Saturday, August 20, 2016

Supertrain, "Express To Terror"

SUPERTRAIN remains one of network television’s biggest disasters. When it premiered as a midseason replacement during NBC’s 1978-79 season, SUPERTRAIN was the most expensive series in television history, yet it underwent a massive retooling after its fourth episode and was finally cancelled after only nine episodes aired. Much of the initial cost of the series — reportedly $5 million — went towards constructing the main sets and miniatures representing Supertrain, basically a Love Boat on railroad tracks that could travel across the United States in a day and a half. As a setting for adventure, romance, drama, comedy, and intrigue, Supertrain — and SUPERTRAIN — was a bust.

The two-hour pilot, which was released in syndication and on videocassette as a standalone movie, aired opposite a special two-hour episode of CHARLIE’S ANGELS on ABC, so the competition was afraid of SUPERTRAIN at first. They shouldn’t have been. Produced and directed by television veteran Dan Curtis (THE WINDS OF WAR), the pilot titled “Express to Terror” flashes an early warning sign when it misspells the name of “Special Guest Star” Vicki Lawrence, who had been a regular on the popular CAROL BURNETT SHOW for over a decade.

Guest stars were to be the focus of SUPERTRAIN, as was the case on THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND, two ABC hits being blatantly ripped off (including a scene where the passengers wave goodbye and toss ticker tape at spectators on the platform). EXPRESS TO TERROR’s top-billed guest star is Steve Lawrence, another early warning sign. He plays Mike Post (!), a gambler targeted by a mysterious black-gloved killer. Helping him find the assassin are his best pal Don Meredith (BANJO HACKETT) and ditzy Char Fontane, an actress NBC was really pushing at that time (to no success). George Hamilton, Ron Masak (MURDER, SHE WROTE), Stella Stevens (THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), and Fred Williamson (THAT MAN BOLT) are also in it, but it’s not clear to me who they’re playing.

An atomic-powered train equipped with a gym, a swimming pool, a beauty salon, a movie theater, a disco, and luxury passenger cabins, Supertrain, granted, is an impressive set, even though some of the sets seem improbably large. The script, however, amazingly credited to Oscar winner Earl Wallace (WITNESS) and acclaimed crime novelist Donald Westlake, is awful. When Lawrence and Meredith are trapped in the sauna, they can hear the tinkle of a barbell being lifted outside, yet the weightlifter can’t hear them yelling and pounding on the door. The writers do a horrible job of introducing the characters, not just their names, but also their backstories and relationships with each other. The story is as confusing as the sets are expensive. For some reason, the TV Guide ad from the premiere uses an illustration of Robert Culp as the killer.

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