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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1998 – PART 3

Written By:

Alan Boon
Nick Fury, 1998

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!

1998-99

Back in the last millennium, there was this thing called Must See TV, where NBC put ALL the best shows in one three-hour block and dominated the lives of everyone with a television. Friends, new Christina Applegate vehicle Jesse, Frasier, Veronica’s Closet, and ER were all the TV you needed, although the usual news and football was also on offer for anyone not tickled by NBC’s powerhouse line-up. Jesse wasn’t the only new show that NBC threw at viewers; they also had Will & Grace tucked in their back pocket. The other big new arrivals were over on HBO and Fox, where Sex and the City, Family Guy, and Futurama all hit the screens for the first time.

There were plenty of shows going the other way, with Home Improvement, Due South, Homicide: Life on the Street, Mad About You, and Baywatch entering their final runs, and genre fans had particular cause to feel aggrieved as the axe was about to fall on Millennium, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, with only Third Wave and Farscape on the docket to replace them. There could have been more, of course, but some shows didn’t even make it as far as the TV Guide. This is the story of 1997’s unsold pilots…

Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (Fox): The nineties were a strange decade for Marvel Comics, beginning with the highest comic book sales since World War Two and ending with a critically-acclaimed revamping of some of their darker characters by creators more usually found writing and drawing independent comics. In between those two high points was the lowest of the low, a bankruptcy that almost put an end to one of popular culture’s biggest icons and some very strange decisions made regarding film and TV.

Nick Fury had originally been created as a World War Two hero, mopping up those comic book readers in the early 1960s who wanted to distract themselves from the oncoming disaster in Vietnam with some stories from a war that at least made some sense. Seven months after his first appearance, and with creator Jack Kirby intent of developing a line-wide continuity, Fury popped up in Fantastic Four #21, now a super spy trying to deal with a world that had gotten very complicated indeed.

Nick Fury, 1998

Fury went on to enjoy his own series and became an integral part of the Marvel Universe but few would have expected him to graduate to his own TV series, although given that the previous properties chosen for this honour had been Power Pack and Generation X, anything could happen in mid-nineties Marvel. It was thought, with some justification, that Fury and the SHIELD agency he headed could be a modern-day Mission: Impossible or The Man from UNCLE, and Fox tapped David Goyer to write a script for a pilot film.

Goyer had been building a reputation for tightly-plotted B-movies and would go on to write the Blade trilogy, and his Fury script hits all the beats, roping in SHIELD’s eternal nemeses Baron von Strucker and Hydra to threaten the safety of the world. When it came to casting the title role, producer David Roessell wanted star power and, against the misgivings of the studio, gave the role to Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, who agreed to don the famous eyepatch. Goyer had always intended there to be a kitsch feel to his script but it seems only Hasselhoff got the joke, his (deliberately?) hammy performance lending an air of the ridiculous to the world-threatening situations faced by Fury.

Fox aired the pilot in May 1998 to mostly negative reactions, and it rated fourth in its timeslot, beaten by re-runs on the other networks. Plans for a series were dropped and Hasselhoff returned to patrolling the beaches of California and saving the world from Communism. Nick Fury would eventually return ten years later at the end of Iron Man, still with his trademark eyepatch but now resembling Samuel L Jackson and implementing the Avengers Initiative. Wonder how that turned out?

The Osiris Chronicles (UPN): Much of the middle part of the 1990s for Joe Dante was taken up by preparing Small Soldiers for its eventual release in 1998. He still found time, though, to keep his hand in on other projects, such as satirical HBO comedy The Second Civil War and this curiosity for UPN, produced by his own Renfield Productions company.

From a script written by novelist Caleb Carr, whose The Alienist had been a sensation two years earlier, The Osiris Chronicles tells the story of Justin Thorpe (Northern Exposure’s John Corbett), a loveable rogue from the planet Caliban 5 who returns home after a theft/salvage mission to discover his sister Nova has been abducted. Given command of the starship Osiris by Rod Taylor’s General Lars Sorensen, whose granddaughter is Nova’s best friend, Thorpe searches the galaxy for his sister…

The Osiris Chronicles, 1998

For many fans, Corbett had been the real star of Northern Exposure, his zen disc jockey winning hearts and minds while Joel and Maggie danced their dance, and he’d follow The Osiris Chronicles with The Visitor, a Roland Emmerich series about a returning alien abductee that failed to find its audience. He plies his trademark understated charisma here, but even with backing from Law & Order’s Carolyn McCormick and John Pyper Ferguson as Warlord Xian, the enemy who might be Thorpe’s only hope of rescuing his sister and saving the universe, there’s little for him to work with.

The pilot aired on January 27th 1998, almost two years after its completion, and it was clear why it had sat on the shelf for so long. Even a filmmaker as talented as Dante couldn’t make much sense of Carr’s story of the enigmatic Engineers and their plan to use the sum of their ancestors knowledge and souls, and despite an ending that led nicely into the further adventures of the crew of the Osiris, nothing more was ever heard of them.

Blade Squad (Fox): What’s up, fellow kids? How would you like you watch a new TV show, one that is so bleeding edge cool that its very name includes a sharp implement? A show that not only features maverick policemen but maverick policemen on roller blades, maverick policemen on roller blades that are propelled by JET PACKS?!? Well, have I got the show for you…

The history of television occasionally throws up the odd show that was obviously the result of a last minute power lunch, ideas scrawled on a napkin, possibly inspired by whatever the coked-up producers happened to see gliding past the restaurant window while they panicked about their impending pitch meeting. That’s the only possible explanation for Blade Squad and the real mystery is how it got past that initial pitch to become a fully-formed TV pilot.

Blade Squad, 1998

From the fevered mind of Street Hawk creator Robert Wolterstoff and Point Break scripter W Peter Illiff, the idea of a gang of rollerblading crimefighters may be triggering memories of Prayer of the Rollerboys, a 1990 dystopian epic starring Corey Haim and Patricia Arquette that has been all but erased from popular memory (and with good cause). Illiff also wrote that and it’s to his credit that he managed to resist putting Harrison Ford on blades for Patriot Games, because it’s clear who he sees as the real stars of this show, despite the best efforts of a cast including Yancy Arias, Corin Nemec, and Zack Ward.

There is a story underlying extensive shots of slow-motion rollerblading, one that involves Ward’s Billy Mustard attempting to gain revenge for his brother’s injury while serving on the squad (and, of course, coming to realise that being on the Blade Squad is actually cool and good), but I’m not sure anyone stayed for its conclusion. Fox aired the pilot in August 1998, by which time they’d already passed on a full series of extreme action. Inexplicably, the film retains a small cult following among Wolterstoff fans who no doubt dream of a rollerblade/motorcycle mash-up that, sadly, will never arrive…

Chameleon (UPN): Set thirty years in the future, the Chameleon of the title is a genetically-engineered assassin with chameleon-like powers whose latest mission goes awry when she discovers maternal feelings for his target, a small child. Played with smouldering sex appeal by Bobbie Phillips (whose previous roles included a limo driver in the bizarre Sir Mix-a-Lot vehicle The Watcher), Kam – get it? – turns against her government masters and goes on the run to protect young Ghen (The Santa Claus’s Eric Lloyd), the son of a rebel leader.

Writer Bennett Cohen had a handful of TV movies under his belt before he created Chameleon and sold his script to production company Village Roadshow Pictures at just the right time. The Australian-American studio had just reached an agreement with Warner Bros to finance their next few projects and this opened doors for Cohen’s script, attracting interest from Paramount TV, who greenlit a pilot.

Chameleon, 1998

Direct-to-video veteran Stuart Cooper was brought in to direct the pilot and he delivered something of a mixed bag, a film that can’t seem to settle on its target audience, delivering some tame action scenes alongside simmering sexual tension and a hero/child relationship taken almost note for note from Terminator 2. The end result found little favour with TV bosses but did spark interest from Paramount’s movie arm, who saw potential in a main character displaying plenty of flesh for the home video market.

Chameleon II: Death Match followed a year later, with the kid eliminated from the mix in favour of Casey Siemaszko and John Waters (yes, that John Waters), and a third instalment – Dark Angel – emerged in 2000. Unfortunately, fans were less enthused by Kam’s battle with her evil twin brother and that was all she wrote for Chameleon, its lasting impact being a cult following for Phillips, who was last seen in 2018’s The Gandhi Murder.

Next time on The Telephemera Years: Godzilla and Hercules do battle for Saturday morning attention spans!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

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

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3,

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: 1978 (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: 1989 (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: 1998 (part 1, 2)

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: 2006 (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: DIC (part 1, 2)

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

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

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

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

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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