Tune in Tonight: "Supertrain, Episode 3"
I have to admit, the disco theme song is starting to grow on me, though it's much funkier than Supertrain deserves. It's amusingly, almost touchingly pandering to the youthful audience Supertrain desperately wants to appeal to, despite its dusty plots and even dustier guest stars. It's the television equivalent of a wedding band playing mostly Glenn Miller, but occasionally breaking into "Uptown Funk" to appease the small handful of teenagers in the room.
Though they couldn't have yet foreseen how bad their ratings would be by the time it aired, there's an undeniable sense of malaise around the third episode, titled "The Queen and the Improbable Knight." Despite all the razzle dazzle of the premiere, let alone all the publicity behind it, here everything just seems muted and indifferent. The A-plot moves at a such a trudging pace that you forget who certain characters are and what happens in earlier scenes. Well, I should probably just call it "the plot," because there is no B-plot. Hell, there are hardly any other passengers. Even the crew of Supertrain, whom the audience presumably is supposed to want to get to know and look forward to spending time with every week, isn't around much. We also get a lot less shots establishing how fancy Supertrain is, in favor of endless scenes of people sneaking around in hallways and entering and exiting cabins.
The episode opens with Barney Sweet (Paul Sand, doing an imitation of Gene Wilder that's so pale you can almost see through it), a travel writer on board to report on the Supertrain experience. Of course, he writes the most awful boilerplate nonsense about the loneliness and luxury of high end train travel, and spends a lot of time talking to himself, because, you know, writer. He soon meets Ali (Mary Louise Weller), a beautiful blonde who is sketchy about who she is and where she's going. They engage in some insufferable "clever" banter before spending a romantic evening on Supertrain's postage stamp sized dance floor.
Also boarding Supertrain is Jesus Christ more fucking hitmen what, but it's okay, because there's a twist: this time they're bumbling hitmen, the kind of hitmen who regularly allow themselves to get knocked out by the people they're trying to kill, and who drag around corpses out in the open. Turley (Kenneth Mars) and his partner, Menkton (Michael V. Gazzo, who played Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather II, and then later played a bumbling hitman on Supertrain) lurk around the train watching what Ali does, their every move accompanied by blatting and farting synthesizer effects, clearly spelling out that even though they're armed killers who eventually murder two innocent people, they're actually supposed to be the comic relief of the episode.
When Barney goes to Ali's cabin the next day to take her to lunch, he finds that she's disappeared, replaced by a couple who look and act like they're on their way to Los Angeles to audition to be Bond villains. Neither Conductor Harry nor Social Director Dave are terribly interested in Barney's report of a missing passenger, even when he discovers a dead body, which is puzzling considering Supertrain's unusually high passenger mortality rate (if you're keeping count, it'll be up to six by the time this episode is over). Let me stop here and point out that it takes more than a third of the episode before the plot really gets underway, and it's half over before we get the reveal that Ali is really a long lost heir to the throne of Montenegro, raised by foster parents in America. This shocking turn of events is relayed to Barney secondhand, after someone else finds out via telephone.
In keeping with Supertrain's laser precision plotting, it's not really clear why Ali's on the train, what's supposed to happen when the train arrives in Denver, why hitmen are after her, or who the couple in her cabin are that look like they mean to drag Barney away and drink his blood. Nevertheless, Barney accepts everything he's told without question, and helps Ali escape from Turley and Menkton, overcoming them with the most absurd of Chekhov's guns, an enormous inflatable raft that someone carefully explains to him how to activate in an earlier scene, apropos of nothing. Our lovers must part, however, though Ali is tearfully reluctant to go. Why would she want all the power and riches that come with ruling over an entire small country when she could spend the rest of her life with a charmless schmuck she just met yesterday? Luckily, thanks to a literal last minute plot twist, Ali discovers that she's not royalty after all, and she and Barney propose to each other. Everything works out for everyone, except for the characters who got a combined total of five lines of dialogue and died for nothing.
I've mentioned before how Supertrain boasts sub-par set design, and offers the best in wooden actors playing irritating characters, but where it really shines is its incompetent plot development and pacing. It's particularly on display in this episode, where fully half the of it is devoted to Barney frantically fumbling around looking for Ali and being a belligerent asshole to anyone who isn't Ali, and the other half to Turley and Menkton also fumbling around looking for Ali. Characters who seem like they might have some significance to the plot abruptly disappear, never to be mentioned again, while others are introduced early, then return so late that you forget who they are, and they ultimately serve no real purpose anyway. Even the characters you'd expect to see, like most of Supertrain's crew, aren't present. Conductor Harry and Social Director Dave show up for less than three minutes, but what about those other colorful, memorable crew members we've come to love, like the Black Guy, and the Bartender, and the Brown Haired Lady Who I Guess Might Be a Nurse, and Doctor Distinguished Older Gentleman, and Not Tony Danza, and the Flamboyantly Gay Stereotype? We barely catch a glimpse of any of them, but hey, if you love hallways, this episode is chockful of 'em. It's veritable hallway porn, as Barney and the bumbling hitmen walk down them, up them, around them, and past them.
Some of those hallway shots show a luxury train of the future so deserted you expected to see tumbleweeds blowing around. One hopes that by the time they filmed the fourth episode they remembered to add more passengers in the background, because in this episode it looks like the people who exist inside the Supertrain universe were already as bored of it as the people watching it.
Original airdate: February 21, 1979