Monday, February 01, 2010

Sci-Fi Drought After Star Wars

Pop culture history implies that the popularity of the first Star Wars movie opened the floodgates for all things science fiction during the late 70s and early 80s. While it's true that science fiction and fantasy became an economically viable genre after Star Wars, the truth of the matter was that Hollywood was caught completely off guard by the wild success of the film. It took almost two years for the studios to pump out anything close to that level of production quality.

I was a pre-teen kid who became a science fiction junkie long before Star Wars ever arrived, so I was used to scrounging around for any movies, comics, or TV shows that might feed my sci-fi fix. Unfortunately, before Star Wars, there was damn little and what there was around was of damn poor quality. Outside of Star Trek, Forbidden Planet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the rest was pretty terrible. After Star Wars, I was rubbing my hands together in anticipation, now certain that I would have more science fiction movies and TV shows to watch than I could handle. It was a frustrating wait, though, and I spent most of the time grasping at whatever rare bits of space fantasy I could find.

One early bit of science fiction that I found oddly intriguing came along in July 1977. While I was in a convenience store with my dad, I noticed a comic book on the spinner rack titled Richie Rich Meets Timmy Time. I was not much of a Harvey Comics fan at the time, but because the comic had a science fiction theme, I had to have it. In those days, my dad was in real estate and I would often drive around with him as he ran various errands (e.g., dropping off a contract, picking up a contract, putting a "for sale" sign in a yard, etc.). Anyway, my dad stopped off at a house to do some business and I sat in the car reading my new comic. I can still remember sitting in my dad's 1973 Mazda RX-3 with the windows down. The sultry night air blew through the cabin and an ad played on the radio for the movie Kingdom of the Spiders starring William Shatner.

The comic starts out with Richie Rich and his friend Gloria playing on one of his private beaches when he thinks he discovers gold. Out of thin air, Timmy Time and his robot companion Traveler appear. Timmy wears a space suit and has prematurely white hair while Traveler looks like a vertically stretched green fedora with arms. The "gold" that Richie discovered is actually a mineral known as igneous tholerine and is used to power space ships in the far off year of 2019. Timmy goes on to explain that his robot can help him travel through time, which is how they came to end up in 1977. To illustrate his point, Traveler takes Timmy, Richie, and Gloria to 1883 just as Krakatoa is erupting. Fortunately, Traveler can also put a force field around them to protect the gang from the lava. Returning back to present day 1977, Timmy and Traveler relate their origin.

Here we meet Timmy's dad who is the captain of a space ship. The ship is about to be bombarded with meteors, so the crew gets into the escape pod, only to be struck directly by a meteor. Timmy decides the only way to protect the escape pod is to fly back to the main ship in a space suit and put the ship directly in the path of the meteors. As soon as he reaches the ship, another meteor tears through the hull (although it apparently does not suck out all the air). From the meteor emerges Traveler who almost immediately whisks Timmy away even before we can learn why he was trapped in a meteor to begin with. Traveler takes Timmy back to caveman days where we're treated to some friendly hi-jinks with some dim-witted cavemen. They then return to the space ship at the same time when they left so Timmy can do exactly what Timmy set out to do in the first place, which was block the meteors and save the escape pod. Although Traveler did nothing but get in the way and provide some feeble comic relief, Timmy befriends the robot and we are set up for what will undoubtedly be many more adventures to come.

Although the story doesn't sound like much now, I was pretty impressed at the time with the adventure elements of the story, especially since it was essentially a Richie Rich comic. The artwork was done by Ernie Colon, who walked a fine line between cartoony and serious comic art styles. It reminded me of the Walt Disney comic adaptations made of their theatrical releases.

Inside the comic was a survey form you could send in to tell Harvey Comics whether you thought Timmy Time was "great, okay, or not so hot." My guess is that no one even bothered to send in the forms because Timmy Time never appeared in another comic book again. I kept waiting, but it never happened.

Another bit of science fiction fun I remember during this lean period was the TV show Quark starring Richard Benjamin as the captain of an intergalactic garbage ship. Created by Buck Henry, the idea was to do to science fiction what Get Smart! did to the spy genre. Besides Benjamin as Adam Quark, the ship was populated by a transmute (half-man, half-woman) named Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson), a young blonde and her clone both named Betty (Cyb and Patricia Barnstable), a humanoid plant with no emotions named Ficus (Richard Kelton), and a clunky robot called Andy (Bobby Porter). Quark took his orders from a spineless bureaucrat named Palindrome (Conrad Janis) who in turn took his orders from a giant, disembodied head aptly called Head (Alan Caillou). Although Quark's primary responsibility was picking up meteor-sized Hefty bags of trash from spaceships in the galaxy, he was always angling for bigger missions, which usually led him into big trouble.

The ultimate problem for a show satirizing science fiction films and TV in 1978 was that, since there was so little science fiction out there that the general public would recognize, the story options were limited. The first episode, a one-hour special which premiered on February 24, 1978, was a Star Wars parody called "May the Source be with You." The following week, the story was a parody of the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years." The week after that, another Star Trek parody, this one based on the episode "Mirror, Mirror." Other episodes spoofed 2001: A Space Odyssey, Flash Gordon, and - oh yes - more Star Trek episodes. Only seven episodes in and the limitations of the format were already beginning to show.

Nevertheless, I loved the show, not only because it made clever references to the shows I loved, but the premise itself was quite amusing for a 13-year-old. During that long, cold winter, Quark was a lone bright spot on a Friday night. In fact, I remember walking home from school with my friend Vince and he said that watching Quark was the only thing he had to look forward to. He would soon have to find something new to sustain his existence.

Quark finished its run on NBC with the airing of the pilot episode as its eighth and final installment. The night it aired, I was once again out with my dad going to someone's home. A small girl was in the living room watching the pilot episode and I was trying to catch some of it from my vantage point in the foyer. The show looked different somehow. The sets were darker. The girl's brother walked in and asked stupidly, "Are you watching Quark?" She replied, "Yes, but it's different. Palindrome's office had changed and Ficus isn't in the show." Before I could learn more, my dad was finished with his business and led me out of the house. I was wondering about the changes in the show, but I figured I could catch up next week, or watch the reruns during the summer.

Of course, none of this came to pass. The show had been canceled and never saw the light of day for decades to come. I only recently saw the pilot episode on DVD, where instead of Ficus there was a crotchety old scientist named Dr. O.B. Mudd (Douglas Fowley), another obvious Star Trek reference. It's difficult to watch these episodes now. Although amiable enough, they aren't very funny and the humor is rather broad. All you have to do is look at Futurama to see how far our awareness of science fiction pop culture as progressed along with the speed and snarkiness of our humor.

The science fiction drought continued through the summer of 1978, and I contented myself with Flash Gordon serials and reading old Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Hollywood finally got on the ball when Battlestar Galactica hit the air waves. The stories were pretty bad, but the special effects and production values were on par with Star Wars. By the spring, Alien would arrive in theatres and the drought was officially over.