REROSPECULATIVE TV: Salvage 1: “Salvage” (TV Movie) 1979

Randall Anthony Schanze
Randall Anthony Schanze's picture

Welcome to my final “Retrospeculative TV” review. I had always intended to do more of these, but reviewing an entire series gets kind of grueling after a while, particularly when you're kind of burned out on the show, and when you know no one is reading anyway. After taking a substantial break, I decided to resume my coverage of Babylon 5, working my way through Season 3, and possibly on to the end of the show. I wrote a few reviews of a few episodes – 2 or 3, I guess – and then I watched another episode and took notes and suddenly I realized, “You know, I just kinda' don't want to do this anymore.”


Years ago I tried to get R1 to review the “Star Blazers” series. Only like 30-odd episodes, a stupid cartoon, easy, right? He couldn't get himself to do it. He gave it to a friend who couldn't get himself to do it either, even though both of them watched all the episodes. This went on for more than a year, and I was quite unkind to R1 over the matter. Well, I'm apologizing now: no matter how I try, I can't force myself to review B5 season 3. It's good, but I'm just B5ed out, I can't work up any enthusiasm for it, I can't do it, screw it.


You wanna know the stupid thing that DID grab my attention? A dumb TV series called “Salvage 1.” If you don't remember it, don't knock yourself out over it. BOTH seasons aired between January and November of 1979. Yeah, BOTH seasons. It aired as a midseason replacement, did a half-order season of 12 episodes + the TV movie, then jumped in to production of Season 2. The 2nd season was cancelled three episodes in. There were three episodes that never aired.


I remember first hearing about this show while my mom was in the hospital, and a commercial was on the TV in her room. My mom was sickly. A lot of my late-70s SF recolections involve hospitals. Man From Atlantis, for instance.






Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) is a junk-and-salvage dealer who is as amiable as, well, Andy Griffith, and he's extremely good at his job. The brilliant opening sequence has him purchasing a biplane for one third less than the seller wanted, then selling the engine and body separately to two separate buyers (One owns a theme restraunt, the other is a plane restorer who needs an engine) for one third MORE han they wanted to pay. He even shoots a hole in the seat of the plane to make it look more “Authentic” to World War 1. His secretary/ex-wife comments on how he “Made $25,000 just on the drive in to work. Not a bad morning.” Harry seems unimpressed with himself. He pulls this kind of crap all the time.


Now, Harry was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and he's got a fascination for the space program. A couple of his workers are ex-NASA engineers whom he hired “When the space program folded,” and they needed jobs. He pays them three or four times what their jobs are really worth. He just likes having them around, and he'd hire more if he could. He's very good at his job and rich. One day he springs a crazy plan on them: “I want to build a space ship, go to the moon, salvage all the junk we left up there, bring it back, and sell it to the highest bidder.” Apart from his ex-wife, the others are pretty receptive to this. They start buying up NASA surplus engines and whatnot that are rusting away in storage across the country.


Harry approaches Skip Carmichael (Joel Higgins), an ex-Astronaut who's now selling used cars. He was a maverick who published a book on “Trans-linear acceleration.” Rather than getting a big burst of speed, you accelerate slowly but constantly until you get half-way to your destination, then you turn around and decellarate the rest of the way. Because you're accelerating or decellerating at a steady 1-G, there's no weightlessness, no orbits, it's easy. However in order to pull this off with a ship smaller than the World Trade Center, they need an experimental and highly-dangerous fuel called “Monohydrazine.”


Trish Stewart (Melanie Slozar) was NASA's biggest expert on exotic fuels, and Skip's ex girlfriend as well. She's working on pyrotechnical effects in the movies, and for comedic reasons she gets fired just as Skip and Harry arrive. She aggrees to work for them simply for the paycheck and has no faith in the project, which she regards as totally insane.


They set about working on building the ship - “The Buzzard” - and that ends the first act. That also ends the really super-fun part of the movie.


The second act is about what you'd expect: a lot of montages of building the ship (The capsule is the mixer from a cement truck!) various setbacks, the occasional explosion, and the conclusion that they need a guidance system for take off and landing. Since they can't build one they “Steal” one from a big computer company. More specifically, they go to a big computer lab, smuggle in a program one of the old NASA techs wrote, hack in via a phoneline and take control of the computer for the few minutes they need it. I say “Hack,” but remember: this is before “Hacking” was a thing, or at least before it was in the popular parlance. Likewise the scene where they explain what a phone modem is is utterly charming. Also, the FBI notices something is going on, and keep them under surveilance. Jack Klinger (Richard Jeckel) is the FBI agent, and he's just tedious. Still, it's not bad.


In the third act, they get word that the FBI is about to shut them down, so they launch early, and it is at this point that the movie kind of hits the skids, counterintuitively enough. Skip and Mel get to the moon largely without incident, though the FBI are jerks to Harry and company back on earth. Then the computer company wipes the guidance program as part of routine maintenance, meaning the Buzzard can't get back to earth. Then they take damage on lunar landing. Then the cabin fills up with noxious gases, and then they run out of air, and end up making an emergency landing in a park. It's a thrill a minute, but none of it is very thrilling. Harry manages to manipulate the FBI in to buying all the Apollo 17 salvage, rather than let it go to the Soviets, and admits on TV that “Going to the moon is really dangerous. We'll leave that to NASA from now on.”


In the epilog, a city leader from Northern California asks the team if they'd consider moving an iceberg to help them with their drought problems.


The End





Neither I nor anyoneone else in America watched the ensuing series. I think I only saw one full episode, which had them going to a haunted house. Yawn. About half the episodes evidently involed FBI agent Klinger having them run errands for national security off the books. The show seems to have suffered from what I call the “Blue Thunder Syndrome:” You've got a really cool toy, which is utterly unsuited for solving 90% of all problems, so you either have to come up with a number of increasingly convoluted perils that can ONLY be solved by a space ship/police helicopter, or you just need to resign yourself to the ship/copter doing little more than moving you from home to the location of this week's adventure.


The second season premier actually DID involve them moving an iceberg for that town. I didn't watch it, I just remember the commercials. They disassembled the rocket, mounted the engines on the berg, and then pushed it. One of the engines blew up. That's all I knew.


The scene of Skip explaining “Trans Linear Acceleration” to Harry in a car at a racetrack is pretty brilliant. This show is where I first learned of the continual-acceleration method of space travel, though it had already been a cliché in SF for like 50 years. I was young. It was the first time I'd heard of it. I've since used it quite a bit myself.


While the show is far from scientifically accurate, it tries hard to at least explain its core concept in realistic detail. She show's scientific consultant was anything-for-a-buck Isaac Asimov.


I like that two members of the cast – Harry and Mel – are unapologetically Southern. It never comes up, but they never try to hide it either.


Andy Griffith, of course, went on to continue being Andy Griffith.


Joel Higgens – Scott – went on to star in a pretty good sitcom called “Best of the West,” in which he's a Union Army vet who moves west with his family. It got good ratings, but the network dickered too long on whether to renew it (Period sitcoms are more expensive than present day ones), and by the time they made up their mind, Joel has already taken a job as the dad in Silver Spoons.


Trish Stewart – Mel – gave up acting a couple years after this. Her final credit is a Fantasy Island episode in 1981. She'd been guest-starring in TV shows since 1973, and this show was her big break. Alas...


Richard Jaeckel – Klinger – went on to work steadily in character roles until the midmid-1990s. After this he guest starred in a lot of shows, and was on the cast of “At Ease,” (No, I don't remember it either), “Spenser: For Hire,” and the 93/94 season of “Baywatch.”


“Salvage” was a TV movie that would have been a standalone movie of the week, if it didn't test well, or would have served as a pilot for a series if people liked it. It did well enough with test audiences that they decide to just forgo the wait and jump in to production. It offered everything you could really want in an SF show of the late 70s: fairly cheap to produce, charming cast, good-enough characters, mild thrills, a good sense of humor, and so forth. The network was right to buy it. Hell, I'd buy it now, even with the structural problems. It's a good concept. It's got a charming 1950s “Destination Moon” feel to it.


Worth a watch if you get the chance. The entire movie is avaliable on Youtube, but, alas, the series has never been issued on DVD.


And that's the end of me, folks. It's been my pleasure to entertain anyone who actually read this stuff. Thanks for reading. My parting advice: Keep digging up the old shows. Most of them were not very good, but nearly all of them had a few jems worth sifting through crap for.