Periscope Depth

a highly critical review of the first 1:30 of NBC’s Supertrain

(Why only the first minute-thirty of Supertrain, NBC’s notoriously poor 1979 television drama about a luxury train and the lives of its passengers? Because you’re busy people, for one thing – you don’t have time to waste on an entire two hour pilot when you can dispose of a 30-year-old show in less than two minutes.

But, more importantly, I feel the first 90 seconds of this piece of garbage indicate the flaws that would poison the entire product. In the terrible dialogue, shitty cinematography and ludicrous plot of the pre-credits sequence, you see a synecdoche for the entire nine episode disaster. The part stands in for the whole.

Enough metonymy! Enough preamble! On with the pablum!)

N.B. You have T.C. to thank for this)

A Highly Critical Review of the First 1:30 of NBC’s Supertrain

Seriously. Just watch the first one minute and thirty seconds, then press Pause. I’ll wait.

… back with us? Right. Here we go:

The Opening Shot: From the very first fade-up from black we’re already in trouble. I don’t know what the photographer wanted to convey about this remarkably cramped board of executives. Are they bold captains of industry, leading us into a future full of supercars and superjets? Are they demons of greed, willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of passengers in the name of profit? Neither. This off-kilter crane shot tells us that these men are mere Legos for the viewer to manipulate and discard at will.

The Opening Monologue: Apparently, the “Federal Department of Transportation” (because Winfield, the CEO, doesn’t even pick up the fucking phone if it’s Municipal or lower) has called Winfield in for help on “the pitiful state of rail passenger travel in this country today.” “As a result,” he slurs, “Trans-Allied Corporation will construct, starting from scratch, the first continental railroad built in this country in seventy-five years.”

The Board reacts visibly, none of them having read the memo or remembered the phone call or even asked Winfield why they got called in.

Winfield soldiers on. “An atom-powered, steam turbine machine,” he explains – revolutionary, of course, since lumber and coal certainly aren’t made of atoms. “Capable of crossing this country in thirty-six hours. And coupling that locomotive to the most luxurious, most comfortable best served train of coaches ever designed.” So, four times slower than a commercial jet-liner and, with all those amenities, at least twice as expensive. Hell of a business plan, Winfield.

I’m Not Done Bitching About The Cinematography: As if to apologize for the awkward crane shot that opened this fiasco, every subsequent shot crams as many faces into the screen as possible. When Winfield speaks, we see his aviator-wearing bodyguard smirking behind him and the sides of at least two other people’s heads. As he outlines the extravagance of his plan (“thirty. six. hours“), the camera pans down the greasy, jowled faces of the Board – I swear, it’s like a buffet of gravel painted to look like ham – in claustrophobic detail. If I could rent out a theater and show this on a big screen without getting sued by Trans-Allied, I would, just for the terror these faces would inflict on a 20-foot scale.

Now See Here: Shockingly enough, this plan to lasso three hundred civilians to a nuclear power plant and rocket it across the country on an untested railroad line has a detractor. He sits at the exact opposite end of the table, as detractors must by law, and waits for a break in the rambling before saying his piece.

“You know what I think, Winfield?” he asks. Then he tells us: “You’re letting your psychotic fascination with railroads [sic] lead you into a suicidal gamble with the future of this company!” Heads nod in agreement.

While I’m glad someone in this wood-lacquered closet has an eye for the bottom line I don’t quite get his objection, for the following reasons:

  • Isn’t a fascination with railroads understandable? I hear it was rather common among boys who grew up around the turn of the (last) century – machinery and timetables and vast quantities of freight and all that. Maintaining that hobby into one’s golden years might be a bit eccentric, sure, but I hesitate to call it psychotic.

    (Well, all right, Winfield did murder all those people six years ago. Bringing it up now is bad form, though)

  • Wait – what the hell does Trans-Allied Corporation actually do? I assumed for the first minute or so that they were already in the railroad business. But this guy’s objections suggest they aren’t. A “fascination with railroads” would be tolerable – almost a prerequisite – for the CEO of a railroad company.

    So what is it they make? Nuclear reactors? Steel? Scarves? Whatever the hell it is, why did the Federal Department of Transportation give them permission to build a nuclear train and the four thousand miles of track necessary to run it? “Well, Trans-Allied has next to zero experience in construction projects of a cross-continental scale, having invested vast fortunes in skate keys and pet rocks. But they seem so damn determined!”

You Forgot One Thing: My Impending Death: But Winfield’s got a honey of a rejoinder lined up. “So you think it’s a gamble, do you? Well, gentlemen, since I can count my remaining years on the fingers of one hand, from my point of view it’s not much of a gamble at all.”

Okay, hold up:

  • That’s your idea of reassurance? “Gentlemen, you raise some interesting objections. But I’m five years from the grave! My ideas are clearly sound.”

  • Unless perhaps this is some oblique and cynical reference to the inefficiency of all government contracts! It took twenty-five years to complete the Big Dig (from initial planning to project completion), and that was just one city. Can you imagine how long it would take to build a never-before-seen type of rail line, capable of supporting a nuclear reactor that could travel at over one hundred miles per hour, that would cross a dozen states?

    Winfield must be grinning like a fiend behind that bushy mustache of his. “I’m going to lock us into the biggest boondoggle since Teapot Dome,” he’s saying, “and then die before the first rail gets laid! Hope you like federal prison, dicks!”

  • If I ever get the opportunity to tell a room full of people that I can “count my remaining years on the fingers of one hand,” I’m only holding up one finger. And I think you know which one.

The Big Reveal: Having dropped that turd right in the middle of the table, Winfield stumbles around to a covered portrait. “I give you – SUPERTRAIN!” The board oohs and aahs at the gorgeous painting.

Again with the nitpicking:

  • “Your objections are irrelevant. I’ve already started this hideously expensive project and called this meeting as a courtesy. And by courtesy, I mean ‘slap in the face with my dick.’”

  • The Board’s awfully impressed at a painting. Well! I didn’t think his plan was feasible before, but he’s got some concept art! And check out that bitching frame. I have seen the Supertrain and believe; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Roll opening credits. Cue disco theme song. Enter the Supertrain.

I would urge you to watch the rest of the pilot episode, but I assure you it gets even dumber. Intolerably dumb. The pointless board meeting held in Grandpa’s basement is the high point of the first ninety minutes. You’ve seen everything you need to see – bad camera work, stupid dialogue and a plot that can’t shoot straight. I’m amazed NBC let it go five episodes, much less five months.

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