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Written By:

Alan Boon
Annihilator, 1986

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!


Like much of the late 1980s, the story of the 1986-87 season is one of NBC dominance. The Peacock network again enjoyed the number one show with The Cosby Show, and that ratings behemoth was joined at the top of a sitcom triple bill by Family Ties and Cheers as America decided it liked its comedy either soaked in saccharine or beer. The Golden Girls and Night Court gave NBC five of the top seven shows, with just CBS’s interfering murder magnet Jessica Fletcher and the current affairs of 60 Minutes threatening its hegemony.

ABC, which had lost The Colbys in the Summer of 1986, did have the light comedy of Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss?, and the “will they, won’t they?” tension of Moonlighting, and was probably hopeful of success with new shows Head of the Class and Sledge Hammer!, with mixed results. Fame, The A-Team, and Airwolf all also reached the end of their runs, but making their bows in the Fall of 1986 were ALF and LA Law on NBC (both of which made the top thirty in their first seasons), while Fox unveiled their debut line-up which included 21 Jump Street, Married… With Children, and The Tracey Ullman Show. Those were all shows that made it to air but what about those projects that failed to get past the pilot stage? This is the story of 1986’s never-weres…

The Gladiator (ABC): When a homicidal maniac is killing people with his DEATH CAR on the streets of Los Angeles, only a mysterious vigilante known as The Gladiator can stop him, but will the police catch up to him before he can snare his prey? That’s the premise in this guns blazing, full revs actioner, directed by Driller Killer’s Abel Ferrara in his drive to go legit.

Ken Wahl (The Wanderers and Fort Apache, the Bronx) is the titular hero, a motor mechanic named Rick Benton who lost his brother to a serial killer called The Skull. Benton uses his technical know-how to convert an ordinary pick-up truck into a dangerous weapon of justice and embarks of a spree of citizen’s arrests, aided only by Nancy Allen’s talk radio DJ and hunted by Robert Culp’s gritty detective.

The Gladiator, 1986

ABC aired the pilot as a TV movie in February 1986, with eleven minutes cut to squeeze into its ABC Monday Night Movie slot, which ran when the NFL was out of season. It would have made for a decent late night noir series if such a thing existed back in 1986 but instead it earned a solid following on the VHS rental market, where it was presented as a standalone story, with no hint that Benton’s adventures could have continued.

Ferrara kept trying to crack the mainstream for a few more years, almost making with King of New York before giving up and delivering Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. The Gladiator remains one of his lesser known gems, never great but never less than engrossing. And if you do get bored watching the grindhouse car action on offer, reflect on the fact that several of the Dodge Chargers used in making the movie had been General Lees on The Dukes of Hazzard

Annihilator (NBC): A curious mix of The Terminator, The Stepford Wives, The Invaders, and The Fugitive, Annihilator was the brainchild of father and son writing team Roderick and Bruce A Taylor, who had previously created Otherworld in 1985. A solo Roderick had also written The Star Chamber in 1983 and Annihilator also featured a crusading young turk, bent on exposing the truth. Except instead of a cabal of corrupt politicians, Annihilator’s hero must uncover an alien conspiracy to replace humanity with robots!

Mark Lindsay Chapman starred as Robert Armour, a newspaper reporter who realises that his girlfriend, a fellow journalist, has been replaced by a robot, along with everyone else on her vacation flight to Hawaii. Seemingly the only one who knows the truth, Armour has to hunt down the androids while being hunted by the very things he is looking to stop!

Annihilator, 1986

Popular wisdom has it that Chapman was only given the role after he was removed from a John Lennon biopic for having the same name as the singer’s killer but he’s a game lead and the premise has potential, with a limited number of altered humans to track down and the mystery of just why they’ve been replaced – and what has happened the originals – was a good background potboiler to keep things chugging along, should the pilot have been sent to series.

It wasn’t, though, and the pilot was instead aired as a movie of the week in April 1986, with subsequent repeats over the ensuing years. It’s on YouTube if you want to watch it and if you need a recommendation then horror film host Svengoolie once featured it on his show.

The Spirit (ABC): Beginning with a full colour insert inside the Register and Tribune syndicate’s Sunday newspapers in June 1940, it was clear from the off that there was something different about The Spirit. Creator Will Eisner used the strip to test the boundaries of the comic page, running through to October 1952 and enjoying periodic revivals thereafter.

Surprisingly, unlike many of its contemporaries, The Spirit was never adapted for film, radio, or television, perhaps because of the unique nature of Eisner’s vision, an off-putting and daunting prospect for even the cleverest scriptwriters. That is until 1986 when writer Steven de Souza and director Michael Schultz attempted the impossible in a pilot film for a proposed series.

The Spirit, 1987

Sam Jones, the former big screen Flash Gordon, was cast as Denny Colt, a young criminologist who is apparently murdered but in fact enters a state of suspended animation due to strange experiments by the villainous Dr Cobra. Returning to Central City, he tasks himself with taking down all evildoers, with the pilot entangling him with the femme fatale P’Gell, played by Night Heat‘s Laura Robinson (then going by the name McKinley Robinson).

Schultz and de Souza did their best to imbue the show with the spirit of Eisner’s strip, although they were hampered somewhat by a studio edict to move the action into the 1980s, but – as Frank Miller would later find out – it might just be that The Spirit is unfilmable after all. The pilot has gained a cult following on the convention circuit but no series was forthcoming and, as yet, Denny Colt’s adventures remain purely on the printed page.

The Return of the Greatest American Hero (NBC): The Great American Hero had been one of Stephen J Cannell’s first blockbuster hits, with only The Rockford Files earning more episodes until The A-Team arrived in 1983. William Katt starred as Ralph Hinkley, a substitute teacher who is given a suit by aliens, imbuing him with fantastic powers. Over the course of three seasons, Hinkley saved the world from minor peril and learned to both be the hero the Earth needed and learn to work with his FBI handler Bill Maxwell.

This was the starting point for The Return of the Greatest American Hero, which was ordered to pilot in 1986 for a potential series that Fall. Katt returned for the pilot, as did Robert Culp as Bill, and the story picks up several years after the end of the original series as Ralph’s identity has become public knowledge, angering the aliens who gave him the suit and forcing him to pass it on.

The Return of the Greatest American Hero, 1986

He and Bill settle on a young woman called Holly Hathaway (Mary Ellen Stuart), a teacher who spends her free time volunteering at animal shelters and caring for foster children, and a hurried transition sees Ralph leave the picture and Bill attempt to teach his new charge how to work the suit. Initially, Bill is unhappy at having to work with a woman, but his chauvinism is overcome by the end of the pilot, although he doesn’t let Holly know that.

The pilot did not meet with the approval of network bosses, and it didn’t result in a revival of the series. However, retitled The Greatest American Heroine with some light editing, and along with four other unbroadcast episodes, the debut of Holly Hathaway was tacked onto the original run for the syndication market, acting as the series finale the show never got.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (ABC): Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel is a thought-provoking exploration of the human soul from the perspective of the loneliest of aliens and was adapted by Nicolas Roeg in 1976 with David Bowie in the starring role as the title character, seduced and ultimately corrupted by humanity’s worst excesses.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1986

Somehow, ABC thought this would make a great premise for a TV show and ordered a pilot. They cast Lewis Smith, fresh off bodice-ripping Civil War drama North and South as alien John Dory, who becomes involved in the life of Beverly D’Angelo’s Eva Milton while he is trying to earn enough money to build a spaceship for his people. Rather than examine the human condition from the vantage point of a vulnerable outsider, the show instead focuses on just how this wise alien can mend Louise’s relationships with her son (played by Wil Wheaton).

At the end of the pilot, Dory leaves the now fixed family and sends a message home to his own son; this would have likely become the theme of the eventual series, a Highway to Heaven with an alien twist. However, despite some good notices for Lewis Smith (and the appearance of eventual Star Trekkers Wheaton and Robert Picardo), the reception for the pilot wasn’t enough to earn it a series and Dory’s further adventures went unchronicled, although a sequel of sorts to the original novel and movie did make it to Showtime in 2022.

Next time on The Telephemera Years: What were the kids watching in 1986? Hawks, bears, and whatever a Kissyfur is!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

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