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Automania!

posted by Mike on 7/12/02


An old cliché states that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that is the case, then 80’s mega-producer Glen Larson spent a large portion of his career kissing ass all over Hollywood. Through successes and failures, accusations and lawsuits, Larson soldiered on, though to the careful observer, it was never a secret where his “Creations” sprang from.

The year is 1982. In an attempt to redefine their core audience, Walt Disney Pictures releases a sci-fi film named Tron. It concerns a man named Flynn, a former game programmer who is searching for proof that his ex-employer stole the programs for his games. He breaks into Encomm, and attempts to dig up his old files. But unbeknownst to him, the Master Control Program, the mainframe that runs the show, is on to his scheme, and blasts him with a ray that breaks apart his physical form, and downloads him onto The Game Grid. Here, he meets Tron, a cybernetic warrior, and joins forces with him in an attempt to stop the MCP, and find a way back home.

For its time, this was a truly original concept. But unfortunately, it was ahead of its time. Though it sported the latest in computer-generated imagery, producing effects that paved the way for the CGI effects of today, it was a box office disappointment. It seemed the public was not yet ready to embrace a hero trapped in a computer-generated battleground (and wouldn’t until 1999, with the release of The Matrix.

Flash forward to 1983. ABC is looking to cash in on the popularity of NBC’s tech-driven action vehicle Knight Rider. So without hesitation, they turn to the show’s head producer, Glen Larson. Hot on the heels of his success with Knight Rider, Larson again delves into the deep pool of cinema at large and envisions an idea for a new breed of television hero: a computer-generated super hero, whose powers were limited only by the power of the PC that generated him. But here’s the catch. Rather than have a human trapped in this hero’s world, the hero would emerge into the world of man. Meetings aplenty were held, sketches were drawn, scripts were written, and in a record amount of time, the world was introduced to what is possibly the worst sci-fi show to ever pollute the airwaves…

As it was finally conceived, Automan told the story of a man named Walter Nebicher, ( played by a pitifully miscast Desi Arnez Jr.) an officer within the Los Angeles Police Department. Walter loves the law, and would love to enforce it, handing out steel-fisted justice to the Rodney Kings of society. He has a detective’s intelligence, and a vice cop’s hardened resolve. There’s just one problem. He’s not a patrolman. While he does carry a badge, he is relegated to operating the LAPD’s mainframe. Imagine that, a bespectacled computer dork being handed a desk job… oh cruel fate, thou art a harsh mistress.


Babbaloooo!


In his spare time, Walter spends hours in his basement writing his own video games (it’s cerainly no wonder that we never see Walter out on a date… what a loser, spending all his spare time hunched over a… wait, never mind.) One night, in a fit of frustration over his failed career as a man of the LAW, he decides to create the ultimate crime fighter, who has unbeatable strength, speed, and intelligence… a man without limits… a man without evil in his heart… a man without genitals. He calls him AutoMan, and then wistfully imagines the adventures they could share if he were only more than a collection of sprites on the PC screen. It’s not enough. He doesn’t want AutoMan to languish in videogame hell, trapped in endless battles with the likes of Bowser, the ghost Gang, Mother Brain, or Obobo! He wishes AutoMan could be a real boy!

The following afternoon, Walter ponders how much more realistic he could make AutoMan by running him through the vastly superior mainframe at police headquarters (apparently, misuse of department resources was perfectly legal back then.) The results are astounding, so astounding that Walter spends the rest of the entire 13 episode run with his mouth hanging open. To his utter astonishment, the mainframe takes his AutoMan construct, and converts it into hologram form (even more impressive when you consider the fact that Walter had no hologram projection units.) Behold… AutoMan!


Automan takes a break to enjoy a game of Escape From Planet Dorkatron

AutoMan appears, (played by renowned stage actor Chuck Wagner) and praises Walter for his PC ingenuity. Thanks to being routed through the LAPD mainframe, AutoMan now has access to information from all over the world which he can use to fight crime, protect the innocent, and chat with hot cyber ‘tang. He proudly proclaims (and will proceed to repeat at the beginning of each episode) that on a scale of one to ten… he is an eleven. As with all super heroes, however, AutoMan does have one mind-jarring weakness. Because generation of his hologramatic self eats up so much electrical power (not to mention the brain cells of those stupid enough to tune in), he can only materialize at night, when most law abiding citizens are safely in bed, and only using the kind of appliances that run off batteries. What this boiled down to was that criminals were toast if they crept the streets during the midnight hour, but could easily get away with any crime if they were smart enough to do their dastardly deeds under the cover of BROAD DAYLIGHT. Plus, AutoMan’s nifty suit and equipment just wouldn’t be as impressive out in the noonday sun, now would it.

Along with him came his sidekick Cursor, a white glowing ball of pixels (this character was also in Tron, but was called Bit.) As dumb as it sounds, Cursor was actually the most interesting aspect of the show. At Automan’s command, Cursor could transform into one of many vehicles, including the Autocar, the Autocopter, the AutoCycle (which I’ll delve further into shortly), the AutoJet, and the Auto-butt-plug…


Elminate the need for parking with our new and improved Backspace Feature!

Each episode began with a crime being committed (what a novel approach.) Walter would hear word of it, and download the details into AutoMan’s memory. Almost instantly, Automan would devise a plan of attack that would invariably involve him wearing a disguise (which also saved the producers money on the effects budget.) To attain the proper attire needed for his undercover work, he would download the information into his memory from popular movies of the day. Here’s an example: Automan learns of an extortion ring that is based out of the local disco club. He has Walter pull up a video feed of Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta, which just happens to be playing on TV at that exact moment (of course, TBS was around by then, so it’s not as unlikely as it sounds.) The movie pops up on AutoMan’s Chest-o-vision, and bang, zoom! He’s now wearing the same ugly white suit from the movie, with just a hint of his electronic glow appearing over the collar.

Thus disguised, he and Walter (who never bothered to disguise himself at all, since he spent his entire life either in a computer lab or in his basement, away from the eyes of mortal men) would hop into the Autocar and zip over to the scene of the action. This would play out as repetitive comic relief, as Automan always drove at 400 miles per hour. The Autocar, thanks to computers of the time supposedly being unable to calculate spherical geometry, could only execute ninety-degree turns. Thus every time Automan turned off on a side street, Walter would be thrown into the passenger door, practically knocking him out cold. With computers he was a whiz, but when it came to cars, he was apparently too stupid to think of side air bags.


If you tweak my nipple Walter, we can pull in the Playboy channel!

Before long, gunshots aplenty would be fired through our hero (he was a hologram after all) for 10 solid minutes, and then he would mess around with the electrical systems and cause the lights to go out, or some such other foolishness. Of course, it’s a rule of TV villains that the bad guys can’t see in the dark. So naturally the criminals would trip all over themselves, and right into his cybernetic clutches. For some reason, he never commanded Cursor to turn into the Autorifle, Auto-billy-club, or even Auto-pepper-spray. No, just like Macguiver, he relied on his wits to save the day. Which must mean that the average criminal couldn’t outsmart the average ET Atari cartridge.

This being television, they had to mix the formula up a bit to keep all three of their viewers glued to their TV’s, so AutoMan would occasionally concoct his disguises from his own imagination rather than from outside sources. One particular episode comes to mind, where Auto decides (for reasons never fully explained) to devise his own brand of denim jeans. Their name? Well what else? Autojeans, with the logo plastered across his silicon ass (in bright blue neon, no less.)


You too can advertise your product on Autobutts across the country!

Fear not friends. If you thought it couldn’t get any cornier, you’d think wrong. In one memorable episode… well, not really, but I’m trying to be as kind to this shit on celluloid as I can… AutoMan must infiltrate the redneck biker community. First thing’s first. No self-respecting biker can be without his manly road hog, so AutoMan enlists his trusty pal Cursor to devise for him the ultimate motorbike, Streethawk… no wait… that’s another show… Autobike! But does Autobike resemble the usual Harley hog that one sees the average biker straddled across? No, that would actually make sense. Instead, it’s one of the rocket bikes from Galactica 80 (another shitty Larson show I’ll be covering when I get around to Battlestar Galactica) with a new blunted front end, painted flat black with blue neon pen striping! Yeah, a guy dressed like he’s ready to trip the life fantastic at the Blue Oyster Bar on a Jeremy Mcgrath Special… that’ll strike fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere!


Introducing the 1983 Automan Crotch Rocket (Auto-biker-bitch not included)

And what would a biker be without his road torn biker garb, eh? Well, one would think that AutoMan could download an outfit from Easy Rider, but no! He instead dreams up his own ultimate biker outfit, complete with leather cap and silver studded crotch pad, which makes him look for all the world like the biker fag from the Village People! And to add insult to non-lethal injury, he institutionalizes his very own biker gang, of which is he the President and sole member… Oh holy Christ… The Automaniacs…


So sit back and relax, have kinky sex with your fax, it’s Auto-man-iacs!

Another aspect of the show they were constantly ramming down the public throat at large was its connection to videogames. There was always at least one reference to a popular game of the day being thrown in there, most likely for all the kids who were too busy playing The Smurfs on their snazzy new Colecovisions to tune in. This stupidity reached its most embarrassing level when, in one episode, Walter compares AutoMan to Donkey Kong. AutoMan replies “Donkey Kong? But he’s an ANIMAL!” I am amazed that I and the rest of the WD staff do all of our writing for free (all except for Eric, who could write better tripe than this in a coma) when people in Hollywood are getting paid upwards of 2500.00 a script to write utter shit like the line above. I weep for the species.

Come to think of it, that episode let slip a little known fact about AutoMan… despite him being a new creation from a man who made homemade video games in his basement on his trusty TRS-80, he had a fan following. In a subplot devoid of any semblance of a coherent thought, he was every video game’s folk hero. They knew him by name, in fact. In one scene, he casually walks into an arcade, and instantly every game in the damned room flashes “Greetings AutoMan!” across their screens. I wish on every star I’ve ever seen fall from the sky that I was making that up…

Nowadays, that kind of interactive admiration could really spice up old Auto’s love life. Imagine some of the cyber-shenanigans he could get into by having a Blockbuster night with the latest Laura Croft game… They could spend all night trying out input/output commands through their interface leads. Now if that wouldn’t make for some steamy masturbatory inspiration, nothing will. Grab your aloe vera boys, and let your imaginations run wild.


Who cares if the mayor’s been shot. I’m making BURGERS, dammit!

Supposedly, this deplorable series actually pulled in great ratings. I attribute this to the fact that every action show of the 80’s worked on a success vs car coolness ratio. The cooler the car, the higher the ratings. Don’t believe me? Go back and watch a few episodes of Knight Rider or the Dukes of Hazzard and explain to me what else could pull in the viewers despite car envy (this is excluding the Daisy Duke factor, of course.) And AutoMan had about the coolest car on TV. A supped up glow-in-the-dark Lamborghini that could outrun a bullet stuck in the ass-end of a bad out of hell.

But despite the decent ratings, despite the cool vehicles, despite the special effects and supposedly original concept, the show was cancelled after only half a season. The reason is attributed to the budget. As bad as the show looked, and regardless of the fact that roughly 30% of the show took place either in Walter’s basement, or at police headquarters, AutoMan was to that date the most expensive TV show on the air. When the producers couldn’t lower the budget and still keep up the show’s stellar high “quality” at a constant, the network execs pulled the plug. ABC bigwigs of old, we thank you. Of course, ABC is now owned by Disney, the ones who dreamed up the very inspiration for this crap in the first place, a fact which somehow manages to be both ironic, and morose.


Walter, I’m ready for you to insert your ram chip into my upgrade socket!

Hopefully the American public will never be subjected to another televised subliminal suicide commercial like AutoMan. But you never know these days. It was recently announced that work has begun on a new Disney film entitled Tron v2.0. A video game of the same name will be gracing our PC’s, PS2’s, and Xboxes later this year, with the film to follow some time thereafter. If history truly does repeat itself, then the horrible visage of AutoMan could wreack havoc on TV’s across the globe once more. When that day comes, I will finally know for certain that God has abandoned us all. But I should look at the bright side… perhaps I’ll develop blinding cataracts just in time to avoid such a nightmare. Hey, I can always hope.


Next go around folks, it’s Buck Rogers time…

Click here to listen to the AutoMan theme song!

-Mike

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