[23 November 2008]
Back when I was a boy there weren’t any TV remotes. To change the channel or turn the thing on we would have to get off the couch, walk five feet and turn something called a knob. It was an arduous task and from the quality of ‘70s programming one would suspect that TV producers were banking on the fact that couch potatoes would sit through anything rather than take the death march past the coffee table.
Usually it worked out that way but in the fall of 1978 and the spring of 1979, Americans by the millions would stare at the screen, grumble, then get up and change the channel. This sudden stirring of the potato-like masses was caused by the remarkably unfunny and downright tedious series, Quark. Though the series created by Buck Henry was an abysmal failure, he should at least get an award from the Presidents Fitness Commission. If nothing else, Quark got Americans walking, at least for a short distance.
Hastily slapped together to cash in on the then prevalent Star Wars mania Quark tells the adventures of Adam Quark (Richard Benjamin), a starship captain who dreams of glory but winds up collecting space trash for a living. His science officer is a plant-man named Ficus (Richard Kelton) who plays Spock to Benjamin’s Kirk. It doesn’t work but it’s the high point of the show.
Other crewmembers include Betty I and Betty II (Tricia and Cyb Barnstable). They’re hot blonde babes and a good argument for cloning who are both enamored of our captain. They spend most of their time arguing over who is the original and who is the clone. Quark can’t make up his mind which one he prefers, so perpetual frustration is the order of the day.
Then there’s Gene/Jean (Timothy Thomerson) who’s a half man, half woman transmute. The performance is simply awful but it’s probably more due to poor writing than acting. Years later, Thomerson achieves some redemption by doing a good job in Sasquatch Mountain.
The final member of the crew is Andy (Bobby Porter), the cowardly robot. Somehow Andy manages to be more annoying than Gene/Jean. Then there’s Palindrome (Conrad Janis of Mork and Mindy fame) who tries to cope with Quark and a giant head (Alan Caillou). All together Quark is a tragic wastage of some very good talent.
Take Richard Benjamin for example. Besides being a fine dramatic actor, Benjamin can spoof with the best of them. Not only was he fantastic as Dracula’s love rival and would be nemesis in Love at First Bite, but he even made Saturday the 14th watchable. The dude is funny and it’s a shock to sit through 222-minutes of him without feeling the least bit compelled to so much as chuckle.
So how did the show flop in such a spectacular manner? Some would say that it’s impossible to parody a genre that pretty much parodies itself. If you put a laugh track on the Star Trek episodes that Quark tried to parody, Star Trek would have you helplessly giggling on the floor while Quark just would only annoy. Even Mel Brooks tried and failed with the truly awful Space Balls. But why are Groening and Cohen so successful with Futurama?
It would seem that the key to a good sci-fi parody is a love of science fiction. If the tales of space operas don’t genuinely touch your heart you’ll have no idea what to joke about. If there’s no inner urge to escape reality, the jokes will thud. Without the joy of imagining the impossible, all that’s left is a pointless and dreary pantomime. So in the end, Quark fails because it has no heart, just a joyless tedium that no viewer deserves to endure.