The name of Gene Roddenberry is understandably synonymous with Star Trek, a show which endured many setbacks before it went on to become the world’s foremost television science fiction franchise, not least of which was the delay of two years between production of the original pilot episode The Cage in 1964 and the first broadcast of The Man Trap in 1966 featuring an almost entirely different crew aboard the USS Enterprise.
Before his eventual return to the United Federation of Planets in the late seventies, first through Phase II which eventually became Star Trek The Motion Picture then a decade later through Star Trek The Next Generation, Rodenberry attempted to launch other television series: Genesis II (1973), later reworked as Planet Earth (1974) and The Questor Tapes (1974), now released on DVD for the first time.
While Questor was co-written with Roddenberry’s Star Trek production partner Gene L Coon who also wrote many episodes for that show, he had not previously worked with director Richard Colla, a former soap opera actor who moved from Days of Our Lives to behind the camera on a variety of episodic television shows of the sixties, Gunsmoke, The Virginian and Ironside.
Colla’s later work included another pilot episode, Battlestar Galactica’s Saga of a Star World, originally developed by Glen A Larson in the late sixties under the name Adam’s Ark in collaboration with Coon, as well as episodes of Miami Vice, Murder She Wrote and The Last Outpost on Star Trek The Next Generation, the early episode which introduced the Ferengi.
Perhaps conscious of the legacy of both Star Trek, axed after three broadcast seasons with falling ratings no longer able to justify the production costs and the failure of the future-set Genesis II to be picked up for series, Questor is noticeably contemporary and overwhelmingly conventional in its styling, the epitome of the seventies approach to prime time drama featuring two male buddies in their weekly adventures, albeit with the slight twist that one is an artificial life form.
Questor is played by Robert Foxworth, best recognised as Chase Gioberti, the lead on the long-running Falcon Crest, but also known to genre fans as General William Hague on Babylon 5, Admiral Leyton on Star Trek Deep Space Nine and the voice of Ratchet in the four Transformers films. A sophisticated android designed by the reclusive Doctor Emil Vaslovik, now missing, the team building him are working blind, following instructions they cannot comprehend; predictably, the android does not activate as hoped.
Suspicious by nature and dubious of the value of what he regards as little more than “a billion dollar pile of junk,” team leader Geoffrey Darrow (John Vernon, veteran of Dirty Harry, The A-Team, Knight Rider, Airwolf and Killer Klowns from Outer Space) is petitioned by assembly engineer colleague Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell, who shortly after would sign up for an eight year tour of duty on M*A*S*H as Captain B J Hunnicutt) to use the programming tapes prepared by Vaslovik despite them having been damaged by attempts to decode them.
“A functioning android could change the shape of the world. The space programme, undersea exploration. It could change industry, agriculture, it could eliminate poverty, hunger, drudgery.”
While that may reflect the hopes often espoused by Roddenberry, most particularly in the more philosophical musings of the crew of the NCC-1701-D, on the whole Questor is a stark contrast to the warmth of Star Trek. The dialogue of the opening scenes is sparse and the interaction between the characters strictly functional, though this was perhaps intentional in order to emphasise that Questor, initially a tabula rasa resembling nothing so much as an animated mannequin when it first awakens alone in the laboratory, is in fact one of the most human characters despite his manufactured origin.
Within the lab team who assemble Questor is Majel Barrett, Nurse Christine Chapel on the original series and later The Next Generation’s Lwaxana Troi, but Doctor Bradley reminds of Barrett’s original role on Star Trek, the emotionless Number One of The Cage who fan theory holds was the basis of the personality of the Enterprise computer, here playing a part with little more function than Sigourney Weaver’s in the Galaxy Quest television show, relaying technical information to her male superiors; fortunately Ellen Weston’s friendly librarian Allison, the first person Questor encounters having escaped the lab in stolen clothes and plastic hair, is warmer towards him.
Forcing Jerry to accompany him, even without the cigarette smoke on the flight upon which Questor absconds with no money and no passport the show reeks of the seventies, and with deep scratches evident in the print at one point no attempt has been made to restore the picture, though jazz artist Gil Mellé’s score is suitably futuristic; he had previously worked on 1971’s The Andromeda Strain for director Robert Wise who would later helm Star Trek The Motion Picture, and his work here is recalled in the synth bass of John Carpenter’s Dark Star released three months later and Jerry Goldsmith’s electronic score for Logan’s Run (director Michael Anderson, 1976).
Arriving in an unconvincing representation of London with the police alerted to be on the lookout for their presence, the duo fall under the care of Lady Helena Trimble, played sympathetically by Dana Wynter, still beautiful almost twenty years after Invasion of the Body Snatchers but playing an Americanised interpretation of aristocracy, first implied to be a high society courtesan then revealed as a secret agent rivalling Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward who again voices the frustrated optimism of the writers.
“This world is fragmented by international and national jealousies and greed. Do you realise there is not one place on this Earth where one can look past a border and see what is needed there and look past another border and find what is there that can help?”
Repeated themes are a hallmark of all writers, but Roddenberry’s limited template is perhaps too obvious: Questor’s desire to find his creator looks both back to Nomad and forward to Vejur, Vaslovik’s dialogue echoes both the Prime Directive (“We protect, but we do not interfere”), the Preservers and the Guardian of Forever (“Since the dawn of this world, since our masters left the first of us here…”), the scene of the damaged Questor instructing Jerry on his repair is a mercifully less painful recreation of the same moment from Spock’s Brain, but most apparent is Questor himself.
While the pilot was not picked up by the network, Roddenberry bravely walking away when he felt the changes demanded would have compromised his vision of the show, the character is fundamentally a template for Data, the android created by Doctor Noonian Soong who aspired to be more human, particularly in his relationship with Geordi La Forge where dialogue between the two is almost repeated verbatim from interactions between Questor and Jerry: “Is it permissible to refer to you as my friend? You referred to me in that way earlier… My friend Jerry.”
Like Data, Questor is not fully Asimov compliant; while he won’t kill, he’s willing to use force to achieve his goal, and though he doesn’t volunteer information he then drops a devastating fact without apparent guile, embarrassing those on whom he wishes to apply leverage.
He tells Lady Helena that he is “fully functional” and counsels Jerry on his powers of seduction but admits that “humour is a quality which seems to elude me,” and a specific moment where Questor manipulates the outcome of a casino game was recreated wholesale in The Royale.
Though Gene L Coon sadly died six months before the January 1974 broadcast of The Questor Tapes, Roddenberry of course went onto even greater success and acclaim, and, most specifically in The Measure of a Man, many of the questions raised by Questor were answered with respect to his counterpart over the course of Data’s ongoing voyage of discovery.