There was this magnificent bubble of time between about 1975 and 1998 or so when computers were magic.
It was a bygone age before they had become ubiquitous in our daily lives, and so no one really knew what these TVs-with-typewriters-stuck-to-them could actually do. If you slapped some thick rimmed glasses on an actor and called them a “Computer Genius”, then ANYTHING could be unlocked, learned, accomplished, or created as the plot dictated. From sexy lady genies, to lavish presentations of potential doomsday scenarios, to nearly starting World War III – computers were the reality bridge for for any sort of real world fantasy.
Smack dab in the middle of all of this, in the year 1984, was a TV show produced for ABC called Automan.
Not many people know about this show – in fact, I’ve only just discovered this show today – especially because it only lasted a single season of 12 episodes (though 13 were produced). It would have been completely forgotten, but in the boom of DVD releases that occurred in the early 2000′s the entire series was released in the UK (where I suppose it was far better received). The best part about this was the fact that they were able to gather all of the original stars – and even the show’s creator, Glen A Larson – and film a 40+ minute documentary about the show.
This documentary is all you need to see.
I’m not kidding.
It’s a time capsule of this amazing point of time. It showcases every last gooey morsel of campy overacting and c-grade special effects in clips, and it manifests in this amazing real-life Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place.
And I’m going to break it all down for you!
Upon firing up the mini-documentary we’re first treated to the title of the the piece.
Before I begin this breakdown, you need to know something about Automan. The show clearly throws around the word “Auto” (short for “automatic”) like Batman throws around the word “Bat” while naming things he owns.
Also, before the I delve too much into this featurette, I should break down what the basic plot of Automan was.
Back in the day when most people thought computers were stupid nerd boxes for losers, the police (of an undisclosed Californian precinct) were granted a ton of money to computerize their precinct. So, they carved off some of the money, filled a room with magnificent giant computers, and used the rest to wisely invest in more officers. Assigned to this clearly useless room was officer, computer programmer, and waste-of-space, Walter Nebicher (played by full-time nerd Desi Arnaz, Jr.). Instead of just kicking back and getting an easy and safe paycheck – Walter is, of course, as passionate about his computer programming as he is fighting bad guys. The only problem is that he’s hindered by his complete lack of physical prowess and passive aggressive wussy-ness. After being continually shot down by the chief of police, he goes about creating the Perfect Hologram video game thing – which manifests as Automan (played by Chuck Wagner’s magnificent chin) – the first automatic man! Walter quickly discovers that Automan has a completely autonomous artificial intelligence, and claims to be completely better than Walt in every way. “On a scale from one to ten, I’m an eleven.” Automan boasts.
Instead of immediately murdering Walter and every human in existence for being lesser than himself, Automan graciously decides to be a superhero instead. He takes up crime fighting all wrongdoers as Automan! Because he’s a super unbeatable impervious genius that’s great at everything, he takes up the completely awesome secret identity of Otto J. Mann (the “J” stands for “Automatic”) so he can walk around the precinct without alarm. Also he wears clothes, because his real body (save for his face) is all glowy. He teams up with Walter and his sidekick, Cursor, an actual computer cursor that can talk in beeps and boops and hovers around him like a fairy. Also, because Automan isn’t unbeatable enough, Cursor can draw objects that become tangible holograms which Automan uses. Like the Autocar, the Autochopper, and Automan’s Autoclothes when he’s not walking around nude to impress Walter.
But just before you think that Automan is completely unbeatable, because he totally is, THERE’S A PLOT TWIST! The police precinct uses it’s electricity during the day for doing policey stuff – which means that Automan (a computer run hologram that uses a VAST amount of electricity) can only perform for very short amounts of time during the day.
But that’s cool, because he can be on full time at night, and night is the only time crime really happens. Plus his glowy Tron effects look WAY cooler at night.
Oh! Also, there’s a girl! She’s played by Heather McNair and her character’s name was Roxanne Caldwell! I guess she’s there to add a really awkward love interest for Walter, but mostly she’s there just to say the exposition and wear red dresses. I have no idea what her character was supposed to be, and apparently neither did she apparently. One of my favorite parts of the documentary are the interviews with Heather. She clearly hated her role on the show and her time making it, but still tries her best to give an upbeat interview while she casually divulges that she had no real direction or motivation.
Now that you know what Automan was about, lets delve into the secrets of Calling Automan: The Auto Feature.
After a short opening sequence, we’re greeted by the Chuck Wagner’s modern day self. He’s grown into the exact image of someone’s lout of a dad after his sporty metabolism slowed down and one too many of his dreams had been crushed. He welcomes us and spins a tale about how he first auditioned for the role. He backtracks slightly by saying it was still early in his career – like he was embarrassed by the whole ordeal – but presses on. He explains how overwhelmed he was by the dazzling display of peak male physical forms that surrounded him at the audition, but then goes on for a minute or two about how he knew he’d be the actor chosen because he’s the right amount of white, handsome, blue eyed, and blond. The “everyman” that he knew that Larson was and was looking for.
The wording is just vague enough for me to question if Larson is the man who thinks that the Nazi ideal is the picturesque “everyman”, or if that’s what Chuck’s racist understanding of what an “everyman” is.
Next we’re ripped away from the smooth resonance of Chuck’s nigh-whispering voice by the nasal foghorn that is Desi Arnaz, Jr. He launches into a boring story, name dropping all the way, about how he was called and offered the role of Walter. He comes across in that overly affected actor way – where this interview is his big chance to audition for his next dinner theater role.
This is backed up by an interjecting Chuck who goes on at length about what a joy it was to work with Dezi, and how much of a fan he was of his work as a kid. It’s hard to figure out if this is because he’s genuinely kissing up to Dezi Jr, or if he’s honestly confusing Dezi Jr for his Dad.
Chuck continues his rambling ass kissing monologue, eventually turning his attention to Heather McNair. He blabbers out that she’s “the epitome of what a beautiful woman was back in that day.” Chuck then backpedals immediately “AND TODAY!” He then continues before anyone can cut his mic, “I don’t know what kind of sacrifices she’s doing because she is doing fantastic! She is doing fantastic.”
There’s a sudden gearshift and we’re introduced to Heather, who seems to relish saying Automan in the same way your Mom makes fun of the name of the cartoon you watched as a kid.
It jumpcuts away again to a “charming” scene where Walter passive aggressively Mary Sues his way into a date with Roxanne by whining. The scene is a lot more fun to watch if you imagine the two of them trying to top the other’s terrible line read, and a lot less fun to watch when you realize that this is the writers understanding of what romance is.
McNair then blasts back into the frame, where she bravely explains that she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have the tools to make the character of Roxanne, so she says most of the time she was just being herself on screen.
This is backed up with a quick scene from the show where she phones in some terrible line of dialog.
McNair does find some dissimilarities between herself and her part though – Roxanne wore more makeup and more red than she did.
Dezi pops back again and spins a tale about how out of the 5 girls he read with, Heather was the one he liked – so he basically had her hired through his clout. It’s a ballsy claim, but I’m sure 75% of the reason this show existed was because they secured him as the co-lead in the show.
Then, just when you think this documentary can’t get any better, the mustachioed, blue bespectacled, Droopy-Dog-faced creator/producer of Automan fills the screen. It’s Glen A. Larson in all his probably plagiarizing glory. Glen goes on to explain how he called in Donald Kushner and Peter Locke, the producers of Tron. He makes deadly clear that he HATED Tron, but he knew the public would like it. Not all the beeps and boops mind you – it would all have to be dumbed down for American TV audiences – but he knew there was money to be made in this Tron garbage if it was spun the right way.
The next sequence is a fun little bit where Chuck explains what video games were back in the day, and how Automan was an amalgamation of every handsome man in the world to become an extension of Walter – his superego made real. It’s the kind of charming realization from a man who probably forgot over the years that they told this information directly to the audience in every episode of Automan.
Dezi then goes on to explain the character of Walter in what feels less like an understanding of a character he’s played and more like an honest confessional of his own character flaws. Even when he reclaims his composure and claims that Walter was basically a superhero because he created Automan – it reads more like Dezi trying to justify that being the kid of someone super famous was just as good.
Dezi then goes on to explain one of Automan’s goofier powers – namely, allowing Walter to step inside of him and gain a modicum of control over Automan. He tries valiantly to explain why this would EVER be a good idea outside of temporary protection, but there’s no real reason that Automan would EVER need to give his control over to Walter. At best it just underscores just how selfish and self centered Walter is that he needs to take control of his autonomous creation. At worst it shows that Dezi was probably fighting with the writers at every turn to be included more in the superhero stuff in the show.
This is followed by Chuck describing his memories of how the special effects were accomplished for the show. It’s compelling to learn that even before Lucas greenscreened everything, Actors still had to deal with acting to stuff that wasn’t really there. “For me, Cursor was a ball on a stick.” laughs Chuck. He then tries his best to explain why they were a CGI series before there was CGI – but it’s all messy and should have been handled by the original effects guys – if the documentary team had bothered to look them up.
BONUS: Dezi spending two minutes describing what a cursor is.
Heather comes back to take her turn describing Cursor, and explains how cute it was to be sexually harassed by it. She does drop that it was pre-programmed to like blonds, so it’s basically an extension of Walter’s libido which is glossed over entirely. Ultimately we’re left with the understanding that the writers thought that invading a woman’s privacy was worth a laugh or two.
Next they talk about the Autocar which was – at the time – the newest Lamborghini you could buy. This proved troublesome for Chuck since he was average-man sized, and could barely fit in the thing. It’s hilarious to note that they had to mock up a larger interior for shots inside the car because the real car was too small to film inside. It’s also funny to note that Chuck lets slip that Glen had bought the car because he wanted it, and probably used the show as a front to offset the cost of the expensive sport car.
The rest of the Autovehicles were not very complex effects, but Chuck sure does take his sweet bumbly time explaining them.
Dezi then explains how he invented a comedy bit for Walter where he suffers from inertia during quick turns as a passenger in the Autocar. A problem with that would probably be fixed if he just put on a seat belt, but since he programmed the car, it’s probably just another extension of Walter’s subconscious – and how much he secretly hates himself.
Dezi does make sure to note that THIS WAS A STUNT. In case any casting directors are interested, Dezi does his own stunts.
Out of nowhere, Uncle Glen pops up again to lament all these dumb effects in Automan. They sure did take a lot of research and development. He sure has no idea how it all worked, but he does know it cost him a LOT of money to make it work.
Chuck backs this up by explaining his Automan suit. He apparently went through 10 of these over the 13 episodes they shot – so I can see how it was an expensive pain to deal with this effect. Remarkably the effect was not done digitally, it was all done practically. Each panel was reflective, and they shined a light at him at a 45 degree angle to achieve the sparkling effect. The bad news? Those panels not only reflected light, they retained the heat from those lamps – so he was basically wearing a solar oven on set every day.
Even more infuriating was the fact that they eventually matted out the majority of the panels with an old film trick to get the blue star field, so he never really had to be cooked every time he was in costume.
As Chuck takes a few seconds to explain how time intensive it was to block the light so it would only hit his suit and not his face for the effect – I can’t help but think about how many problems Tron had as they made it. They basically had to junk the majority of the footage and reshoot at one point because they figured out a better way to make the glowy effect they wanted. This all just screams that the effect guys – the same ones behind Tron and the ones missing from this documentary – must have been insanely hard to work with.
Anyway, Chuck closes this segment by dropping the fact that each episode of Automan cost around 50,000 dollars which is an INSANE amount of money in 80′s money.
Look, I could go on for pages, but this breakdown has already gone on WAY too long. Plus it’s not even coming close to doing justice to describing everything that happens in this video.
If you love campy 80′s schlock and old school effects then YOU NEED TO WATCH THIS. I’ve started my quest to hunt down all 13 episodes of Automan, and I’ll break down those episodes if I can get my hands on them.
Until next time, STAY SEXY.