If you know me — and given the size of my audience, you almost certainly do — you may know that over the years, from time to time, and precipitated by anything in particular, I will suddenly become obsessed with Knight Rider for a while.
In case you somehow don’t recall this show, it was about David Hasslehoff and an indestructible Trans Am played by William Daniels, who at the time was famous for having played John Adams in 1776 and for being one of the doctors on Saint Elsewhere, but who, if you’re too young to remember Knight Rider, you probably know as the guy who played Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. Also, the car could jump. This was incredibly cool, and we totally did not mind that some times when the car jumped into the air it was clearly a toy car being tossed over an H-O scale model, because it was the eighties and you could do that sort of thing.
In case you somehow didn’t know this next bit, a couple of weeks ago, NBC, which has recently resurrected the corpses of such popular properties-as-old-as-I-am as Battlestar Galactica and The Bionic Woman aired a backdoor pilot movie for a revival of Knight Rider.
If you know me, or you’ve been actually reading the article so far, you may be surprised to learn that I somehow managed to delay gratification and have only just watched Knight Rider last night.
Well, see, Leah got aggravated at her landlord, and decided to move. And since she wanted to watch it with me, being a caring and considerate boyfriend, waited until she had at least gotten the TV hooked up in her new place.
So, here we go:
Executive Summary: Apparently, there is a company called “Ford” which makes automobiles. These automobiles are available for purchase from many fine retailers, and include both high-performance muscle cars, and sensible and luxurious yet economical models.
Commentary: Knight Rider fans know that after the pilot episode of the original 1982 series, KITT was never referred to as a “Trans Am” again, only as a “Black T-Top” (For those of you who don’t know this either, a T-top is a car whose roof is made of two removable panels with a structural beam between them. Not quite as cool as a convertible, but a bit more structurally sound).
According to legend, and as any fan will tell you (One of the major league Knight Rider Geeks even gets to say this as if it’s fact on the Knight Rider Season 1 bonus featurette), this is because Pontiac dealers got “annoyed” at people coming in and asking to buy “The Knight Rider Car”. Because people coming in and wanting to buy something is such an annoyance. This legend is really a bit of a corruption of the truth of the matter: dealers weren’t annoyed: executives were worried. Specifically, they were worried about the liability if someone got themselves killed trying one of the stunts they’d seen in the show. The name shift was mandated by the desire to be able to maintain, if needs be, an official policy of “The car in that show is not a Pontiac: it is an entirely fictional vehicle which, in its fictional world, is completely custom made. It just happens that this fictional vehicle looks like a Pontiac, and also we made the prop, but KITT is no more a Trans Am than Sean Connery is a British secret agent.”
Ford, it seems, has no such misgivings. Aside from the advertising blitz (The only way you can tell, on cursory examination, that it’s a commercial and not the show is the absence of the channel bug), the Knight Industries Three Thousand bears all its original markings, and every time the scene transitions to KITT, it does so by fading to one of the Mustang Cobra (KITT is not actually a Cobra per se, but I may call him that because Ford used to make a car called the Mustang Cobra which is basically the same sort of car as this is. KITT is a Shelby Mustang GT. “Shelby” here means that Ford went hired Carol Shelby to do his thing to the Mustang. Carol Shelby is a racecar designer who car companies occasionally hire to take their muscle cars and make them even cooler. He takes the car apart and studies every feature and calculates the optimal set of modifications. No one knows why he does this, however, because his next step is invariable “stick in the biggest engine we can find and slap a picture of a snake on it.” Carol Shelby’s real skill lies, at least in part, in being able to work out how to fit a V-8 into a car that is much too small to hold one. His first such outing was to stick a V-8 in a British AC, producing the “AC Cobra”. He went on to design other cars with snake emblems on them, such as the Dodge Viper and a boatload of Mustang-based cars, some of which were called “Mustang Cobras” and some of which were called “Shelby GTs”) emblems on the vehicle. And they are not shy about showing these cars do unsafe things (this was one of the major failings of the previous Knight outing).
This is the fourth attempt to revive the Knight Rider franchise. The fact that even if you do remember Knight Rider, odds are you don’t remember that this isn’t the first revival attempt speaks to the success of these attempts. The first, a straightforward “reunion” movie, Knight Rider 2000 reunited KITT and Michael in the then-still-a-bit-off year 2000, where Dan Quayle is president, guns are illegal, and criminals are frozen using cryogenics. The role of KITT was played by a red custom-made car, which Knight Rider fans will tell you is a Dodge Stealth, but this is about as accurate as saying that a wooden chair is really a tree: the car was an entirely custom body dropped onto the frame and inner workings of a Dodge Stealth. In later years, it was given a police siren and black-and-white paintjob and occasionally turns up as a futuristic police car in cheaper sci-fi, such as Power Rangers Time Force.
Despite having an awesome theme tune by Jan Hammer, and featuring a very funny gag involving James Doohan, the revival went nowhere. Also, the car couldn’t jump (It could drive on water, which they thought was nearly as impressive and didn’t risk damaging their one-of-a-kind prop car. It probably was more impressive if you didn’t remember that the original series had already given KITT a Jesus-mode back in the second season).
So, a few years later, they tried again, as part of a syndication package, either the one that brought us Babylon 5 and no other successful shows, or the one that brought us Hercules The Legendary Journeys and no other successful shows, with a pilot movie called Knight Rider 2010. This time, any connection to the original series was entirely implicit. Rumors have it that they were intending to expand on the connections if they went to series, but they didn’t. Set in a Road Warrior post-apocalypse (Thanks to the Mad Max series, everyone who makes movies has an implicit understanding that, for no reason that needs to be explained, no matter how unlikely it may seem, if civilization collapses, the entire world will look like the Australian Outback), some guy who may or may not have turned out to be Michael Knight’s son if they’d gone to series armors a classic car and sticks a magic crystal containing the disembodied mind of his dead girlfriend in it, and goes off to fight injustice in the form of a sort of urban assault vehichle made out of a crashed Stealth Fighter. No. Really. I kinda suspect that the original script for this movie has “Mad Max The Series” crossed out and “Knight Rider” penciled in.
The third, and most successful — but also the one that evoked the most ire — actually went to series. This was Team Knight Rider, following a sentai-ish team of five drivers driving three Fords and two really ugly custom motorcycles which could merge to form Voltron. This aired in the syndication package that is “the other one” of the two I mentioned above. The cars weren’t all that impressive, largely due to the budget. Knight Rider fans are pretty rabid in their love of Pontiacs. Also, the show suffered in spades from trying-hard-to-be-cool. It lasted a whole season, just long enough to show us a stand in playing Michael Knight, David McCallum playing the Evil Overlord, and a metal ball playing KITT. Anyway, a lot of fans actually claimed that the show’s producers secretly hated Glen Larson and had intentionally set out to make a bad show in order to tarnish his legacy. I told you Knight Rider fans were a bit nuts.
Anyway, now that you’re caught up, I’ll head on to the spoilers.
But I find myself wondering: what is it about the Knight Rider franchise that makes people keep wanting to revive it — and revive it even though there’s never been any precedent for a Knight Rider revival succeeding?
And how is it that they can so consistently suck so bad?
Now, I can anticipate a lot of the complaints Knight Rider fans are going to have, and these are largely not my own complaints. I am able to accept that the 80s are long since over, and it’s time to move on. I can accept that “Darth Vader’s Bathroom” (which is how they actually described the original KITT’s interior in dialogue) doesn’t actually look futuristic and advanced these days, but instead looks sort of Flash Gordon Paleo-Future. In fact, many of the things that the hardcore fans are going to dislike are the few things I actually did like about this movie. That said, I’ll apologize now in case I slip into fannishness.
So, KITT is not a Pontiac. Okay. 1. The Trans Am has been out of production for a few years. 2. A 3rd gen Trans Am would have looked ridiculously outdated. In fact, it would grate with the “This is the most advanced car ever” thing just as much as the first half of Knight Rider 2000, in which KITT had taken the form of a ’57 Chevy. (Which was, IMO, REALLY COOL but only as a temporary condition.) 3. Pontiac is really really disinterested. I’m actually wondering if there was some kind of legal trouble back in the 80s that has made them reluctant, not entirely unlike the way that Volkswagen is really really disinterested in being linked to the Transformers.
But seriously, a Mustang? Any thought process that leads from Trans Am to Mustang is sort of the design aesthetic equivalent of an HGH-Steroid cocktail. The Mustang is sort of enormous and butch and, well, I kind of dislike the sort of person who drives a Mustang; I just inherently imagine them as being a bit on the bully side. I’ve got similar misgivings about the new Camero (But not the older Cameros). Couldn’t they have swung a Porche or a Corvette (the original KITT was actually meant to be a ‘vette, but they couldn’t swing one for the show) or something? If you need to stick with Ford, how about a (checks Ford website…) — okay, you’re SOL, frankly, since Ford doesn’t appear to make a sporty car this year. Okay. But could they have at least filed down the nose or something?
Even among people who recall the original Knight Rider, many probably don’t recall that KITT, though obviously built from a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, actually featured extensive customization to the outside of the car, as well as the inside. The hubcaps weren’t standard, the tail light assembly was different, and, most visibly, the prowl of the car had been entirely replaced with a swooping raptor-like front end. The new KITT, like his immediate predecessors, does not follow this tradition. In its usual operating mode, the only visible external difference between KITT and an entirely stock Mustang (admittedly, a special limited edition one) is the “Cylon eye” — a special effect Glen Larson seems to rather like, and therefore put on the original KITT after having used it for the baddies in Battlestar Galactica. The light traces back and forth and is meant to be vaguely reminiscent of a heartbeat. Unfortunately, the only good place to put the Cylon Eye on the stock front-end of the Mustang was in the already nostril-like air intakes. the new KITT has two Cylon-eyes which pulse in time, and look more like visible nose-breathing than a heartbeat.
KITT’s interior is a bit better. Sleek, yet functional. I tried not to miss the Darth Vader Bathroom look for all the reasons I’ve given before, but, well, there’s still some sadness in me. The problem is not really theirs, though; it’s our culture. We’ve finally realized how silly our visions of “Teh Future(tm)” end up looking, but the result is that we don’t really seem to have a vision of The Future now; it’s just “Like techy things of today, only moreso and a bit sleeker”. So KITT looks a bit like what would happen if Apple made an iCar. It’s the same thing that happened when Microsoft redid Disneyworld’s House of Tomorrow — it looked like a perfectly reasonable future. And therefore one that was way less impressive than the Magical Atom-Powered Electric House Of Tomorrow IN SPACE — just “Things like we have today, only a bit better.” Also, when I say KITT looks like an iCar, I should point out that he actually has a Mac keyboard in his glove box. KITT’s voice modulator is a simple stereo waveform at the top of his main display which is cool, but doesn’t really have the iconic quality of his predecessor’s LED array. One nice touch, though, is that its color changes based on… well… um… I think it’s based on KITT’s mood, but it gets used so infrequently that I can’t say. So “cool” may be premature.
Anyways, this is the pilot. This is the thing on which a decision to make this a series will be based. You really ought to strive to be good. You really ought to show off your MacGuffin — in this case, the car. You really ought to wow us with this car.
Basically, in the course of this movie, the car does two cool things. Well, also it talks, but this is (a) Not as impressive as it was in 1982, especially given that in the Ford commercial they showed alongside this movie, they revealed that a perfectly normal 2008 Ford Focus can talk to you and respond to voice command, and (b) something we all knew it would do from the first commercial. Hell, back in 1986 when the final episode of Knight Rider (“Voodoo Knight”, for what it’s worth, though I’m fairly sure that “The Scent of the Roses” was actually meant to be the season finale, and they were just aired out of order) aired, we all knew that if the show came back to the airwaves, the car was going to talk. It also does a number of useful things, like integrating with GPS and satellite imagery, or driving at 190 mph, or getting 197 miles to the gallon, but none of these things are actually all that “cool”.
Quick sidebar: I’m a bit of a fan of an old British science fiction kids’ show called The Tomorrow People, which was about some kids who were slightly more evolved than the rest of us, and this gave them psychic powers, the coolest of which was that they could teleport by mental power. Big Finish, a company that mostly makes audio dramas based on old British science fiction, did a series of TTP audios, and in one of the interviews, the cast talked about how nice it would be to be a Tomorrow Person, and, with a little sadness, they realized that the main reason was that it would be nice to be able to teleport, and thereby avoid traffic.
That’s basically my impression of most of KITT’s features: “GPS and sattelite tracking to plan the optimal route from here to my destination? Why, I’d love to have that, because it would make my commute so much easier.” It is intensely sad-making when my reaction to what is supposed to be a sort of superpower that evokes a kind of childlike-wonder isn’t “Wow! I wish I could do that, because then I’d be a superhero and have adventures just like the Goonies!” but “Wow. That would make it so much easier to get to work.” When I was a little kid, I used to play Knight Rider with my friends. I’d play KITT, and push around my friend on my Big Wheel. I’d pretend I could do all sorts of cool things like Turbo Boost and shoot lasers and drive over water. I can’t even begin to imagine a three year old child of today watching this show, then going outside and pushing around his friend on a Big Wheel while pretending to use a combination of solar power and ultra-high-efficiency recycling techniques to achieve an average fuel economy of 196 miles to the gallon.
KITT will not Turbo Boost in this show. I think that part of the reason is that they could not work out how to do it without it looking silly and cheap. I would prefer to think that they decided that Turbo Boosting was “the classic series’s thing” and that they should try to be their own entity, at least for the pilot.
Oh, also, KITT still has a gullwing steering wheel. Despite the fact that even a majority of the afforementioned crazy Knight Rider fans agree that gullwing steering wheels are just silly.
When Glen Larson came up with the idea for Knight Ride, legend has it, it went a bit like this: “The problem with these action/adventure walking-the-earth shows is that for the hook, you have to get a good looking guy to be the hero. And usually, they turn out to be a pretty craptastic actor, especially when the role requires them to give the appearance of not being an idiot.. So let’s just make the car an intelligent character so he can do all the hard acting and thinking, and the human lead just has to look pretty.”
If there is one thing Val Kilmer convinced me of with his performance as KITT, it’s that, yes, this is a soulless automaton. And not the sexy kind like the new girl Terminator. Val Kilmer is quite a good actor. I rather liked him in Real Genius and… Okay. So I liked him in Real Genius. But here, it was just ridiculous. I could maybe forgive this, given the circumstances: the part of KITT was supposed to be played by Will Arnett. But Will had some contractual obligations with General Motors that only came to light fairly late in the day, so Kilmer was picked up to redub all of KITT’s lines, it appears, literally days before the show aired.
But this isn’t someone’s high school play. It’s a bad circumstance, but, like, it really counts. And whatever the excuse, this failed to be good. Therefore it failed to be good. The only stab KITT makes at having any sort of personality is in the Ford Focus commercials that accompany the show, wherein he sulks at Mike, and cockblocks him out of jealousy when Mike borrows a Ford Focus for a date. At times, KITT sounds rather a lot like HAL, and his utter inability to emote is just too creepy. William Daniels, on the other hand, was very good at conveying perhaps not emotion per se, but something akin to it that made his character interesting. One thing Daniels was particularly good at as KITT was conveying urgency. A clipped, “Michael, look out!” could speak volumes. KITT, on the other hand, deadpans everything, and when our heroes are fighting for their lives, KITT’s helpful advice is so detached from the mood of the scene that he goes well beyond the standard TV conceit of intellectual characters (By which I mean “AI Robots and Very Smart Aliens like Spock”) talking like high-functioning autistics (Historically, people with mild autistic spectrum disorders, generally being quite intelligent but having difficulty with the demands of normal society, often found refuge in academia, and as a result, the public notion of “What a smart person sounds like” is heavily influenced by what is generally considered to be a developmental disorder), and off the edge into sounding like a creepy psychopath. Heck, compare the inflection KITT uses when telling Sarah that her father is probably dead with the inflection the lead villain will use when stating his intention to torture her.
Also, Leah couldn’t deal with KITT having the voice of Batman.
And I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet.
I’ll do that now.
Scientist and part-time crazy old man Charles Graiman is surprised when people from the power company show up even though he’s called them and asked them to. But when he challenges them on some point, their leader suddenly and mysteriously develops a British accent (Because villains with British accents are as much an action movie staple as post apocalyptic worlds looking like Australia) and reveals that he’s here to steal his hard drives and torture his daughter. Doc Graiman informs them that his daughter isn’t home at the moment, but they’re welcome to his hard drives. Unfortunately, before they can torture him or his daughter, he drops dead of a heart attack. This is terribly annoying for the evil agents, so they take their revenge by murdering his Roomba and giving the camera time to pass over a bunch of parts from the original KITT and what looks like a Stargate SG-1 replicator before the Mustang in the garage wakes up and runs away. The thugs shoot at it, but, in the single thing that is unquestionably cool about this movie, the bullets strike the car, which instantly heals from the damage.
There’s an old philosophy of Science Fiction that says that a good way to write a Science Fiction story is to just use one patently made-up sciencey thing, and make everything else just be extensions of that one idea that naturally arise from it via real science, and explore how the One Thing affects the characters. For this Knight Rider, the One Thing is nanotechnology. KITT’s outer shell is nanotech, and as a result, it can heal from any injury, change color, and, to an extent that we don’t yet know, change its shape. Right now, the crazy fans are annoyed: the original KITT used a “Molecular Bonded Shell” (sometimes confusedly referred to as a “Molecularly Bonded Shell” or a “Molecular Bondage Shell”), which the rabid fans all think they know exactly what that means, though their explanations are way off from the very scant evidence of the actual dialogue (They always claim that it’s a process which increases the strength of the molecular bonds in the metal of the car. The best explanation we ever got, though is that it is a “new material” that is “bonded at the molecular level” to a “superalloy”. Personally, I’ve always liked to pretend that it was made of fullerines, which hadn’t been discovered yet in 1982, which makes it even better), but which made KITT totally immune to all damage, except when the plot required otherwise. The new KITT isn’t exactly immune to damage, just able to heal from it instantly. Which is almost but not quite as good, but I think is probably better for storytelling (It’s the old Superman Syndrome: the hard thing about writing a Superman story isn’t working out how he solves the problem, but working out why it’s hard to solve the problem. You end up with Superman being invincible and all-powerful, and therefore able to short-circuit any plot. Unless the villain has some Kryptonite. And after a while, it starts to look like Kryptonite is just slightly easier to come by than rock salt.), and it’s visually cool. “KITT is indestructible” in the old series usually looked like “Bad guy shoots at
SupermanKITT. Squibs go off. Villain hucks his gun at KITT, hoping that if he can’t destroy him, maybe he can at least fuck up his paint job.” In the new series, it looks like “Bullet hits KITT, bullethole appears. Bullethole MAGICALLY CLOSES UP RIGHT BEFORE MY EYES OH GOD THAT WAS COOL.”
Anyway, we will find out later, but I’ll tell you now because I want to take my time making fun of this. The thugs are agents of “Blackriver”, a private security company who, for example, contracted some work in Iraq from the federal government and likes to do really nasty things. Essentially, a kind of Bond Villain Organization, only vaguely realistic. At the point when this was revealed, I heard in my head, “We resemble but are legally distinct from / The Lollipop Guild / The Lollipop Guild…” I don’t even think the Notblackwater guys had names. They want the seekrit-override-code to Prometheus, which is either the US Air Force’s intergalactic spaceship or the remote controlled drone system used by the military. This is either because they’re secretly (well, not quite secretly as everyone knows it) evil and want to either blackmail the US or sell it to the high bid, or because they want to actually use to start random wars because either they’re evil and like war, or because if you are in the business of providing private armies to the US government to do unsavory things, the US getting stuck in random wars is good for your stock options. This seems to be true even if the FBI knows you’re the ones who did it. Anyway, don’t worry about their motivations; the writers clearly didn’t. The salient point here is that BlackH2O is powerful and cartoonishly evil. And they want to go torture the dead doctor’s daughter anyway, either because she knows the password to the hard drives, or because they just enjoy hurting people. Probably both.
So we cut to the home of Mike Traceur. Mike Traceur is in bed with two women (Yay Mike Traceur) when his roommate wakes him up because some guys with baseball bats are there to talk to them about the money he owes them. They try to escape in Mike’s soapbox racer, but it breaks down. The thugs (not Graywater; these are independent thugs. Don’t worry too much about them; they’re only going to be in one more scene, and even then it won’t be as a speaking part.) break in and tell Mike that if he doesn’t give them 90,000 by midnight, they will shoot his roommate who looks a bit like Steve Buschemi. His roommate appears to be close to Mike’s heart, and will appear in only two more scenes and have like ten lines, though he will be treated as if he’s as important as the rest of the cast. No one says why Mike owes these men money. I think if you read the manual, it would say that Mike has a gambling problem and these are gambling debts. But there’s really nothing in the dialogue to support this, other than the fact that Mike lives in Las Vegas, and God knows that gambling debts is really the only way you could possbly owe loan sharks a lot of money in Las Vegas. (Actually, based on what we see, it seems just as likely that Mike borrowed the money to finance being a race car driver, and instead lived it up. By which I mean “leveraged it into having sex with two chicks at the same time. Not that I can blame him. I’m quite sure that it’s not his personality that got both those girls into bed with him.) Like I said, it’s not important. These guys aren’t even a plot complication, and will be dealt with entirely off-screen with the help of Western Union.
Meanwhile (or perhaps previously. I might have these scenes out of order.) Graiman’s hot daughter Sarah is teaching a class in Nanotechnology and trying to imply at the audience (us, not her students) that she and her dad don’t get along any more. I think the point of this scene is to let us know that she and her dad don’t get along, and also to tell us what the word “nanotechnology” means, which she does by showing the class a slide prepared by Anton Chekov.
Still more meanwhile, we meet Sydney Poitier’s daughter (Who, confusingly, is also named Sydney Poitier), who playes Carrie. She will be in about four scenes and nothing she does will be to the advantage of our heroes, despite the fact that she is one of the good guys and is actually trying to be helpful. This first scene is important because it’s how we find out a bunch of stuff: 1. Carrie is an FBI agent. 2. She’s a friend of Charlie Graiman. 3. She’s totally gay. 4. She gives it up on the first date. Those last two are not actually important in terms of the plot, though I suppose it would be an important piece of character-building if Carrie actually had any character or personality to speak of. Maybe it somehow means “She trusts people she just met, sometimes to her detriment,” but that’s really giving the writers too much credit. I think it’s a simple matter of “2 girls in the same bed == HOT”. So far, we have had two girls in the same bed twice and we’re still in the first ten minutes.
Carrie has heard that Graiman is dead, and wants to investigate, though her superiors won’t support her in this untill there is proof of foul play. We will shortly learn that there is no reason in the world why they wouldn’t suspect foul play, as the circumstances are already strange. But for now, we just have to accept that the FBI doesn’t think it’s per se worth investigating the sudden death of the guy who knows the seekrit password to take over SkyNet. Carrie has a partner who I think is meant to be the comic relief guy, but they never really get around to it. Carrie reacts to him like he’s a jerk and an idiot, but the onjly thing he actually does that seems in the least jerkish is to crack wise about a man he doesn’t know before he finds out that this man is (a) important and (b) dead.
Back to Sarah. KITT calls her cell phone, warns her of impending torture, and spooks her. Fortunately, dad had arranged a code word with her so that random monotone batman voices that call her can prove that they’re on the level. Thanks to KITT’s warning, she immediately walks into a trap by running up to a campus cop who, on queue, reveals his British accent. Darkwater tries to kidnap her, but KITT shows up and rescues her. Sarah takes all of this in the stride, either because she knew her dad was working on a new KITT, or because she’s not actually capable of surprise. Chase scenes follow. Sarah asks if KITT’s been field-tested, and he explains that his tests weren’t complete, and that the photon torpedoes are going to be installed on Tuesday. Anton Chekov shows up to paste a picture on the screen showing that KITT’s “Passenger Impact Safety Test” has been completed and not much else. KITT also channels a furiously masturbating Knight Rider Fan in order to explain that while his prime directives include the protection of all life, the protection of Sarah‘s life takes precidence, and he can therefore endanger the bad guys in order to protect her, which he does by making a dangerous maneuver, leaving the bad guys barreling at top-speed toward a head-on collision with a truck with no possible chance to stop or swerve. Cut to commercial.
Before we return, I’ll point out that this is also the first place where KITT engages in some expospeak. “By using GPS, Radar, and Sattelite Imagery, I have all the data necessary to safely navigate these roads,” he tells us, for absolutely no reason other than because this is nominally science fiction, and in science fiction, you explain as much as you can, because if you don’t the audience might not realize that you are smarter than they are. KITT will do this again. And again. This is the worst thing about traditional science fiction, and it’s doubly bad here because what KITT does is so damned mundane. There wasn’t all that much magic in it to begin with, and now they’re telling us how it all works. There’s a reason the wizard hid behind a curtain.
And we’re back. Taking a cue from 30s movie serials, we rejoin the action about a second before we left, giving the BlackWetStuff thugs just enough time to screech to a stop and avoid a collision and the harm this would do to Ford’s public image. KITT shows off the ONE OTHER COOL THING he can do, and changes color, which causes the British-except-when-he’s-doing-an-impersonation-for-no-reason guy to lose track of them. Right up until he remembers that BlackSusquehanna is evil and powerful, and can track her by her cell phone, which not even KITT realizes. KITT reveals that he’s been programmed to go find Mike Traceur, who, as luck would have it, is Sarah’s old high school boyfriend before he was all immature and stopped calling her. Mike’s in Vegas, trying to win his 90k, so KITT grows an extra spoiler, expospeaks a bit more, and sets off. KITT’s extra-spoiler-mode seems to be a less cool version of the Super Pursuit Mode transformation added for the last season of the original series (Okay, SPM was also a bit tacky, but at least they were trying. KITT just grew an extra spoiler and a new radiator grill).
On the way, they have a really boring conversation wherein KITT fails to understand why Sarah would be sad just because her dad died before she had a chance to make up with him after their falling out when her mom divorced him.
Now, I say this is boring. That’s saying something. Because I used to write Knight Rider fanfic. (Sorry). Now, the brand I wrote is not quite like the mainstream fare (which is like the mainstream fare for any fanfic; mary sue, slavish continuity references. Also, a particular emnity toward the various revivals. For a time after TKR premiered, it became obligatory to include an exchange in a Knight Rider fanfic where everyone talked about what terrible cars Fords ere), because I was all angsty and stuff, and also interested in metaphysics. So what I wrote was mostly about using an AI character as a lens to explore the human condition, as it seemed interesting to use a rational, intelligent, non-human character who was building up an understanding of how to relate to humans from first principles.
Ten years later, this seems terribly trite and self-indulgent, because it is terribly trite and self-indulgent. And also because this sort of thing is only interesting after I start caring about the characters. Which I haven’t, because KITT has done nothing but expospeak and pop-psychology, and Sarah has done very little other than react with dull surprise and angst.
They catch up with Mike, who, as a former army ranger, beats up the Often-British Guy by kicking him in the balls, is the first person to realize that Sarah’s cell phone is giving them away, and is the first person to react with surprise to KITT. I still don’t like him, because, while he has acted the closest to a sane person of anyone in this movie, he is still a sane jackass. He agrees to help Sarah for $90,000 (Well, more specifically, she offers to pay his debt so that he can come help her without sentencing his roommate to death).
Lest you worry about the reasonability of this:
Leah: Where is she going to get $90,000?
Me: Her dad wrote Prometheus. They invented nanotechnology. Also, her dad built his own KITT as a hobby. I think it’s safe to assume they’re loaded.
Also, KITT has to stop and get gas. The original KITT could run on “and sufficiently combustible liquid”, but was, if memory serves, optimized for jet fuel, though he was also reconfigured at one point to run on liquid hydrogen, specifically to qualify for an alternative fuels tax credit. But Sarah helpfully reminds us that running on liquid hydrogen is a bitch if you’re in the middle of Nebraska and you blow a seal, and that nothing beats the great taste of healthful, all-natural, methol-flavored gasoline. Gasoline: It’s the American Way. This message brought to you by Ford and the Oil Industry. Who, ironically, may have some share of the responsibility for folks like BlackNile. Also, it gives KITT a chance to do what he does best: bore us with expositions about science. KITT is primarily solar powered, but also uses gasoline, and gets 196 miles per gallon. And we have now boringly learned what KITT runs on, and instead of going “Wow! Truly this is the technology of the Gods!” I instead go “Man. Wish I got mileage like that. It would make my commute so much more pleasant.”
Leah: This show has too much driving
Me: And yet not enough car.
Meanwhile, Carrie (remember her?) wows the local sheriff by noticing that all the hard drives are missing from the Graiman house. She also looks at a photo of the corpse and reveals that — TA DAH — it’s not really him. Doc Graiman actually had a body double (Coz they’re bodyguards / Identical bodyguards and you’ll find…) for reasons that don’t really add up (Some combination of “The Pentagon thought he ought to, having a strict policy of providing body doubles to all their contractors” and “He didn’t like public speaking”). Now, I just want to recap this: Doctor Charles Graiman is an immensely important person and one of the only two people in the world who can unlock the backdoor to Prometheus. He dies of a heart attack. No one can get in touch with the body double who is always with him. And this is the very first piece of evidence that there was foul play involved?
Unfortunately, Carrie can’t do anything useful, and tells the local Sheriff, who, amazingly, does not grow a British accent, but does go outside and call BlackMississippi and tell them. Their resident geek has not decrypted the prometheus stuff, but did manage to find the schematics for KITT and is working on a virus to take control of him. KITT, as it turns out, also knows the backdoor to Prometheus, Graiman being utterly unable to keep a secret. That’s why KITT was programmed to turn himself and Sarah in to the FBI. Sarah doesn’t like this, and wants to get out and walk. To wherever the hell her dad lives. Which is nowhere near Las Vegas. And is even less near wherever they were, since they were probably headed east. And why has it taken Sarah this long to notice that they weren’t going toward her dad’s place?
Meanwhile, Dad has been running through the woods, apparently since the previous night. He flashbacks how his body double send him into the secret passage which no one’s noticed, and he’s been running ever since, prompting fears that the writer simply forgot that it has been an entire day since the first scene. He comes to a little shack in the woods, breaks in, makes himself a drink, sits down, dismisses the first of three bowls of porridge as “too hot”, and is almost shot by a woman who turns out to be Mike Traceur’s mom.
They call KITT some time after KITT has done his Freud bit about Mike’s issues with his mother (“Be nice to your parents because they could die horribly,” is basically the theme of this movie) and monogamy, and tell them where they are and to call Carrie. Mike does just that, and Carrie, who is so good at accidentally fucking over her own friends that I was kinda surprised that the girl she’d slept with back at the beginning didn’t also turn out to be BlackAmazon, puts them on speakerphone so that the sheriff can hear and tell the british guy. Also, the whole subplot with the loan sharks and Mike’s roommate is quietly resolved off-screen when KITT does a wire transfer. No one will be seated during the thrilling “wire transfer” scene.
Brownwater shows up at the motel where Ma Traceur and Doc Graiman are staying and off the clerk for no real reason other than that they’re evil. As they each v… e… r… y… slowly turn the doorknobs to one of the four hotel rooms the ever-paranoid Graiman has rented, Mike shows up, and his own mother nearly shoots him, thanks to the intercut that made it look like it was the british guy on the other side of the door. As they escape out the window, everyone pauses to expospeak.
Graiman worked for Wilton Knight on the original KITT. Mike’s dad is some guy named Michael Knight, and he did not actually abandon his family, but instead sent them away to protect them while he did his heroing thing. None of this really seems important enough to justify stoping their very dangerous escape, but fortunately, KITT is giving Mike instructions to avoid BlackGanges. KITT does not seem to have noticed that his second firewall has been hacked. (Someone, for the love of God, please tell writers what the hell a “firewall” actually is. I don’t need total accuracy, but, like, could we at least have another word), at least not until they make it back to the car, having met up with and nearly been shot by Carrie on the way. Carrie, you are totally useless. Graiman tells KITT to turn himself off in order to avoid being hacked. Off, KITT is entirely manual. Entirely. In fact, shutting down the AI leaves KITT with manual windows (Leah caught that one), and a manual transmission. Literally, a clutch and stick shifter fold out of the netherregions of the car.
Unfortunately, DimMoistness shows up and Ma Traceur gets shot. British guy promises not to kill anyone if Graiman gives them the password, then, while Graiman is still there and before getting the password orders his goons to off Carrie and Mike, then to rough up Sarah and bring her along separately in KITT. Once they’re out of sight, Mike disables one of the goons with his dead mom’s keys, Sarah roughs up another one of them somehow or other. I think Carrie manages to avoid accidentally shooting Mike.
Mike wants to go after AquaObscura for revenge, and Sarah wants to come along to save her dad. She stops Mike from shooting the downed thug, but takes an automatic weapon for herself. Now, you might think that Carrie, who is the only person here who has any sort of legal authority to actually stop the bad guys might want to go along. Or perhaps she should point out that KITT is kind of a hugely valuable intelligence asset and knows the backdoor to Prometheus and she really ought to be able to impound him or something. Instead, she realizes just how worthless she is, and just kind of looks at them with dull surprise.
In this, our second chase scene, the sheriff keeps holding a gun to Graiman’s head and demanding he give them the password. Or. Else. He’ll. Shoot… Him… And… Guarantee… That… They… Never… Get… The… Meh. Don’t think about it. British guy cottons on to the fact that KITT is not being driven by his thugs. Mike tries to force them off the road, but, in a move designed to infuriate the old-school fans, with the AI switched off, KITT is no more invulnerable than any other car, as the bullets and smashing bits reveal. Sarah can turn KITT back on, but it would only take ten seconds for him to be hacked.
So, they do a little bouncing off each other, and the sheriff tries to take a shot or two at KITT, and Graiman suddenly caves and gives them the password. It is, he says very slowly, a simple five-character password. They try to transmit this over their very slow link with a very long status bar which grows very slowly to about 75% when Graiman gives a Meaningful Nod to Mike out the window. Mike has Sarah turn KITT back on, and KITT jams the transmission, though he’s only got EXACTLY TEN SECONDS before he gets hacked.
Anton Chekov smiles a little as Mike promises that this will hurt a bit, and speeds out in front of the CreedenceClearwaterRevival boys, makes a sharp turn, and, for some reason, makes KITT grow that extra spoiler he’s so proud of. The SmokeOnTheWater truck crashes right well and good into the side of KITT with less than a second left on KITT’s exact-time-to-failure countdown. Fortunately, it’s one of those extreamly selective car crashes. KITT is of course unscathed. The other car is pulverized from the windshield forward. All the RiverOfDreams guys are dead — though British guy survives just long enough to say “This changes nothing!” I would like to congratulate the writer for that one. It’s so cliche in a show for the villain to say something meaningful with his last breath. It’s a great new idea to have him actually just ramble something meaningless because of the massive head trauma.
Now that all the hard work is done, Carrie shows up to arrest the corpses, and Sarah is reunited with her father, the only survivor, thanks to the fact that the car crash knew he wasn’t evil.
But wait, it’s not done yet…
We rejoin Mike as he cleans out his mom’s shack. After a heartfelt moment with Sarah in which she implicitly dumps her offscreen boyfriend, he hops into the limo to Mom’s funeral, where he is promptly shanghaied by Graiman and Carrie. Turns out that the FBI knew all about KITT and have absolutely no problem with Graiman’s plan to run a private vigilante organization to do some 80s style heroing. Carrie, pretending she has some degree of competence, tries to give Mike the hard sell and get him to join this new Foundation, showing off her sensitivity to Mike’s loss by pointing out that his lack of any sort of familial tie makes him the perfect candidate. Because this is a good time for it. Graiman angles for a catchphrase by saying things like, “The world is insane; this is the very definition of sanity,” and “Either participate or withdraw.” Neither of these is as cool as “One man can make a difference,” so Mike turns them down:
Mike: I just… I don’t believe in the same things you do. I can’t help you.
Leah: (Mike Traceur voice) I believe in threesomes and… Well, that’s it really.
Me: I think he also believes in driving fast. But bringing that up right now probably wouldn’t help his argument.
So, they let him enjoy his funeral, and afterward, this really, really old guy with a bad tan comes up to comfort Mike by revealing himself to be none other than Michael Knight, his estranged dad. Mike takes this in stride, adopting this show’s general policy of never ever having anyone react with anything approaching emotion to any stimulus.
Mike pere talks Mike Jr. into doing the whole “premise of the show” thing, then promptly leaves to cash the check they wrote him for his thirty second cameo. “Will I see you again?” Mike pere says that if they go to series, he’ll show up for the cliffhangers, because his career is kinda waning, and being a judge on America’s Got Talent doesn’t pay the bills.
Leah: He’s a good choice for America’s Got Talent, because compared to him, America does have talent. (Historian’s note: The very last thing we’d seen the Hoff in was Star Crash, an Italian rip-off of Star Wars which includes the line, “Imperial Starship, stop the flow of time!”, so that may have influenced her opinion of his talent)
Me: Whatever you think of his acting skills, remember: he was the star of the most popular show on the entire planet
Me: Oh. Right. Him and Pamela Anderson’s breasts.
Mike goes and has another heartfelt with Sarah and reveals that the real reason he dumped her is something boring and nebulous about them being from two different worlds, what with her being all smart, and him being really just ridiculously dumb, and says something sappy about them going in two different directions. At this point, Leah made me very proud by predicting that Sarah’s next line would be, “But here we are,” even before I could. We’re getting scary-good at predicting cliches.
So we cut to Mike and
the bots the team inside a padded garage or something. “The team” consists of Graiman (the smart one), Carrie (The useless one), Sarah (The hot one), and, for some reason, Mike’s roommate (The one who has no good reason for being on this team or in this scene). Carrie gives Mike his next mission, the team does some good old-fashioned end-of-the-episode witty banter, and then the writers boldly decide that buidling up sexual tension and making a believable relationship is overrated, and just have Sarah exchange some saliva with Mike. So they’re a thing now, without all that pesky “actually showing us them falling back in love or Mike making any sort of personal growth into the sort of person who is into monogamy.”
Leah: (Mike Traceur voice) Aw man. If I’ve got a girlfriend, how am I going to leverage this car into having lots of sex… Oh. (NB: Leah’s Mike Traceur voice is not at all convincing. But neither is Jason Bruening’s)
Leah: (Leah voice) Is that a Tractor Trailer?
Me: I think so. Wait! It’s a — (Back ramp lowers, revealing the road) Never mind.
Leah: You thought it was going to be a cargo plane, didn’t you.
(KITT pulls out, and the camera angle changes revealing that it was a cargo plane)
Me: Still got it.
Final analysis: This, what’s the word I’m looking for… Blew. It’s not that it was untrue to the spirit of Knight Rider — in fact, I think it did a pretty good job at being Knight Riderish (The one caveat I’ll add to this is that it is quite clear that the writers thought of KITT as a prop more than as a character. The last time there was talk of a Knight Rider revival, much hay was made of the fact that the studios “wanted the car to not talk” and I think that’s still present here: the writers have decided that a thinking car is a bit hard to swallow, and have only left it in sort of begrudgingly). It just utterly failed at being good. You could have flown that cargo plane through the holes in the plot. The show was too character-ahem-driven (I like character driven shows, don’t get me wrong. But when you are shooting an action-adventure series pilot, I want to see action and adventure.) The sort of character drama they did here only works if you already care about the characters and they never actually did anything to make me care about the characters.
How many times do we need to learn this lesson? Do not make the characters themselves the MacGuffin in the pilot. That’s the same mistake that Bionic Woman made, and it’s the same mistake that the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie made. And now they’ve made it again. The original series did its fair share of “Bad guys steal KITT to use one of his abilities in their master plan”, but , and this is important, they did it after we’d had several episodes to care about the characters. When we learn that KITT knows the backdoor to Prometheus, KITT is still such a vague character that my immediate reaction is, “Well, let’s just reformat KITT and solve that problem.” If you want to navel-gaze, go ahead and do it, just not in the pilot.
What we got was “shock” characterization. It doesn’t work for me, and I don’t think it works for anyone who realizes how hamfistedly they’re being manipulated. We’re supposed to like Mike because he’s “cool”, which we know because he has threesomes. We’re supposed to sympathize with Sarah because for the first half of the show, we think her dad is dead. We’re supposed to take any interest at all in Carrie because she’s a lesbian. We’re supposed to like Roommate and think of him as a comic relief character because the actor looks a bit like Steve Buschemi.
It’s fine if you don’t have the time to make us care about the characters in the pilot; it’s just one pilot, and character development is something you do slowly over time. But given that, the pilot should not rely on us caring about the characters.
The other big fail of this pilot is what it says about, well, I suppose about me getting old, but to a larger extent, about us as a society getting old. The Future is not, and it is hard to say this without giggling, what it used to be.
I guess for most of history, the future was not all that spectacular. If you were a peasant in the middle ages, you expected that your children would be peasants too, that nothing was ever going to be invented, that your lifestyle would never change, that the next infinity of time was going to be pretty much just like now, though things might get a bit cleaner and more convenient if we’re lucky.
The twentieth century changed that a lot. Within a single lifetime, mankind went from the automobile to the airplane to the moon landing. It seemed entirely reasonable that we’d be living in giant crystal spires on Jupiter by now.
And that didn’t happen. So, when a child of the fifties thought about the future, he imagined Space Ships with tail fins full of space men who shot space guns and made sweet love to green-skinned space-babes, in space, and everyone had a robot buddy, and the woman of the future could just dial up the meal she wanted to feed her family on the food-o-matic and it would dispense food cubes, and cars would fly.
Then the 70s and 80s happened. I’m not quite old enough to remember this, but people who were there tell me that if you were of the right age in that period, and you imagined what the future was going to be like, what you imagined was nothing at all because it was pretty much inconceivable that we weren’t all going to die in an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in our lifetimes. This sort of peaked in the late 80s with a spate of shows depicting a pretty bleak future — the aforementioned Road Warrior movies, Captain Power, Max Headroom, the second season of War of the Worlds.
Anyway. It’s 2008 now, and when we imagine the future, what do we see? Well, I imagine the internet being everywhere. Kinda like it is now, only more so. I imagine cars will be pretty much like they are now, only they’ll run a little better and have GPS navigation standard. They might run on hydrogen, but this is not really something you’d actually notice all that much; it would still have a tank and you’d still fill it up by going to a station and putting a tube into an opening in the side of the car. Life will pretty much be as it is now, only a bit cleaner and hopefully a little more convenient.
I don’t just want my flying car, I miss believing there would be one.