A Look Back at the Year 1986

It was a year with progression, change, and, unfortunately, some significant setbacks. It gave us some of the very best movies of the decade, exciting music, technology, HUGE sports moments, and an event from above that made us all look up. 

On today’s dizzying journey… I take you back to one of the most significant years of the decade–and of the entire 20th century. It was a year where, despite all our progress, we faced some significant setbacks. This is a year that may be defined as one step forward, two steps back. This… is a look back at 1986.

Depending on how old you were in 1986, some of its events would have a major impact on you, but some may have completely passed you by. And this all comes down to our personal perspectives. I was about 9 years old in 1986, so my focus was all about the big pop culture events that happened. But it was impossible not to be aware of two of the worst disasters of the decade.

But before that, if you haven’t seen them yet, here are my reviews of the years leading up to 1986:

If we had to sum up the year 1986, the underlying theme of it was about setbacks in the midst of progress. In this episode, we’ll look at some of the major pop culture moments, including the movies, TV shows, technology, sports, music, and other significant cultural moments.

But before all that, let’s look at some other notable moments from 1986:

  • The Hands Across America Charity event is held with the idea of 5-6 million people holding hands in a continuous line for 15 minutes. The goal of Hands Across America was to raise money for hunger and homelessness. Except for huge gaps in the western states, hands across America was a complete success. 
  • A new talk show began on September 8th featuring a news anchor from Nashville named Oprah Winfrey
  • The Phantom of the Opera debuts in London’s West End
  • Microsoft holds its first initial public offering
  • Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson are married in Westminster Abbey on July 23rd
  • Speaking of the UK, Margaret Thatcher would open the M25 Motorway. Those in the UK know this was significant as it was the first motorway that would allow drivers to fully bypass London
  • In 1986, the Average monthly rent was $385, a new house would cost around $89,000, and a gallon of gas was 89 cents.

As great as all the big pop culture moments were in 1986, two major events dominated the year. But the word event isn’t the best way to describe them: They were, unfortunately, disasters. 

The Space Shuttle Challenger

1986 had barely begun before we got one of the worst accidents in the history of NASA and the space program. The Space Shuttle Challenger would explode just 73 seconds after liftoff. For kids in the 80s, this became one of the first “where were you when” moments we would experience. Unfortunately, many of us were in schools watching this horrifying event take place.

For the first time ever, a civilian was going to space. Christa McAuliffe was a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, and including a teacher created even more interest in the Challenger’s launch. As amazing as space exploration was, interest started to lag. And it didn’t necessarily seem accessible to the average person. Including McAuliffe would show that the average person could be involved, and, most importantly, she could communicate with younger people better than the average astronaut.

McAuliffe was a very gifted teacher and was chosen out of 11,000 applicants, and could communicate with students while in orbit. This would show the importance of teachers, create more interest for kids, and, unfortunately, was to show how reliable space flight was.

The Challenger would come apart at an altitude of 48,000 feet, killing McAuliffe and the other 6 on board. And many of us watched this live. We all have our own versions and memories of what happened and I can tell you that I thought what we were watching was just part of the launch. And I think many people felt the same way. Eventually, we all learned that something terrible had happened, and became one of those days that was burned in the memories of everyone–especially kids. 

And here’s a pretty crazy story regarding all this: McAullife may actually not have been the first choice for a non-astronaut crew member: it may have been Big Bird. Caroll Spinney performs Big Bird and in the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird, he talks about getting a letter from NASA about Big Bird being a part of the Challenger mission.

The goal was to use a sesame street character to create more interest in the space program for kids. He says how the problem was Big Bird’s 8-foot tall costume was too big for the space capsule and a civilian would be used instead. NASA has said the plan was never approved, but a review of past documentation stated that “there were initial conversations with Sesame Street regarding their potential participation on a Challenger flight.”

Regardless, this story just adds another bizarre layer to a national tragedy and one of the darkest days in the history of the space program. And speaking of this, and kids, there would be yet another connection to the Challenger disaster, but that will have to wait for our movie section. 


If you want to go back into my earlier episodes, I have an article all about the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. As we’ve now learned, this event was much more serious than we realized. But at the time, it was thought that we dodged a bullet. We weren’t so lucky on April 25th. Sleep-deprived workers ran several tests on reactor number four. This was routine maintenance, and they were testing to see if the reactor could be cooled if the plant lost power.

Several power surges then occurred inside the reactor. This created a chain of reactions that just couldn’t be stopped. It resulted in explosions that were so powerful they blew the concrete and steel lid right off the reactor. The core was exposed and began leaking radioactive material into the air. Many were killed, and no one knew exactly how severe the explosion had been. During the time of the Cold War, The Soviet Union tried to downplay it as much as possible.

It would take 36 hours before nearby towns were even evacuated. But the radioactivity had spread as far as Sweden, so there was no way for the Soviets to continue to keep the disaster under wraps. The rest of the world understandably freaked out, and the Soviets tried to contain the disaster. Human beings were actually used to clear out nuclear material. A giant container was built to contain the wreckage and was still in place up to 2016. 

But everyone’s fears about nuclear power had come true. If Three Mile Island was our warning sign, Chernobyl was the nightmare reality. And could this happen again? The damage was so severe that the zone around the reactor would not be habitable for 20,000 years. Hundreds of thousands of people needed to be moved and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, suffered the effects of the radiation. Some see the Chernobyl disaster as the beginning of the downfall of the Soviet Union, but it was a horrifying reminder that as far as our progress had come by the mid-80s, our safety was not always guaranteed. 

Halley’s Comet

In 1986, there was a major event that made us all look up. It had been 76 years since Halley’s Comet had last passed by the earth, but it was set to make its return around February, but was still visible, going into March and April. The return of Halley’s Comet was a big deal–especially for kids. If your school was like mine, the majority of our lessons included the comet, and everything significant about it.

And one of the most interesting things about Halley’s Comet is how it allowed us to take stock of how much we had progressed and advanced as a species. The last time Halley’s Comet passed by earth–back in 1910–electricity, phones, and cars were all relatively new. The Orville brothers had only just made their first flight a few years prior. In 1986, we were indeed living in the future. We could fly anywhere in the world, had computers, could beam live images around the planet, and had space stations and a plane that could fly in space.

In 1910, we could barely capture an image of Halley’s Comet, in 1986, we had probes and satellites in space able to study it. Halley’s Comet appeared right between the Challenger disaster and Chernobyl and made for an interesting phenomenon: the technology humans developed that now allowed us to see and study this comet better than at any other point in human history was also causing some disasters down here on earth. If you want the full story on Halley’s Comet, please go back and check out my episode all about it. 

Here’s my full article all about Halley’s Comet.

The Big Movies of 1986

1986 may be one of the most underrated years for movies in the entire decade–and possibly ever. Let’s highlight some of the big ones:

Top Gun

Top Gun was an absolute juggernaut. Released on May 16th, it helped to take Tom Cruise to the next level. Based on an article called “Top Guns,” the movie was pure action and, despite mixed reviews from critics, dominated the box office. Top Gun was so big that four weeks after it was released, the theaters showing it increased by nearly 50%. That is unheard of in movies, as this is the point most everyone has seen, and the showtimes and screenings start to dwindle down. By the end of its release, Top Gun made nearly $360 million at the box office. Adjusted for inflation, this is close to one billion dollars. And This was against a relatively low budget of just $15 million. Top Gun was a gigantic hit, is what I’m trying to say..

And here’s an interesting one, Top Gun may be the most important movie in the history of home video. Here’s my article that explains all about this.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

One of the defining comedies of the 1980s, and the movie many cite as their absolute favorite of the decade. Ferris Bueller was a generation-defining comedy, gave us many iconic scenes and images, and became instantly quotable. Released on June 11th, the John Hughes classic wasn’t a box office juggernaut like Top Gun but was a massive surprise hit. Made for just $5 million, the film would go on to gross over $70 million or nearly $200 million adjusted for inflation.

A pretty staggering amount for a comedy that opened on only 1,300 screens. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off would be the tenth highest-grossing film of the entire year and is filled with so many great moments. Ben Stein’s economics lecture was completely improvised, the parade scene was filmed spontaneously with actual people not knowing they were in a film, 

Stand by Me

Another generation-defining film, and the ultimate coming-of-age movie. I don’t know about you, but Stand by Me had a significant impact on me. It’s one of those films that always stays with you. The Rob Reiner classic was released on August 8th, and adapted from a Stephen King novella entitled “The Body.” The story is extremely simple: four boys go on a quest to see a dead body.

But Stand by me is so much more than that. It’s a journey of self-discovery, it’s about childhood innocence, but also the dysfunction of families. Everyone could identify with the characters in Stand by Me and maybe that’s why it hit home so much. Their struggles are also our struggles and we can see ourselves in Gordie, Chris, Vern, and Teddy. Stand by Me was a pretty solid critical success, and a very good box office money maker taking in over $50 million.

So that’s just a sampling of some of the standout movies from 1986, but take a look at what else was released this year:

  • Labyrinth (head over to patreon.com/80s if you want to see my recent review on the David Bowie classic)
  • Three Amigos
  • Short Circuit
  • The infamous Howard the Duck movie (I have an article all about this train wreck if you want to go back to check it out)
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • Aliens
  • Crocodile Dundee
  • Pretty in Pink
  • And the movie that scared a generation of kids: Transformers: The Movie
  • But there was also Hoosiers, Big Trouble in Little China, Back to School, Platoon, The Fly, The Color Purple, and the Karate Kid Part 2.

See what I mean about 1986 being a truly epic year for movies? 1986 fun fact: Despite being released a year earlier, Back to the Future was still in the top 50 highest-grossing films for all of 1986. 

At the 1986 Academy Awards, William Hurt won best actor, Anjelica Huston won best actress, and best picture went to Out of Africa. 

And earlier, I mentioned the connection between the Space Shuttle Challenger and the movies. Well, there was a huge movie planned for the summer of 1986. And It, unfortunately, suffered from probably the worst timing in movie history. That movie was called Space Camp.

If you’ve never heard of it, it’s understandable. Space Camp was the story of kids who accidentally get launched into space aboard the Space Shuttle. The kids now have to figure out how to stay alive in space while Mission Control tries to get them home.

The movie was scheduled for release on June 6th, barely 4 months after the Challenger Disaster. 20th Century Fox now had one of the biggest marketing nightmares in history on its hands. The problem was that Space Camp was intended as a huge movie. I mentioned about NASA trying to drum up more interest in the space program for kids? Space Camp was part of this plan.

The movie even used real footage of the Challenger for the launch scenes. And NASA played a big role in the film’s production. It was intended as a “Goonies in space,” and starred Kelly Thompson, a young Joaquin Phoenix, and Lea Thompson fresh off of Back to the Future. The musical score was even created by the iconic John Williams.

This was a movie that should have dominated the summer movie season for kids and families. It should have been as popular as films like Flight of the Navigator or Adventures in Babysitting. , but how in the world do you market a movie about a NASA space shuttle so shortly after a national tragedy?

There was a lot of backlash that this movie would even be released, but it really was a no-win situation. The stigma of the movie was too much to bear, and it got crushed at the box office, not even making back half of its budget. And I have an episode all about this marketing nightmare–for what was actually a good and important film–in my earlier episodes. 

Top Music

We’ve crossed the halfway point in the decade, and 80s music has fully come into its own. And this year was all about Madonna. The definitive artist of the 80s released True Blue on June 30th and it would become the best-selling album of 1986. To round out the top ten best-selling albums of 1986 we have

  • 2: Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi
  • 3: Graceland by Paul Simon
  • 4: Control by Janet Jackson
  • 5: The Top Gun Soundtrack 
  • 6: The incredible License to Ill by the Beastie Boys (it’s crazy to think how long ago that album came out)
  • 7: The seminal Master of Puppets by Metallica
  • 8: Invisible Touch by Genesis
  • 9: Into the Light by Chris DeBurgh
  • 10: Every Breath You Take by the Police

How’s that for a diverse lineup? It just goes to show the changing musical landscape going into the second half of the 1980s. And here’s Billboard’s year-end chart of the top ten most popular songs from the Hot 100.

  1. That’s What Friends Are For by Dionne and Friends, and if you don’t remember the friends, they were Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder. That’s What Friends Are For was my Grade 8 graduation song, which they actually made my–very small–graduating class sing in front of the school. How do you think that went over with the kids the next day? Also, I lip-synced the whole time.
  2. Say You, Say Me by Lionel Richie
  3. I Miss You by Klymaxx which I actually had to go back to check out again as I didn’t remember this song at all. FYI Klymaxx is spelled with a K and two X’s
  4. On My Own by Patti LaBelle and Yacht Rock legend, Michael McDonald
  5. Broken Wings by Mr. Mister
  6. How Will I Know by Whitney Houston
  7. The crazy and incredible Party All the Time by Eddie Murphy 
  8. Burning Heart by Survivor
  9. Mr. Mister again with Kyrie. Big year for them
  10. And at number 10, another 1980s-defining song: Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer.

What a top ten, and what a year for music. Here are a few more highlights:

1986 would also be the last time Freddy Mercury performed with Queen. A horrible bus accident involving Metallica took the life of the original–and massively influential bassist–Cliff Burton. 1986 also saw the release of an interesting musical experiment where a group of younger singers was put together, then molded and shaped to become a pop band. This group would be called New Kids on the Block and would release their debut album on April Fool’s Day of that year–so take that for whatever it’s worth…

At the 1986 Grammys, “NO Jacket Required” by Phil Collins won Album of the Year, “We Are the World” by USA for Africa won both Song of the Year, and Record of the year. 

Technological Advancements

Technology continues to hum along in 1986. Here are some of the most significant developments. One of the biggest has to be the founding of Pixar. The Pixar company has roots going back to 1974 and was part of Lucasfilm. The goal was always to create the world’s first computer-animated film. The company was not yet named Pixar until designers thought they should name their digital compositing computer.

That machine was a high-end imaging computer capable of creating computer animation. One idea was to call it the “Picture Maker.” But this was a very futuristic computer that even used lasers. It needed a cooler name. In the book, Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull–the cofounder of Pixar–says the name “Pixer” came up as they thought it sounded like a fake Spanish word for “to make pictures.” Another designer liked the name Rader, as it also sounded futuristic. Pixer and Radar were combined to give us Pixar. 

In 1986, Steve Jobs paid $10 million to buy the group. Fun fact: Lucas had been really trying to sell off this group, and was getting nowhere. Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith–the other co-founder–had been going to everyone trying to convince them to buy it. And they were turned down 45 times. They then approached venture capitalists. And were turned down another 35 times. Last, they went to ten big corporations; who all turned them down.

It was Steve Jobs that saw the promise and set in motion the beginning of a seismic shift in animation and changed the trajectory of movies and then Disney.

On April 3rd, IBM released the PC convertible, which is considered the world’s first laptop. This was also the first computer to use the 3.5-inch floppy disk, which then became the industry standard. 

Also in 1986, two brothers, sick of having their medical software pirated, wrote a program to protect it. They created this to only target copyright infringers, but it inadvertently turned into what can be considered the world’s first computer virus.

The software would give copyright infringers a message on their computer saying their machine was infected and the only way to fix it was to call the brothers on the provided numbers. But the virus, now dubbed “Brain,” began to spread out of control. The virus spread to multiple countries overloading their phones and creating a massive backlash. 

Important TV Shows in 1986

Just like it had been in prior years, tv continued to dominate in 1986. We still had limited channels, so anything on TV was still a big event. But one significant television change happened in 1986. On October 9th, New Corporation, a multinational, mass media corporation owned by Rupert Murdoch, acquired the Metromedia company.

Metromedia was a US media company that owned radio and television stations. You may be envisioning Succession right now, but basically, this acquisition led to the formation of a brand new channel: The Fox Broadcasting Company.

This was very unique. There was now a new entry, and it would no longer just be ABC, NBC, and CBS. What’s also interesting is how this was all connected to the past. In the early days of TV, it wasn’t just ABC, CBS, and NBC, but, for a short while in the 1950s, there was actually a fourth network–the DuMont Network.

If you know your TV history, you know the DuMont network is where a young performer named Jackie Gleason developed one of the most important shows in television history: The Honeymooners. But after the Dumont stopped broadcasting in 1956, Metromedia was then established. Basically, from the ashes of Dumont came Metromedia, and 30 years later, Metromedia would be involved with the creation of another fourth network: Fox. 

Here are a few notable shows that debuted in 1986:

Perfect Strangers

Perfect Strangers may be the perfect sitcom. It’s the classic fish-out-of-water story where Balki Bartokomis from the island of Mypos goes to live in Chicago with his uptight cousin Larry. Perfect Stranger debuted on March 25th and would run all the way until 1993. It would be an important part of establishing ABC’s beloved TGIF Friday night lineup. Perfect Strangers gave us one of the greatest sitcom theme songs ever: “Nothing’s gonna stop us now.” It was composed by the same people who created the themes for Full House, Family Matters, and Step by Step, giving a continuity to these beloved classics. 


I think I was right in the wheelhouse for ALF when it first debuted on September 22nd on NBC. Another fish-out-of-water story, ALF tells us the tale of Gordon Shumway, an Alien from the planet Melmac that crash-lands on earth and has to live with the Tanner family. ALF was an enormous hit with kids and led to huge merchandising spin-offs, including a cartoon show.

Even though it only ran for four seasons, ALF was apparently a nightmare to film, as special sets had to be created for the ALF puppet leading to incredibly long shooting schedules. ALF was not a ratings powerhouse but usually finished in the top 30. It was, as mentioned, very popular with kids and families and led to many more merchandising opportunities compared to other shows.

Also released in 1986: Matlock, Head of the Class, Designing Women, LA Law, The Real Ghostbusters, The Care Bears, Fast Times (the very unknown Fast Times at Ridgemont High Spinoff), and the iconic Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Here’s what the top ten highest-rated shows of the year looked like:

  1. If you’ve been listening to my other yearly reviews, you know that at this point in the 80s, The Behemoth Cosby Show was dominating ratings with an astonishing 34.7 rating share. To put this in perspective–and to show you how much TV viewing has changed, a popular show like “This is Us” on NBC gets ratings of about 1.5. Today, In the coveted 18-49 age demographic, even Sunday Night Football only averages a rating of 4.3 to 5.0.) Back in 1986, this means that more than a third of the viewing public was watching The Cosby Show
  2. But at number 2, very close behind it was Family Ties with 32.7)
  3. Cheers: 27.2
  4. Murder She Wrote: 25.4
  5. The Golden Girls: 24.5
  6. 60 Minutes: 23.3
  7. Night Court: 23.2
  8. Growing Pain: 22.7
  9. Moonlighting: 22.4
  10. Who’s the Boss: 22.4

Major Sporting Events

Safe to say that 1986 was a big year for sports. The Commonwealth Games were held in Scotland. It was also a World Cup year–and a big one at that. Held in Mexico, the FIFA world cup produced one of the most dramatic, iconic, and controversial moments in World Cup history: La Mano de Dios, or as you may know it: The hand of God goal. 

The quarter-finals of the World Cup pitted Argentina against England. Diego Maradona was arguably the biggest star in the sport, and definitely the showcase of that year’s world cup. Six minutes into the second half, Maradona would find himself in the penalty box with the ball coming towards him. Battling against the much taller English goalie, Maradona jumped with his left arm outstretched, looking to make a header, and scored. But it appeared as if his fist had maybe hit the ball and not his head.

The referees were not in the ideal position to see, and with no instant replay, they could not make a call. English players immediately protested the goal and even Maradona glanced at the refs after scoring, looking for a reaction, but with no dismissal of the goal, fully celebrated.

 If you’re new here, I’m Canadian, but also grew up in England and remember this all too well. I especially remember a barrage of profanity the likes I had never heard before, directed at the TV. Argentina would go on to win that game 2-1 with Maradona scoring another goal which was then called “The goal of the century.” It was a tough day for the Brits. A photographer captured this moment revealing the hand of god, and years later, Maradona would admit he scored the goal with his hand. Maradonna and Argentina would go on to win the World Cup defeating what was then West Germany 3-2.

And a few more fun facts from World Cup 86. For my home country of Canada, this was our very first appearance at the final stage. And we would not return for 36 years until we qualified for the 2022 World Cup. Mexico 86 is considered the event that popularized the Mexican Wave.

It was after Mexico 86 that the wave became popular at sporting events around the world. But there’s also a person named Krazy George (Crazy spelled with a K) that says he invented it at a Yankee game in 1981. So there’s some dinner party conversation for your next candlelight supper. 

Here’s what the other big winners looked like:

  • Chris Evert wins her final Grand Slam defeating Martina Navratilova at the French Open, but Navratilova won Wimbledon and the US Open. Boris Becker wins Wimbledon
  • Jack Nicklaus won his 18th, and final major winning that year’s Masters Tournament
  • Greg Norman wins his first major at the US Open
  • Greg LeMond wins the tour de France; the first American to do so
  • In soccer, sorry,–football, Liverpool wins the coveted double, which is the league title and the FA cup
  • Mike Tyson knocks out Trevor Berbick to become the youngest ever heavyweight champion at just 20 years old
  • The Superbowl was won by the Chicago Bears
  • The New York Mets win the World Series, which gave us the infamous “ball through the legs” botch by Bill Buckner. Sorry to bring that up, Red Sox fans…
  • For my Aussie friends, The Hawks with the 90th VFL Premiership
  • The Boston Celtics win the NBA championship
  • And in a monumental moment in my personal household, the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup

Wrapping it Up

So that’s 1986, a year that may be more monumental than you remembered. It was unfortunately a year of major disaster and setbacks. But there were many moments and things that provided great memories. From a pop culture standpoint, years don’t get much better than 1986.

There’s tough competition, but when you look at the movies, sports, TV, and music: 1986 may be the best year of the decade. But we’ll rank them all in a future episode. We’ve now crossed the halfway point of the decade and are well into the second half. And with just three years left–there is still a lot yet to come…

Time to check out, 1987