‘Quark’: 70s sci-fi spoof is short-lived, but hugely memorable

A long time ago, at a DVD review place far, far away (in terms of quality), I wrote a review for Quark, the NBC sci-fi spoof from 1977 that developed a tiny but intensely loyal cult following.

It’s always been one of my favorite misfires (in terms of public acceptance, not quality), but I hadn’t thought about it for years until I saw that ass-clown Seth MacFarlane trot out his own sci-fi spoof, The Orville, that he claims was ripping off (“paying homage”) to Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Curious how this TV-obsessed geek didn’t mention the more obvious influence of Quark, isn’t it?

By Paul Mavis

Well…hopefully you held onto that Sony DVD collection of Quark, because it looks like it’s out of print and worth hundreds of dollars (you can watch it online at various places I won’t mention so the lawyers stay happy), but then…timing is everything, isn’t it? If the Quark pilot had premiered just three weeks later back in the Spring of 1977…who knows?


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Since the pilot episode differs from the resulting series, I’ll give a brief synopsis of the regular series, and mention how it varies from the Buck Henry-penned pilot further down in the review. Set in the year 2222, Adam Quark (Richard Benjamin), captain of the interstellar garbage scow, the United Galaxies Sanitation Patrol Cruiser, scours the Milky Way, seeking out…space baggies full of trash. Relegated to the most prosaic of United Galaxy duties, Quark longs for adventure and excitement as the captain of his own star cruiser. For now, though, cleaning up other people’s messes is his main assignment—that is, until “The Head” starts giving him more dangerous assignments (often by default, since no one else is out in the middle of nowhere more often than Quark), missions that Quark often lucks his way into completing.

Aiding Quark in his unconventional missions are his, to say the least, unconventional crew members. Ficus Pandorata (Richard Kelton) is the ship’s science officer, an emotionless Vegeton (plant humanoid) who engages in endlessly convoluted philosophical discussions with Adam. Betty One and Betty Two (Cyb and Patricia Barnstable) are the gorgeous navigators and pilots of the ship. One of the Bettys is a clone (both of them deny it), and both are in love with Adam—only Adam can’t determine who the “real” Betty is, and thus, keeps his distance. The ship’s engineer is Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson), a “transmute” with a complete set of both male and female chromosomes. Adam is never sure which Gene/Jean will speak to him next. And Andy (Bobby Porter) is the ship’s cowardly robot, an oily collection of spare parts that was put together by Adam, and who is now engaged to the ship’s load control box. Adam’s immediate superior is Otto Palindrome (Conrad Janis), an officious wonk who cares little for Quark’s various predicaments. Palindrome, in turn, answers to “The Head” (Alan Caillou), the imperious ruler of United Galaxy who sports a massive cranium and a penchant for putting Quark’s life in danger on the barest of whims.

RELATED | More 1970s TV reviews

Way, way before Spaceballs or Galaxy Quest or Futurama (or technically, Star Wars), writer and performer Buck Henry (The Graduate, Catch-22) developed a pilot for NBC called Quark, a spoof of the original Star Trek, the NBC science-fiction series that garnered little mainstream attention during its initial 1960s run, but which had exploded in popularity during syndication in the early 1970s. Premiering on May 7, 1977 (almost three weeks before the original Star Wars bowed in movie theatres), the Quark pilot garnered enough interest from the network (particularly after the genuine phenomenon that was Star Wars) that a mid-season replacement order of seven episodes was called up for release at the half-way point of the 1977-1978 TV season.

The viewers who had managed to catch the pilot back in May, and who remembered it fondly (myself included), tuned in on February 7, 1978, to see the series slightly tweaked for weekly production (Doc, one of the main characters from the pilot, was gone, with the addition of the Spock-like Ficus replacing him). Ratings in general were abysmal, and the show was canceled before the final April 7th episode aired. As far as I know, the show didn’t repeat (perhaps due to the limited number of episodes—only eight, including the pilot). But anyone who saw the series when it first bowed, never forgot it.

I certainly was a fan of the show, having grown up on reruns of the original Star Trek—with the promise of seeing the “Doublemint Twins” Cyb and Patricia Barnstable in gold lamé halter tops and hot pants not hurting matters, either. It was just one of those shows that we’ve all encountered at some point in our pre-teen years that somehow stuck in our imagination, despite the relatively paltry number of episodes. Watching Quark now, the pilot, written and produced by Buck Henry, plays better than the subsequent series (which had nothing to do with Henry, unfortunately), but overall, it’s still an amusing show with numerous bright spots in each episode.

Henry, one of the co-creators of Get Smart in the mid-60s, fashioned in the Quark pilot an absolutely hysterical benchmark that the rest of the seven shows, unfortunately, just couldn’t reach (I suspect that factor, along with a poor time slot, probably contributed to the show’s early demise). Henry’s pilot has all the giddy goofiness of some of his best Get Smart episodes, while consistently firing off a stream of terrific one-liners that are entirely “Henry-esque,” and completely, paralyzingly funny. When the series proper returned in 1978, Henry was no longer associated with the project (his name only appears as the show’s creator in the credits), and his razor-sharp witticisms were sorely missed.

Certainly most notable in the series tweaking that occurred after the pilot aired was the addition of Ficus, the Spock-like Vegeton who became a favorite with Quark cultists. The Ficus character, played with preternatural calm by Richard Kelton (who died tragically just a few months after Quark was cancelled), frequently engages in pointless, circular-logic discussions with Quark that are beautifully dense (as in “dumb,” not “deep”). It’s a funny take-off on Spock, but unfortunately, the powers-that-be, for whatever reason, didn’t bring back the Doc McCoy sawbones imitation, Dr. O.B. Mudd (Douglas V. Fowley), who had some of the best lines in Henry’s pilot (when he tells Quark he’s fed up with his assignment, Quark tries to buck him up, adding for good measure that there’s really no place for him to go, anyway, since they’re 17 light years from the nearest anything—prompting Doc to disgustedly whine, “Then let me out—I’ll walk,”).

Fowley, perfectly cast as the crusty, cynical doctor, served well as the crotchety “voice of reason” among the crew, with a potential gold mine of comedy in his tenuous relationship with Gene/Jean. When Doc needs to talk to Adam alone (Jean, in a feminine voice says, “I know when I’m not wanted,” and leaves), Adam tries to admonish Doc about his prejudice against transmutes—which prompts Doc to say, “Would you let your sister or brother marry one?” Unfortunately, the Ficus character, designed to be more annoying than anything else, doesn’t have that combative interaction with the other characters that Doc had, thus losing a bit of the comedic edge that Quark had in the pilot.

The Gene/Jean character is significantly altered from the pilot, as well. It’s clear that Buck Henry loved slipping in some affectionate gay humor (read in today’s fun times as: “vile, unconscionable homophobic slurs from a white privileged male”) with the G/J character (Thomerson, as Gene, running down a whole list of his vital ship duties to Adam, adds one more thing at the end, suddenly switching to Jean’s voice: “I almost finished my needlepoint.”). And Thomerson is perfect in the pilot, switching Gene’s no-nonsense manliness with Jean’s dizzy feminine mystique at the drop of a hat, generating priceless reaction shots from Benjamin who clearly doesn’t know what to make of the pinballing sexuality of Gene/Jean (the gifted, likeable Benjamin was an inspired choice as the quirky Quark). But Thomerson’s more subtle take on Gene/Jean is gone by the time the series comes back in 1978, with the Gene character, now clearly patterned after Star Wars‘ Han Solo, dominating the screen time with an overdrawn macho/goofy take by Thomerson, and critically, his Jean voice now seemingly dubbed by a woman—wrecking the whole point of the character in the first place (and eliminating the fun of Thomerson’s mincing voice work).

Luckily, Andy the robot hasn’t been touched from pilot to series, and he clearly takes the lead as the series’ funniest character. Spoofing other famous cinematic and television robots like Robby from Forbidden Planet or the Robot from Lost in Space, Andy’s craven, cowardly asides—along with his overactive sex drive—make for the show’s most side-splitting moments. During the pilot’s finale, Quark is desperately trying to find out why the ship’s garbage controls are going haywire…only to discover Andy sexually attacking the garbage load control box, whining pathetically in his mechanical, sing-song voice, “I love you! I need you! I want you!”

It’s hysterically funny and surprisingly adult for this kind of show (Henry tops himself when he slipped this one by the censors, with Quark commenting on Andy’s sexual activity: “If Andy hadn’t dumped that load….”), and consistently, the cowardly Andy gets the best lines throughout the eight episodes (it’s a toss-up as to his best line: either “The next time your garbage isn’t collected, think of this day,” when he’s captured and sentenced to die in May the Source Be With You, or his response to the on-board killer computer Vanessa, who wants to take out the whole crew in Vanessa 38-24-36: “Vanessa, this is my family. We live and work together every day….I want you to know I’m willing to turn on them,”).

I grew up watching Star Trek reruns (which Star Trek reruns? There’s only one Star Trek series…), and I’m sure I’ve seen every episode countless times—but I’m no “expert” on the series, by any means. But even I could tell that quite a few of the Quark episodes specifically target original Star Trek episodes: Quark‘s The Old and The Beautiful spoofs ST‘s second-season The Deadly Years; The Good, the Bad and the Ficus spoofs ST‘s second-season Mirror, Mirror; Goodbye, Polumbus (the title a take-off on Benjamin’s most famous movie, Goodbye, Columbus) spoofs ST‘s first season Shore Leave; and Vanessa 38-24-36 taking on ST‘s second season The Ultimate Computer (with a big nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in for good measure). And while die-hard Star Trek enthusiasts no doubt loved Quark‘s respectful, funny takes on their favorite series, I wonder if mainstream television audiences from 1978 caught all that, or the show’s general air of sophisticated, ironic humor, for that matter—or if they just thought Quark was a silly sci-fi kids show on dead-air Friday nights?

Quark‘s chances of success certainly weren’t helped by having premiered, in the first place, on loser network NBC (during a horrendous ratings period for the network, which scored only four shows in the year-end Top Thirty Nielsen ratings), nor debuting mid-season on a Friday evening of television with not one single show—from any of the three networks—placing in the year-end Top Thirty. Replacing the dreadful The Sanford Arms in February, Quark faced the previous year’s phenomenon Donny & Marie over on ABC (very popular with young girls), while CBS’ newly-acquired The New Adventures of Wonder Woman pulled in significant young male demos. That didn’t leave a lot of viewers left over for Quark, which was pulled in April after only seven episodes. It’s a testament to the series, though, that so few shows, largely unavailable for viewing prior to DVD, would be remembered so many years later by a loyal group of fans (including Seth MacFarlane…)

Here are the eight, one-half hour episodes of Quark – The Complete Series, as described on the disc’s insert:

Quark (Pilot)
Tired of garbage duty, Commander Adam Quark finally gets a real assignment when he is ordered to destroy an enzyme cloud that threatens the galaxy.

May the Source Be With You
Quark battles a menacing Gorgon with the help of an ancient power known as “The Source,” which he quickly discovers is a little rusty.

The Old and the Beautiful
Just before his amorous rendezvous with a beautiful princess, Quark contracts a mysterious virus and begins to age, becoming old and feeble within hours.

The Good, The Bad and the Ficus
While on a routine mission, Quark’s ship gets pulled into a black hole, which splits the crew into “good” and “evil” counterparts, except for science officer Ficus.

Goodbye, Polumbus
The ship is sent on a mission to the planet Polumbus. But once there, Quark and his crew fall prey to their fantasies, and no one wants to leave.

All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms (Part 1)
Quark is captured by the evil Emperor Zorgon and ordered to find “it.” And while Gene/Jean lectures the enemy, the Emperor’s daughter falls for Ficus.

All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms (Part 2)
After he and his crew are rescued by the Forest People, Quark actually does find “it,” a crystal that he thinks will make him invincible.

Vanessa 38-24-36
As everyone on Perma One celebrates the holiday Number 11, Quark is given an experimental computer named “Vanessa,” which tries to take over his ship.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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