RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Quark: “Quark” (Episode 1)

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Here on Retrospeculative TV, we’re looking at shows that had a formative influence on us, but which have either been completely forgotten, or simply not gotten their due because of their comparatively short runs. In my case, these tend to be “Orphan Shows,” ones that didn’t even make it through their first season, and as such never got syndicated. One such show that had an entirely ludicrous influence on my upbringing was “Quark,” staring Richard Benjamin (!), Tim Thomerson, and the poor man’s Werner Klemperer: Conrad Janis.

In the crazy days after Star Wars, when science fiction was revealed to be marketable to mass audiences rather than just mouth breathers, there was a mad dash to get as much SF content as possible. Around the same time, Buck Henry was enjoying a career revival of sorts, thanks to the continuing success of “Get Smart” in syndication, and his appearances on Saturday Night Live. Buck went to NBC and pitched an idea for a show that would do for the SF genre what Get Smart did for the spy genre. NBC jumped at it, figuring it might get a bit of buzz and haul them out of third place.

It did neither. It aired as a replacement series starting in ‘77. Eight weeks later the show was cancelled, pretty much never to be seen again, until it came out on DVD two years back.

Now, I totally completely absolutely loved this show when I was ten, as did my best friend at the time, Mike Brooks. Him and I and John Polson would yammer on endlessly about it at school after it aired, excepting when I forgot it came on, which was pretty frequently. I was ten, TV schedules confused me. I absolutely loved the show, however, and taped them when they came on. I had the final episode on Betamax, and forced my friends to watch it when they came over. Eventually the others were taped over, but that one survived into the 1980s.

The problem here is that Science Fiction comedy is a hard secret handshake to master. You’re already being forced to suspend your disbelief pretty hard in most genre programs (“That horse-faced guy with the ears and the eyeshadow is an alien and not just a transvestite? Is he an alien transvestite? No, just an alien? Ok, sure, if you say so. Why is he running around in velour pajamas? Oh, that’s a military uniform? Does it come with a kimono? And you’re sure he’s not a transvestite? Well, ok…”). It doesn’t take much of an extra push to slide an audience into more suspension of disbelief than they can bear. It’s a touch balance, beyond most. The most successful SF comedy of all time is “Mork and Mindy,” which ran four years, three of which are universally regarded to be utter garbage. Even if you’re doing good, it’s way too easy to do bad, and the rewards aren’t all that great.

Think about it: Get Smart came out when the Spy-Fi genre was at it’s peak, there were more than a dozen shows on the air, a half dozen major spy films every ear, they were making fun of something everyone already knew. Science Fiction had never really been all that popular pre-Star Wars, and all most people knew about it was Star Wars, Close Encounters and (If they were a ten year old boy with no friends) Star Trek. That seriously limits what you can parody, since people won’t get most of the gags.

Which brings us to the really big problem with a show of this type: You’re basically only making it for people who are already fans of SF. You’re preaching to the choir, there’s not a lot of crossover interest with folks who prefer to watch Monday Night Football or Fantasy Island. Again, the rewards aren’t really all that great. You have to give those with casual interest the absolute funniest thing they’ve ever seen, or they simply aren’t coming back next week. And as it was the 1970s, and nothing was really all that funny anywhere…well…

The pilot episode (And this is a pilot, not a ‘first episode’ - NBC hadn’t bought the show yet when this was filmed) introduces the premise and the characters, and, of course, suffers from the bane of my existence, “The Hokey Tacked-On Pilot Plot” that is always pretty thin, and serves mostly as a way to bridge scenes of exposition and introduction, rather than as a coherent story. This is all kind of flatly done, it’s not nearly so funny as the laugh track would have us believe, but it’s not an utter failure either.

“Adam Quark” (Richard Benjamin!) is the commander of an unnamed United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol starship - a garbage scow. It’s not exactly a plum assignment, and he’s got a bad reputation (We’re told that he fought in the Vegeton Uprising some years before and was “Taken prisoner by a band of dissident potatoes”), but he seems genuinely proud of his ship and its irritating crew.

He tells us that Earth is now abandoned, and has been for some time. His ancestors were “Members of a sub-group called ‘Americans.’ Archeological digs in the southern and western parts of their country suggest that these so-called ‘Americans’ worshiped - and were possibly governed by - a fully clothed English-speaking mouse.” He’s got a pet named “Ergo,” which he insists on treating like it’s a puppy, when in fact it’s a hideous blob thing that seems mostly to want to eat him. Quark’s attitude towards it is an oddly slapstick combination of genuine affection and abject fear.

“The First Officer position is held jointly by Betty and Betty, one of whom is a clone of the other. I’m extremely fond of Betty, if only I knew which of the Betties I’m extremely fond of.” These were played by Cyb and Trish Barnstable, the doublemint twins. Really. I don’t know which one is which, but one of them is a much worse actress than the other.

The Engineering Officer is Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson, best known as “Jack Death”), a “Transmute.” “Transmutes are just like anyone else, except they have a full set of male and female chromosomes.”
“Oh yeah? Would you let your sister or brother marry one?”

Gene/Jean is played as an aggressive, overly-butch man’s man who unpredictably acts like a stereotypical homosexual. “Rockets are ready, engines are operating at full efficiency, all weapons are ready to fire, and I’ve nearly finished my needlepoint!” That kind of thing.

The Science Officer is “Doctor O.B. Mudd,” a name I’ve always assumed to be some kind of dirty joke, but I’ve never really figured it out. “Mudd lost an eye some years ago when he fell asleep while looking into his microscope.”

And then there’s “Andy,” a deliberately-embarrassing-looking robot that Mudd built. Andy’s kind of stupid as well as clunky.

Back at Space Station Perma-One - which is evidently the capital of the Galactic Federation - a bureaucrat named Palindrome (Conrad Janis) - contacts “The Head,” the ruler of the galaxy - an Englishman with a disproportionately large, well, head. We get some cheap gags about this.

Palindrome: “We have a bit of a headache here, sir.”
Head: “Don’t talk to me about headaches, Palindrome, I wrote the book on headaches.”

And later on,

Palindrome: “I know how you feel, sir.”
The Head: “Can you imagine a migraine the size of a supernova?”
Palindrome: “No sir.”
The Head: “Then you don’t know how I feal.”

Anyway, so there’s a great big destructive “Protein Cloud” that’s traveling through the galaxy, “Metabolizing everything in its path, even gravity,” and it’ll be at Perma One in two days. The only ship in range to do anything about it is Quark’s garbage scow, to which The Head responds, “That’s the worst news yet!” They decide to tell Quark to ram his ship into the heart/liver/center of the cloud and blow up their reactor, thus destroying the cloud and saving civilization.

Palindrome “Of course it’s certain death for everyone on board, sir.”
The Head: “We who sit in power must occasionally order some to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the many, particularly when those who sit in power are among the many.”

They contact “Interface,” a four-armed alien telephone operator type, and try to send a Telegram to Quark with instructions, but get to dickering about the cost-per-word with her, and sit around arguing about how to trim the message down.

Palindrome: “Well, we could cut ‘Dear’”
The Head: “Leave out ‘Good Luck’ - that seems superfluous anyway.”

Meanwhile, on the ship, we’re treated to a scene of Andy putting the moves on “The Garbage Controls,” which he thinks are a female robot. We’re told if they get messed up, they’ll end up dumping “two hundred thousand tons of astro-trash!” Then we get a tedious scene of the Bettys trying to come on to Quark, each claiming the other one is the clone. Even at ten years old, before I understood all that mommy/daddy smoochy “Special kind of hug” stuff, I was aware that these scenes were supposed to be kinda’ sexy, but they played out as flat and dull. With thirty-three years of hindsight, they play out even worse. They’re deliberately delivered in an overly-dramatic faux passion that neither actress can really pull off, and Benjamin - generally a really good comedic actor with some surprising dramatic chops - really is adrift in the scene because of it.

We get to see the crew “Ingest” dinner : A long detailed menu of appetizer, entree, and desert, along with a 21st century wine as a “Moistening agent” which is then shot through tubes into their mouths at high velocity. Quark and Gene/Jean wear dress uniforms. The Bettys wear futuristic cocktail dresses which are really, really short. They’re both really pretty, I really should be aroused, but I’m not. There’s a sexless blandness at play here. For that matter, I should mention that the Betty’s normal duty uniform consists of short shorts, and a low-cut grey jacket which clearly has nothing on beneath it. There’s a considerable amount of side-boobage there, and they’re pretty nice, but, again…nothing. Not entirely sure why.

We get to see the cryogenic “Sleep Chambers” they use in lieu of beds and cabins. (I presume they have a locker room they change in or something.)

Quark: “Lets see, it’s April 4th, so set the chambers to wake us up on June 3rd, at 7AM”
Gene/Jean: “That’s awfully early!”
Mudd: “That’s two months from now, you idiot!”
Gene/Jean: “Well, a girl needs to have her beauty sleep.”

Then the hokey space cloud monster attacks (Consisting entirely of stock footage of the expansion of the big bang in an educational film I once saw), and everyone runs around yelling and stuff. Gene/Jean notices something’s wrong with the garbage controls, so Quark runs down the hall to check it out, and finds Andy humping the garbage controls, screaming “I want you, I need you, I love you!” When that special moment arrives, all the garbage is dumped into space, and the hokey space could monster eats it, then leaves (Same stock footage, played in reverse).

The message from Perma One arrives, but of course they’ve already resolved the situation.

There’s a couple denouement scenes that don’t really work - in gratitude they tell Andy they’ll make him indistinguishable from human as a reward, which he doesn’t want, of course. Quark is given a new assignment - to pick up trash - which he seems excited about - and then told to go by the lesser Magellanic cloud - to pick up trash - on his way, and seems disappointed by. Huh? Andy insists that the Garbage Control, which is now laying in the middle of the floor, is his fiancé and must be referred to as “Misses Garbage Control.”

And that’s pretty much it.

There’s a lot of funny stuff in there, at least on paper, but it’s robbed of a lot of its punch by the mediocre supporting cast, and the very flat direction. And some of the script just stinks, primarily every line out of Dr. Mudd’s mouth. (Though Quark gets in a good one: Mudd looks in his microscope: “I can’t see anything on the slides, it’s all dark!” To which Quark replies, “Other eye, doc.”) The Bettys are incapable of escaping the twin perils of bad script and bad acting. Tim Thomerson will never be accused of being the world’s must subtle actor. He has a one-note character, but to his credit, he does what he can with it.

It’s sort of funny in 2010 to look back on a show made by liberals in 1977 and find it so full of good old-fashioned homophobia. I think that might be toned down a bit in the series, but Doc doesn’t like Gene/Jean at all.

On the other hand, Richard Benjamin is always pretty good. He doesn’t seem to quite know how to approach the character - he’s something of a cipher, the kind of character who does things because the script calls for him to, not because of any interior motivation. I like to hope that’ll get better as the show goes along. People mock Don Adams, but in fact he brought a surprising amount to Maxwell Smart. You can’t really imagine anyone else playing that part, much less any comedic actor from the period. I *can* imagine any number of people playing Adam Quark at this point, so they’re frustratingly refusing to make use of Benjamin’s talents.

(And man of man oh man, would I *love* to interview Richard Benjamin some day! Between this and “Westworld,” there’s just no end of cool stuff to talk about!)

The breakout here is really Conrad Janis as Palindrome, who is just spot on with every line, even when he’s blabbering the most incoherent rubbish, and Allan Caillou as “The Head.” (Somehow I’ve spent 33 years thinking The Head was played by Jonathan Harris. How in the heck could I have done that?) The two of them have a real chemistry and great delivery, and they give good bicker, which is always important in comedy.

The sets and effects are a bit sterile and low-budget, but still kind of interesting. The Garbage Scow is a bulbous, vaguely-fish-like thing, with four tiny engines in the tail, and a huge head. There’s an actual mouth that opens up, and two stop-motion claw-arms that grab ‘space baggies’ (Really big garbage bags) and stuffs them into the mouth. We see a kit bashed starship in the teaser which looks good for an obvious kitbash, and vaguely derivative of Trumble. Perma One is just a bland disk.

The Perma One interior seems to consist of a control room and Palindrome’s office. Kinda’ dull, and poorly lit, obviously to hide how cheap it all is. I do like Palindrome’s wraparound desk, however.

The Garbage Scow is kind of clever on the inside. There’s two decks. The upper one is the control room, with the grabber controls, flight controls, an airlock on the starboard side, and an engineering station in the rear. The set is built with an actual ceiling in it, which affords them some better-than-you’d-expect camera shots. It’s connected to the lower deck by a slide.

Yeah, a slide.

The lower deck is larger. It’s got the science station along the back wall, the sleep chambers along portside, and the bar/kitchenette on Starboard towards the front. There’s a hall in the aft that goes to the garbage controls, AKA Andy’s Love Nest. Lower deck isn’t as interesting as the upper one, but I do really like the compact feel of it all. Generally in shows like this, you get a sense that they were just slapping it all together on the fly. These sets feel like they knew what they wanted before they went into it, even if they didn’t have quite the budget to pull it off.

Music is mostly nonexistent, excepting the very discoey theme, which, curiously, I remembered precisely despite not having heard it in a generation. What is it about me and TV themes, anyway?