Category Archives: General

Knight Rider and Family-Friendly Armageddon

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
It’s torture
It’s torture
It’s torture

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.

On the Theme of Star Wars

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has opened. Initial indications are that it’s what we suspected it would be: a JJ Abrams film.  In other words – to put it somewhat bluntly – a festival of glorious visual storytelling without, in fact, much of a story underneath to tell. This does not surprise me, since ‘Made by JJ Abrams’ is exactly what the label said on the can. I will hold off further critical comment on the specifics until I’ve actually seen the film. But I have some comment on the generalities.

Abrams isn’t alone in being a modern, high-profile 2010s director whose creative output is synonymous with ‘style over substance’.   I’d argue that from the 1990s – from Quentin Tarantino,  in fact –  directors of my generation (Gen X) have  focused largely on recreating the look and feel of films they liked. Without, it feels, understanding how the underlying stories worked, and particularly how they were structured in terms of theme rather than mere plot or even drama.

The films of the 1970s-80s, in other words, aren’t just about what happen – or even how much you care about what happens – but about a deep sense that things in this filmic universe happen for a reason.

While there have been some startling moments (George Lucas’ prequel trilogy and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus among them) where 1970s-80s directors, making films in the 2000s-10s,  have fallen prey to the same problems as younger directors – on the whole those directors weren’t just trying to make spectacle or to echo previous films. They were  quite serious about the nature of film as art; they were attempting to ‘say something’, not just repeat and remix.

George Lucas was definitely saying something with Star Wars in 1977. But – exactly because that film has been so successful – it might not be obvious to audiences today what that was.

Lucas’ first movie was THX-1138 (1971), which itself was an extension of a film school short piece. It’s a very bleak dystopia modeled somewhat on both 1984 and Brave New World; a nominally capitalist (though with overtones of the USSR) dystopia where workers have completely lost their personal identity to a production-oriented space age society that controls their every thought with computers and mandatory drug. (A ‘drug offense’ in this society is refusing to take your medication). The hero, after his individuality is awakened by forbidden love, escapes the underground city in a tense vehicle chase. At the last moment, when it seems all is lost,  capitalism itself proves the system’s undoing: a ‘cost to recover asset’ counter clicks over on a computer board somewhere, and the robot police are called off. THX-1138 escapes to the surface, seeing a sunrise for the first time.

THX-1138 didn’t do very well commercially. His second movie, American Graffiti (1973), was a complete reversal: an intimate, semi-autobiographical nostalgia portrait of small-town Americana in 1962. A group of high school leavers and street racing fans hang out, race, and sort out their personal lives and futures in that liminal moment between childhood and adulthood; between the America of the 1950s and the one yet to be born after the 1960s. American Graffiti touched a nerve somewhere in the zeitgeist; it sold really well, kick-started Harrison Ford’s career, and allowed Lucas the space to work on his dream project, an adaptation of the space-themed comic books he’d loved (he owned a comic store and – a little like Tarantino, later, with film – was a huge fan). He wanted to do a straight adaptation of Flash Gordon, but couldn’t get the rights, so painstakingly created his own.

There was a nostalgic component to this dream – and to his next successful project, the revival of ‘Saturday afternoon serials’ with Indiana Jones. But I think he wasn’t just doing this for nostalgia, but from the sense that something important to humanity had been genuinely lost. What Lucas was after was nothing less than a new mythology for the space age. And I believe that – like most of the idealistic media students of his generation – he wanted that mythology not for its own sake, but as a machine to generate social and spiritual change.

Lucas wasn’t alone in this quest. The 1970s was a philosophical decade. There were huge debates on campus and off about the future of society. There was a sense that American – and by extension all modern, Western – culture was deeply flawed and in crisis. A popular source of blame was the technocratic elite of the military-scientific-corporate-educational establishment – the faceless ‘organization men’ in suits who had created terrifying space-based weapons of mass destruction, and huge centralised computers which were feared as a cold, depersonalising force.

Alongside this deep fear of technology, there was a surge of counterculture interest in both the ‘hippie’ interests of extra-sensory perception (ESP),  psychedelics and consciousness expansion, and a new thing being called ‘personal computing’ which promised to help turn the tide of technological centralisation.

Within the rationalist technological establishment, there were already defectors; people arguing that the soul or spirit might really exist, that telepathy and telekinesis might exist, could be studied and developed. Hal Puthoff and Dean Radin, for instance, became vocal advocates for a new generation of parapsychology with their pioneering ‘remote viewing’ research (a whole another subject, but it’s important to remember that ESP – and both hope and fear around its potential weaponisation – was a huge factor in the intellectual life of the 1970s, and directly inspired Star Wars’ ‘force’).

There were also technologists arguing that although centralisation was a big problem, technology could be tamed, that it didn’t have to strip our identity away and reduce us to numbers. The machine could work for us. Stewart Brand, for example, promoted the concept of technology as a liberating, mind-expanding tool for political decentralisation with his ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ (and later the pioneering online service, ‘The WELL’). Ted Nelson’s ‘Computer Lib / Dream Machines’ (1974) also advocated the concept of ‘hypertext’ for personal thought liberation. Both of these ideas would go on to deeply influence the 1990s World Wide Web.

In Star Wars, while the Empire has vast, faceless, centralised technology, the robots and X-Wings represent technology ‘repurposed’ by individuals – themselves empowered by a wider, more spiritual, more creative  worldview – for subversion of the wider system.  This concept of ‘turning the Empire’s tools against it’ shows up throughout the 70s and 80s – for example, it’s a central theme and preoccupation of the rock music movement.

from Jefferson Starship’s ‘Blows Against the Empire (1970)

You know – a starship circlin in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin it up in the air even since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty

to Roger Waters’ ‘The Tide Is Turning’  (1987).

I’m not saying that the battle is won
But on Saturday night all those kids in the sun
Wrested technology’s sword from the hand of the war lords

So all these threads were in academia and the youth and counterculture of the 1970s, and Lucas wove them with his love for 1930s Flash Gordon comics and movie serials to create a story. But not just a story. I would argue that Star Wars resonates so deeply because it is a story about stories – a story about the conflict between reason and myth. This wasn’t an accident. Lucas, like other media students of his generation, was consciously trying to ‘overthrow the Empire from within’.

The fundamental theme of Star Wars is a cold world of empty ‘rationality’ overthrown by primal, mythic intuitive creativity. And a key element of that creative ‘force’ Lucas was trying to summon is storytelling itself: the will to believe, the drive to make myth.

To that end, the universe of Star Wars is consciously constructed from found media. The very texture of the galaxy is built from preexisting components of cinema. C3PO is a gender-swapped Maria from Metropolis, the very first science fiction movie. From westerns come the sands and Mexican-themed cantinas of Tattooine. From the samurai films of Kurosawa, the empire and the robed swordfighting monks. World War II films, with the Nazis as the machinelike villains, hold the whole construct together. NASA footage and the groundbreaking space visuals pioneered by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ lend a sharp, super-scientific visual feel. The TIE fighters take some of their shape from satellite solar panels, and R2-D2’s dome reflects the design of Telstar, the first TV satellite. Even Luke’s lightsaber handle is a flashbulb grip. That’s why Star Wars feels at once exciting and exotic yet also familiar, lived-in, like we already know how its universe works – because we do.

Star Wars’ prime conflict, of rationality vs intuition, is not new. It’s the same theme as Kubrick told in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where Kubrick’s gaze was icy and abstract, reducing astronauts exploring the universe to to space monkeys pounding on an alien black box they could never understand, Lucas (with the help of his close scriptwriting friends) gave his new mythology a warm, beating human heart of friendship. We could learn to understand ourselves and the universe, it suggested. We might come through this okay. This was a radical concept for the 1970s, which was majoring on either grim  dystopia, or ‘back to the land’ mysticism right then.

Star Wars came along at just the right time when American society, troubled by Vietnam and Watergate, and frightened by the rise of space technology and computer processing. was ready to hear ‘believe’. Believe in yourself, believe that you are more than a machine, believe in a more spiritual, a more natural, a wider world than you’ve been taught. But you don’t need to abandon technological society entirely. Take charge of it; believe that the machine can be your tool and your friend; that the robot can work for you and help you hack the system. ‘Machines of loving grace’ as Richard Brautigan wrote in 1967.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Star Wars’ release coincided with the home computer ‘trinity of 1977’: Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore PET. They both were products of the same rebel technoculture.

‘The Jedi are extinct’, mocks Grand Moff Tarkin. ‘Their fire has gone out of the universe’.  The Empire – at least in that first movie – is a sort of heat-death of technological culture, where machines have replaced emotions – literally, for Darth Vader, with his body driven by machine implants. Ben Kenobi, on the contrary tells Luke: ‘Reach out with your feelings’ To succeed – as in 2001 – Luke, as an authentic human, must turn off his computer and trust to instinct. But even at that point, the droid R2-D2 –  though he can’t possibly understand the ways of the Force – remains Luke’s friend.

Everything in the plot of that first Star Wars is in service of this twin theme of intuition/creativity and a warm reappraisal of technology. So it wasn’t just a fun story. It was a deeply felt and deeply thought manifesto about the relation of man, machine and art.

It was also, incidentally, a perfect weapon for selling lots and lots of toys. But they would never have sold without the instinctive love for the movie that came from a young human being responding, at a core emotional level, to its deep thematic structure.

Could we make a movie that resonates like Star Wars, today? I think so. But, so far, we haven’t. And we won’t get there just by copying the surface detail of the stories of our childhood. We need to first sit down and ask ourselves why those stories work; what deep questions they ask, what fears they confront, and what hope they offer. And ask ourselves if those questions, fears and hopes are the same as they were for our parents’ generation.

I’m pretty sure they aren’t, because we’re in a different cultural moment. To give one example: when we have young, rebellious, self-made Internet billionaires telling us to ‘do what you love’ but nevertheless building giant central machines of control and surveillance….  on which we happily share cat pictures, until we make one ‘Like’ too many and ….  we’re not in the 70s anymore. We’re now facing a sort of weird fusion of Empire and Rebellion, of hyper-individualism for some and conformity for most, that’s still oppressive. A world where we rolled back ‘big government’, but got drones, climate change, and the Donald Trump. A world literally drowning in myth but parched for truth. A galaxy where Luke Skywalker won – but it all still got worse.

And that – and far more importantly, how we fix that – is the blockbuster story we need to tell ourselves right now.

Freur: Doot-Doot (1983, Wales)

Look at them fall
Flicker and fade

There’s a line in the genetics of popular music that goes: 1970s disco -> 1980s synthpop -> 1990s club electronica -> whatever it is came next in the 00s and the synthpop revival of the 2010s.

(Of course, that’s an exaggeration; there are many other strands of DNA in the 80s synthpop primordial soup: the musique concrete of the 1950s avant garde, electronic experimentation from the 1960s,  Kraftwerk in the mid-70s with their ‘German electro’ sound which then detonated like an atom bomb around the British scene in the early 80s. And if we want to get truly nerdy (and of course we do) then most of the 1990s in computer gaming  was dominated by synthy sounds otherwise forgotten a decade earlier by the analog ‘MTV unplugged’ mainstream.)

But that line weaving from disco, into synthpop and back into club dance music still intrigues me, mostly because – generally – I’m not hugely into 70s disco, and the 1990s drug-culture club music mostly left me cold. Why? I’m not sure. I think because although I love the pure tones of synthesisers, I also love the poetry of words, and a song doesn’t really register with me unless it combines both. Dance music is music that has its eyes squarely elsewhere: it’s music not intended to be primarily listened to, and it just doesn’t work if you’re not there, live.

A band that seems to exemplify this trend is Freur, who fall neatly into three separate phases. From 1982 to 1986, a Welsh New Wavey synthpop group; reformed as Underworld from 1987 to 1990 as  more mainstream pop-dance-rock; then from 1991 on, a techno/acid house electronic dance band becoming hugely famous with the soundtrack to Trainspotting. Today, Underworld continue to be beyond huge in the British scene; they ran the music for the 2012 London Olympics. That’s pretty much the definition of ‘made it’.

This was their big breakthrough hit, in 1996: the deliriously named ‘Born Slippy .NUXX‘ (best not to ask really). Absolutely world-shattering stuff; doesn’t do a thing for me, I’m terribly sorry.  This is why I’m old. Though I was 24 at the time and it still didn’t help.

Drive boy dog boy
Dirty numb angel boy
In the doorway boy
She was a-lipstick boy
She was a-beautiful boy
And tears boy
And all in your inner space boy

1988’s Underneath The Radar I find a lot more interesting. A bit long, but it’s got that 80s sound and the authentic tang of Cold War mixed hedonism/despair in the lyrics:

We kiss underneath the searchlights
And we live underneath the bomb
We live underneath the radar
There’s no way that you’re ever gonna get far

It’s perfectly acceptable. Yet for me it’s that first 1983 hit that sends shivers down my spine: Doot-Doot. Why? I don’t know! Only I have a deep memory of hearing this tune. And it has the same nostalgic melancholy for abandoned media (that seems so cute and yet so true now) that inhabits those early Buggles songs.

… And, well, just because that’s the noise that those beepy boxes of the future make, that’s why. And you’re singing along too. You might as well admit it.

Doot. Doot doot.

For extra bonus Eighties, the live version. Remember when you watch it that these people had perfectly good music careers afterwards – and still do.

What’s in a name?
Face on a stage
Where are you now?
Memory fades
You take a bow

Here in the dark
Watching the screen
Look at them fall
The final scene

And we go doot
Doot doot

Look at them fall
Flicker and fade
Gone are the screams
I put them to bed
Now they are dreams

And we go doot
Doot doot