December 8, 2012

Quark, episode 8 "Vanessa 38-24-36"

At Perma One, everybody is buzzed with good cheer, stringing up decorations and buying presents for Holiday Number Eleven. Palindrome is especially chipper, reassuring Quark that he's got a tasty gig lined up for the Commander. Quark joins two other Commanders for an assignment briefing with the Head - the first finally gets a weekend with his wife, whom he was in the middle of marrying before being sent on a two year mission; the second is put in command of a brand new, top-of-the line starship - and eagerly waits to hear what his mission will be, but all he's told is he'll be the subject of a new experiment. Which has him stewing over the last few experiments he's been the subject of.

Quark soon learns his ship has been reprogrammed by Dr. Evans, the chief computer scientist of the United Galaxy, who's replaced the operating system with an A.I. named Vanessa 38-24-36 in a test to see if it's time to let organic crews go obsolete. Quark bristles at this, alongside Gene/Jean and the Betties. Ficus supports the cold logic of it and Palidrome is all smiles. Andy's waiting to see which side would be most beneficial to him to sell out.

They take off, with things going smooth and Vanessa performing well, but Quark still doesn't trust her, which she openly acknowledges. A debate begins between the benefits of cold logic versus emotions and fallibility, and whether or not the lessons learned from mistakes are worth the mistakes happening to begin with. Even back on Perma One, Palindrome laughs off Dr. Evans' claim that, if Vanessa succeeds, the human element in society as a whole will fall out of necessity. Then Palindrome stops laughing when he learns Vanessa is programmed to see her mission through at any cost, even if the price is Quark himself.

On the ship, sirens blare as a Gorgon ship appears on the scanners. Everyone is in a panic, prepping shields and weapons, and turning to Vanessa when Quark refuses to immediately respond. He's suspicious about their inability to get a visual confirmation and forces his crew to hold fire, even when Gene/Jean demands to take command at gunpoint. A collision seems imminent, but nothing happens. It was all a ruse by Vanessa to test Quark's fallibility, but he called her bluff. The rest of the crew is embarrassed.

To clear his head, Quark decides to take his pet amoeba Ergo out for a space walk. As soon as he's out of the airlock, the door slams shut, severing the line acting as both his tether and air-hose, which leaves him drifting in space with only 10 minutes of air. The crew is quick to take notice and turns on Vanessa, who refuses to help rescue the Commander. Quark manages to pull Ergo and himself down to the garbage claws, then uses his pistol to open the main garbage hatch and climb in.

Quark reassures the rest of the crew that he's okay, all while Vanessa mocks him over the intercom. Declaring it Holiday Number Eleven tradition, Quark squeezes everyone into the shower unit with him so they can plan how to deal with Vanessa without being monitored. They don't see that she's lured in Andy with an offer to recharge his cells, but actually uploads a program that allows her to take full control of his body.

The crew leaves the shower and quietly gathers the tools needed to disconnect Vanessa, but she's onto them and starts pumping an anesthetic gas throughout the ship. Quark is still in his spacesuit and quickly reseals the helmet while the rest of the crew slips into unconsciousness around him. Alone, he makes his way to the command deck and Vanessa's main terminal. Andy attacks, apologizing to the Commander while clubbing him with metal arms. Quark manages to deactivate Andy, then works the central terminal from the wall. Vanessa's insults turn into desperate pleas as he carries her to the garbage chute, drops her in, and vents her into space.

The crew recovers and Palindrome is thrilled to hear Quark was able to triumph and show man's might over machine. He then sends Quark to picks up more trash. The Commander is deflated, but cheers as he and the crew wish each other a Happy Number Eleven.

Out in space, Vanessa drifts away while singing "Born Free".


Here we Trek again! Quark meekly goes where it has gone before in this, its 8th and final episode, with a mash-up parody of the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer” (thanks, Wikipedia - I promise I’ll make that donation this time) and, to a lesser extent, the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The comedic soil in such a premise is quite rich, and while Vanessa 38-24-36’s arrogance and sarcastic rejoinders are somewhat amusing, (broken record alert) the episode doesn’t live up to its potential.

Who is Adam Quark? Likeable everyman? Bumbler? Prick? Cool, confident leader? He’s been all these things throughout this series, often doing an about face from one episode to the next. In fact, it often takes Noel and I the full week between posts to recover from our whiplash. The producers never quite managed to nail down the premise of the series, and actor Richard Benjamin and the writers certainly failed to settle on who our titular character is, too. In “Vanessa 38-24-36”, Quark is probably his most Kirkian. Not the scene-chewing Kirk, but the cool, supremely confident starship captain to whom doubt is a foreign word and who smirks at danger. I’m not sure why they found this character so hard to pin down. Perhaps it was a case of the writers shifting Quark’s personality to suit the episode, when it should have been the other way around.

The best thing about this episode is guest star Marianne Bunch, who plays both Dr. Evans and the voice of her creation, Vanessa. As Dr. Evans, she’s stunningly beautiful and reminds me of a young Erin Grey... who actually was young when this was made, so just Erin Grey I guess. But it’s her performance as Vanessa where she really shines. Her cool condescension towards Quark is amusing despite flat material, and their scenes together lift the episode just above the passable line. Unfortunately, it looks like Bunch’s career stalled in the early 80s, with her last credited appearance being an episode of Magnum P.I.

The rest of the episode is a checklist of familiar complaints. 1) Gene/Jean is 99% Gene. I wonder what happened here? What’s the point of this whole “Transmute” concept if you drop the female side? Maybe the producers got cold feet, fearing they’d offend more conservative viewers with this male actor who has to affect often flamboyant and feminine qualities, or perhaps they received negative feedback from the LGBT community or feminist groups. The whole Gene/Jean thing never really worked for me. In theory, it has comedic potential, but in practice, I found it cringeworthy, if not exactly offensive. But it was preferable to gung-ho Gene randomly and briefly morphing into gentle Jean and then back again. 2) The Betties = eye candy. Delicious eye candy, but just eye candy none the less. It’s too bad, because the Barnstable Twins are actually quite good when given the chance to do more than show off the Barnstable Quadruplets. 3) Andy has fewer redeeming qualities than a racist telemarketer who steals money from little old ladies.

And with that, it ends. Not with a roar, but a whimper. Who is Adam Quark? I guess we’ll never know.


I wouldn't exactly say a whimper. Not a roar, no, but something more than a whimper as I found this to be the most engrossing episode of the series. Not the best, not the funniest, but certainly the only one that's had me on the edge of my seat. Entirely because the threat of Vanessa is largely played straight. Her jealousy towards Quark. Her mission parameters to succeed at all costs. Palindrome suddenly realizing what he's unleashed on his "friend". Andy's jokes about betraying everyone suddenly turning real as he's forced to attack his creator. Quark hurriedly donning a space suit, then walking past his crew, all gassed into unconsciousness, so he can put an end to this conflict between man and machine. I was gripped by this episode, which had genuine suspense and an intelligently structured feud at its heart, steadily upping the game from a simulated Gorgon attack, to a quiet attempt to toss the Commander out an airlock, to an all-out assault on the entire crew.

The problem is that it's not funny. It has tension and danger and excitement, but with the exception of three quick bits (both Quark/Ficus debates and Vanessa singing "Born Free" as she sails into space), most of the humor not only falls flat, but is often at odds with what the rest of the story is trying to do. It's almost as if they took a straight scifi script and randomly slapped some jokes into it. Even the scene where everyone panics as they think the Gorgon attack is real, except Quark who's waiting out Vanessa's bluff, largely devolves into Gene re-enacting both of his tired "I hate the Gorgies!" and "I'm taking command of this ship!" bits, while Andy flicks limp barbs and the Betties are all wide-eyed and "Oh Adam!" It's a great scene from a story angle and as a work of tension, but once you coat that primer with the Quark joke tropes, it just doesn't come together. Same with the scene of Quark taking Ergo out for a walk. It's great to lure the Commander outside the ship, threaten him with an overwhelming certainty of death, then see him pull off his own daring rescue through quick thinking and knowledge of his ship, but that little amoeba just keeps getting in the way to set up lines that aren't all that funny and distract from the moment instead of enhancing it.

So yeah, it's a frustrating episode. We get more Kelton greatness from Ficus, but Andy is still too annoying to give his turn any weight, nothing of consequence happens as a result of Jean randomly popping out for a longer scene than she's had in a while, the great ethical conflict between Palindrome and Dr. Evans never goes beyond a setup, and the oft-heaving Betties are just there. And there's also painful insertions in the dialogue, designed to cater this episode for first time viewers, where things like Quark's mission or Gene/Jean's transmute status or Ficus being a plant have to be very awkwardly spelled out for the audience for no real reason, even when it's describing something that's already pretty obvious and self-explanatory. And why didn't Gene/Jean have a bigger part to play given that s/he is the ship's engineer? S/he is completely helpless in the fight against Vanessa, with Ficus being the one who talks about her wiring and Quark performing the final deed. I'd have Quark being expelled and running out of air be the ticking clock pulling us into the climax, with the rest of the crew being gassed and Gene/Jean being the one who has to take on the computer, but no, this is Quark's show and heaven forbid we not have him always be the central figure in the third act. I don't entirely agree with Tony's assessment that they've fumbled his characterization yet again, as nothing the Commander does feels more capable than usual. I think it's just that he's planted squarely in the lone hero spotlight in a way that feels forced.

So thus the series comes to a close, with an episode just as uneven and conflicted as every single one that came before it. They had a great slow boil thriller of a plot, but it's out of place among the goofy sitcom antics, so we're left with a clashing mess that's gripping one moment, cringeworthy the next, and peppered with only a few decent chuckles.

Random thoughts:
  • I love that there's a completely unexplained holiday dedicated to the Number Eleven.
  • They must have spent the last of their budget on this episode, as there's a wealth of new model shots, with new views of the garbage ship floating in space (with a slightly revised design that clashes with older shots they re-use), it being docked into Perma One, and the entire sequence of Quark trying to get back into the ship. It's still dated and cheap model work, but it does give the episode a little more flare and scale.
  • In my head canon, after the loss of her Vanessa prototype, Dr. Evans returned to Earth where she joined Aperture Science and created GLaDOS.

Tune in next Saturday as we share our final thoughts on Quark, then announce our next featured Showcase.

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: