October 20, 2012

Quark, episode 2 "May the Source Be With You"

At Space Station Perma One, Palindrome is in the midst of a frantic evacuation of all personnel. When three Commanders arrive, he steers them towards the communications room where The Head reveals the Gorgons, the long-standing arch-nemesis of the cosmos, have developed a new weapon of immense and unmatchable powers. The first Commander is told to evacuate all scientists. The second, to evacuate the top secret files. The third, Commander Quark, is tasked with hunting down the Gorgon doomsday ship and destroying it, even at the cost of his own life. Needless to say, Quark has his doubts. All of which are ignored by Palindrome as he gives Quark a metal orb to complete his task, which holds the galaxy's greatest weapon: The Source.

The Gorgons, led by the High Gorgon (Henry Silva in a quilted suit of Darth Vader armor), reach the planet of Sparta, which is knows for its fierce warriors who have never before backed away from a battle. The Spartans take one look at the Gorgon ship, a planet-sized maroon robot head with a frowny face, and instantly surrender.

On his ship, Quark gets into a debate over emotions with his new crewmember, an emotionless plant man named Ficus, then has to deal with Gene/Jean, who's male side is biting at the bit to race out and blast away some Gorgon scum, but hir female side dislikes violence and would rather study the arts. And Andy wants everyone to run away.

Quark gathers everyone around as he opens the orb and sets free... nothing. Then the booming voice of The Source (Hans Conreid) fills the room, saying it is everywhere and everything, but its powers can only be used when people believe in it. To demonstrate this, it tells the crew to set their lasers on their lowest setting and open fire on Quark, who's ordered to deflect the blasts with a ball bearing. It doesn't go well the first time around, but then Quark starts to believe in The Source, allowing him to the shots with ease.

They catch up to the Gorgon ship and awe at the size of it. The Source guides them to a point near the ship's central power source where they can dock without being discovered, but as they approach, even The Source is caught off guard by how massive the thing is and expresses doubts. They dock, but it turns out they're in the wrong part of the ship and they have been discovered. Quark and his crew set out into the Gorgon ship, leaving Andy behind to watch their craft. When Gorgon guards pour in, Andy tries to convince them he's the sole member of the crew, but then he fudges some basic controls. Andy is brought before the High Gorgon, who sense the presence of The Source. It doesn't take long before he gets a full description of Quark out of Andy, then sends the robot off to be destroyed.

Quark and his crew slowly work their way through the corridors, taking out Gorgon guards with stun lasers and ignoring the fumblings of an increasingly belligerent The Source. Gene/Jean gets separated during a firefight, then the Betties are left behind to use a communications console to try and get through to Perma One, then Ficus distracts some guards before he's captured. Thus, Quark is alone when he reaches the ship's power core, which is across a very narrow drawbridge over a flaming pit that houses a roaring, reptilian creature who likely wants to eat his head. Quark crosses the pit and The Source tells him to plant the bomb. Quark doesn't have a bomb and they get into a fight over whether or not The Source actually told him to bring one. A Gorgon guard shows up. He's stunned by Quark, but not before getting off a shot that blinds the Commander. Quark has nobody to rely on now but The Source, who needs belief so as to guide Quark back across the drawbridge and in search of components to build a bomb. It's slow going.

The Source guides Quark to a room where guards are trying to interrogate Ficus under a heat lamp, but all he does is wilt into philosophical ponderings. Quark barges in and rescues him. They set off to find parts for the bomb.

Andy is about to dismantled by a Gorgon, but goes into shakes over his guilt at betraying his creator, Quark. He accidentally knocks the Gorgon out and takes off. He comes across Quark and Ficus just as they come under ambush in a corridor. Andy decides to charge down the corridor, acting as a shield for the other two while they take out the guards.

While the High Gorgon listens in with a leer over his intercom, Quark and Ficus realize The Source is dying because nobody believes in it. It meekly says a cheer wouldn't hurt, so Quark leads the others in a chant that leads The Source to flare with power, which restores Quark's eyesight. It quickly guides Ficus to the parts he needs to make a bomb, and they return to the power core, planting the device and setting it for half an hour.

The Betties are still trying to get through to Perma One. They've been held up so long that an entire line of Gorgons has built up behind them to use the phone, none of whom believe the duplicates when they say they aren't together. Back on Perma One, The Head is holding fast, Palindrome is waffling under the pressure and burst out all the insults he's built up against The Head over the years, and the High Gorgon calls in to demand their surrender. He laughs when The Head clings to his faith in The Source, then cuts out, finally letting the Betties in on the line. They pass along that Quark has gotten through, and Palindrome suddenly regrets everything he just said to The Head.

The Betties reunite with Quark and the others and they head for their ship. During everything, Gene/Jean has been tearing through entire elevators and rooms full of guards in a near berserker battle rage. S/he reunites with the others at their ship when s/he comes careening around a corner in a scooter, an entire squadron of Gorgons on hir tail. Quark jumps to hir rescue, but is instead pulled into a one-on-one battle with the High Gorgon. Quark comes out on top and he and his crew make their escape just before the entire doomsday ship goes up in a bang. The High Gorgon contacts them from his escape vessel, vowing he'll stop at nothing until he hunts down Quark and has his revenge.

At Perma One, Quark bids a fond farewell to The Source, who's once again locked away in its sphere. Later, The Head commends Quark and tells him he's being promoted out of sanitation to Commander of a full starship. Quark credits his crew and says he'll only accept the offer if they're transferred as well. The Head passes on this request, leaving a deflated Quark still in the job of collecting trash.


“Is The Source dangerous?”

“Only if it’s on your side.”

What a difference nine months makes. The pilot episode of Quark aired May 7th, 1977, and fared well enough that it was picked up as a mid-season replacement, with the first actual episode airing on February 2nd, 1978. In the interim, George Lucas’ Star Wars had become a culture-shifting global phenomenon. Do you think that was lost on the producers of Quark as they launched their new series? Not a chance, as we’ll see.

“May the Source Be With You” feels quite a bit different than the pilot, and it’s not just the obvious Star Wars influence. First of all, the crew has changed a bit. Out is the cantankerous Dr. Mudd (presumably for good), and in is the stoic and logical Ficus. Ficus is essentially the show’s version of Spock, serving as a foil for the all too human Quark. Though I enjoyed Dr. Mudd, at least more than Noel did, Ficus is a major upgrade. The late Richard Kelton absolutely nails Spock-like without ever slipping into a full-on parody, and his tête-à-têtes with Quark are humorously reminiscent of debates between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on the original Star Trek series. Though I really wish they’d refashioned Mudd into the McCoy character instead of cutting him out, as Quark lacks the argumentative personality to really take advantage of those exchanges, it still works as-is. The rest of the crew returns intact, and are basically depicted the same as they were in the pilot, though I did detect a slight difference in the way Gene/Jean was portrayed. There was less switching between hir male and female personalities this time around, and Thomerson seemed a little less flamboyant in each persona. Benjamin also seemed to be more consciously channeling his inner Shatner at times, but unlike the actual Shatner, it’s subtle. Sadly, Andy the robot still isn’t funny, and double the Andy only means double the unfunny.

Another major change is the tone. The pilot had a very loose, almost sketch comedy look and feel to it, while this episode is shot, lit, staged, and plotted more like a traditional science fiction series, and there’s a noticeable up-tick in its production values, as well. It also runs twice as long as the pilot, which is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allows for a more developed story, but on the other, it begins to stretch things a bit thin by episode’s end. At forty five minutes, Quark is a sitcom premise in a drama suit, and the fit is a bit ill.

And now we come to the most obvious change of all: the introduction of Star Wars into the popular culture. It’s not that Quark refashions itself into a space opera parody, it simply puts the Trek-like crew into a very Star Wars-like situation, replete with gags that reference scenes from the film, musical cues that mimic John Williams classic score, and, of course, the High Gorgon’s Vader-like helmet. It lacks the sharp satirical bite of the great Mad Magazine Star Wars parodies, but it’s all amusing enough. The best gag in the entire episode, however, is the fact that The Source inspires confidence in the wrong people. Namely, the enemy of anyone who wields it. When the seemingly all-powerful Source gets its first look at the massive Gorgon ship and suddenly confesses its doubts to Quark, I was rolling. The Source was voiced by Hans Conried, who you probably know better as the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s animated classic Peter Pan, and his performance is a real treat. It’s a clever bit, and his one of a kind voice makes it special.

Light on laughs, but heavy on chuckles, “May the Source Be With You” is nevertheless a vast improvement over the pilot.


I'm with Tony in finding this a big improvement over the pilot. Where I disagree with him is that the now doubled running time is actually the best addition as it allows the stories to be far richer. In the pilot, there wasn't much plot simply because there wasn't a whole lot of room for it, and fleshing it out more would have caused the story and gags to start stumbling over one another. Here, there's equal room for both. Everyone gets to separate and have their own little journey through events instead of popping in for a one-liner before stepping out of the way like they did last time. The Betties are stuck trying to get a phone call to connect, while also distracting the expanding line of Gorgons with foreign languages, false claims, and even their shapely bottoms. Ficus logically deduces his way through situations, even his capture when he turns out to be an absolute butterfingers with a gun, and we get a great establishing of his character through his tendency to start an endless philosophical debate at the drop of a hat, the exasperation it brings in others giving weight to him having been a part of this crew for a while. There's a continuity retcon in Quark being the builder of Andy instead of Mudd, but I've come to like the little robot him being a wisecracking coward of a douche, an interesting mirror to Ficus, who has the personality we'd more expect from the robot, but there's still an anchor to Andy in the guilt he feels at his betrayal of Quark. It's not a guilt that would ever prevent him from turning on his companions at the drop of a hat at the next sign of danger, no, but at least he'll feel bad about it afterwards.

And then there's Quark. Gone from the pilot is the exuberance of someone eager to prove themselves by doing the best they can at whatever menial task they're assigned. Instead, the Quark we get here feels like he's been at the job longer, and is constantly frustrated by the crap he has to do, the crazies he has to do it with, and the disrespect he gets from his bosses. Quark still has the air of a person who has the skill to be far above the position he's been assigned, but now he's just chugging through the daily grind. Sure, he'll stand up for his crew in the end, but look at what happens when he does. It still leaves him stuck with them in the job of sweeping up the galaxy's trash. This is an interesting deviation from what we saw before, but I like how it's more an evolution of the character instead of a deviation. He's a little older, a little more beaten down, but he still has the skill and the charm that pulls him through in the end. I agree with Tony that Benjamin is definitely channeling Kirk at times, especially that tenseness Shatner could never hide at just how badly he wanted to roll his eyes as the madness he constantly finds himself in.

I dig the plot of the episode, which, as Tony pointed out, does a great job of taking a chunk of Star Wars and running it through the filter of Trek. The Death Star of this episode is a giant mechanical face with sharp angles and red lighting, and despite the Vader cut of his helmet, the High Gorgon and his troopers would be right at home alongside Klingons and Romulans as they tromp through the same corridor again and again, all turning just before they reach the (intentionally?) obvious forced perspective painting at the end... which I actually expected someone to faceplant into as a gag. Henry Silva is great as the High Gorgon, his striking features and campy acting perfectly at home in these surroundings. I love the recurring bit of his handless arm, as he keeps hitching odd devices to the stump for ridiculous reasons. And the final fight is great as Quark and Silva dance around in front of a handheld camera with actiony posing, which so echoed Trek that I had this running through my head the whole time.

As for production values, Tony's right that things have gotten a bit of an upgrade (dig those metallic coats Quark and crew wear), but I love how they leave the model ships as blatantly obvious model ships. The Gorgon vessel looming over Sparta is hilarious when both are just visibly plastic things against a backdrop. And I love the redesigned hairline of The Head. Did those stylish white curls ring a bell for you too, Tony?

And then there's The Source. The greatest omnipotent power in the universe, but like so many deities in post-Sandman literature, its power is entirely dependent on the level of belief people have in it. And even then, it's pissy, quick to dodge blame for its own mistakes, and has a frequent habit of saying left when it means right. Hans Conreid (who, aside from his many classic sitcom appearances and voice acting work, I also loved in the nearly forgotten 50s scifi comedy The Twonky) is an absolute delight as he goes from booming with authority and power to waffling under responsibility and doubts. I wish they would have tied it to Quark and his crew a little more, enhancing that it's largely a reflection of their own emotional states instead of falling back on little gags, but that's the direction this show is aimed at. At least we get the tender little moment where Quark has to say goodbye and lock The Source back in its cell, which, to my surprise, didn't end with Quark saying "I'm glad that's over!" once the seal was locked in place.

This episode isn't without its problems. While I love the absolute macho ferocity of Thomerson as Gene/Jean cuts through wave after wave of guards - hir clothes in tatters, but a determined grin still carved in hir face - hir female side was largely overlooked for the bulk of the story. They set up a contrast early that the male side thirsts for violence and the female side abhors it, but never once in hir several battles does Gene/Jean have a personality shift that turns the tide in either direction. It's the setup of a gag that forgets it was supposed to have a punchline. As for Ficus, while I really like Richard Kelton's performance, I feel it's weakened by a lack of any form of makeup to seal this being as an alien plantman. There's no coloring or appliances of even the smallest of degrees, so we're left with just a typical 70s dude with curly blond hair. He sells the character, don't get me wrong, but I'd like to see the alien in the physique to match what we're told about him. We do get a brief moment of wilting under the heat lamp, but that's it.

Other than those two bits, I'm perfectly happy with this installment. It's exciting. It's hilarious. It's got a unique batch of characters who play things light but still pull me in. It looks great. The music is solid. This quasinorm of an episode is, for my money, an absolutely pitch perfect parody of 60s/70s scifi entertainment.

Some thoughts:
  • Why would somebody stick a flaming mote with a gator man around a power core in the middle of a spaceship? No, wait, scratch that. Why wouldn't somebody stick a flaming mote with a gator man around a power core in the middle of a spaceship?
  • Everyone cocked their guns while Quark cupped Andy's ball........I'm sorry. I had to. Go ahead and hit me for it.
  • I wish I knew which Barnstable was which, because one is a heck of a better actor than the other. Unfortunately, the other gets some of the big lines while the better one uses her ass as a distraction. Which I'm not entirely complaining about, mind you.
  • One thing this show lacks is a name for Quark's ship.
  • The female side of Gene/Jean is so underused here than I'm not sure how I feel about it now being dubbed over by Ann Prentiss. I thought Thomerson did a great job of doing both sides on his own in the pilot, so this addition feels unnecessary. But I'll wait until it's more prominently featured to judge.
  • Tony's spot on that Mudd might still have worked as the McCoy to Quark's Kirk and Ficus' Spock, but I don't blame them for deciding to replace a member instead of adding to what's already a sizeable ensemble.
  • At a time when the commanding officers of Starfleet were still a white sausage fest, one of the starship Commanders of the Confederation we briefly meet here is a black woman. Totally wish I could see some spinoff episodes of her adventures.
And now, friends, I leave with you with the eternal (until someone in marketing gets a coupon for a holiday dinner when he thinks up a better one) catchphrase of the Galactic Confederation:

"The galaxy ad infinitum!"

Tune in next Saturday as we take another ride with Captain Quark in "The Old and the Beautiful".

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.

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