Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes (1974)

At a California university, Project Questor is underway.  It's purpose:  To construct the world's first android out of the mysterious components left behind by Dr. Vaslovik; a brilliant scientist who disappeared three years ago.  Against the objections of Jerry Robinson, Vaslovik's former assistant, the project scientists try to activate the machine with their own tape rather than Vaslovik's.  After failing to bring the android to life, they try Vaslovik's original tape, which was damaged during examination.  Again, the android fails to function.  The scientists leave the laboratory in resignation, but that evening the android awakens and uses the equipment to give itself human form.  Then it vanishes into the night on some unknown mission while suspicion falls on Robinson as the agent behind the disappearance.

After the original Star Trek folded, Gene Roddenberry went through a long fallow patch with his only other series being an animated version of, guess what, Star Trek.  He also produced a string of television pilots that went nowhere and one of these was The Questor Tapes.

Questor, the name of the escaped android, is an extremely intelligent and allegedly emotionless creature trying to understand and find his place in the human world.  If that sounds familiar, it's because Roddenberry had already used that concept for Mr Spock and would again in the '80s with Data on the new incarnation of Star Trek.  Roddenberry seemed so fascinated with the idea that I suspect that a strong, intelligent individual who has complete control of his emotions, yet is really just unempathic, was Roddenberry's ideal human being.

All very well and good, but it makes for a very dull character if taken too seriously and in The Questor Tapes Roddenberry compounds the error by attaching it to his increasing obsession with California Leftist Utopianism.  Questor, we learn, is not just a technological breakthrough, but is intended to act as an agent of an alien race who is trying to guide mankind to a future of peace, enlightenment, and holodecks.  Oh, heck.  Let's cut to the chase:  He's the technocratic Gary Seven from the old Star Trek mixed with Mr Spock and he's trying to found the Federation.

That aside, as a television pilot The Questor Tapes fails on its own terms.  Though Robert Foxworth and Mike Farrel give tolerable '70s grade television performances and the story does make for an intriguing 90 minutes, the plot of the film is counterproductive.  It has Questor and Robinson on the run from the Project Questor director, who thinks the android is up to something nefarious, while Questor, his memory incomplete because of his damaged programming tape, tries to find the man who created him.  This is not a bad story line, but it's completely resolved by the end and all we're left with is Questor going forward as a stainless steel community organiser.  In other words, the networks was asked to buy a pilot based on a plot that is already over.  It's a bit like the pilot for The Fugitive ending with Dr Richard Kimble finding the one-armed man and the rest of the series following him as he reopens his medical practice.

Amazingly, NBC actually bought the series, but they scheduled it in such an appalling time slot and asked for changes to the format that turned into something more like (no surprise) the pilot.  Between this and co-star Farrell jumping ship in favour of MASH, Roddenberry called it a day and walked out–which is a pity because the network changes would actually have made for a stronger series.

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