RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Quark: “Vanessa 38-24-36” (Episode 8)

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The only thing more frustrating than a crappy show that never quite lives up to its potential is a crappy sitcom that isn’t particularly funny, and *still* fails to live up to it’s potential. The only thing more frustrating than that is if the crappy, unfunny show *Suddenly* gets it right, and is immediately cancelled.

Seriously, right here, at the end of its short run, the show suddenly becomes what it obviously always wanted to be, and then it’s gone. Yeah, there are still problems, but they’re all incrementally less problematic on every front: Direction is better, editing is better, script is better, acting is better (Benjamin and Kelton and Janice have always been great, but the also-rans are much better this time out), cinematography is better. The jokes are actually kinda’ funny, though only one of them - the last gag of the entire series - is laugh-out-loud hysterical. It’s an uneven show, and it’s still uneven here, but far less so than we’ve ever seen before. Is that a sense of confidence I see? Well, no matter! We’ll kill that.

As an aside, this is the episode I remember best from the show. We had a Betamax, and I used to tape the episodes to show my friends over the course of the next week, then I’d tape over ‘em again. As this was the last new episode, I had it on hand for years, until our Betamax died, though my exact memories are oddly fuzzy. Point is: I saw this one many a time, proselytized it to many a person, and they all agreed it looked like a pretty fun little comedic-type-thing that probably got killed before its time. Given that they produced four hours of this drek, and only 30 minutes were any good, it probably *didn’t* get killed before its time, but it’s always nice to have some unsung forgotten treasure to hawk when you’re an adolescent, whether or not it’s actually true.

Now, you’ll recall that the show works best when it’s ripping off - excuse me, parodying - specific things, most commonly the original Star Trek which was, itself, bordering on self-parody much of the time. After last episode’s fumbling and vague stab at Flash Gordon, we’re back on track with a perfectly on-key satire of Star Trek’s “The Ultimate Computer” seasoned with just a dash of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The Plot:

Annual Holiday Number Eleven is rolling around, and everyone’s in the proper spirit on Perma One, stockings hung, aliens caroling, festive “11”s hung everywhere. Palindrome tells Quark he’s got a plum mission for him as a present this year, and then we get to the standard briefing of Quark and two other commanders: Estro and Walker. We’ve seen both of these before in separate episodes, but interestingly this time out Estro is a conservatively dressed black woman, whereas previously she was a leggy blonde in a revealing uniform. An even bigger example of re-casting is Commander Walker, who was a robot the first time we saw him, but is a human now. Weird.

Quarks’ assignment is to take part in The Head’s new experiment. (“I’ve been in the Head’s experiments before, I don’t want to spend three months testing the gravitational qualities of wheat! I don’t want to be experimented on! Look at Commander [name], he used to be a heavyweight! Now he’s a paperweight!”) The mission is to test out a new ultimate computer which will make human crews irrelevant. Dr. Cheryl Evans - played by Marianne Bunch….

you know what? I’m going to take a moment out from our review to rave about Marianne Bunch: She’s just stunning. Let’s face it, though there’ve been some attractive women on this show, they still manage to come out looking rather bland and sexless, and don’t even get me started on the Bettys. Technically, all these women are fine, you can’t point to a feature on any of ‘em and say it’s bad, but while the numbers all add up, the aesthetics simply aren’t there. Why? I don’t really know. I’m just going to chalk it up to the Seventies being an unattractive decade. For every Jenny Argutter you get, you’ve got a zillion Heather Menzies, for every Maren Jensen, there’s a hundred Anne Lockharts or Lauren Tewes, for every Kristi McNichol, there’s a spate of Jill Whelans. That’s not to diss any of these women, of course, I’m sure they’re all fine, active in their synagogues and/or churches, upstanding members of their community, particularly now that Lauren’s off the coke, volunteer time at soup kitchens, help the poor, I’m sure they’re all great people, and I mean no disservice, but: they’re hardly “It” girls, now are they?

But man oh man oh man, Marianne Bunch is totally “It.” She’s stunning, eye-popping, she’s got a certain poise, a kind of grace when she moves, a solid voice, and she doesn’t appear to be congenitally stupid, either. What’s amazing is that such a bombshell would have such a short career (six years, eleven roles, most pretty minor), and that I can’t even find a picture of her online anywhere. Here’s a clip from the episode

Anyway, getting back to the review: Dr. Evans (Played by Marianne Bunch, I don’t know if I made that fully apparent before) sets up a computer alled “Vanessa 38-24-36,” which will be in complete control of the ship.

So they go off to do garbage man stuff, and get attacked by a Gorgon ship careening at them on Radar. They don’t get an actual visual on the ship, so Quark suspects something’s up. One by one, his entire crew abandon him, wanting Vanessa to take over, but he refuses, and in the end it turns out that he was right: the Gorgon ship was only an illusion on their instruments to make Quark look bad.

Back at Perma One, Dr. Evans is wearing a really slutty dress, but it works for her. She reveals to Palindrome that Vanessa will do *anything* to succeed, even if it means killing people. “Oh boy. This was supposed to be my Number Eleven present to Quark. This is terrible. Get me the head, please…”

More than a bit depressed that no one believes in him, Quark decides to take Ergo (His pet blob) for a spacewalk. While outside, Vanessa severs his air hose and he drifts off into space. He’s able to get back in through the garbage hatch, much to the computer’s annoyance. She passes it off as a mistake, or human error or something.

Quark: “The mission will continue.”
Vanessa; “That’s a very good decision, Quark.”
Quark: “And we’re going to celebrate Holiday Number Eleven the same as we do every year, by showering together.”
The Bettys [Very excited]: “Do you mean it, Adam?”
Gene/Jean: “Commander, we never…”
Quark: “Gene, [Indicates Vanessa] a traditional. Number eleven. Shower.”
The Bettys: “Last one in’s a Quasinorm.”

So off they go.

In the shower (Which is basicically the airlock shot from a slightly different angle), they‘re all fully dressed:

Quark: “I suppose you’re wondering why I brought you in here.”
The Bettys: “I know why, Adam!”
Quark: “No you don’t!”
Ficus: “I know why, sir.”
Gene/Jean: “Yeah, well, I don’t.”

Made me laugh watching it, but typing it up now, eh. Oh well. Anyway, in the privacy of the shower, Quark hatches his plan for the crew to keep Vanessa busy while he detaches her and regains control of the ship. They attempt to do this, but Vanessa is pretty smart, and simply gasses the entire crew. Quark is still in his space suit, with six minutes of oxygen in his emergency supply, so he grabs his power tools and heads to the upper deck. There, he finds the Bettys passed out, and as he lifts one of their hands, the hand of the other one lifts, too. That might be the only funny Betty gag in the run of the show.

Anyway, Vanessa has possessed Andy, who proceeds to beat the living crap out of Quark (“It’s Vanessa making me do this! Personally, I think you’re swell!”) until Quark can shut him off. Then he takes an electric drill to Vanessa and rips her out of the wall as she attempts to talk Quark out of his decision:
“You’re making a mistake! I’ve got lots of talents! I can tapdance, I tell risqué stories…” Quark chucks her out the airlock.

They call in to Perma One, where there’s a big office party going on, and Palindrome is basically being a jerk. He tells Quark to zip over to another space station and pick up the trash, and wishes him a happy Number Eleven.

Final scene, final episode: Vanessa floating through limitless space, singing “Born Free” to herself. I knew it was coming, but it still cracked me up anyway.

The End.

As I said, this was a pretty solid, funnier-than-average episode that nicely balanced gags and story, ludicrousness with lucidity, pacing with plot. It felt like something more than a really bad community theater production (“The Minot, North Dakota Traveling Repertoire Players present: The Ultimate Computer!”). Added to which the gags were actually kinda’ funny, and there was nothing that really insulted your intelligence here.

So how much of this was due to having a good writer, and how much of it was due to having a good TOS story to rip off? I don’t know. The writer, Robert Keats, has five screen credits over the course of a 23-year career, culminating in the script for “Mom’s Got A Date With A Vampire.” That’s probably not a fair judgment, though, there’s lots of really talented people who can’t get good stuff on the air, or only manage to get blow-off crap on the air, while the stuff they really care about sits moldering on the shelf. Shakespeare had that problem, you know: He didn’t care at all about his plays, just tossed ‘em off to cover the bills while he was dashing out sonnets. I’m doubting Mr. Keats is a Shakespeare, but to really judge his talents we’d probably need to see the episodes of Happy Days and Blansky’s Beauties he wrote, and I’m really not going to put any effort into that. I just don’t care. Suffice to say he delivered the best episode of Quark, the one that almost redeemed the silly premise and generally sub-par execution of the previous seven episodes, and he introduced me (As an eleven year only too happy to be introduce) to Marianne Bunch, for which I shall forever be grateful. Until I forget. Which, come on, let’s face it, I’ve got a lot of stuff on my mind. It probably won’t be all that long, right? I mean, I forgot about her once already…

A couple notes: this is the most expansive of any episode they’ve ever done in terms of sets. We see the inside of the garbage bay, a full-size garbage claw with Richard Benjamin sitting on it, the inside of the Airlock, “The Shower,” and even a hangar bay inside Perma One. The floor is obviously one of those plastic gratings they use around florescent lights, so a clever man could figure out the size of the Garbage Ship model from that. I’m not that clever, but I’d say it’s about 18 inches long.

The stunt where Quark tumbles into the garbage bay looked painful: the stuntman’s back bends a way backs aren’t hinged for.

At one point, while rambling off nonsense, Ficus says “Bebop As Rella-lobba” as though it’s navigational data. That nonsense phrase stuck in my head, and pops out at the oddest times: “Where are we going again?” “The Outlet mall just to the east of…uhm…bebobarellalobba” “What?” “yes.” As many of you have already discerned, I’m an incredibly irritating man to be around. Anyway, it was nice to finally know the origins of one of the more bizarre bits of flotsam stuck in my brain.

Next week, we’ll discuss what we’ve learned from Quark