Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sci Fi Genre Gems: Gene Roddenberry's The Questor Tapes (1974 TV Pilot)

Directed by: Richard Colla
Produced by: Howie Horwitz, Jeffrey M. Hayes, Gene Roddenberry
Written by: Gene L. Coon, Gene Roddenberry
Cast: Robert Foxworth, Mike Farrell, John Vernan, Lew Ayres, Dana Wynter
Originally Aired: 1974

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

What Is It?  Way back in 1974, a television movie from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry aired called The Questor Tapes which was intended as a pilot for an ongoing series. In the movie, a large government research facility is working on creating an android that closely resembles a human being.  The project was initiated by Dr. Emil Vaslovik who programmed a set of tapes (remember, storage media was still in its infancy in the 70’s) that would be loaded into the android Questor (Robert Foxworth) when he was completed.  Vaslovik, however, disappeared  before the project came to fruition and much of the data on the tapes was erased.  The scientists on hand created their own data bank in its place and tried to load that into Questor’s brain.  This failed, and scientist Jerry Robinson (played by a pre-M*A*S*H Mike Farrell), who had worked very close with Vaslovik throughout the project, insists that they load the original tapes, even though they have missing data.  This also appears to fail.  However, after everybody has left the laboratory thinking their work a failure, Questor activates himself and proceeds to complete his design to take on a human likeness.  He knows that he must find Vaslovik to complete his programming, so he seeks out Robinson to assist him in this task.  This leads the two to London where they find a monitoring station that Vaslovik set up to observe events throughout the world and see how diverse situations might cause synergies that can turn negative outcomes into a positive one.  Questor also finds that from here he would have access to a private jet that could quickly transport him to areas experiencing turmoil.  It is also here that Questor and Robinson find additional clues on the whereabouts of Vaslovik which ultimately leads to Questor discovering that there is more to his origins than originally suspected.

Why It Stands Out:  The pilot presents an interesting, intelligent, well-written science fiction story with a strong concept that could have developed into a potentially great television franchise.

In the years after Star Trek was cancelled, Gene Roddenberry stayed busy in television first working on the Genesis II pilot (which was followed up by Planet Earth) and then turning his attention to The Questor Tapes.  Like his previous to pilots from the 70's, this one delivered a good science fiction story that hearkened back to some of the better episodes from Star Trek: TOS (he brought in Trek veteran Gene L. Coon to help him with the script).  It also had a good central cast in Robert Foxworth and Mike Farrell and it shined above the typical movie-of-the-week fare that the broadcast networks offered in the 70's.  The story in the pilot did have what I thought were a few lapses (I won't go into detail though because they involve spoilers), but that may have been intentional as a setup for stories that would have been explored in the planned series. 

And of course any Star Trek: TNG fans going back and watching this will quickly see that Questor provided the template for the character that would eventually become Data.   He had many of Data’s super-human powers such as the ability to calculate and analyze at great speeds as well as heightened strength and agility, and he also possessed the desire to understand and be more like the humans he resembles. Foxworth’s portrayal of the android was very similar to how Brent Spinner would later bring Data to life, and it seems possible that Spiner drew some influence from this early Roddenberry pilot.  In addition, you can also see where Questor shares some similarities with Spock and offers the logical bridge between the Vulcan of the original Trek and the android of TNG.

NBC actually originally greenlighted The Questor Tapes to series, and if had happened I believe it had a ton of potential so long as Gene Roddenberry stayed at the helm.  He could have assured quality control on the scripts and used the concept to incorporate the same sort of social commentary he worked into Trek episodes.  And a Questor series could have easily rivaled that franchise.  However, Roddenberry found himself at odds with the network when he discovered that they planned on airing the proposed series in the 10 PM EST Friday “deathslot” (the same timeslot that he felt killed off Star Trek).  NBC also wanted to drop the Jerry Robinson character which Roddenberry felt was a mistake (and remember, that network also tried to kick Spock off the bridge of ST: TOS).  These differences in direction led the peacock network to change its mind and pass on the series, so we can only speculate on how it would have unfolded if it went forward the way they planned (and remember that networks in the 70’s tended to prefer ‘fluff” television like The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels to shows that tried to engage the mind).  I do have to admit that I have a hard time seeing Mike Farrell as the Jerry Robinson character, but that’s probably mostly because I so closely associated with him as B.J. Hunnicutt from M*A*S*H (where he landed after this pilot failed to fly).  Still, I think he would have been able to grow into the role (but then think of how different M*A*S*H would have been).

There was an attempt by long-time Roddenberry associate Herbert J. Wright to revive the concept in the early 00's.  But those stalled when Wright passed away in 2005.  Then in 2010, Roddenberry's son Eugene (aka "Rod") announced that he was working with Imagine Entertainment (owned by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard) on another attempt to get the show off the ground and word was that long-time Whedon collaborator Tim Minear (Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse) would participate as well.  There has been no further news, though, so that appears to be in development Hell for the moment.  And unfortunately,  But The Questor Tapes has finally received a DVD release, so you can at least go back and revisit the original pilot and imagine how the series would have turned out.

Interesting Facts:  There is another link between the Questor character and Data that probably few Trek fans know about. The infamous “fully functional” line that Data used in response to Tasha Yar’s inquiries in the episode “The Naked Now” (referring to his sexual capacity), originated with Questor. He used it in a similar circumstance and it was equally hilarious when he did it nearly fifteen years early (and it must have slipped past the censors as well).

According to Rob Roddenberry, his father "believed that [The Questor Tapes] had the potential to be bigger than Star Trek" and he considered it "the one that got away".

Leonard Nimoy was originally considered for the role of Questor in the 1974 pilot and Rod Roddenberry has mentioned Brent Spiner as his first choice for the character should the revival series happen.

As with many of Gene Roddenberry's productions, Majel Barrett had a role on this pilot.  And Walter Koenig stopped by for a brief appearance as an "Administrative Assistant"

Buy The Questor Tapes and the Other Gene Roddenberry Pilots on DVD from

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