Tune in Tonight: "Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince"
When I started writing about 70s and 80s television, it was with the smug confidence that I had seen very nearly every program that had aired during that time at least once, especially if it was a television show for children. Imagine my shock when I realized how many programs fell below my radar—not missed, but completely unheard of, and airing during a time when I should have been aware of its existence. Granted, my life was not poorer for missing out on the Mork & Mindy cartoon, or Meatballs & Spaghetti, it’s just odd that they would somehow escape my notice despite watching whatever sub-par garbage Hanna, Barbera, et. al. ran on Saturday mornings between 7 A.M. and noon.
However, there’s simply no excuse for how I managed to miss 1983’s Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince, a television show so bizarre in concept and yet mediocre in execution that it should rank up there with H.R. Pufnstuf and Monchhichis as a shared hallucination of an entire generation. It has the production values of a PBS children’s show that would air at some random hour, like 7:30 P.M. on a Thursday, and yet somehow managed to earn a slot right before The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, which, if you were a Saturday morning TV show, was akin to landing a spot in the same lineup as The Cosby Show. Despite my watching so much of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show that I could identify episodes solely by their opening music, I have no recollection of Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince, and can only assume that every time it aired I was either in the bathroom or attempting to make sunshine on a stick.
Benji, etc. was the collaboration the whole world had been clamoring for, between Hanna-Barbera, who never met a lousy premise for a kids’ show they didn’t like, and Joe Camp, creator of the Benji movie series and TV specials. You remember Benji, right? You would have to—it still exists, more than 40 years after its creation, though it’s on its fifth or sixth version of the titular character at this point, a little mutt who doesn’t do much more than run around and look cute, but audiences went nuts for it anyway. Wanting to get in on that sweet E.T. money, Camp and Hanna-Barbera created a live action show in which Benji helps an alien stranded light years away from his home planet escape capture, accompanied by a sassy robot.
Being that the show appeared to be produced on a budget of about $54 and a handful of McDonald’s gift certificates, the alien, Yubi, conveniently looks like a regular kid. Yubi is played by Chris Burton, quite possibly the most indifferent child actor ever forced in front of a television camera. Much of his dialogue is prefaced with an exasperated sigh, and he spends most of the episode looking bored and annoyed, as if he had very quickly figured out that this was not how actors got cast in the next Steven Spielberg movie. Yubi is a prince on the planet of Antars, who escapes after the evil Zanu has his father killed and his mother imprisoned. Without the help of the show’s exhaustively detailed Wikipedia page, I wouldn’t have known any of this, because it’s never established in the opening episode. It just jumps right into the action (though the word “action” is applied very liberally here), with Yubi and Benji having already met, and camping together in an abandoned barn. Yubi is attempting to put together a “solar stove,” which sounds futuristic, but consists of a lampshade with an umbrella and a piece of tinfoil over it.
Yubi is accompanied by Zax, a droid that looks like a flying hamburger with Crow T. Robot’s head glued to it. Zax follows the little known Fourth Law of Robotics, in that robots must always be sarcastic, condescending assholes to every other living being they encounter. Zax doesn’t think much of these “dog” creatures, but considering that Benji only barks, and doesn’t appear to give one shit either way what Zax has to say, their “comic relief” banter is a bit one-sided.
Benji goes into town to find a replacement reflector for the solar stove, even though he’s a dog and probably doesn’t know what the words “replacement,” “reflector,” “solar” or “stove” mean. Zax goes along for the trip, mostly so he can continue nagging him. The town they enter is inexplicably, creepily deserted, consisting mostly of junkyards and shuttered businesses, and the only human Benji encounters is a homeless woman who just happens to keep a hambone hidden in her pocket. They’re there barely five minutes before Zax gets into a minor collision with a truck, and is rendered disabled. Before Benji can return to Yubi, however, he encounters a pair of bounty hunters (or so the invaluable Wikipedia page describes them, the show itself doesn’t even bother to give them names) who want to capture Yubi and Zax, tracking their prey in that most futuristic of vehicles, a Chevrolet van.
The bounty hunters, who are dressed like members of A Flock of Seagulls, manage to get a hold of Zax, but, stymied by such crude Earth inventions as shopping carts and trash cans, they’re quickly outsmarted. Zax is rescued by Yubi and Benji, and they leave town, hopefully before sunset, when the vampires come out of hiding.
I would love to tell you that this is an edge-of-your-seat 22 minutes, where a space kid escapes constant danger with the help of his robot sidekick and an unnaturally smart dog, and yet, fully three quarters of the show is dedicated to shots of Benji running. Sometimes he runs with Zax. Sometimes he runs with Yubi. Sometimes he runs by himself. Occasionally he walks. If you’re expecting anything more than that, however, I will spare you the disappointment and tell you that the most exciting it gets is Zax shooting out the tires on the bounty hunters' van with a laser device. The van isn’t even in motion, it’s just sitting in a parking lot. One might ask why Zax simply doesn’t shoot the bounty hunters themselves instead. The obvious answer is that it’s because it’s a kids’ show, but there was no way any kid was still watching it by the end of the episode, so what difference would it have made? Much like Friends, this show would have only benefited from a charred, smoking corpse or two.
Because so little happens in Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince, I found myself equally fascinated with and disturbed by the curious choice in setting. Per that goldmine of information Wikipedia, it’s somewhere in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but so desolate it looks like a scene from The Stand. Settings in later episodes—an empty hotel, an industrial park, other post-zombie apocalypse small towns—don’t do much to change the impression that this show was filmed on a shoestring budget, off-hours in places where a B-grade kids’ program shooting there was the biggest thing to happen since the local hardware store started carrying color televisions. That, along with its glacial pacing, gives the whole thing an air of unsettling surrealism, like something you’d see on Adult Swim. Nevertheless, it somehow managed to complete an entire season of thirteen episodes, because it was produced by Hanna-Barbera, who could have brought CBS a show that consisted of nothing but shots of Benji licking himself, and it would have gotten a Saturday morning time slot.
Original airdate: September 17, 1983