Thursday, February 09, 2012

CULT TV FLASHBACK #149: Knight Rider: K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R. (November 4, 1984)

"I've never seen so many people so crazy over a car..."

- Knight Rider: "K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R."

I don't know exactly what it is about "evil twins," but cult television programs certainly love them, don't they?  Perhaps it's just a matter of production exigencies. It's cheaper to feature a lead actor as an "evil" version of himself than hire an expensive guest star, I suppose.

Or perhaps, on a psychological level, we are all just fascinated by the concept of an evil twin.  Two brothers (or sisters), both from one family.  But one is twisted and evil while the other is heroic and good.  Maybe we cherish this trope, subconsciously, because it helps to explain our own unique families of origins. 

Me?  I'm the good one.  But my brother?  He's pure evil.  He took all the lessons my father and mother taught us...and twisted them for EVIL!

Data (Brent Spiner) the android has an evil twin, Lore, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).  The witch, Samantha Stephens has a troublesome "cousin," Serena (Elizabeth Montgomery) on Bewitched (1964 - 1972), and so on. 

So, I suppose it's inevitable that the talking car on Glen Larson's Knight Rider (1982 - 1986), K.I.T.T. (William Daniels) -- the "Knight Industries Two Thousand" -- would also have an evil automative twin, the deep-voiced, malicious K.A.R.R (Paul Frees).

As Lore is to Data, so is K.A.R.R. (Knight Automoted Roving Robot) to K.I.T.T.: An early, unstable prototype eventually de-activated by its creator, Wilton Knight (rather than Noonien Soong) for safety reasons

In the first season Knight Rider episode "Trust Doesn't Rust," the morally-challenged K.A.R.R. is
discovered in storage and re-activated by a pair of crooks, who then utilize the "evil" Trans Am for a crime spree.  Knight Rider's hero, the jocular Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) outwits K.A.R.R. in a game of chicken, and sends the evil twin plunging down off a cliff into the ocean (apparently re-using stock footage from The Car [1977]).

In season three's "K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R." there's a re-match between these 1982 Pontiac Trans Am titans.   Round two commences when pair of beach combers, John (Jeffrey Osterhage) and Mandy (Jennifer Holmes), discover that K.A.R.R. is perfectly operational, only buried in the sand.  They use their truck to excavate the car, and soon K.A.R.R. is attempting to enlist John in all manners of criminal activity.   He damages the pace-maker of John's employer so John can take ownership of his company.  And then K.A.R.R. uses his programming to steal money from a new-fangled ATM machine.

Meanwhile, Michael (Hasselhoff), K.I.T.T. (Daniels), Bonnie (Patricia McPherson) and Devon (Edward Mulhare) are understandably concerned that K.A.R.R. is back on the scene.  Michael worries because K.A.R.R. -- admittedly just a very intelligent machine -- seems to "corrupt everyone he touches."

Bonnie believes she has a solution to the K.A.R.R. dilemma.  She wants to install new lasers on K.I.T.T.  "I can double its penetration!" she enthuses, a suggestive line of dialogue played absolutely straight but which cheekily reinforces the widely-acknowledged love relationship that exists between mankind and his cars.

Unfortunately, K.A.R.R. launches a frontal assault on the Knight Industry rolling laboratory (in the back of a truck) and steals the penetrating lasers from Bonnie in an impressive and unexpected action sequence.

Finally, Michael and K.I.T.T. play another game of chicken with K.A.R.R. and once more, K.A.R.R. seems destroyed.  Miraculously, K.I.T.T. himself is completely unscathed after a mid-air, turbo-boosted, head-on collision, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  K.A.R.R. just sort of explodes into debris, but you'd think both cars would suffer equal damage.

"K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R." motors along at about seventy-five miles an hour, juiced by an unfettered delight in its own silliness.  The writing isn't exactly bad so much as droll, or cheeky.  It looks like everyone, especially David Hasselhoff, is having fun, and the dialogue is filled with zingers.  "I'll bet George Lucas drives one of these things," says John, getting behind K.A.R.R.'s steering wheel.

When I was a kid, I watched Knight Rider religiously on Friday nights.  And the episodes with oversized, science fictional-type threats (such as K.A.R.R., or the truck, Goliath), were always my favorites.  Tales of  Michael and K.I.T.T. putting away small-time crooks just didn't appeal to me. But whenever those evil twins -- and Michael also had an evil twin, named Garth, if I recall -- rolled out, I was hooked.

Today, "K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R." seems a bit simplistic and a bit silly, but it hasn't lost one iota of fun.  I don't know why the Michael/K.I.T.T. relationship (sort of a Kirk/Spock type of thing) remains so vital, but it does.  As William Jeanes wrote in The Saturday Evening Post last year: "Cars are like clothing. Life would go on without them, but it wouldn’t be the same. To someone like me, who has always believed that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess, it seems only right that we live in a nation with more cars than drivers. A preponderance of Americans agrees with me, which is why we as a country have carried on a 125-year love affair with the automobile."

I suspect that, not-too secretly, we all desire a talking car as a friend, one as loyal and smart as K.I.T.T.  One who can keep us company as we get from Point A to Point B.  And that the car should actually believe he is superior than us -- while simultaneously learning the rules of human relationships -- just makes the friendship all the sweeter.  Why aren't we all driving talking cars, today?

Nostalgia plays a big part in my fondness for Knight Rider.   The series is like a time capsule of 1980s fashions and pop tunes.   I've watched a few episodes on a DVD compilation called "Best of the 1980s" and you can get the gist of every episode while reading a magazine, doing your taxes, or solving algaebric equations.  There's nothing too mentally taxing here, yet the show is undeniably fun.

Of course, if you'll pardon the expression, your mileage may vary...


  1. I never could stand the evil twin gambit. With the exception of "Mirror, Mirror," no one could ever come up with a plausible explanation for the evil twin's existence. To me, it was one of those lazy fall back plans when the writers couldn't think of anything else.

    Having said that, I suppose having an early prototype of an unsafe KITT might make sense. I just don't know why you wouldn't dismantle it. "This car is extremely unsafe. Let's park it in the garage so someone can take it out for a spin later."

    Of course, dissecting Knight Rider is a futile exercise since the show was ridiculous from the get-go. I can understand kids enjoying it, but I was already in college by the time it premiered, so I only watched it to riff on it MST3K style. I can remember my friend saying, "David Hasselhoff went the to Elvis Presley School of Acting."

    Oh well, to each his own. I could never successfully justify my love of "Viva Knievel."

  2. Hi Neal P.

    I agree with you about the evil twin trope. It rarely works, though I guess there are some cases where it makes sense.

    I also feel the same way about Knight Rider. If you substract the nostalgia factor from the series, it's just not very good. The K.I.T.T./Michael relationship/banter is just about the only distinction the series boasts, but most of the time the program is mired in dull cop show cliches.


  3. Great to see a little retro Larson coverage here.

    I'm a sucker for anything with a roving red light for an eye! ;)

    I defintiely know what you mean on being not overly taxing on the brain.

    I was watching a little of The Incredible Hulk last night and the same thing. Nostalgic and good fun but not incredibly hard to follow or challenging. Bixby, like this car or the relationship with Michael, was the real highlight whenever he took the screen.

    It's fascinating to see how television has evolved and gotten more complex as far as satisfying expectations. Amazing shows like Star Trek and Space:1999 managed to be as thoughtful and interesting as they were for their time. hope all is well.

  4. Anonymous11:39 AM

    The Evil Twin thing is fun and entertaining. There may be someting to it too. I have twin girls, so I can relate maybe more than others.

  5. George9:53 AM

    Great post as usual John. We're the same age and I loved Knight Rider the first few seasons. That, along with A-team were must watch shows to be discussed the next day in school or on the block. I remember Knight rider and Dukes of hazzard on Friday, Buck Rogers on Thursday and A-team was Tuesdays I believe? I'm still a sucker for the evil twin premise too. Whether evil twin, or evil counterpart ala Bizarro or reverse Flash, I've always enjoyed those types of stories. When feeling blue or stressed out, I find myself popping in dvds of the above mentioned shows to bring me back to a simpler time. I recently bought Knight rider season 1 and it seems every 80s show had the same plots. Whether evil twin, evil sherrif in small town, local carnival having trouble, and "rock" episode were either the star of the show sings or a guest starring B level pop act of the time like Laura Branigan. Keep up the great work!

  6. Hi folks,

    SFF: I'm all for the retro-Glen Larson coverage, here, my friend. Knight Rider is nostalgic for me, but yes, hardly taxing mentally at all. It makes you realize how good Star Trek or Space:1999 really are. Those shows are filled with great ideas and concepts. Knight Rider is entertaining, but not exactly cerebral, which is probably why it was such a hit.

    Anonymous: There is something to the evil twin thing, I agree, otherwise it wouldn't be such a long-lasting and common feature in cult tv, I'm sure. Given twins of your own, your perspective does make me curious...

    George: Oh man, those were the days! I remember those nights of prime time television well. I watched all of those shows too, avidly.

    I relax with classic cult tv too. It goes down nice, and brings back warm, happy memories of the 1970s and 1980s, to be sure.

    Thank you for saying I'm doing good work here. I appreciate the support.


  7. Funny you should mention the Best of the 80's Knight Rider compilation dvd - I just bought that a few months ago actually. It has all the best episodes in 1 cheap set: the pilot, both K.A.R.R. episodes, Goliath, and a couple others.

    Myself, I felt the same as you. I got bored sometimes with the small-time crook episodes, though K.I.T.T. was always awesome. K.A.R.R. and Goliath were the best.

  8. John and George: Don't forget "CHIPs," too!

    John: the evil twin concept worked for me on the Star Trek TOS "The Enemy Within."

    I liked the dynamic between Michael and KITT, but for me it's as much Wallace and Grommit as Kirk and Spock. A more sensible foil for the slightly foolhardy protagonist.

    You make a good point about guys and their cars: for many guys, their car is their best friend, and Knight Rider just illustrated that literally. Of course, one could argue that, in having a talking household object, Knight Rider anticipated the Disney "Beauty and the Beast" by nine years! Speaking of musicals, here's a bit of trivia: William Daniels, the voice of KITT, played John Adams in the original stage show and film of "1776."