In 1978, NBC's answer to ABC's "The Love Boat" was "Supertrain!" Who watched it? Well, apparently no one was except for me. I still remember the second version of the title song in this day and at my age! NBC had only a single show in the entire top 20 and that was "Little House on the Prairie" in its fifth season.
-- The best waste of nine hours in your life!
Fred Silverman, who had just been hired as president of the network, had a reputation for being able to create and nurture hit shows; after all, he had done it for rivals CBS and ABC throughout the 70's. Now, though, he really had his work cut out for him; he would have to act fast.
Earlier in 1978 Producer Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows, among others) had an idea for a program that would cash in on the murder on a train, suspense-action genre that was such a hit in 1976's Silver Streak. Curtis saw a different murder or espionage plot happening each week aboard a coast-to-coast train. Sort of like a weekly Murder on the Orient Express.
Silverman was keen, but wanted some minor changes. It couldn't just be any old train; it would have to be a super train. It would be the world's fastest atomic-fuelled engine. It would have to be the most exclusive, glamorous train ever built. It would be a whole cross-country resort - how about The Love Boat on rails?
In the early fall 1978, Dan Curtis was given the go ahead to clone ABC's hit show The Love Boat. He was sure his project called Supertrain would be a mega-hit for the 1979 fall television season. Curtis could not believe his eyes when he got an NBC memo from Silverman that informed him Supertrain was already scheduled as a mid-season replacement series and would début with a special episode on February 7th. That was just over four months down the road. Curtis met with Silverman and told him that a program with so many special effects and such a large cast could never be ready in that short amount of time. Silverman told him it must be ready, cost is no object - just get it on the air!
NBC threw its complete weight behind the Supertrain project. Multiple crews worked around the clock. Millions of dollars were spent creating what may have been the world's largest miniature rail road set. Many companies were hired just to concoct tiny landscapes, build tiny towns, and devise a way to get it all on film and still look fairly realistic.
Where The Love Boat had to make do with their small pool, Supertrain would have a full-size swimming pool, a half dozen restaurants, a gymnasium, and - since it was the 1970's after all - a dyn-o-mite discotheque. These and many other extra large, full-size sets were quickly built, taking up three entire soundstages.
Casting took place with the producers seeking almost all unknown performers. First there was Engineer Harry Flood, the man in charge, a balding, silvery-haired leader not unlike Captain Stubing. Then there was Dr. Dan Lewis, the funny womanising doctor ala Adam Bricker. The Love Boat couldn't have gotten far without the antics of Isaac Washington, the hip black bartender. Supertrain producers cast actor George Boone, a gentleman who was nearly a carbon copy of actor Ted Lange, but instead of making him a bartender they placed the only African-American in the whole cast in the position of the train's porter.
-- You know you want to!
Astoundingly, the show was ready for its February début. Fred Silverman was so cocky that he had a sure fire ratings grabbing hit series, he decided to place Supertrain on Wednesday nights opposite the ABC powerhouse Eight is Enough and CBS's The Jeffersons. Eight is Enough had won almost every Wednesday night all season and was ranked at number 12 out of all television programs during 1978-79.
When Supertrain débuted it did indeed have a very large audience. But then the reviews started coming in and they were almost all devastatingly bad. By the second show the audience was less than half of the first week. After that, it was all down hill. The show quickly became one of television's all time clunkers. Three quarters of the blame has to go to the scripts. No matter how fast that train sped across the countryside the stench of bad scripts still stunk up the place.
Identical to Love Boat, the show was broken down into two or three sub-plots. But where The Love Boat was a light romantic comedy, Supertrain's plots would go back and forth from murder mystery to slapstick comedy to hard drama, to tear-jerker, all in the same episode. Viewers didn't know whether to laugh or cry so they just turned the channel.
Supertrain kept zooming across the United States for its first 6 episodes, while behind the scenes Fred Silverman fired producer Dan Curtis, most of the writers, and much of the cast. Producer Robert Stambler was brought in to turn the program into a more solid action-adventure series.
Silverman made room on the Saturday night schedule opposite ABC's Fantasy Island. Network thinking went like this: everyone who loved The Love Boat would watch ABC at 9pm, then cruise right over to NBC to Supertrain at 10pm.
The new, improved Supertrain hit the rails on Saturday, April 7th, but by that time there wasn't anyone who really cared. No matter how much hype was attempted, the show was finished. The show chugged along for five more episodes and then it was off to the scrap yard, going down in TV history as one of television's most costly train wrecks.
-- Last chance!!
There's an "ultimate Supertrain fan site" here: http://nbc_supertrain.tripod.com/ -- check it out, if you dare!!