*Edit — this was supposed to be a brief discussion about Knight Rider. By no means did I intend to write a 2200 word essay about it!
Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless… in a world of criminals who operate above the law.
The grandiose opening narrative is familiar to anyone who was a fan of the show, and that theme is a perfect slice of eighties synth-pop that is hard to rail against. That music holds up even now. The rest of the show – well, I’ll get to that…
When I was a child – specifically, when I was about ten years old – Knight Rider was my favourite TV show by quite some margin. Yeah, the one with the crazy black car with all the cool gadgets. Looking back on it now, I can see that what I was watching was basically a watered-down version of James Bond – from the tricked out vehicle to the beautiful girls.
I had Knight Rider posters on my bedroom walls. I read the annuals. Hell, for a while I even thought I would grow up to look like David Hasselhoff with that big eighties bouffant he sported. Suffice to say, the show has always been special to me, but is it like that because I have continued to wear those rose-coloured glasses and refused to question the show’s validity in the twenty-first century, or are my reasons for keeping it close to my heart justified? Is Knight Rider as great today, as it absolutely was when I was a kid?
Although I have seen the odd episode here and there since its heyday, I haven’t watched the entire run, and I certainly haven’t done so with anything other than child-like admiration. I wasn’t critical of it then. I wanted to look at it with (ironically) fresh eyes – to see if I can appreciate it as a discerning adult, and also to see what it was about it that I fell in love with as an impressionable ten year old. Hopefully history has been kind to my memories.
Because I was curious, I went back and counted: over one third of the show’s ninety episodes have ‘Knight’ in the title. I suppose this doesn’t mean anything really, but it does stick out to me as an example of the producers pandering to the children in the audience, and there were many of those, because what I came to appreciate while watching Knight Rider as an adult, is that it is most decidedly a show for kids. I should probably have known that, but I didn’t remember it that way at all. I genuinely thought it was a family show, but it’s really not. In fact, after watching all ninety episodes it’s apparent to me that I don’t actually remember many of them. Sure, I remember the big things that happen, and I know the feel of the show, but the minutiae of each episode – of any episode – has found a way out of my head over the last thirty-plus years. It’s a little alarming, but probably expected after such a long absence.
Knight of the Phoenix is the movie-length pilot, and it introduces us to the three central characters that will persist throughout the show. Michael Knight is played by David Hasselhoff, but the series begins with a Michael Long. Long is played for not-very-long-at-all by Larry Anderson.
Devon Miles is the elderly Englishman, played by Edward Mulhare, who leads the covert government operation known as the Foundation for Law And Government (FLAG). Devon is usually level-headed and also acts as Michael’s emotional balance when things get a little dangerous. He is presented as a father-figure for Michael as well. It’s a relationship which is maintained throughout the entire series, and one that even grows towards genuine friendship by the end of the run.
KITT is the modified Trans-Am that does all the cool tricks, and the real reason anyone who watched this show, did. He is brought to life by William Daniels, and as voicework goes, I’d say Daniels is nigh on perfect for the role.
So, back to the pilot…
Michael Long is a detective in Las Vegas who gets shot point blank in the face and left for dead… which also makes this quite a violent first handful of minutes for a programme that is aimed at children. There are a lot of jarring visual and audio edits before Anderson gives up the role, including sometimes over-dubbing Hasselhoff’s voice, and (even more oddly) occasionally substituting his body in longer shots. But it was the eighties, and production values were not what they are now. I can’t see this kind of editing faux pas making the cut these days. It took me out of the scenes, but I can grudgingly give it a pass. And yes, I agree: the set-up of the show is a little ropey, but it’s certainly not the wildest introduction I’ve ever seen on television.
Long then awakens in the mansion of eccentric millionaire Wilton Knight, with a new face thanks to some stellar cosmetic surgery. His car has also gone under the knife, and it is now the souped-up machine that inarguably becomes the most iconic television vehicle of the decade. Everyone knows KITT, even those three people who have never seen Knight Rider.
The bromance between Michael and KITT is quick to get off the ground and the writers really don’t waste any time getting their banter up and running. By the time the pilot ends, and the bad guys have been dealt with, their relationship is fairly solid and well defined, and it stays consistent throughout the entire series. The camaraderie between man and machine is one aspect of Knight Rider that is still great after all this time.
In the second episode we are introduced to Bonnie Barstow, played by Patricia McPherson. She is KITT’s long-suffering resident mechanic, and the Q to Michael’s Bond, to stick with that comparison. As well as being the good-looking grease-monkey, and technical whiz, she is the object of Michael’s chaste affections. He never gets anywhere with her, but then again, there’s only so much you can do with the audience sitting in front of the TV, so their budding romance never blooms into anything beyond a little flirtation.
The first season as a whole is not too bad but I’ll be honest: it is mostly forgettable stuff. The first handful of episodes operate on an extremely small scale, where the stakes are mostly parochial at best, and it is perhaps telling that the only thing I genuinely remember about this season is the introduction of KITT’s nemesis KARR in Episode 8, Trust Doesn’t Rust. At least this battle makes things feel a little more important. For the first time, KITT and Michael are vulnerable. The episode obviously resonated with other viewers too, because once that challenge is dealt with, KARR makes his second and final appearance in the Season Three episode, KITT vs KARR.
On that note, the best episodes of Knight Rider are unequivocally the ones in which KITT is damaged or destroyed and has to be rebuilt, although seeing KITT busted and broken still saddens me, even as an adult, such is my affection for the car. As much as I never tired of Michael hitting Turbo Boost and watching KITT hit the ramp that was never quite as hidden as I thought it was as a child, I was always happy to see the protagonists face a new challenge because it would inevitably lead to KITT getting some kind of overhaul – be that a new function that would only be used for that particular episode, or a change in appearance that would fundamentally alter the way KITT looked.
In Goliath, the Season Two opening double feature, which gives us perhaps the show’s greatest enemy, KITT has a laser installed after a collision with the deadly truck. The Season Three opening double header, Knight of the Drones sees KITT annihilated by a missile, after which he is rebuilt with a new dashboard. Junk Yard Dog, also from Season Three, lays claim to the show’s most horrifying death, where KITT is dumped into an acid pit. And finally, Knight of the Juggernaut; the Season Four opening double episode, gives KITT the most attention-grabbing makeover of the entire show, but more on that later…
Bonnie is inexplicably absent from the show for the duration of Season Two, and is replaced by April (played by Rebecca Holden). Just as KITT is occasionally given a makeover, April – with the flowing red locks and the flashy smile – is certainly a visual upgrade, but her reason for being there is never explained. She has neither the chemistry with Michael, nor the gravitas to pull off a specialist mechanic, and she is released into the wild after Season Two ends, at which point Bonnie comes back for Seasons Three and Four. April is never referenced again. This makes Season Two somewhat of an anomaly, although not without its great moments – not least of all The Hoff trying to pull off the evil twin brother shtick in both Goliath and Goliath Returns with nothing but a stick-on moustache, a cane, and an angry intonation. Truly classic television.
RC3 (played by Peter Parros) is the only character addition to Season Four. He is the token black dude the show runners obviously added to the cast to inject a little street smarts into the mix. He sometimes helps Michael with the heavy lifting and gets involved in a few punch-ups, but it feels like he is mostly there for cynical reasons rather than the development of any storyline. He’s harmless enough, but then he did give us Super Pursuit Mode.
I really don’t like Super Pursuit Mode. It allows KITT to travel 40% faster than his previous maximum speed of 300mph. This also means that every time it’s used (and trust me; it’s used a lot throughout the final season) we have to watch the same Transformer-style animation. It’s cool at first, but it gets old very quickly.
Super Pursuit Mode was installed after KITT was taken apart in Knight of the Juggernaut, and it was probably intended to shake things up, to try and maintain the show’s relevance, but it’s an unnecessary upgrade. Its activation turns the sleek black Trans-Am into a hulking Lego-like behemoth that has more in common with Nolan’s Batmobile than it does the vanilla version of KITT pre-facelift. The function comes complete with the fantastically rubbish Emergency Braking System, which sees KITT stopping from a speed of over 400mph in a matter of metres with the use of, well… flaps.
Oh yeah, and KITT now has a convertible option for those lazy days under the desert sun, but that’s just silly.
Season Four is also noteworthy for the pivotal episode, The Scent of Roses, in which Michael gets married, only to (spoilers) watch his wife get shot and killed at the ceremony. Originally conceived as the final episode of the show – which would have wrapped up the character arc quite nicely – it actually sits oddly in the middle of the season which, from a storytelling perspective, doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. He’s back in the proverbial saddle in the very next episode.
So, after all that – is Knight Rider worth watching?
I can’t judge the show as an adult, because it is not meant for the me of 2019. Other than nostalgia, it does not have any merits for people my age, and why should it? It’s a show for children.
Am I disappointed? Sure. I have the complete box set, but I probably won’t be going back to it, and that’s undoubtedly the saddest thing of all. But it’s important to remember that Knight Rider is also a product of its time. A ten year old today will likely not get anywhere near the same enjoyment from it that I did, because television has changed, and the people who watch it have changed too.
Today’s ten year old uses technology on a daily basis that is far more advanced than a lot of the stuff inside KITT, but that’s all right. KITT was a super-advanced vehicle in 1982… but not so much in 2019. Yes, a lot of KITT’s functionality is still sci-fi and fantasy, but in other areas it is positively archaic. Kids nowadays would laugh at the so-called hi-tech computer graphics on the dashboard.
Having said that, Knight Rider was on the money with the satellite navigation system and the use of video calls. Both of those are common today. Self-driving cars are also in the early stages of becoming a real-world reality for the masses, so it’s only a matter of time.
And I don’t care what anyone says – that steering wheel is awesome!