"Once upon a time, a junkman had a dream. So he put together a team: an ex-astronaut and a fuel expert. They built a rocket ship and they went to the moon. Who knows what they'll do next?" -- Salvage-1's opening narration
Though virtually forgotten today, Salvage-1 (1979) was the Rocky Balboa of televised science fantasy. A modest made-for-TV movie, it took an unpromising, outrageous premise - a junk dealer builds a spacecraft out of spare parts and flies to moon to retrieve gear abandoned by NASA - and somehow, some way, made it believable and charming.
Executives at the ABC network and production company Columbia Pictures apparently thought so, too. Partly based of the track record of its highly bankable TV star, Andy Griffith, partly because of the vogue for all things sci-fi in the wake of Star Wars, they decided to expand Salvage-1 into a regular series even before the TV-movie aired to strong ratings. The TV-movie was broadcast in January 1979, and as a mid-season replacement Salvage-1 continued with an additional 12 hour-long episodes. A second season was ordered, but only six were made, and four of those didn't even air.
Still, there are those like me who fondly remember the original TV-movie and curious enough to want to see it again, and maybe check out the series that followed. All this makes Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's decision to release Salvage 1: Golden Orbit and Salvage 1: Hard Water all the more peculiar.
I'd assumed these would be ersatz TV-movie movies cobbled together from episodes of the series, fake TV movies that, at some point, had been offered into syndication in the same way other failed series occasionally were. (The 1974 Planet of the Apes series, for instance, was recut in 1981 into five faux movies, with such absurd titles as Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the Planet of the Apes, in a syndication package featuring new introductions by actor Roddy McDowall, wearing his chimpanzee make-up one last time.)
Instead, I was surprised to find Salvage 1: Golden Orbit consisted not of reedited shows but rather two complete and separated episodes, the same-named two-parter that aired as the sixth and seventh episode. (Hard Water is derived from the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes, the first two of the aborted second season.)
It seems downright perverse on Sony's part to reintroduce the show to audiences with four virtually randomly selected episodes rather than simply release the original TV-movie. Another reasonable choice would have been to release the entire run of the series including the pilot that, you'll remember, ran less than the equivalent of one full TV season. Why?
Sony's manufactured-on-demand "Choice Collection" release of Golden Orbit sources an old video master that looks just okay, but at least the two episodes are complete and not time-compressed.
Los Angeles-based junk dealer Harry Broderick (Andy Griffth) has expanded his Jettison Scrap and Salvage Company into space with the help of former NASA astronaut Addison "Skip" Carmichael (Joel Higgins) and fuel specialist Melanie "Mel" Slozar (Trish Stewart). In the pilot film, they built the spacecraft Vulture using discarded NASA rocket boosters but mostly out of reclaimed scrap, including a Texaco gasoline semi-trailer and, for the capsule, a cement mixer.
After successfully retrieving abandoned Apollo Program junk from the moon, Harry and his Vulture set their sights on other space junk to salvage. In the two-part Golden Orbit, it's a Telkom communications satellite covered with the "best shielding material there is" (not lead?): 2,200 troy ounces of gold. As Harry is knee-deep in tax bills, he's anxious to bring back that gold and melt it down.
However, Harry's old nemesis, CIA Agent Jack Klinger (Richard Jaeckel, also in the pilot and a series regular), is told by his bosses that in no uncertain terms can Harry be allowed to retrieve that satellite, as it was equipped with a top secret orbiting surveillance device. Meanwhile, Skip is lured back to NASA by program head Dr. Singleton (Barry Nelson) for a mission to Space Station Alpha (based, presumably, on Skylab), with hard-nosed pilot Buck Fulton (Edward Winter) and Skip's former girlfriend, Astronaut Vanessa Ashley (Ellen Bry). While Klinger tries to put the kibosh on Harry's plans, Space Station Alpha experiences a life-threatening technical emergency, and it's up to the Vulture to save everyone.
Some of the original TV-movie's charm resonates in Golden Orbit, but just where do you go after you've already been to the moon? A been-there, done-that syndrome permeated the run of Salvage-1 which, if anything, probably would have played better as a couple of TV-movie sequels than as a weekly series. Still, for what it is, Golden Orbit isn't bad.
Griffith's folksy charm, as he had displayed weekly on The Andy Griffith Show and the later Matlock, is a big part of Salvage-1's appeal. There's a nice bit, for instance, when a NASA astronaut briefly joins the Vulture's rescue mission. Noting the cobbled-together spacecraft, especially its truck-tire landing pads, Harry smiles and says, "Half a million miles. All the way to the moon and back. Not flat." Similarly, the spritely musical scoring (primarily by Walter Scharf?), which sounds a lot like Richard Rodney Bennett's music for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) adds to the light, reassuring can-do spirit of the program.
On the down side are Salvage-1's rudimentary (to put it kindly) special visual effects, which are pretty bad even by late-1970s TV standards. It's a shame the series didn't recruit (or couldn't otherwise employ) L.B. Abbott and others associated with Irwin Allen's various TV shows of the 1960s, which had far better visual effects than those shows deserved. They did employ no less than Isaac Asimov, among others, as a scientific advisor, and there's just enough believable science to allow a willing suspension of disbelief, but the cheap production values work against this. In Golden Orbit both the Vulture and Space Station Alpha have normal gravity in space, undoubtedly a budgetary concession, and the interior of the latter is no better designed than cheap sci-fi films of the 1950s.
Video & Audio
Salvage 1: Golden Orbit sources what appears to be an old tape master of the two 48-plus minute episodes, originally shot in 35mm. They're serviceable but no better than that. The mono audio (English only, not subtitle options) is also okay. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Why Sony didn't simply release Salvage-1's original pilot movie and/or the complete series is a baffling little mystery. Watching this and Hard Water is better than nothing, but it's not the most brilliant of marketing decisions. Still, for those like me who remember the original TV movie fondly, this is mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.