“Once upon a time, a junkman had a dream,” and that dream was to kick start a science fiction adventure series, of course, this was not actually the dream of a junkman but that of Salvage 1’s creator Mike Lloyd Ross, who had the notion of a program dealing with the wild adventures of a scrappy group of salvage operators whose goal was to salvage the NASA equipment left on the moon’s surface during the Apollo missions. You have to admit that’s a pretty cool concept, and in the late 70s “science” on television was a really booming market, but getting that particular premise to work as an ongoing weekly series was a whole different kettle of fish.
The show introduced us to Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) who was not only a top-notch salvage man but also your basic conman with a heart of gold, and he had a simple goal, “I want to build a spaceship, go to the moon, salvage all the junk that’s up there, bring it back, sell it.” Unfortunately, that particular goal wasn’t all that simple, so he had to recruit ex-astronaut Skip Carmichael (Joel Higgins), who he found working in a used car lot, and scientist Melanie “Mel” Slozar (Trish Stewart), an ex NASA expert in rocket fuel and explosives and is now working in movie special effects business, and it’s her knowledge of a chemical called monohydrazine – a fictional fuel that sits alongside such things as unobtainium for bullshit science fiction plot hole fillers – that will make their flight to the moon possible. With this super fuel, and Skip’s theory of the trans-linear vector principle, their spaceship will be able to travel to the moon faster than any spacecraft used by NASA, and they may just make it to the moon if the government doesn’t stop them that is.
The pilot for Salvage 1 was a taught little movie, with our small band of heroes overcoming one obstacle after another and in that format, it was overall was quite effective, but you had to bring a hearty helping of “Suspension of Disbelief” along with you, that is if you intended to survive a viewing with your credulity intact. The show was billed as an adventure/comedy, with a heavy accent on the comedy aspect, and any actual science to be found in the shows seemed to be there almost by accident. Now, Isaac Asimov was listed as the show’s scientific adviser but they must have ignored most of what advice he had to offer for as clever as the idea of building a rocket ship out of salvaged parts; constructing it out of a Texaco gasoline semi-trailer tank truck, a cement mixer as the capsule and the notion of a single-stage rocket landing on the moon was more in the realm of science fantasy than science fiction, add to all those problems we also have our plucky band of astronauts doing it all under the watchful eye of Special Agent Jack Klinger (Richard Jaeckel), who the FBI sends to stop Harry and his friends from doing whatever it is they are trying to do, which made the show even more unbelievable.
The pilot movie ended with a successful mission, though compromises with the government resulted in the salvaged Apollo gear being given to NASA at a bargain price, the team was quickly asked to use their spacecraft, which they had aptly named The Vulture, to survey the South Pole to determine the feasibility of moving polar icebergs to drought-afflicted areas in the States. This leads to the next big question, “Why do you need a spacecraft to fly over the arctic?” and the answer to this was, of course, there is “No reason at all” and this gives you the first clue as to why the series didn’t even manage to finish a second season. How exactly they planned to take this premise and run with it, one that worked great as a movie but seemed somewhat impossible as a series, and turn it into an ongoing series is beyond me. What we got was Harry and company landing The Vulture in Africa – having taken a detour to get some monkeys for a zoo – where they ended up being menaced by a giant ape, or they’d perform orbital retrievals and space station rescues, in truth, their cobbled together spaceship got very little screen time over 18 episodes.
So if Harry and the gang weren’t flying missions to Mars what exactly are they doing? Well in season one they salvaged Harry’s old B25 bomber, which he had flown during Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, which then led to them encountering a Japanese soldier (Mako) who was still fighting WWII, a standard trope even by this time. Next, they had to rescue a little girl from a bomb shelter when an earthquake trapped her behind tons of rock, and then there were a couple of episodes dealing with them hunting for lost treasure. Now, some of these episodes were pretty darn good, like the team rescuing Klinger from an evil African dictator (Moses Gunn), but it’s when episodes focused on the team trying to solve communities that things got a little shaky, not helped by the iceberg retrieval being the show’s main continuity as this plot thread kept popping up in season one until being resolved at the beginning of season two, but then we got two dreadful episodes that focused on the plight of horses in America, and I’m not kidding, in the episode “Round-Up” Melanie wants Harry to figure a way to save some wild horses from being slaughtered, and then in the very next episode called “Harry’s Doll” we get Melanie refusing to let an injured racehorse be put down and so she contacts a special doctor to heal its break with laser surgery. This begs the question, “Wasn’t this show about wacky salvage operators in a spacecraft going on crazy missions, what’s with all these After School Special themes?”
Season one had some fairly goofy moments to be sure, Harry being mimicked by an alien trapped on Earth being especially weird, but that was the charm of the show, yet when season two rolled around we got these placid Hallmark Channel moments that just didn’t fit the tone of the series, and thus it’s not surprising that the network brass saw the writing on the wall and cancelled it. To illustrate how desperate the show’s creator had gotten they had even decided it was a good idea to add a plucky kid (Heather McAdam) as a regular cast member, where Melanie all of a sudden gets motherly urges and decides to adopt her, and the whole tone of the show veered dramatically away from its science fiction roots.
Salvage 1 was a fun show, and certainly a product of its time, but the idea of it becoming a long-running series never made any sense for the get-go and thus early cancellation was a forgone conclusion, but if you happen to stumble across the pilot for this show I do recommend you check it out as it is quite entertaining.
Salvage 1 (1979)
Show Rank - 6.5/10
Salvage 1 should have embraced the absurdity of its premise – more alien encounters and less afterschool specials – but instead the show quickly devolved into a tepid melodrama with a few bouts of comedy.