"The perfect weapon for an imperfect future."Viper
is a live-action science fiction TV series that was created by Paul De Meo
and Danny Bilson
and aired from 1994 to 1999. The show revolves around a modified Dodge Viper that can transform into the Defender, an armored supercar
designed for catching the most dangerous criminals. The first season aired as an NBC exclusive from January to April 1994 and disappeared from the network after completing its first run. The show came back for a syndicated second season in the fall of 1996. It retained this format up through its concluding fourth season.
Season 1 takes place in the near future
, where the fictitious Metro City is being overrun by a mafia
-like organization of cyberpunk
thieves called the Outfit. The only thing that should
be standing in their way is the Viper, but one thing is stopping the project from coming to fruition: The car is so powerful and requires such quick reflexes to control that every commissioned police driver to date has failed their field test. With funding running out and no hope of success remaining, the program is on the verge of cancellation.
Meanwhile, Michael Payton, the Outfit's lead getaway driver, lies in a coma after wrecking his Dodge Stealth
in a botched heist. Seeing this as a final chance to save the Viper Project and promote his own political career, Big Brother
-type Councilman Strand secretly orders for Payton to be pronounced dead and have a microchip surgically implanted in his brain to erase his criminal persona. After the operation, Payton wakes up with total amnesia and is told he is Officer Joe Astor, a false identity invented by Strand to explain why a supposed expert pursuit driver was transferred to Metro's police district just in the nick of time. Astor proves to be a suitable driver, but things quickly turn sour.
Parts of Astor's previous memories begin surfacing in the form of dreams and bizarre flashbacks, and he quickly puts together he's not exactly who the police say he is. He ultimately accepts his mindrape
as a second chance to live a clean life and, upon realizing both sides of the law are corrupt, he hijacks the Defender with the help of its civilian inventor, Julian Wilkes, and a sympathetic Metropol motor pool officer, Franklin X. Waters. The three crime fighters spend the rest of the season working out of a secret base
converted from an abandoned power station. This course of action regularly puts Astor up against his old allies (and enemies) within the Outfit, who all easily recognize him despite being total strangers to him.
With a heavy emphasis on identity and morality, and featuring a soundtrack composed by Eddie Jobson
and Shirley Walker
, the first season had incredible writing and production values for something that was basically a weekly Dodge commercial
. This creative style was abruptly dropped at the end of the first season
and was never really picked up again.
Seasons 2 and 3 are less ambitious in design, but can still be entertaining on their own merit. The setting is shifted back into a strictly modern (i.e. lower budget) environment, despite still taking place in Metro City and explicitly being set after
the events of the NBC series. Here, the Viper team is a legitimately employed police force fighting their city's latest crime wave. The show is almost completely recast, with Frankie being the only permanent character over the course of the entire series. The storytelling is also much more episodic, following a traditional Cop Show
format where the heroes try to take down a different random criminal each week. There is no overarching group of villains, and the episodes carry little to no continuity between each other. Jay Ferguson takes over as soundtrack composer and maintains this role for the rest of the series.
Season 4 sees Joe Astor returning as the story's main protagonist and becoming a member of the Season 2-3 cast. It serves as a compromise between the show's two distinct formats, combining elements of both while trying to maintain a single canon. There are a few notable throwbacks to Season 1 spread throughout, but this season's true Magnum Opus
is the two part finale entitled "Split Decision." In addition to ending the series as a whole, it can be seen as the proper (albeit somewhat flawed
) conclusion the first season never received.
Think of it as a '90s version of Knight Rider
Viper provides examples of:
- Action Girl: Gerraro in Season 1; Westlake in Seasons 2-4.
- Action Series: In varying degrees.
- Affably Evil Corrupt Corporate Executive: Both leaders of the Outfit (Mr. Townsend in the pilot and Lane Cassidy for the rest of Season 1) are this. Cassidy manages to hide his corrupt motives by being a Villain with Good Publicity.
- Amnesiac Dissonance: Season 1 toys around with it, but "Split Decision" hits it hard.
- Animal Motif: The Defender has narrow, snake-like headlight "eyes" and battering ram "fangs." Then there's the fact the transformation sequence for Season 1 was deliberately modeled after a snake shedding its skin.
- Ascended Fanboy: Automotives nut Frankie is infatuated with the Viper. He weasels his way into serving as the team's underground liaison for the first season, then becomes the car's lead mechanic for the second season onward.
- Badass Driver: Obviously.
- Beard of Evil: Payton in the pilot, then Connor during his return in "Ghosts."
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: Alec Connor.
- For the Season 1 pilot: "They'll have to catch us first."
- For the series as a whole: In his first on-screen appearance, Payton is shown stealing an experimental satellite component. At the end of "Split Decision," the final line of the series is Astor telling Westlake how he "stole" the Viper for their skiing vacation.
- Brain Uploading: The episode "Once A Thief" deals with Joe meeting one of the Reluctant Mad Scientists responsible for his brain implant. The doctor reveals he has a backup of Michael Payton's entire mind on a small harddrive and offers to digitally re-install it onto Joe's microchip in true Johnny Mnemonic style. Joe eventually declines the offer and destroys the backup, fearing the potential evil his own criminal half could cause in his new position.
- Car Fu: Payton uses it as a means of escape in the pilot and "Split Decision."
- Cartwright Curse: Joe had a bad case of this in Season 1.
- Chekhov's Gun: The Jabberwocky virus in "Firehawk."
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Inverted, as the microchip implant ends up making Joe more human.
- Played straight in the episode "Thief of Hearts," where a dying Outfit boss becomes so obsessed with stealing an artificial heart to extend his own life that he doesn't care he's sentencing the Ill Girl it was actually designed for to death.
- Dies Wide Open: Payton, just after the car crash.
- Distaff Counterpart: "Female Commissioner Gordon" is probably the single most accurate way Delia Thorne can be described.
- Doesn't Like Guns: Julian. He strongly vetoes adding any sort of assault weapons to the Season 1 model of the Defender, citing his hatred of guns after gang crossfire left him paraplegic as a child.
- EMP: The Defender often uses a miniaturized version of this as its primary weapon. If you're being chased by it, you better pray your vehicle is equipped with a static pulse collector or a negative ion field.
- Everybody Owns A Ford: In the future, everybody owns a Chrysler. Nearly every vehicle used in Season 1's production was either an available Chrysler model or a Chrysler concept car. Examples of the latter include Julian's EPIC minivan and Strand's '93 Thunderbolt.
- Evil Brit: Alec Connor, who regularly crosses the Moral Event Horizon and serves as a contrast to show Payton was never really that evil.
- Evil Counterpart: The Firehawk, which is driven by a former Viper test driver who went Axe Crazy after failing to cope with rejection. Going back to the Knight Rider analogy, it's basically the unholy fusion of KARR and Goliath.
- Expanded Universe: DC Comics released a 4-issue comic book miniseries in late 1994. It features an original plot set in Season 1.
- Fantasy-Forbidding Mother: The kid in "Safe as Houses" idolizes Joe as a superhero and often calls him the Defender. His mother doesn't believe in the rumors about a top secret crime fighting vehicle roaming the streets and scolds him for believing in what she thinks is pure fantasy. She finds out she was wrong.
- Five-Man Band: The Outfit's Highwaymen division is a corrupt version of this.
- Genius Cripple: Julian Wilkes.
- Hey, It's That Guy!:
- Hey, It's That Voice!: James McCaffrey would later become the voice actor of Max Payne.
- High-Tech Hexagons: The titular high-tech supercar had an armored body/shell comprised of hexagonal tiles. Though they were normally blended together in such a way that the seams were invisible, they manifested when the vehicle suffered damage, or transformed to or from its 'less conspicuous' street car mode.
- Hope Spot: Elizabeth tries desperately to tell Joe that she really cares for him despite being (a reluctant) part of the brainwashing plot. Joe abandons her, but then Julian persuades him to accept her and let her help him put his life together. Just as he arrives at her house to forgive her, she's blown up by an Outfit-planted bomb to punish Joe for not bringing the Viper to them.
- I Just Want to Be You: In "Past Tense," the woman who was hired to impersonate Payton/Astor's missing wife so she could assassinate him ends up breaking down and revealing she feels this way about the real Claire.
"A hundred times a day, we'd go over the story, every detail. Lang taught me to speak like Claire, to move like her. I cut my hair the way she did, wore her clothes. And then I started to think the way she thought and feel what she felt. Whoever Claire really was, I got swallowed up inside her. Right now, I can't even remember my own name. I became someone else, just like you did."
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Season 1 heavily implies Payton was always this, and "Split Decision" confirms it in its closing moments. Hence why it was in his nature to accept the new life he had been forced into.
- Magic Plastic Surgery: Subverted. Payton's eyes are dyed a different color and a few minor adjustments are made to his facial structure to hide his real identity, but nobody fails to recognize him once they see him in person.
- Mid Series Upgrade: The Viper RT/10 used for the first three seasons is replaced by the newer Viper GTS at the beginning of Season 4. The corresponding Defender model gets some new gimmicks, including a hovercraft mode.
- Mood Whiplash: Strand being sent to sleep with the fishes immediately cuts to innocent children laughing and playing.
- Mythology Gag: Two big ones in Season 1
- KITT's most recent appearance before Viper was made was in Knight Rider 2000, where he was installed in a Dodge Stealth that the studio customized to look like a Plymouth Banshee. One could interpret the events of the pilot episode to mean Joe wrecked KITT to upgrade to the Viper.
- The Season 1 episode "Wheels of Fire" involves the Baxley, a legendary concept car that Julian states was his inspiration for the Viper. It was depicted as a red Lincoln Futura: The same model of car used for the 1960's Batmobile.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Frankie speaks with a obvious Brooklyn accent for all of Season 1, then drops it for no discernible reason for the rest of the series.
- Recycled Soundtrack
- In "Winner Take All," Westlake's commander refers to the Season 2 car as "The latest prototype," marking it as a new, completely separate model and leaving the fate of the Season 1 car open for speculation. In "The Return," one of the very first things Joe does is refer to the Season 3 cliff hanger by asking which member of the new cast "blew up [his] old Viper." And they roll with it.
- "Once a Thief" establishes Joe's microchip completely erased his original consciousness and the only way to reverse the effect is to re-install his memories from an external backup. "Split Decision" suddenly changes this, stating all of the older memories are actually still there and the microchip just generates some kind of active firewall to prevent him from using them.
- Special Effects Evolution: A minor example- The transformations for The Pilot and season 1 were by Metrolight Studios of Total Recall (1990). from seasons 2-4, the scenes were done by two people.
- Stock Footage: Season 1 occasionally reused one of the Viper's earlier transformation sequences as a transitional shot. It got worse later on, where Season 2's "On a Roll" and Season 3's "Wilderness Run" copied and pasted entire chase sequences from Season 1's "Firehawk" and "Thief of Hearts." The former example even used almost the exact same dialogue as the original scene.
- Taking the Bullet: Claire in "Past Tense."
- Villain Episode: "Split Decision."