For some reason I’ve had “Supertrain” on the brain. You probably know that some of my nonfiction deals with railroads and railroad history. That work sometimes leads me to ponder other things about railroads. In this case, Supertrain, an NBC series about a passenger train that became legendary, and not in a good way.
Here’s the premise of the show: the dying CEO of the “Trans-Allied Corporation” is asked by the “Federal Department of Transportation” to improve America’s passenger rail service. So what does the CEO come up with? An atomic-powered luxury passenger train running on rails three times wider than standard gauge that would run from New York to Los Angeles in 36 hours.
Right here I have to pause. According to information at various websites, the two-hour pilot doesn’t make it at all clear what “Trans-Allied” actually does or makes. Since one of the corporate board detractors claimed the CEO has a “psychotic fascination with trains,” I guess we can assume that the company isn’t in the transportation business. Which begs the question, why would anyone in the Federal government ask them to improve passenger rail service?
Then there’s the notion of a train with a nuclear power plant racing across the country. It sounds insane, but you have to understand a few important facts. Supertrain started production in the fall of 1978, with a planned premiere in the 1979-1980 season. It was rushed on the air as a mid-season replacement on February 7, 1979. The movie The China Syndrome was released about six weeks later on March 16; just under two weeks after that was the Three Mile Island accident. When the show went on the air, only fringe environmentalists worried about nuclear power; come April everyone was worried.
Anyway. During the opening of the pilot the CEO reveals that he’s probably going to die before the project even gets started. Yet somehow his company is going to be obliged to build and complete it after he’s gone. Either this man is blessed with the wimpiest board of directors in corporate history, or there are some seriously dark contracts floating around Trans-Allied.
Flash forward several years, and the Supertrain is on its way. The concept of this series appears to have been this: it’s like The Love Boat, only it’s on land, and it’s a drama instead of a romantic comedy. At the time it went on the air, a two-hour pilot movie and nine episodes had been completed. There weren’t any stars in the starting cast but some familiar faces: Robert Alda, Edward Andrews, and Harrison Page. You’d recognize them if you saw them.
According to accounts, the pilot movie did decently in the ratings. As the show went on the numbers sank. Around the second week of March the show was yanked for emergency retooling. The show was moved from Wednesday night to Saturday night on April 7, and the show remained on the air until the first week of May. Episodes two through nine were re-aired through June and July. By then the series was already doomed; early in May NBC had announced it’s fall lineup, and Supertrain wasn’t on it.
“What’s the big deal?” you might be asking. Well, it turns out that Supertrain was about as expensive to make at the time as was the original Battlestar Galactica. The show was about as model-heavy as the old Galactica, and required entirely new interiors. There was a regular cast, the train crew, but each episode needed lots of guest stars to carry the story. Poking around the internet, about the only figure I found suggested that Supertrain cost about $1 million an episode.
That’s in 1979 dollars.
That’s not the only problem with the show. As I said, the premise was: It’s Love Boat, but on land, and it’s a drama instead of a romantic comedy. I suppose a premise like that might work if it was thought out properly. Clearly it wasn’t; the idea of the Supertrain was silly. I would like to have been at the pitch meeting. I get the sense that the room smelled of fear, desperation, flop sweat, and occasionally echoed with nervous laughter.
This leads to the other reason why Supertrain was such a disaster: it was on NBC. The late 1970s was a dark time for the Peacock Network. ABC had all the huge hits: Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and so on. Heck, ABC could take a chance with the expensive Galactica, have it be a disappointment, and shrug it off. CBS was in second: it’s Norman Lear comedies were in decline, but it still had MASH and The Waltons.
NBC was a distant third. It had only three programs in the 1978-79 season that were true hits: Little House on the Prairie, ChiPS, and Diff’rent Strokes. Quincy and The Rockford Files did well enough but weren’t quite hits. Almost every other show on NBC during the late 1970s barely made it one season. One of the few that did that premiered in mid-season along with Supertrain was BJ and the Bear, a series about a trucker and his pet chimp. No, I am not making that up.
Supertrain has over the years come to exemplify the sorry shape NBC was in at the time. It was a high-concept idea that the network couldn’t pull off. Crazy amounts of time and money were spent in building models and sets, and little effort was put into stories. Even worse was this: when it went on the air, Supertrain had only a pilot and eight episodes finished. Starting during the first week of February, the show needed between 12 and 18 episodes to air continuously to May sweeps. It doesn’t seem to me that the show had any chance at all, even if it didn’t suck.
Now, here’s the personal kick to the shins.
At the time I was into model trains. I’d fall out of the hobby during most of the 1980s, but I’d be back starting in the 1990s. I liked trains as much then as I do now. I’d also gotten into sci-fi with Star Wars in 1977. I tried to watch every SF show that came on, no matter how mediocre it was.
So, here was Supertrain, a series about a futuristic train. This ought to be something I’d leap on, right? Well, I don’t think I watched so much as a few minutes of this series! If even me, the young ideal viewer, couldn’t bother to tune in, what chance did Supertrain really have?
Which is why I’m glad I had to look up stuff to write this piece. Over the years I’d remember a picture from Starlog or Model Railroader that showed the Supertrain model, and I’d wonder if I had missed something. I guess all I missed was a whole lot of 1970s TV crap.
I feel so much better now.