The Dukes of Hazzard & CHiPS – Science Fiction Double Feature

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[Previously in this series: Heartbeat’s Alien AbductionThe Waltons PoltergeistBaywatch Monsters & Mermaids]

Is it Halloween already? Like your most annoying Facebook friend from school’s birthday, our greatest festival now takes up a full month. It seems to get earlier every year, although it only starts to feel like Halloween when you see the Coca-Cola hearse. October is the perfect time to march through the streets, eyes black as coal, chanting the name Aleister Crowley, in the exact cadence and tune of “have a banana!” But it’s also the most prurient month to examine episodes of TV shows which brought real paranormal elements into their usually-grounded worlds. Sadly, a Starsky and Hutch featuring John Saxon as a vampire continues to elude me, and there wasn’t much mileage in the Golden Girls where Rose sees a UFO over the house, which turns out to be a secret military jet… or does it?

And so we turn our attentions to a pair of classic vehicle-based actioners from the US. On a sliding scale of wackiness, when compared to Heartbeat, The Waltons, and Baywatch, The Dukes of Hazzard — as a knowingly-silly action comedy — is already at the far end, down where all the farts live. But even so, Strange Visitor to Hazzard is pretty out there. I have to admit, even as the world’s foremost pop-culture authority, I’m flying pretty blind here. I have minimal memories of the show from its transmission in the UK in the early ’80s, mostly of them getting in their car through the window.

01

Hazzard was one of those American things from childhood which is viewed in memory just as it was in reality; through a small, fuzzy screen; wrestling with the aerial in the summer to get a decent picture, as French broadcasts bled into the picture from across the channel. Primarily a show about the hi-jinx of moonshine runners in rural Georgia, in looking through its synopses, the series did trade in broad-stroke plots about buried treasure, escaped convicts, mistaken identity, and long lost relatives, but nothing paranormal; not until 1985’s Strange Visitor to Hazzard. Perhaps the biggest clue in the whys can be found in pure, dry numbers. The Dukes of Hazzard ran for 147 episodes. Strange Visitor was its 145th.

We open with Bo and Luke Duke and jorts-innovating cousin, Daisy, whizzing round in an iconically problematic car; a pumpkin-orange Dodge Charger, topped with a decal of the Confederate flag, and named in loving tribute to General Robert E. Lee. The radio’s abuzz with news of UFOs in Hazzard County, with a hick excitedly babbling over the CB, “I seen one, I seen one! It was round and shiny, and give off this awful light!” Both parties almost collide head on, for the first of many — many — car crashes, and the classic Hazzard shot of a car sailing through the air in slow-motion.

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Everything’s narrated by music star Waylon Jennings, who sang and composed the theme song. And I do mean everything. Pretty much every scene begins with Jennings telling you what you’re looking at, or explaining that the Dukes, seen filling up their car with gas, have pulled into town to fill up their car with gas. It reminds me of being at my grandad’s, when he’d complain that someone kept speaking over his programs, only to find he’d once again sat on the remote, accidentally triggering audio descriptions for the blind. It’s not like the plots are hard to follow, but I guess the voice-over’s meant to give the good ol’ boy charm of being recanting a tall tale on the porch.

And if there is a porch, it’s on a wooden shack, stinkin’ of moonshine and surrounded by chickens, as Hazzard’s stock character in trade is very firmly that of the redneck. Rednecks were one of three types of Americans I thought existed as a child, alongside buff California ladies in fingerless gloves and bikinis roller-skating along the beach, and NY street toughs, selling drugs in alleyways where smoke belched out of manhole covers. Hazzard‘s bumbling brand of loveable hillbillies feel quaint compared to where the archetype’s at now, after decades of influence by everything from Jerry Springer and Tiger King to footage of Trump’s political rallies, which rewrote the redneck model to something more aggressive; to toothless meth-heads with assault rifles, afeared that Commies will take away their God-given freedom to say the n-word.

Even the cops are hillbillies, with Deputy Sheriff Enos driving his patrol car through Skunk Hollow later that night, where a mysterious bright light can be seen through the trees. Staring aghast in a moment reminiscent of PC Ventress’s abduction in Heartbeat, his radio explodes when attempting to call it in — “it’s a slying faucer… I mean a flying saucer!” and as he drives away, a three-fingered hand parts the nearby shrubbery.

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The way he screeches into town to announce it is endemic of the show’s myriad driving scenes. Everyone in The Dukes of Hazzard drives like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto, with even short jaunts to the shops done at fatal speed, swerving and drifting, and sending other cars ploughing over ramps and through billboards. Although, when the camera goes inside the car, the view through the windows is charmingly rear-projected, with unseen crew members rocking the chassis, and everyone turning the steering wheel at hard angles along straight roads, like they’re dancing to Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’.

The whole town’s gone UFO crazy, and once Boss Hogg gets wind of it, he plans on turning Skunk Hollow into a money-spinning monument to the world’s first flying saucer landing site. Hogg is Hazzard‘s most iconic figure, the white-suited, white-hatted villain from which all corrupt local politician characters spawned; Jabba the Hutt meets Colonel Sanders, with a bumbling sidekick in Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, who’s the Laurel to Hogg’s Hardy. The episode’s overpacked with villains, as a pair of local hoods are using Skunk Hollow as a hideout, after robbing a church bingo game. But they’re not the only one sneaking around the trees.

04

And there’s your alien, confirmed as real. Its head’s a bit… you know, penisy, isn’t it? Like someone’s dickpic got muddled in with the sketches to the prop guy. The actor inside the costume previously played Cousin Itt in the 1960’s Addams Family show, and Twiki from Buck Rogers. He spends half his time here up in trees, teleporting into the branches when he’s spotted, and into the Duke’s car to hide, when they turn up to pick crab apples. Hogg and Coltrane show up too, cementing the show as an endless procession of scenes where each group of characters arrive in a place, one after the other, usually following a chase; like the one here when the Dukes tip apples over Hogg’s head before speeding off, with the alien stowed in the back. There is a great line, when Coltrane yells the brilliantly specific crime of “crab apples on a county official!

The chase scenes are The Dukes of Hazzard‘s brand, sticking to a rigid formula of a bluegrass fiddle soundtrack over shots of stunt drivers kicking up dust and crashing through BRIDGE OUT signs for slow-mo jumps; and all with frequent cuts back to the actors in those indoor-shot close-ups. The Dukes get home to realise the nob-head alien’s in the car, and communicate with mime that they want to be friends, giving it the name Little Cousin, with everyone perfectly calm about aliens being real. Truly unsettling is how the space fella speaks in gurgling sci-fi noises which use the EXACT same vocal filter as Mr. Blobby.

05

Could this be a baby Blobby? Noel was always suspiciously reticent to give details about Blobby’s hometown… or should I say, homeworld? Maybe we’ll see the mothership and it’ll be shaped like a gunge tank. The alien mask has no articulation or movement, beyond blinking through the eyeholes, and the mouth’s a moulded piece that doesn’t open, leaving the actor to push at it from behind with his tongue when making the Blobby sounds. Like the Mince Pie Martians, the Dukes feed him a cookie — even though his rubber mouth is sealed shut — while he gives them some yellow space gum.

The robbers plan to hijack the town radio station — WHOGG — and “scare the overalls off these hicks” with a War of the Worlds bulletin about invading space monsters, leaving them free to empty the cash registers of a deserted Hazzard. There’s a bunch more chasing back and forth, as Hogg wants the alien for a freakshow, while the Dukes want to take him to the landing site, to be picked up by his family. It builds to a stand-off at the radio station, with every single character locked in a closet at gunpoint, and Lil’ Cousin pistol whipped unconscious by a robber the size of Geoff Capes. As the KOed alien’s carried out under his arm, it’s clear that the top of its head is a straight-up urethral opening. After more chasin’, everyone ends up back at Skunk Hollow, and c’mon, just look at that head.

06

They’ve even moulded a retracted foreskin on it! A bright light comes out of the sky, and Little Cousin walks towards it like Close Encounters, waving goodbye as it takes off. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see what the ship looks like, which is presumably a giant urinal, or massive pair of metal underpants with a door where the fly would be. The world isn’t changed by confirmation of intelligent life on other planets, and everyone casually chalks it up to another day of adventures. With a lone alien left behind by its pals, taken in by a friendly group of locals, and kept from the clutches of villains who want it for nefarious purposes, the genesis of this episode was undoubtedly someone filling the silence of the writers room with the words “can we just do E.T.?” — which had been the world’s biggest film upon its release, three years earlier.

That same time period was rife with vehicle-centered action series from the US, with Knight Rider, Airwolf, Blue Thunder, Streethawk, the weekly footage of rolling, crashing, exploding cars in The A-Team, and the other show we’re looking at, CHiPS. The series took its name from its setting of the California Highway Patrol, aka the traffic cops who wobble about on fat motorbikes. A light-hearted episodic police drama, this too was often on the sillier side of things, having to fill a run of 139 hours with gangs of cartoonish criminals and troubled teens who just needed a good mentor, but generally played it straight as far as fantastical elements. If anything’s remembered about CHiPS (whose small ‘i’ makes it a pain in the arse to type), it’s that there was a character called Ponch, played by Erik Estrada, a man solely known for playing a character called Ponch in CHiPS, in some real pop-culture Ouroboros.

07

Although 1978’s Halloween episode caught my eye with its delightful synopsis — After stopping a speeding van carrying 13 black cats on Halloween, Ponch has an entire day of bad luck — we’re focussing on another final-season show, from October 1982 (four months after the release of E.T.), entitled The Spaceman Made Me Do It. We open at night, as a hooded figure breaks into a jewel store using a brick of Blu Tack to magic open the lock, before the alarm triggers.

The lads; Ponch and his partner Bobby ‘Hot Dog’ (any relation to Ronnie?), are working graveyard shift after Hot Dog scratched the boss’s new car, so take off in pursuit. It’s like 60 seconds in before we’re on another swervy, horn-honky chase, which ends with the jewel thief crashing right through a parked milk truck that seems to be made from cardboard. And behind the wheel? Just a kid! Specifically, one of those wayward, 13-year-old girls who can hotwire a car but has a good heart, if only someone could reach it, who were behind the bulk of all crimes on 80’s television.

Ponch takes pity on the girl; Jodi — fatherless with a semi-absent single mother — who opens up about why she was on the rob, telling him “the E.T. made me do it.” I suppose he could get loads of rings on his long fingers. We see her tale in flashback, awoken by a bright light and billowing winds, wandering outside, trance-like, to a pulsating orange space-ship with a mushroom aesthetic. In the inevitable Close Encounters lift, an alien-shaped silhouette shuffles down a ramp, and quell surprise, its helmet looks like a massive bell-end. Jodi communicates with it telepathically, like a bad exposition phonecall — “you need diamonds to fix your communication system?!” and vows to help it get back home, as “I bet someone loves you and misses you.”

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Ponch is so moved by her plight, he immediately takes the kid under his wing. Incidentally, she’s played by Kyle Richards, who’s one of the babysat kids in Halloween (and reprising the role in 2021’s Halloween Kills), Paris Hilton’s aunt, and a future cast member of both The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Celebrity Apprentice. They set up that she’s got a big imagination, her mom telling them she’s got an imaginary friend called David, reads a lot, and has seen E.T.over four times!” So… five times? The patronising way everyone treats Jodi, it seems like they cast a 13-year-old in a part written for a child half that age, especially when mom skips out to Vegas during a court hearing, and Ponch suggests he get custody of this kid he’s spend two minutes talking to, which the judge casually agrees to.

So now Jodi’s living at Ponch’s pad, sleeping in his room, which is filled with teddy bears, as he and Hot Dog kiss her goodnight. Look, I know they’re not paeds, and I know it’s tiresome everyone always inferring characters are for comic effect, but a bunch of cops were just handed a child, like a stray dog they found out back by the bins, and now she’s hanging out at the station playing backgammon with surly Sergeants and being kissed atop the head by every cop she meets. That night, the alien comes for her again, and though Ponch sees a bright light sweeping past the kitchen window, he misses the ship. Jodi tells her the E.T. — never ‘alien’, always E.T. — wants to take her with him. “I can’t find happiness here, maybe I can find it in another world!

09

In a needless cameo, celebrity therapist Dr. Joyce Brothers reckons the alien’s just an imaginary friend, and they shouldn’t worry, as Jodi’s got such good real friends in all the cops. Yes, the 40-something men in leather gloves and tight shirts; perfectly normal hangout buddies for a tween girl. With lab results confirming the magic plasticine was a mix of chemicals and soil she could’ve learned to combine from TV show Uncle Henry’s Workshop (which really does sound like the Yewtree clubhouse), everyone’s erring on the side of ‘probably not an alien’. But Jodi takes Ponch and Hot Dog to the landing site, where they find burn marks and indentations, and tells them the spacemen are returning tonight, to take her with them.

Aside from the alien stuff, there’s a couple of random subplots; one about a chain letter going round the station, gifting misery to those who bin it, and luck for the ones to pass it on; like a $850 tax rebate to a cop who exactly resembles a grown-up Gonch Gardner. Also, some bag-snatchers are terrorising Chinese tourists, so they bring in Data’s dad from The Goonies from the Asian Task Force to chase down the baddies, one of whom falls in a fountain for no reason, as plinky-plonky oriental notes pepper the soundtrack. The former’s wrapped up in literally the last five seconds, with a punchline where whoever’s job it was to do so forgot to mail the letters; but at least he got his $850, right? “Not really,” he says, “it was for another Gonch Gardner! (not his name)” tossing the letters in the air as everyone laughs for the credit freeze frame.

10

That night, Jodi understandably can’t wait to flee this hellhole for the wonder of space (N.B. for any aliens reading, you’re welcome to come and get me off this fascist nightmare-rock before it boils, but only if you have proper, human toilet facilities. I’m not pooing in some communal muck-pit or having my wee float past my face because you haven’t got any gravity). When the lads find her missing, they rush to the landing site; a place so far away, they have to drive, while she’s just walked barefoot in a nightie. She changes her mind just as the aliens come, but all we see are howling winds, with the three of them rolling on the ground, screaming over the noise for ages. After Ponch shrieks at them to leave her alone, the wind suddenly stops, and all is quiet.

11

I saw it,” says Hot Dog, “but I still don’t believe it.” I’m glad someone saw something; we didn’t even get a big light. Just then, a police helicopter flies overhead — Jodi’s mysterious gazing at choppers throughout the episode suggesting she might’ve been imagining them as a space ship. “It’s a helicopter,” says Hot Dog, to which Ponch replies with an enigmatic “Bobby, it’s whatever you want it to be…” Jodi’s mom thanks the lads, and vows to be a better parent, taking back custody from My Dozen Cop Dads, and, oh yeah, aliens are real, and it’s fine. They threw in the possibility of an imaginary friend, but we all saw them; the viewers, the police; as real as Bruce Grobbelaar. I figured there’d be a gang of bad’uns with a fake ship and a Halloween costume, conning vulnerable kids into pinching diamonds, but it’s yet another world where UFOs are certified real and nobody’s the slightest bit fussed. Preposterous. That would never happen in real life.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on November 2, 2020.

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