In the 1970s, Gene Roddenberry, best known for his Star Trek franchise, made several television series pilots that aired as movies none of which ever made it into full production. The pilots include Genesis II, Planet Earth, Strange New World, Spectre, and The Questor Tapes. In this first article we will be looking at the last two in that list, Spectre and The Questor Tapes.
The Questor Tapes (1974): Years after Dr. Emil Vaslovik disappeared, a University team attempts to finish his work by following his instructions and assembling an android from pieces that the team does not fully understand. The android’s programming was stored on large reals of magnetic tape (this was how things were done in the 70s) and while trying to decode part of the programming, the team inadvertently erased a portion of it. Lead engineer, Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell) wants to use what is left of the original programing, but team leader Geoffrey Darrow (John Vernon) insists on using the university programming. At first, the experiment seems to have failed when the android does not respond. Darrow (John Vernon) wants the machine disassembled and sold off for parts to study the intricacies of Vaslovik’s work and his suspicion of where Robinson’s loyalties lay, Darrow has him locked in his quarters. But once everyone has left the lab defeated, Questor (Robert Foxworth) comes to life and realizing he is missing a portion of his memory, he seeks out Jerry and frees him from his confinement asking for his help to find the missing Vaslovik. The story then takes on a sort of international intrigue as Questor and Jerry travel to Europe following the breadcrumbs of Questor’s partial memory. The rest of the story is the building of a friendship between Jerry and Questor and the explanation of who Vaslovik really was and what Questor’s purpose is all the while being pursued by Darrow who sees Questor as a threat to the world. But the clock is ticking as Questor only has a short amount of time to find his missing creator before his internal nuclear furnace goes into overload, turning Questor into a nuclear bomb–a failsafe built into the android to prevent him from falling into the wrong hands.
There are few television movies that I have connected with this strongly. The casting was perfect with Foxworth giving a marvelous performance as the socially awkward android who is missing the portion of his programming that would allow him to feel emotions. This is something he desperately needs and envies in humanity. Foxworth’s mechanical body language he starts off with and his stilted delivery of his lines added a great quality to Questor–you really believe you are watching something that is not quite human. Mike Farrell is equally perfect in the role as the morally upstanding human that teaches Questor about humanity and friendship. There is something truly pure within the chemistry of these two characters that immediately bonds the audience to them. The script penned by Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon is poetic and beautiful being both dramatic and humorous.
The studios did see the potential in this series, and actually ordered 13 episodes, but they wanted to cut the ending that explains Questor’s existence and remove the human companion, Jerry Robinson. These changes would have altered the whole purpose of the series and Roddenberry abandoned the series due to the conflicts with the studio. According to Gene, he did not want an android version of The Fugitive TV series. Roddenberry did get to see a similar character brought to life as the character of Data, played by Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation, is based on Questor. In 2003, Herbert J. Wright, a longtime friend of Roddenberry, who was originally going to be a writer on 1977 show, secured the rights to the series and begin writing a remake, with the Roddenberry families blessing, unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 before getting the series off the ground.
Spectre (1977): William Sebastian (Robert Culp) a world-renowned criminologist and his estranged colleague, Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton (Gig Young) reunite after years of being apart to solve a mystery involving the demon, Asmodeus. After they parted ways, Sebastian began investigating matters involving the Occult, and in doing so became the victim of a voodoo doll curse which could kill him if not careful. His newest case involves the Cyon family consisting of three siblings, the oldest, Sir Geoffrey Cyon (James Villers) is suspected of having been replaced by the demon Asmodeus by his sister Anitra (Ann Bell). The youngest brother, Mitri (John Hurt) seems caught in the middle. The plot follows the pair of sleuths attempting to figure out who is the demon and who is his human priest who has been given the ability to turn into a half man / half tiger. Can Sebastian contain the demon before he succumbs to the hole in his heart? Watch and find out.
This is just a fun show with some great chemistry between the two leads which is purposefully reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The production value is a bit on the low side, but that is par for the course for 1970s science fiction television. When the pilot was not picked up for a series, an extended version of the show was released in the UK as a theatrical film with some additional footage that included nudity in the final climax. The version currently in syndication is an edited version of the UK movie which retains some of the additional scenes but removes the nudity.
Both pilots had some great moments and could have been wonderful television shows. One of the common themes in most of Roddenberry’s works is finding a better way to be human. In Questor, he is an outsider looking in, and although he sees the tremendous bad that humanity harbors, he also saw its potential and beauty. In Spectre, the search for the cause of man’s evil is what leads Sebastian into studying the occult, after years of studying criminals who acted without true motive or cause, he believed there had to be an outside force compelling humans to do true evil. Gene’s eternal optimism that humanity can evolve into something better than our current state is one of the reasons I love his shows.