November 17, 2012

Quark, episode 6 "All the Emperor's Quasi-Norms, Part 1"

While relaxing on his ship between assignments, Quark is contacted by The Head, who tells him about the starship Belcrow, which has spent the last 27 years travelling to our system to form an alliance with the United Galaxy. Quark, as a good-will gesture, is tasked with removing their 27 years worth of garbage. Quark and crew deflatedly set about their task, despite Gene/Jean again voicing hir longing for some heads to break.

The Betties report that an unknown alien vessel has come into view. Quark has them signal the ship to identify itself, but it responds by jamming their signal and speeding away. This is in violation of United Galaxy law, so Quark races to pursue (Gene/Jean is delighted)... until Ficus describes the other ship's overwhelming weapons and defenses, and Quark decides to leave them be (Gene/Jean is chagrined). Unfortunately, the other ship has turned around and started pursuing them, quickly jamming their transmissions and pulling the garbage scow in with a tractor beam.

The crew are now prisoners of Zorgon the Malevolent, a vicious Gorgon space pirate, brother of the High Gorgon himself. Bearded and sporting lightning-bold emblazoned robes and a skullcap, Zorgon demands to know who had the gall to chase him. The crew quickly singles out Quark, who stands firm that he was following regulations and he and his people should be freed immediately. Bristling at the demand - and agog at the weird antics of Quark's crew - Zorgon wants the lot killed, but his voluptuous daughter, Princess Libido, has taken a sudden liking to the poetic philosphising of Ficus, so Zorgon instead has the crew imprisoned while he continues discussing matters with Quark.

After an impromptu (and wince-inducing) concert from Libido, Zorgon starts telling Quark about his dreams and goals, saying nobody understands him just because he's every bit the bloodthirsty tyrant they think him to be. He eventually gets around to interrogating Quark about the location of It. Quark doesn't know what It is, but Zorgon believes It was the reason Quark's ship initially pursued him. Quark again pleads ignorance, but is shown his crew locked in a cell with the walls slowly closing in. He finally makes up a story about It being hidden on the asteroid Rumbar, buying him and his crew some time.

Quark is thrown in the cell with his crew, Ficus and Gene/Jean quickly concocting a plan to use Andy's circuits to short out the lock on the door. It works and they're free, but guards are roaming the hall. Quark turns to Gene/Jean to fight hir way through the foes, only to find the peaceful female persona currently in charge. S/he is instead sent - along with Andy, who shares a pair of handcuffs with hir - to sneak off and find a way to contact Perma One. The rest are quickly caught by guards and returned to their cell. Doubting of Gene/Jean's chances, the Betties come up with an idea to use Ficus to seduce Princes Libido so she'll help out by placing a gun in the throne room where Quark can take advantage of it. They try to give him a crash course in passionate romance, but he seems just as confused and disinterested as ever when he's summoned away.

In her quarters, Libido tries to arouse Ficus, but it just isn't working. So at her request, he demonstrates how vegetons pollinate: lying on the floor with your limbs pointed up while repeating "bee bee bee" in an increasingly high pitched voice. She joins along, even after finding out it requires the presence of an actual bee. Zorgon bursts into the room and is scandalized by the display. Ficus is taken to the dungeon, where he's strapped to a table with a laser beam slowly cutting towards him.

Elsewhere, Gene/Jean - still cuffed to Andy - manages to overpower and steal the clothes of a passing scientist, only for another scientist to mistake him for Professor Markov and take him into a lecture hall for his schedule speech about It. Gene/Jean opens with a demonstration of how It is spelled. The rest of the crew hopes Palindrome has been combing the cosmos for them, but when we cut to Perma One, we find he's been suspended by The Head for Quark leaving the Belcrow overloaded with garbage.

Quark is summoned back to the throne room as the ship nears the asteroid Rumbar. The walls of the cell are again closing in on the Betties, Ficus is about to be bisected, Gene/Jean is totally dying in front of his audience, and Princess Libido never did slip that gun under the throne, leaving Quark at a loss for how he'll get out of a certain death. Suddenly, Zorgon announce that all the signs reveal that It actually is here. Before Quark can celebrate, Zorgon boasts that now he has all the power he needs to conquer the whole galaxy, finally getting rid of The Head and replacing him with the High Gorgon, and he has one man to thank for making this dream come true: Quark.


Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive... It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!

After several tepid and uninspired efforts, Quark comes roaring back to life in the first half of the two-part episode “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms”. Filled with impressive sets and costumes, wonderful performances by both the regular cast and the guest stars, and imbued with a real zest, it’s by far the most clever and energetic episode since “May the Source Be With You”. In fact, these two episodes feel as if they’re from an entirely different series. I’m now convinced that my initial doubts about Quark working as an hour long show were totally unfounded. I’m sure there were a myriad of reasons why the show was stuck in a half-hour format, chief among them being budgetary, but with the benefit of hindsight, I believe a great compromise would have been to keep the two-parter set-up for the entire season. Not only would the extended runtime allow for better storytelling and the cliffhanger aspect to keep the viewers coming back, it would actually cut costs as you wouldn’t need to build as many new sets for 12 distinct stories as you would for 24 (assuming a traditional full season run).

If “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms” will be remembered as anything, it’ll be as Ficus’ coming out party. While Richard Kelton has been fantastic as the matter-of-fact man/plant since his debut, I believe the character has been wasted. Here, he’s put front and center, and he shines... in a deadpan sort of way. In fact, the focus (or perhaps burden would be a better word) is taken off Richard Benjamin enough that he shines too. With Gene/Jean also in the mix beyond his standard “Let me at ‘em!” shtick and the Betties getting a few fun moments of their own, this is really the first true ensemble episode. Perhaps we should re-title this Quark: The Next Generation. I also want to make special mention of guest stars Ross Martin and Joan Van Ark. Martin, perhaps best known as Artemus Gordon on the classic series Wild, Wild West, is a delight as the half-mad Gorgon pirate, and Van Ark is sexy and fun as his love-struck daughter. Speaking of sexy, I was surprised at how far they pushed things here, particularly when Quark and the Betties try to instruct Ficus in the ways of lovemaking. It felt a bit out of place in this otherwise family friendly series.

The biggest problem plaguing this comedy still remains, however. It’s just not very funny. It’s pleasantly amusing, no more so than in this episode, but genuine laughs are few and far between. And then there’s Andy. Given that his lines are likely read off camera by a production assistant, I’m curious if the cast were aware of just how bad his character was fitting in. I will give props to the one good moment he does have here. When the crew come up with the idea to use Andy’s circuits to help blow open the door to their cell, Andy moans “I’m surrounded by assassins!”, a line made famous by the late great Jimmy Durante. It’s the first time I can remember not wanting to punch the robot, and that has to count for something.


Tony, I'm glad you came around to agreeing that the longer format makes for a better show. The big problem to this point is that episodes either had to be plot based or character based, but with this two-parter and "May the Source Be With You", they were able to juggle both in a way that lets plot and character give each other a nice bit of depth and complexity. And, yeah, it totally lets the ensemble shine. Quark is stuck placating a mad tyrant who could wipe out the entire crew if the wrong thing is said, and keeps encountering a series of escape plans that all seem doomed to failure - and lo and behold, they all do fail to work in time. Ficus doesn't care two squats about human emotions, is thrust into a situation where emotion is necessary, then still clings to doing things his own typical way. Gene/Jean is stuck in hir peaceful female persona during a time when action is needed, stuck in the lunkheaded male persona when intellectual subterfuge is needed. The Betties don't really have an arc, but their passionate nature is what concocts the plan to seduce Libido, and they get a nice moment where they dual-judo-chop a female Gorgon guard Quark can't bring himself to fight. And Andy is Andy.

There's so much going on, so much meat for our characters to chew on, and it's all anchored by the great parody of Ming the Merciless and his lustful daughter, Princess Aurora. I'll echo Tony's praise of the guest cast as Martin bounds from sentimental old ruler to roaring tyrant with a zeal that often rises above the so-so dialogue, and Van Ark is equally at home in va-va-voom-ness as she is in comedy, like when she goes all out in her impersonation of Ficus's pollination ritual. I also like how they've maintained the threat of the Gorgons as a constant presence looming behind every episode. It really does paint them as a force to be reckoned with, which won't stop hounding our heroes until all of know space is under the iron fist of their rule. Also, the quest for It is so playfully enigmatic that I'd almost rather it never be explained, because I doubt any gag could live up to... It.

Unfortunately, I also have to echo Tony in the weakness of the writing. This time, though, it's not the story. I really like the story. With the half-hour episodes, the concepts have been simple and are mostly built around a series of sketches that leave things feeling loose and choppy. With this and "May the Source Be with You", there's a more intricate interweaving of the narrative, with multiple concepts fusing together instead of everything hovering in orbit around a single idea. These episodes feel much more like Red Dwarf or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where it's more about telling a funny story instead of just making fun of an existing one, leaving half-hours feeling like the sketches of Belushi playing Kirk to Chevy Chase's Spock. They're fun, but there's nothing particularly inventive there. The hour-long episodes are the example of the type of storytelling this show is capable of at its best, but the half-hours are the reminder of the type of show we're more regularly stuck with between those highlights.

Anyways, what I mean by the weakness of the writing is that the dialogue is pretty clumsy this time around, lacking even the old-school zinger sharpness of lesser episodes past. The plot has humor, and a lot of the actors rescue things with their delivery, but the wording of many a phrase leaves some of it flat, especially when delivered by (I'm sorry, ladies) amateur actors like the Barnstables, or the monotone delivery of Andy. I actually really liked Andy this episode, delighting in his forced pairing with Gene/Jean, and thought many of his observations and protests were great, they just weren't always worded to perfection. Which again makes me regret the loss of Buck Henry's continued presence on the show he created.

In the end, this is a strong episode. The zingers aren't as crisp as they could be, but it's more than made up for with a good plot, a constant escalation of threat, and some solid performances from the cast, both guests and regulars alike. Now here's hoping this doesn't pull a Farscape multi-parter with a crappy conclusion to a kick ass setup.

Some thoughts:
  • I don't think this was pushing the sexiness any further than previous episodes, Tony. The Betties' over-the-top orgasmic breathiness was played on the same level as the math teacher of the last episode. And naming the princess Libido is a harmless enough joke. I also love the gag that all the Gorgon guards are fully armored, except the female ones, who wear bikini tops and hot pants.
  • I also like the bit that The Head thinks so little of Quark that the extent of his concern towards the Commander's disappearance is in how it personally affects him. I am hoping, though, that Palindrome gets to show his buried heart again in Part 2, using what resources he can to track Quark down.
  • I like how this series plays with the idea of time, and that increasing stretches in the cosmos is such an everyday thing. Here, we get the 27 year mission that's overloaded with garbage, and Palindrome finding out he sent a ship in the wrong direction... seven years after it left.
  • Beeee beee bee BEE BEE BEEBEEBEEBEE

And a final observation that just came to me... It seems as though they've brought Quark back to the more likeable presence of the first episode. Instead of constantly complaining and rolling his eyes at everyone, he's more calm and tolerant. He still has his fears and doubts, but ultimately puts his trust in people and focuses on getting the job done. I especially like the opening, where he longs for journeys among the cosmos as he reads a book about space pioneers. When he gets the call to set out on a good-will mission to the visiting ship from a distant star, his heart soars... then flops again at the mention of garbage. But then he picks himself up, puts on a professional smile, and sets out with his crew to do the best garbage run they can.

This is the Quark I love, the Quark that's been lacking as the character took a turn into the more cynical territory of a half-broken commander constantly on the verge of losing it.

I hope this is the Quark we get to bid farewell to after two more weeks of adventuring by his side.

Tune in next Saturday as we take another ride with Captain Quark in "All the Emperor's Quasi-Norms, Part 2".

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.

No comments: