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.