Friday, December 12, 2008

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 entitled "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...not exactly state of the art for 2008. 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. At one point in the pilot, Questor must countenance 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 in conservative 2008. 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...

Now that I've blogged Genesis II, Planet Earth and The Questor Tapes, I've got only one Roddenberry pilot left to look at: 1977's Spectre, a supernatural thriller starring Robert Culp, John Hurt and Gig Young.

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