See if you can recall any of the following shows: Sword of Justice. The Waverley Wonders. Grandpa Goes To Washington.
Who's Watching the Kids?
A better question would have been, 'Who's watching these shows?' Well, apparently nobody was, They were all brand new NBC programs
that were crashing and burning early in the 1978 season. NBC had only a single show in the entire top 20 and that was
Little House on the Prairie, which was in its fifth season. 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-fueled 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?
So it was early fall 1978 when Dan Curtis was given the go ahead to clone ABC's hit show The Love Boat. He was sure his
project - now 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 debut 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 railroad 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 womanizing 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.
Astoundingly, the show was ready for its February debut. 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 debuted 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 subplots. 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.
(Note: If for some reason you wish to know more, please take a moment to peruse the ultimate Supertrain fan site here.)