Gene Roddenberry’s THE QUESTOR TAPES
I finally got around to buying the print-on-demand DVD of Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot The Questor Tapes, featuring the android character who would be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data. The reason it took me so long, after acquiring his Genesis II and Planet Earth pilots on DVD last year, is that I already had TQT on VHS tape and figured I’d use my VCR/DVD dubbing deck to archive it digitally. Now that I’ve actually found the time to begin transferring my old tapes, though, I realized my copy of TQT was way too low in quality — I’m pretty sure my VHS tape was copied in turn from a Beta recording off a TV movie — and that I’d be much better off paying for the inexpensive DVD release. Granted, the quality of that release isn’t that much better. It’s not remastered from the source, but is apparently just a reissue of a pay-TV edition, judging from the opening copyright disclaimer. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.
Questor was Roddenberry’s attempt to revisit the Kirk-Spock dynamic, with a logical, hyperintelligent lead character relying on the moral and emotional guidance of his human best friend. For the pilot, he brought in former Star Trek writer-producer Gene L. Coon to cowrite the script, which was a great choice, since Coon had a knack for writing close friendship between men. Batman producer Howie Horwitz is the credited producer (with Roddenberry as “executive consultant,” a title generally used for a creator who’s no longer in charge of the production), and the pilot was directed by Richard Colla, who would later direct the pilot movie of Battlestar Galactica.
The pilot is interesting in that it’s structured as a mystery revolving around the title character’s purpose for existence, creating a lot of ambiguity about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It opens at Cal Tech, where top scientists from five nations (evidently including the US, the USSR, China, France, and one other) have come together in Project Questor, an initiative to assemble a revolutionary android designed by the Nobel-winning Dr. Emil Vaslovik, who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. It quickly becomes evident that nobody understands the advanced technologies underlying the android’s components, not even the lead assembler, Vaslovik’s protege Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell). And the programming tapes Vaslovik left have been half-erased by the project’s attempts to decrypt them. At first, the programming seems to fail; the android remains inert. But that night — as project head Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon) is digging into Robinson’s background, suspicious that he may know more than he’s telling about Vaslovik’s intentions for the android — Questor himself awakens and gives his smooth plastic form a makeover using the project’s equipment, turning himself into Robert Foxworth. It’s actually a very clever effect — in continuous shots, we see the equipment removing the “robot” makeup and revealing Foxworth’s features underneath, creating the illusion that it’s actually molding those features onto the mannequin-like form. I’d forgotten that these scenes have a horror-movie quality, since at this point the audience has no way to know whether Questor is the hero or the villain.
Indeed, his actions are quite morally ambiguous at first. Once he breaks out of the lab, he forces a terrified Jerry to come with him, although it gradually becomes clear that he is programmed to be incapable of killing. Still, Jerry convinces Questor to accede to his guidance on matters of morality. Although he lets that slip a bit when they get to a casino in Universal-backlot London and Questor uses his computer senses to cheat at craps in order to obtain “specie,” as he keeps calling it. Virtually this same sequence, right down to the android using his superstrength to unload a pair of loaded dice, was later reused with Data in TNG’s “The Royale.”
Questor remembers enough about Vaslovik’s past to lead him to the home of Lady Helena Trimble (Dana Wynter), a prominent socialite and alleged courtesan,who turns out to be an information broker who worked with Vaslovik, leading Jerry to suspect that Questor may have been built for espionage purposes or worse. Especially once he discovers the secret information center where Questor, like Vaslovik before him, can monitor spy images and sensitive secrets from all over the world, possibly affecting millions of lives. Helena insists the motives behind this technology are benevolent, but Jerry has already called in Darro. Will his trust in Questor’s friendship win out over his doubts, and can Questor win over the cynical Darro to their side?
Spoiler alert: The movie climaxes at Mt. Ararat, where we learn that Vaslovik was himself an android, the latest in a line of androids who’ve been subtly guiding and safeguarding humanity for 200,000 years. Their mission is not to control us, but only to assist us to make our own decisions. But Questor is the last; if humanity survives to the end of his 200-year lifespan, it will have outgrown its childhood and won’t need a nanny anymore.
I think the pilot still holds up pretty well, although it’s not perfect. Foxworth’s jerky line delivery as Questor is a bit annoying after a while, although it gradually softens over the course of the movie. The Questor-Jerry relationship maybe develops a bit too quickly, but the same can be said of many TV relationships; a certain amount of shorthand is just part of the form. And some of the dialogue doesn’t flow as smoothly or logically as it could, and there are some abrupt transitions. It feels like a fair amount was cut out, although the running time on the DVD (96 minutes) is consistent with what the runtime for a movie in a 2-hour time slot would’ve been in 1973, so the cuts would’ve been in the original.
Still, Foxworth, Farrell, and Vernon are strong leads, and the core relationship is pretty solid — inspired by Kirk and Spock, but different enough to be fresh. Jerry is no Kirk, particularly not where women are concerned; at one point, Questor encourages him to seduce Lady Helena for information, but he’s terrible at it and can’t bring himself to use her that way. And Questor, much like Data, is rather the opposite of Spock: lacking the inbuilt potential for emotion (part of what was erased from the programming tapes) but eager to learn more about how to be human. The suspense over the purpose and morals of Questor’s creation is interesting, although resolved a bit too easily. And I kind of like it that there’s no villain in the story, just people with conflicting views and goals, doing what they think is right.
And there’s a lot here that seeded later SF productions. I’ve mentioned Questor as the inspiration for Data. Also, the music cue that composer Gil Melle uses in the Project Questor lab scenes would be repurposed later that year as the theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And when Questor finds Vaslovik’s Mt. Ararat lair, the device that “heals” him and infuses him with his missing knowledge makes the same “ta-ta-tang” sound effect (albeit truncated) that would later become the trademark sound of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (also from Universal).
The sad thing about TQT is that it almost became a series. As detailed in this excellent overview article (no longer “live” but preserved in the Internet Archive), a season of the show was actually commissioned, but the executives insisted on changes to make it more like The Fugitive — drop Jerry, ignore the ending where Questor found his answers, and have him be a lone hero on the run from the authorities. Apparently they wanted the benign-intervention angle dropped, uneasy with the idea of alien androids playing God — which I think was unfair, because the movie made it clear that Questor’s interventions were meant to be rather subtle. Rather than cave to network pressure, Roddenberry walked away from the show altogether, killing the project. This one movie is all we got. Although maybe that’s just as well, if the only alternative was to see a watered-down version that eliminated the core relationship and the core premise. (Said premise itself being Roddenberry’s latest attempt at the “aliens secretly guiding humans” premise from his Star Trek backdoor pilot episode “Assignment: Earth.”)
There was an attempt to reboot the series in the early 2000s, under the guidance of Herbert J. Wright, a former TNG producer who’d been attached to the abortive 1974 Questor series. Unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 and the project fell through. The rights are currently held by Imagine Entertainment, and in 2010 there was talk about a reimagining to be developed by Tim Minear; but nothing seems to have come of it. They keep trying, but they just can’t seem to get it off the ground.
Foxworth would later go on to play two major villains in the Trek franchise: Admiral Leyton in Deep Space Nine‘s “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost,” and Administrator V’Las in Enterprise‘s Vulcan Civil War trilogy. Farrell would never appear in another Trek or Roddenberry-related production, nor would Vernon. However, the pilot features a couple of Trek veterans in bit roles at the Project: Majel Barrett (who was in every Roddenberry production from TOS onward) as Dr. Bradley, one of the scientists, and Walter Koenig (unrecognizable under a Sonny Bono-ish hairdo and mustache) as Darro’s assistant Phillips. The matte paintings and visual effects in the movie were done by the great matte artist Albert Whitlock, who had previously done the matte paintings for TOS. (His paintings do enhance the “Ararat” location, but there are enough moving shots to make it clear that the featured mountain peak is real; I just wish I could find out where it was. It looks nothing like the real Mt. Ararat, but is extremely striking.)
Despite the abandonment of the series, the pilot got a novelization by Roddenberry’s former Trek colleague D.C. Fontana — the only novel on her resume other than Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, although oddly the front matter of the book credits her with a Ballantine title called The Winds of Space, which was actually the title of a TV pilot that Fontana reportedly had in development around 1972-3. Perhaps there was a plan for her to novelize the pilot script, but it fell through.
Although it was Fontana’s first novel, it reads pretty well. It’s quite faithful to the script for the most part, but it adds a lot of material that fleshes out the story considerably and fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie. Notably, there’s a new thread of intrigue as the various nations partnering in Project Questor are all eager to get possession of the technology for themselves and trying to co-opt or bribe Jerry into selling out to them. It helps raise the stakes and helps explain why Darro is so concerned about Questor falling into the wrong hands. We learn a lot more about Lady Helena and Dr. Vaslovik, and there’s an added subplot about Questor using his precise computer projections to play the stock market and make millions by buying and selling at exactly the right moments — somewhat prophetic, I think, given how much stock trading today is dependent on computers. Although it clashes a bit with the movie plot, since the reason Questor suggested that Jerry seduce Helena was because they didn’t have the means to pay her. Fontana doesn’t provide a suitable alternative motivation for the wealthy Questor of the novel to suggest seduction.
The biggest departure from the movie is in the third act. The movie gives Questor a deadline of three days (after their time at Helena’s) to find Vaslovik, or something terrible will happen, and he figures out Vaslovik’s location just before he’s recaptured by Darro’s men. In the book, though, the deadline is extended to seven days, and he doesn’t get the vital clue before his recapture. Instead, there’s a sequence where he’s given the resources and personnel needed to attempt to track down Vaslovik — which seems a rather pointless addition, since after days of futile searching, he ultimately ends up getting the vital clue in the same coincidental way he did in the movie. It’s the one part of the novel that feels like it serves no purpose beyond padding the word count.
But it’s also just about the only part that doesn’t feel like an improvement. Although the novel is long out of print and much harder to track down these days than the DVD, I recommend it as a valuable supplement to the film. Some parts of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but others enhance the “reality” of the film considerably.
In my Genesis II/Planet Earth review, I talked about how I choose to interpret them as an alternate timeline of the Trek universe. But I’ve always liked to think that Questor actually took place in the Trek universe itself — and that maybe Data’s creator Noonien Soong learned some of what he knew about androids from Questor somehow. (Although a direct lineage doesn’t work, because Questor’s brain was based on something called “bionic plasma” rather than a positronic matrix.) Of course, since TQT was from Universal, that can never be officially asserted, but there have been several references in various Trek novels implying that Questor may have existed in that universe:
In Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity, Roberta Lincoln reminisces about helping Gary Seven retrieve some secret robot plans called “The Quasar Tapes, or something like that.” Roberta recalls that they were in the Pentagon rather than Cal Tech, but that still fits; maybe the Pentagon stole the plans from Vaslovik, and Gary and Roberta got them back into civilian hands.
In Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil — and its followup, the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack — we see that Flint, the immortal android-builder from “Requiem for Methuselah,” would live on into the 24th century and adopt the pseudonym Emil Vaslovik, becoming a mentor to Noonien Soong. There’s no mention that Vaslovik was the name of a real historical figure — indeed, given that TQT’s Vaslovik was a famous Nobel laureate, it might’ve been a bad idea for Flint to choose such a conspicuous pseudonym — but it’s possible to fudge things and surmise that Flint had known Vaslovik and/or Questor back in the 20th century and learned about androids from them.
And I’ve followed their lead and inserted a reference in my own work: in Watching the Clock, a member of Gary Seven’s Aegis organization refers to “those damn androids” as if they were the competition. And there’s another very subtle nod coming up in my DTI eBook The Collectors.
Although that competition thing is the main problem with having Questor in the Trek universe: aren’t he and Gary Seven basically doing the same thing? And since Gary and Roberta have been doing it six years longer, are Questor’s efforts even necessary? But seeing the movie again, I’m thinking maybe they don’t overlap that much. We know that Gary’s mission was to prevent humanity from destroying itself as it moved through the era of its greatest crisis. So he and Roberta are dealing fate-of-the-world stuff. By contrast, the Vaslovik androids are on a much subtler mission, just guiding and protecting human beings who have the potential to do good and make the world better — not making their decisions for them, but helping them survive or get the education or resources or opportunities they need to fulfill their potential. Maybe speaking a word in the right ear, as Questor puts it, to nudge someone in the right direction. They’ve been at it since the dawn of Homo sapiens‘ existence as a distinct species, and while there have been times in that 200,000-year span when we were at risk of extinction, it probably hasn’t been a concern for most of that span — or at least it wasn’t something that could’ve been affected by the ability to influence human decisions, not until the nuclear age. So maybe Questor’s activities are on a small enough scale that Gary’s activities don’t render them redundant. They could have even complemented each other, with Gary and Roberta tackling the big crises and Questor and Jerry and Helena helping out the little guys who fell through the cracks. Maybe that’s why Gary wanted to make sure the Questor Tapes ended up in the right hands.
Of course, that idea is somewhat dependent on the fact that neither show went past the pilot stage. If both shows had been made, they might have ended up telling fairly similar stories — and of course neither would’ve acknowledged the other. But then, if A:E had been made, Roddenberry wouldn’t have tried to revive the concept with Questor anyway. As it is, though, we’re free to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have been.