Review: Automan / Cert 12 / Director: Various / Screenplay: Various / Starring: Desi Arnaz Jnr, Chuck Wagner, Robert Lansing, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Heather McNair / Release Date: Out Now
Starburst has fond memories of the summer of 1984. The Olympic Games were in Los Angeles and due to the time difference weren’t clogging up the only four channels we had back then. ITV debuted V, and the BBC gave us a double helping of Glen Larson productions. While Manimal was the must-see on Monday nights, Automan dominated the early evening slot on Saturdays.
Automan is the world’s first truly automatic super-hero, you see. He’s a hologram, as explained by an earnest sounding Automan himself in the first few episodes’ opening narration:
"A hologram is a fancy name for three dimensional picture, that when perfected can be made to look real, sound real, and given enough power can even be made to feel real."
It started as a game by police computer specialist uber-nerd Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jnr) always at odds with his old school cop boss who doesn’t understand or trust computers. Now, the program has evolved into being a force for good who can be summoned via computer. Far more efficient and cost effective than, say, a bat signal. Naturally, Automan comes with his sidekick, Cursor, and an array of incredible vehicles to fight crime wherever he’s summoned.
Obviously inspired by Disney’s Tron (1982), the series still looks great, particularly Automan’s glowing blue suit, the effect achieved with reflective panels and a travelling matte. The naive and at times child-like hero is played to perfection by Chuck Wagner.
Sadly, in its half season run, this lighthearted series didn’t manage to venture beyond formulaic gangster of the week villains, drug smugglers, and the ensuing undercover operations to catch them. Automan was explained to Nebicher’s colleagues as "an undercover fed" named Otto Mann. It would’ve been cool to see the format widen so the character could battle an evil computer virus counterpart, for instance.
Despite being something of a quaint curiosity to the computer savvy audience of today who’ll smile as Nebicher patiently explains that the term "interface" means "two computers talking to one another" and at the clumsy unwieldiness of the hardware on display, the show has a lot of charm and is never less than great tongue in cheek entertainment.
This set contains all 13 episodes and a retrospective documentary full of fascinating trivia, for example the incredible Autocar was actually a Lamborghini Countach - probably the most expensive superhero car ever seen.