Time Travel, Bazookas, and Robot Dinosaurs: A Look Back at the Weird, Wild Misstep of ‘Steel Justice’

Steel Justice’s infamous 1992 pilot is one of the most unbelievable wastes of money in television history. A gross miscalculation of popular trends, the pilot documents the bizarre things a network (or two crazed screenwriters) thinks the populous will swallow in the most embarrassing way possible. But how does one properly package the rise of Robosaurus in way that isn’t overly dramatic, boring, or confusing?

A good title communicates a lot about anything made for public consumption. By putting a glass and an orange on the front, a carton of Minute Maid Orange Juice convinces shoppers there’s something resembling OJ inside. In a more relevant example, a show like Two and a Half Men, a series as brash and obvious as its title, becomes the most popular show on TV. People love that which is direct and to the point. Why else would anyone watch that show? Jon Cryer? Come on.

But what can be said about a title like Steel Justice? Does it place viewers in the overheated dystopian future of Predator 2? Mention the mystical time-traveling shaman, the insomnia-suffering detective, or gang of arms dealers populated by racial stereotypes? Does it begin to touch upon the robot dinosaur central to the plot? So many questions. So many headaches.

There are very few answers surrounding the purpose of or intentions behind Steel Justice. It haphazardly blends the plot of Highlander, the aesthetic of Blade Runner, the chaos of Robocop, and the finale of a monster truck rally into something so inherently ridiculous, it’s hard to see how anyone would’ve made it through the script — let alone green-light the thing.

Steel Justice is the product of two men: Christopher Crowe and John Hill, a pair of TV-vets from such syndicated staples as Quantum Leap, LA Law, Miami Vice, and the unjustly canceled The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. NBC must have projected monster truck fans as a worthwhile market or thought these guys had whatever “it” is, because the network put a lot of faith (read: money) in these two coming up with a winner, and the results are nothing short of mind-blowing.

Set in the not-too-distant future, when CFCs finish off what’s left of the ozone layer, forcing the world to cram into overcrowded and overheated American cities, a mystical shaman travels through time to enter the dreams of David Nash, a cop with sleep troubles and a broken home. Bad dreams haunt David. He wakes up in cold sweats from visions of prisms of light, Greek warriors, and Stonehenge. He talks to shrinks. He talks to his partner. He talks to the audience. But nothing seems to shake these strange feelings that leave him paranoid and exhausted. And when the ghostly mystic starts popping up in reality, he really starts to lose it.

He has his reasons. A year before we meet David, a bazooka-wielding gang member blew up his son in a seemingly random act of senseless violence. Tragedy drives the plot, but unlike Batman or Robocop, the action is so convoluted and ridiculously staged that it’s hard to care. In its 90 minutes, the pilot takes on a mystery to connect a gang of gunrunners to the death of David’s son, yet without much revelation. Their involvement in David’s son’s murder, so obvious to everyone on the show as well as the audience, forces David Nash’s arduous journey into corner. All the pieces fit together within the first half hour, so why is there another 60 minutes before we get to the fireworks factory?

Most of the plot is basically Highlander. In the opening credits, David’s guide, Jeremiah Jones, introduces Steel Justice’s mythology. Jeremiah is a 3,000-year-old traveler interested in unlocking the secrets of human potential and how those mysteries can manipulate the world around them. He turned a small wooden horse into a weapon for the Trojans. He showed the druids how to turn rocks into Stonehenge. In David’s case, Jeremiah sees David’s pain and where it manifests: a three-foot tall, remote control dinosaur, David’s son’s favorite toy. According to Jeremiah, David’s power rests in the Robosaurus.

1992 was prime time to show off the advances of monster truck technology. While Grave Digger pummeled Chevy Novas from coast to coast, The Simpsons rode a wave of success that started with an episode featuring a robotic dinosaur named “Truckasaurus.”

If Crowe and Hill saw this classic, which they probably did, it gave them a terrible idea: What would a car eating robot dinosaur look like in a futuristic cop drama?

In the third act of Steel Justice, we find out.

After gathering all the evidence he needs, but gaining no help from his obviously useless superiors, David goes rogue and heads towards his Goliath, the gunrunner w/ ice company compound. Up against an army, there’s little hope for David. That is, until Jeremiah pushes David to concentrate on the toy robot. As David focuses, Robosaurus awakens and begins breathing fire and eating every vehicle in sight. It’s a spectacularly ridiculous ending to a show that took itself all too seriously and asks that we do too.

One of the problems with Steel Justice is just that. How were people supposed to take such a high concept seriously when the guy’s superpower was summoning a robotic, car-hungry dinosaur? Crow and Hill banked on the recognition of other popular sci-fi elements to comfort us before the monster’s entrance, but when he finally comes out, it’s used as a reward for enduring the 90-minute pilot. Steel Justice was a vehicle for Robosaurus, and to justify its existence, Crow and Hill wrote a story that included anything they thought people could grab on to.

TV shows notoriously capitalize on trends — it’s part of what makes them trends — but Steel Justice contains some of the most bizarre moves of the era. It takes the last ten years of science fiction to capitalize on the success of monster trucks. Were they going to base an actual show around this? It’s hard to say. More than likely, the bill became so high that the idea of continuing the show became too impractical. At least we have a record of that time Robosaurus was poised to take over the world, and for that, we thank you, Steel Justice.

Have the endurance to sit through all of Steel Justice? Then check out part one on YouTube:

Want to get to the goods already? Check out this three-minute version by Everything Is Terrible:

Time Travel, Bazookas, and Robot Dinosaurs: A Look […]