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GENESIS II/PLANET EARTH addendum: STRANGE NEW WORLD (1975)

Back in 2013, I posted my thoughts on Gene Roddenberry’s two failed pilots from the early 1970s, Genesis II with Alex Cord and its retooled version Planet Earth with John Saxon, both about a 20th-century man named Dylan Hunt who awoke from cryogenic suspension in a post-apocalyptic future and worked with an idealistic organization named PAX (or Pax, depending on the version) to try to rebuild civilization. In that post, I made the following remarks:

Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did… However, in 1975, ABC attempted to rework the post-apocalyptic premise one more time without Roddenberry’s involvement, keeping Saxon as the lead and retaining the name Pax, and using the Trek-inspired title Strange New World, but changing the rest of the premise and the character names… So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.

Well, on a whim, I finally decided to track Strange New World down on YouTube and see if it was as bad as I’d heard. And it certainly is a mess. Nominally, they changed the premise and characters enough to make it legally distinct from Roddenberry’s creation, so he’s not credited for the production in any way. Which seems iffy, since the idea clearly did originate with Roddenberry, but it seems to have been an amicable arrangement, with Roddenberry moving back to Paramount to work on reviving Star Trek while allowing Warner Bros. to carry forward with this retooling of his concept.

But it’s a half-hearted retooling. They didn’t even bother to film a proper introduction to the new characters and ideas. Instead, the first 3 1/2 minutes of the 2-hour pilot (an hour and a half without commercials) are a prologue in which Saxon’s new lead character Anthony Vico tells the whole backstory through narration. In this version, PAX is a 20th-century organization that Vico works for along with co-stars Dr. Allison Crowley (Kathleen Miller) and Dr. William Scott (Keene Curtis, who would later play Grand Moff Tarkin in the NPR radio adaptation of Star Wars). The three are in experimental cryogenic stasis in a space station, which saves them from a cataclysmic, entirely offscreen “meteor” bombardment that destroys civilization (not sure whether they dropped the nuclear war to differentiate it from Roddenberry’s premise or to avoid controversy). They wake up 180 years later and descend to Earth to search for the PAX base where their friends and families await them in cryosleep (reminiscent of the Logan’s Run series leads searching for “Sanctuary,” even driving a similar ground vehicle). It’s a lot less effective to be told all this through narration than it would’ve been to actually see the characters’ initial reactions to waking up to find civilization in ruins.

The prologue is followed by what are essentially two routine hourlong episodes, and would probably have been re-edited as such had it gone to series. It feels like they’re trying to have it both ways, loosely continuing from the Planet Earth setup without actually using that setup. Oddly, there seem to be two different versions of the movie available, showing the two halves in the opposite order from one another.

In the version I saw on YouTube, the first “episode” turns out to be ten months after the prologue (despite some initial narration that makes it seem like mere days) and carries its own title, “Animaland.” It’s a rather dismal piece in which the trio winds up in the ruins of a nature preserve and get caught in a longstanding conflict between its protectors, who follow a holocaust-era game warden’s manual as their holy writ, and the near-savage poachers who have to hunt the game to survive. Allison gets captured by the wardens on suspicion of poaching and tries to win over their leader (Ford Rainey) and his heir apparent (Gerrit Graham) with her talk of being from the past and having knowledge to share, while the men end up convincing the poachers to help them break in to find Allison, with Vico making the incredibly reckless choice to give the head poacher (Bill McKinney) a deadly flare gun if he helps them. Eventually, the trio win the trust of the game wardens, then stay to help defend them from the poachers’ attack that Vico essentially caused, then convince them to change their rigid laws to make peace. I lost interest halfway through, then came back later and watched a lot of the rest at accelerated speed. The whole thing was quite darkly lit and slow-paced and not at all good.

The other half is a completely unconnected episode, though no separate title is shown onscreen. It’s a moderately more interesting, more sci-fi story where the trio are captured and subjected to eerie high-tech medical scans (involving solarization/overexposure effects to create some effectively weird and surreal images), then wake up in a utopian society called Eterna, albeit one that dresses them up in faux-Roman robes (with Vico in an oddly skimpy red toga). Their leader, the Surgeon (The Andromeda Strain‘s James Olson, not to be confused with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen), and his assistant, Tana (two-time Bond girl Martine Beswick), seem welcoming enough, but Vico doesn’t trust the situation and hotheadedly beats up and accidentally kills a guard (Reb Brown), who later sits up in his coffin at his joyous “funeral.” Turns out this is a group of immortals who’ve lost the ability to reproduce and have survived by cloning themselves and harvesting their clones for replacement parts — an idea similar in some respects to Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Up the Long Ladder” 14 years later. The Surgeon is actually a 200-year-old former student of Dr. Scott, now suffering from the onset of dementia (though they still called it “senility” then) and hoping Scott will replace him as leader. Scott is tempted by Eterna’s scientific advances, leading to a rift with the aggressive, mistrustful Vico. But the cloning has cost the Eternans their natural immunity — they only survive thanks to a decontamination field that keeps germs out — and they hope the immunity factors in the trio’s un-cloned blood can cure them. So Scott participates in forcing Vico and Allison to become unconsenting blood donors — so much for medical ethics. But when the less invasive Plan A fails and Plan B calls for taking all of their blood at once (pretty shortsighted, since they could make more if kept alive), Scott helps Vico break free, and Vico starts a fight that gets ridiculously out of hand and destroys all the clones and the decontamination field, so all the Eternans die instantly from germ exposure. Yes, our hero just committed genocide. It’s a rather ghastly, morally bankrupt ending to a story that, while somewhat cliched, did have some interesting character work with Scott and the Surgeon.

Overall, Strange New World is a massive failure as a pilot. Vico is much less appealing than Dylan Hunt; he’s a dumb macho hothead quick to violence and paranoia, with no evident conscience or concern for anything except his own group’s self-interest. He’s basically a caricature of a generic 1970s action hero — right down to being given a gratuitous, completely unmotivated and chemistry-free makeout scene with Martine Beswick merely because such things were mandated for ’70s action heroes. As for Allison, though she does some effective reasoning/peacemaking with the game wardens in “Animaland,” she’s basically just there in the Eterna segment, and the actress does nothing of note with what little she’s given. Dr. Scott has the most interesting characterization of the three, though mainly in the Eterna segment and largely by default.

What’s surprising is that this pilot was directed by Robert Butler, who also directed the pilot episodes of Star Trek and Batman (and later Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). He had a reputation as a go-to pilot director, yet the directing here was weak and lackadaisical, like he was phoning it in. Maybe he was uninspired by the script. Of the credited writers, Ranald Graham and Walon Green were both novices with no former science fiction credits (though Green would later co-write WarGames, Solarbabies, and RoboCop 2 before eventually becoming an executive producer on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and several Law & Order series), and Al Ramrus was mostly a documentary writer who’d plotted one episode of The Invaders.

It goes to show that, while Gene Roddenberry had his weaknesses as a writer and never managed to get any SF shows other than Star Trek off the ground, he was still better at SF than most of his contemporaries in ’70s TV, save his own former collaborators like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. SNW followed the same essential format that G2/PE would have, aside from the altered backstory and characters, but the results are much shallower and dumber.

It’s interesting how many mid-’70s shows had this same general format of characters wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape and encountering a variety of weird, isolated cultures-of-the-week — see also Ark II (1976) and the TV adaptation of Logan’s Run (1977), as well as the 1974 Planet of the Apes TV series to an extent. Come to think of it, all three of those aired on CBS, the network that had previously turned down Genesis II. Maybe CBS’s execs just liked the premise and kept trying to make it work. Though apparently getting ABC interested was a harder sell.

It occurred to me briefly to wonder if maybe ABC and Warner Bros. might have gotten far enough along with Planet Earth to commission additional scripts or story outlines, or to sign up John Saxon for some sort of additional commitment, before the network decided to pass on it. If SNW had just been a way to amortize their investment in a pair of additional scripts, I figured that could explain the halfheartedness, and why the pilot is just two standalone episodes glued together. But on reflection, the stories don’t really feel like they were based on Planet Earth proposals, since the characters are too different.

More likely, it’s just that Strange New World is a cheaper version of the premise. It’s the same format as PE but with three leads instead of four, a simple ground vehicle instead of the more elaborate subshuttle sets and miniatures, and no PAX headquarters sets or recurring cast members. Relegating the space station sequence to a few shots in the intro was a lot cheaper than doing a proper origin episode (and the space FX shots may even have been stock footage, though I can’t find evidence of that). Making a pilot movie that could be recut into two standard episodes would also save money. So would hiring less experienced writers and producers. So that’s probably what it all boils down to — Warner Bros. retooling the premise to be cheaper in the hope that it would then be more appealing to a network.

Anyway, I have now put far more thought into analyzing Strange New World than it really deserves. It’s a weird, half-hearted afterthought of a project, a mere footnote to G2/PE, far less worthy of attention than its preceding pilots or its contemporary post-apocalyptic shows (and none of those were all that great anyway). If not for the peripheral Star Trek connection, it would probably be entirely forgotten. I was right to skip it the first time.

STAR TREK: THE HIGHER FRONTIER cover revealed!

December 23, 2019 4 comments

The cover to Star Trek: The Original Series — The Higher Frontier has hit the Internet, so here it is:

ST Higher Frontier cover

And the blurb:

An all-new Star Trek movie-era adventure featuring James T. Kirk!

Investigating the massacre of a telepathic minority, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise confront a terrifying new threat: faceless, armored hunters whose extradimensional technology makes them seemingly unstoppable. Kirk must team with the powerful telepath Miranda Jones and the enigmatic Medusans to take on these merciless killers in an epic battle that will reveal the true faces of both enemy and ally!

The blurb on the rear cover is a bit different, so here it is, along with the rear side of the wraparound cover image (though I’m told the “Following” is going to be rephrased to “Several years following” to be more accurate):

ST Higher Frontier rear cover

 

I got my first look at the cover a couple of weeks ago. I like it a lot. It’s a very striking and distinctive approach, a lovely piece of art, and along with the font, it has a retro feel that’s very interesting. I would’ve rather had the TMP-era logo, ideally, but the TOS logo works aesthetically with the rest.

And yes, that is an Andorian Kumari-class or similar cruiser on the cover, flying over the icy surface of Andoria with its gas-giant primary in the sky. That and the blurb should give some hints about at least one aspect of the novel’s storyline.

The Higher Frontier is due out in trade paperback, e-book, and audio formats on March 10, 2020, and is available for pre-order at:

 

 

Thoughts on DARK PHOENIX (or is it X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX?) (spoilers)

Thanks to my library, I’ve finally seen the last film in Fox’s X-Men series (discounting the not-yet-released spinoff New Mutants), which was shown theatrically under the title Dark Phoenix, with the X-Men supertitle restored for home video. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg — who co-wrote the franchise’s first attempt at the Dark Phoenix story, X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 — it’s his attempt to use the rebooted timeline of the later X-Men movies to take a mulligan and try to get it right this time.

I actually thought The Last Stand was a decent film, though a flawed one. A major flaw was that its original goal of telling a cinematic version of Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix story (building on what was set up at the end of the second film) was hampered by the studio’s insistence on merging it with the mutant-cure storyline that Joss Whedon had introduced in Astonishing X-Men a few years earlier, so that Jean Grey’s story arc was reduced to a B plot for much of the film and didn’t have room to breathe. The new film lets Kinberg focus solely on Jean’s story this time out.

Dark Phoenix was a box-office and critical failure, so I didn’t go in expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the film has flaws, some that I only realized after the fact and a few that stood out right away and took me out of the film. But overall, I found it to be a reasonably effective story, and on balance I’m satisfied with how it played out.

In some respects, the film uses the same beats as The Last Stand. It keeps the idea that Jean Grey always had extraordinary power that Charles Xavier suppressed with mental blocks, tarnishing his pure image and turning Jean against him when she finds out and the barriers in her mind fall down. (In that version, the Phoenix was purely an outgrowth of Jean’s own exceptional power. Here, it’s a cosmic force that merges with her, but it’s her exceptional power that draws it to her and enables her to survive the merger.) But the way it plays out is very different, feeling like a deliberate counterpoint to TLS’s choices, and I prefer this version, which turns out to be far more optimistic and better serves the characters and their relationships.

In other ways, though, the characterizations are a weak point of the film. It’s relatively short by modern standards, only about 100 minutes of story once you subtract end credits, so most of the ensemble cast gets only cursory attention and the plot is raced through. Some of the character transitions and motivations are too abrupt and extreme. Jean turns on the team too quickly after learning Xavier lied to her about her childhood, although to be fair, it is shown that she has no control when her newly unleashed rage takes over. But when she accidentally kills Mystique (to accommodate Jennifer Lawrence being too big a star now to be available/affordable for the whole thing, I reckon), both Magneto/Erik and Beast/Hank jump way too quickly to wanting to murder Jean in retaliation. It’s kind of silly the way it plays out with Magneto. Erik: “I stopped killing because I realized revenge didn’t make the pain go away.” Hank, a couple of scenes later: “Raven’s dead.” Erik: “REVENNNNNNGE!” Hank’s motivation doesn’t work much better — the film seems to suggest a romance between him and Raven, which I don’t think is something ever suggested in previous films (I could be wrong), and is unnecessary because their long friendship going back decades should be enough.

(That’s another flaw in the film, by the way — it’s set in 1992, three decades after First Class, and there’s no attempt to age the actors up.)

Some of the plot points advance in a similarly arbitrary and unbelievable manner. Mainly, the film is set in a time when the X-Men are admired worldwide as superheroes, mutants are accepted, and the President of the US has an actual X-Phone hotline on his desk… but as soon as one mutant, Jean, goes wild and attacks some local cops, all of a sudden the POTUS is ghosting Xavier and the TV news is talking about proposals for mutant internment camps. That’s way too abrupt a change in response to a single incident, and it badly undermines the film’s credibility. Yes, there would be a surge of bigotry flaring up after something like this, but it wouldn’t lead to such an instantaneous change in government policy; it would take time for anti-mutant pundits and politicians to shift the Overton window far enough.

A better alternative for setting up the climactic sequence — where the military takes the X-Men captive on a train where the bad guys attack them — would’ve been to spend more time on the machinations of said bad guys, the D’Bari (named after the alien species that Phoenix carelessly destroyed in the original comics, but here retconned into Skrull-like shapeshifters who want to capture the Phoenix Force that destroyed their world and use it for conquest). The D’Bari leader Vuk is played by Jessica Chastain (in the likeness of a woman Vuk killed and impersonated), but Elementary‘s Ato Essandoh plays her second-in-command, impersonating an FBI agent. It would’ve worked better if, say, Essandoh’s character had been shown pushing for a more aggressive stance against the X-Men and faced resistance from officials who still believed in them. I wonder if something along those lines was cut for time and replaced with the sloppy, throwaway voiceover line about internment camps.

One more weakness of Dark Phoenix, unfortunately, is the casting it inherits from the previous film. This time, Sophie Turner as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops have a much heavier burden to carry than in X-Men: Apocalypse, and it shows that they’re the weakest members of the ensemble. Turner has her occasional moments (though is nowhere near as appealing as her predecessor Famke Janssen), but she’s out-acted by Summer Fontana, who plays Jean’s 8-year-old self in flashbacks. Sheridan is completely dull and one-note as Cyclops; it’s a role that demands a strong actor to make up for being unable to see Scott’s eyes, and Sheridan totally fails to deliver. What’s more, he and Turner have no romantic chemistry to speak of. It weakens the impact of what should be a core relationship in the film.

Still, what ultimately works for me is how much more optimistically the Phoenix story plays out than in the original film version. In TLS, Magneto wanted to exploit Jean as a weapon for his war on non-mutants; here, he tries to keep the peace and stops her from harming a group of soldiers — and his desire for revenge only lasts for the second act before he chooses a nobler path. In TLS, Jean was so overcome by her runaway power and madness that she killed both Cyclops and Xavier, the two people she was closest to; here, it’s their love for her that reaches her through her pain and bitterness and reminds her of who she is. In TLS, Jean lets Wolverine execute her to stop her from killing her family, but here, she makes her own sacrifice by choice, embracing the power and evolving into something higher in order to save her family. Not only that, but the mature entity she becomes at the end is a really beautiful rendering of the Phoenix in its full flaming majesty, the sort of thing I kept hoping for in the original films but never got. Throw in the additional optimistic beat of that one soldier choosing to trust the X-Men and release them to help defend against the attacking D’Bari, and the upbeat turn the film takes in its last act does a lot to make up for its shortcomings, and works well as a rebuke to the nihilism of TLS.

The action in the last act is also excellent. The train attack sequence was very well-made, I thought, with some very creative uses of superpowers. I’m not crazy about superhero fights where the goal is to ruthlessly kill a whole army of attacking aliens — I prefer superheroes to save lives rather than take them — but the action was intense, frenetic, and creative. It’s the one place where the breakneck pacing did the most to help the film rather than undermine it.

By the way, one odd thing Dark Phoenix shares with one of its predecessors is an apparent desire to homage Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The climax and final scene of X2: X-Men United were deliberately meant to evoke TWOK’s ending, with the closing shot having the same kind of hint of the sacrificed character’s resurrection, a voiceover from said character, and a very similar musical sting leading into the end credits. Here, there’s a sequence where Vuk is tempting Jean with the power of the Phoenix and showing her a mental simulation of using its power to bring life to a lifeless world, and it’s essentially a higher-quality recreation of the Genesis simulation from Carol Marcus’s project proposal in TWOK (the first entirely CGI sequence ever used in a feature film, though beating TRON to the screen by only a month). Interesting to see the same idea executed with technology 37 years more advanced, though it seems a bit incongruous in this film. (As well as making me feel really old — has it really been 37 years?)

So, all in all, Dark Phoenix is a very flawed and inconsistent film, but it’s been a very flawed and inconsistent series. It’s far from the best film of the lot, but far from the worst, and for me the parts that work outweigh the parts that don’t. Despite its cursory, rushed storytelling, I feel it succeeded in its goal of getting right the aspects of the Dark Phoenix story that The Last Stand got wrong. And though it fills the same role of bringing about the end of an era for an X-Men team and film sequence, it does so in a better, more upbeat way that brings closure yet leaves more hope for the future (well, as long as you don’t think about the future Logan established, which may or may not be in the same timeline as this). I think that’s a reasonably satisfactory way to conclude Fox’s long, turbulent X-Men film series.

Full muddled jacket

December 14, 2019 3 comments

Just had a surreal and slightly embarrassing experience. I attended one of my infrequent social gatherings today, an early Christmas party for a local SF fan/writer community, and I hung my winter coat in the closet with the rest. When the time came for me to head home, I searched through the coats in the closet three times and couldn’t find my coat! I asked if there was somewhere else it might have been moved, but there wasn’t, and the hostess was just about to call the one couple who’d left before me to see if they’d taken my coat by mistake… when finally I recognized my sunglasses case in the pocket of what seemed to be an unfamiliar coat. I checked all its other pockets and recognized all their contents exactly where they should be… but I didn’t recognize the coat itself, even though it was definitely mine!

In retrospect, I realize that I’ve never really had to pay attention to what my winter coat looks like, beyond the fact that it’s heavier than my light jacket for cool weather. It’s just one of the two coats hanging there, and I just grab it and put it on. I usually leave both the light jacket and the winter coat hanging from the closet doorknob, so I usually only see the coat from the back when I’m not wearing it, plus it’s in a fairly dimly lit portion of my apartment. So I mainly know my coat from the inside, not the outside. I couldn’t even remember if it was dark blue or black when the others asked me. Plus I was seeing it from the front and side, quite brightly lit by the LED lights in my hosts’ hallway, which brought out the logos I usually don’t even notice, so it looked unfamiliar to me. Plus I was seeing it from the right side so I couldn’t see my sunglasses case in the left pocket. I think I usually hang my coat up facing the other way when I’m out somewhere. So I just couldn’t recognize my own item of clothing, not until the fourth time I looked.

Hmm… Maybe I should find some way to write my name on it?

Categories: Uncategorized

Holiday sale: books are on the way!

Good news for everyone who’s bought books from me — I just got back from a trip to the post office where I mailed all the orders to date at once. (It saved time that so far they’re all to United States addresses, so I didn’t have to fill out any customs forms.) So hopefully everyone will get their books by early next week, in time for the holidays.

Naturally, the sale is still ongoing, and you can see the list of available items in the previous post, along with ordering info. I’m sold out of every Star Trek mass-market paperback other than Patterns of Interference and the Czech translation of Over a Torrent Sea, but I still have plenty of The Captain’s Oath and Only Superhuman, plus a few remaining copies of Mirror Universe: Shards and Shadows, Among the Wild Cybers, and Footprints in the Stars.

Plus I’m keeping a list of all the naming suggestions for future reference. It might take a while to get around to using them all, but I’ll do my best.

Thanks again to everyone who’s helped me out!