Quark

Back at the end of November, I talked about watching the original Battlestar Galactica back in 1978. It turns out that 45 years ago, there was another science fiction show on television that excited me as much or more than Glen A. Larson’s science fiction epic even though it was arguably a much humbler offering. Back before Galaxy Quest, Red Dwarf, or Space Balls was one of the first science fiction spoofs I’d ever encountered. This was Quark starring Richard Benjamin and created by Buck Henry, who co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks. I should note that Quark is not the oldest science fiction spoof I know. Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter with a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, predates it and is one of my all-time favorite movies. That said, I’m pretty sure I encountered Quark before Dark Star.

The title refers to Captain Adam Quark, commander of a United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol cruiser. Played by Richard Benjamin, Quark’s job was to pick up the galaxy’s trash. His chief engineer was Gene/Jean, a so-called transmute who exhibited both male and female personality traits. Piloting the ship were a woman and her clone named Betty played by Cyb and Patricia Barnstable. The only problem is that each one remembers she’s the original and the other is the clone. The science officer was a sentient, anthropomorphic plant named Ficus Pandorata. Assisting them was a neurotic robot named Andy. The cruiser worked out of a space station called Perma One under the administration of Otto Palindrome, played by Conrad Janis, who would go on to play Mindy’s father in Mork and Mindy.

The show’s overall structure was a send-up of Star Trek. Adam Quark was clearly a Captain Kirk wannabe and Ficus was coldly logical and alien much like Mister Spock. The ship was sent on missions that put them up against the villainous Gorgons, who threatened the peace of the galaxy much like the Klingons. Within this structure, the show spoofed Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Flash Gordon along with at least three specific Star Trek episodes. The show only lasted eight episodes, which makes it all the more remarkable that I remember it so well. Thanks to online streaming, though, I’ve recently been able to watch the series again. Some of the show hasn’t aged very well. The gender tropes are so mid-70s they’re almost painful. Many of the jokes, especially in early episodes, fall flat. The effects, sets, and costumes are super cheap and cheesy, though it could be argued at least some of that was deliberate.

The fact that the series only lasted for eight episodes doesn’t help. It took about three or four episodes for Quark’s actors to really find their footing and get comfortable with the series and its premise, which is effectively half the series in this case, but in terms of absolute number, it isn’t all that bad for a mid-70s sitcom. My favorite episode is the two-part Flash Gordon send-up “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms” in which the Wild Wild West’s Ross Martin plays a Ming the Merciless-styled villain. Another great episode is “Goodbye, Polumbus” which parodies the Star Trek episodes “Shore Leave” and “This Side of Paradise.”

Given Quark’s short run, it’s unfulfilled potential, and the fact that modern computer artists could design some fun effects, this feels like a series ripe for a reboot. Ron Moore’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica was cool because it gave us a middle and an end to a 70s series that started well, then was pulled off the air. I’m not sure if Quark has a middle or an end, but it would be fun to see the crew of the United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol back in action for at least a few more episodes. If you want to check out the series, a Google search will take you to services who stream it for free with commercials.

11 comments on “Quark

  1. Willow Croft says:

    And it’s on Amazon for *only* 121 USD! Ha! (I’ll keep looking…)

    • Yeah, the hard media releases are spendy when you can find them. Fortunately, if you have bandwidth (and, as I recall, that’s an important caveat for you) it can be streamed for free as long as you don’t mind commercials. Sony’s Crackle service is one that has it.

      • Willow Croft says:

        Yeah, I’ve finally managed to try out a free streaming. The problem is that, although I have always been really adaptable…I’m having trouble adapting to streaming TV. I don’t know why I have a block against it. I think it might have something (weirdly?) to do with my ADHD. Ha! I’ll look at that Crackle thingy.

      • I totally understand. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of streaming. The commercials often come in at weird times and even with high speed internet, it seems like I run into little glitches that most people don’t seem to notice, but drive me crazy.

  2. This looks pretty fun and way ahead of its time. I’m going to look for it in the UK.

    • It’s definitely fun. The humor is very much of the 1970s. Good luck and hope you can find it. You might check to see if the Sony Crackle streaming service is available in the UK. If so, and if the territory rights allow, that might be the best place to look for it.

  3. Coming off the cultural obsession with space exploration during the ’60s, it isn’t surprising entertainers would look for humor in that setting.

    • I introduced my daughter to The Right Stuff just the other day and was reminded of the spaceman comedy segments on the Ed Sullivan Show, which go right back to the beginning of the space race. So yes, I’m sure someone could do a pretty linear look at the evolution of science fictional comedy as it connects to real space exploration.

  4. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    Ah, yes, Quark. I was 30 that year, and not into space comedy, plus there was something on opposite this that I just had to watch instead. It’s funny, I don’t remember what that even was, but I still remember brief scenes from the times I did tune over to Quark (though my aging brain confuses it with Spaceballs now). I vaguely remember a “Death Star” (actually a giant vacuum cleaner) hoovering up planets, and Quark’s ship is the only one close enough to get into position to delay it. The Head orders Quark to engage on this suicide mission. Quark refuses. The Head tells him that he’ll do it, or else, to which Benjamin replies, “Yeah? What are you gonna do, bite me?”

    I should have watched this instead of whatever that completely unremembered thing I did watch was. Just another of my many poor decisions. I should write a book…

    • The vacuum cleaner was actually Spaceballs (and it was in the hands of Mega Maid), but there was indeed a Star Wars spoof in Quark. There, the Death Star-like giant ship basically looked like Darth Vader’s head and Quark’s ship was caught by a tractor beam and pulled up into a hatch at the bottom. All the other details you’re remembering are pretty much spot on. It was silly but it was memorable. I’m surprised there were only eight episodes!

      • Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

        Spaceballs… Underlined my own point there! Good to see I got something right. Makes you wonder how shows like this, and Firefly among many others got the axe so early while so much uninspired, mind-numbing drivel stumbles along for years. I guess the inmates really are running the asylum.

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