Friday, June 5, 2009

Supertrain: Express to Terror (1979)

Network: NBC
Original Air Date: February 7th, 1979

I sat down and watched the pilot to this infamous flop of a series (reported to be one of the biggest financial disasters for NBC) a couple of weeks ago. What struck me most about the whole thing was how unmemorable any of it was. And now I’m struggling to recall what I saw in the first place.

Concept-wise, Supertrain is gold: A futuristic train, roughly the size of a small city, or rather a boat… a Love Boat presumably… takes off to parts unknown as the kooky crew and passengers find themselves in various hijinky situations. Seriously, how can this premise executed by the normally deft hands of Dan Curtis turn out to be such a misfire? I still can’t figure out why it didn’t work. It’s another one of those things where the elements are all there, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t gel. Like those tee shirts in the 80s that were supposed to change color based on your body temp, i.e. a mood ring made of cotton. Sure it sounds cool, but basically it’s just changing colors because you’re sweating. Yuck.

I would very much like to dance, dig?

The great Keenan Wynn is Winfield Root, this kind of mad-genius-half-senile-super-millionaire who devises a way to get the train systems back on, uh, track. He builds a large “super train” that is two stories and seems to run the length of forever. The best part of his brilliant invention is that for it to work, all of the America would have to redo their train tracks. But never you mind, the train business is ready to boom again and somehow get this puppy going. On the inside, you would never guess you were in a train and unlike the semi-realness of the Love Boat set, not once do you truly believe this set is in motion.

The crew themselves are so forgettable that I’m wracking my brain right now trying to remember who was who. I can’t even bring to mind any images of the wonderful Robert Alda who played Dr. Dan Lewis. I feel all bad about it too.

Where Supertrain gets really, uh, derailed is with its “all star” cast, who, again, must have looked great on paper, but the majority of them are given such little screen time you have to wonder why anyone bothered. Yes, you’ll see Fred Williamson, George Hamilton, Vicki Lawrence & Stella Stevens and the cumulative amount of time they spend on screen is less than 10 minutes. I mean, why bother?

The main story revolves around the always fun Steve Lawrence who thinks someone is out to kill him. He might be right too. Seems creepy hit man Don Stroud (oh Don, how I love you!) might be out for a little bloodshed (or he might not be…), and his adorable girlfriend Char Fontaine (who owns the greatest disco wardrobe in history) seems more interested in Lawrence than hot old Mr. Stroud. Well, go girl! Don Meredith is Lawrence’s buddy and well, that’s about it.

A woman and her hat terrified!

There is a Gopher inspired subplot with Patrick Collins trying to get laid while the rest of the crew seems to determined to make sure he doesn’t. It’s cute, but not all that funny.

I guess when you call your pilot Express to Terror and then waffle it between a legit mystery and semi-comedy (and aren't very adept at either), you’re kind of risking losing your audience. And while I’m all forgiving and stuff, its obvious most of the attention was paid on the sets and less on the writing.

The Supertrain series bombed but managed to run for about 10 episodes and featured some great actors like Rebecca Balding, Victor Buono, Elaine Joyce and Dennis Dugan (my god, I love that guy!), but ultimately, people weren’t that curious about the monstrous train that could and tuned out.

Express to Terror did see a limited vhs release but the majority of Supertrain has faded into obscurity, and like the train itself, in a big way. However, if you are so inclined (and you certainly should be), this incredible Supertrain website run by a man named Tony Cook should satiate your hunger for this ill-fated series. I wanted to love it. Truly I did, and I’m glad I saw the pilot, but for someone who loves retro television as much as myself, to feel all blah about it makes me feel all blah about it. Ya dig?

Heading off into the sunset... forever


robtmartin said...

Supertrain was the thoughtchild of reputed programming genius Fred Silverman, and marked the end of his winning streak. Silverman was similarly the godfather of development for "Facts of Life," "Scooby Doo," "Diff'rent Strokes," "Roots," "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere" and the first Letterman talk show, on in early daytime.

But his greatest accomplishment was the 1971 "Hillbilly Massacree" at CBS..."The Beverly Hillbillies," "Mayberry R.F.D.," "Hee Haw," "The Jim Nabors Hour," and "Hogan's Heroes" were all cancelled after the 1970-71 season. This made room for, among others, "All in the Family," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Bob Newhart," and "Mash," all of which added their accumulated weight to the impact of the Supertrain crash.

Amanda By Night said...

Hi Rob,

Thanks for these awesome tidbits! Very interesting!

Don Adams said...

I remember this being on the cover of t.v. guide and being very excited about it. I loved trains and still do... but I don't even remember if I watched it back then, though I did recently. It is indeed -- as my brother Bob is fond of saying -- eminently forgettable.