Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Good, The Bad & The Ficus: QUARK (1977)

Back in May of 1977, I actually recall watching the pilot of Quark, the Buck Henry comedy that attempted to do for (or to) 70s sci-fi what Get Smart! had done for (or to) 60s spy-fi, Of course, I was 15, so I thought it was funny as hell. I was really happy when it was picked up the following year by NBC as a mid-season replacement series. I was less happy, of course, when it was cancelled after just 7 episodes (not counting the pilot). As (obviously) a huge fan of the genre, I embraced the series enthusiastically, and loved it unconditionally.

I hadn't seen an episode since that initial run when I discovered a year or two ago that Columbia/Sony had released the series on DVD. I ordered it, and while I still love the series, and think it's somewhat better than it's reputation, that love is no longer unconditional.

The premise was that Adam Quark, the commander of an interstellar garbage ship, desperately wanted to be a hero. He repeatedly begged his superiors for a "real" mission of importance, but his pleas were generally ignored. Despite this, he and his misfit crew still constantly stumbled into dangerous situations and adventures and triumphed against incredible odds, often saving the galaxy - yet their heroism remained unacknowledged and unrewarded.

The cast was great; Richard Benjamin's idealistic "Adam Quark," a celestial garbageman who dreams of being a galactic hero; Ficus (Richard Kelton), a humanoid plant with a Vulcan-like lack of emotions and devotion to logic, Betty 1 and Betty 2 (Trish and Cyb Barnstable) the beautiful helmswomen, one of whom is clone; Andy the neurotic robot (Bobby Porter); Palindrome (Conrad Janis), the bureaucratic roadblock to Quark's potential heroism; The Head (Alan Caillou), a big, giant - uh - head; and Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson), a "transmute" who's both male and female... and the one character that I just can't take.

And dammit, I'm a huge Thomerson fan, but the writers used the Gene/Jean character to make such sexist (and homophobic) jokes, that I just want to hunt them down and beat them aside the head with a brick. Neither the character, nor the lame jokes that revolve around him, are funny at all, and it drags down the show.

Aside from that, though... well, I think it's a pretty decent satire, and it got better and funnier as it went along. In fact, I think the last three or four episodes are quite strong, and if the show had been granted a full season, I believe it would be better remembered today. The Barnstable twins were certainly nice to look at, and the show had a solid comedic trio in Benjamin, Janis and Kelton - whose character of "Vegeton" Ficus Pandarota, was a brilliant spoof of Star Trek's beloved Spock.

The special effects were admittedly pretty rudimentary, but were certainly passable for a parody, and I did get a kick out of seeing all those Don Post Studios alien masks from the back of Famous Monsters magazine on the extras that swarmed the Perma One space station set.

If you've never seen it, or remember it only from your childhood, I'd suggest giving the DVD a rental from Netflix. Maybe you have to be a kid - or watch it with a kid's eyes - to appreciate it, but I think it's great fun.


  1. Buck Henry took a crack at any genre he thought held comedy potential.
    My favorite was Captain Nice, his superhero spoof that popped up during the campy Batman era, and was easily on a par with Henry's Get Smart. (Too bad they didn't do a crossover.)
    William Daniels (St Elsewhere, Boy Meets World) as Captain Nice/Carter Nash, who wore a costume sewn by his mother, was excellent and a host of easily-recognized character actors provided support including Alice Ghostly (Mom), Liam Dunn (Mayor) and Bill Zuckert (Police Chief). Plus it had a theme song by Vic Mizzy (Addams Family). And to top it all off, the promo artwork, used in print and tv ads, was by Jack Kirby! (you can see it at )
    Yet it died after half a year.
    There ain't no justice!

  2. My experience was much like yours. I managed to catch the "Quark" pilot, which was a good trick in that it originally aired in a summer burn-off spot. Similarly, I was thrilled when it got picked up and greatly annoyed when it was quickly cancelled. It aired on Fridays, and because of that I missed a couple of the very few episodes.

    For years it had been one of my "Holy Grail" DVDs, but it ultimately became a case of "be careful what you wish for." "Quark" seemed a *lot* funnier when I was a teenager. Ficus and Andy are reliable comedy characters, but Gene/Jean is insulting (and worse, not at all humorous). The other thing that really got under my skin was Captain Quark's "Star Notes," the show's riff on Kirk's "Captain's Log" voiceovers. All too often they consisted of Benjamin signposting the alleged humor. Bad enough when you've got a lousy bit involving Gene the Transmute, even worse when someone stops to explain the joke.

    The Barnstables sure were pretty, though.

  3. The problem with the show to a modern audience is that Star Trek parody has been done to death. There really is no punchline one can possibly make regarding Star Trek: TOS (which is all they had to go by at the time) which hasn't been issued countless times in the last 30-40 years.

    As such the show is simply a product of its time, and it enjoys a nostalgia mystique only because of its obscurity.

    Nevertheless, there are elements there that I feel may have inspired 3rd Rock from the Sun, namely the "big head" leader, who was ultimately played by Shatner on 3rd rock.

  4. It was what Mel Brooks' SPACEBALLS would be a decade later, I was a boy and was disappointed when QUARK aired the last episode on NBC Friday April 7, 1978.


  5. Did this show have a small mascot in the shape of a blob that wandered around the ship eating any loose trash? If so I may have actually watched a bit of one episode.

  6. Yep, Cyborg Trucker. That was Ergo, seen in the pilot and in what used to be know as the "Not-So-Ultimate Computer" episode.

    I missed the pilot when it originally aired, but watched the program reliably for the duration of its short run. Loved Richard Kelton's deadpan Ficus, but a little "Quark" goes a long way.

    There's the germ of good parody there, but Gene/Jean and the Betties are written in a way that plays a lot better in the 60's... by the seventies, such portrayals were becoming embarrassing.

  7. Oh good. Someone besides me remembers this fine show.

  8. I too saw the original pilot at the young and impressionable age of 8. That was a fantastic year to be a kid and a Sci-Fi fan.

    Oddly, no one ever mentions the popular show that "Quark" always brings to mind, Britian's "Red Dwarf". While not identical by any means, there appears to be a similar thought process going on behind the scenes. I'd love to see this idea revamped. I think America could finally end up with a "Red Dwarf" of our own in an updated "Quark".

  9. Wow, I've never even heard of this one. I'm going to have to track it down!

  10. Jean /Gene is always misunderstood. I suspect because the majority of people watching it were younger, and attracted to it because it was in space, and that was all it took. :)

    Jean /Gene was himself a parody of another series upon which the writer and even the Benjamin had been involved called "He /She." Most people miss that, and looking at it with today's politically correct slant of "anything _potentially_ insulting is always insulting, and can only be insulting," they tend to either forget the actual joke being made (an inside joke to fans of the acclaimed but short-lived "He / She"-- or were, as is more often the case, too young or uninterested at the time to be familiar with the source material.

    As a parody of that, Gene /Jean was nothing less than brilliant; the uber-manliness that Thomerson radiated even up through his last incarnation as Jack Deth and the over-the-top stereotyping of the "male" and "female" sides of the character are actually the very things that made the parody work.

    As an actor, it was actually a crap role to fall into, given that it was destined to be misunderstood, but in the hands of less perfect-for-the-role actor, it would have been nothing but one long-running gay joke.

    As it was, it wasn't about the character being _gay_. It was about the character becoming a woman. Not in the typical fanboy Ranma "I'm a girl, but I'm the same person," but becoming a woman who was the absolute antithesis of (and would likely have hated) the man he / she was half the time.

    I enjoyed the show then and now (two years after the release, I just learned of it, so you can tell I'm not a rabid fan or anything. :D ). I'm not defending it as anything more than it was, but I find it sad to see something reviled for what it was _not_, so I had to say something about Gene / Jean.

    And like Alien, I first noticed the parallel to Red Dwarf the first time I was talked into watching that show. I fought it hard; I don't usually watch the film version of something I've already read, nor vice-versa. Invariably disappointing in some way. (In the case of Red Dwarf, the character "cat" was a huge let down "in the flesh" as opposed to in print.)

    But as I watched that first episode of Red Dwarf, I remember asking the young lady who had talked me into watching it with her "are you old enough to remember a show called "Quark?"

    Good call, Barking Alien! :D

  11. Respectfully - *whatever* the source of or inspiration for the Gene/Jean character, it simply didn't work.

    I don't object to the concept of the character, I just maintain that the writers handled the character extremely poorly, defining male & female attributes in the broadest, most stereotypical, sexist and demeaning ways.

    I don't *revile* the character for his/her concept, but for its lowbrow, juvenile, and just plain *unfunny* handling.

    Finally, if you think I'm approaching any of this in a "politically correct" manner, you are mistaken, and need to read more of my posts.

    1. Don't remember the name of the episode, but there was one where Adam Quark was below on a planet with a "Roddenberry Bush". Do you know the name of the episode??

    2. That was "Goodbye, Polumbus," I believe.

  12. I agree completely that the character had no place on the show; the gag just didn't work in the context of the show, and the gags were out of place both in the individual plot lines and clearly would have prevented the sort of "bonding" or the crew alluded to in several episodes.

    The character was flat- certainly all the characters were rather flat (except the Benjamin character, with whom some attempts at rounding were made), though that in itself actually served to make the Betty's and Ficus more believable (after a fashion) as full-fledge characters.

    However, that doesn't justify the character at all. Even at the time this show originally aired, I found it rather self-serving of the writers, and even a bit arrogant to assume that his own work was worthy of parody.

    And no; my PC comments are not directed at anyone, but instead at the idea that Gene/Jean was some sort of slander against homosexuals. He was just a bad character. Brilliant parody, but a _bad_ character. Outside the context of the crew, it is precisely this conflict that made this a truly crap role for anyone, no matter how straight or hammy they played it.

    On a slightly unrelated note, my disc arrived yesreday, and I have thoroughly enjoyed spending my holiday with this little piece of the past. :) (Though I had forgotten just how irritating Conrad Janis is in pretty much every role he plays. :( )

    Now if I could just find a clean copy of Message from Space and The Black Hole. :D Loved both of those movies (for entirely different reasons, obviously. :D )

    And please forgive the "anonymous" handle. My name is Duke. Perhaps it's simply being too old to get the hang of this, but I didn't see anywhere to register a name, etc. Still looking, though. I'm really enjoying this site.


  13. The Black Hole has been on DVD for years from both Anchor bay and Disney (the transfers are identical). It looks pretty good, but I'm still hoping for a remastered HD Blu-Ray.

    Message from Space is available on a Region free import DVD. I just ordered my own copy through Amazon - once I receive it, I'll be posting my review and will let you know how it looks.

  14. Thanks, Christopher. I pulled the trigger and ordered The Black Hole today. While I was never a huge fan of the movie itself, the visuals-- particularly the eerie gothic look of the ship itself-- were just so extremely compelling to me. Actually, I don't think I was ever so struck by the ambiance of a sci-fi prop / set again until Event Horizon (I know; horror, and wrong period, but still very striking).

    Keep up the good work; this is fast becoming my favorite online reading. :)