Thursday, April 27, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Questor Tapes (1974)

"I have seen much to criticize in mankind, but I believe there's even more to admire..."

-Questor (Robert Foxworth) in The Questor Tapes, by Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon.


May I introduce you to Lt. Data's father?

This Hugo Award-nominated TV pilot, which first aired on American television on January 23, 1974, represents another Gene Roddenberry attempt to craft a successful science fiction TV series after Star Trek (and following the failure of pilots including Genesis II and Planet Earth).

In The Questor Tapes, however, Roddenberry abandoned the "future world scenario" of Star Trek and both PAX TV movies and instead focused on the idea of an artificial man -- an android -- who, with great benevolence, would guide the human race through his troubled "infancy" in the twentieth century.

Thirteen episodes of the series were actually written, and NBC green lit The Questor Tapes, even officially granting it a time-slot: Friday nights at 10:00 pm. However, before the series could air, various behind-the-scenes factions fought a fatal tug-of-war, attempting to skew the fledgling series in a new direction, making it more like The Fugitive (1964-1968) or The Six-Million Dollar Man (1973-1978).

Roddenberry stuck to his guns...and walked away. His series was never produced. However, the pilot was novelized by D.C. Fontana in a book based on the script by Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry. And even today, many fans fondly remember The Questor Tapes.



The Questor Tapes opens at "Project Questor," inside a highly-advanced surgical operating theatre on a college campus, where Dr. Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell) and a team of scientists (including Majel Barrett Roddenberry) attempt to bring an android -- Questor -- to full consciousness.

This is a more difficult task than it sounds, however, because Questor's actual creator, Dr. Vaslovik (Lew Ayres) is missing and "presumed dead." The mystery man disappeared three years ago, without a trace. Questor, Vaslovik's child, is not well-understood by either the high-IQ Robinson or the other international scientists (James Shigeta, Fred Sadoff). Project Leader Darrow (John Vernon), fears that Questor is a "billion dollar pile of junk."

Questor rejects all programming tapes except the one created specifically by Vaslovik. Vaslovik's programming includes a background in "logic, law" and forensic medicine, among other things. Questor also boasts knowledge of "international laws and procedures."


Even after successful programming, Questor does not appear to operate normally. This vexes Robinson, who considers himself a "puzzle solver" and "gifted mechanic." A disappointed Darrow immediately seizes on the idea of selling Questor's valuable parts (like his stomach -- an amazing "nuclear furnace") to international bidders.

While unguarded and unsupervised, Questor (Robert Foxworth) activates himself, modifies himself to appear human (replete with skin imperfections), and leaves the facility. His overriding purpose is to locate his "creator," Vaslovik. Unfortunately, Vaslovik's programming tape was corrupted and now Questor does not possess human emotions, a fact he laments. "Is it possible, I was meant to feel?" He wonders.

Without programming to help him understand emotions and experience a sense of morality, Questor abducts Jerry Robinson and demands that the human being become his "guide" in such matters. Robinson isn't sure at first about befriending a "an ambulatory computer device," but soon realizes he has a responsibility to help the Questor "child" discover his creator, and find an "explanation" for himself.

Alas, Questor has limited time to complete his mission. If he does not locate the missing Vaslovik in three days, he will self-destruct...literally becoming a nuclear bomb.

After a jaunt to London in which Questor and Jerry meet Lady Helena (Dayna Winter), Vaslovik's courtesan, they proceed by jet to remote Turkey...to the very mountains where Noah's Ark is believed to have crashed. There, in a deep mountain cavern, Questor finally meets his creator, Vaslovik, and learns of both his origin and purpose.

Vaslovik and Questor are both androids of extra-terrestrial design. These androids (who build their own replacements before they expire...) have been protecting and guiding the human race in secret for 200 millennia. Questor is the last android of the line, because after his span (a duration of 200 years...), mankind will have outgrown a turbulent childhood and will no longer require safeguarding.

Unfortunately, Vaslovik can not provide Questor what the android desires most: human emotions. Although he would "trade anything to feel; to be human," Questor will have to continue to rely on his friend, Robinson, for an understanding of the human equation...



Had there been a Questor series, it would have picked up there: with Jerry and Questor "guiding" but not interfering with man as he broached international crises and problems that could threaten the human race.

In the pilot, we are introduced to what would have been an important set: Vaslovik's Information Center, a control room hidden in Lady Helena's wine cellar. From that location, Questor can monitor important locations worldwide (including the U.S. Congress), as well as private locations...like, uh, bedrooms...

The Questor Tapes is an almost perfect representation of the Gene Roddenberry aesthetic. There is (gentle...) criticism of 20th century industrial/technological mankind here, his "squalor...ugliness...greed...struggles." 


Yet this damning view is balanced and tempered by an essential optimism about intrinsic human nature. Our "greatest accomplishment," declares Questor is "our ability to love one another."


Questor is a character much like Mr. Spock or Lt. Data -- an outsider who is nonetheless fascinated by mankind. The perspective as "outsider" permits Questor, Data or Spock to be both critical and positive about the human race, without any of it seeming personal, political or petty. Like Spock, Questor is dedicated to logic, and uses that word (logic) frequently. "Logic indicates the simplest plan is often the best," etc. And also like Spock, Questor is peaceful. He is not programmed to kill, yet he can incapacitate enemies with the equivalent of a "nerve pinch."

But if Questor is a child of Spock, he is also the father of Data. There can be little doubt of that. Questor desires to be human, just like Data, and wants to understand humor. "Humor is a quality which seems to elude me," he tells Jerry at one point. 



Also, like Data, Questor is a sexual being, and this facet of his personality also conforms to an essential quality of all Roddenberry productions: kinkiness.
To get information out of Lady Helena Trimble, Questor -- an android -- makes love to her. Beforehand, he tells her that he is...um..."fully functional." Next Generation fans will recognize that particular turn of phrase from Data's seduction of Tasha Yar in the first season episode "The Naked Now."

In another scene from The Questor Tapes, Jerry and =Questor visit a European casino and Questor learns that the House is cheating, utilizing fake dice. The android is able to beat the cheaters by adjusting the balance of the dice. In the second season episode of The Next Generation titled "The Royale," Data does precisely the same thing.

The Questor Tapes has aged poorly in a few, minor ways...all mostly visual. For instance, a close-up glimpse of Questor's high-tech interior reveals a rotary telephone cord. And the very idea that "tapes" would carry an android's programming? Well, that is passe, of course too. Even Vaslovik's Information Center is obviously pre-world-wide-web.

Yet none of that matters in the slightest. 


What matters here, and what grants The Questor Tapes a real "heart" is the relationship at the forefront of the production: the friendship between a human (Jerry) and a machine (Questor). There's funny banter and quiet affection there, and the relationship will remind you (in a positive, not derivative...) way of the long-lived Kirk/Spock friendship. It's different in that Jerry has no authority over Questor: he's a teacher in the subject of humanity, not a commanding officer. Despite the difference, there's definitely charm here.

I also appreciate the real and deep sense of compassion that Roddenberry and Coon bring to all their characters in The Questor Tapes. Lady Helena (Wynter), who is scandalously introduced as an aristocratic courtesan, is actually a woman of tremendous depth, intelligence and loyalty. And even the TV movie's villain, Darrow, is treated with compassion. When Darrow realizes that the military is going to discover Questor and dis-assemble him, Vernon sacrifices himself. He takes a tracer, flies Questor's jet...and dies when the air force blows it up.

Roddenberry watchers will also recognize other recurring themes here. The idea of an alien race peacefully guiding humanity out of his adolescence is straight out of Star Trek's "Assignment Earth" (story by Roddenberry; teleplay by Art Wallace.)

And the idea of a robot/android searching for his "creator" has been the core idea of original Star Trek episodes ("The Changeling" by John Meredyth Lucas) movies (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and Next Generation installments ("Datalore," "Brothers," etc.)

What I enjoyed most about the "search for creator" subplot in Questor was this notion that it is a metaphor for man's search for his creator...for our God (a plot point that forecasts Prometheus [2012]). At one point in the pilot, Questor must grapple with the notion that his creator (Vaslovik) is insane. This possibility is suggested by Jerry. Interestingly, Questor turns the concept around on Robinson and asks him: what if our creator (God...) is insane too? Robinson doesn't have an answer for that.

Roddenberry might have gotten away with that subtle swipe at religion in 1974, but I wonder if Questor could get it by censors today. In fact, it is rumored that one of the reasons that The Questor Tapes never materialized as a series is that NBC executives were uncomfortable with the concept - stated here - that aliens, not a Christian God, were overseeing mankind's development. The network was apparently afraid that Questor would be deemed the "Anti-Christ" by some viewers.

In recent years, there has been some movement (after Roddenberry's death in 1991) to revive The Questor Tapes concept as a series. I'd still love to see it happen. Today, more than ever, I think mankind could use Questor's help.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tribute: Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)


The press has today reported the death of Academy-Award winning director Jonathan Demme (1944-2017), the talent who gave us our first glimpse of Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter.  

Mr. Demme directed The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and took home the Best Director Oscar for his work on that film.  That movie, and its thoughtful, intimate approach to serial killers (and matters of good and evil) inspired a slew of films and TV shows throughout the nineties.

Mr. Demme's impressive career in cinema began in the early 1970's and he directed in a wide variety of genres. Demme directed comedies including Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988), and such documentaries as Stop Making Sense (1984), and Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains (2007).


Demme's dramatic films included not only the aforementioned The Silence of the Lambs, but efforts such as Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998).  In 2004, he directed the well-received remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

Mr. Demme's work was not limited to the cinema, and he also directed episodes of the acclaimed series The Killing in 2013 and 2014. 

Today, Mr. Demme's near-documentary filmmaking-style and empathetic approach to lensing close-up shots are widely considered influential to the up-and-coming generation of film auteurs.

My deepest sympathy goes out to Mr. Demme's family and friends at this time of grief  There are no words to make such a feeling of loss go away. However, film is unique in the sense that it permits for something like immortality.  

Mr. Demme may be gone, but The Silence of the Lambs, and many of his other works too, will be watched and appreciated for decades to come.

Advert Artwork: Planet of the Apes TV Series Promos (TV Guide Edition)




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Planet of the Apes TV Novelizations



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Trading Cards of the Week: Planet of the Apes TV Series (Topps)




Lunch Box of the Week: Planet of the Apes




Theme Song of the Week: Planet of the Apes (1974)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (October 18, 1968)


Stardate 5630.7

The Enterprise is tasked with transporting Ambassador Kollos of Medusa to a Federation summit. Kollos, and all Medusans are non-corporeal life-forms who are renowned as the galaxy’s greatest navigators.

However, if a human should ever gaze upon a Medusan, he or she would be driven permanently insane. Fortunately, protective visors can prevent such happenstance, and allow the races to co-exist and cooperate.

Two other passengers beam aboard the Enterprise with Kollos.

The first is Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur) an accomplished telepath who has been selected to undergo the first human/Medusan mind meld or link.

The second is Larry Marvick (David Frankham), one of the designers of the Enterprise. His job, if Dr. Jones is successful, is to incorporate instrumentation aboard starships for linked Humans/Medusans.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) hosts Dr. Jones and Mr. Marvick at a dinner, but Miranda feels threatened by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who was the first choice to undergo the mind-link process. He intends only to honor her at the affair by wearing the Vulcan IDIC medallion, but Miranda is defensive and suspicious.

Things go from bad to worse when Marvick -- in love with Miranda -- attempts to assassinate Ambassador Kollos. Instead of succeeding, he views the Medusan without protection, and goes insane. He visits Engineering and while there seizes the controls, trapping the Enterprise in a strange, distant void.

Mr. Spock realizes that only an expert navigator, like Kollos, can help the ship to return to its proper place in the universe. To accomplish this task, however, he must mind-link with the ambassador, and Dr. Jones will be quite unhappy at the prospect. 

Captain Kirk distracts Miranda with a walk in the ship’s arboretum, while Spock makes the link without her knowledge.

The ship is rescued, and returns to its original point in time and space, but an accident occurs after the transfer, which leaves a vulnerable Spock -- sans visor -- to view Kollos with his own eyes. Now Miranda, who has been deceived, must decide if she should help restore Spock’s mind.


“Is There in Truth No Beauty” is a good reminder of just how ahead of its time Star Trek (1966-1969) was when it first aired.

This story features a brilliant, complex female character, Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur), who is dedicated to her own professional success and doesn’t require or want the permission of a man to pursue her goals. 


It’s true that Kirk, Bones and Marvick fall all over themselves discussing her “beauty,” but the episode’s teleplay is clear that Jones is an accomplished individual in her chosen field.  Sure, she possesses foibles; just as Kirk, Spock and McCoy do, but Miranda is a three-dimensional character, not merely “eye candy.”   The episode’s symbolism suggests that all roses possess thorns, and it’s easy to apply that ideal to Miranda and her fits of rage and jealously. But the intriguing there is that the comparison applies, in various ways, to Kollos, and even Marvick.

Kollos is a good soul, of course, not meaning to do harm. But his “thorn” is the damage his appearance can do to those around him.

Marvick is clearly a genius -- the man who designed the Enterprise and is working on instrumentation for Kollo -- but his thorn is also “jealousy.” He is in love with Miranda, and covets her.

Incidentally, Miranda is also blind, but she does not allow that so-called “disability” to stop her from achieving her ambitions.  And, the sensor-dress that Jones wears in this episode is clearly a precursor to Geordi’s visor in The Next Generation (1987-1994) as well as a prime example of Roddenberry’s “Technology Unchained” theorem; the idea that advances in technology will improve all facets of human life.

It is easy, in 2017, to look at this episode and find it in sexist since Kirk, McCoy and Marvick are so concerned with Miranda’s beauty, not her intellect, or even her prerogative to decide her life for herself. 

Marvick’s line to Miranda to be a “woman” for a change is absolutely sexist too (just as the term “mansplaining” or “man up” is also sexist, in today’s world), and Kirk and McCoy’s concern for Miranda’s happiness is a bit overwrought. I think that’s to be expected in the third season of Star Trek. Everyone seems to be falling in love, all the time, at a far greater rate than in the previous two seasons.

But right there, in the text of the episode, Miranda gives it right back to the men. When McCoy toasts Miranda, he asks if those attending the dinner will allow so beautiful a woman to be surrounded by ugliness her whole life. Miranda responds with a sharp toast of her own, noting that those in attendance should also not permit McCoy, so lively a personality, to surround himself by disease and death.

Touché!

Miranda reserves for herself only the privilege McCoy reserves for himself: the right to choose how she lives her life, and pursues her dreams. That is what equality is; and that is what “Is There in Truth No Beauty” is about.

The episode also presents, for the first time, the Vulcan concept of IDIC. The story of the IDIC pendant is legendary, of course, an opportunity for crass commercialism.


But the concept behind IDIC -- infinite diversity in infinite combinations -- is beautiful in its thinking. In fact, it was one of the key ideas that makes Star Trek so worthwhile: the concept of people of different backgrounds, cultures, genders, beliefs, and attitudes combining their efforts to do something great, or worthwhile, like explore the galaxy.  When one gazes at the various Star Trek crews from 1966 to 2005, we see the practicality, the necessity, and indeed, the beauty of the IDIC concept.


It is still amazing to me that this program that aired in the mid-1960s was so forward thinking about diversity, and its benefits to everyone. 

During the Civil Rights movement, it brought us an African-American female on the bridge of a starship. During the Cold War, it brought us a Russian to the same bridge. And, when those with a long memory still hated the United States’ previous enemy from another war, it also gave us a Japanese helmsman. “Is There in Truth No Beauty” reminds us, additionally, that those who face physical challenges (like blindness), can also be valuable, productive members of society. 

This was by no means a mainstream view in 1968-1969.

Even the idea that Kollos is accepted by Starfleet and the Federation -- while still considered “ugly” -- speaks well of Star Trek’s commitment to the concept of IDIC.  Kollos’ appearance causes madness and death in humans, and yet he is nonetheless considered a valuable ally, one who, with the right precautions, would also have a seat on the bridge of a starship.


This episode is nearly never referenced when discussing Star Trek’s finest episodes, and yet consider what it accomplishes. It sets out the foundation of a beloved Vulcan philosophy (IDIC), and it forecasts the future of the franchise, with the sensor web leading to La Forge’s visor in The Next Generation.

It’s true that some elements of the episode seem over-the-top -- each time Kirk and McCoy are in the presence of Miranda, for instance -- and yet some moments are quite beautiful too, particularly Leonard Nimoy’s performance as the Kollos/Spock union. Muldaur, once more, is extraordinary in terms of crafting a fully-realized character who seems to have a history and background beyond what we see on the screen.

So, I suppose we can remember the episode’s point: every rose has its thorns.



Despite those thorns, I would still count this as a top-tier third season episode of Star Trek.

Next week: "Spectre of the Gun."