In the spring of 1977, Buck Henry, of The Graduate and Get Smart fame, wrote and produced a science fiction parody pilot called Quark. Shortly thereafter, Star Wars hit the scene and became the biggest pop phenomenon of its time. Since the American populace now seemed to have sci-fi fever, seven more episodes of Quark were ordered by NBC, and the show reappeared in February 1978.
The show centered on an interstellar garbage scow’s commander named Adam Quark (mostly likely named to sound like “Captain Kirk” and played by Richard Benjamin) and the misadventures he encountered with his crew throughout the galaxy.
The show was never picked up after those seven episodes, and a small, loyal following have pined for its reemergence over the past three decades. As time dragged on with no mention of the program, Quark’s reputation grew as one of the great lost gems of 1970s sitcom history. It soon became known as the funniest sci-fi parody ever, and thousands across this great country of ours wondered if it would ever be seen again.
Well, as the consumer-crazed, nostalgia-loving market continued the buy up DVD copies of such television speed bumps as Perfect Strangers, Mama’s Family, Charles in Charge, Mr. Belvedere, Riptide, Silver Spoons, Father Murphy, Hardcastle and McCormick, Too Close for Comfort, CHiPS, and Tabitha, the Powers That Be must have decided to throw caution to the wind and finally release Quark to the masses.
S. J. Perelman, the great American humorist from the 1930s to the 1960s, wrote an occasional essay called, “Cloudland Revisited,” where he went back and read books he loved in his youth and critiqued them with the eyes of an adult. You can imagine that many of the books did not fare well with his more mature perspective. When I saw this fall that Quark had been released on DVD (finally!), I had mixed feelings about it, since I was well aware that my ten-year-old self did not have the same sensibilities that I have now as a man firmly in middle age (btw, are you as psyched as I am about the prospect of a new Three Stooges movie coming out with Benicio Del Toro as Moe and Paul Giamatti as Larry?).
Anyway, I bought the DVD (and there is only one DVD with all eight episodes on one disc), and sat down with trepidation to watch what I considered to be one of my favorite shows of all time.
So, what was it like? What do you think? Naturally, it couldn’t live up to the reputation it had received (not just by me, there are a number of reviews and commentaries about this show on the Web now).
First of all, Richard Benjamin looked like a better-looking version of Rowan Atkinson from Mr. Bean fame (see picture). I had a great deal of trouble seeing Mr. Benjamin instead of Mr. Bean. This is not the show’s fault, however, and I can’t in good conscience count it as one of its weak points.
Commander Quark’s ship roams the galaxy picking up space trash from other ships (large plastic bags the size of McMansions are pooped out the back of the garbage-producing ship and grabbed by Quark’s ship—an endlessly funny gag). Quark longs for the adventure of being a starship captain but for now is stuck on this garbage scow, which falls into its own excitement anyway. Most of the episodes are direct parodies of particular Star Trek episodes with occasional nods to Star Wars as well (e.g., the “May the Source Be with You” episode).
In one episode, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ficus,” each character develops and evil doppelganger (similar to “The Enemy Within” and “Mirror, Mirror” from Star Trek). Ficus, the Spock character, has no emotion, so he can’t be evil, and his double is just another Ficus (hence the joke with the title). This interestingly predates the ST Next Generation episode “A Fist Full of Datas,” where Data (another unemotional character) is reproduced in the holodeck. Both play off titles from Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name” movies and feature non-human characters. A coincidence?
Another episode is called, “Goodbye, Polumbus,” which is a direct parody of Richard Benjamin’s movie Goodbye, Columbus. A subtle gag that only fans would notice and get (it certainly went over my head when I first saw it at the age of 10).
The characters in the show are each pretty much the same joke performed over and over again. (Okay, many of you know me as a card-carrying member of the Beat It to Death school of comedy, but there is a skill to replaying the same joke and keeping it funny.)
The ship’s engineer is Gene/Jean, a transmute who was born with a full set of both male and female chromosomes. He/she is played by a character actor named Tim Thomerson whom you’ve seen on dozens of TV shows (see my piece on Vito Scotti about another great character actor). The character jumps back and forth between a macho tough guy and a very girly woman. The other characters never know which is going to come out at any time, and he/she can switch at the worst times.
This is a gag that wears like tissue paper hiking boots.
The ship’s navigators are the Bettys, played by the Barnstable twins from the Doublemint Gum commercials. One is the clone of the other, but both claim to be the original. They’re both in love with Adam Quark, but since he doesn’t know which is the “real” one, he keeps his distance. They’re in this cast to be little more than eye candy, and every time they simultaneously proclaim that, “She’s the clone!” I long for Gene/Jean to enter the scene.
There’s also a cowardly robot named Andy (think Woody Allen in Sleeper without the laughs), an administrator named Otto Palindrome (played by Conrad Janis who joined Mork and Mindy after Quark died), and the leader of their galactic union known as The Head. He has an oversized brain and says zingers like, “You think you have a headache?”
The one saving grace for me in the cast is Ficus, a vegiton (i.e., a humanoid plant) who is logical and unemotional and played subtly by Richard Kelton, who died only months after Quark. There are a few scenes where he and Quark are simply sitting and engaging in dialog that plays almost like a deadpan “Who’s on First?” I wished there was more of this in the show, but it never has the chance to develop.
Ficus was my favorite when the show air originally (being a Spock fanatic, this was a natural). I remember a commercial for an up-coming episode where a female alien offers him some food, and he turns it down saying, “I photosynthesize.” I was shocked that this line wasn’t in the show when I watched the DVD. Instead, the woman is trying to seduce Ficus and asks him if he kisses. He says no, “I pollinate.” Did I get this mixed up, or did the commercial show a scene that ended up not airing with the actual episode? Strange.
The other thing that I loved about the show when I was a kid was that they used the exact same sound effects (e.g., the background computer noises from the bridge) that were on Star Trek. It was great that another, current show was using these sounds—it was almost like watching new episodes of my favorite program of all time.
So the acting was substandard, the gags were hackneyed, and the special effects were laughable, but it was fascinating reliving these great memories from my childhood, and I’m very glad that the disc didn’t cost me more than 15 bucks.