RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Quark: “All The Emperor‘s Quasi-Norms, Part 2” (Episode 7)

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…and now we come to part two of the penultimate story from Quark. Why did I break it in half and run it in two reviews, rather than cover the story as a whole? Well, primarily because the writers felt this story was so sprawling it could only really be appreciated in two discrete halves, and the network agreed. But in a larger, less dishonest sense, it’s because my review was running long, and I got tired of typing. Also, I paid good money for these DVDs, and there’s only eight episodes total. I wanted to pad it out a bit.

And pad it out I did, in much the same way that Buck Henry’s people padded out this only-slightly-longer-than-half-hour story into a full hour.

Last time, as you’ll recall, Quark was sent to do a trash pickup for the Starship Velcro (That’s still funny), but got sidelined and captured by the Evil Pirate and/or Emperor Zorgon the Malevolent (Who bears a striking resemblance to an overweight version of Artie from “The Wild Wild West”) and his sexually aggressive daughter, Princess and/or Empress Libido (Who bears a striking resemblance to Valene Ewing from Knots Landing). There’s also a guest appearance from this chickie-pie here:

though she looks not quite as fetching here as she did before the shark got to her.

Anyway, Zorgon is all crazy-eight-bonkers to get “It,” but much like the entire cast of Lost, he refuses to explain what “It” is and why he’s so interested to get “It.” He insists Quark must know all about “It” for some reason, and just to buy time, Quark claims “It” is on the asteroid Rumbar. Zorgon sets sail for that, and as they go into orbit, it turns out “It” really is there!

“Thank you, Quark! This means the end of Perma One and The Head, Gorgons will rule the galaxy, and none of this could have happened without you!”

Cue Closing Credits.

If you didn’t see part one, don’t worry about it too much because there’s a really, really long “Last time on Quark” recap at the start of the episode.

So: Zorgon stops the squishy-walls, thus saving the Bettys lives, and Gene/Jean (Still chained to Andy) manages to snow job the Gorgon scientists he’s briefing on “It,” without actually knowing what it is. Ficus, meanwhile, is freed by Princess Libido, but only if he’ll promise to marry her. He explains that he doesn’t’ love her, or even care about her at all, which inexplicably turns her on. A bad-boy thing, I guess. “Promise me you’ll never change!” she says. “As a vegeton, I never change, except with the seasons.” “So we’ll live happily ever after?” Libido says, “You will live happily ever after. I will merely live.”

Quark blusters into this, and Ficus explains that he’s honor bound to stay with Libido. They get to misunderstanding each other, owing to Ficus’ stoicism, and Quark gets more frustrated as he tries to say ‘goodbye’ to his friend, but the alien keeps misunderstanding it. Suddenly Ficus gets it: “Are we having an emotional moment?”
“Yes, we are,” Quark says.
“I’m pleased. You like those!” Ficus says.

Quark and the Bettys are taken to the surface to be fed to a “Lizagoth,” (Some kind of German Barbarian Reptile thing, I guess) to Quark’s consternation, “You said I helped you!” “You did, that’s why I’m being so lenient!” then stumbles across Ficus and Libido. At first he’s outraged, but he misinterprets Ficus’ emotionlessness for bloodthirstly detachment, and decides that’s an admirable quality in a son in law. Meanwhile, Gene and Andy are walking along a catwalk, and get into an argument as to whether they should jump or not. Gene/Jean says they should, Andy doesn’t. Finally Gene/Jean jumps, but Andy stays still, which - in a painful-looking stunt - results in Gene hanging by his wrist.
Now, I’ve mentioned that this show is primarily ripping off other shows and movies. We’ve done Star Wars, and three episodes of Star Trek thus far, and while they’re uneven and only occasionally funny, they’re at least focused, and their success or failure is based more or less on the strengths of the original material they’re lampooning. The one completely original episode - the first one - is also the weakest of the bunch. From my recap of this episode, you might be getting the idea that they’re not ripping anything in particular off, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. As with the only other time the series has gone its own way, it quickly gets lost, and while some of the individual funny scenes are better (The sex scene with Ficus is, hands down, the funniest thing this show ever did), the plot tying them all together is kind of a rambling mess.

Well, it turns out there *is* a ripoff going on, though it’s so thin as to be invisible in the first part: We’re making fun of Flash Gordon here. Zorgon is Ming the Merciless, right down to the flowing robes and the art deco skullcap, “It” is whatever techno-mystical Maguffin Ming needed for a particular serial, Princess Libido is Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter, and I guess Quark is Flash (Ahhhh-ahhhh! Savior of the universe!) While visible in barely-worthwhile retrospect, none of this is terribly visible until, in part 2, “Baron of the Forest People” shows up to save Flash and Dale - excuse me, Quark and the Bettys - from the Lizigoth.

Barron explains how they were originally from the planet Poo-Poo, until driven off by the Gorgons, who’ve been oppressing them ever since, but the time of the miracle draws nigh, when “it” will be revealed and deliver them from the patent leather boot of space-oppression, or whatever. Quark attempts to beg off, explaining that he’s just a stranger who got caught up in all of this. “A stranger!” Everyone starts chanting because, though they neglected to mention it just a second ago, the prophecy specifically calls for “A stranger” to show up at the time of the miracle, leading them to “It”, and thereby delivering them from blah blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, in an almost vestigial subplot, Palindrome (Conrad Janis) calls his dad (Also Conrad Janis) for advice about being suspended by The Head. His dad tells him to do what their family has always done: Grovel.

“The Computers tell us the time for the miracle is almost upon us!” one of the Gorgons tells Zorgon. Dunno why, but that line struck me as funny. (As opposed to a computer deciding Patrick Duffy is “The Last Citizen of Atlantis” in all seriousness, which is endlessly unintentionally hilarious). We get some decent special effects of three tongues of light coming down from the sky and converging on one point.

Team Quark crosses asteroid in the space of one brief bit of voiceover narration, and they find “It,” which it turns out is just a tacky necklace. Gene shows up for no adequately explained reason, and then, convinced of his own invulnerability because of “It,” Team Quark and Baron head back up to the Gorgon ship. Zorgon’s scientists scan it, and find that it’s just useless crystal, which enrages Zorgon, but he decides to kill quark and take it anyway “Because it’s pretty. For my sensitive side.”

Through a series of coincidences, Quark is convinced “It” has magical powers, which ultimately leads him to fight an alien wrestler. Quark, assuming he’ll win, attempts to save the wrestler a butt-kicking. “I’m sure you’re just the victim of a bad economy. Just go home, spend time with your family, till the soil.” The thing throws him across the room several times, then Ficus busts in, zaps the ‘rassler with his Gammagun, freezing him, and explains that Quark was never invincible. This isn’t really as funny as it should be. Zorgon bursts in and shoots at Ficus, but Libido hops in the way, and is shot and frozen. Overcome with guilt, Zorgon allows himself to be apprehended and arrested. Ficus explains that they’re doing wonderful things with de-freezing people these days, and in five or six years, Libido should be as good as new. There’s probably some kind of impotence joke in there conceptually, but it’s not really worth sifting around for.

Anyway, so Quark phones in to tell everyone the good news about him saving the galaxy again, or whatever, and Palindrome couldn’t care less. He tells Quark to get back to work, and pick up the trash from the Starship Velcro. Dink wants to hear about it, however, so Quark starts rattling off his tale.

The End.

Fairly weak overall. The problems are twofold: Firstly, while there’s more than enough material here for one episode, there’s not nearly enough for two, and none of it - with the exception of Ficus’ sex scene - is what you’d call ‘side splitting.’ One good rewrite could have easily pared it down to one episode, and that ep would have been much tighter and faster and funnier.

Which brings us to a recurring problem with the series as a whole, if I’m honest: It’s directed like a non-dress rehearsal for a high school play. It’s flat, its got no energy, the cinematography is mostly nonexistent. I realize that this is a common failing of most seventies sitcoms, but really this is a much bigger problem than the horribly cheap sets, and lack of special effects (in fact, those are actually kind of endearing): this show is an adventure/comedy. You can’t shoot it the same way you shoot Happy Days. This can not, not, not, not be a three-camera sitcom. You need to shoot it more cinematically, with a bit more camera motion and oomph.

Compare this show to Get Smart, Buck Henry’s previous parody adventure comedy from eight years prior: Get Smart, even in the weaker episodes, runs along at a brisk pace. There’s lots of locations, some actually well-blocked action sequences, good cinematography, some unexpectedly solid performances from comedic actors, and of course there’s Barbara Feldon as the requisite hot chick/sidekick who is still drop-dead gorgeous enough in the reruns to stop a truck. Now we’ve got Quark, which is not particularly well written, not seemingly all that well rehearsed even, which is only slightly better put together than your average Public Access cable show, and quite a bit worse put together than your average fan film. (Saaaaaaayyyyy! A Quark Fan Film! Saaaaaaaaaaayyyyy! Now there’s an ideaaaaaaa….) There is no spark of genius in this, but I’m starting to ramble, and that’s better saved for the “What have we learned?” segment a couple weeks from now.

Getting back to the problems with this episode, Secondly: thematically the problem is both too much and too little material to parody. The show does good when it riffs on a particular Trek episode, or tolerably well when it’s mocking Star Wars (Though it curiously lacks inspiration), but Flash Gordon? Geez, that’s an easy target, and a big one. I mean, there’d been, what, a dozen Flash Gordon serials, movies, and TV shows by the time Quark aired? But they were all pretty far in the past, the last one in 1954. I can’t imagine a lot of kids sitting home on a Friday night in 1978 thinking, “Gee, Donnie and Marie is cool and all, but what I really want is a TV show that makes fun of a franchise I’ve never seen and which died out a quarter century ago! That’d be boss, or groovy, or whatever stupid slang word it is we use in these situations in the seventies!”

Added to which, they’re not making fun of a specific Flash Gordon romp, but the whole ‘Flash’ thing in toto. That’s pretty squishy and vague. Now, in the hands of a good writer, that’s not a problem: you don’t need to be terribly specific in parody, there are some parodies that bear so subtle a relationship to the thing they’re making fun of (Macross vs. the conventions of Anime up to 1982 for instance) that lacking context it’s not even immediately apparent they *are* parodies. This ain’t one of those shows, though, brother, and Johnathan Kaufer ain’t up to the task here. Kaufer was story editor for the series in addition to writing this episode. His previous gig was contributing a few episodes to Holmes and Yo-Yo. Remember that one? Probably not. Buddy Cop/Science Fiction/Adventure/Comedy starring John Schuck as a robot asigned to the NYPD. Probably I should try to track that one down and review it here, now *that’s* obscure.

My point being, however, that while I’m sure mister Kaufer is a great guy, good husband, father, and son, beloved of his community, and literally awash in talent, he’s not really trying too hard here.

(Though he got the script on the air, which is more than I’ve ever done)

I dunno. It just feels like they aren’t trying very hard. What makes that sadder still is that I *know* in my little black heart that they’re absolutely knocking themselves out trying to make this the best show they can, and it *Still* looks like they aren’t trying very hard.

Next time out, we conclude with a review of the final - and far-and-away best - episode of the entire series.

Now: Off to find some Holmes and Yo-Yo bootlegs. This might take a while…