In 1984 I turned thirteen.
It was a year of political lightning, like 2016 though perhaps slightly less crazy. In New Zealand, the three-term National government of Rob Muldoon – considered “right-wing” at the time, but economically leftist and state-interventionist – had fallen in July to the newly reinvented Labour Party: a hybrid left-right alliance of the charismatic young lawyer David Lange, who would ban nuclear ships from New Zealand, decriminalise homosexuality, and begin land reparations for the indigenous Maori – and the right-libertarian Roger Douglas, who aimed to turn New Zealand into a corporate tax-haven paradise with zero state services or welfare.
The political rhetoric unleashed that year was not kind. Government economic management was Stalinism gone mad, going to crush us all. No, the right wing were insane, going to starve us and hurl the poor and elderly into the streets. *
(* 32 years later, the second one turned out to be correct. )
In the United States of America, a Presidential election year was a referendum on both Ronald Reagan’s right-wing economics and his military adventurism; pop culture was full of nuclear despair. And in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative United Kingdom, George Orwell’s namesake book was echoing everywhere, seized on by both left and right as an allegory of state power and the terrifying future we might or might be hurtling toward because of the new-fangled “microchip“.
Our family belonged to a strict conservative church. I was young for my age, with very little media exposure, but a head full of much weirder ideas. My mother had subscribed to an underground Christian conspiracy zine obsessed with End Times theology, predicting the rise of ‘The Beast’, an evil world dictator with supernatural powers and a giant computer, who would stamp a barcode/microchip on our forehead and then damn our souls to eternity. My brother was obsessed with UFOs, the Roswell cover-up, and extraterrestrial alien infiltration of the US military system. (A meme that would burst into pop culture about ten years later, via The X-Files). That was if the Bomb didn’t drop and burn the whole planet to a cinder.
Three apocalypses for the price of one! Yay.
In school, we were just starting to learn about World War 2 and the rise of the Nazis, and Communism. And my bookshelf was full of improving Christian young adult fiction (from right-leaning American publishing houses) about life in Communist Russia: happy stories of gulags, forced confessions, and torture by hallucinogenic drugs and electroshock.
In many ways, you’d call me ‘sheltered’, and you’d be right. Except it didn’t feel much like shelter to lie awake seriously thinking about aliens, hell, the end of the world, and how you should personally react to the rise of a possible fascist dictator with mind-melting superpowers. And how God would judge you for your choices in such a moment, and probably drop you down the chute to damnation if you made the wrong one.
In our house, we didn’t watch TV, except on holidays. And so it was, in the southern hemisphere summer of late 1984, I found myself in a holiday house watching two television programs: a one-man play performing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four – and the Season 3 opening episode of Knight Rider.
I hadn’t read the book at that point. But I remember the horror of watching Winston’s stay in Room 101. A cage full of rats. O’Brien, an all-powerful shadow man, a humming electrical device clamped to Winston’s head, bending his mind with pain, forcing him to miscount the number of fingers. (A moment Star Trek TNG would later rip wholesale and invert, in 1992’s “Chain of Command”, with Picard giving the audience-pleasing refutation: THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!!! )
But George Orwell gave his audience – or me – no such satisfaction. His famous novel was a curse on all possible political houses. The world, he said, will end like this, and there is nothing you or anyone can do about it. You will fight the future, and you will lose, and there will be a boot stepping on a human face, forever.
George Orwell was not, I think, a happy man, in his last years.
Reeling from the terror of this moment, the next show I watched that week was Knight Rider. I’m not even sure if I’d ever seen it before. I think I understood that it was about a talking computer car powered by military defense technology that fought crime, which was basically a list of All My Relevant Interests at that point. And that opening narration…
A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist… a world of criminals who operate ABOVE the law.
It was a heck of a season opener. Melting transforming radio-robots! Drone cars! Powerful, if decorative, women in shoulder pads! The obligatory San Francisco stereotypical Chinatown! Secret crime syndicates based out of a university, because that’s totally how universities work! A budget of about $0.01 spent on hallways and background props! A control panel that looks like an AN/FSQ-7 (the Wilhelm Scream of Hollywood computers) but probably isn’t!
And at 22 minutes and 13 seconds, a gratuitous electroshock-torture scene. Because it’s Morning in America.
How do you feel?
Like a guinea pig.
That’s exactly what you are. I’m doing a computerized project on pain, from inception to threshold. Don’t worry. You can abort anytime you choose by stepping on this button…
What am I supposed to do?
Feel the pain.
That scene was all of 2 minutes and 27 seconds long and I imagine it didn’t even register for most viewers, as there are no hits for anyone talking about it. It’s only been this week, thanks to Youtube, that I managed to track it down. It’s pretty cheesy stuff. A tiny disposable moment of ‘establish this guy as the episode villain and/or romantic rival’. It’s never even referred to again and there are no consequences.
But to 13-year-old me, fresh from historical knowledge of actual Nazi and Soviet torture techniques, and George Orwell’s essay on mind control reverberating throughout the Western world, it was Kryptonite.
We didn’t have “trigger warnings” in 1984. I noped out of that chair and out of the TV room so fast I just about left burn marks on the carpet. I had nightmares for weeks.
Or did they ever, in fact, end?
For extra bonus nightmare fuel in so many ways, the opening credits song – presumably not placed there by accident – was the Jackson 5…. ‘Torture’.
It was on a street so evil
So bad that even hell disowned it
Every single step was trouble
For the fool who stumbled on it
Eyes within the dark were watchin’
I felt the sudden chill of danger
Something told me keep on walkin’
Told me I should not have gone there
Baby, ’cause you cut me like a knife
Without your love in my life
Alone I walk in the night
‘Cause I just can’t stop this feeling
The sunny, optimistic, family-friendly Reagan 80s, everyone!
Perhaps that one moment coloured my entire Knight Rider experience, but in all the episodes I’ve watched since I always found a huge disconnect between the premise of that bleak opening and the show’s setup – the dangerous world of a man who does not exist – and the actual content: David Hasselhoff jokes, and smiles at a pretty woman, and punches some cartoon crooks, Devon sips tea and eats big dinners, Bonny fixes stuff, and KITT saves the day. It’s a happy cowboy show! Where the horse is a car! With an evil twin! And billionaires scheme to privatize the police!
When you think about it for a moment. Knight Rider is a show steeped in what TV Tropes calls Fridge Horror (terribly sorry to link you there; I’ll send in a rescue team if you haven’t escaped after ten years):
- A secret foundation funded by a defense industry tycoons is quietly building a private police force. FLAG is basically a civilian Blackwater, funded by the Koch Brothers.
- For whatever dark reasons of his own – set up at length in the pilot and then never explained at all – Wilton Knight chooses a Vietnam War veteran, no doubt filled with PTSD – and gives him complete facial plastic surgery and a new identity, because transparency and honesty about the members of your private police force is for the little guys.
- You’d think all this billionaire-funded secrecy would mean that “Michael Knight”, The Man Who Does Not Exist, would be forever hiding, on the run, unable to show his face, and yet you’d be wrong. He drives around in the flashiest car imaginable and chats up every girl he sees. Obviously this is going to have horrible consequences one day.
- Fully sentient Artificial Intelligence has happened in 1982, and is small enough to put into a car. And this is just a spinoff from defense technology .One would have to assume that Knight Industries isn’t the only one with this stuff, and that there are much larger, more powerful, thinking machines in every major corporation, probably running the world.
- The precursor to KITT of course went evil, so the hit rate for AI in 1982 Knight Rider Universe is around 50/50 on the ‘kill all humans’ scale. So maybe 50% of those huge corporate AIs no doubt running companies are probably already plotting our demise.
- America circa 1982 is absolutely crawling with rich, politically connected criminals with a talent for high technology. It would be reasonable to assume that they’re either just competing defense corporation / private police force foundations, or actually just disposable human agents for those evil AIs. Or, much more likely, both.
- And strangest of all, and never commented on: the actual police, justice, and government systems just flat plain don’t work. When trouble happens, it’s a man and his talking car out on the LA highways, and you might meet an elite art critic in shoulder pads and a rocket launcher drinking wine out of her private helicopter, or a rogue university professor stealing a satellite via remote control hacking, and this is just normal everyday life. It doesn’t attract any police attention for two cars to get into a fight with assault weapons and small missiles; you probably won’t even have any curious onlookers. It’s just a little traffic delay.
A logical conclusion is that Knight Rider – perhaps parallel to the original Mad Max (1979) takes place in a world where law, justice and government have completely disintegrated. Where all city services have been privatized, corporations controlled by 50%-evil AIs run everything, and violent fugitives from justice can get all their records wiped (by the feuding AIs, one guesses) within seconds. Between the cities – mysteriously pockets of suburban normality, obviously deep in AI-assisted denial – are only empty highways, possibly running through the radioactive deserts of Damnation Alley or The Day After .
There’s a reason for this disconnect, of course. Knight Rider is a Western at heart – just an updated one, set literally in the American West of 1982 – and deep in the Western genes is the belief that every man (because they are mostly male fantasies) is alone; that cities are small, self-running concerns, with haunted wasteland between; that government doesn’t exist or is so corrupt it doesn’t work; that justice comes out of a gun, from private action on the desolate streets. That, ultimately, there’s no-one to trust but yourself, but that’s fine, because deep down you’re a badass, a winner, the ultimate survivor.
It’s a fantasy that wasn’t even true in 1882, and was visibly ridiculous in 1982, but it’s also a fantasy that got Ronald Reagan elected.
(It’s also the flipside of George Orwell’s nightmare: that you are tiny and nothing and the cruel world will crush you. Both dreams assume that the individual is everything and relationships count for nothing. But America didn’t live through the bombs of World War 2 the way Great Britain did.)
And in 2016? We’re seeing this fantasy appear again, through the dominance of superhero stories. Batman is of course the prime example of the genre; but even Arrow and Flash live in similar Western-hero bottle cities with one police officer and a couple of CEOs. Supergirl, a little, though she escapes the trap in many ways; you are not alone, you can and must rely on workmates, family and friends is a deep theme of that show; and, I think a much healthier one.
I love Knight Rider, and I love superhero stories! But I would really, really love to see shows that combine these kind of sci-fi elements with the web of lives that, like the Force, surround and bind us. That acknowledge what 12-year-old me didn’t understand – that the world is not a one-man play. That we’re not being tested, alone in the dark, by a faceless judge, on an arbitrary moral scale; but that we live in a world of connection, and all our acts have causes and consequences, both good and bad, that ripple both in and out to tens, hundreds, millions and billions of people.
That we’re not, and never have been, alone.