About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Tor.com that generated more comments than any other essay I have contributed to the site in my seven years here. I wish I could say the article was a cogent reevaluation of a classic novel, or a groundbreaking exploration of the craft of writing. It was, instead, a summary of what might be the lowest form of entertainment, at least when I was growing up: the made-for-TV movie.
At the time, I described the TV movie as “a cynical example of pop culture debris.” That may have been too kind.
To that, I added:
Ubiquitous, cheaply made, heavily advertised then quickly forgotten, the TV movie reached its peak in the mid-’90s, when over 250 were released by the major networks in a single year. Many were failed TV pilots filling in the slots amid the summer reruns. Some were sequels that no one asked for (High Noon, Part II, anyone?). But most of them were mysteries, family dramedies, or issue-of-the-day dramas.
The disappointment in a TV movie always tripled when that “film” fell into the science fiction or fantasy category. As a kid, I often felt tricked by the breathless, relentless commercials promising a thrill ride, and it took me a while to lower my expectations. To the floor. The ocean floor.
To be fair, some TV movies achieved lasting greatness, including The Day After (1983), a drama about nuclear war so harrowing that it compelled the White House to reconsider its policies. But that gem sinks in an ocean of junk, ranging from terrible to unoriginal to flat-out bizarre.
So here are six more made-for-TV movies that you may have missed. Or blocked out.
KIϟϟ Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)
It’s hard to imagine a movie more reviled by its own creators than KIϟϟ Meets the Phantom of the Park. In 1978, at the height of KIϟϟ’s fame, someone had the brilliant idea of making a whimsical adventure in which the rock band becomes a team of superheroes battling an evil scientist who has created a technology that can control people’s minds. The final result produces an endless string of headscratchers. Gene Simmons breathes fire. Ace Frehley can teleport. The band has a fistfight with some Universal monsters. And of course the film ends with KIϟϟ reunited on stage to perform a concert for their adoring fans.
Multiple sources claim that KIϟϟ has not only disowned the film, but has forbidden anyone associated with them from even mentioning it. The shoot was reportedly chaotic, with certain band members failing to show up, and the cast being fed their lines on set rather than reading and rehearsing them ahead of time. As a result, nearly every frame of this film has something wrong with it, from wooden acting to sloppy effects to poor dubbing. All of that helps to explain why only a handful of fragments can be found on YouTube.
UFO Kidnapped (1984)
In 1985, when I was seven years old, my parents finally gave in and made the switch to cable TV. As soon as we got it set up, my brother and I changed the channel to Nickelodeon, which was airing an episode of You Can’t Do That on Television. My parents looked at each other and thought, what have we done? YCDTOT was a long-running sketch show from Canada, with smart-aleck kids pulling pranks and talking back to the hapless grownups in their lives—including the directors and producers who ran the show, in a sort of meta-commentary. We loved it.
If you watched enough Nickelodeon in the 1980s, you may have come across UFO Kidnapped, which featured some of the cast of You Can’t Do That, including longtime comedy veteran Les Lye. Even at the time, I thought that the plot may have been written by a twelve-year-old. Two brothers are abducted by a flying saucer one night, and must go on a zero-budget Flash Gordon-style quest to find their way home. To do that, they must outwit aliens and escape a dungeon with the help of the quirky allies they meet along the way. If you ever tried to recreate Star Wars with a Fisher-Price video camera, it could not have looked much worse than this. Still, any content with kids going on adventures was a winner with me back then, so I gave it my full attention. (Then again, I also thought that the ending to the video game Double Dragon was the pinnacle of human culture.)
Babes in Toyland (1986)
The operetta Babes in Toyland by Victor Herbert has spawned numerous adaptations over the years, including one starring Laurel and Hardy. I can’t blame a major network for giving it a try. The story is simple enough: a dastardly villain wants to rule the magical Toyland, and a team of fanciful characters tries to stop him. This 1986 version introduces a Wizard of Oz element to the plot, with a girl from our world magically transported to Toyland, where she meets fantastical counterparts of the people she knows back home.
It’s not enough to say that this movie is bad. In some of the wide shots, Toyland looks more like a run-down theme park, with costumes straight from the bargain bin at Halloween Adventure. The filmmakers did not seem to consider who their target audience might be. The main characters—played by Drew Barrymore(!) and Keanu Reeves(!!!)—act as if they are far younger than they actually are, which is always annoying. As it’s based on an operetta, Babes in Toyland is a musical, though almost all of the songs are original. That means that Pat Morita and Richard Mulligan get to sing, which is, as the kids like to say, a choice. And the first song (performed by Keanu!) is about the wonders of Cincinnati, Ohio.
When done well, movies for children can be wonderful for viewers of all ages. This, however, is an abomination.
Given our current glut of Marvel and DC content, it’s hard to imagine the near total absence of superhero movies and TV shows in the mid-1980s. The Incredible Hulk had been canceled, the Superman series had gone stale, and we were still a few years away from Tim Burton’s Batman. So, when The Magical World of Disney promised a legit superhero movie, complete with garish superhero font, it became appointment viewing for me.
I-Man is not exactly bizarro. It is, instead, a paint-by-numbers origin story, made at a time when few studios (including Disney) were willing to fully commit to a pulpy comic book story. The main character never gets a costume, and the name “I-Man” is never said out loud, though it’s made clear that the “I” stands for “indestructible.” That said, fans of Deadpool might enjoy the protagonist Jeffrey Wilder, played by sci-fi veteran Scott Bakula. Wilder has the ability to heal from virtually any wound, but he can still feel pain. This leads to some genuinely funny moments, like when our hero whines about his favorite shirt getting ruined by a smoking bullet hole. And in keeping with its provenance in the 1980s, there are some good car stunts, including a climactic chase with Wilder hanging onto the roof of a vehicle, T.J. Hooker-style!
War of the Worlds (1988)
The 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds adapted the novel by H.G. Wells to the era of pulp science fiction and “little green men.” Instead of lumbering tripod contraptions, the Martians attacked in swanlike flying saucers—easily one of the coolest spaceships ever designed.
I will never forget the surreal commercial that started playing in 1988, in which the Martians “take over” the television signal to warn us that our victory in 1953 was merely a setback to their grand conquest of Earth. “We never left!” the voiceover growls, right before promising a movie event that will continue the story. Okay, I thought. You want to make a sequel to a 35-year-old classic? Bring it.
The idea for this movie strains credulity, though I give the writing team points for trying. A group of scientists discovers that the Martians, rather than dying from infectious disease, have merely gone into a state of deep hibernation. The government, eager to exploit the alien technology, hides the bodies and mothballs the remaining saucers. All of that is slowly and predictably revealed over the course of a ninety-minute “film.” There is a satisfying action sequence at the end, when the good guys manage to detonate a bomb inside of a saucer right before it can deploy its dreaded heat ray. But it takes forever to get there.
This served as the pilot for a very strange and uneven syndicated TV show, in which the Martians become capable of taking over human bodies, thereby seizing control of the government. The scientists from the pilot build an underground resistance to the Martians. By the time the show was canceled, few of the original actors were still on it, and the tone of the show had changed so many times, from campy alien invasion to government espionage story to bleak post-apocalyptic action. That it stayed on the air for two seasons is perhaps a testament to how little competition it faced in syndication.
Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt (2003)
Let’s go out on a positive note, with a rare example of a TV movie that tries and mostly succeeds in creating something new and fun.
Over 35 years after the debut of the classic live action Batman series, Return to the Batcave is a reunion of Adam West, Burt Ward, and other actors from the show. Rather than merely retelling the story of how the series was made, Return sets up a zany Batman-style adventure, in which West and Ward try to find the villain who stole the Batmobile from a charity event. On the way, they reminisce about the old days, with flashbacks filling in the story of the show, from its conception to its cancellation and long afterlife.
The scenes set in the 21st century may appeal only to hardcore fans of the old series. West is essentially playing Bruce Wayne as a senior citizen, and there’s a running joke in which he is the only one who can hear the voiceover speaking. He also deploys some great deadpan meta lines, like “We’ll take my car—it’s already been established.” And there’s a fight scene between the old guys and some henchmen, punctuated with Biff! and Ka-Pow! flashing on the screen.
While I watched all of that with a silly grin on my face, I recall enjoying the flashbacks even more. The actors who play young Adam and Burt (Jack Brewer and Jason Marsden) are perfect in their roles. And the script has some refreshing honesty to it, as it reveals how these young men were occasionally jerks to each other, which made them feel like real people to me. Plus, we get all of the cute anecdotes, like the story behind Cesar Romero’s Joker mustache, the on-set food fight with Vincent “Egghead” Price, and the ongoing debate about how “inappropriate” the Robin costume was.
Shame on you if you’re not Googling this right now.
Please, share with us in the comments the TV movies that still plague your memories. Perhaps we can help each other remember the ones that aired only once and then vanished.
Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press, and occasionally teaches for the Gotham Writers Workshop. Repino is the author of the middle grade novel Spark and the League of Ursus (Quirk Books), as well as the War With No Name series (Soho Press), which includes Mort(e), Culdesac, D’Arc, and Malefactor.