In honour of the death of the great crime-fiction writer Donald E. Westlake , here’s one of his least-prestigious but most-infamous credits: Supertrain, the 1979 bomb that almost bankrupted NBC. As you’ll see, though, he only shares a “story by” credit on the pilot. But that was enough to get him a co-creator credit for the entire nine-episode run of this show, sort of a thriller version of The Love Boat (the pilot is called “Express To Terror”) set on a truly ridiculous luxury train that ate up more of the show’s budget than the mostly mediocre regular cast.
Supertrain was one of several horrible misfires produced by NBC during the three years that Fred Silverman ran the network. People are currently arguing whether Fred or Ben Silverman screwed over NBC more. But to be fair to the first Silverman, he did develop some shows that would become hits for the network, and his basic strategies were fairly sound. Silverman was a chameleon among programming executives, always changing his strategy to fit the changing times: at CBS he pioneered the strategy of aiming at upscale 18-49 urbanites; at ABC he created “jiggle TV,” and when he moved to NBC he concluded (not inaccurately) that his own “jiggle” strategy had run its course and it was time to concentrate on shows that were family-oriented on the one hand (Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life) and adult-oriented on the other (Hill Street Blues). But he was arrogant enough to think that he could turn the number-3 network around instantly, and his attempts at instant hits tended to be things like Pink Lady and Jeff (it was to his NBC what Rosie O’Donnell’s variety special was to Ben Silverman’s). And of course, Supertrain; it was developed before he arrived, but it became symbolic of the miscalculations of his three-year reign.
Here are the first two segments of the long pilot of Supertrain; for those who want to see the whole pilot, it’s here, in ten parts.