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Series / Viper

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"The perfect weapon for an imperfect future."

"The day after tomorrow, a time when criminals ruled the city. The only weapon that can stop them, needs a driver. The most wanted man on wheels is about to change sides. Now, against a corrupt system, a lone fight for justice. VIPER is taking back the streets."
Season One Intro

Viper is a 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. Think of it as a '90s version of Knight Rider.

The first season began filming in 1993 in LA area, and was planned to originally premiere on CBS in Fall 1993. However, it was delayed, first because Stephen Cannell also chose to name his new show "Viper", but after a lawsuit by Chrysler Corporation, he changed it to Cobra. Secondly, CBS deemed the series to be too violent and was about to bury it, but due to backing from Chrysler Corporation, the show proceeded on, instead it was 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 (James McCaffrey), 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 (Jon Polito) 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 Mind Rape 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 (Dorian Harewood), and a sympathetic Metropol motor pool officer, Franklin X. Waters (Joe Nipote). 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 is most memorable for 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.

Viper provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: From Season 2 onwards the futuristic style of the series got lost somewhere. No more concept cars like in Season 1 and less fantastic inventions. This devolution in time setting was also mentioned in an interview with Jeff Kaake printed in the German DVD booklet where he says, that the future setting was dropped finally for Season 3. But the intro from Season 2-4 is still mentioning the (at that point not so far away) 21st century.
  • Action Girl: Gerraro in Season 1; Westlake in Seasons 2-4.
  • 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.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: In Episode "Aftermath", when the Viper chases Ken Guthrie, Joe creates a Hologram of a road block. Guthrie fails to recognize the fake and takes a different route to avoid the road block. But as he drives on, he notices that it was a Hologram. As the chase continues, there is another road block and Guthrie comments "What do they take me for? An Idiot? Nobody fools me twice.". But his Passenger remarks too late that the road block is for real this time. Guthrie crashes into the road block and is taken into custody afterwards.
  • 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.
  • As Lethal as It Needs to Be: This could be applied for the Season 3 Episode "Hidden Agenda". The machine gun of the Viper makes an enormous amount of damage to a Dodge Intrepid. But the bullets from the weapon of the bad girl only put a dent into the car parked next to her. It actually looks more like damage from a firecracker.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The "Project Wind Storm", which is a bike with some cool stuff like an EMP gun and a laser cannon looks like a Cool Bike at first. But at second glance it turns out to be useless. One example is the steering. You can control the bike with your head movement. Sounds awesome, but imagine driving 75 mph on an Interstate and you see something beautiful on the road side. You move your head and then you are Captain Crash. And then there is the unreliable weapons systems it has, which very rarely work throughout the episode.
  • Badass Driver: Obviously.
  • Beardness Protection Program: After Payton is reborn as Joe Astor, his facial hair gets completely removed.
  • Beard of Evil: Payton in the pilot, then Connor during his return in "Ghosts."
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Alec Connor.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: In the German dub of episode "Mind Games", Frankie asks why his car steers to the wrong side of the road. But in fact, he only lost his brakes because someone hacked into the car computer and deactived the electronic brake. Frankie was still able to steer his car, which is evidently shown to the viewer.
  • Bookends
    • 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.
  • Captain Crash: Billy Denver in "Storm Watch" Drives Like Crazy with his Cool Bike that is Awesome, but Impractical and causes Havoc everywhere..
  • Car Fu: Payton uses it as a means of escape in the pilot and "Split Decision."
    • Averted in "Wanted: Fred or Alive". Instead of ramming the bad guy with her car, Mira just stops in front of him so he runs into her car.
  • Cartwright Curse: Joe had a bad case of this in Season 1.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Jabberwocky virus in "Firehawk."
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Joe during Seasons 2-3. In the Season 2 opener "Winner Take All", Westlake's superior tells that there was an earlier attempt with a different team two years ago, Julian has taken a job in Washington DC and Frankie will be assigned to the new Viper team. Joe, however, is never mentioned throughout the two seasons, until in Season 4 opener Frankie finally explains that after MetroPol took over the project, Joe left for Thailand when he couldn't play by the rules.
  • Cool Car: The Viper and "Defender" attack mode, obviously, with various other Chrysler cars spread throughout, like Franklin's classic Barracuda.
  • Cool Bike: Zig-Zagged Trope with "Project Wind Storm". You would think that a bike that uses technology adapted from the Viper Project would be all kinds of cool (and the visual design still is), but then again.... look up on "Awesome, but Impractical" for the whole list.
  • Concealment Equals Cover:
    • Throughly averted. You are the bad guy and you think you are safe inside a car because of this? "The Best Couple" proves wrong. Even when Cole is setting his machine gun to the smallest amound of caliber the bullet rips through the passenger door and injures the driver.
    • In "Seminar from Hell" Joe seeks cover behind a car and gets shot in the shoulder.
    • Weirdly enought, this gets played straight in Season 3. Almost everytime you see a Dodge Intrepid in Season 3 it gets loaded with bullets because someone is hiding inside or behind the Intrepid. This gets really crazy in "Hidden Agenda" when three guys hide behind a Dodge Intrepid. After the Defender emptied his magazine, the car is completely ruined. But the three guys stay unharmed. Look here at bottom of the page, last picture is from "Hidden Agenda".
  • 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.
  • Delayed Explosion: In "Shutdown" the real Defender shoots a Rocket at the fake Defender which goes under the car. It takes two seconds until the explosion appears. This might be a goof caused by the Miniature Effects.
  • 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.
    • In "Shutdown" we see an used car Dealership full of 13 Chrysler Corporation cars. 5 Dodges, 4 Chrysler and 4 Eagle (Eagle was part of Chrysler).
  • Every Car Isa Pinto: "Firehawk" and "On a Roll" both include a scene where the Defender shoots with an EMP cannon at a junk car which is in such a bad shape that its beyond a chance for repair. However it still explodes despite the fact that an Electromagnetic Pulse (= EMP) cannon could only damage electronic equipment. But this junk car has obviously no electronic equipment anymore that could set off an explosion.
  • 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 Father: 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.
  • Foreshadowing: When Joe Astor creates a Hologram of a Police road block in the chase of "Aftermath" he is foreshadowing the real road block that comes next. He also comments "Where is our real backup?".
    • At the end of Season 3 finale "About Face", after the Viper is blown up to prevent it from being stolen; Cole, Westlake and Frankie are at the Complex, looking at a hologram of the new Viper GTS Coupe, that then morphs into the Defender. Cole comments: "I think we'll trade up." Sure enough, when the new season premiered in the fall, it now featured the GTS. Albeit Cole would not get to drive it, as he was removed from the team for blowing up the old Viper.
  • Harmless Electrocution: Hitting a man with an EMP cannon seems to only tickle a little bit.
  • 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."
  • Impressive Pyrotechnics:
    • Subverted. In "White Fire" the Viper shoots with the EMP cannon at a van loaded with napalm. The best chance to justify Impressive Pyrotechnics, isn't it? But all we get is a tiny explosion. Ironically after the explosion only tiny pieces of the car survive and Thomas Cole comments that he has never seen anything burning so much. Exactly the same happens with another car fitted with a napalm bomb at the end of the same episode. But this time we even see the bomb car driving away from the explosion with only small scratches.
    • This was subverted again in "Hidden Agenda". A Dodge Intrepid is loaded with bullets from a machine gun until every part of the car is damaged but still it doesnt explode. The car standing right next to it gets bullets from another impressive gun but it doesnt get a scratch. Only a small dent is seen from the firecracker hitting the car.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: We already know that the Viper is a cool car because it has EMP and Plot-Sensitive Items that are as lethal as they need to be. But did you know that you can perform awesome aiming? If you aim at the front of a car you can also hit the side of the car. [1] Even if you dont actually aim at the car you can hit it. [2] The A-Team would love it.
  • Instant Convertible: Happens in "Hidden Agenda" with an Eagle Vision. Has anyone ever requested a Convertible version of the Eagle Vision?
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Season 1 heavily implies Payton was always this, and "Split Decision" confirms it in its closing moments.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Cole is aware that he needs Plot-Sensitive Items if he doesnt want to hurt someone. This applies for several Season 2 and 3 episodes.
  • 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.
  • Miniature Effects: When in "Shutdown" the used car dealership is blown up, all cars are just miniature models. The main reason is that there were two at the time brand-new Sebring Convertibles parked that were exploding.
  • Mood Whiplash: Strand being sent to sleep with the fishes immediately cuts to innocent children laughing and playing.

  • 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.
  • Oh, No... Not Again!: The pilot episode begins with Julian observing the sixth test driver for the Viper, who, however, fails. In the Season 4 opener "Comeback", after Cole and Westlake were removed from the team for blowing up the old Viper, now Frankie and Catlett are again witnessing several drivers incapable of handling the regular production line Viper. Frankie then comments that "What happens when they're put into the Defender?"
  • Plot-Sensitive Items: The EMP gun is this. It can shut down an engine and make it almost uncontrollable but if you hit a human with it, it just tickles you.
  • Pursued Protagonist: In the beginning of the Pilot episode of Season 2 "Winner Take All" Thomas Cole is chased by the Police for speeding.
  • Put on a Bus: Both drivers of the Viper:
    • Joe Astor after Season 1, when James McCaffrey opted not to return for Season 2. Also, he turned down an offer to return for Season 3. However, having just had a daughter and needing a steady gig, he finally returned for Season 4 via having Joe With a Foot on the Bus.note 
    • Jeff Kaake (Cole) did not get along well with his co-stars, Joe Nipote (Waters) and (especially) Heather Medway (Westlake). The fact that Medway was dating one of the show's producers, Danny Bilson, coupled with the fact that both of the producers, Paul DeMeo and Bilson, were fed up with Kaake's antics and prefered that Joe Astor actor James McCaffrey would come back, led to Kaake being removed after Season 3. In-universe, Cole (and briefly, Westlake) were removed from the team for blowing up the Viper after the Season 3 Cliffhanger ending. Given the cast's aforementioned problems with Kaake, it could be possible that Cole was actually Put on a Bus to Hell.
    • Also Allie Farrow after Season 2 - she takes a job for a government think-tank in Portugal.
    • Also Julian Wilkes. When Season 2 filming was moved to Calgary, as Dorian Harewood had just become a father, he chose not to return for the show. Also he didn't want to be in a wheelchair, but the writers were not able to think of a way to write him out of the wheelchair. In Season 2 opener, it's explained that Julian took a post in Washington, DC. Julian would later come back Commuting on a Bus in Season 4, now walking normally. However, as his duties were largely taken over by Frankie during Season 2-3, there was no place for him to return to full-time, so he would make only three Special Guest Star appearances during the season. In show, Julian had taken a job with NASA for Season 4.
  • Recycled Soundtrack
  • Shoo Out the New Guy: When Viper was renewed for syndication in 1996, James McCaffrey (Joe Astor) opted not to return for the second season, and also turned down an offer to return for the third season, before finally returning for the fourth. In the meantime, the driver's seat for the Viper was given to Cole (played by Jeff Kaake), who quickly left once Joe Astor returned. However, Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson would later state that they always preferred to have the more professional McCaffrey in the driver's seat, as Kaake did not get along with his co-stars. Rumor had it that Kaake would be gone for good after Season 3, and even if James McCaffrey wouldn't return, there would be a new driver either way.
  • Shout-Out:
    • There were several to Knight Rider, to which this series clearly owed a lot.
      • 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 Pontiac Banshee. One could interpret the events of the pilot episode to mean Joe wrecked KITT to upgrade to the Viper.
      • The Season 2 opener "Winner Take All" features the main villain, Colonel Dekker, committing robberies using a custom-built heavily-armored semi-truck carrying an army inside. Knight Rider season 2 opener "Goliath" and later episode "Goliath Returns" featured a semi-truck named "Goliath" driven by Garthe Knight. Goliath is armed with 4 missile pods on the cab, and an African mercenary army riding in its trailer; and coated with KITT's Molecular Bonded Shell coating, making it indestructible.
    • The Season 1 episode "Wheels of Fire" is also a twofer:
      • The episode 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. The German dub made this more obvious in case people didn't know that this was the Batmobile, as in it Joe says to Frankie "Did you change your car for the Batmobile?". Speaking of Batman, Season 1 overall had a comic book feeling. One could interpret Joe as Batman, Metro City as Gotham City, the Viper as the Batmobile, and the power station as the Batcave. Also in some ways, Julian as Alfred Pennyworth and Frankie as Robin.
      • The Baxley's designer is named Preston Baxley. In 1948, Preston Tucker had designed a new car way ahead of its time, before he was indicted for stock fraud, a story that was turned into the film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. There's speculation that the Big Three automakers were afraid of him coming on strong on their old pre-WW2 designs, and are implied to have had a role in Tucker's demise. Similarly, Baxley's car was very economic for its time, having a high mileage of 60 mpg. An oil company executive, concerned about it, then managed to convince Baxley's backers that the car was unsafe, which killed Baxley Motors.
    • In "Cold Warriors" a retired secret agent appears to fight the bad guys. He is driving a Ferrari 250 GTE which does look similiar to an Aston Martin DB5.note  Everytime this secret agent appears a James Bond-like music is played in background and its also mentioned that it has some gimmicks, labeled as "Head lights", "dashboard lights" and "fog lights" (but only a secret storage under the seat is revealed).
  • Retcon
    • 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 Cliffhanger 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.
    • The transformation of the Viper looks way better in Season 2.
    • Inverted in case of the EMP gun effects for Season 3. The new design was supposed to look more impressive but it didnt work out well. This is especially the case when the EMP is hitting a car. All other EMP effects stayed the same as in Season 1 and 2.
  • Sequel Escalation: The Defender in Season 2 has even more insane gadgets like a flying drone. In Season 4 it has a Hovercraft Mode.
  • 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.
  • Styrofoam Rocks: In "Cold Storage", the stunt men are running away from an explosion. The Styrofoam Rocks flying around have been broken and you can clearly see the white unpainted inside of the Rocks.
  • Taking the Bullet: Claire in "Past Tense."
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Julian Wilkes in Season 4. He has his newest invention, a bio-mechanical device using the Viper's morphing technology, that mimics the electro-chemical reactions in nerve tissues, implanted in his spine to support his shattered discs.
  • Time-Passage Beard: As opposed to his clean-shaven look in Season 1, in Season 2 and 3, Frankie has grown a goatee. The clean-shaven look then returns in Season 4, after Joe Nipote had shaved it off for another DeMeo/Bilson production It's True!.
  • Villain Episode: "Split Decision."
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?:
    • It is never mentioned where Metro City exactly is but in Season 2 we see a map. The city lies in the middle of the blueish rectangle: [3]
    • In "Tiny Bubbles" its confirmed that Metro City is on the West Coast.
    • Also confirmed in "Cat and Mouse", when Westlake's ZIP code is given to be 95574 - in the US, ZIP codes starting with 9 are used on the West Coast; and specifically, prefixes 900-961 are reserved for California. 955xx is used in Northwest California (Eureka) near the Oregon state line. While the computer gives her zip code as 91423, which is used in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles.