Take a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons, add a little bit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, put it in an “escape room” format and you’ve got “The Adventure Game”, a brilliant, stylish, charming, original game show aired on BBC between 1980 and 1986. Can you tell I like it?
The game takes place on Arg, home planet of the Argonds. The Argonds are a mischevious race of dragons who are sick of all of the “trippers” from Earth coming to their planet via time (and space?) travel. The travelers are celebrities, a different set each week. The Argonds sometimes steal the crystals from the traveler’s ships, and the travelers must solve a series of logic puzzles and riddles to get their crystal back so that they can leave. The viewer gets to watch each team of travelers work the puzzles out.
The rooms vary in the sorts of puzzles offered. The contestants might have to decipher a shapes and colors puzzle…
…solve an escape room puzzle with many moving parts…
…or play a text-based adventure game on a computer.
The premise and format of the show would evolve through the years; the Argonds went from being dragons to being furry creatures to being furry dragons to being…potted plants?
Also cool is that one of the series 1 contestants, Lesley Judd, returns in subsequent series as “the Mole”, a character who impersonates a fellow contestant but who is really an Argond.
The set and costume design are top-notch as well; the 1980s vision of the future is alive and well on Arg with its white walls, accent colors, single-tone outfits and focus on geometry.
A fun premise on a gorgeous set, with interesting puzzles and celebrities figuring those puzzles out. No prizes, no immunities, no backstabbing, just fun.
“Meet Us In September” was the slogan for the ABC Network’s Fall 1969 lineup. These sizzle reels capture all of the programming news of the 1969 season. There’s so much to love about this campaign! The font choice and graphic work is fantastic, both in the overall face of the campaign and the show-specific stuff:
Not sure what to make of this Johnny Cash segment.
Here’s a compilation. The Bewitched promo is interesting, too – really assumes you already know what the whole show is about. Which, I guess, in a three-network world in 1969, is a pretty safe assumption.
Dynamix 1989 Video Catalog
This reel of upcoming games from the small-ish (bigger now that they were acquired by Sierra) game company Dynamix is earnest and sweet. A-10 Tank Killer was on a heavy rotation in my house. David Wolf: Secret Agent looks like something right out of Decker.
Pennywise – Microwave Cooking (1985)
There are few things more comfortingly charming than seeing these two British women in 1985 discussing the merits of the microwave. Using “units consumed” as an indicator of value, no less! Is this an alternate reality?
I’ll admit, I’m not entirely sure what I’m watching here – particularly in the first half without subtitles. When you imagine the Soviet side of the Space Race presented to children, though, I doubt you imagine something this beautiful, colorful, and hopeful. The second half presents an inspiring vision of our future in space. Imagine where we’d be if we’d worked together on this back then.
The Cure’s First TV Appearance
Robert! Put on your long hair!
Is there any time that a live performance of “A Forest” isn’t a contender for the best part of your day?
This 1989 NBC show features a married couple who die in an accident, yet their ghosts live on in their house and they have to live with/around the living family that moved into their house after they died and only one member of the family can see them and it’s not Beetlejuice and somehow they still got away with it.
In the spirit of fairness, there are a few adjustments to the formula. Ghost Husband Grant (played by Eric Idle) was a professor in life, and his hoity-toity ways conflict with Living Husband Mike who’s an unrefined plumber.
The person who can see the ghost family is not the youngest member of the family (Derek, the super cool teenage babe-hound) but the oldest – curmudgeonly Grandpa Jack.
Jack hates Living Husband Mike, too, so he and Grant have some common ground. Also the Ghost couple can apparently leave the house without being devoured by sandworms.
Nearly Departed lasted all of four episodes before being cancelled. Two went unaired. Perhaps it was the too-obvious Beetlejuice draft, but I doubt it. It also directly claimed inspiration from the 1937 Cary Grant film Topper, so there’s at least some admission of its derivative nature. Instead, I think it’s that it just wasn’t very good. Eric Idle’s fine in it, and there are some good bits, but it’s just not very unique in any aspect. The plot lines are typical sitcom tropes and the premise doesn’t do anything to elevate the stories.
Also, why would this family have a bed that fit four people and cram into one side of it if they weren’t aware that there was a ghost family next to them? And why would Mike hug Grant and find something tangible at all?
Here’s an episode where Grandpa is tasked with babysitting babe-hound Derek, but instead goes off to play poker and leaves the ghosts in charge… hilarity!
This 1979 PSA instructs kids how to make a quick breakfast – a “quick fast”, if you will. I’m on board with the idea, but toast with cheese AND peanut butter? That’s weird, right?
Also, where does that bowling part fit in to all of this?
Pink Panther Flakes (1971)
I’ll take a piece of toast with cheese and peanut butter over whatever this garbage is supposed to be. It’s pretty bad when the commercial won’t even show you the cereal.
The vocal on the verse is pretty amazing, though.
Silent Running Trailer
They don’t make trailers like this any more. There’s something charming about the combination of the uneventful font, the deadpan narration, the blatant ‘this is what the movie is’ nature of the clips and the progression of the trailer’s narrative, and the circus-ringleader copy playing up the robots and Joan Baez.
MST3k Season 2 Promos
In honor of the recent release of Mystery Science Theater 3000 season 11(!) on Netflix, here are some promos announcing season 2. It’s pretty neat to see the promos reference TV’s Frank as the “new villain”. It’s also neat to see some of the Comedy Channel’s look and feel.
This 1986 VHS game envisioned a murder mystery set in the universe of Isaac Asimov’s Robot books. Loosely based on the book Caves of Steel, it’s an ambitious effort and carries a high production value – particularly for the mid-1980s, when so many were getting away with so much less.
Robots follows Detective Elijah Bailey, an Earthling, as he is assigned to the murder of a member of a rival faction, the Spacers. Was an Earthling behind the killing? A Spacer? A (gasp) robot? The Earthlings have their own robots, but they’re pretty crude. Sorry, really crude.
Bailey’s got 24 hours to solve the case before the Spacers destroy the Earth. Ok. He’s sent to “Old New Jersey”, a city that’s been modernized as a Spacer embassy on Earth, and is paired up with one of the Spacer robots, a much higher grade of production.
The sets of “Old New Jersey” are pretty impressive, for a mid-80’s production. They look positively ’90s!
Unlike some VHS games, there’s no fast-forwarding or rewinding around to different points of the tape to play the game. The story plays out pretty linearly, with prompts to pull clue cards at significant plot points throughout.
Depending on the clues selected, and your keen eye at noticing details during the episode, you either convict a legit criminal or an innocent person. There’s no video payoff, though – it’s all up to the cards at that point. The game box boasts 256 possible storylines, but that’s a stretch. There are really only a few outcomes, and the general consensus seems to be that there’s no replay value to this game. A shame, given the clear effort to make this a big production. Here’s the VHS:
And here’s an ad for the game:
Call me when there’s a Foundation VHS game.
(Seriously. Call me.)
The Prom: It’s A Pleasure (1961)
Coca-Cola sponsors this short film filled with instruction on how to properly prepare for and attend the high school prom. Who knew etiquette was so by-the-numbers? I have the feeling that any attempt to turn a high school prom into a formal cotillion generally ends in disappointment. Still, the film gives good general advice, like don’t give a flower corsage to a girl who’s got a dress with daisies on it. Tips that anybody can use.
Do NOT forget to say goodnight to the chaperones!
Polaris Nuclear Submarine
I’m fairly certain that this “Nuclear Sub” was little more than a pointed cardboard box, but I’d probably have fallen for this ad. “Controls That Work” is a particularly bold feature.
Evel Knievel Commercial
From the motorcycle to the drag racer to the skycycle, this is a pretty impressive array of Evel Knievel toys.
Batman & Superman Sesame Street Ad
On the surface, it’s interesting that Batman and Superman are promoting the premiere of Sesame Street. It’s charming – they hold up the CTW letters, they refer to themselves as stars. But, really, what are they watching? Themselves, promoting Sesame Street?
Those polls at the bottom of each Five Things post? This is why they’re there. Here are the top Five things of 2016, selected by a very unscientific combination of votes, comments, email feedback and good old personal bias. Looks like old TV shows were mostly what resonated with you guys this year. Me, too!
“ALF Loves a Mystery”, and I love an original fabric woven with characters and elements from a half-dozen different Saturday Morning shows. These things are the dream of the eighties, and this is probably one of the best of the bunch.
Hard to believe now, but there was a time when the TV itself didn’t offer a lot of information as to what was coming on so you had to consult print media to see what the viewing layout was for the evening. Alongside those programming guides were ads for prime time shows, just above and below the horoscope and Jumble puzzles. The Twin Peaks ads were uniformly fantastic, in both layout and tone.
Another failed show, but this one didn’t even make it past the pilot. In 1968 Irwin Allen sent future alien Tomo on a mission to then-present-day Earth, and then sold him out and attacked Earth, forcing Tomo to defend what was apparently his new homeland. Fantastic premise that never bore fruit. Yes, I blame Irwin Allen directly for Tomo’s misfortune.
and my personal favorite of 2016….
This series has taken up residence in my brain more than any other Thing I covered this year, and for good reason.
A farmboy who questions his reality just enough to trigger events that cause him to discover that he’s an astronaut on a generation ship that’s malfunctioned and is headed straight into a star, and that there are countless other pods of isolated societies on that generation ship, unaware of the existence of both the ship and of any other society? Sign me right up.
I seriously chew on this premise at least a few times a week. Unfortunately the reality of the show itself doesn’t shine as brightly as the idea going into it, but there’s a lot there to love.
And that’s 2016. For those of you who have read, commented, tweeted, sent me feedback, I can only say thank you. I’m delighted that someone out there gets as much of a kick out of these as I do. Happy New Year. More to come.
A guy in space, all by himself, broadcasting his thoughts on society to the people below. This thoughtful 1989 public television show celebrated nerd-dom long before it became cool to do so.
Prisoners of Gravity was hosted by comedian Rick Green. As the title sequence tells you, his character was sick of all of the bad news on Earth and launches himself into space. From his satellite he sends out a weekly transmission exploring all sorts of subjects in the science/technology/comic/fantasy realm.
Most episodes featured several interviews; they occupy the bulk of the show. Novelists, actors, comic book writers and illustrators were all given lengthy interviews conducted via satellite link from space. Thoughtful questions were raised and, particularly in Harlan Ellison’s case below, both sides of the coin were presented. Topics like first contact with aliens, the good and bad side of fandom, and questions like “Do you have to like science to like science fiction” are treated as actual discussion topics, not fluff, and Prisoners of Gravity deserves credit for creating a forum to discuss them pre-internet.
I can’t help but get an MST3k vibe from the ‘guy alone in space on TV’ premise, but the similarities end there. It’s its own thing and it’s clear in every aspect of the show that it was a labor of love. The show ran from 1989 to 1994, for five seasons, extending out into the US from season two onward. Then, for some reason, it was cancelled.
Here’s an episode. Harlan Ellison’s so salty in his segment! The sting of The Starlost probably never went away.
Virtual Boy Commercials
There’s one common thread in all of these commercials for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy: the fact that this console came from and transports people to an alien wasteland devoid of life or enjoyment, fraught with conflict. Why would we bring this thing to Earth?
1980s General Foods International Coffee Magazine Ad
I love the horizontal placement of the different flavors along the bottom. See? Earth’s doing just fine without the Virtual Boy.
Star Phone 10,000
This plays like a parody commercial from Saturday Night Live. The guy even looks a little like Phil Hartman. The “features” that this phone has!
Now I miss Phil Hartman.
Phil Harman Bloopers
Now I miss him even more. The one with Phil and Jan in the bar. Oof.
This 1974 kids’ show from Detroit has a little bit Muppet, a little bit Pinwheel, and a little bit Great Space Coaster all lumped together.
Originally hosted by comic Arte Johnson, Hot Fudge featured humans interacting with puppets (called “Mits”), lots of music, and segments where kids narrate things out in the real world. Johnson was replaced by Larry Santos and Seymour the hip, green puppet after the first season, and continued to host through the rest of the series.
For every neat thing about this show – the groovy star power, the typography, the sweet lessons – there seems to be something that didn’t age well. The songs aren’t great for the most part, the human puppets are difficult to look at, and the production just feels flat at times compared to other kids’ shows from that era. Still, it’s impressive for what it is – a local Detroit production gone national, and it’s certainly unique. And I’m nuts for the design and fonts used.
Here’s an episode:
2. Fifth Element Concept Art
Iamag’s got some stunning concept art from The Fifth Element up. I’m a sucker for this stuff, and it’s remarkable to see how close the movie came to some of these concepts! Hit the link for more, but here are some of my favorites.
3. Breakin’ and Poppin’
Before he was Carlton, Alfonso Ribeiro was Ricky Schroeder’s super-hip pal in Silver Spoons. He was a pretty hot item back in 1985 – he did a killer Michael Jackson impersonation complete with moonwalk. His breakdancing was remarkable, too; so remarkable that someone thought it’d be a good idea to package him up and put a price tag on it. Here’s a commercial for his video, “Breakin’ and Poppin'”.
It even comes with a foldout cardboard mat!
4. Alvin and the Chipmunks
This mid-’80s magazine ad for Alvin and the Chipmunks toys takes me back. I had the stuffed Alvin in the middle there, and took him everywhere with me. He’s in a box in my 2-year-old’s closet right now, and I’m still debating whether he’ll ever get to touch him.
Collect all the cute and WHAT? Unfortunately, I could only find page one of this two page ad.
5. How Long
It’s hard to describe my feelings for this. This looks like a parody video of a 1975 hit song, but it’s real and it’s terrific. I almost wish it were a parody though.
This is pretty great. A 1973 Sci-Fi series created by Harlan Ellison, The Starlost has a fun premise and a lot of promise. Unfortunately, it fell pretty far from its original intentions and we’re left with a 16-episode glimmer of what might have been.
The Starlost follows Devon, a young man raised in a farming community who questions the truths he’s been taught.
He discovers that the leader of their community is faking the voice of their God, and when he tries to expose him is forced to escape. With the help of one of the older residents of the community, he’s shown a tunnel through which to flee.
The tunnel turns out to be an industrial hallway, with technology that borders on magical.
Devon comes across a computer that looks like one of Dana Carvey’s characters from The Master of Disguise, and he learns the real scoop: his community is one of several biospheres aboard an ark which departed a dying Earth 500 years ago. There was an accident 100 years into the voyage, and the ark got off course and became lost. For the past 400 years the ark has been on a collision course with a sun, and Devon learns that someone needs to go to the bridge to correct the problem.
He returns to his community to tell them what he’s seen, but is immediately gagged and imprisoned. He escapes with the help of his friend and takes his girlfriend who is engaged to his friend who helped him escape (it’s complicated) back into the belly of the ship. The friend follows them to bring his fiancee back, and the trio comes together at the bridge to find the crew long dead.
The bridge empty, the entire future of humanity on a collision course with a star, and a host of unique environments attached to the ship to explore and search for clues. Pretty great setup for a series, right? Well, here’s the thing: the show is slow. Really slow. They started with a new approach to filming, a way of matching an actor’s movements on a bluescreen with simultaneous camera-tracking on a model set, but that didn’t pan out. As a result, the bluescreen technology that is there is pretty obvious. There are good design ides, but poor implementation – the result of the original camera technique falling through as well as other budget cuts. Ellison went on record as citing budget cuts as the reason his original story was dumbed down for the series. Bit by bit, it added up to a less-than-ideal show.
But it still has charm. See for yourself.
From the same folks who made The Crystal Tower, Interceptor was a 1989 game show that takes two contestant, gives them two locked briefcases, blindfolds them, sends them to remote locations via helicopter, and tasks them with finding the keys to each others briefcases and meeting up to unlock them. Also there’s someone chasing them the entire time: The Interceptor.
One of the two briefcases contained $1000; the other contained weights. Each briefcase had five infrared targets on them, and the Interceptor had twenty ‘bullets’ that he could use to take the targets out. If they were all taken out, the case couldn’t be opened.
Here’s an episode.
3. Space Puppets
A beautiful ad for some spacey hand puppets…
4. Weebles Commercial
…and a beautiful commercial from the 1970s for those weirdly compelling Weebles dolls.
5. Nerds Plushes
I have to admit, I spent a lot of time as a kid convincing myself that the sugar nuggets inside of the Nerds boxes did resemble the characters on the outside.
1. Otherworld – This short-lived sci-fi series ran for three months in 1985 on CBS. It sits in the bucket of failed 1970s and 1980s science fiction shows, but like many of them it’s kind of charming and has a fun idea.
While in Egypt, the Sterling family takes a tour of the Great Pyramid of Giza during a celestial event in which several planets are in alignment. Somehow this transports them to another world.
The family stops an officer to ask for help, but it turns out this world’s got a crazy class structure and all of the provinces are closed off from each other and no travel’s allowed. The officer (actually Commander Kroll, a real bad dude) treats them belligerently and in the ensuing scuffle is shot by the Sterling son. Interesting note: Kroll’s played by TV’s Jonathan Banks, better known as Mike from Breaking Bad.
The family takes Kroll’s transport into the city, where they cheese some papers and get indoctrinated into society. It’s clear that this society is far advanced from where 1985 Earth was, and it turns out for good reason – they’re all androids. There’s a radiation present that affects the human Sterlings and nobody else, and they end up having to leave the colony and set out on the road for answers. It’s not an easy departure, what with Kroll on their trail, but they make it out and pave the way for a glorious series of discovery and fun.
Or 8 episodes.
The world, Thel, is actually pretty interesting. There’s high technology, a totalitarian religious government, and myriad isolated zones each with their own culture, technology and customs. The production is no slouch either, there’s decent effects and good set design and fashion.
It seems like a fertile ground for a science fiction series, but apparently it just wasn’t in the cards. Here’s the pilot episode. It’s actually pretty fun!
2. Partridge Family, 2200 A.D. – If the Bradys did it, you know the Partridges couldn’t be far behind.
This animated series aired on CBS in 1974, and looking at it I have to admit that I gave The Brady Kids too hard a time. They at least had a somewhat inventive premise; Partridge Family, 2200 A.D. is just a Jetsons ripoff. Seriously, they made this series instead of making a teenaged-Elroy version of Jetsons.
Here’s the intro; episodes are a little harder to find. Still kind of catchy, no?
3. Buster Sales – Thrill as a teenage Blockbuster Video employee is taught to recognize and make the most of sales opportunities by a creepy guy trapped in a video monitor!
Remember all those tapes?
4. Pizza Hut Back to the Future – Pizza Hut was a pretty big licensing partner for Back to the Future II‘s theatrical release. They had a pretty nifty set of sunglasses you’d get with a purchase. They also had this over-the-top futuristic commercial. Now that we’re out of 2015, I can safely say they were way off base.
5. Howard Johnson’s Commercial – Meanwhile, in a simpler time, Howard Johnsons just wanted to sell fried clams to children.
Here are the most viewed, voted, and commented-on Things from the past year. There’s a pretty great mix here of corporate cheese, baffling games, retrofuturism, and Leonard Nimoy; it provides a good glimpse of the scope of the Timid Futures embrace. Here we go, in reverse order…
#5 – How Nuclear Radiation Can Change Our Race –Mechanix Illustrated gave us this chilling look at an impossible future back in 1953.
The article links our inevitable nuclear doom with a rapid and widespread mutation that splinters the human race. The new race loses a toe but gains much more: height and head-size. And because of their larger heads and the presumably larger brains within those heads, they may have intellect and powers far beyond our own. We will either be enslaved by them, hunt them down and exterminate them, be hunted down and exterminated by them, or learn to work together. Yes, the article lists every possible outcome of a society with two similar races.
#4 – Windows 95 Training Video – When producing the world’s first Cyber-Sitcom, Microsoft dug a hand into the ‘what’s working’ bucket of the day and plucked out Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston. It was a reasonable move, I guess, but I can’t see how this worked out well for anybody involved.
Aniston and Perry are brought into Bill Gates’ office to audition for a Windows 95 training video. Meta enough for you? What follows are a lot of stereotypes, a ton of dad jokes, some distorted views of what “cool” kids those days were like, and a lot of delicious cheese.
#2 – Dune Activity Books – With activities like “Weigh the Big Baron” and “Color The Dead Guys”, the Dune activity books are right up any child’s alley. Pretty sure this is exactly what Frank Herbert intended for his series.
#1 – Magnavision – Finally, here’s a meeting between Leonard Nimoy and the space rock that has bestowed laserdisc technology upon our species.
This is a really beautiful example of Nimoy’s seemingly “up-for-anything-ness” when it comes to selling things in a sci-fi light. That’s not a dig; I genuinely love whenever he used a vague Spock association to sell anything.
This one’s not so vague.
Have you seen that episode of Futurama where Leela speaks with Nibbler for the first time and spends the whole scene paraphrasing what Nibbler’s saying for the audience? This whole video is basically that. It’s great.
That’s… that. It’s been a great year, and I want to thank you all for your likes, comments, and emails about all of this stuff. I’ve got some fun stuff in store for 2016, and I really look forward to sharing it with all of you. Happy New Year!