Something that we, as a society, often overlook is that YouTube, the website that makes stars out of people talking in their bedrooms, is one of the finest archives for television. Countless hours of obscure, rare, and what would otherwise have been lost to time material is on the service. From soap operas to commercials, to variety specials—there’s a lot of pop culture anthropology one can do there.
Last night I did a little of that myself as I watched the feature-length pilot for the notorious 1979 TV flop “Supertrain.” What is “Supertrain,” you ask? Let me set the scene for ya. It’s the late ‘70s and you’re the head of the National Broadcasting Company. Your network is in the last place and you desperately need to find some show that’s going to rally all of America around your line of programming. You decide to put into production an idea for a show that is “The Love Boat” on rails, only you decide to make it the most lavish television production ever made.
“Star Wars” sure is popular, ain’t it? Maybe you should consider the star of the show, not some sparkling talent, but a futuristic, atomic-powered…Supertrain. A train that is more of a luxury yacht that can take passengers across the country in 36 hours, at speeds of up to 200 Miles Per Hour. What all does Supertrain have on it? Oh, anything you can think of! Deluxe staterooms, a gym, a swimming pool, a lounge, and a disco! Oh my!
NBC was so convinced that their idea for this new show was going to be the biggest thing to ever air on TV, they decided to produce the entire program themselves, therefore they’d share 100% of the show’s profit. How much does it cost to build a Supertrain? Allegedly NBC spent something in the ballpark of $6 million on the pilot episode, in today’s money that’s roughly $23 million. To be fair, the show does LOOK quite good, the three different-sized models of the Supertrain, including a life-sized version of the front third, are cool looking. Despite looking like the 1970s idea of the future.
The production is well put together, you can see the money on the screen. As for the content? Well, that’s where things…go off the rails (What? You know me. You knew that was coming). The pilot, titled “Express to Terror” focuses not only on the launch of the amazing Supertrain but on some of the passengers aboard the inaugural run. Mainly, we spend most of our time following Steve Lawrence, who is dealing with a mystery man on board who is trying to kill him.
There is also this subplot about a romance between the granddaughter of the rich industrialist, played by Keenan Wynn, who started the Supetrain, and one of the lead crew members. It doesn’t help that towards the end of the pilot, Wynn seems a little—how shall I put this—too excited over how fast his Supertrain can go. The show is a jumbled mess. It isn’t sure if it’s trying to be a comedy, or a romance, or a thriller. Maybe it’s trying to be all three and it fails at juggling those three genres? Oh, did I mention there is a salon on board and the hairdresser wears hair dyers on his waist in gun holsters? As that’s a thing that happened.
Only making nine episodes and pulled off the air after three months, “Supertrain” bombed hard for NBC. The failure of the show with the network’s high investment, and the lack of Olympics coverage for 1980 due to a USA boycott, nearly bankrupted the entire network. NBC tried hard to rework Supertrain almost from the start. The show changed the opening, fired some of the cast, and even went so far as to add a laugh track to try to trick people into thinking it was a sitcom.
So how is the show? As a piece of TV, it is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. As a piece of kitsch? It’s a very entertaining ride. The pilot, and a few other episodes of this famed flop, are on YouTube and worth checking out if you need to witness the strangeness of “Supertrain” first hand. What I do think of it all? Frankly, I think it’s time to put Supertrain into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you cowards! See you next week.