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Auto Pilot: Viper

By Zach

Episode Title: Pilot

Original Air Date: January 2, 1994

Did I Know Anything Going In?: I only knew this show existed because we saw a brief promo of it while we were pre-gaming watching 90’s commercials before our Blank Check commentary.

Pretty similar in setup to last week’s Auto Pilot entry, Knight Rider, Viper hit in the mid-90’s as a marketing tool for Chrysler, who wanted to get maximum exposure for their new Dodge Viper SR 1, which is the undercover disguise of the show’s “Project Viper” vehicle.  Chrysler actually designed the “Defender” form of the car, which is what the Viper SR 1 in the show transforms into to utilize the full gadgetry and weaponry of the car. The show had a similar but much less successful trajectory to that of fellow 90’s syndicated show, Baywatch, where it premiered on NBC and was cancelled after one season, but picked up for three more seasons on syndication two years later but, let’s just say The Rock isn’t going to star in a Viper reboot movie anytime soon.

The setup to the show is that in the near future (or at least the dated 90’s version of it), in the city of Metro City, the Viper Project is being run by scientist Julian Wilkes (Dorian Harewood), but they are unable to find a driver who has the skills necessary to handle a car of it’s power and high techness.  Unlike KITT though, Project Viper is just a gadget filled muscle car, it doesn’t have an AI but does have a full bank of monitoring equipment back at the labs for Wilkes to monitor the systems and get real time footage from the car.  Meanwhile, a crew of thieves led by Michael Payton (James McCaffrey) breaks into a local tech firm and attempt to steal a piece of satellite tech but, trying to evade the police, Payton crashes and he’s pronounced dead at the scene. Secretly though, he’s taken to a secret facility and has his memory wiped and his face reconstructed by slimy mayorial candidate Strand and he’s told he’s Joe Astor, a cop from Chicago sent to be the new Viper driver.  Astor passes the initial tests and takes the Viper out for its first true night of fighting crime and manages to stop a number of incidents with the various gadgets of the Viper, like EMP blasts and a drone, but, of course, Astor runs into his old crew on another heist and manages to catch one of them while taking damage to the Viper.

The head of “The Outfit”, the crime syndicate that essentially runs Metro City, Townsend (who’s played by Boy Meets World dad William Russ), tells the new head of the thief crew, Connor (who’s basically a generic British bad guy) to get Payton back and they capture him and try to pull a Clockwork Orange on him and force him to view photos of his actual identity, which does seem to work to bring everything back and they want him to steal Project Viper and bring it to them.  Astor goes back and confronts his girlfriend Elizabeth Houston, the doctor who helped him recover, about hiding his identity from him and then talks to Wilkes, who convinces him to take this second chance he’s been given.  Connor and the crew learn Payton is not coming back and they blow up his girlfriend in her house and Townsend convinces Strand to pull Viper’s funding.  Astor, along with thinly disguised Joe Pesci impression Frankie Waters (Joe Nipote), who runs the Metro Police motor pool and is an obsessive car nut, steal Viper to protect it from being destroyed now that the project is finished and Astor and Wilkes go rogue to stop Connor by having their captured crew member transferred from lockup and then intercept them on the highway.  After a gadget filled final battle involving the Viper’s hologram projector and grappling hook missile, the crew is captured and Astor reveals to Wilkes that he took all the ill gotten money from Payton’s safety deposit box and they can use it to fund a vigilante version of Project Viper out of an old power station.  Frankie comes along as well to be their mechanic/comic relief.

Viper is flatly average in pretty much every way.  It doesn’t do anything egregiously terrible and but it also doesn’t really do anything great either and it’s future tech is hilariously outdated in 2017.  If this had been on in the late afternoon of a lazy 90’s Saturday, I probably would have watched it but only if Sniper or something wasn’t playing on another channel.  Based on Wikipedia, the show rotated through different iterations of the Viper team and got new models as they came out from from Chrysler and ended after four seasons.  Apparently, the entire show may be hitting DVD for the time ever this year, so keep an eye out for that if you are interested but a bunch of episodes are just up on youtube, in full, if you want to watch it in free but not so great quality.

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