December 15, 2012

Quark, final thoughts...


Earlier this year, Buck Henry sat down for an interview with the website TV Time Machine, where he had this to say about Quark:

Did the show fulfill your vision?

Not remotely. But that's partially my fault. We made the pilot. We could have made it a little better, but we made the pilot and the network didn't say whether they wanted to go ahead for a very long time - months - during which time, I got the offer to go and work with [Warren] Beatty on Heaven Can Wait. And I couldn't turn that one down, so I went away. They started doing the show almost immediately when I went, and I left a number of wishes. Not instructions, because you can't instruct talent, but I wanted them to not lapse into parody. I wanted it to be satire.


I implored them to read the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Which, of course, they didn't do. I wouldn't have if I'd instructed me to. So it turned into a kind of parody of Star Trek, which is what I didn't want it to be.

The biggest issue against this show for Tony and I has been its intentions, which it could never seem to sort out. What it's trying to be and who it's trying to aim for kept seeming to flip around from week to week, so it's nice to get a suggestion of what the show was originally intended to be before Henry left it following the pilot. Did you spot the mention of Stanislaw Lem? That caught my eye, too, as an interesting reference. Lem is someone I've only know for the cerebral Solaris, which I've seen but never read, but I had a few of his books laying around (can't remember where I got them or why I hadn't read them yet) and something about the premise of Quark suddenly rang a bell. I dug them out and, sure enough, there was The Star Diaries.

The Star Diaries is a collection of stories which debuted in English in 1976, just one year before the pilot was made, about Ijon Tichy, a man in a rocket who travels the stars and has a series of misadventures. I've only read about half of them as of the writing of this piece (partially because Lem's prose is very ponderous and meandering at times, and only half the stories actually work), but the influence is very apparent as stories like Tichy falling into time warps that lead to a series of confrontations between he and his near past and future selves, or having a metal box stuck on his head and being ordered to infiltrate the population of a man-hating robot city, or appearing before a delegation of aliens who not only openly regret that the superior neanderthals didn't live to reach the stars but that the rise of the homo sapiens was likely orchestrated by an outside alien party - leading to an argument between them over who's responsible for the manufactured plaything society now lying before them - could easily have been retooled to feature Commander Quark and his crew.

So you can see what Henry is aiming for, yet he himself admittedly never managed to reach it in his own pilot. The opening episode nailed the character of Quark and surrounded him with an interesting cast and the funny recurring plot of him being a garbage man who dreams of bigger things, but the basic plot of that installment completely lacked any of the big scifi ideas Lem infused every one of his stories with, and spent more time distracted by vaudeville bits about the cryopods, the feeding tubes, and the snooty four-armed receptionist. Henry talks as if his aim was high with the pilot, but what we got was pretty basic gag writing on the level of a typical Get Smart episode, with the only concepts that really stood out being the relationship issues between Quark and the pair of Betty clones, and Gene/Jean's transmute status and struggle against Dr. Mudd's constant prejudice. It was satire, yes, but hardly deep satire, and what's there was strung on too thin a narrative to let it shine.

So if Henry himself couldn't rise to the heights of Lem, I can't really blame the producers who followed for not even trying. We've shared Henry's criticism of the show for falling into a parody of Star Trek, but in thinking about it, I now believe that was a fair direction for it to go, as Trek was the purest encapsulation of space opera scifi in the pop culture mindframe of the time, and also an example of how to achieve it on a tv budget. I can't fault them for swiping Trek ideas like the supercomputer that goes homicidal, or the lead rapidly aging right when his youth is necessary, or a planet of wonderful dream illusions, or a black hole giving the crew a set of evil counterparts. These were all good plots, just as ripe for comedic potential as they were dramatic, and the show gets extra points for reaching beyond Trek to Star Wars, Flash Gordon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And anchoring the show on Trek led to its strongest and most memorable element: Ficus Pandorata.

I was saddened to learn that Richard Kelton passed away the same year in which the majority of Quark aired. In a tragically and infuriatingly preventable death, the married father of one succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning while going over lines in a dressing room with a faulty ventilation system. He was 35, and the studio was only lightly fined. In the eight years of his career, he racked up almost 40 guest roles in nearly as many tv shows, and a handful of movies. Quark was his big break to finally take on a recurring spot in a lead ensemble, and with his precise delivery, strong voice and visual presence, and a very dry wit, he shined in the role of Ficus. The show flopped, but Felton certainly didn't as he was already picking up a slew of new roles just before passing, and I'd be immensely curious to see the character acting career that could have been were we not so suddenly robbed of a man just starting to explore the outer fringes of his prime.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show never rose to his level. The Betties were a one-joke pair of characters with most of their presence focused on each one's pair of heavenly bodies, and even the bits Henry set up would have gotten tired had they repeated from episode to episode. I like the idea of Andy, but beyond a few moments, he rarely rose above grating, and one almost wishes Dr. Mudd, rather than he, had been the one to make the cut from the pilot. Henry set up a potentially interesting character in Gene/Jean, but the writers who came after didn't have a clue how to handle hir, so they just focused on the male side, giving him the gung-ho gusto and lunkheadedness that, to be fair, Tim Thomerson does play very well, but the Jean side is all but invisible, only brought out for very misguided jokes at her expense. I really dug Conrad Janis's sleazy performance as Palindrome, but the Head was a one-off idea and both are often very forcible crammed into every episode.

And then there's Quark himself. He started off as an instantly heart-warming figure, who dreamed big but often found only tiny rewards. Even in that uneven pilot, he was a solid anchor for the team, keeping everything steady and straight in the middle of odd antics, and giving a light air of whimsy as he gazed out on the stars that he had the privilege of exploring in his own small way. After the pilot, they added an air of cynicism, as he constantly complained about his lot in life and openly disparaged the crew he was stuck with. This threatened to cut the chain of his anchor, and it didn't help that they were throwing Richard Benjamin broad comedy he ultimately just wasn't capable of pulling off. In the last few episodes, the writers thankfully found their footing and started bringing Quark back to the more patient and capable presence of the pilot, but the damage had been done as we instantly went from seeing this character at his best to suffering alongside him at his worst, and much of the endearment had been lost.

This is a show that didn't know outside the gate what it wanted to be. Henry had a notion, but no clue how to follow on that notion, so he settled with the Get Smart trope of a set of jokes that could be recycled each episode. The writers who came after instantly zeroed in on Star Trek plots they could dress up for humor, but they weren't as skilled at writing the necessary zingers, and were also handed a batch of characters they didn't understand. It's not surprising the show only had eight episodes to prove itself as, while yes I would have watched the whole run while it aired, it's faults are so strong as to ultimately be what defined it, making it a show that's difficult to recommend. In other words, enjoyment often comes in spite of what it is.

And I did enjoy it. Really. The cast always brought their a-game (even when Benjamin didn't pull it off, you could see the effort he was giving), the colorful sets and costumes were a lot of fun, and there were some occasional sharp ideas and zingers and memorable little moments like Gene failing to jump over a railing, or Ficus's pollinating ritual, or a space station in the form of a giant robot head with a frowny face. It's an uneven, deeply flawed show, but often still quite a bit of fun, and if they ever put it up for streaming somewhere, it's definitely worth a try for fans of spoofs and space operas, but go in with measured expectations. And while I'm glad I own the DVD, I'm especially glad I bought it back when it was still in print, because I can't recommend it at the prices it currently requires to track down.

Favorite episode - "May the Source Be With You". Instead of just knocking off Star Wars, they had the clever idea of re-envisioning a chunk of that film through the eyes of Star Trek, and pull it off in very inventive ways. The extra length of the episode allows for a strong and rising momentum throughout, the entire cast is given moments to shine, and the guest roles of Hans Conreid and Henry Silva are fun and memorable.

Least favorite episode - "The Old and the Beautiful". The plot meanders and ultimately doesn't satisfy, the humor is flat, and it's all centered on exactly the type of broad material Richard Benjamin's range just isn't capable of reaching. It's a painful experience at times.


The biggest challenge I face in writing these “Final Thoughts” wrap-ups - aside from grammar, spelling, and cogency - is trying to put a fresh spin on, in this case, eight weeks worth of my thoughts on a series’ ups and downs, and hits and misses. By now, our regular readers are well aware of my frustration with Quark’s seemingly random characterizations, Gene/Jean’s not so split personality, the misuse of the Betties, and my burning hatred for Andy the Robot. They also know that I feel Quark made a big mistake by often simply putting a red rubber nose on Star Trek in a lazy attempt at parody rather than satirizing scifi genre conventions in general.

I guess what Quark ultimately lacked was clarity from the top, which lead to a crisis of conviction in the material and an absence of zeal from everyone involved. It’s hard to do something well when you don’t know what it is you’re trying to do. The writing often came across like a shrug, where the sound of a fail horn wouldn’t have been out of place to punctuate the various gags and punch lines. The cast was likeable, but there simply wasn’t enough comedic ground for their talents to find purchase.

A few Final Thoughts final thoughts
  • Though lacking big names, I thought the guest stars were uniformly good.
  • For all of my complaints about the series, I will say they did a respectable job of world building in a very short time. Though alien races were typically relegated to background characters at the United Galaxies Space Station, we got a healthy dose of galactic catchphrases, holidays, strange cultures, and galactic politics in these eight episodes. I’ll likely be whispering “The galaxy, ad infinitum!" every time my boss finishes one of his speeches for the next several months.
  • I found Richard Kelton’s Spock-like Ficus to be the best thing about the series and wondered why I didn’t remember seeing him in more things over the years. Sadly, it turns out that Kelton died a few months after Quark ended. He was in his dressing room on the set of the TV movie Centennial when he was overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning, a result of poor ventilation.

The Bottom Line

Even at a time when the success of Star Wars and the resurgence of Star Trek had re-kindled an interest in non-dystopian science fiction, and both were clearly ripe for the picking, it’s easy to see why Quark put the “Short-Lived” in The Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase. There were stand outs, like “May the Source Be With You” and “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms, Part 1”, but even at its best, Quark never quite managed to leave space dock.

The galaxy, ad infinitum, over and out!

We'll be back in the middle of next week to announce the subject of our next Showcase!

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