RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Quark: So What Have We Learned?

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Last week we finished up the short-lived Quark series, the second short-lived deservedly-forgotten 1978 SF series we’ve covered here (The first being “Man From Atlantis”). When these things are done, I like to sit back, cogitate upon them for a bit, and try to figure out what we’ve learned.

So what have we learned, here?

Well, we’ve learned that a 43-year-old man’s 32-year-old memories of an 11-year-old kid’s favorite show aren’t terribly reliable.

We’ve learned that the effectiveness of cheap parody is directly dependent upon the strengths of the things you’re making fun of. If it’s a solid thing you’re riffing on, the parody will probably be fairly funny.

We’ve learned that the effectiveness of cheap parody is also dependent upon the focus you use to target the object of your parody: Making fun of a specific Trek episode works fine, making fun of Flash Gordon as a whole is too vague to really work.

We’ve learned that parody is most effective when you’re making fun of something that’s either extremely well know, or rather current: Parodies of Trek work because it’s ubiquitous. Parodies of Obama work because it’s current. Parodies of seventy-year-old movie serials that no one watches anymore, and which were pretty awful to begin with pretty much don’t work, ever.

We’ve learned that Buck Henry is (Much like Gene Roddenberry) a one trick pony who probably doesn’t deserve the epithet “Genius” that so often accompanies his name. And much like Roddenberry, there was such a massive quality difference between his trick the first time out (Get Smart for Buck, Trek for Gene) and later iterations (Quark for Buck, Earth II, Andromeda, Genesis, Sentinel, the first season of TNG, and a zillion other embarrassments for Gene) that it makes me wonder exactly how much of that one trick was really theirs to begin with, and how much of it was the work of others they simply took credit for. We know Roddenberry was an inveterate glory-hog and plagiarist, a talentless hack who got lucky and passed off others ideas as his own when they worked, and his own ideas as those of others when they didn’t, that’s pretty common knowledge these days.

I’m not accusing Mr. Henry of that by any means, from what I understand he’s a great guy to work with and very funny and humble. Creation is a tricky thing, however, and sometimes the recipe works (Get Smart) and sometimes the soufflé falls (Quark). Probably you can’t lay all the blame at Buck’s feet: It takes a village to make a show this shoddy. Likewise, all the successes of Get Smart probably can’t be laid at Buck’s feet, either: Regardless of what the Roddenberrys of the world would have you believe, TV is a team sport, and how well the show goes depends as much on the supporting players as it does the creative conceptual types.

Bottom line: Buck tried once, and got it to work. He tried it again, and it didn’t. We see that a lot. Herb Solow and Bob Justman had lots of success with the original Trek, they tried it again with “man From Atlantis,” and failed excruciatingly. Joe Straczynski had great and deserved success with “Babylon 5,” but he failed repeatedly with Lost Tales, Crusade, and Legend of the Rangers. Tastes and times change, it’s hard.

We’ve learned that sitcoms need to be funny to justify their existence, and while some self-indulgent sitcoms have a long and popular enough run to dispense with the jokes (The last couple years of M*A*S*H*, for instance), they really should be funny. This one really wasn’t.

We’ve learned that sitcoms need to be broad, not specific. A sitcom can be about a family, because everyone has one of those, it can be about cops, because everyone knows what they are and what they do. Sitcoms about the travails of a medieval torturer’s assistant in rural France play off of things that aren’t so well known, and therefore only apply to a very small potential audience, hence even if it’s really funny, no one’s going to watch it. Science Fiction has simply never been as popular as, well, anything else, really, so making an SF sitcom - be it this one, or Homeboys from Outer Space, or whatever - is a fundamentally dunderheaded move. It’s too specific to hold a mass audience.

We’ve learned that Marianne Bunch is pretty freakin’ va-va-voom and could really pull off those embarrassingly revealing Logans Run-styled dresses.

We’ve learned that Conrad Janis is pretty funny, but probably not as funny as I remembered, and probably not as funny as you remember, either.

We’ve learned that Richard Benjamin is a really good comedic actor, who can flounder if he doesn’t have a good script and strong actors to work off of. I still really like him. I always have.

We’ve learned that Richard Kelton - Ficus - was a great, unsung talent.

We’ve learned that Andy the Android was pretty one-note, but still funnier than I’d remembered. (And though I’ll never know for sure, I’m pretty sure the alien “Dink,” was also played by Bobby Porter, the same guy who played Andy)

We’ve learned that they never really knew what to do with Gene/Jean, a kind of uncomfortable gag that quickly became too big for them to ride, so they just sat it in the corner and seldom touched it.

We’ve learned that “Annual Holiday Number Eleven” is really funny to say. I’m going to have some “Keep 1 in 11” bumper stickers made up for next Christmas. Did I mention I’m an irritating man? Probably I did.

So what happened next?

Well, Richard Benjamin’s career probably peaked with his role as Von Helsing in “Love at First Bite” in 1979, but he’s continued to work steadily since. He’s still a really funny guy, and he’s on my short list of people I’d love to interview here at the site.

Tim Thomason (Gene/Jean) is probably best known as “Jack Death” in the Transers series from the 1980s, one of which had Megan Ward in it (Hubba), but he’s been a really frequently working character actor for like forty years now. He’d already racked up thirteen screen credits by the time he signed on for Quark, and he’s only been in the biz three years. He’s up to 185 now. And counting.

Trish Barnstable did a Love Boat and a Disney special, and that was about that. Cyb Barnstable made a longer stab at it, but appears to have given up acting in 1982 or 1983. The two of them together run the Barnstable Brown Foundation, which does diabetic research.

Conrad Janis (Otto Palindrome) went on to vastly more fame as Mindy's dad in Mork and Mindy the next season. (I watched that show because he reminded me of Quark). He’s still alive, and still working pretty steadily. He’s had two movies come out last year (2009) and another in pre production now. Good for him! I always liked the guy, smarmy without being creepy, officious without being obnoxious, conniving without really being menacing.

Alan Caillou (The Head) had been working steadily since the late 1950s (he even did an episode of Man from Atlantis!), but he was definitely in the autumn years of his career when this show died. His final role was as “Count Paisley” in “The Ice Pirates” (1984) and then he retired. He died in 2006.

Bobby Porter (Andy, and possibly Dink) continues to act fairly infrequently (He did an iCarly three years back), but he’s primarily what he was before Quark started: a stuntman. Between 1972 and now, he’s racked up a nearly-lethal 121 screen credits for stunts! Wow!

Richard Kelton (Ficus) is a heartbreaker. A fellow Nebraskan, he died less than a year after Quark ended. He was working on “How The West Was Won,” a late-70s western, and went into his trailer to study his lines. There was a carbon monoxide leak, and he asphyxiated. He was only thirty-five. He was already a prolific character actor - in his short career, he racked up thirty-six screen credits - and I have to believe he would have eventually had a big break, with a signature role in a sitcom or drama or something, had he not died so stupidly young. So much potential, such a waste.

And that sentiment, my friends, seems the proper note to go out on: so much potential, such a waste.