Gene Roddenberrys The Questor Tapes:
A behind the scenes look at this rarely seen Gene Roddenberry pilot from the 1970s.
GENE RODDENBERRY'S "THE QUESTOR TAPES"
THE UNFULFILLED PROMISE
The late Gene Roddenberry obviously had a thing for machines sparked with superior intelligence and in search of their purpose.
It's a subject he dealt with in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which he had V'Ger -- the metamorphosed Voyager 6 spacecraft -- returning to Earth in search of its creator. The theme was embraced yet again in the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which offered an android science officer named Data whose Pinocchio-like quest was to ultimately become human. It was thematic territory he came this close to exploring on a weekly basis via The Questor Tapes.
In this television pilot, Roddenberry postulated that an alien race that had spent eons helping mankind's progress by placing human-like androids within society to help guide the species. In the pilot, Dr. Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell) ultimately teams up with Questor, who is on a quest to meet with his creator, Dr. Vaslovik, and learn his own destiny.
"Vaslovik, who was actually an android himself," Roddenberry had explained, "realized that the line of androids who had been helping to guide earth for thousands of years was about to end. He was unable, because of certain conditions, to complete his replacement: Questor. Instead, he left all of his plans with a five-nation scientific consortium. They begin constructing the android for their own purposes, not really understanding all of the components or systems. However, Vaslovik had left a tape of secret programming that is only partially assimilated by the android. That part instructed the android to escape once it had been completed and go about its work."
In his background for the pilot, Roddenberry pondered the notion that if you "awoke" on the first day of your life with a vast amount of information in your brain on science, mathematics, literature, history and economics, how would you react if you discovered that you had no knowledge of yourself? "Cogito ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am," he wrote. "...You think, you wonder, you move like a living thing. But can a mechanical thing like yourself be called 'alive'? Whatever you are, that question leads inexorably to the enigma which has puzzled and plagued Man himself from his own beginning, it is the most powerful of all dramatic themes. Who was my architect? For what reason am I placed here?....We boldly challenge the audience to identify with an unusual television character who begins as a machine but who may turn out to share more of their own thoughts, doubts, frustrations, loneliness and dreams than many human fictional characters. Questor, in fact, is designed to become more human than human."
As the pilot unfolds, soon after becoming activated -- thanks to the efforts of Robinson -- Questor escapes from the government research lab where he was assembled and begins his search for Vaslovik and his purpose. He is pursued by the government in the persona of Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon), who views him as the ultimate weapon that must be controlled or eliminated. Questor is aided by Robinson, at first reluctantly. In some ways, the set-up is strikingly similar to The Fugitive, but this dissipates toward the climax when Darro sacrifices himself to throw the government off of Questor's trail, having been touched by the revelations of the android's purpose on earth, and allows the duo to escape.
Director Richard Colla recalls The Questor Tapes and working with Roddenberry fondly. "It was a wonderful experience for me," he says. "We were kind of reinterpreting Spock and Kirk, because that's really what it was -- the emotional side of man and the intellectual side of man and they come into conversation with each other. So what you really have is a character talking to himself, and that's delightful."
Colla, who would go on to direct the pilot for Battlestar: Galactica and the "Last Outpost" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, notes, "Since I'd talked to Gene while he was putting [TNG] together, I told him that I felt Data was a combination of Spock and Questor. When I was over there I said, 'Brent [Spiner], you've got the part, because this is the intellectual side of man, this is the other side of the conversation. All of the other characters are dealing from an emotional standpoint, but this character alone is the intellectual side of man. So you've got the entire other side of the conversation.'"
Handling that side of the conversation in The Questor Tapes was actor Robert Foxworth, who had his choice of lead characters in the pilot and ultimately chose the android.
"I chose Questor," says the actor, "because I thought, frankly, it would be more of a challenge to play a machine, an android. But getting into it I thought, 'If this scientist is so clever, why make a guy who looks like me? Why doesn't he make a guy who looks like Robert Redford at the time?' I still haven't figured that one out."
Appealing to Foxworth was the evolution of the character, who went from a featureless humanoid on a lab table to a herky-jerky human male to a superior being determined to help guide us toward the future.
"They called me Super Chicken on the set in the beginning," he laughs. "I really thought one of the fun aspects of Questor was the growth and change. How he taught himself and how his relationship with others taught him to deal and think. We don't get very many opportunities to play characters that evolve that fully in such a short span of time. I believe the film had an impact on a core of intelligent people who wanted more from television. I think it speaks to a desire in all of us to achieve some power and good or good through power."
Mike Farrell, who of course went on to star in the long-running acclaimed CBS series M*A*S*H*, echoes Foxworth's sentiments regarding the film, and still recalls it fondly.
"It was one of the first major opportunities for me to play a role in a movie for television that could have been a series," says Farrell. "But more to the point, it was about something. It was not a show that was kind of mindless or silly, although I suppose there are some who consider science fiction to be those things. I was always impressed with Gene's desire to make statements about the human condition through the use of his dramatic work, and I thought this did it wonderfully. The issue of dealing with a man who had a brain and capacities that were beyond the ordinary, but didn't have emotional capacity and recognized how it diminished him, was, I thought, quite extraordinary at the time and quite touching.
"And I loved Jerry Robinson as a character," he continues. "He's a smart guy who had a heart and wasn't driven by the usual scientific mumbo jumbo, letters and dollars and fame that seduces so many people. He seemed to have some access to his heart and his feelings and, as happened between Bob [Foxworth] and I, he really developed an emotional attachment to Questor. I thought that the way that played out was, personally, quite wonderful."
Although proud of what had been accomplished in the film, Roddenberry had a number of run-ins with network and studio executives that made bitter the making of a film that would ultimately be embraced by the critics. Despite this, a 13-episode go-ahead was given for The Questor Tapes, with Foxworth and Farrell continuing in their roles. Joining the actors behind the scenes, besides Roddenberry, were producers Michael Rhodes and Earl Booth and story editor Larry Alexander, who notes that there were numerous creative differences with NBC and Universal.
Part of those problems had to do with the show's science fiction trappings, particularly its base of operations. Set up under the cover of "Robinson Enterprises, Ltd.," a charitable organization that has rapidly become a financially successful business, the duo work out of "The Information Center." As Roddenberry wrote in the show's bible, "Using the advanced science of the same superior race which put Questor and his predecessors here on earth, it is as advanced in its way as Questor is in his. It uses communications techniques, not yet discovered by mankind, which are completely untraceable and undetectable. They allow Questor to select and follow activity taking place anywhere in the world, whether a war plans conference in the Kremlin or the White House, or a romantic liaison taking place in a bedroom in Paris." As such, it gives Questor access to those people that are most in need of a push in the right direction.
Laughs Alexander, "The executives just didn't get it. They would say to Roddenberry, 'How does he see into all of these different places so he knows what's going on? Does he have a camera in every room?' Roddenberry said, 'No, it's by coordinates.' 'What is that?' 'Like grids on a map.' 'How does that help him see?' 'It's an advanced thing that this civilization supplies him with.' They simply couldn't understand it. It made no sense to them because they didn't have the hardware right in front of them. At the same time they were developing The Six Million Dollar Man, and that they understood. The guy crashes in a plane, he's a wreck, they rebuild him with bionic parts and now he's a superman and they can send him out to do wonderful things."
Another problem, he feels, was the very nature of Questor himself; that an android would essentially be solving the problems of human beings.
"They had a moral problem with that," he notes. "From a series point of view, they also didn't like the idea of this super race -- or shall we say Master Race -- overlooking the affairs of mankind. 'Wait a minute, where does God fit into that?' An entire amount of metaphysical questions came up, which were ludicrous on the face of it. It was like, 'Come on, guys, we're doing entertainment here.' Maybe the show was before its time, if it ever 'had a time.' Certainly its time was not when The Six Million Dollar Man was being developed. It was in direct competition with a low-life version of itself, and the low-life version, especially in television, will always win. That show also didn't have the metaphysical problems for the executives. The Lee Majors character they could understand because it deals with the human experience as we currently run our civilization. But to have an alien android who goes into a Captain Marvel-like cave every now and then to get his marching orders from an alien -- this is very disturbing to them. They were truly scared shitless that the more fundamental parts of the country would find it anti-Christ. All you needed was Billy Graham, or even a minor-league Billy Graham, to denounce the show or say that it's unChristian and strange and promoting an alien god. You'd be surprised at what those people think of."
According to Earl Booth, the constant battles were wearing Roddenberry out. "Gene was a very private person," says Booth. "Very nice, but he didn't talk a lot about what he was going through. I sensed he was going through a lot with the executives at Universal in not being able to do what he wanted to do. They so frustrated him, I felt, that that was the main reason that nothing, ultimately, was done. In all my experience with him, he was very vocal about what he wanted and what he thought would work, and was perfectly willing to try anything that he felt was legitimate. So it was becoming more and more a series of frustrations."
And those frustrations continued. Unlike his experience on Star Trek: The Next Generation where he had complete autonomy, Roddenberry was at the mercy of any studio or network executive who had an "innovative" idea to "improve" his show.
"One of the difficulties," offers Robert Foxworth, "was that though the Questor character did develop feelings, it's kind of hard to create conflict with a character who can do anything. That was the feeling, I think, of whatever the powers that be. The question was addressed on a daily basis. As far as I was concerned, it was overcome in the way that we saw the characters go in a possible series. But there were guys in tassel loafers sitting up in Universal's Black Tower that didn't have the vision."
Perhaps the biggest "innovation" was the decision to abruptly drop the Jerry Robinson character. This alteration is best summed up in a November 7, 1973 revised bible to the series which is simply called "New Questor Series Format." On page one, it notes, "Questor is a dual-quest series. He is being sought and, at the same time, is a seeker himself. Questor is a fugitive from the five-nation combine headed by Darro or a Darro-type. They know the android is alive somewhere and want to recover what they consider to be a fantastically valuable ambulatory computer. Questor is himself a seeker, his quest being to discover his purpose and reason for having been constructed and given the imperative of helping mankind. Why am I here? Who and where is this mysterious Vaslovik who created me?" The paragraph concludes with this particular beauty, "We ignore the ending of the pilot in which he did find Vaslovik and got a full explanation of his identity and purpose."
Obviously the intention was to turn Questor into either The Fugitive or The Immortal, both of which were series in which the main protagonist was on the run.
"It goes along with the thinking that if something else worked, then this should work," says Foxworth, "rather than doing something original."
One of the primary proponents behind this shift was producer Michael Rhodes, who points out that it was his suggestion; a suggestion the studio seemed to support completely.
"What Universal had bought in their own minds, maybe without realizing it, was the relationship between Mike Farrell and Robert Foxworth," opines Rhodes. "But in developing the scripts for the series, we realized that each character was flawed in their own way and as long as they were together they were perfect. They made a complete person, so you really couldn't create any jeopardy for them because they had each other to handle what the other was missing. You had to separate them, but when you separated them you didn't have the relationship. It was really a vicious circle. It didn't work."
Rhodes is the one who thought it would be best to forget Questor's discovery of his purpose. "It was radical surgery," he says, obviously the only person on the creative team who thought that this was the way to go. "It's The Fugitive, then, because you've got all these government bad guys chasing him. He is still very vulnerable because he's incomplete. He's got parts missing and can make the same kind of relationships in each episode that he had with the Mike Farrell character."
Earl Booth was not pleased with this direction, noting that it felt like the decision to drop Robinson was made "overnight."
"It mystified me," he admits, "because whatever the thrust of the show was, you had an alien -- really -- whose communication with the modern world was completely nil unless he had someone to talk to, and it was then that I began to see that what the people at Universal wanted was basically a carbon copy of The Fugitive, which they have tried to copy many times and for the most part have been unsuccessful. I personally felt that this was wrong. To have this unique being constantly chased by people who are after him for whatever stupid reason, I could never tell, was ridiculous. From that point on, things went downhill."
In all of this decision making, the person most impacted was, obviously, Mike Farrell, who had even gone so far as to have wardrobe fitted for the series. His being dropped was actually rather ironic, considering that a series was the last thing he was thinking about at the time.
"Although I wasn't looking to do a series, the idea of doing that as a series was intriguing," he says. "When this was a pilot, my sense in doing it was the opportunity of doing the movie and I kind of let go of the notion of the series. Then when I got word it got picked up, it was very exciting. I thought, 'Shit, we can do this, we can do that, we can travel, we can have some fun and say some things that are of some significance.'"
Throughout the preparation period, Farrell was in almost constant contact with the producers and Gene Roddenberry. One day, however, his phone call to Michael Rhodes went unreturned. He wasn't concerned until a second phone call wasn't returned either.
"It was a Friday -- I'll remember that for the rest of my life," he reflects. "Over the weekend, all of those little gremlins went to work on me. Finally, my agent called and said, 'I don't know what this is about, but I've got a message here that you and I are being asked to come to a meeting at the Tower on Monday morning.' Over the weekend I didn't sleep well and I thought, 'I'm being dropped from this goddamn show and I can't understand it.' I finally got a hold of Gene and he said, 'Oh my God, nobody called you? Yeah, there's a problem. Some people think the series will work better without the Jerry character.' I may be creating dialogue to serve myself but as I recall, Gene said, 'I think it's a crazy idea, but we have to bow to some degree to the powers.' Anyway, the long of the short of it was that the decision was made that Questor would more likely be in jeopardy if he didn't have Jerry to get him out of trouble, so they were dropping the Jerry character."
Farrell's tale doesn't end there, though. A couple of months later he received a phone call from an executive named Mervin Gerard, who had been given the assignment of making the series "happen." The first thing he did was view the original pilot film.
"I will forever hold Mervin high in my regard," smiles Farrell. "He told me that after watching the pilot he went to [Universal's] Frank Price and said, 'Tell me who the idiot is who decided he wanted to drop Mike Farrell from the show.' 'I'm the idiot.' 'What works about this show is the chemistry between these two characters; they together become the one person that we root for and you destroy it by eliminating the human character. I'm not going to do this show unless we resurrect the Jerry character.' By this point I said to Merv, 'You're very sweet to tell me this story, because it obviously does a lot for my ego, but I wouldn't touch this thing with a ten-foot pole after what they did to me. That feels like exactly the wrong move.' He tried to persuade me, but as I understand it, for reasons having nothing to do with that, they finally decided just to shelve the whole thing.
"It's unfortunate," he adds, "because my sense of it was that there was high hopes for this as a show. The other piece of it that I find kind of heartwarming is the longevity of it. Somebody within the last few weeks said something to me about Questor. I thought, 'God almighty, how can something almost 25-years-old maintain that sort of impact?' It speaks to all of the kind of things that we in television ought to be more aware of -- that it's an extraordinary outreach and impact that the medium has as well as the responsibility inherent in all of that. But that's another talk for another time. I think that responsibility is something Gene took seriously; the responsibility of telling stories that are somehow life-affirming."
By the time that Gerard had tried to convince Farrell to come back to the series, Roddenberry himself had decided that he had had enough and left. Having come off of his well-documented battles with NBC executives during the run of Star Trek, he had no interest in going through that again.
"I think the Jerry Robinson character was vital to Questor," he said in the mid '70s. "You can't have just the android; you've got to have a partnership between an android and a human. Then they wanted Questor to be constantly on the run from the scientific consortium. That's not the way I wanted to go and maybe I was wrong. But I really didn't want to do a chase series. So I just let it die."
Larry Alexander considers this thought and decides that the time is right for a Hollywood life lesson.
"I don't know if you know how things die in Hollywood," he muses. "Nobody shoots them between the eyes. What they do is continually hang up hope that some miracle will occur, so you twist slowly in the wind for months and years before one day you wake up and say, 'Oh, this does not work. It's not happening. It's never going to happen.'"
In the case of The Questor Tapes, however, Alexander just might be wrong. This fall saw the debut of Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict, a weekly television series based on a Roddenberry-written premise of the 1970s. One can be certain that Roddenberry's other unrealized visions, including The Questor Tapes, will find new life as well.
As it should.
Questor deserves it. So do we.