Calling Occupants – The Carpenters Space Encounters

A 1978 sci-fi variety show even more unlikely than the Star Wars Holiday Special.

The 1970s was the decade of the strange TV special, where popular – and, for that matter, some unpopular ones too – celebrities and musical acts would host guest-laden one-off shows that were hugely popular with US audiences. The format was so well established that even George Lucas was suckered into it with the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special, a project so utterly misguided that it beggars belief that it ever made it to air. But we’re not here to discuss that show – God knows, it’s been done to death over the years and what could we add?

In any case, there’s an arguably even more absurd 1978 sci-fi themed musical variety special out there that is less well known – The Carpenters Space Encounters. Yes, this is a musical special featuring the masters of easy-listening that has a vague – very vague – narrative involving aliens who come to Earth to meet the Carpenters and take them into outer space. Yeah, it’s a bit thin.

Had this special been made in any other year, I very much doubt that the whole sci-fi would’ve flown, but this was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and space was, as Douglas Adams might say, big – really big. More to the point, the latest Carpenters album had featured their odd cover of Klaatu’s Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, a weird hybrid of MOR and prog that is strangely fascinating. My parents had a Carpenters Greatest Hits album when I was a kid and I played that track a lot. But I digress. the point is that the sci-fi connection wasn’t quite as forced as it might have otherwise been thanks to this one song. But it’s still a pretty tenuous hook for a whole variety show.

Karen Carpenter sounds as gorgeous as ever and at least seems to be having fun; Richard is a bit stiffer and I’m not sure we needed his solo piano performance of music from Star Wars and Close Encounters, to be honest. Guest stars Charlie Callas, Suzanne Somers and John Davidson pop up from time to time and there is continually canned laughter and applause that might as well just stop dead, so inauthentic is it.

The Carpenters were well past the peak of their popularity by 1978 – times had changed and the duo, who were never exactly cool to begin with, was now more ridiculed than ever. Time, of course, has been kind to them – the Carpenters catalogue is dotted with genuinely great recordings. This special has not aged well though and did not lead to a career revival.

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