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CALL HIM SUPERBOY: A RETROSPECTIVE ON THE SUPERBOY TV SERIES (1988 – 1992)

By Rennie Cowan

There was a time when television said “yes” to flight and tights for the Boy of Steel. More than a decade before Smallville, there was a hit syndicated series on television called Superboy the TV Series which was later changed to The Adventures of Superboy in 1990. The Superboy TV Series was the precursor of today’s popular show starring Tom Welling. Yet, what makes Superboy primarily notable is that it was developed by both Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the same legendary movie producers who brought to life the well-known Christopher Reeve Superman movies (minus Superman IV). There is one extreme difference regarding the two shows; the Superboy TV Series had young Clark Kent flying in the tights and Clark wore glasses; he had two identities, whereas on Smallville it focused on the journey and growth of the young Clark Kent character. The first impression of many newcomers to this show is that it was a cheesy show, and this is in light of only one season being available for purchase on DVD.

Three seasons of the Superboy TV Series are yet to be available on DVD, and there is a different Superboy actor during the later seasons. The first Superboy in season one was played by John Haymes Newton. The second Superboy (Gerard Christopher) starred in the remaining three seasons. As a whole, seasons two, three and four is the only measure of what characterizes the show’s true quality and intensity. By season two, the series is really the most faithful interpretation of young Superman on the small screen. With a few exceptions; in this timeline, Superboy is attending college at Shuster University (named after Joe Shuster) with his childhood friend, Lana Lang. To give the show a bit of flair, you may be excited to know that synthesizers and electric guitars brought a new kind of sound to Superman. The synthesizers stayed for the remaining seasons, but the electric guitars retired.

The show had exhilarating music by Kevin Kiner who later composed music for notable hit television shows like Stargate SG-1, The Invisible Man and Star Wars: Clone Wars. Kiner’s music had a life of its’ own, giving each mood of every episode a touch of John Williams if you will. Each main character and every villain had their own theme song; even villains who were guest stars in certain episodes like “Succubus” and “Run, Dracula, Run”.  In “Succubus”, Ilya Salkind professed in the documentary On The Pool Patio With Ilya Salkind that he personally asked Kiner to deliver a musical piece to sound like The Godfather. Ilya Salkind wanted masterpieces in the music; a touch of greatness if you will. Kevin Kiner’s musical scores on The Superboy TV Series is one of the most impressive aspects of the show.

While you may be hypnotized by Kevin Kiner’s musical score during any episode, you also will be engrossed by knock-out performances by Stacy Haiduk, the actress who played the famous Lana Lang in all four seasons. In fact, she is the only lead actress to survive the series for all four years. Stacy Haiduk has often been called the star of the series itself, not Superboy, ironically enough. Her passion in the role is very clear. Haiduk delivers nothing but the best, and with an intensity and unique inner beauty that is seldom found in television acting. When you look back on Haiduk’s performance in Superboy, you think of other memorable television actresses like Lindsay Wagner as the Bionic Woman, or Linda Carter as Wonder Woman. And yet, Haiduk was only Lana Lang. Lana may have had no powers, but she was clearly a big chunk of the show, considered beautiful and stunning by her male audience.

What was most attractive about Stacy Haiduk’s portrayal as Lana Lang was the moralism she brought to the character; you knew there was nothing evil inside Lana; no deception; no cruelty; only a good nature connecting Lana Lang to Superboy in the most mesmerizing fashion. Though the first season of the series had a difficult start, the show greatly improved once Ilya Salkind changed the formula and brought in more experienced actors and more comic book villains. This gave Haiduk a chance to deliver some of her best performances. But don’t let season one slip by the wayside. During season one, in the episode “The Alien Solution”, Lana gets possessed by an alien, and in one particular scene she rips open Clark’s shirt to reveal the “S” on his chest. Lana holds a piece of glass up to her neck to threaten Superboy with her life; blood drips as she cuts herself, forcing Superboy into the Alien’s demands.

John Haymes Newton, the Superboy actor during season one had to deal with the mediocre scripts of the first season, leaving him without much to show in his acting ability until the middle half of the season. Like Haiduk in the episode “The Alien Solution”, Newton was finally able to use his acting ability with an intensity that showed. You discover that Newton can deliver a very emotional approach to the Boy of Steel. But one thing held him back – Ilya Salkind wanted a bumbling Clark Kent like Christopher Reeve. Newton refused because he felt Clark should be more human and real. Newton’s most notable episodes, and also, the best episodes of season one are “The Alien Solution”, “Meet Mr. Myzptlk”, “Bringing Down The House”,  “Hollywood”,  “Succubus”, “Black Flamingo”, “Revenge of the Alien (Part 1 and 2)” “Mutant” and “Luthor Unleashed” (the last episode of season one). Season one certainly gets the show up to speed, but by season two, John Haymes Newton was replaced by an older actor to play Superboy (Gerard Christopher).

The energy in season two evokes a comic book feeling unlike any other season of The Superboy TV Series. Gerard Christopher was older than Newton by ten years, and for that reason, Ilya Salkind believed this brought in more experience. Gerard was also a tri-athlete and wore the tights like a natural Superman. His landings and take-offs on the wires made the flying more real, and it appeared so easy to Gerard Christopher who was physically stronger; Gerard also had an inner sensibility that was clearly exposed. Gerard Christopher’s wide range of sensibility and humor brought a personality to the character that mirrored something one would expect to find in Superman, not in a growing Boy of Steel. For all intent and purposes, Gerard was depicting a full-fledged Superman, and stood in the costume filled out like Superman. By great contrast to the first season, Gerard gave Ilya Salkind what he wanted – a nerdy Clark Kent. The chemistry between Lana and Superboy also took a turn, mainly because Gerard Christopher was ten years older than her, you believed the romance. From the simple infatuation of the first season, to something far more mature and beyond, Lana Lang knew she was seriously in love (and vice versa).

You will see many famous villains on The Superboy TV Series, and in all their comic book glory. You will not find too much tinkering with the mythos on this show as you may find with Smallville. Not saying that it is a bad thing in general, however, you will be surprised when you see costumes that proudly present the image as seen in the comic books; for example, Mr. Myxptlk. The main goal of the show was to tell the mythology of young Superman as the comic books portrayed it. Ilya Salkind was a stickler when it came to this. In fact, there was no holding back with a few extra punches. Bizarro, Metallo, Mr. Myxptlk and Lex Luthor;  the best Lex Luthor performance in history was done by Sherman Howard. Lex Luthor who grew up with Clark, the back story of the show, eventually led to casting an older Lex Luthor. The writers of the series and Ilya Salkind agreed to have Lex get plastic surgery to make him look older. Lex then poured acid on his vocal cords to lower his voice. If you think the Joker is crazy, then think again. Sherman Howard’s performance will thrill you to pieces.

There are no over-complicated plotlines like those found on Smallville, but on Superboy it is deceptively simple; it is the subtext beneath the simplicity that complicates the series as a whole. Lana Lang discovers that her brief interludes with other men are impossible; her attempt to forget Superboy and move with her life either ends in great heartache or in twisted deception. In the second season episode “The Power of Evil”, Lana dates a Karate Sensei to keep her mind off of Superboy. Later, he is killed by an evil life force that is after Superboy. In “A Change of Heart (Part 1 and 2)” Lana decides to date the wealthiest man in Capitol City – Adam Verrell. The subtext emerges; Lana Lang appears to be seriously dating Adam Verrell, but is it to make Superboy jealous and notice her, or is she faking her limp to get Superboy to fly her to the hospital? The problem: if Superboy goes public with his feelings for Lana then his enemies will most likely kill her. In fact, this often does put Lana in danger; Adam Verrell betrays Lana because he only used her to get to Superboy.

But no worry, by the show’s fourth season Lana suspects that Clark Kent and Superboy are the same person. By the fourth season, many scenes mirror Lois Lane’s adventurous attempts at uncovering the truth of the duel identities; she doesn’t jump into Niagara Falls like Lois, but Lana’s obsession is clear and often embarrassing. Lana is ready for the insane asylum as she is always so close to discovering the truth, but never quite getting down to the truth. There were some episodes where Lana was able to know the truth but only to have time changed; the truth disappears in time and she doesn’t remember anything (“Escape to Earth”). In the two-part episode “Abandon Earth” and “Escape to Earth”, aliens are posing as Superboy’s parents: Vorok and Mir. Lana finds out Clark’s super identity and unleashes an emotional scene, a direct homage to Margot Kidder’s line from Superman II: “I don’t even know what to call you!”

The show’s intent, of course, is to tell the story of Superboy who is Superman when he was a young man. However, there is nothing boyish about the series during the much darker third and fourth seasons. During the last two seasons, the series is shot mostly at night and you get a sense of the Dark Knight lurking in the shadows. More serious plotlines emerge; darker episodes and even the Devil shows up in “Carnival”. Superboy develops a global destiny; in the episode “Wish for Armageddon” he saves the life of the President of the United States. The ensemble cast really makes a difference in the later seasons; Gerard Christopher, Stacy Haiduk, Sherman Howard, Tracy Roberts and Barry (Douglas) Meyers. The Superboy TV Series is also the only Superman-related incarnation that has a live-action Bizarro played by Douglas “Barry” Meyers. The mask looks completely real, and Barry Meyers moves like a robot, totally fitting of Bizarro. Rob Burman, who is a genius with monster make-up, made a real prosthetic mask to fit on the actor in six pieces. With the finished make-up, Bizarro looks eerily real.

 Though you may easily find the first season of Superboy the TV Serieson DVD, you will not find seasons two, three or four available anywhere. Not unless you visit the underground message boards that do trades for old TV dubbings of the original airings. The later seasons, considered the far better version of the show, are virtually unreachable to fans unless you are willing to settle for low quality. You may also watch them on YouTube. One has to ask, why doesn’t Warner Brothers release these better seasons onto DVD? Their answer may be for one or two reasons; season one didn’t sell well, or, there is still a legal rights issue regarding the character of Superboy. However, it boils down to three parties who are involved with the show: Warner Brothers, Ilya Salkind and Viacom. Ilya Salkind feels that the later seasons have a chance of official release after Nolan’s Superman: Man of Steel is released to theaters. It is this “super-mania” that will convince WB to agree to the release of the later seasons.

What makes this retrospective on the Superboy TV series a faithful interpretation of Superman in a nutshell? Superboy is clearly not a boy on this show, and in fact, the storytelling matures on a significant level by season three. The show becomes dark, and with episodes like “Roads Not Taken (Part 1 and 2)” we see an evil Superboy who isn’t playing games. He is called Sovereign and if you fail him he will melt you down with his heat vision. This show also has some of the best flying shots in any Superman-related television series or movie; the series itself hired the same wire crew who did the flying work on the Christopher Reeve films, so a great deal of wire work is simply spectacular.

Like any series, the show had bad episodes, namely “The Invisible People” which is Ilya Salkind’s pick for the worst episode of the series. But most of the weak episodes are during season one. As a whole, The Superboy TV Series is an energetic ride through DC Superman history, and maybe, a quick ride into Gotham. The romance is so believable between Lana and Superboy that you will never want Lois Lane to show up at all! Clark Kent works for the government, the Bureau of Extra-Normal Matters. The unexplained is yet to be explained. Sure, the Daily Planet exists on the show…somewhere. But who cares? The show sets up an alternate reality for the Man of Steel, one where he doesn’t need to be a bumbling reporter. The show doesn’t even need Lois Lane. And the show ends feeling like Superman in every respect, but the only difference is that Clark is called Superboy. Don’t let that fool you, the best storytelling and excitement in Superman television history is in this show.

For more information on The Superboy TV Series, character profiles, articles, interviews with the cast and crew, episode guides, please visit superboytheater.net. Also, be sure to visit superboyhomepage.com.

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4 comments on “CALL HIM SUPERBOY: A RETROSPECTIVE ON THE SUPERBOY TV SERIES (1988 – 1992)

  1. I was hooked on this blog post from the opening paragraph. It’s great! I agree, most people that see Superboy for the first time do have little regard for the series, but this is a case where you can see such wonderful growth of characters, script, writing, effects, etc. Once the second season rolled around. I’m so glad it wasn’t canceled after season 1.

    I like the paragraph on Kiner. I was just watching Superboy episodes today-and noting what an awesome job he did with music. It fit the era and the whole adventure that revolves around Superboy from the fantastic, to the science-fiction to the Supernatural. It was decidedly eerie and sweet where it needed to be-I’m thinking of the episode Gerard wrote called ‘Wish for Armaggeddon’ and the lovely farm music that plays whenever Clark goes home to Smallville.

    I agree with everything you wrote about Stacy, and again, I was just thinking all the same while re-watching the episodes. I absolutely loved her performance in Season 3’s ‘People vs. Metallo’ where she has to defend Superboy in court all on her own. She was very intense, but at the same time she conveyed Lana’s vulnerability and true love for Superboy. It was amazing. You really see how much she matured Lana after season 1 and it was natural.

    And I think it’s great that you give John Newton good credit, while I prefer Gerard, my opinion of Newton’s performance has softened now that I had a chance to see him in action again as Superboy. It had been over twenty years since I last saw season 1. He tried to do his own approach, which in itself wasn’t bad, it’s just not what they wanted at the time. In the series Lois and Clark, I think they took John’s exact approach for Clark. He was suave and cool vs. geeky and meek.

    I think Rennie, the author, knows EXACTLY how I feel about Gerard as Superboy, so I don’t need to go into all the details. 😀 Just read her facebook group messages for Superboy Theater! But she called his performance right on all counts. He understood the character he was playing, he loved Superman. And while you could see he tried to keep Clark acting his 21 years, that shining adulthood came through and we were in effect watching the MAN of Steel. That wasn’t a bad thing at all. 🙂 And his flying was spectacular. He knew how to carry himself erect and keep steady on the landings.

    All I can think of watching Sherman Howard is the Joker!(The Nicholson and even Ceasar Romero versions.) He was amazing, and you could tell a truly gifted actor that put his all into the role of Lex Luthor. His gal-pal Darla, was played to bubble headed perfection by actress Tracy Roberts, she loved her Lex, but even she had a limit. The episodes ‘Darla goes Ballistic’ and ‘Know Thine Enemy’ shows off her astounding acting chops.
    I appreciate that for the most part Mr. Salkind stuck to the original mythos of Superman for all the characters. I would guess at that time in 1990, the world wasn’t ready for all these ‘alternate universes’ and various incarnations of Superman we see today. We were simple and happy with what young Shuster and Siegal created so long ago…of course with the wonderful tweaks that the Salkinds made, forever altering Superman canon!

    Poor Lana, her emotions were so twisted by the fourth season when she dated Adam Verrell. Those were fantastic episodes. She is tied to Superboy by her heart strings and there is no breaking that, and for the time being, so is he. Lana Lang was strong and independent, but with Superboy, she could be mush. I prefer her in this show over Lois Lane any day.

    Superboy definitely had a noirish-Burtonesque Batman feel by season 3 and 4. It was very cool, but I did miss the beautiful sunlight and bright colors from season 2. When I think of Superman and his world, it’s bright, and vs. Batman everything is dark and sinister in that corrupt city. But that didn’t deter from the great story lines they told.

    This is a wonderful review! I’m sure anyone that reads it will be curious to give the Superboy TV series a try. And I sincerely hope with the new Superman fever about to erupt for the Nolan Film, they release the remaining seasons of Superboy on DVD. It surely deserves it, and all the cast and crew involved deserve that recognition. I’m happy to have a small part in the fan-work for the series helping Superboytheater when I can. It’s a really fun, but small fandom for a terrific show. 😀

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  2. I hope you guys know that season 2 was released on dvd last month! I got my copy from amazon, and I’m loving it as much as I did when I was a kid! And the remaining two seasons are set to be released later this year.

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  3. Joey, thanks for the heads up. I assure you that I have gotten my copy of Season 2 as have many of my fellow writers. Glad you’re enjoying it! Keep an eye out on this blog because a friend and I will be launching a podcast dedicated to the Superboy T.V. series in the very near future!

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  4. That sounds pretty neat, Adam! This cool show really deserves more attention and respect. It’s way better than Lois & Clark, and Smallville!

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