Mirror, Mirror: WETK Vermont ETV, CBMT CBC 6, and Cable TV

So, I’ve spent three weeks of a Star Trek blogging project talking about TV stations in the ’80s, one being the weird UHF station that did whatever it wanted at times, another being the respectable rural station that did loopy things in spite of themselves, and the third being the good child that makes all the right choices and succeeds in ways that no small-market station ever should (Channel 3 is far better run than the stations here in Vegas have ever been, despite being in a larger market). And I also discussed the two outlier stations that I barely watched (Channels 8 and 31). However, there’s still the matter of two stations that I watched less, but that still made an impression.

First is WETK, Channel 33, the PBS station serving Vermont. Channel 33 predates PBS, which is why it was referred alternatively as Vermont Educational Television or Vermont ETV until well after I had moved away-those names refer to the PBS predecessor, NET (National Educational Television). One point of order is the channel number for WETK. While I certainly watched it plenty enough on Channel 33, the weather and over-the-air TV being what it was, this wasn’t always the case, and station management certainly understood this, because the station had tons of repeaters (the ’80s-era station ID screen, which I can’t find, because Vermont, was one-thirds a list of the IDs of repeaters). So, more often than not, we’d get the station on Channels 20 or 44 (the latter is now Vermont’s Fox affiliate, which is a story for another time). Besides that, the teachers at East Montpelier Elementary would happily appropriate PBS programs that fit into their lesson plans on occasion.

Generally speaking, it was your standard PBS affiliate. Sesame StreetMister Rogers’ NeighborhoodNovaMasterpiece Theatre…..you get the idea. That is, until the summer, for ten days. Since PBS is the gimpy, pathetic state-backed TV network, the affiliates have to have pledge drives and generally beg for donations. WETK’s solution was not only good, but it made for ten days of awesome TV: they held an auction of donated items. Furniture, art prints, nice dinners, services….just tons of stuff were donated by viewers and strewn across a fairly spacious studio at the station (which was and still is in Colchester, a suburb of Burlington), hosted by Jack Barry (a legendary broadcaster in the state), with appearances by all sorts of well-known Vermonters getting roped in as volunteers. The entire affair (lasting ten hours each of those ten days) was set up like a telethon (the obvious model being the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethons hosted by Jerry Lewis, which were a mainstay on Channel 22), with bidding done by phone. The entire thing was a genius idea (and obviously completely undoable in the age of eBay), and I’ve never heard of such a thing being repeated. (The model is actually rather close to Patreon, come to think of it.)

Perhaps most marginal of the stations I could watch in the ’80s was CBMT, Montreal’s CBC station. Marginal, primarily because it was Canadian, and very infrequently viewable. And a lot of those times it could be seen, it was in French (and therefore either bad memories on my part or the result of some strangeness with CBMT’s French sister station, CBFT, coming through over Channel 6 via a repeater). There’s really not much to tell beyond that-the only shows I can recall watching on the station(s) were some Disney shorts in French (including, quite fittingly, the Goofy short “Hockey Homicide”), a few snippets of some random shows, and a decent amount of the CBC’s iconic Hockey Night in Canada. And, later in the ’80s on Saturday afternoons, Star Trek. And always on cable.

As stated in earlier weeks, I did not have cable in the ’80s. This is because competing cable companies in Barre and Montpelier (one being Adelphia) decided to spend the decade in a pissing contest over East Montpelier, which is even more hilarious if you’ve actually lived in Vermont enough to know that it’s a very small town. So, until the fall of 1990, cable was something I experienced during visits to certain relatives’ houses, and almost exclusively on weekends (which means that seeing syndicated cartoons of the era otherwise unavailable to me like She-Ra and Filmation’s Ghostbusters wasn’t happening. As a result, other than stumbling across the rare item of interest like the aforementioned CBC reruns of Star Trek (which were edited entirely differently from the reruns on Channel 22-most acts ended with a freeze frame on CBC 6) and watching horrible movies (Howard the Duck being the obvious poster child), it was down to two channels: USA and Nickelodeon.

Many cable networks have completely warped since the ’80s (MTV, A&E, The Learning Channel, AMC….), but none quite as subtly as USA. While USA is now known for original dramatic shows and WWE Raw, USA was home to music video programs, sports (the network was originally called the Madison Square Garden Network, in fact), various off-network dramas, WWF wrestling (now known as the aforementioned WWE), cult/B movies (the most colorful package being Kung Fu Theatre, which showed the type of badly-dubbed Asian martial arts films that inspired Quentin Tarantino), game show reruns, and a ton of cartoons.

Most of the cartoons were a part of the USA Cartoon Express. The cartoons were almost entirely from Hanna-Barbera until the end of the ’80s, when the block was massively reformatted (with all-new bumpers featuring a dopey cartoon polar bear serving as the conductor) and started featuring reruns from ’80s syndicated cartoons (and heavily edited for time in the sloppiest fashion possible). This was kind of OK, but really…..it was Hanna-Barbera. And for every good show (the majority from the earliest years of the studio, or on TV elsewhere), there was a ton of really bad ones. Thankfully, USA picked up He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Channel 22, for whatever reason, dumped the show promptly after the 1985-86 season (which was also when the series went into reruns). So, for an hour at least, He-Man was back, and that was good. History shows that She-Ra aired on USA, as well (and, as with He-Man, outside of the Cartoon Express), but I never saw it. Part of it is probably timing, but there’s likely a more obvious reason: I was watching Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon, while officially the same network, was completely different in the ’80s. The main reason: they produced practically nothing themselves. And with USA grabbing rights to everything Hanna-Barbera had to offer, this meant that Nickelodeon had to look far and wide, including internationally, for shows. LassieMister Ed, and Dennis the Menace were black-and-white reruns that, if not for their kid-friendly content, would have aired on Nick at Nite (then, as now, a retirement home for sitcoms that had fallen out of syndication, though the shows were almost entirely bland-and-white in the ’80s). DangermouseCount Duckula, and The Tomorrow People were imported from the UK. Mysterious Cities of Gold was a French-Japanese co-production, and Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea dropped the Japanese participation, but gained an even more unique art style and a theme song from the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo. Filmation’s animated version of Star Trek was of course from America, and both wonderfully different and astonishingly the same as its live action predecessor. Pinwheel, Nickelodeon’s lynchpin morning program, was mostly a Sesame Street-styled show, but featured shorts acquired from all over Europe (many of which had been dubbed into English by the BBC for The Magic Roundabout). However, the most popular show was from Canada, and, as the title made instantly clear, You Can’t Do That on Television.

Without giving much away immediately, You Can’t Do That on Television, was an open statement of rebellion against normal kids’ shows. And children of my generation ate it up. Amazingly, even the starkly traditional and retro Mr. Wizard’s World (a Canadian-produced revival of Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired from 1951-1965 on NBC) fit in with the atmosphere of rebellion against Saturday morning TV. With the introduction of Double Dare in 1986, the network ended the ’80s ready to conquer the (TV) world, and I would be there to see it.

Next week, we’ll still be in the ’80s, but this time we’ll be looking at a specific night of the week on CBS, and some shows that were both iconic, and in one case, incredibly problematic when compared to Star Trek.

Mirror, Mirror: WCAX Channel 3

(Channel 3 ’80s station ID. Now imagine dozens more with a different scene from a Vermont calendar, because that’s pretty much all they were.)

And now, after two weeks of talking about how batcrap crazy Vermont TV could be, let’s talk about the state’s model station, why don’t we?

Maybe it’s because they’re a CBS affiliate. Or maybe it’s because they are locally owned. Or maybe it’s because they’ve had the same local ownership since signing on (Mount Mansfield Television, and the Hansbrook/Martin family). Or maybe it’s the station’s longterm affiliation with UVM (that would be the University of Vermont; we only use “Vermont” for the benefit of you out-of-staters) and its Extension Service. I honestly have no idea, but whatever it is, Channel 3 was always the best station. Even its signal came in perfectly clear no matter where you were. I couldn’t paint a more quaint picture if the station was Canadian.

Of course, being the best station in town means that Channel 3 was never desperate enough to show cartoons on weekdays. Part of this was because of Donahue, which basically invented the genre of TV talk show that Oprah Winfrey made billions off of by inspiring an almost cult-like loyalty from her audience. It was paired with a succession of one-hour dramas: Wonder WomanThe Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie. (The pilot film for The Waltons was also an annual Christmas Day. I have no idea if this was a network thing or not.) Basically, once Channel 22 started airing cartoons en masse in the afternoons, Channel 3 just conceded until the end of the decade, when Magnum, P.I. entered syndication.

At 7PM, Channel 3 further conceded, since the station’s news division (spearheaded by Richard Gallagher and eventually Marselis Parsons) and the news expanded to the point where the CBS Evening News airs at 7PM. (Channel 3 was and is home to the only 12PM newscast in the state, a ten minute affair paired with Across the Fence, the stalwart farming and home show produced with UVM’s Extension Service.) With the ’80s being the age of Dan Rather as the face of CBS News, it’s no shocker that I can barely recall ABC’s World News Tonight and have absolutely zero memory of ever watching the NBC Nightly News as a child. Channel 3 was, and still is, the news organization of record in the state.

With the cancellation of Captain Kangaroo in the early ’80s, this left the weekends as Channel 3’s time for kid-friendly shows. Outside of CBS’s Saturday Morning lineup (which, with some exceptions, was the best of the three networks hands down), the weekends were anchored by an hour of the Adam West Batman. However, this is where the choices in syndicated early morning shows started to get unconventional. ThunderCats and SilverHawks each received a year of weekend airings (not exactly an uncommon thing in the area, as Channel 22 showed), and so did Inspector Gadget-in 1987, well after I had seen the show on Nickelodeon during various visits to family members with cable. But also appearing were two now-obscure Filmation shows from the ’60s: The Hardy Boys and Journey to the Center of the Earth. For whatever reason, Channel 3 picked up two of the three ’60s shows Filmation produced for ABC (possibly in a group deal with Batman; though why the third Filmation show owned by 20th Century Fox, Fantastic Voyage-which, like Journey, was loosely adapted from a Fox movie-was not picked up is beyond me). In the end, these two shows were more memorable than the two Rankin/Bass shows that replaced them, despite the shakier animation and simpler plots, because Filmation seemed to care, and Rankin/Bass…..not so much (while The Hardy Boys and Journey to the Center of the Earth are not the best acted shows, they are not as cheesily performed and the writing as poor and at times unintentionally racist as ThunderCats and SilverHawks).

Outside of the kids’ shows, Channel 3’s syndicated programming was just as random as the competition, though seemingly less of it because Channel 3 never pulled the sort of regular pre-emptions as Channels 5 or 22…..with the exception of Saturday broadcasts of UVM hockey on an intermittent basis. This was obviously an attempt to counterprogram against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s signature Saturday program, Hockey Night in Canada, aided by the Catamounts’ first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 1988, and the tenures of a number of star players, with Kirk McCaskill and John LeClair being the most recognizable to out-of-staters. It’s a bit hard to say why it wasn’t an every week event (skimming the schedules online, I at least vaguely recall nearly every show that aired during this period), as only Airwolf and Tour of Duty qualified as hit shows (and, in fact, CBS was dumping movies and reruns on Saturdays, becoming perhaps the first network to largely give up on the night). However, airing at 7PM in syndication was Hee Haw. For those that don’t remember it, Hee Haw was the ubiquitous country music variety show filmed in Nashville that somehow survived CBS’s infamous “Rural Purge” in 1971 (to quote Pat Buttram: “It was the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree—including Lassie.“) to last a good two decades afterwards in syndication.

And, despite its undeniable personality and huge fanbase (even Elvis Presley was a fan), it was dreadfully boring and old-fashioned.

Being that going to my grandfather’s house in Craftsbury was a fairly regularly activity until he started wintering here in Vegas (eventually staying here year-round and sparking a bit of a mass exodus in the family), I was generally left to my devices in front of the TV, and this was the best option. And an absolutely awesome sleep aid while waiting for Airwolf to start. I don’t even think that puberty would have saved the day, because the notorious Hee Haw Honeys weren’t my type at all (and that speaking as someone who has always appreciated Catherine Bach as Daisy Duke). Thankfully, Sunday evenings before 60 Minutes (when football wasn’t in season) were much better on the syndicated front: The Muppet Show and reruns of Benson (two classics, to be sure).

However, the oddest programming choice on Channel 3 was its late night programming on Sunday nights (before the late night movie): Tales From the Darkside. This minimalist (and beyond creepy) show was more in place on Channel 22 (which ended up airing Friday the 13th: The Series and War of the Worlds late on Saturdays) or maybe even Channel 5 (which oddly buried American Gladiators after Saturday Night Live). As a result, it ultimately a teasingly unattainable mystery for years to come.

Next week, the lat post about 1980s Vermont TV stations (honest!) before two weeks of, uh…..something…..before finally returning to 1965, and one of the most colorful and controversial figures of the ’60s.

Mirror, Mirror: WPTZ Channel 5

(Actual nightly WPTZ sign-off video from 1989. Note the truly hideous peacock mascot.)

Local TV is weird. Unless you live in the biggest cities in the US (New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles for all of the major networks, and about 20 other cities that have at least one network-owned station), you’re dealing with underfunded stations with people working there who have about a 1% chance of ever being recognized outside of their local market if they do a good job (largely because the other 99% percent are absolutely unsuited for to be on TV). In the ’80s, before deregulation and consolidation, things were even weirder. And it only got weirder the more rural you lived.

But why, you ask, am I bringing this up now? Wasn’t Channel 22, a freaking UHF station, weird enough? Frankly, no. Channel 22 was underfunded and had some pretty awful equipment, and weren’t afraid to pre-empt shows in certain time slots. WPTZ Channel 5, out of Plattsburgh, New York, however, was weird. And, in retrospect, possibly even a bit racist.

First and foremost is the mascot. The thing screams “underfunded yokel station”, but Channel 5’s graphics and production standards (if not the reception, though since their transmitter was the furthest away of the four accessible stations, they get a pass) were actually quite advanced, and their news gathering operation was pretty close to that of WCAX Channel 3, just focused on Northern New York first and foremost (again, duh). The thing was totally out of place, and seemed to be a remnant of the days (as seen in the sign-off) when the station threw some seriously wacky local programs on the air (which was certainly not happening in the ’80s).

Secondly, the programming decisions seem, in retrospect, to be a bit skeezy and/or racist. On the skeezy side of things, Channel 5 aired such notoriously schlocky programming as A Current Affair (which, while now forgotten outside of Robert Downey Jr.’s accent in Natural Born Killers that mimicked one of their reporters, it was one of the very first examples of televised tabloid journalism) and Geraldo Rivera. They also aired the semi-regular Billy Graham TV specials (pre-empting network programming), as well as a full slate of similar shows every Sunday morning. In regards to race, Channel 5 seemed overly hostile to A Different World, the spinoff to The Cosby Show essentially created for Lisa Bonet after she started clashing with Bill Cosby over her choice in movie roles (naturally, there are rumors tying Bonet to Cosby’s record re: rape), and one could argue that it was some small town reaction to Bonet, but the embargo lasted at least through the start of the third season, when Bonet had only appeared in the first year of the series. And even more damning was its replacement: reruns of Family Ties, which was all about the Reaganite children of ex-hippies. (And, if that synopsis didn’t make it clear, the cast was entirely white.)

And then there was Saturday mornings. Channel 5 was “that” station, the one that had the rights to that amorphous package of Golden Age cartoons whose rights had been passed along through multiple owners. This included all of MGM’s color cartoons, Paramount/Famous Studio’s color Popeye, Screen Songs, and Noveltoons shorts, and a smattering of Terrytoons (notably missing were the pre-’48 Warner Bros. shorts, which were a part of this package in most areas). Now, this isn’t unusual per se (though certainly a bit generic), but the content of the cartoons was definitely troubling in retrospect. Namely, because just about every racial joke stayed intact-and with MGM shorts as the main component of the show, this was a serious issue in retrospect. To the point that I suffered from some serious cognitive dissonance after getting cable and seeing MGM cartoons on TNT and Cartoon Network with some pretty severe changes (the biggest one being the redubbing of Mammy’s voice in the Tom and Jerry shorts). And until the station bought in on The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera in 1985, this was Channel 5’s primary syndicated children’s program (the only other shows beforehand for kids were The Great Space Coaster and reruns of Superfriends during that one year Hanna-Barbera took the show into syndication and got the show cancelled by ABC in retaliation). Suffice to say, Channel 5 seemed to spend much of the ’80s actively trying to push kids like me away.

This, however, was not the weirdest part of how the station operated. As indicated in the video above, Channel 5 was officially licensed to North Pole, New York, which is home to the Christmas-themed Santa’s Workshop (and pretty much nothing else). The station certainly ran with this, and besides doubling down on it during the holidays, station IDs (at the time recorded by the hosts of network and syndicated programs) would invariably feature some sort of surprised reaction from the personalities involved. For instance, David Letterman’s ID (tying into Late Night with David Letterman) featured the host finishing his read by almost laughing it off as a joke, and Oprah Winfrey’s finished with her looking off camera and shouting “What?!” in disbelief at what she had just said.

However, whatever Channel 5 did, it certainly worked. In the months before me and my family moved to Las Vegas, Channel 5’s ownership purchased WNNE Channel 31, the NBC affiliate serving Southern Vermont (which I never saw outside of my experiences with cable). In a massive bit of irony, I stumbled upon a public affairs program on WNNE during the fall of 1990 (the one period in which I had regular access to cable in Vermont, since the family was in a cramped living environment with my paternal grandmother since our home had sold too far in advance of our planned moving date in December) and station personnel were fielding complaints from viewers about becoming like Channel 5, with A Current Affair held up as the textbook example of how poorly the station served viewers. When I next visited Vermont in 2004, Channel 31 was in fact just like Channel 5: other than some unique station branding, all programming on the two stations were exactly the same.

Next week, we continue our run through ’80s TV in Vermont.

Mirror, Mirror: WVNY TV22

(Representative sample of Channel 22 programming and reception, circa 1987.)

In today’s age of Netflix, cable, and iTunes, watching TV is extremely easy. But in the ’80s, it wasn’t so easy. Cable was in its infancy, to the point that some of the best things to watch on cable were TV stations from big cities, like TBS out of Atlanta, WOR and WPIX out of New York, WGN from Chicago, and Boston’s WSBK (all of which were not affiliated with one of the major networks, and relied on broadcasts of sporting events in addition to syndicated programs). However, if you lived in, say, East Montpelier, Vermont, cable wasn’t necessarily an option. And your choices for watching TV (because going outside isn’t exactly the greatest option for much of the year) are pretty dismal. And, if you’ve just gotten home from school and it’s any time prior to 1987, your options for watching cartoons absolutely suck (and they aren’t that hot after 1987, either).

Thankfully, that one option is both the best and the worst option. WVNY, ABC’s affiliate for Vermont and Plattsburgh, New York, had impeccable taste in cartoons. Besides Visionaries, Channel 22 aired The Bullwinkle ShowRobotechVoltron, The TransformersSuper Sunday, and The Inhumanoids-and those were just the weekend shows. Channel 22 was also one of the most dedicated G.I. Joe affiliates, airing the show from the first episode on September 12th, 1983 until the start of the 1989-1990 season-a full season after the series went into a condensed “best-of” run of about 20 episodes and the movie chopped up into five parts. However, for our purposes, Channel 22 had a more important role: they aired Star Trek.

On the one hand, Star Trek airing alongside cartoons like G.I. JoeThe Transformers, and The Real Ghostbusters seems like a bad idea, because you would think that low budget cartoon shows intended to sell toys would compare poorly to a budget-strapped ’60s show with pioneering special effects. However, in practice, these cartoons were completely compatible with Star TrekScooby-Doo, of course, being from the same era, goes without saying. But the other shows were incredibly fortunate in their compatibility with Star TrekHe-Man and the Masters of the Universe, besides using a lot of the sound effects from Star Trek (ironically, even more than the animated spin-off produced a decade earlier by the same studio, Filmation), shared the same moral conscience. The Real Ghostbusters shared the same sharp wit as many episodes of Star Trek, and even made fun of it on at least one occasion. G.I. JoeJem, and The Transformers were all varying degrees of science fiction in their premises and plots, and at their best had some decent helpings of action, humor, and tackling of weighty subjects, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles featured an even sharper wit an propensity for parody. As for the other shows (My Little Pony ‘n FriendsThe Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and Police Academy), the less said, the better.

Star Trek‘s effect on the Channel 22 schedule doesn’t end there, however: in order to air the show at 5PM and still show two hours of cartoons, General Hospital was pre-empted, and wouldn’t be seem again on the station until well after I moved to Las Vegas in 1990. (This was not the only time the station would ignore the desires of ABC: Red Sox games were a Friday night fixture in the late ’80s, and my research into air dates reveals that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe appeared on Saturday mornings, in the middle of ABC’s block, during the winter of 1984.) Sadly, Channel 22 would slavishly air the overly-preachy (and completely irrelevant to pre-teen audiences) ABC After School Special, which always led to an hour of abject boredom.

Of course, no situation is perfect, and that goes double for Channel 22. Without cable, transmission was seriously spotty, to the point where the idea of watching it without a snowy picture is practically impossible to conceive. To this end, Channel 22 couldn’t even be watched in a good deal of the state…..including the very part of the state where most of my relatives live. For these parts of Vermont, the de facto ABC station was WMTW Channel 8 out of Portland, Maine, which had a barn-burning transmitter on top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire (the digital switchover, which proved unworkable with an automated, generator-powered transmitter inaccessible for much of the year, was the only thing that could stop the station’s signal), had neither cartoons nor a pre-emption of General Hospital to make afternoon TV viewing bearable. And even when you could watch Channel 22, the station had a habit of broadcasting dead space, having tape faults in the middle of an episode, and other technical foul-ups. (So, basically, they were your typical small-market UHF station.) However, when the alternatives were PBS, soap operas, Oprah, or Donahue, you learned to grin and bear it.

Next week, we continue our journey through 1980s TV and a station perhaps even loopier than Channel 22.

Mirror, Mirror: Star Wars

“The Force will be with you. Always.”-Obi Wan Kenobi

There is nothing quite as influential to a child of the ’80s as Star Wars. The movie was a transformative success, helping to cement the shift from personal, director-driven features to big-budget spectaculars. It also paved the way for the further acceptance of sequels when The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi turned out to be almost as successful as the original film. And then there was the merchandising. Following the abject failure of Doctor Dolittle in 1967, especially in terms of merchandise sales (new copies of the original soundtrack record are still common and remarkably affordable, even after nearly five decades), director George Lucas was able to swindle con sucker dupe negotiate away the merchandising rights to his movies from 20th Century Fox. With a number of smart (and prescient) deals, Lucas became a billionaire by the ’90s.

Of particular note were the toys from Kenner, which completely altered the course of boys’ action figures from that point on. Instead of larger doll-like figures with clothes, “real” hair, and accessories (and lots of additional accessory packs sold separately), Star Wars figures were almost exclusively in the 3 3/4″ range, with changes of clothing and at most two accessories (many of which were staffs of some sort for some strange reason). Since Star Wars basically printed money everywhere it went, the other toy companies followed suit, and suddenly action figures similar to Kenner’s Star Wars line were the biggest part of the toy industry geared towards boys.

Even more pervasive of an impact, however, was how the trilogy led to an almost instant mainstreaming of science fiction. Hanna-Barbera openly encouraged their artists to “borrow” elements from Star Wars for shows produced during the 1978-1979 television season, with the most famous result of this being the Hall of Doom in Challenge of the Superfriends, which strongly resembled Darth Vader’s helmet. Most forgotten (and at the same time, most notorious) was Yogi’s Space Race, which even went so far as to copy the Star Wars font for the series title card. Filmation pursued (and received) film and TV rights to the old Flash Gordon comic strip (which, ironically, had been considered by George Lucas himself before developing Star Wars as an original concept), which resulted in a made-for-TV animated feature, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, and an animated series adapted directly from the film. Sandy Frank, an independent producer of syndicated programming imported the Japanese cartoon Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (commonly referred to as just “Gatchaman“) and adapted it into Battle of the Planets for American audiences. Ad agency Griffin-Bacal and toymaker Hasbro funded the translation of the first two seasons of Space Battleship Yamato (the third had not been produced yet) as Star Blazers.

In addition to these and other shows, science fiction elements began to creep into every other cartoon: lasers became established as an acceptable firearm (real guns having been banned on Saturday morning cartoons since the late ’60s), aliens and space ships started appearing in otherwise conventional shows, and so on. The prototypical examples of this blending of genres were Thundarr the Barbarian, created by comic book writer Steve Gerber for Ruby-Spears, and Filmation’s Blackstar. Both series were sword and sorcery epics with heavy doses of science fiction: in Thundarr, the setting was Earth of 3994, 2000 years after a runaway comet had passed too close in the then-future year of 1994, bisecting the Moon and laying waste to much of the planet and leaving the ruins of society up for grabs. Increasing the connection to Star Wars was Thundarr’s Sun Sword, an obvious clone of the lightsaber, and Ookla the Mok, a network-mandated Wookiee-like creature named after the University of California, Los Angeles, known widely as UCLA. With Blackstar, the science fiction element lies with the series’ eponymous hero, John Blackstar, who is an Earth astronaut swept through a black hole to the planet Sagar, a world ruled by the evil Overlord, who wields a sword, the all-powerful PowerStar, until Blackstar arrives, resulting in the PowerStar being split into two halves: the Starsword, which Blackstar holds, and the Powersword, retained by Overlord.

Outside of Saturday mornings, the attempts to cash-in on Star Wars were even more blatant. Quark, a sitcom set in space that had seen its pilot air a few weeks before Star Wars was released, was given new life as a midseason replacement the following winter. Battlestar Galactica, a concept that prolific TV producer Glen A. Larson had been trying to sell for years, was finally sold in light of Star Wars, and became a hit-which ABC promptly cancelled at the end of the season, only to be brought back as Galactica 1980 (which was a horrific disaster of a show). Larson also revived Buck Rogers, which also faded in its second season, and Dino De Laurentiis, having purchased theatrical rights to Flash Gordon from Filmation (a sale made in order to get the series and movie produced), and the resulting feature, while deviating greatly from the comics, became a cult classic. Disney, having passed on Star Wars, produced The Black Hole, to decidedly mixed results. The ’80s brought The Last Starfighter and Starman from Universal and Columbia, and smaller, independent, and foreign studios went even further, producing a seemingly limitless number of science fiction films, most of which borrowed at least some elements from Star Wars.

It is in this environment of almost pervasive support for Star Wars-style science fiction that I discovered Star Trek. Looking back, it’s easy to see why Star Trek stood out: while George Lucas used science fiction as a largely superficial coating for traditional action/adventure yarns (with a bent towards outright fantasy), Gene Roddenberry strived for “hard” science fiction with plausible technologies (some of which had already come to pass even when I was watching in mid-’80s Vermont) with protocol inspired by actual naval procedures. More importantly, Star Trek was about something. This was instantly apparent, even for a kid from a podunk town near the most podunk state capitol of the most podunk state east of the Mississippi two decades removed from a great deal of the show’s immediate cultural relevance. Put bluntly, Star Wars (and its many, often lesser, imitators) was candy, and Star Trek was a full meal.

Next week, more discussion on what TV in the ’80s in Vermont was like.