Sunday, April 18, 2010

Remembering UPN's Legend

Fifteen years ago today, on April 18, 1995, Richard Dean Anderson made his first appearance as a lead actor in a television series since the end of MacGyver, playing Ernest Pratt, the lead character in LegendLegend takes its name from Pratt's alter ego, Nicodemus Legend, a dime novel hero created by Pratt, who Pratt is (often unwillingly!) called upon to portray in real life.  Perhaps taking a cue from a couple of "dream episodes" of MacGyver, where Anderson's character imagined himself in the Old West, Legend was a western, but with a twist.

I remember the first time I saw Legend.  It was my Junior year of college. Saturday afternoon. I was visiting a friend, helping her hammer out some grammar and citations for a term paper she was working on. She decided to turn on the TV while I mused over proper sentence structure. The channel happened to be showing a western. No big deal here. A lot of stations show westerns on Saturday afternoons, presumably because no one watches TV at that time. Before she could change the channel, however, I noticed something: "That's Q!" Sure enough, John De Lancie's face was square in the center of the screen, surrounded by two large columns of electricity.  De Lancie was Janos Bartok, an inventor (inspired by the real-life Nikola Tesla) who used his inventions to enhance the reputation of Pratt's "Legendary" hero.  I eventually realized that I had happened upon the first episode of Legend, a show on the then-new broadcast network, UPN (which no longer exists).  Because our college was located in the mountains of North Carolina, we didn't have enough local TV stations for UPN to have its own channel. For us, the local FOX station had agreed to air UPN's programming at whatever time it could be fit into the schedule. For Legend, that meant Saturdays at 3:00 PM. Not a time when I'm generally watching TV. If it hadn't been for that chance encounter, I might never have gotten attached to UPN's far-too-short-lived show.

Unfortunately, when ratings figures didn't immediately show up as highly as had been hoped, Legend was quickly in danger of being canceled. The fact that UPN was still in its first few months of programming didn't seem to matter. The executives were already threatening to kill the show after only its third episode. It's not that Legend did poorly.  It was UPN's second-most highly watched show (after Star Trek: Voyager).  Rather, the UPN executives simply had unrealistic expectations for what ratings on a brand-new network (that wasn't even airing on dedicated stations in a large part of the country) should look like (obviously, that's my own opinion, but I think that this is one that others would agree with.  I remember hearing John De Lancie, at a convention appearance a year or two later, remark that people often confused "UPN" with "UPS").

Valiant efforts were made to save the show, and it is largely due to these efforts that we saw a total of thirteen episodes of Legend (counting the two-hour pilot as two episodes).  I even took it upon myself to do what I could to save the show. I sent in written letters to my local UPN station (this one in Louisville, where my parents live, and where I watched the show that summer) and to the UPN headquarters in California. I also tried my hand at some Legend fan fiction. The result was a story I called "Legend Runs for Mayor."  At the time it was written, Legend was still on the air, running through its last few episodes. Although the show had already been proclaimed "cancelled" by this time, I figured hope was alive as long as it still had an on-air presence. I posted the story to AOL and several BBS's (both of which seem antiquated now, but the Internet was not yet the widely accessible "superhighway" it is today) with a note at the end of the story telling people how to write UPN to voice their feelings. Unfortunately, I was not able to gain anywhere near enough widespread notice for my little story to even make a dent, and on August 8 (my birthday!) of that year, the show aired its final first-run episode.  As it turned out, every one of UPN's first-year programs were scrapped, except for Star Trek: Voyager, the show to which UPN owed its very existence, even though that show itself was a disappointing take on the Star Trek franchise. (Note: Voyager was given a two year guarantee when it was picked up by UPN. Don't even get me started on how bad the first two years' worth of Voyager programming was. If Legend were given a tenth of the chance Voyager was, it would have lived a nice, long life.)

A year later, I started seminary. I lived at the time in a little middle-of-nowhere town in South Carolina. Still struggling to find a job, I had a lot of free time on my hands. My searches for Legend information on the web yielded very little of use. The only site I could find was this site, which even at that time hadn't been updated since the series was canceled.   So I then decided to begin my own site. This was my first effort at doing my own web page.  Perhaps due to the short run of the show, I never had too much competition, so it eventually was widely regarded by many as the premier Legend site on the web.  Unfortunately, I moved on to other things, and the site no longer exists (although parts of it can still be found via the Internet Archive, and I have given many of the images I collected, including a number of behind-the-scenes pictures, a home at Google Photos), while the other site remains (still unchanged, apparently) to this day.  I'm told that the show pops up in reruns from time to time, but this always seems to be on cable networks (which I don't get), so I can't say how reliable that information is, let alone how recently or often it happens.  Although there are a few You Tube clips out there, I've yet to see Legend on a service like Hulu, and the show has never been released on DVD, and so I encourage people to tell Paramount that there's an interest from time to time (although even that link is pretty old, dating back to before MacGyver had even been released on DVD!). (25th anniversary edit. Legend eventually was released on DVD! Sadly, some of the music had to be changed for copyright reasons)

I'm sad to note that both co-creators of Legend, Michael Pillar and Bill Dial, have passed away in recent years.  A reminder that the show actually has been gone for quite some time, even though it doesn't really feel like it's been so long....

Note: April 18th is also (coincidentally!) the 5-year anniversary of this blog. Between these two anniversaries, I'm going ahead with a Sunday post to make sure that it actually appears on the correct day.

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  1. Thank you for your commentary on Legend. I'm a fan of Richard Dean Anderson and his various roles (especially Stargate SG-1, MacGyver and Legend), and it reminded me now is the time to dig out by VHS tapes and watch the series again!

  2. Hi, That was really great! Love this serie, I have it complete in divx, not seen with Good quality and hopefully one day they decide to edit it on DVD. I am a big fan of Richard Dean Anderson, so I love all your work and buy delighted.

  3. Such a good show. The best ones always die much too soon.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. Not only was I a big fan of this show in particular, but in general I find myself often waxing philosophic while reminiscing about a number of shows I feel meant something and were canceled far too soon. The early UPN were quite big conspirators of the phenomenon, starting groundbreaking Sci-Fi/fantasy-esque shows but not keeping them around for long. I am glad to see I am not the only one to remember, even after so long. Legend was special, it had a sense of nostalgic hopefulness to it but wasn't preachy and had a good sense of humor. I was glad when Anderson later had success with Stargate SG-1, for which he was also partly creatively responsible.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed but miss "7 Days". Although that show was given a longer, albeit brief, run.


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