April 2. 10:17 Galaxy Time. Two vessels drift among the stars. The one in the rear is captained by Adam Quark, a steadfast and sure captain who deftly maneuvers his craft just behind the other. As a countdown starts, the ship in the front craps out a massive bag of garbage, and Captain Quark opens the mouth of his craft to gobble the trash up. Mission completed, he has the ship perform an about face and we see printed on its side United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol.
At Space Station Perma One, Dr. Otto Palindrome welcomes the various species of the Milky Way Confederation with a tribute to the First Amendment of their Declaration of Unity. Palindrome describes the crew of the station, who calmly and efficiently keep everything running smooth... only noticing at the last minute that everyone in the window behind him has been scurrying in panic mode as "DISASTER" flashes on a screen in big red words.
On Quark's ship, the captain goes through some misadventures feeding his pet space slug Ergo, then decides to start a diary where he introduces us to his crew. The position of Second in Command is jointly held by the Betties. One is an identical clone of the other, but nobody knows which is which. Which frustrates Quark, because he's in love with her. Chief Engineer is Gene/Jean, a transmute who contains a full set of both male and female chromosomes and constantly flips between manly-man and girly-girl personalities. Research and Equipment Specialist is the noted scientist O.B. Mudd, a crotchety old coot who lost one of his eyes when he fell asleep at a microscope. In his spare time, Mudd works tirelessly to perfect the imperfect android Andy. After Ergo tries to eat him again, Quark ditches his quarters for the bridge, landing him right in the arms of both smitten Betties.
At Perma One, Palindrome contacts his boss, The Head, who's literally a giant head. The impending disaster is due to a massive enzyme cloud drifting into inhabited space, metabolizing everything in its path. The nearest ship is that of Adam Quark, a fact that fails to amuse The Head as he remembers the time Quark was imprisoned by an army of sentient potatoes. He perks up when he learns the plan to stop the cloud involves Quark going nova in a reactor overload. Orders are put together for Quark, but this hits a series of delays when they discover how much it costs per word to transmit a message by lasergram. They start editing.
On his ship, Quark is dealing with the dynamics of his crew. The Betties are both in love with him, but he only wants to love the real one, which both claim to be. Mudd keeps taking cheap jabs at Gene/Jean for being a transmute, which Quark tries to quell with ignored lessons of tolerance. Andy falls in love with the load control box for the garbage unit. Mudd catches on to the approaching cloud in their area, but, unaware of the full implications, the crew shares a meal, then preps their cryopods for two months.
The ship suddenly begins to lurch due a gravity warp cause by the cloud, which finally gets Quark's full attention. When they're swallowed by the cloud, they realize they're being digested and scramble for a plan. When the ship violently lurches again, Quark discovers Andy is dry humping the load control box, causing it to come loose and dump 200,000 tons of astro trash into space. The ship suddenly stills. The enzyme cloud is going after the trash instead, following it as it drifts out of and away from the Milky Way.
The lasergram from Perma One, telling Quark to blow his reactor, suddenly comes through, and he thanks Andy for saving the day. Everyone promises Andy they'll stop at nothing until he's able to think and feel just like they do. Which leads him to attempt throwing himself out the airlock.
Later, everyone is settling after the events and Andy announces the load control box is his fiance. A direct message from Palindrome comes through, saluting the crew for their triumph and giving them a new mission to scour the universe in search of trouble. They cheer and sail off.
I was wondering how close to the spirit of Get Smart this show would be, and it turns out they pretty much just cut and pasted the mold. Quark is written as Maxwell Smart of the future, an individual who should be extremely capable at his job, and believes he is, only he has an active set of denial for just how much he isn't. That works well on paper, but it doesn't really shine through as Quark genuinely does excel and has a calm and patience Smart would have scoffed at as he keeps order and focus among his hapless crew. I had doubts about Richard Benjamin, but his quiet exuberance really charmed me, and even when he had to slip into moments of broad comedy - like the feeding of Ergo or when the ship goes into a Trek style mimed lurch - he really nails the character as someone who probably should be working a job of exploration far beyond the lowly sanitation management position he's in.
Unfortunately, his portrayal of the character didn't seem to affect the script at all as the powers that be back at Perma One keep talking about him as if he's an inept annoyance who does nothing but make trouble for them and their organization, to the point where they'd gladly send him to his death. If the character were Maxwell Smart, that would make perfect sense, but he isn't, so dragging out the old jokes of the harried Chief just don't work. The Head is still a great visual and Conrad Janis does a great job mixing the executive salesman slime and charm, and the bit of them arguing over the length of the message makes me glad none of my blogs charge by the word count, but they feel like they're talking about someone we never actually meet.
That odd disconnect aside, I really like this episode. The enzyme cloud foiled by clumsy robot sex isn't much of a plot, but it's not meant to be. This is a pilot. It's all about introducing us to this world and these characters. Well, not so much the world. We get a sense of a Confederation and see a quick glimpse of the various species of the Milky Way who we may or may not encounter at some point. No, it's mostly about the characters. I've said my say about Quark and can't wait to see how things go now that he gets to live his dream of sailing the stars for adventure, and was especially gripped when you could see that dream kicked a little by the request to pick up some more garbage on his way out. Instead of Max, who was an underdog we laughed at, Quark is an underdog I'm rooting for.
The rest of the cast is pretty gag heavy, but in some clever ways. I won't claim the Barnstable Twins are great actresses, but they're synchronized beauty definitely gives an allure to the Betties, and they also have a grace that gives the characters a level of compassion and skill. You can see that there's more to them, tender little moments that attract Quark alongside their looks. I'm curious to see how they build on this, or if it's just a recurring joke for the remaining 7 episodes. Like Andy saying the wrong thing. Or the four-armed Interface being a lousy operator. Or Gene/Jean.
Gene/Jean is, honestly, the aspect I was most curious to see how they'd explore. Having formed some close friendships in the trans community, I didn't know what to expect from the portrayal of a "transmute" who's both male and female, especially this being the 70s, which were very tolerant in some avenues, not so much in others. That's mis is pretty much what we get. The lunky Tim Thomerson acting like a girly girl who dreams of romance and does needlepoint is played for laughs, but so are the moments where he struts about as a deep-voiced macho stud. It's the sudden jumps from one to the other where the humor is aimed, as well as through the reactions it draws from the crew. Mudd is very open about his disgust when it comes to transmutes, taunting Gene/Jean to no end, but I listened for when the canned laughter would come in. You don't hear the "audience" chuckling when Mudd aims an insult, you hear it when Gene/Jean throws one back. Obviously, someone thought very carefully about this, which I applaud given the era in which it was made. But then you have honest moments that show Quark is still far from perfect, as his attempts to school Mudd in tolerance towards transmutes are undercut by him not having an answer to "Would you ever let your brother or sister marry one?" or when Gene/Jean offers hir hand for a kiss in the end and Quark pulls back. This echoes the subdued prejudice Quark has towards clones in his quest to only love the real Betty. I don't find this a flaw so much as I do a humanizing quality.
Gene/Jean is definitely a sensitive topic, and it's interesting to see the show be aware of that, treading carefully in what it laughs at and what it doesn't, and openly exploring both issues of tolerance and prejudice. It's laid in pretty subtly, but it's definitely weightier than I expected, and I'm curious where the show goes from here.
Andy and Mudd I can live without. They're amusing, but Andy's shtick is already getting old by the end of this episode, and I wince in pain every time I think about the poor individual walking around in that monstrosity of a costume, especially when you see what the legs are like in the wide shots. Mudd has a few decent bits, like how he keeps forgetting to not look through microscopes with his eyepatch, but is otherwise a crotchety old coot and nothing but, and he feels a little out of place among the cast.
Overall, I had some issues with the pilot - a few underdeveloped personalities, the way his bosses see Quark - but I really dug it. It's definitely a show in the Get Smart mold, but with more focus on Henry's sly wit than the earlier series had on Brooks' vaudevillian shtick. I'm already captivated by the characters and their dynamics, but given the time in which this show was made, I'm guessing we'll see little evolution of those dynamics as the same setups will lead to the same jokes week after week, an aspect of Get Smart I eventually grew tired of.
Production values-wise, the show also does pretty good. The main chamber of the ship feels a little scattered and random, but it all has that glowing gloss of a classic Star Trek vessel. The Head has pieces of fur badly and obviously glued to his massive dome, but that actually adds to the charm. The model f/x are very obvious model statically shot against black felt, but it really sells when one ship craps out a bag of trash (with an actual pooping sound) and another opens its mouth wide and uses its tiny little t-rex arms to stuff the bag in and swallow it down. Hilarious.
I like this pilot. It has issues, and the time in which it was made pretty much guarantees we won't get much growth from the characters before abruptly leaving them off, but the cast is a lot of fun, there's some really clever ideas at play, and I can't wait to see what colorful adventures we end up on in the weeks to come.
I have to admit right up front that I only have a passing familiarity with Get Smart. I know the formula, though, thanks to shows like Sledge Hammer! In that sense, Quark met my expectations with its combination of satire (light in this case) and running gags, but I join Noel in being a bit thrown by the portrayal of its titular hero. After Quark’s cock-sure insistence on manual trash collection (and how his self-satisfaction in this feat seems way out of proportion with its importance and level of difficulty) and the way Palindrome and The Head talk about him, I expected Adam Quark to have all of the swagger, bluster, and bravura of James T. Kirk, but with none of skill and cunning to justify it. The kind of man who makes a bad situation worse, but somehow saves the day through dumb luck. Instead, he’s an everyman; capable, if not exactly talented. Middle management is filled with Adam Quark-types who efficiently go about their jobs and go totally unnoticed by the higher ups. So why do his superiors talk about him like he’s the bane of their existence? I like the decision to make Quark grounded and relatable, it just seems out of step with the attitude of his bosses. Either make him the bumbler they paint him to be and derive your comedy from that, or else go for a more subtle humor and explore him as a guy who no one seems to believe in no matter how many times he proves his worth. Instead, these two factions cancel each other out and it robs the episode of a lot of its potential humor. Things become even more muddled at the end when the galaxy is saved not because of Quark’s quick thinking, but accidentally, by a pair of randy robots. I get the feeling this will be smoothed out a bit by the next episode.
In spite of the odd disconnect between their perception of Quark and the reality of his character, Conrad Janis’ Palindrome and Alan Caillou’s The Head are two pros at work, and a delight to watch. The rest of the characters - in this case, the crew of the sanitation ship - fall in capably, if a bit awkwardly at times, around Quark. When a show is built around a wacky lead like Sledge Hammer, the supporting characters tend to be the straight man, reacting in shock or horror to the hero’s actions. But because Quark is the straight man here, it’s the rest of the crew who are the odd-balls, which should make for a richer experience assuming they sharpen things up a bit. The Betties certainly make for wonderful eye candy, but their sweetness never lets them become mere exploitation. I enjoyed the odd love-triangle between them and Quark, and I get the sense that Quark’s success with these two beautiful women is derived more from the fact that he’s the only cowboy at this particular rodeo than his charm or good looks. Going from crotch to crotchety, unlike Noel, I actually liked Mudd. Most of his bits were humorous, and every starship needs an irascible type mumbling his way down the corridors. What he needs is a good foil, and Quark just isn't it. Unfortunately, Gene/Jean is a one-joke character that got old pretty quick for me. Thomerson is certainly up to the task, turning on a dime from macho Gene to the shrinking violet Jean, but none of hir (thanks, Noel) gags are all that funny (but neither are they insulting or insensitive, which is a grace, I suppose).
Pilots are notoriously clunky, and the pilot episode of Quark is no exception. But there’s also a fair amount of wit backed up by solid performances, and it all seems to be going, if not always at warp speed, than at least in the right general direction. I enjoyed it and, like Noel, I’m eager to see where this ship is heading next.
Tune in next Saturday as we take another ride with Captain Quark in "May the Source Be With You".
The Quark dvds are now out of print, but if you'd like to get a used copy so you can watch along with us, check out Amazon.