?If there was one thing (other than shaping our childhoods and creating a marketing juggernaut) that the Star Wars franchise was able to do, it was to spark the world’s interest in science fiction. The late ’70s and early ’80s teemed with productions that wanted to capture the magic that seemed to be dripping from Star Wars. Some of them were straight rip-offs, like Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars or Star Crash. Others like the Glen L. Larson productions of Buck Rogers in the 24th Century and Battlestar Galactica seemed to be inspired by Star Wars, but tried to go in new directions. One facet of science fiction that was proliferated after the release of Star Wars was science fiction for children.
It was obvious with the amount of marketing that Star Wars did towards children, that kids would have a newfound interest in science fiction. Multiple series were developed specifically to cater towards children and young adults. Some of the series were attempts at creating real science fiction for children; others used sci-fi themes to support an educational message, and some just shoehorned sci-fi concepts into crappy sitcoms such as Alf (though to be fair, I though Alf was hysterical when I was a child). Either way, there are tons of series from this era which are no longer available, and may have been forgotten. The following is a list of some of the lost children’s science fiction from the ’80s, many of which cannot be found on DVD anywhere.
8) Small Wonder
Apparently unsatisfied with Teddy Ruxpin and Cricket dolls, and not interested in doing housework ever again, robotics engineer Ted Lawson set out to design a robotic maid. To make matters more twisted, Lawson designed a robot to look like a 10-year-old girl. His Voice Input Child Identicate, also known as Vicki, soon becomes a pseudo member of the family.
This nuclear powered precursor to Data attempted to fit in with the rest of the world, though it was pretty easy to see that something was not quite right with her, due to her monotone voice, complete lack of emotion and sense of humor, with only her “mother” treating her remotely like a human being. She attends school and learns at an alarmingly fast rate when she isn’t being forced into manual labor at home or resting in her large box. Laughter ensues when Vicki fails to fit in with normal society, her annoying ass ginger neighbor tries to “out” her, or when Ted’s get rich quick schemes involving Vicki fail epically. Vicki is a perfect example of why the Cylons want to kill us; first we create them, then enslave them, then force them into family friendly situational comedies about how they don’t fit in with the rest of us meat bags. If someone did that to me, I would want to murder them as well, and then nuke their hometown. I have no doubt that Vicki could be an early form of Skynet.
The “laughs” went on for four seasons, with the show eventually being released on DVD in 2010. Most of the cast had shor- lived acting careers, with Vicki herself, Tiffany Brisette, stating in a 2009 reunion that she was attending nursing school.
7) Out of this World
Strange things happen to children when they hit puberty. Most kids find hair in new places and are suddenly getting sat down for awkward chats with their parents about the birds and the bees, but for 13-year-old Evie Garland, puberty is even more awkward. Having been a child of a single parent family for years, the shocking revelation as to who her father was will change her life forever.
Apparently sometime in the ’70s, Evie’s mom had a steamy rendezvous and eventually married Troy, who just so happens to be an alien. Not just any alien, but one who seems to have stolen a spacecraft from Buck Rogers (the intro includes stock footage from Buck Rogers in the 24th Century), wears clothing stolen from Gallifrey, and also happens to have the voice of Burt Reynolds. So the Bandit knocked up Evie’s mom, and low and behold, nine months later she gace birth to a hybrid human/Antarian. Of course, Troy is not an alien to be tied down, so he beams back into space like a typical Antarian, leaving Mom and Evie to fend for themselves, and skipping out on child support since it’s a bitch to collect from a space alien. Of course, he does leave a prop from Buck Rogers behind, allowing him to remotely parent Evie without actually having to be there.
Evie’s hybrid human/Antarian DNA of course gives her special abilities, the most prominently used (and likely the cheapest special effect) was the ability to freeze time when she touches her fingers together. Eventually she also develops the ability to create any object she thinks about out of thin air, effectively becoming a walking Star Trek replicator. Hilarity ensues as Evie generally gets in trouble for misuse of her powers, and spends the rest of the episode trying to fix it. The show lasted for four seasons, ending on a cliffhanger without being picked up again for season five, and you can only pick up selections from seasons one and two if you happen to be living in Deutschland. This wasn’t star Maureen Flannigan’s only stint as an alien however, as she guest-starred years later on an episode of Deep Space Nine.
6) My Secret Identity
Before he was sliding to parallel dimensions and banging John Stamos’s ex-wife, Jerry O’Connell played Andrew Clements, a teenager given super powers after falling into his neighbor’s basement science project, a photon beam. Now endowed with the powers of levitation, invulnerability, super-speed and eventually superhuman strength, Andrew dubs himself Ultraman (though he takes the name Ultraman, he does NOT grow to 60 feet tall, nor wears a totally awesome costume), and goes on to fight for truth, justice and teenage angst.
His powers, of course, do have limitations. His powers of levitation are just enough to get him off the ground. Any forward momentum he gains is through the use of an aerosol can that he carries with him, so while he is saving a life, those underneath him get free hair spray and he is singlehandedly decimating the ozone. Apparently by the time the second season begins, the Environmental Protection Agency got a hold of Andrew and augmented his power to allow for non-aerosol propelled flight. In truth, it’s never explained, so I just imagine that Walter Peck had a stern talking to with him and somehow his flight power evolved. Also, once struck with a second dose of “Photon” later in the series, he loses his invulnerability in exchange for super-human strength.
Of course, Superman has his Kryptonite, and so does Andrew, in the form of Electromagnetic Radiation. When exposed to forms of EMR, he instantly loses his powers. While the series specifically mentioned radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays, it’s very likely that the radiation emitted from a cell phone would have the same effect, making “Ultraman” a little less ultra in about the mid-to-late ’90s. Thankfully the series was canceled long before the full power of the cellular revolution was felt.
What happens when you combine Doctor Who, Quantum Leap and an annoying teenage sidekick who isn’t Adric? You’d get Voyagers!, the short-lived ’80s classic. The Voyagers are a team of time-traveling do-gooders, charged with making sure the time line plays out as it should and preserving the future. One would think that the Voyagers would be the ultimate of historians, able to pull out historical data with ease. And then your view would be instantly skewed forever when you met time traveling ass-hat Phineaus Bogg.
Bogg (played by Jon-Erik Hexum) first meets his traveling companion Jeffery (half-brother of Punky Brewster, Meeno Peluce) when his time travel device, the Omni (which looks like a large fob watch), lands him in the middle of the adolescents bedroom. Jeffery falls, and Bogg saves him, sacrificing his historical Cliff Notes to do so. Apparently Bogg knows very little about history, as he had spent most of his time-traveling more concerned with getting laid, and it’s up to Jeffery to refresh Bogg on how history was supposed to transpire. To complicate matters, Bogg’s Omni is limited to time prior to 1970, effectively cramping Bogg’s straight pimpin’ style, so now Jeffrey and Bogg find themselves leaping from time to time, striving to put back what once went wrong, and hoping that each leap, will be the leap home… oh wait, that’s another series.
Although being very popular both with critics and ratings, the show wasn’t picked up for a second season, replaced by a TV news program meant to compete with 60 Minutes. While life went on for Meeno Peluce, who ironically became a high school history teacher for a time, his costar Jon-Erik Hexum didn’t fare so well. During a delay in filming on his new show Cover Up, Hexum started fooling around with a handgun loaded with blanks that he had been using during the filming. Apparently, in making a joke, he removed all but one of the blanks in his gun, spun the cylinder, and fired it at his head imitating Russian Roulette. The paper wadding in the blank shot out of the gun at tremendous speed, fracturing his skull, and sending fragments of bone into his brain, an injury that caused his death a few days later.
Some of the best and sometimes strangest science fiction of the ’80s comes out of the U.K. Of course, there’s Doctor Who, but other series like The Tripods, and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy also showed the British talent for creating good science fiction on a budget. Wanting to bring some of that sci-fi goodness to the children of England, ITV developed a series based off of the John Wyndam novel Chocky.
Matthew Gore, despite being just a little bit old for it, has an imaginary friend named Chocky. Like most imaginary friends, no one but Matthew can hear it. Matthew’s behavior takes a turn for the worse, however, becoming more and more depressed. It turns out the Chocky is real, and is the advanced scout for an interstellar colonization force. So Matthew’s new friend is the first arrival in an alien invasion. Things take a turn for the E.T. when the government finds out about Matthew’s special friend and chaos ensues.
The series was brought over to the U.S. and aired on Nickelodeon in the early ’80s. The one thing that I remember distinctly was that when I was a child, the show was absolutely terrifying for me, with strange disembodied voices, chroma-key effects and bizarre synth music all adding to the air of terror. While the series was only available for a short time on cable TV in the states, it was very popular in the U.K., running for three seasons as well as being released on DVD, however it remains unavailable in the States.
3) Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
Taking a cue from the first Terminator film, Captain Power tells a story of a future devastated by nuclear conflict. Lord Dread (David “William Doors” Hemblen) and his Bio Dread armies are attempting to eradicate the remaining human population, digitizing them a-la the MCP, for long term storage in Dread computer system, the Overmind. Aside from small bands of human resistance, the majority of humanity is dead, digitized, or living on borrowed time. Thankfully for them, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future are waging an underground war against their mechanical oppressors.
What sets Power and his team apart is his amazing power suits, electronic armor with specialized abilities that give him and his team a fighting chance against Dread. That being said, the production values of the show were pretty incredible for what was supposed to be a children’s show, with a budget of one million dollars per episode. It was one of the first shows on TV to feature computer animation in every episode, with Dread’s Lieutenants Soran and Blastarr being completely digital creatures. The show also featured real writing and a large storyarc, with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski acting as one of the chief writers for the series (in fact, there are references to Babylon 5 concepts throughout the series).
The thing that truly set the series apart from children’s programming was its interactivity. Captain Power toys interacted with signals imbedded in the TV show, letting kids at home play along, shooting the bad guys, and conversely, having the bad guys shoot back. Of course, some parents groups didn’t approve of the dark tone of the TV series, as well as the marketing and interactive aspects of the show. Coupled with the large production costs, the series only survived for one season that ended with a cliffhanger, never to be resolved. The series was not available anywhere for years, but fortunately has just been released on DVD. Most of the cast went on to do multiple guest spots on Canadian produced sci-fi shows like Earth: Final Conflict, with Sven “Tank” Thorsen eventually playing the foil to Jay and Silent Bob, La Fours in Mallrats. .
2) Read All About It!
PBS has long been known for its innovative children’s programming. It’s educational juggernaut, Sesame Street, has been entertaining and educating for decades. While public television will always be remembered for Sesame Street, there was a myriad of other children’s educational program in the early 80’s including 3-2-1 Contact and The Electric Company. One example of a mating between education and science fiction was TV Ontario’s Read All About It! The plot is based around three children, one of whom inherits a building called the coach house when their uncle dies. Of course, things not being quite as they seem, the children discover that the coach house is inhabited by two electronic beings: Otto the sentient typewriter, and Theta, an artificial intelligence who talks through displaying messages through a screen. The children decide to take the natural course of action when presented with a free building full of artificial life forms: start a fucking newspaper.
Of course, as if the coach house didn’t have enough secrets, hidden away in it was a Doctor Who-style transmat beam, that when discovered by the kids, sends them to the galaxy of Trialviron. It’s there that they meet its ruthless ruler, Duneedon. Rather than do the smart thing and bust a cap in the meddling kids, Duneedon goes the route of a typical James Bond villain and throws the kids into the Problem Pit, where they solve puzzles to prevent themselves from being “put to sleep.” SPOILER ALERT: Eventually they discover that Duneedon has made it to Earth, posing as the town mayor Don Eden (for someone as smart as Duneedon, you would think he would come up with a better alias) in a nefarious attempt to mine a mineral found only in Herbertsville that he needs for his invasion.
The series lasted for two seasons, comprised of 2015-minute episodes. Unfortunately, due to rather complicated contracts necessary for the creation of the series (being produced as a non-profit educational show) it is unlikely that it will ever be released on DVD. The only place you can find it is on YouTube, generally with horrible transfers from old, degraded VHS tapes, as seen above.
In the late 1970s, inventor George Carter III found inspiration in viewing Star Wars for the first time. He began work on Photon, the first mass-marketed Laser Tag game franchise. Throughout the mid-’80s, dozens of Photon family entertainment centers opened across the planet. Judging his idea as the basis for a huge science fiction franchise and having studied at the Spaceballs School of Marketing, Carter went on to release a massive amount of Photon products. There was Photon: The Home Game, Photon: The Action Figure, Photon: The Colorforms, Photon: The Underoos, Photon: The Famicom Game, Photon: THE FLAMETHROWER!!!!
Interestingly enough, Carter (or maybe his writing staff) tried to make the game more immersive, by creating a whole science fiction universe that the Photon game played a role in. To do this, a series of books (written by popular science fiction author Peter David) and a children’s television series were developed. The story is this: douchey teenager Christopher Jarvis is a really good laser tag player — so good, in fact, that while playing at the world championships, he achieves a world record and is beamed up to an alien-filled space station. It is explained to him that all life in the universe was created by Photon, a mysterious energy source, that when activated on a world turns the planet into a beautiful Eden-esque paradise, a-la the Genesis Device. The Photon Warriors are charged with defending these Photon Crystals, which, if detonated by the evil Arrians, will turn a world into an uninhabitable wasteland, similar to New Jersey. Jarvis joins the Photon Warriors, adopts the warrior name of Bhodi-Li, and goes on to have many adventures, fighting against the evil Warlord of Arr and his minions.
While filmed in the U.S. and Japan, you’ll think production was based in Wisconsin due to the enormous amounts of cheese. Its budget was less than shoestring, with most of the planetary background and other special effects Chroma-keyed in. In an attempt to be popular with the cool kids, each week featured bad covers of ’80s hits for the action sequences, and of course no ’80s kids series was complete without the obligatory force-fed morality message. All of the monsters were literally men in rubber suits, played by Japanese Kaiju actors, and if you look closely to the end credits, you’ll see some familiar names — Shuki Levy and Haim Saban, who have had their hands in just about every incarnation of the Power Rangers.
The show was downright awful, with terrible acting, horrible special effects, and the costumes looked like rejects from 1970s Doctor Who episodes. The evil Warlord of Arr looked like a brown sock puppet with teeth, and the character “Uncle” Pike was best described as a yellow pile of baby shit with armor. The show lasted one season, and while the story was left open, a second planned season was never filmed. Its place on the top of this list is solidified by its embracing of all things ’80s, its actors chewing on scenery like Raoul Julia in Street Fighter, and the men in rubber suits. Photon is truly a product only the ’80s could produce… and then forget.
A fan of video games and science fiction from the moment he discovered his father's Atari 2600 and Star Wars, Jason Helton has been contributing to The Robot's Voice since 2011. Prior, he wrote for the UK's Den of Geek and was the producer and host of Iron Otaku Radio on XM's UPOP 29 channel. A die-hard fan of Battlestar Galactica (both old and new), Doctor Who, and pinball, you can follow him on Twitter @Razgriz1138.