Questor addendum: PROJECT: TINMAN (1990)
Once upon a time, before home video and cable movie channels, network television showed movies in prime time. Usually it was either edited theatrical films or original TV movies. Occasionally, though, the slots would be used to burn off failed pilots — often two hourlong pilots shown back-to-back. By their nature, these rejected pilots usually weren’t all that good, but sometimes there were some interesting might-have-beens.
One such pilot, aired in 1990, was called Project: Tinman, and it interested me because it was along similar lines to Gene Roddenberry’s The Questor Tapes: An android protagonist fleeing the government, searching for his creator and the mysteries of his origin, and bonding with a human who helps him navigate the world. It also interested me because said human was played by the gorgeous Catherine Mary Stewart. Thus, I’ve kept it around, on the same VHS tape that contained my copy of Questor (or rather, the copy I just replaced with the legitimate DVD release, reviewed in my previous post). Now that I’ve begun archiving my old tapes on DVD-R, I’ve revisited Tinman for the first time in quite a few years. But I find it holds up more poorly than I remembered.
(Note: I don’t usually bother to include screencaps, but I’m doing it here for several reasons: One, because I can, now that it’s on DVD. Two, because it’s obscure and there can’t be many images of it out there. And three, I specifically wanted to show the title screen because I’ve seen the title misreported in various places, e.g. as Project: Tin Men. Unfortunately, my DVD-player program has flattened the aspect ratio on the screencaps to fit modern widescreen format, and I can’t figure out how to fix that, so I apologize for the distortion of the images.)
The android hero — called simply “The Man” on IMDb, though he briefly adopts the alias Daniel — is played by an actor with the improbably macho name of Hunt Block, who reminds me of a cross between Kevin Sorbo and Robert Hays in the Starman TV series. Apparently he was a pretty prominent soap-opera actor and more recently played the US president in Angelina Jolie’s Salt.
The pilot opens with a vaguely Clockwork Orange-y scene of The Man watching violent footage from films and cartoons (all from the Warner Bros. library, for they produced this) — although it’s not to create an aversion to violence but to train him for it. He walks out into Hazzard town square — err, the WB backlot — where Stewart’s Dr. Naomi Fischer (or Fisher?) is in a wedding dress, throwing her bouquet, which provokes a kid to run out into traffic and almost get run down by a speeding car before The Man — aw, heck, Daniel — saves her. The car is driven by a mad gunman who goes around shooting people at random, and Daniel spots a dropped gun and picks it up, with Naomi exhorting him to fire. But he can’t shoot, instead starting to sing “Frere Jacques” and passing out. Turns out the whole scene was a simulation to get the android to kill, and it failed. Nice use of the backlot as they reveal the rear of one of the building facades, exposing the illusion. But the whole thing seems kind of weird. Wouldn’t the government want him for military use? Why not simulate combat? And was the kid supposed to run out in traffic? What would’ve happened if they’d been more successful at eradicating Daniel’s regard for life?
Cut to exposition scene in dark, smoke-filled conference room, where it turns out the reason The Man can’t kill is that his creator, Dr. Robert Alan Craig, hardwired him with a moral sense. The government didn’t even build him, they stole him and wiped his memory, but couldn’t wipe his conscience. (This is another similarity to Questor: There, the android was built by a scientific consortium that didn’t understand the advanced work of its missing creator, and they’d inadvertently erased half his memory tapes. Here, it’s just a bit more sinister.) So they decide to shut him down, attempting to neutralize him by cutting off all light so he can’t recharge the solar cells in his palms. That’s actually kind of clever, a sensible way to deal with the risk that this superstrong, bullet-resistant android might fight back against annihilation. Except it’s combined with the totally non-sensible choice to leave his door unlocked so he could wander the base looking for light, then confront the project director, try to shoot him in self-defense, fail, and accidentally electrocute him anyway, then manage to flee to the outside just before his batteries run out.
After which the new project director, the chain-smoking Forrest (Leon Russom), fires Naomi, because apparently she disapproves of the project, even though we were shown no real sign of that before. It’s not clear why he wants her gone, except that they generally dislike each other — and except that it gives Daniel a way to smuggle himself out in her car, which the guards don’t bother to search even though the facility’s on total lockdown as they hunt for what they believe is a killer android. So, scorecard: one smart decision, two monumentally stupid ones. Advantage, stupidity. (Again, kind of like TQT, in that the android escapes with a human who’s mistrusted by the project’s leader. The details are quite different, though.)
Naomi isn’t pleased to find the killer android in her car, but a feeble “It was an accident?” is enough to convince her to take him home with her. The fact that she’s stopped in the middle of the road and almost gets run over is a factor too. Once at her implausibly palatial home, they start bonding, and she tells him the truth about his origins. And she lets her hair down for maximum hotness:
Yup, sure didn’t take long for those puppy-dog eyes and broad shoulders to win over this clear-headed scientist.
But Forrest has figured out the obvious and sends his security people to stately Fischer Manor. (Seriously, how many scientists make that kind of money?) Daniel speaks over the gate intercom in Forrest’s voice (edited from a conversation he overheard) to send them away, but that only works long enough for him and Naomi to make a break for it in her car. After they ditch pursuit, she suddenly wants him to hold her because she’s scared, and then they go to a bar and talk about his desire to find his creator and how she wishes it were that easy for her to get answers to her questions. It’s vaguely touching on the same “search for our creator” themes as Questor, but doesn’t examine them in any depth. Because it’s time for them to go to the supermarket so Daniel can have some cute “android puzzled by everyday items” bits, followed by a confrontation with the police (at least Forrest had the sense to put out an APB), in which he uses his glowy-palm interface to do something to the checkout scanner that magically causes every electrical device in the store to go crazy, up to and including the coffeepots spilling over. This is 1990. I doubt every item in the store is wirelessly networked. So how the hell did he do that?
They end up at the company where Craig worked — which just seems to be some fancy private home with a tech-company sign stuck by the front door — but find it’s vacant, its personnel fled because Forrest’s men were there first, although they’re gone now. They study Craig’s lab, and Naomi plays a tape of his music for some reason while Daniel discovers a video disc showing some of his “infancy” as Craig taught him like a child. Daniel recognizes a coded pattern that Craig meant for him to find in the music, even though Craig had no way of knowing that Naomi would be there and would randomly play the tape. It’s an exhortation from his creator to live up to his potential, saying that he’ll need help from others so he should help them in turn, and that he should reach for the light. Basically he’s advising Daniel to act like the protagonist in a Fugitive knockoff. So maybe you can see where this is going, especially once the pathetic-fallacy rainstorm starts up: Forrest’s people show up with snipers, Naomi throws herself in front of Daniel, Naomi gets shot…
…Naomi tells Daniel to run before the authorities arrive, Naomi dies, and Daniel walks off into the rain like Bill Bixby, albeit with a cheesy 1990 synth score instead of Joe Harnell’s piano.
Writing it out like that, I see it really is a lot worse than I remembered. It isn’t structured or developed all that well. The villains are blatantly cartoon evil with no ambiguity. The characters and their motivations are thinly drawn. Perhaps worst of all, The Man/Daniel doesn’t make a choice to be good. He doesn’t refuse to kill — he makes a sincere effort to become a murderer, but fails because of a hardwired prohibition, and isn’t at all bothered about killing the director by accident. He has no motivation beyond self-preservation; even Craig’s message tells him to help people so that they’ll help him in turn. He’s nice enough, even mildly charming, but he’s not heroic. Granted, Questor’s prohibition against killing was also a programmed block rather than a moral choice, but at least he has goals more altruistic than self-preservation — indeed, he’s quite willing to sacrifice himself to protect lives — and he has Jerry Robinson as a moral compass, a role Naomi doesn’t bother with and wouldn’t have been there to provide in a series. (The extent of her moral guidance is telling Daniel that people love Twinkies even though they’re lethal. And then eating one before she’s paid for it.)
And I’ve always felt that killing Naomi was a wasted opportunity. Not only would it have been a shame to lose the gorgeous Ms. Stewart, but she could’ve served the same role as Jerry in Questor or Jenny Hayden in Starman (or Scott Hayden in its TV sequel): the guide to humanity, a vehicle for commentary about human nature and discussion of the episodes’ themes. But I suppose they wanted to go the Fugitive route instead. I mentioned before that the reason The Questor Tapes was abandoned as a series was that the network wanted to write out Jerry and make Questor a solo hero on the run, adhering to the Fugitive formula, and Roddenberry refused, preferring to scrap the project altogether. Project: Tinman gives us a hint of what it would’ve been like had he given in. (Although it occurs to me now that Naomi’s death scene is ambiguous enough that she could’ve been easily enough revived for a series, if Stewart had been available and the producers so inclined.)
This pilot’s creator and writer, Lawrence Hertzog, went on to create another Fugitive-style series five years later: UPN’s Nowhere Man, a conspiracy-thriller series that was basically “Like The Prisoner, but with the whole country instead of one controlled village.” Which did not work at all for me, since it pretty much required that 95% of the entire United States population be complicit in the conspiracy against this one guy, a conspiracy that never really made sense anyway.
I’ve always wondered whether Hertzog was inspired by Questor, though it’s distinct enough to count as a variation on the theme, a second try at the format. Of course, it could be coincidence, since every story gets told more than once; there are only so many ways to put ideas and tropes together. Given the timing, The Man could’ve been inspired by Data, making its descent from Questor more indirect — although in that case it’d be quite a coincidence if it independently retroengineered something so close to the original story. But it’s definitely not as well-told as Questor was. It’s never ambiguous who the good guys and bad guys are, there’s no more than a passing attempt at philosophy, there’s no nuance to the characters, and the ending set up exactly the kind of formulaic continuation that Roddenberry killed his own series rather than settle for. I think I was so attached to this pilot because it felt to me like the closest thing we’d ever get to a continuation of Questor. But it really doesn’t hold up very well in comparison.