Old Gems: Automan (1983)

It's not Tron, honest

Since there was something of a Tron thing going on last month, it seems appropriate that we should delve into one of wunderkind producer Glen A Larson’s little 80s projects that absolutely in no way was influenced by TronAutoman.

This saw mild-mannered police computer programmer Walter Nebicher (played by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s son, Desi Arnaz Jr) get all creative in his home hours and write ‘Automan’, a computer program that could not only think and solve crimes, it could also create its own holographic body that looked human(ish), despite being largely a glowing mass of blue.

Automan (played by musical theatre star Chuck Wagner) also had a little polyhedral sidekick called Cursor that he could communicate with and that could draw him all manner of objects, including clothing, and forms of transport, ranging from cars (a Lamborghini Countach usually) to futuristic helicopters, aeroplanes and motorcycles. Being a hologram as well, the car could turn at 90º, but being a special kind of hologram, it was actually possible for it to be solid or pass through things as Automan desired. Weirdly, Walter could actually enter inside either Automan or his car, and become equally solid or intangible.

Automan’s only weaknesses? He needed an awful lot of power so he could usually only come out at night when people weren’t using their toasters and other household gadgets. Oh, yes – and video game guns.

All sounds very plausible and scientific, doesn’t it?

Assisting Walter, Automan and Cursor was Roxanne (Heather McNair), Walter’s co-worker and long-time crush who eventually becomes his girlfriend when she finds out about Automan and helps them to solve a few crimes together. At the same time, his other co-workers couldn’t be trusted so although Walter was out there solving crimes, he couldn’t tell anyone, not even top cop Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing – best known for his work on The Equalizer and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues) and particularly not his technophobe boss played by Gerald O’Loughlin.

Automan, himself, was a curious personality who was best buds with Pacman and Donkey Kong, but needed to learn about human behaviour as well, despite being programmed with the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, amongst other things. Unfortunately, his learning often went wrong, with one episode dealing with an unfortunate case of soap opera overload.

Now, vehicles that move at 90º? A guy who’s a computer program and largely glowing blue? A polyhedral sidekick that communicates in computerese? Hmm. That does sound a bit like Tron, doesn’t it? Why didn’t the network, ABC, get sued for that, Tron having coming out the year before Automan? Oh yes, because they hired two of Tron‘s producers,  Donald Kushner and Peter Locke. Can’t sue yourself, can you?

The show ran for 12 episodes from 1983 to 1984, a 13th episode having been made but not aired. There was actually a surprising variety of stories in that run, with Automan doing everything from pretending to be a vigilante cop to helping a girl group to joining a motorcycle gang along the way. As you might have guessed the tone was quite light, with everyone being as cheesy as hell and most episodes seeing Automan’s naivety and Dudley Doright qualities exploited for laughs, and the day saved by Automan’s breaking of the laws of physics at every turn.

Anyway, I liked it when I was a kid. Here’s the pilot episode in case you missed it – weirdly, it’s not an ‘origins’ episode, but just more or less leaps into the narrative after a voiceover explanation of the plot, which was also used in subsequent episodes. You can watch more on YouTube, but unfortunately you can’t get it on DVD. Enjoy!