Features | Written by Alan Boon 02/02/2021

TITANS OF TELEPHEMERA: GLEN A LARSON – PART 1

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. Dedicated miners of this fecund seam begin to notice the same names cropping up, again and again, as if their whole career was based on a principle of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. What’s more, it isn’t all one-season failures and unsold pilots, there’s genuine gold to be found amongst their hoards; these men are surely the Titans of Telephemera!

GLEN A LARSON

Glen A Larson had a hit with the first show he ever created, 1971’s Alias Smith & Jones, and went on to create The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy, Battlestar Galactica, Magnum PI, The Fall Guy, and Knight Rider. He was a true titan of not only telephemera, but of telefantasy, period. But Larson had his share of failures, too…

Part 1: Remember these?

Galactica 1980 (ABC, 1980): It’s worth remembering that, despite its position as one of TV’s premier science-fiction TV shows, Battlestar Galactica ran for just one season, over the winter of 1977 and 1978, before being cancelled after losing out in its timeslot to CBS’s All in the Family, although Larson later claimed that ABC wanted his lucrative timeslot for Mork & Mindy. Fans of the show launched a letter-writing campaign and ABC acquiesced, contacting Larson for a continuation of the series.

Feeling he’d wrapped things up nicely anyway, Larson came up with a sequel set five years after the original, and set on Earth, where a reformed Count Baltar has travelled to the past, trying to advance civilisation enough to defend itself against the inevitable arrival of the Cylons. Wanting to leave Earth to discover its own destiny, Commander Adama instead sends Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) to stop Baltar’s interference.

There was a problem with Larson’s plan, however: Benedict had signed on to film Ruckus, a feature film about an unstable Vietnam veteran, and Hatch took one look at the script and turned it down. Instead, Larson advanced the plot thirty years and created a pair of new characters – Viper pilot Troy and Los Angeles detective Dillon (played by Barry van Dyke) would instead try to stop the machinations of Doctor Xavier, who after some initial time-traveling would focus his efforts in the present day.

Shorn of most of its stars – Lorne Greene and Herb Jefferson Jr remained, although Larson also jettisoned Maren Jensen, Noah Hathaway, and Muffit the robot daggit – the show was a ratings failure, and after just ten episodes it was cancelled. The tenth episode, titled “The Return of Starbuck,” finally brought Dirk Benedict back to the Galactica, but it wasn’t enough and filming was halted while production was underway on episode eleven. Footage from five of the episodes was edited together as a feature film, Conquest of the Earth, which got a theatrical release in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, but by that time Larson had already moved on to the adventures of Thomas Magnum, Private Investigator…

Manimal (1983, NBC): Few shows made as great an impact in as short a period of time as Manimal, the story of Dr Jonathan Chase, a British professor of animal behavioural sciences who is engaged by the New York Police Department to help solve crimes. Oh, and he can also change into any animal the case might require to solve it (as long as it’s a hawk or a panther).

Larson co-created the series with Donald Boyle, who had cut his teeth on the Ruby-Spears show Bigfoot & Wildboy, and its backstory was simple: Jonathan Chase learned the secret of animal transformation from his father in Africa, and first manifested his gift while serving in Vietnam, when he transformed to help he and US Army buddy Tyrone escape from a prisoner of war camp.

Chase was played by the very British Simon MacCorkindale (quite what a British professor was doing in Vietnam is anyone’s guess), who had moved to Hollywood after making it big in the 1978 film of Agatha’s Christie’s Death on the Nile, and Larson saw dollar signs when he cast him, thinking he’d discovered the next big thing, despite networks’ reticence about his sheer Britishness.

With special effects by Stan Winston, Manimal debuted on Friday September 30th 1983 on NBC, opposite the CBS juggernaut Dallas. This, of course, brought low ratings, and the show was cancelled after only four episodes had aired, although the remaining four were shown after a month’s break. It wasn’t alone; eight of NBC’s Fall season debuts were also cancelled before their first season had run its course as the network’s president of entertainment Brandon Tartikoff sought to steady a sinking ship.

Manimal gained some cult cache when it was shown in the UK, but it has long been widely regarded as one of the worst TV shows of all time. Larson did seek to bring the show back in the late-1990s, using an episode of superhero drama Night Man as a backdoor pilot, but even after all those years the stink of failure clung to the show like the scent of a newly-transformed panther.

Automan (1983, ABC): At the same time that Manimal was failing to find an audience on NBC, Larson had four other shows on the air. While three of the shows played to huge audiences, the proto-ER Trauma Center struggled in the ratings and was cancelled after its thirteenth episode had aired in December 1983, and was replaced by another Larson show, this time about a man who was also a car. Or something.

Automan had its roots in TRON, a Disney movie released in 1982 which saw a man zapped into a computer, illustrated by state-of-the-arts graphics by Donald Kushner and Peter Locke. Larson’s conceit was that the titular character – a crime-fighting AI created by police scientist Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr) - would instead be zapped into our world, and Kushner and Locke’s effects would bring him, and his vehicles, to life.

Nebicher and his creation – who adopted the pseudonym Otto Man (get it?) and was played with a hunky alien air by rookie actor Chuck Wagner – would team up to solve crimes, aided by Automan’s computerised sidekick Cursor, and the token love interest, Roxanne Caldwell (Heather McNair – it was illegal not to have a blonde actress called Heather in a show at that time).

Scheduled on Monday evenings, opposite ratings hit The Scarecrow & Mrs King, Automan fared no better than Trauma Center, and was cancelled after just twelve episodes had aired, its meagre audience not sufficient to justify its expensive special effects. The unaired thirteenth episode did air as part of the BBC run in Summer 1984, and was later added to repeats on various US cable channels, by which time Chuck Wagner had returned to his first love, musical theatre.

Team Knight Rider (1997, UPN): By 1997, Glen A Larson had not enjoyed a hit show for almost a decade. After trying out various projects, some of which made it to series or were killed at the pilot stage, he returned to one of his former glories, expanding the concept from a lone wolf to a pack of cubs and created Team Knight Rider.

The original idea for the new series came from Rick Copp and David A Goodman, two writers who had met while working on The Golden Girls, and they worked with Larson to update his 1982 hit for a new generation. Instead of Michael Knight and KITT, the Foundation for Law Enforcement and Government (FLAG, not FLEG) recruited fiveyoung agents, each with their own AI-imbued vehicle

Named Dante, Domino, Kat, Plato, and – erm – Attack Beast, these vehicles would aid the agents in thwarting the nefarious schemes of spies, assassins, and terrorists. For freedom! The new agents were played by a collection of unknowns, most of whom – save for Nick Wechsler, who later appeared in Roswell – would return to bit parts and TV movies, although David McCallum did turn up to voice TKR’s arch-villain, Mobius.

Released into syndication, with a first airing mostly on local UPN channels across the US, Team Knight Rider ran for a full season of twenty-two episodes, with the final episode ending on a cliffhanger, ready for season two. Due to low ratings, that second season didn’t happen, and so viewers never got a resolution to the apparent return of Michael Knight. The Glen A Larson era seemed well and truly done, but four years later he’d again go back to one of his old projects, and this time Battlestar Galactica would find its audience…

Further Reading from STARBURST:

TITANS OF TELEPHEMERA: GLEN A LARSON – PART 2

TITANS OF TELEPHEMERA: GLEN A LARSON – PART 3

TITANS OF TELEPHEMERA: GLEN A LARSON – PART 4

TITANS OF TELEPHEMERA: STEPHEN J CANNELL – PART 1