Welcome back to our bi-weekly series on Gene Roddenberry’s work between Star Trek incarnations. Last time we looked at the satanic bromance thriller, Spectre. This time we check out Gene’s original android with a heart of gold in The Questor Tapes.
If I had to sum up The Questor Tapes in one word it would be “bland”. I’m not saying the movie is boring or unimaginative. It’s just that after seeing Gene Roddenberry write about intergalactic navies, togaed, post-apocalyptic slavers, and sacrificial devil orgies, The Questor Tapes’ all-white cast in beige suits on mostly beige sets comes off as rather quaint. There’s no really way-out, sci-fi imagery in this sci-fi adventure until the last ten minutes. Even the main character’s choice of appearance is purposefully ordinary. In the long line of rejected Roddenberry concepts this seems like the safest bet for a wide audience more interested in stories grounded in reality than space opera. Too bad it didn’t pay out.
For this outing, Roddenberry teamed up with the original Star Trek’s second biggest creative mind, Gene L. Coon. Coon was the line producer in Trek’s first year and most of its second. He invented the Klingons and wrote some of the show’s most defining episodes. One thing that put the two Gene’s at odds and lead to Coon’s initial departure was Coon’s sense of humor. It got us great episodes like “The Trouble With Tribbles”, which Coon helped craft into a hit from a story that was mostly a rehash of a Heinlein short. But he was also responsible for the inappropriate bouts of laughter the entire bridge crew indulged in after some of their most dower adventures. Questor definitely has Coon’s finger prints all over it. It is the funniest of Roddenberry’s pilots, but when the humor misses, boy does it miss.
Questor begins, like Genesis II, with a scientific team in the middle of a major experiment. Unlike Genesis II, it omits any kind of narration and lets the audience glean what’s happening from the onscreen action and dialog – a huge improvement. The team is about to activate an android, the titular Questor, that was designed and programed by a Dr. Vaslovik before his disappearance three years earlier. Dr. Jerry Robinson, played by M*A*S*H’s Mike Farrell, is Vaslovik’s protégé and the main proponent for finishing his mentor’s work.
You know a movie is going to be mayonnaise on white bread when the guy who was the second choice to play second banana to Hawkeye Pierce is one of the stars. I mean, the only thing interesting about Captain B.J. Hunnicutt was his mustache and double entendre initials. It’s the same kind of casting that gave us the equally dull and listless Steven Collins in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Roddenberry’s official story (pass the salt) on why Questor didn’t go forward is because NBC wanted to axe Farrell and make the android the only star. Roddenberry insisted on a team dynamic and bowed out of the production. How bad does an actor’s presence have to be that a network would prefer a blank-faced robot carry the entire series alone?
Against Robinson’s wishes, the team attempts to activate Questor using a firmware of their own design. Team leader, Geoffrey Darrow, doesn’t trust Vaslovik’s intentions and has decompiled the original firmware with no results beyond permanently deleting half of it. Darrow is Questor’s main antagonist, and is played by John Vernon, whose IMDB page is longer and more complex than a Tolstoy novel. When his custom firmware fails to activate Questor, Robinson finally convinces him to use Vaslovik’s original. When that doesn’t work the team wraps up for the night and heads home.
Questor, although programmed with only partial data, is indeed operational but playing dead. As soon as he’s alone he sets to work manufacturing his own physical features. Inexplicably, he chooses to look like Robert Foxworth. Despite the outcome, this is a pretty neat sequence where Questor seems to be searing on his individual facial features with a branding iron. The process sounds sizzlingly painful and makes the sequence all the more tense, especially since it’s not yet clear whether Questor can physically feel or not.
Foxworth-transformation complete, Questor heads for the university library in search of information concerning Dr. Vaslovik, whom he refers to as his “creator” in much the same way the Ilia probe refers to V’ger’s “creator” in The Motion Picture. Like Ilia, Questor’s voice is a robotic staccato that irritated me so much I wondered how the audience would have stood it week after week if the show had gone to series. Fortunately, as the librarian who catches him browsing microfilms notes, Questor’s voice becomes more naturalistic the more he interacts with people. That’s one of the interesting things about the Questor character. He’s subtly learning and improving before our eyes. Blink and you’d miss it, but it’s there.
Upon leaving the library, Questor has nothing to go on but a vague memory about Vaslovik being obsessed with a boat. Realizing his conversation with the librarian went badly, he decides he needs a human partner to help him on his mission to find his creator. Since Robinson was the person closest to Vaslovik, Questor makes him his next stop. This involves dispatching a security guard with what is, essentially, a Vulcan nerve pinch. While Questor is fully able to protect himself and his interests, he’s completely incapable of murder no matter how logical a solution it may seem to him.
Questor basically abducts the shocked Robinson and forces him to use his credit card to buy them tickets to London. Immediately Robinson earns his keep, correcting Questor’s inhuman mannerisms, often in sincerely humorous ways. He turns lights on for Questor and pushes him to read more slowly because that’s what a human would do. Again, I tip my hat to Coon for this. Although neither Foxworth nor Farrell are master thespians, they do have an natural chemistry like most Roddenberry scripted duos do. They automatically compliment each other’s shortcomings with their own strengths much like Kirk and Spock, William and Ham, and Picard and Riker. But the easy and humorous interactions that really sell the relationship are most likely all due to Coon.
Darrow is quick to notice the missing Questor and Robinson and calls out an international warrant for them. This is the mysterious thing about Darrow, we never know exactly what he is. He’s presented simply as the team leader, but he has the ability to command the police, secret service, and military of various countries and put American troops anywhere on a whim. His powers are completely unreal but never explained. This would be fine if it weren’t for the movie’s odd ending, but I’ll touch on that later.
After landing in London and evading customs and the police, Questor and Robinson realize they need some cash in order to continue their mission. By some inane stroke of luck, they find themselves right next to a fancy casino. If you’re a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation you’ll recognize the next scene as it was used, note for note, in the second season episode, “The Royale”. Questor cleans out the house by playing craps with a pair of loaded dice he “fixes” with his mathematical abilities and his strong, precise grip.
If you haven’t guessed yet, Questor is Lieutenant Data. Not a proto-Data or something Data-like. He is Data and Data is he. With both of them sharing wide, doe-like eyes, pouty, parted lips, and fidgety, mechanical mannerisms, you’d think Roddenberry sat Brent Spiner down with a copy of Questor and said, “Do that!” Like Data, Questor sees as much to admire about humanity as he does reasons to criticize it. His incomplete programming has left him without a full range of emotions, but just enough for him to know what he is lacking. The only real difference between the two is Spiner’s incredible voice work. Foxworth improves his robotic performance by the end of the film, but never reaches the melodic tones of Mr. Data, which combine a touch of the artificial with a sense of curiosity and whimsy. Data is special because he makes you love him despite his complete inability to love you back. It’s that tiny difference that makes Questor more like a computer than a character. I know he’s capable of great things, but I’m really not invested enough to care. Characters in the film do love him, by why don’t I? I really think it’s all in the voice.
The most likely person to know where Vaslovik went is an English woman by the name of Lady Helena Trimble. With the mere mention of Vaslovik, Helena sets Questor and Robinson up with a room in her palatial estate. At this point the cringingly inappropriate humor I mentioned earlier rears its ugly head. According to Robinson, Helena’s great wealth and power stems from her sexual relationships with wealthy, powerful men. A “courtesan” is what he calls her. Courtesan being the fancy word for “whore”.
Questor, because this is a Roddenberry production, is fascinated by human mating, and asks Robinson to seduce Helena into giving them the information on Vaslovik. He tells Robinson he is an “exceptional male” who is fully up to the task. Questor may not be able to feel or kill, but he can certainly lie. I mean, this is Mike Farrell we’re talking about. The guy’s entire emotional range oscillates between bewildered amusement and bewildered frustration.
After a bit of uncomfortable flirtation Robinson realizes he shouldn’t manipulate another human being with sex to get what he wants, as if he stood a chance. So now it’s Questor’s turn at bat. Being a robot, Questor tells Helena point blank that he’s going to bone the information out of her, much to her amusement. She asks him if he’s even capable of such a thing to which he responds that he is – get ready for it – “fully functional”. It’s clear only Roddenberry could have come up with this whole seduction mishegas, but the joke wreaks of Coon.
The next morning Robinson runs upstairs to Helena’s boudoir to see if Questor really sealed the deal, and is shocked to find Helena alone. Turning the Roddenberry succubus trope on its ear, Helena is not actually a “courtesan” but just a really cool spy. She’s happily handed over not only everything she knows about Vaslovik to Questor, but a secret control room made specifically for him – and all in the name of friendship to boot. It’s a great place for Helena’s character to wind up, but did we need to take this inane trip to get there? Couldn’t she have just been a cool spy to begin with? It’s as if the two Gene’s are saying ,“You thought women were all whores, didn’t you?! Well, tada! They’re not!” as you’re left stammering, “But, I never said that. Why are you putting words in my mouth?”
While Questor settles into his new digs just fine, Robinson is deeply disturbed by Vaslovik’s control center. Its many screens are tuned into important events and locations of power all over the world. The ability to spy on and manipulate governments and institutions is unprecedented. It smacks of evil genius, and Robinson, with all his moral purity, is not having it. He gets Darrow on the line and tells him where they’re located.
Even with the evil lair, Questor has no idea where Vaslovik went. The only information he could glean was that he is a ticking nuclear time bomb. If Vaslovik isn’t located in three days Questor will go off, destroying everything within a mile, to keep him out of “the wrong hands”. Seeing that the task will be impossible, Questor wanders off to a playground of all places where Robinson finds him mulling over the meaning of existence. The conversation leads Robinson to have a renewed trust in Questor and his admission that he sold Questor out bonds them even closer when Questor forgives him. A “Noah’s Ark” play structure sparks something in Questor’s memory right before the military shows up and shoots him in the gut.
Back in the States Robinson is tasked by Darrow to repair Questor, but he just doesn’t have the know-how to undo all the damage. Gene Coon wrote “Spock’s Brain” under the pseudonym “Lee Cronin”, so it should surprise no one that a partially functional Questor leads Robinson the rest of the way through the delicate operation to his full activation. It’s a trope Roddenberry also employed in the beginning of Genesis II when a half-conscious Dylan Hunt gave the PAX the means to resuscitate him.
Seeing Questor coming around again, Darrow makes a deal with Robinson allowing a tracking device to be placed on Questor in return for letting them to continue their hunt for Vaslovik. Once free, they set off for Mount Ararat, the supposed landing place of Noah’s Ark after the flood. Questor surmises that this is the boat he remembered Vaslovik being interested in at the start of the film. With more memories kindling, Questor finds the entrance to a magic cave/portal in the side of the mountain. Darrow and the military are in hot pursuit.
Devices in the cave that look like the inspiration for Tron’s battle with the MCP allow Questor to regain his full memory, but he still lacks the ability to feel feelings and stuff. He also discovers the immobile body of Vaslovik on a plater, barely able to speak. Vaslovik tells him they are both part of a line of androids left on earth by ancient astronauts, sent to keep humanity on the right path to survival and peaceful coexistence through careful manipulation. The premise is the same as Roddenberry’s unsuccessful pitch for the Star Trek spinoff, Assignment: Earth with Questor as Gary Seven and Robinson as Roberta Lincoln. Since the spy chamber is in Lady Helena’s compound I suspect she would have been Isis.
Behind Vaslovik is a mile long line of platters each with its own dead robot on it. All of them male. All of them white. Questor’s platter is the last. If humanity hasn’t shaped up by the time he expires it simply never will.
Questor being part of a long line of white guys secretly keeping the world safe is the ultimate mighty-whitey fantasy and a disappointing one coming from Roddenberry. Earlier in the movie, when Darrow is told Questor has taken on “medium/fair skin tone” he responds, “in other words he appears normal.” So the rationalization – its mere existence mildly shocking – is that white people blend in more easily, but on a global scale that’s simply not the case. In fact, in most places a white guy is a symbol of the worst kind of interference, colonialism. Making Jerry Robinson a person of color would have had its own bad implications. The ethnic sidekick is not the best casting decision in the world. But Questor could have easily been an ambiguous shade of light brown allowing him to pass as a native in many parts of the world including Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, and even the U.S. Making the character a woman could have made her seem even more deceptively innocuous to the people around her. What the Genes meant by “normal” is normal to the owners of Nielsen boxes.
Darrow has been secretly listening to this whole schpiel about carefully tweaking the world and begins actively wrestling with it. On the one hand, the very idea that aliens are secretly involved in human affairs is terrifying to him. On the other hand, he’s never understood how humanity made it this far, and Questor’s answer is as likely as any. In the end Darrow joins team Questor. He grabs the tracking device and takes off in Questor’s jet in order to lead away the military units he brought with him. They shoot him down, much to the horror of his new partners. With Questor assumed dead he’s free to move forward with his mission without any foreseeable meddling.
I get the reasoning for Darrow’s death. It was Roddenberry and Coon’s way of showing how redeemable human kind is. The problem is it doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. It never answers the mystery of Darrow and where his power stems from. It’s also completely avoidable. Darrow could have said he killed Questor or that Questor got away or was never there to begin with. He could have just dismissed the army right then and there without any reasoning at all. And there’s a multitude of ways he could have used that transmitter to throw off the trail that wouldn’t have involved his death.
But, most of all, Darrow would have made an unbelievably great recurring villain because he is the only real foil for Questor – not as a brutal enemy – but simply as a person with a different world view. Their interactions are the most interesting in the film. Where Questor wishes only to feel emotions, Darrow calls them an impediment. They both envy each other while giving themselves too little credit. Robinson would have helped Questor guide humanity with a sense of morality the android lacks, but Darrow would have questioned the legitimacy of any alien interference. Perhaps he could have even brought up the point that any action is immoral if it is secretive and therefore nonconsensual. And, sure, humanity has survived, but at what cost? Where were these alien robots when the New World was colonized or during the Holocaust? An overseer who is not a god can be held accountable to these questions. If done right, and this pilot indicates it could have been, Darrow would have been more than just a snarling antagonist without reason. He would have been a sensible counterpoint to Questor’s mission. I could see them engaging one another with Questor not always being right. If Questor is Data then Darrow is Mirror Spock with the entire empire backing him up. What a match that would have made.
The biggest tell that this is a Roddenberry/Coon production is its pacifistic tendencies. Questor can’t kill and he can’t take action directly. He can only help the right people and foster the right attitudes to maintain peace. Making war is not in his programming, only stopping it. Nothing less could be expected from Roddenberry, whose space navy was packed with officers that never saluted on a mission of science and diplomacy. But it’s also a major part of Coon’s philosophy as well. This is the guy who wrote “Errand of Mercy”, in which Kirk admits that fighting for the right to make war is the most embarrassing thing he’s ever done. Coon also created benevolent monsters and misunderstood combatants. Could you imagine how many modern wars could have been avoided if we tried to understand our enemy the way Kirk understood the Gorn?
And the funny thing is, these guys were military men during the most intense conflicts of the twentieth century. Roddenberry flew an almost uncountable number of missions over the South Pacific in World War II. Coon was a marine throughout the entirety of the same war and was called back into service to fight the North Koreans. And it wasn’t just them who contributed to Star Trek’s pacifism. Matt Jefferies, who was an air force bomber in the European theater, created a starship with sparkling sails and not a single visible weapon on her hull; only windows for admiring the limitless potential of the universe.
But let’s get back to Coon and “Errand of Mercy”. I could make the case that this episode is one of the most successful anti-war stories put on television. All the murder is off screen and all the pyrotechnics are non-fatal. Even Kirk warns they’ll only kill the enemy if absolutely necessary. They never do. And every single time the audience thinks a big, satisfying battle is about to erupt it’s halted in its tracks. Violence interruptus on a planetary scale. In one swift stroke, “Errand of Mercy” made not just sure that Star Trek wouldn’t become a war story, but, because of the Organians, physically couldn’t. That’s because Coon understood, like only a soldier could, that showing violence, no matter the context, is glorifying it. Anthony Swofford, a veteran of the first Gulf War, said as much in his 2003 book, Jarhead, when he described marines using films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon to amp themselves up for battle.
If you really want the numbers on how fully the original series skirted war, out of eighty episodes only thirteen featured ship to ship skirmishes. Of those only six featured the Klingons or Romulans, three were against unmanned vessels, and one was friendly fire. In three episodes the Enterprise doesn’t even fire back.
It’s hard not to point out that when Star Trek finally did its take on zooming fighters and lumbering capital ships that have all the relevancy to modern warfare as trenches and gravity bombs, it was written by people who never actually saw conflict. That’s not to say their stories didn’t push the narrative that war is heck, but you have to admit it is an interesting contrast. In the end, we all have to understand why we produce and consume stories about war-based violence – or any kind of violence – and what their actual, not intended, messages are. It’s not unreasonable to consider how stories could be colored by experience or the lack thereof.
The Questor Tapes is a worthy effort from two people interested in peace and international cooperation. It avoids any real violence, takes a Gandhi figure and makes him a hero, combines cold logic and human morality into a tool for justice, and turns its only villain into a champion for the greater good. Sure, it comes off as bland, but the world needs a little bland every once in awhile.
Random thoughts and observations
- Gene Coon died of lung cancer before Questor aired. He was 49 years old.
- From its graham cracker-esque leading man to its colorless environments to its slow pacing and overly intellectual script, everything about this movie is a harbinger of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But, also like TMP, it features some interesting cinematography and a killer soundtrack.
- Majel Barrett sighting: She’s one of the scientists in the opening scenes. When her voice comes over the intercom it’s like magic.
- Walter Koenig has the saddest cameo ever as Darrow’s assistant. He has two scenes and only one line. Between the wide shot and his enormous mustache he’s unrecognizable.
- Robert Foxworth would go on to play a crooked admiral in DS9 and a corrupt Vulcan leader in ENT.
- There is one non-white character in the film. James Shigeta, who was nearly as prolific a character actor as John Vernon, plays one of the scientists on the international Questor assembly team.
- Some of Robinson’s dialog with Questor is heart-melting in its sincerity. “I never put together anything that said ‘Jerry Robinson I need help’,” is a particularly great one.
- More shades of “Spock’s Brain”: Questor’s computer interface looks a lot like the Eymorg’s “Great Teacher”.
- The title is more exciting than usual with two fonts used. The main one is Futura Display SH Regular while the smaller font is a vertically compressed Helvetica Neue LT Std 83 Heavy Extended. Helvetica? Really?
Next up: Planet Earth.