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.

Dracula, Dead and Loving It

I grew up with classic Mel Brooks films such as Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part I and Young Frankenstein. At 94, Mel Brooks is still around and still involved in the film business, though his later films don’t have the same reputation for greatness as his earlier films. So, I was a little uncertain when my wife brought home a copy of Dracula, Dead and Loving It, which, to-date, is the last film he directed. Although the movie didn’t quite reach the heights of Brooks’s earlier films, it still had a lot of great moments and I was glad to have watched it.

Nosferatu contemplates Dracula, Dead and Loving It

One of the things that makes Young Frankenstein great is the clear love Mel Brooks has for the Universal monster films of the 1930s. He pays homage to many of the great moments in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein while poking fun at them. That same love comes through in Dracula, Dead and Loving It. The story largely follows the 1931 Dracula which starred Bela Lugosi but also includes send-ups of the 1922 Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992.

The earlier Mel Brooks films benefit a lot from the comedic talents of people like Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, and Cleavon Little. It’s hard to say anyone in Dracula, Dead and Loving It rises to their level, but there are still some fun performances. Harvey Korman is one of those actors who appears in a lot of Mel Brooks films, and I confess I’ve tended to like movies more in spite of Korman than because of him. In this case, I thought Korman did a brilliant job of playing Dr. Seward. He “disappeared” into the role and felt very much like versions of Seward who appeared in the Universal and Hammer films, which made the humorous lines he delivered straight all the funnier. Peter MacNicol is another actor who I’ve seen in other films but didn’t especially stand out to me. In Dracula, Dead and Loving It, he channels Dwight Fry’s Renfield beautifully. One of the best scenes in the movie involves Korman and MacNicol having a dialog over tea while MacNicol surreptitiously snatches bugs and tries to eat them unseen.

Mel Brooks gives a nice performance as Abraham Van Helsing and also pokes fun at many of the tropes surrounding the character. Like Korman, his performance here is a little more understated than in other films where he appears and it works to the film’s benefit.

For me, Leslie Nielsen’s best film is Forbidden Planet where he really defined the role of the brave, stalwart starship captain for many actors who would follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Forbidden Planet was made at a time when Hollywood didn’t take science fiction seriously and Nielsen didn’t get many roles until he found his way into comedy. To me, his real comedy talent is delivering silly lines with the same kind of stalwart earnestness he gave to the Captain Adams part in Forbidden Planet. That ability served him well in Dracula, Dead and Loving It. He delivers a performance that pays tribute to both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. The only problem is that by this time, Nielsen was so recognizable that he didn’t quite disappear into the part in the same way that Korman and MacNicol did into theirs.

While there are stronger vampire comedies and even stronger Mel Brooks films, I enjoyed Dracula, Dead and Loving It and plan to give it another watch to see if there are other elements and classic film tributes I missed the first time. Although my own vampire novels are intended as serious works, I do throw in some light moments. You can learn more about them at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order