Sunday, December 09, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Before Smallville -- Superboy's Flight Through Syndication

Gerard Christopher as TV's second Superboy
Superboy was a syndicated series that ran for four seasons beginning in the late '80s and continuing into the early '90s. And while you'd think its place as part of the voluminous canons of on-screen Superman iterations would give it some continuing cache, it's almost completely disappeared from the cultural radar in the two decades since its final first-run episode aired -- much to my regret, as I liked it a quite a bit. A little context might be helpful here as we delve back through the lens of time and look back at the Teen of Steel's television tenure.

With the hugely successful release of 1978's Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve and directed by Richard Donner, the father-and-son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who'd licensed the Superman screen rights from DC Comics in the early '70s, quickly set about sequelizing their valuable new property. Superman II hit theaters in '80, and Superman III (the first movie I ever saw in the theaters) followed suit in 1983.

Original star John Haymes Newton
While the first two flicks did pretty well critically and with auds, the third one did less well on both fronts, so rather than do a fourth Superman, the Salkinds tried their hand at a spin-off, 1984's Supergirl, which cratered hard. That would seem to have been the end of the Superman franchise, but then noted cinematic crap factory Cannon Films licensed the rights from the Salkinds and cranked out the series' true last nail, 1987's execrable Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, the less said about which the better.

By 1988, the drop back to Earth had been precipitous for a franchise that launched skyward with such pomp and fanfare just ten years prior, but the Salkinds decided to give it another go, this time on the small screen, and this time with a variation on the tried-and-true formula. Following the first-run syndication trail that had been blazed so successfully the previous year by Star Trek: The Next Generation, they created Superboy, chronicling the teenaged exploits of the eventual Man of Steel, in fall '88 as a half-hour skein to air on local stations. Here's a promo for the first season:


Although star John Haymes Newton made a solid Superboy and an even better Clark Kent (playing the confident Clark of that era's comics rather than Reeeve's nebbishy-nerd version), and Stacy Haiduk (the only constant in the cast for the entire run) was a great love interest as Lana Lang, the show was hamstrung by its TV budget and storylines with Superboy tangling with mobsters and run-of-the-mill criminal-types rather than supervillains. In fact, here's a clip from the very first episode I ever saw, which has Superboy foiling the evil Lex Luthor's (Scott Wells) plan to *gasp* fix a college basketball game:


Yeah, not so great.

However, the show had two significant advantages: First, it aired in syndication, so it was guaranteed at least thirteen episodes to find its swing, and second, there was enough audience buy-in at the outset (this was the first live action Superman on TV since the George Reeves' Adventures of Superman in the '50s, after all) that ratings were strong enough to warrant it getting a full season of twenty-six episodes, and eventually a pickup for a second season.

While the first year saw its fair share of tonal changes, that was nothing compared to the changes that would occur between seasons. First, legal troubles coupled with salary demands prompted producer Ilya Salkind to part ways with star Newton (though he'd return to the role many years later in a very roundabout way), replacing him with actor Gerard Christopher, who in turn brought back the put-upon nerd version of Clark. Also new was actor Sherman Howard as a new, maniacal Lex Luthor (following some convenient reconstructive surgery) who I'd argue is one of the best version of that character ever.

Other changes included more of a concerted focus on Superboy's comic book roots. In addition to Luthor's increasingly elaborate schemes (no more fixed basketball games, natch) we also started to see appearances from comic villains like Mxyzptlk, Bizarro, Metallo, etc., all of whom made their first live action appearances here. In addition, there was even an ep with Superboy's parents, Jor-El and Lara, showing up, with former 007 George Lazenby and former Bond girl Britt Ekland trying very hard to look like the first film's Marlon Brando and Suzannah York:


As it entered the '90s, Superboy was successful enough that DC launched a tie-in comic book based on the series (even though they'd wiped the Superboy part of Clark's history out of the "real" continuity a few years prior -- I think it's back now, but honestly it's hard for me to keep up with all the changes these days). For the third and fourth years, the show was re-christened The Adventures of Superboy, and basically became Superman-lite, with Clark and Lana working at a government agency in charge of paranormal and unexplained phenomenon, with a bigger ambition to go right along with the darker tone:


Through all of this, the ratings remained strong, but the bottom fell out when Warner Bros., who'd spent the past few years consolidating the Superman screen rights back under their roof as they set about attempting to exploit their own property, put up a legal hurdle against the Salkinds and Viacom, which produced the show, claiming that it constituted illegal use. As a result, a planned fourth year cliffhanger was scuppered and swapped out for a two-parter that ended up serving as the series' finale in Spring of '92.

The ultimate goal with these machinations, I'm pretty sure, was to clear the way for Warners' own Superman TV show, which they had in active development at the time and which eventually became Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (more on that later), so there wouldn't be any competing Supermen on the tube at the same time. The unfortunate side effect is that, even with a hundred episodes ready to rerun, Superboy disappeared from the airwaves almost completely (save for at least one round of reruns I saw on the Chicago Fox affiliate in the first half of '93).

Today, with ten seasons of Smallville showing how rife the Man of Steel's formative years are for multimedia expansion, The Adventures of Superboy feels more than ever like an under-seen, under-appreciated piece of Superman history. And while Warner Bros .(which eventually took ownership of the show after the Gordian Knot of a legal mess was resolved) released the first year on DVD in the lead-up to the theatrical release of Superman Returns in 2006, the sales for that, the worst season, didn't warrant further trips to the well. Until now.

I've mentioned before how Warners' made-to-order DVD archive division has saved many a series from digital obscurity, and now it's Superboy's time to shine, with the second season hitting the platter format this Tuesday, and the remaining seasons planned shortly thereafter. Needless to say, I'm excited. Very excited. I would've been even more excited if I hadn't spent a fair amount a few years ago on an "extra-legal" set of the unreleased seasons, but hey, you know, them's the breaks. I'll still gladly pony up to own an official release of the show, as any Super-fan should.

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