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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Questor Tapes

In late 1973, Gene Roddenberry tried again to get a sci-fi series on network television. The Questor Tapes (TQT) was the movie pilot for the proposed series. Like other of Roddenberry's productions, there is a Star Trek feel, even though all of the adventure remains earthbound. Robert Foxworth stars as the android Questor. Mike Farrell (of M.A.S.H. fame) co-stars as Dr. Jerry Robinson. Trek fans will spot Majel Barrett in a small role too, as well as Walter Koenig in an even smaller supporting role. Since TQT was a made-for-television movie, there was no theatrical release poster. What is shown at left is a book cover from the short novel based on TQT. It was written by D.C. Fontana, who was a writer of ten of the original series Star Trek episodes.

Quick Plot Synopsis
In a high-tech lab, a team of scientists perform final assembly of a humanoid robot. The technology was the work of a Dr. Vaslovik, but he has been missing for three years. Dr. Robinson (Farrell), who studied under Vaslovik, oversees the assembly. The administrators admit to damaging Vaslovik's tapes trying to decode them, so attempt to download their own content into the android. It fails. They use Vaslovik's damaged tapes. It apparently fails too, but while they're all off moping, the android comes to life. It gives itself human features, gets some clothes and walks out.. The android goes to a Vaslovik Archives to speed-read more content, attempting to fill in some holes in the damaged memories. He recalls something about a big boat, and someone in London named "C". He sort-of kidnaps Robinson to go with him to London. They are detained, but escape. They find "C" who has a basement data repository of Vaslovik's. The android, who now calls himself Questor, learns that if he doesn't find Vaslovik in three day's he'll explode. While at a playground, he realizes that Noah's Ark is the big boat of his memory. Vaslovik is in Mount Ararat in Turkey. The admins have the police out looking for Questor and Robinson. They find and shoot Questor. The team of techs repair him eventually. The cantankerous director, Mr. Darro, wants a radio tracker inserted into Questor so he can't escape again. Robinson reluctantly agrees. They fly off to Turkey and Mt. Ararat. Darro follows with UN troops. Questor opens a hidden tunnel into the mountain. Inside, Questor meets Vaslovik, laying on a slab, one of an apparently infinite line of slabs. He tells Questor that he is the next guardian, after Vaslovik, put there millennia ago by their creators, to protect and guide mankind. Darro, who followed them in, notes there's only one slab left. If mankind survives to the end of Questor's service life, they'll be okay. If not, then never mind. Darro has a change of heart and takes the radio tracker thing. He pretends that Questor has escaped, but takes the tracker up in the private jet with him. When the troops lock on to the signal, the jet is destroyed and everyone thinks Questor is destroyed, but no. He and Robinson plan to go on protecting mankind. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Roddenberry had some intriguing ideas for story lines. Robert Foxworth does a good job of playing the man-machine. Not too much machine, and not too hammy human.

Cultural Connection
Rise of the Machines -- A parallel theme to technophobia, Technophilia (?) has been running through sci-fi ever since the early days. Robots, in particular, have been both bad and good. The 70s had a strong streak of technophobia, but the Good Robot trope was too strong to take it lying down. Good machines rise to show that not all technology is bad. While Lee Majors' "Six Million Dollar Man" was a human-robot hybrid, he was the good tech. Later, TV viewers would get KITT, the Knight Rider robo-car. Roddenberry was much more of a techno-optimist.

Failed Series II -- TQT was the second attempt by Gene Roddenberry to get a sci-fi series on television in the 70s. His first attempt was Genesis II. TQT got preliminary approval from NBC such that 13 episodes were planned and (obviously) a pilot produced. Given the ending of TQT, the series would be the ongoing adventures of Questor trying to thwart evil and benefit mankind -- all the while with Robinson along to continue Questor's humanity training. One can just imagine the comic moments. However, Roddenberry and NBC had a falling out -- perhaps over changes NBC wanted and Roddenberry did not like. As such, this second would-be sci-fi series never materialized.

Data's Dad -- Anyone familiar with the series Star Trek: The Next Generation will recognize Questor as a prototype of Data. He's all android (not cyborg), but longs to be human: to feel, to laugh, etc. He's driven to find out about his creator. He has a penchant for using long or technical terms for everyday things. He needs coaching by humans on the subtle fine points of acting human. Some lines used by Data were recycled from those said by Questor. At one point, when Questor is asking Lady Helena if he needs to make love to her to get the info he seeks, he says, "I -am- fully functional." Then, there is the gambling scene and the loaded dice repeat too. Clearly, Roddenberry liked his Questor character and gave him a new life.

Shadow of Gary Seven -- Note the similarity in the premise between TQT and the ST:TOS episode "Assignment: Earth" (second season). Both featured secret "guardian angel" characters, left (or sent) by some unspecified benevolent advanced race, to help mankind through the difficult years of the 60s (or 70s). Both had extra powers. Gary Seven was even in line for a television series of his own, which would have been very much like what TQT as a series would have been. But the Gary Seven series did not get as far as TQT did.

Bottom line? TQT is reasonable sci-fi entertainment. It has enough sci-fi to keep from being "The Fugitive" but with an android. It has it's Trek roots for fans of Trek. Foxworth does a good job of playing the Pinocchio android. It TQT shows up on TV some late night, it's worth a bowl of popcorn and staying up.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Excellent article as usual. Here's an article on the non-Star Trek pilot for "Assignment Earth":


And here's an article on the revised first draft for the Star Trek episode/Assignment Earth pilot:


Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoy your articles.