Judge Sandra Dozier is a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of David Hasslehoff's '80s magic.
Our reviews of Knight Rider: Season Two (published May 18th, 2005), Knight Rider: Season Three (published May 10th, 2006), and Knight Rider (2008): Season One (published August 10th, 2009) are also available.
A lone crusader in a dangerous world…the world of the Knight Rider.
I adore cars, so of course I loved the series Knight Rider, a television valentine to car enthusiasts. With a sleek black talking Trans Am as one of the main characters and at least one eye-popping stunt per episode, it was hard not to instantly like this show—and easy to see why it was a hit with the general public. The trick, as always, was in convincing the network that it could fly.
Facts of the Case
Michael Long (David Hasslehoff): ex-military fight expert, dedicated cop. On his first undercover case he makes the mistake of trusting the wrong person, and it costs him the life of his partner and the bust itself when he is shot and left for dead. When he wakes up, he is cocooned in bandages and told that he has undergone reconstructive facial surgery due to the damage inflicted by the bullet. The bandages come off some time after, and he looks completely different, unrecognizable by anyone who knew him before (including his enemies).
He is approached by an old man, Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), and given an opportunity: assume a new identity, bring justice to the people who killed him, and stay in the employ of the billion-dollar Knight Foundation as an investigator and all-around Man of Action. Fulfill the final wish of Wilton Knight, who believes that one man can make a difference, and champion the cause of the innocent by fighting criminals who are above the law.
Such an offer appeals to the maverick soul of Long, and he agrees, accepting his new identity as Michael Knight. He is soon introduced to his partner, an artificial intelligence named K.I.T.T (Knight Industries Two Thousand) installed into the mainframe of a nearly indestructable Pontiac Trans Am. The K.I.T.T. car is a high-tech marvel, with the ability to drive itself, monitor Michael when he is away from the car, and talk to Michael while he is in the car and via a remote device when he is out of the car. K.I.T.T. (voiced by William Daniels, St. Elsewhere) has a sardonic sense of humor, although he likes to insist that he doesn't have feelings to motivate his comments.
Michael is aided by Devon (Edward Mulhare, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir), who runs the Knight Foundation, and Bonnie (Patricia McPherson), a computer and car expert who works on K.I.T.T.'s complex machinery. Together, they take on missions for the Foundation, investigating when the police can no longer help, and taking action when no one else is willing to step in.
Ah, the early '80s. While we had personal computers like the Apple IIe, which were mostly used in schools and some businesses, sophisticated mouse-driven machines with graphics like the Macintosh had yet to be introduced, and most people didn't even own a home computer. However, we played computer games with home consoles such as the Atari 2600 or little hand-held pixellated jobs that did little more than move a few dots across the screen in slow motion and called it ice hockey. Personal computers were The Next Big Thing, and the possibilities (it seemed) were limited only by imagination.
Knight Rider was right at home in this emerging climate. It was a tech-heavy show with a car that had artificial intelligence, a term most home viewers didn't have in their everyday lexicon. It used phrases like "Silicon Valley," another term that was not as familiar as it is today. Microchips, motherboards, data—these were all brand-new things to steal and exploit, guaranteeing a host of new bad guys and rough situations. Relative newcomer David Hasslehoff (who had only appeared on a daytime soap previously) gave the show a fresh, cutting-edge appeal, and his good looks and macho persona resonated with both men and women.
The fantasy elements of the show were grounded partly by the fussy and prim character of Devon, played by Mulhare. Devon was the "little voice" that worried about everything, wondering if Michael was being too reckless, fussing over things like expenses and missed appointments. He reflected some of what the audience was thinking, which made viewers feel less overwhelmed. Along with K.I.T.T., he was also Michael's conscience, stepping in when Michael lost perspective or needed help. Mulhare, a veteran actor with a long run on another popular television series (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir), played the role to perfection, reveling in the stuffiness of his character with his cheeky sideways glances, frustrated fist clenching, and stiff-upper-lip glaring whenever his delicate dignity was offended.
Although introduced with little fanfare in the second episode, the character of Bonnie was a strong draw for many female fans of the show, who looked up to her as a role model of the strong yet appealing woman they wanted to be. For every girl who felt a little ashamed of her fascination with cars and computers, there was Bonnie to show that you didn't have to sacrifice being a knockout or a witty conversationalist in order to be a whiz with more typically guy-type pursuits. Her competence, her invaluable stature with the Knight Foundation, and her obvious appeal to Michael were all things to be admired. As the producers recognized her growing popularity, they gave her more to do as the season went on.
Last, but not least, the stunt action in Knight Rider is top-notch. Watching car stunts that don't rely on CGI for safety or effect has its own special thrill. Realizing that there are real people inside the cars, risking their lives (or at least their health, since getting slammed down all the time during car jumps isn't great for the spine) lends everything a sort of heavy reality that helps get the adrenalin pumping. Even a "simple" two-wheel lap around the parking lot gets extra heft. The spinouts, jumps, crashes, and loops are all impressive to watch, and even cooler when you realize that the drivers have to perform them without giving the appearance of the car's being damaged, since the K.I.T.T. car is supposed to be bulletproof. Breakaway walls, fences, signs, and whatever else are done so well on this show that it completely sells the idea that this car can't be hurt. Even K.I.T.T.'s talking to Michael is so convincing that several viewers believed the car actually talked during the scene. The blinking panel showing K.I.T.T.'s voice modulation (which was later replaced by equalizer-like bar readouts) also gave a "mouth" to the artificial intelligence, connecting viewer to car like glue.
Universal has given the DVD box set for Knight Rider the deluxe treatment. Along with all 21 episodes from the first season on three double-sided discs, there is a scene-specific commentary for the pilot movie, three beefy featurettes, and several interactive features that are a little more valuable than the standard photo gallery extra. Oh, and the final disc has the forgettable Knight Rider 2000 feature-length movie on it, too, but don't let that stop you from appreciating the value of the rest of the box set.
The commentary, with Hasslehoff and creator Larson, starts out a little weak but gets better. Unfortunately, this is the first time in several years that either has watched the show, so they end up getting kind of absorbed in watching the action. While understandable, this makes for several lulls in the commentary that are frustrating for viewers who want to hear more about the behind-the-scenes stuff. The good news is that they do go into some detail about stunts and off-screen machinations once the plot is underway, and Larson and Hasslehoff poke fun at each other and give each other a hard time. Hasslehoff, especially, seemed to be having fun with the commentary. During a scene in which his character is nursing a bullet wound to the shoulder, he points out a rather obvious part where the bullet hole is in the wrong shoulder entirely, and he is cackling like a kid who just caught someone with their pants down. Clearly, he had fun making the show, something that comes across to good effect in the episodes.
The featurettes offer a retrospective look at the series and the main characters. Hasslehoff, Larson, and theme song coauthor Stu Phillips are featured as well as stunt crew. "Knight Sounds" is all about the theme music, a synthesizer tune that was fairly groundbreaking for being featured in a weekly series. With Tron, a movie with all synth music, having hit theatres just a few months before, the theme song definitely caught the ear of viewers. "Knight Moves" goes in depth into the stunt driving. "Under the Hood" is a good general featurette that catches up with the people involved with the show and offers some historical perspective.
The remaining extras are static features. The photo gallery is set to theme music and is a bit more lively than the usual "one per three seconds" slide show; the blueprints feature shows designs and their on-screen counterparts, and the K.I.T.T. owners manual shows the inside dash with all those clever little buttons and viewscreens. This is actually something newbies might want to check out before viewing the show.
Audio and video are well preserved for Knight Rider. The mono track is robust and free of static or skip, and the video transfer is excellent, with a bright, clear picture and warm colors. There is little or no age-related wear on the transfer, either, which is impressive even for something as recent as the '80s. The pilot suffers from a slight bit of softness, but this may be due to the heavy use of nighttime photography. It is still quite watchable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There isn't much to knock about the original series or the treatment given it in this excellent box set. One thing that has me puzzled, though, is why on earth the terrible Knight Rider 2000 movie was included on Disc Four. It's like eating a fine dinner, then drinking month-old milk for dessert. Nothing, not even the game efforts of Hasslehoff, Mulhare, and Daniels in their original roles, could save this turd of a movie. Aside from these vets and an early and well-turned appearance by Mitch Pileggi (X-Files), the acting stinks, the story stinks, and frankly the new K.I.T.T. car stinks. We find out at the beginning of the movie that the original Trans Am has been dismantled (an incredibly stupid idea, since it has a space-age frame that makes it more useful as an entire unit), so K.I.T.T. is placed into (of all things) a restored '64 Chevy. Later, he's transferred to a sports car. Lame.
Then there's the completely gratuitious display of Scotty. No, you read that correctly—James Doohan appears as himself in a brief role when K.I.T.T. mistakenly identifies him as a thug and stuns him. When Doohan, dazed, starts mumbling Trek-speak about how he canna get the engines back online, I wanted to scream in frustration and press "stop" on my remote. I strongly recommend skipping this movie altogether and just watching the extras on that disc. Don't sully your enjoyment of a fine series with this cheese-fest.
Even just hearing the "rawr" sound of K.I.T.T.'s scanner is enough to get my adrenalin pumping. Then there's the freeway-camera mode, crashing through a semi, racing away from a helicopter (at night, with a spotlight!), plowing through a plane type of action. There is plenty of warmth and humor to the show as well, but I remain impressed at how well the writers, directors, and actors were able to anthropomorphize the K.I.T.T. car—it really helped to sell the show and provide the audience with a good time every week.
This court will be lenient about the Knight Rider 2000 movie in light of previous good behavior. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary for Pilot Movie
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