Can we talk about Knight Rider’s premise for a minute?
But, even with a key point like that as part of the premise, the rest of the show has to make sense. With that in mind, let’s apply some inexplicably-timed scrutiny to the rest of the core tenets of the Knight Rider story.
Here’s the deal: An undercover police officer named Michael Long is trying to bust some bad guys. He may be a police lieutenant, but he’s actually spent half a year in the field. And, by “field,” I mean posing as part of a security detail for a chemical company in an attempt to prevent industrial espionage. At least I think that’s what’s going on. Something within hailing distance of that is definitely happening. We don’t need to get bogged down in details, nerds.
The important part is that this plan goes to hell within the first few minutes of the series, resulting in the following:
1. Michael Long’s friend and partner Muntzie (posing as an electrician) gets gunned down in the parking lot of the hotel by a security expert named Gray, played by the always-evil Lance LeGault. Gray is operating under orders of another guy named Fred Wilson, who was posing as an employee of the chemical company. Despite the fact that this is part of a six-month police investigation, there are no nearby cops ready to apprehend Muntzie’s murderer, leaving it up to Michael Long to take Gray and the others down solo. Meanwhile, Muntzie lies bleeding to death in the middle of the Circus Circus parking lot, with no medical personnel or law enforcement in sight. We’re off to a great start.
2. Long pursues the bad guys, but one of the executives from the company (who just happens to be a beautiful blonde named Tanya) issues a proclamation that she’s going with him to pursue the industrial spies. I’m fairly certain that it’s not part of standard police procedure to allow a civilian to do a ride-along when in hot pursuit of dangerous criminals.
3. Upon catching up to the bad guys . . . wow . . . where to start? Michael attempts to arrest them based on a charge of treason. Again, I have no idea how a local cop has jurisdiction in a treason case, nor am I clear on how stealing from a private company would fit the definition of “treason.” Those points are moot, because Tanya betrays Michael when she helps the people who infiltrated the chemical company, including Fred Wilson . . . you know what? It’s really stupid. The important part is that Tanya shoots Michael in the face.
4. The bad guys leave him for dead. A mysterious helicopter shows up and rescues Michael Long. This is where things go flying off the rails . . .
Cut to: A few days later, at a large estate with a private medical facility. Long’s face is covered in bandages. A doctor helpfully drops an exposition bomb in the form of a medical diagnosis he provides to Long’s mysterious benefactor, revealed to be Wilton Knight.
The doctor states that Long is “probably the only human being on the planet who’s in worse condition” than Wilton Knight is. He adds that the only reason Michael Long was able to survive is the metal plate(!) in Michael’s head, a souvenir Michael picked up during his tours of duty in Vietnam(!!), but also mentions that the plate deflected the bullet back out through Michael’s face(!!!), destroying it in the process.
So, Knight instructed the doctors to perform a facial reconstruction on Long. But not just any ol’ reconstruction, mind you! In a Liberace-esque move, Wilton Knight has the surgeons craft Long to look like a young Wilton Knight! Most remarkable to me was that the doctors somehow changed Long’s eye color from brown to blue-green.
Michael Long is initially—and understandably—unsettled by his new face. However, Knight and his assistant Devon both try to assuage Long’s fears by pointing out that he’ll be much safer with a new face. Devon is also a little weirded out by the fact that Knight remade Long in his own image, but a nasty look from Wilton shuts him up when he mentions it to his boss.
As Michael recuperates, Knight explains that he wants him to work for Knight’s Foundation as a way to combat people and organizations that are “above the law.” The centerpiece of this effort will be a version of Knight’s old Trans-Am(!), modified to have a number of offensive and defensive capabilities. Devon explains the car is made of a “new material” that is neither metal nor fiberglass. Michael assesses the car by saying the interior looks like “Darth Vader’s bathroom.” This is not punctuated by a rim shot.
As anyone familiar with the series can tell you, the car (KITT) can not only talk, but has a bit of an attitude. Since it’s the early 1980’s, the idea of a piece of technology with an interactive voice nearly causes Michael’s brain to hemorrhage. (Again?)
Wilton soon dies as a result of the unspecified illness everyone mentions but never names. Devon hands Michael Long a walletful of forged documents and cards that allow Michael to assume the identity of “Michael Knight,” fulfilling Wilton’s wish to carry on the Knight legacy as the pseudo-son Wilton never had. The only problem is that Wilton Knight did have a son, as it turns out, and Michael now awkwardly looks exactly like Garthe, the real Knight son, thanks to the plastic surgery paid for by Garthe’s own father.
So, to recap: Dying rich guy Wilton Knight found an also-dying Michael Long, insanely had him surgically altered to look like a young him, Michael agreed to carry on the Knight legacy per Wilton’s deathbed request, only to discover later that Wilton actually did have a son—a son who was more than a little irritated by the fact that there was some stranger walking around who looked exactly like him. Good gravy.
So, back to the pilot.
Michael Knight finds out Tanya is working in Silicon Valley, and, without any further information (COME ON!!!), he takes off in KITT to find her. This results in a a lot of footage of Michael driving KITT around on Northern California backroads with cover versions of various popular songs playing over the “radio,” and without another car in sight at any point.
That is, until a couple of cops notice that Michael has fallen asleep at the wheel (KITT is driving), and they pull him over, but not before noticing that a slumbering Michael somehow manages to make it through “Dead Man’s Curve” (points for originality on the name) without killing himself.
When Michael finally wakes up, KITT suggests he pretend to be deaf in order to get out of the ticket. This strategy unbelievably works. The best part about this entire sequence is that Michael is a total dick to KITT even though (1) the whole incident was Michael’s fault, and (2) KITT provided him with the means of extricating himself from the predicament.
Michael winds up at the HQ of a computer company called—wait for it—COMTRON. The company is conveniently located adjacent to a bar, which Michael patronizes as a way of getting information from the COMTRON employees who imbibe there.
Meanwhile, a black stereotype and a Mexican stereotype discuss stealing KITT from the parking lot, but decide against it, seeing as how they’re in the most populated area in town, and it’s broad daylight. This is the portion of the episode that makes the most sense.
Michael briefly talks to a waitress named Maggie before she explodes in anger at the mention of Tanya’s name, getting herself fired for throwing Michael’s drink at him. However, he talks with a beautiful woman named Lonnie (part of the original group of bad guys from the beginning of the episode) and persistently asks about Tanya, saying he needs to get in touch with her because has something of value that he wants to sell her.
This is crucial. The entire setup for Michael to gain revenge by taking down these evil people was that they think he’s dead, and, therefore, won’t see him coming. What does he do? He immediately walks up to the first one of them he sees and reveals that he’s looking for Tanya and must have a meeting with her at once. Lonnie quite predictably tells Tanya, who quickly speaks to Gray and agrees that the inquisitive mystery man should be killed, just like that cop back in Las Vegas! Perfect! As a bonus, Michael’s license plate subtly reads “KNIGHT.”
Michael catches up with Maggie that night. She reveals that she’s the wife of the former head of security for COMTRON. She says that Tanya was hired as an executive assistant, made a bunch of changes, bing, bang, boom, Maggie’s husband wound up dead.
There’s a huge problem with this timeline.
Tanya and her crew were working the Las Vegas job up until the night she shot Michael. Michael wakes up four days later with a new face. Some indeterminate amount of time after that (but certainly not more than a month), he discovers KITT and bolts after Wilton’s death.
So, Tanya found her way to a new company, got hired, made major changes, and had the head of security murdered, all within her first two or three weeks on the job.
Not only is this chronology ridiculous, but it also creates another clumsy plot point when Maggie’s housekeeper and son both presume that Maggie is sleeping with (or is about to sleep with) Michael, keeping in mind that Maggie’s murdered husband’s body isn’t even cold yet. Oh, and, P.S.—Maggie can still somehow afford a full-time housekeeper despite an earlier speech about not being able to make ends meet since her husband died.
Next up, Michael needs to get some kind of access to Tanya, and—what luck!—COMTRON is sponsoring a demolition derby, because, you know, Silicon Valley computer companies are essentially synonymous with demolition derbies. One in the same. Michael realizes that Tanya and the president of the company she seduced will both be at this event. He also realizes that he’s a shoe-in to win, thanks to KITT’s awesome powers, in which he didn’t believe until just now.
In another major stroke of good fortune, a brand-new Trans-Am doesn’t look suspicious in this demolition derby, since all the cars will be brand-new! Why aren’t they using clunkers on their last legs, you ask? Because the people in the derby all like to prove how much money they have by buying a new car just so it can be wrecked. Sort of the 1980’s Silicon Valley equivalent of lighting a cigar with a $100 bill. And Michael is naturally able to enter the competition despite not having registered ahead of time. Oh, and, notwithstanding the fact that they established two minutes ago that the derby is for charity and contested by super-rich guys, the winning driver receives a $5,000 prize. Michael magnanimously declares he’ll give his prize money to the charity when he wins.
Even Maggie is puzzled by Michael’s abrupt entry into this demolition derby, asking him what the hell he’s thinking. He enigmatically replies, “I . . . have my reasons” as he squints and stares off in the distance. Man, this is good shit!
In addition to his unfounded confidence that KITT will be able to win the derby, Michael seems completely indifferent when Maggie’s son suddenly disappears before the event, brushing it off on the grounds that there are “a lot of cars to see.” He also repeatedly refers to the derby as a “race,” which, of course, it’s not.
Oh, wait, I was wrong: It is a race. It’s not a demolition derby. Basically, it’s a couple of laps on a blacktop road course about the size of my high school’s driver’s ed range. You’re never going to believe this, but Michael wins.
He’s incredibly not disqualified when Maggie’s son shows up as a stowaway and activates KITT’s oil slick and smoke screen. Even the PA announcer comments on the cheating, but Michael is declared the winner anyway.
Michael quickly transitions from a no-nonsense businessman during a post-race meeting with Tanya to a smooth operator after he drives Maggie back to her place. He tries to put the moves on her, but she rebuffs him and points out that HER HUSBAND JUST DIED. Michael graciously tells her that “he understands.” How nice of him to accept her apology!
The stereotype car thieves happen to drive by while Michael is using something our ancestors called a “pay phone” to call Devon and talk strategy. It’s still broad daylight, but Michael has left KITT’s door open and the keys in the ignition, so they can’t resist.
As Devon is offering to send reinforcements from Knight Industries to help, Michael points out that it’s no use, since they would be outnumbered no matter how many people Devon sent. This makes perfect sense, since there are, by my count, a total of four bad guys.
The car thieves drive off with KITT as Michael tries to warn them they’re going to get killed. What I liked best about this scene is that both car thieves jump into KITT, abandoning their original car at the crime scene! That’s some solid planning.
The Mexican guy says some stuff in Spanish, and the black guy uses some slang, and then KITT takes control of the car and drives them to the nearest police station. KITT then ejects both of them onto a parked police car (complete with slide-whistle sound effect), shattering the windshield. They’re naturally arrested, and KITT drives back to Michael.
After some “hilarious” banter between KITT and Michael, they drive over to the bar to meet Tanya, per their post-race discussion. Unfortunately, he discovers that Tanya has sent some low-level goons (the same guys Michael defeated in the race earlier). Michael informs them that he’s “trained in the martial arts,” and he promptly dispatches them in a scene that’s shot very strangely: We don’t see Michael throw a single punch or kick. We only see a series of shots of the toughs falling backwards into patrons, through tables, etc. The goons eventually wind up in a pile outside the bar.
Michael is arrested, and KITT is taken to COMTRON (not an impound lot). Fred talks to Tanya about how to figure out who Knight’s employer is. His proposed method is to determine the serial numbers on the stock parts that are part of KITT, then use those serial numbers to track their points of origin and possible sale. My alternative proposal would have been to focus on the fact that the guy’s last name is KNIGHT, his license plate reads KNIGHT, and there’s an incredibly-rich philanthropist who just died who is also named KNIGHT. I might have run down that lead before tracking the serial number of a headlight assembly. But that’s me.
Two quick asides: One, Michael has worn the exact same leather jacket / red turtleneck / jeans outfit since he left the Knight estate, which is all the more remarkable considering that he had a drink spilled on him within minutes of reaching the town controlled by COMTRON. Two, Devon’s phone is in a wooden box for some reason.
Back at COMTRON, Fred breaks the news to Tanya that fingerprinting Michael when he was booked by the police revealed nothing, since his fingerprints have also been altered. Interesting that they jump to the conclusion that no hits on his identity means that his fingerprints must have been changed surgically, considering the fact that they were just talking about how someone who wasn’t a criminal or in law enforcement wouldn’t be in the system. Why wouldn’t they conclude he was merely a civilian, not some guy who had changed his prints?!?
Still, Tanya and Fred panic, realizing their scam on COMTRON may be exposed. They decide there’s no time to steal everything, so they scheme to go after the most valuable piece of technology and split town. Not a terrible plan.
At the jail, one of the bar fight goons in the adjacent cell tries to befriend Michael, who inexplicably reveals that he was an intelligence officer in ‘Nam. Cutting back-and-forth between KITT breaking himself out of COMTRON and the jail, we get the distinct impression that Michael is turning the goons to his side.
KITT crashes through the wall of the jail and nearly kills Michael trying to break him out. He manages to get to KITT before Fred shoots him. Even if you have the cops in your back pocket, I’m pretty sure a civilian firing a gun at a prisoner in a jail is probably frowned upon by the force.
KITT and Michael head over to COMTRON. Michael informs KITT that he needs to get to the roof of the building. KITT tells Michael he can get there by setting the ejector seat for 600 pounds. Michael doesn’t set anything, but it works anyway. He lands on the roof like a cat, injury-free.
Tanya breaks into one of the offices, telling Fred she’s gotten the plans she wanted onto “microfilm,” although it’s actually a relic called a 5.25″ floppy disk. Michael gets Tanya’s gun, reveals his identity, then chit-chats with her until a security guard has time to show up and shoot him. Again. It’s always so rewarding as a viewer to see a character grow and learn.
Fortunately, Michael doesn’t take a bullet to the face this time. It’s his shoulder. Knight somehow knocks out a security guard and steals his uniform, which doesn’t fool anybody for more than five seconds. KITT is a literal deus ex machina yet again, saving Michael from being caught and killed by the rest of the guards.
KITT and Michael set off for the airfield where the bad guys are about to make their getaway. This involves KITT shooting himself through the trailer of a big rig like a missile.
Then, there’s an exchange that has to be transcribed to be believed. This occurs between Fred Wilson and one of the COMTRON truckers (slightly paraphrased to remove some superflous language).
FRED (via CB): Anybody wanting a $15,000 bonus is to smash that Trans-Am head on.
TRUCKER: You’re NUTS! What good is $15,000 if you’re dead?!?
FRED: Well, jump clear, you idiot! But make sure you level that Trans-Am!
TRUCKER: FORGET IT!!!
FRED: Make it $25,000 to the first man who smashes and levels that Trans-Am.
TRUCKER: Alright, I’ll give it a shot.
What the F**K? Five seconds ago, the trucker correctly pointed out that the money is pointless if you’re not alive to spend it, but now he’s suddenly on board because Fred sweetened the pot a little? He deserves to die. Let’s see what happens . . .
Not only does the trucker not bail out, but he never even makes contact with KITT, who, yet again, simply jumps over something.
It’s not entirely clear what happens when Michael and KITT get to the airport, but it sort of looks like they intentionally collide with the wing of the small plane as it’s about to take off, which starts a fire that curiously blows up the aircraft only seconds later. Everyone gets out of the plane before this happens, though. Well, except for the pilot. He just sits there, calmly. Then blows up.
Tanya doesn’t last long, though. She walks up to KITT, and, refusing to heed warnings from both Michael and Fred, attempts to shoot Michael through the window. The bulletproof window deflects the bullet back into Tanya, killing her instantly. Oh, brother.
Satisfied that the feds will show up at some point, Michael decides that Tanya’s death settles things, even though:
1. The COMTRON secrets weren’t recovered.
2. The town is presumably still under the control of the evil infiltrators of COMTRON.
3. Fred Wilson, Gray, and Lonnie are all still at large when KITT drives off!
In short, a shitty job. Cut to: Michael (with no signs of any injury) and Devon toasting on a private jet, with Michael saying for the twentieth time that “One man can make a difference,” followed by the disembodied voice of Wilton reiterating the same.
I was four years old when Knight Rider debuted on NBC. After watching this pilot for the first time as an adult, and having never been a fan of the show in the first place, I’m now convinced I would have to possess the mind of a four-year-old to be able to enjoy Knight Rider in a non-ironic way.
I’m just thankful Wilton Knight wasn’t around to see this. May he rest in peace.