• June 16, 2024


The Eighties were a golden era for science-fiction. Cineplexes were chockablock with blockbusters like The Empire Strikes BackBack to the FutureAliens and The Terminator. On the small screen, you could get your space fix with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sitcoms had aliens and androids as their stars in ALF and Small Wonder. Even the cars could talk on Knight Rider.

Of course, not everything was a hit. For every smash, there were scores of knock-offs. Every network attempted to launch its own time travel adventure, it seems. While these shows rarely made it to a second season, they remain cult favorites of those who watched them. They might have thrived today, in our geek culture of a thousand options.

Let’s see if any of these set off your memory sensors.


Hard Time on Planet Earth (1989)

Martin Kove, the sinister Cobra Kai sensei in the Karate Kid movies, headlined as the hero in this short-lived cult series from Disney. He played an alien military commander who is exiled to earth after an interplanetary war. Alongside him was a floating robot with a dry wit, Control. Somewhat like Quantum Leap, the pair traveled America (including a stop at Disneyland, naturally) helping those in need.

Image: Disney-ABC Domestic Television


Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987–88)

Essentially, this syndicated show knocked off the flash-forward dystopian scenes in The Terminator. A hundred years from now, intelligent machines have subjugated the human race. Captain Jonathan Power and his soldiers fight back against the robots, with lasers. It was mostly an attempt to sell toys, as Mattel launched a line of Captain Power action figures. But the children’s show found its true nemesis when parents complained about its excessive violence.

Image: Landmark Entertainment Group


The Highwayman (1987–88)

Sam J. Jones already had a table reserved for him at Comic Cons thanks to his role as Flash Gordon in the hit 1980 film. Seven years later, he was more of a Mad Max type in The Highwayman, a ten-episode wonder set in the near future. The Highwayman cruised the roads in a massive, black truck, stuffed with computers, some of which were recycled from Knight Rider.

Image: The Everett Collection


Werewolf (1987)

Chuck Connors, the tough-as-nails star of MeTV favorite The Rifleman, worked one of his final regular roles in this early Fox Network horror series. By 1987, Connors was no stranger to darker roles, as he turned to playing fantastic villains and horror baddies in the 1970s. The chilling synthesizer score and smoky atmosphere made it a solid piece of ’80s genre television for those still giddy from the “Thriller” video.

Image: The Everett Collection


Starman (1986)

John Carpenter’s wonderful 1984 science-fiction classic Starman launched Jeff Bridges into… well, superstardom, earning him an Oscar nomination. Two years later, ABC adapted the premise into a series, ripping out the romance and replacing Bridges with Robert Hays, best known as Ted Striker from the farcical Airplane! Needless to say, the tinkering ruined the formula.

Image: The Everett Collection


Misfits of Science (1985–86)

A favorite of ours from the era, Misfits of Science centered around a team of superhumans, not unlike the X-Men or Runaways. Courtney Cox was the telekinetic teen. Mark Thomas Miller, a hunky former Van Halen bodyguard, played a rock musician with electrical powers. The towering 7′ 2″ Kevin Peter Hall, who also portrayed “Harry” in Harry and the Hendersons, could shrink himself. A brilliant, bold opening title sequence introduced this irreverent, forward-looking show for the MTV generation. It lasted 16 episodes, alas.

Image: The Everett Collection


Shadow Chasers (1985–86)

A stuffy British anthropologist partners with a cocky tabloid reporter as agents of the Paranormal Research Unit, headed by Dr. Julianna Moorhouse. Together, they looked Ron Reagan starring as Marty McFly in an episode of Murder, She Wrote. ABC threw the series to the lions, putting it up against The Cosby Show and Magnum, P.I. The network had Ron Howard proclaiming, “Shadow Chasers can make you feel like a kid again!” in promos. They didn’t work.

Image: The Everett Collection


Otherworld (1985)

A sort of cross of Lost in Space and Stargate, this action series built an elaborate world. A family touring the Great Pyramid of Giza is thrown into a parallel universe, where humans are divided into strictly defined “zones” and androids mine for a radioactive material called “sarlax.” Jonathan Banks (“Mike” of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) was the big baddie, Commander Kroll, who hunts the family for revenge. From the Mad Max motorcyles to the young daughter playing drums, the synth-heavy opening is perhaps the 1980s-est sequence you will ever see.

Image: Universal Television


V: The Series (1984–85)

Perhaps it only worked as a miniseries. After V (1983) and V: The Final Battle (1984) drew in millions of viewers, NBC green-lit a full series of the alien invasion epic. Only, it ended up being another miniseries, of sorts, as only 19 episodes were produced. Part of the problem was the cost, a whopping million bucks an episode, making it the most expensive show on television at the time.

Image: Warner Bros. Television


Automan (1984)

Clearly, some television executive saw Tron with his kid and thought, “Let’s build a show around those awesome glowing costumes.” Hey, some action series have been built upon flimsier premises, especially in the 1980s. Here, Desi Arnaz Jr. played a computer programming cop who builds a holographic man, “Automan,” who springs forth from the digital world to fight crime at night. A dozen episodes aired before the plug was pulled on poor Automan.

Image: The Everett Collection


Benji, Zax & The Alien Prince (1983)

“The Alien Prince” had nothing to do with the guy who made Purple Rain, but you are forgiven for thinking that this show might have something to do with that Prince, because stuff like that happened in the 1980s. No, the Prince here was Yubi, the kid in the picture, who escaped an uprising on his home planet Antars with his droid pal, Zax. (Zax was a bit like a mix of Jinx from Space Camp and Orko from He-Man, for those who know their ’80s references.) Of course, Benji was the same ol’ lovable dog. Well, not the same dog. The original Benji actor, Higgins, the pooch seen in Petticoat Junction was dead by 1983, after a long, wonderful life of 17 years. His daughter, Benjean starred as Benji in this, the only Benji television series. It lasted 13 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection


Manimal (1983)

The crime-solving adventures of a shape-shifting man, Manimal was pure, delicious 1980s cheese. It opened with the roar of a panther, but William Conrad, the legendary actor best known for Cannon and the Gunsmoke radio program, was the real beast behind the microphone, providing uncredited narration for the action hour.

Image: 20th Century Fox Television


The Powers of Matthew Star (1982–83)

Peter Barton starred alongside Lou Gossett, Jr., in this 1982 superhero series. Production began in 1981, though was put on hold after Barton fell onto a pyrotechnics flare, suffering severe third degree burns. Production was shut down, as the actor healed for several months in a hospital. Barton had edged Tom Cruise for the lead role, an alien prince hiding out in high school on earth. Star Trek fans take note: Leonard Nimoy directed an episode, and Walter Koenig wrote one.

Image: The Everett Collection


Voyagers! (1982–83)

Child star Meeno Peluce was the bookish history expert aiding the time-traveling Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum) in this lighthearted adventure. Though Bogg was the time traveler, he was not the best student and far more interested in blondes. Thus, he needed to rely on the precocious kid to navigate through history.

Image: The Everett Collection


The Phoenix (1982)

Ancient aliens are a trendy subject for modern sci-fi, from shows on the History Channel to those recent Ridley Scott Alien prequels. But the concept has been done before, briefly. Judson Scott, who at the time was best known to sci-fi fans as the main henchman of Khan in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, starred Bennu of the Golden Light, an ancient alien awoken from a sarcophagus in Peru. He seeks his companion and lover, Mira. This show, too, traces its ideas back to Chariots of the Gods?, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken that posited the whole ancient aliens idea.

Image: The Everett Collection

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