be the rarest of the officially licensed Automan toys; a 5" battery operated replica of the AutoCar. According to 80sKID, there are only two known examples in existence.

The rest of the merchandising seems to have centered around various role playing toys of dubious tie-in logic, such as binoculars, a briefcase, a watch that shoots a whirly helicopter blade, and a money set. "Hey, kids! Now you can make it rain just like Automan!" What a genius concept, eh? Paying real money for fake money.

These were manufactured by Ja-Ru, a still operating toy company that specializes in cheap toys sold primarily at supermarkets.

So as you can see, if you're an Automan fan, you've got some interesting collectibles to choose from. But you'd better have some Auto-cash, and a lot of patience, on hand.

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April 16, 2011

Automan, episode 13: "Club Ten"

The number thirteen has long been associated with bad luck, and so it was for Automan. Here we are, "Club Ten", the thirteenth and final episode. Let the ending begin.

It’s fitting that the final episode of Automan sticks close to the formula established in the previous twelve. White collar criminals, a road trip, gratuitous female ass shots, familiar pop songs with dubious unfamiliar replacement singers, and Chuck Wagner dancing.

In general, I can’t say anything about this episode that I haven’t already said about the previous twelve. Specifically, it feels a bit flat and lazy. To make a sports analogy, Automan is like that big white guy that comes off the bench in the NBA and runs up and down the court like Gumby on a sugar rush. He gets by on his hustle more than his talent. Take away the hustle, and you’ve got Klaus, a slow European benchwarmer who wears a black turtleneck under his warm-ups, smokes cigarettes during time outs, and says things like “The fact that we ‘make’ a basket, only for the ball to fall through a hole in the bottom, is a metaphor for the folly of life.”

A list of frustrations with this episode.
  • The setting of a club for “Perfect Tens” seems like a great set-up for the pin-up handsome Wagner and the everyman Walter, but instead of milking it for all it’s worth, they give one or two squeezes on the teat and move on.
  • The show always struggled to integrate 80s hot Roxanne Caldwell into the story, and when they finally do, she’s given nothing to do. Even her budding romance with Walter is M.I.A.
  • The guest stars, usually a strength, are the worst in the show’s run. Not only is there not a familiar face among them, I don’t think there’s a pulse.
  • Half the fun of the show was watching Auto get lost inside whatever character he was playing that week and we get none of that here.
Sadly, “Club Ten” is anything but.

White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: Ending at 6

"You know, it's amazing the lengths your species will go to to put a little white ball in a hole."
"For someone who can trace his family tree back to Pong, I'd think you'd have a little more appreciation for games."
Here we are, friends, at the end of the adventure. It's the final episode of Automan, which spent several years unseen due to the cancellation of the show. I can just imagine the few fans who stuck with the original as they see this episode coming up on the syndication schedule. They'd gather around their sets, never imagining the day they could live blog the experience, and walk away with an indifferent sigh.

Don't get me wrong, it's a well executed episode with clean direction and a decent script that balances their usual good humor with a twisty mystery plot, but it puts a big spotlight on the weakest aspect of the entire series: the yuppie blandness.

The episode takes place at the island resort Club Ten, which only caters to people who are judged to be perfect tens in terms of looks, confidence, and wealth. Meaning it's an island of nothing but studly white men and hot women in bikinis. To infiltrate this nefarious fortress of Caucasian ego stroking, Automan must don his most complex and unexpected disguise yet: a studly white man, complete with manly sweater vest. Yes, we see his grand holographic range of powers put to the test as he has to partake in fancy deserts, a round of hysterically choreographed tango, and even the feared art of golf.

I'm trying to make it sound more awesome than it is, because it's really just so bland. And as with too many episodes of the series, the villains are your typical white collar bandits who are using the resort as a front for diamond smuggling. And it's such a huge case of crime and misdoing that not only are our heroes going undercover to smoke the ring out, but they keep stepping on the toes of a British agent who's already neck deep in this case. There's so much more they could have done here, with an international incident crisis and the two forces teaming up even as they try to out-maneuver one another, but the setup goes nowhere as Inspector Mercer (Don Knight) inexplicably loses his cover halfway through, arresting Walter while in full uniform. And then there's a couple AutoCar chases, and he's forgotten.

Worst of all is Roxanne. Finally. They finally have an episode where she gets to step into the spotlight when the kidnapping of her friend leads our heroes to the case, and Curtis stays home for once so she can join Auto and Wally in the investigation. They have a perfect opportunity to finally show off her skills as a cop and further her bond with the heroes, but the first half is nothing more than her gaping or rolling her eyes at Auto's antics, and in the second, she's kidnapped and joins her friend as yet another damsel in distress. And the relationship between her and Wally? Never once mentioned or explored.

It's not a bad episode, and had it arrived in the middle of the series, it wouldn't have been such a letdown, but as a finale, it's one hell of a feeble whimper. I know, I know, it's doubtful they were expecting the show to get cancelled, so they had no control over what note they'd go out on, but you have to admit that it's never fun to see a show end with a big spotlight on what they were doing wrong to begin with.

Some random Walter thoughts:
  • I love Walter's massive laptop computer. Which doesn't end up doing much of anything.
  • I believe this is the third time we've hear the generic version of "Beat It" on the soundtrack. I love that it plays over Walter's spastic dancing.
  • The man can't dance, but he still kicks ass pretty damn well.
  • I love how the only way he can get into the pompous exclusive club is by pretending he's Automan's valet.
  • That is one hell of an epic pink and sky blue polo shirt he's wearing.

Tune in next Saturday Morning as we explore Automan's merchandising.

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April 9, 2011

Automan, episode 12: "Death By Design"

"Automan, isn't it true that you can take literally thousands of facts and assimilate them instantaneously?"
"That's right."
"And that you have the deductive abilities of the world's most brilliant detectives?"
"So tell me, why can't you take a hint?"
I'm... really not sure what to make of this episode. I can't tell if it's a jumble of separate ideas lazily dropped together, or if it's a masterpiece of outside-the-box thinking and unconventional plotting.

Up front, I should point out that the primary focus of this story is on Lt. Jack Curtis, meaning Robert Lansing gets to steal the spotlight with his unique delivery and mannerisms, and a flailing punch or two. We open with Jack on a late night stakeout with his old academy buddy and dear friend Nate Hester (Edward Mallory). From their banter about the good old days, you just know things are going to end up bad and, sure enough, they trail suspected mob enforcer Eric LeBlanc (Luke Askew) to the offices of Sylvana Fashions, where Nate and the company's owner are gunned down in cold blood while Jack is waiting outside for backup. They do eventually bring LeBlanc in, but have to release him due to a lack of evidence. This doesn't stop Jack from clocking the goon on the jaw and vowing "You just keep lookin' over your shoulder because I am going to be there."

Let's tangent for a moment to the subplot that gave our title the word "design". Our story cuts rather quickly from grim cops and the gritty streets to a pair of swimsuit models splashing around with a beachball in a kiddie pool, set to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". Jack's reaction at walking in on the scene is priceless. Supervising the photoshoot is Tracy Morgan (Anne Lockhart, daughter of June), the business partner of the slain Sylvana, is trying to keep the company going in the face of his death. It seems the plot of this episode's rich white guys in suits is that the mob is claiming half ownership of the company, despite Sylvana having paid up the debts he owed. Regadless, Tracy bravely decides to stand her ground in the face of their continued threats and demands.

So in comes Automan. From the setup and title, I was wondering if he'd take the guise of a male model or an eccentric designer of glowing electronic fashion. But, no, the fashion industry is little more than a backdrop featuring a double-d cup load of bikini clad women. For his main guise, Auto takes on the trope of a gritty street cop out for vengeance. Hell, they concoct a series of Dirty Harry-esque films called Nasty Eddie - complete with the tagline "Go ahead, do the world a favor." - for him to become an eager fan of, before he hits the streets with a squinting grate to his voice and a glowing AutoMagnum in his holster. And Walter, with the blessing of Capt. Boyd, even goes so far as to create false police reports of crooks being gunned down by a rouge cop named Mad Dog, so as to trick the crooks into panicking.

While it doesn't stray too far from the gritty white collar crime stories Automan has dealt with in the past, this episode was such an unexpected surprise filled with great little moments. Like Chuck Wagner hilariously failing to be threatening with his gravely voice, because he's still so damn pretty. Or Auto brutally gunning down a newsstand bookie right before Walter's eyes, only for it to be revealed as a bit of Cursor magic. Or the AutoChopper being outfitted with a swanky new laser cannon. Or a romantic moment, cruelly interrupted by Auto and Cursor, where Walter and Roxanne finally hook up and share their first kiss.

"You know, Wally, I have grown quite fond of you."
"I know, I know. But you don't want romance to get in the way of our friendship."
"As a matter of fact, I don't want our friendship to get in the way of romance."
That, my friends, is what we call victory.

On a final note, I'm intrigued by this episode's introduction of Tom Sholes (David Spielberg, no relation to Steven), a crime reporter with a beef against the police force, which he often smears as sadistic and corrupt. It's through his articles that Wally spreads the false rumors of a vigilante cop, but what really has me curious is his promise to not stop until he gets to the truth behind Agent Otto Mann. Is this a new recurring character being added to our cast? We've got one episode left to find out.

But as I said, I still can't figure out if this episode is great or awful. What does the fashion industry have to do with Jack losing an old friend? Nothing. Why even have the fashion industry if Auto's going to go on a vigilante spree? No reason. Why even have Auto go nuts and start cleaning up the streets if you aren't going to make Walter terrified of losing control? Missed opportunity. And, yet, I was still riveted the whole time, and had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. So I can't say if it's a good episode or not, but I sure liked it.

This week’s episode shoots holes in my theory that everyone involved knew the show was doomed by this point. Not so much because it’s a great episode (it’s not), but because they seem to be setting up characters and plots for the future. A future that would never come (insert dramatic music here).

"Death by Design" represents the twelfth and final episode of Automan aired during its original U.S. run. I say "aired" because there were actually thirteen episodes filmed. That episode, "Club Ten", wouldn’t be broadcast on American TV until years later.

So what do they set up? The “Will they or won’t th--, ah, who cares?” relationship between Walter and 80s hot Roxanne Caldwell finally takes the next step. I haven’t seen a guy take this long to get to first base since John Kruk played for the Phillies.

Next is the introduction of a sleazy crime beat writer who immediately finds himself on the wrong side of our heroes, and the episode ends with a hint that he has taken a special interest in Auto’s Agent Mann alter ego. It could’ve been a fun addition.

Back to the episode... ehhhh, it’s flatter than a 13th century globe. You’d think watching Wagner sneer and squint his way through a Dirty Harry impression would be fun, but the jokes and the scenarios lack the necessary creativity to give it... wait for it... Magnum Force. Or is that.... wait... for... it... Sudden Impact.

I did enjoy one of my all-time favorite actors, Lance Le Gault, working his vocal magic. Not to mention the lovely Anne Lockhart (Sheba to all you original Battlestar Galactica fans out there). But even they can’t save a weak script that gives them nothing to do. As if to underline how dull the episode had been, it ends with a pyrotechnic show worthy of an 80s hair band. It was a fun bit of razzle-dazzle, but it didn’t really fit the episode at all.

It’s not a lemon or a lime,
I only said that because it rhymes,
it’s Lance Le Gault fun fact time!
  • Lance Le Gault began his career as a stunt double for Elvis.
  • Le Gault appeared twice on the Glen Larson produced Knight Rider, playing a different character each time.
  • Le Gault would out do him self on the 80s series Airwolf, where he appeared in three different episodes, playing a different character in each. All five characters were bad guys.
White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: 6
White Guys Conspiring Around a Fern Count: 1

Tune in next Saturday Morning for our final exciting adventure with Automan in "Club Ten".

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