1979’s two train travel fantasy shows that crashed and burned.
The end of the 1970s was not a good time to launch a new TV series in America. The ratings war meant that a show had to find an audience immediately, and if it didn’t, it would be pulled from the air within weeks. Into this febrile atmosphere came two shows that shared a central idea, both airing at the same time, and both yanked from broadcast with undue haste.
In 1979, there were two big shows in the US that had reinvented what weekly episodic television was. Both Fantasy Island and The Love Boat sat somewhere between a continuing series and an anthology show, with weekly stories led by guest stars while a regular cast kept some sort of continuity. The popularity of both shows naturally inspired imitators, and if a boat and “de plane, de plane!” had already been used up, what better vehicle to bring a sense of glamour and provide an enclosed location for events than a train? After all, Silver Streak had recently been a box office hit, and train dramas have a long and impressive film history. Sadly, both Supertrain and Time Express would do little more than prove that train transport was not something that excited television viewers.
Supertrain, produced by Dan Curtis, was the most ambitious of the two shows. Based around a nuclear-powered bullet train that came with the sort of story-friendly amenities usually found on a cruise ship – or perhaps a small town – including a gym, swimming pools, shopping centres and even a disco. The train ran from New York to Los Angeles, to in order to allow stories to unfold during the trip, would take some thirty-six hours to get from one destination to another, making it less a futuristic high-speed travel solution and more a plodding railway system that had a not-especially impressive average speed of 80mph. Still, viewers might be expected to overlook that if the show was good.
Supertrain was, in 1979, the most expensive television show ever produced. $10 million was spent on three train models and sets alone. impressed by the spectacle, the BBC bought the show for the UK, paying a whopping $25,000 an episode – one of the biggest international deals at the time. The deal had been done before the show was aired, which was unfortunate for the BBC and the licence fee payer.
The show was heavily promoted by NBC, but the two-hour pilot was beaten in the ratings by a Charlie’s Angels special, and it was all downhill from there. The interwoven stories featuring familiar but not especially famous guest stars were not particularly interesting, and both Fantasy Island and The Love Boat were already doing the same sort of thing more impressively. The show also seemed to be too much in love with its own magnificence, and there was more focus on how spectacular the train was than in storytelling – a fatal mistake, given that viewers were clearly not in love with the idea of a fancy train, and wanted something more than hackneyed plot lines that they’d seen a hundred times before. While the shows that had inspired it focused on romance, Supertrain tried to be a suspense drama, and those sort of stories don’t lend themselves as easily to a throwaway format with no continuing characters. No-one cared about the dangers facing characters who they would never see again.
After five episodes, Supertrain was given an emergency overhaul, but it was too little, too late – there was little that could be done for shows already filmed, and instead of taking a break to overhaul the show properly, they carried on broadcasting after just a couple of weeks off. Viewers who had already rejected the show had no reason to think that anything had changed. The ratings continued to plummet, and NBC found itself facing a massive financial loss – this and the following year’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics almost bankrupted the network. The show was pulled from the air after just nine episodes, and the BBC never even broadcast the series they had spent a fortune on.
Supertrain would become a byword in television folly, which the producers of Time Express must feel very grateful for. Because although less infamous, this show was an even bigger flop.
Time Express featured husband and wife team Vincent Price and Coral Browne as the hosts of the titular train, where passengers are taken back in time to relive an important moment of their lives and perhaps change things and learn lessons. The Twilight Zone twist made it sound more interesting on paper, but the stories were once again a series of lacklustre and stereotyped tales, with guest stars who didn’t pull in the viewers. Worse still, it wasted Price and Browne, who were confined to the opening and closing scenes, with little to do.
In one of those curious coincidences (or perhaps not, given how often broadcasters rush out copycat shows), Time Express was broadcast from the end of April to the middle of May 1979, just as Supertrain was breathing its last (that show ended on May 5th). Viewers might well have been immediately wary of another train-set film with a similar episodic premise, and in any case, Time Express was possibly even worse than its costlier rival – and viewers attracted by Price and the time travel premise were quickly disappointed and tuned out. After just four episodes, Time Express was yanked from the air by CBS. Ironically, this show was broadcast by the BBC, who presumably picked it up for a song – at least, I hope they did.
The failure of these shows effectively did for train-based drama, and also showed that the Fantasy Island/Love Boat format had been entirely exhausted by those two shows (both of which still had several years left in them). Neither show has undergone a retrospective critical assessment, with good reason. They are not, at the time of writing, available on DVD or blu-ray or any streaming format.