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Supernatural TV pilots of the ’70s: Roddenberry’s SPECTRE and Marvel’s DR. STRANGE

Having previously covered Gene Roddenberry’s failed 1970s SF pilot movies Genesis II, Planet Earth, and The Questor Tapes, I’ve finally managed to complete the set with 1977’s Spectre, a supernatural-horror show starring Robert Culp, Gig Young, and John Hurt. While Roddenberry tended to prefer to keep his science fiction grounded and plausible — in principle if not always in practice — he made Spectre with the intent of taking the supernatural seriously, disdaining what he saw as the usual television approach of treating it as a hoax. Which means, going in, that there’s no chance of treating this pilot as a possible offshoot of the Star Trek multiverse as I prefer to do with G2/PE and TQT. I had wondered if maybe there was a chance of treating the supernatural forces as alien phenomena, a well Star Trek went to on multiple occasions, but I doubt that would work here.

Spectre, scripted by Roddenberry and Samuel A. Peeples and directed by Clive Donner, opens with Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton (Young) answering an urgent summons from his old friend William Sebastian (Culp), an eccentric criminal psychologist who has now become an expert on the occult, to Ham’s disbelief. Sebastian explains that he was almost killed by a voodoo curse of some sort that’s left him with a weak heart, and he needs Ham to keep him alive as he investigates a case involving the Cyon family in London. He says he was saved by his spell-casting housekeeper Lilith (Majel Barrett, an inevitable presence in any Roddenberry production), who also casts a spell to cure Ham’s alcoholism, which has come close to costing him his hospital practice. It soon becomes clear that Sebastian and Hamilton are modeled on Holmes and Watson, if Holmes were an occult detective and Watson a skeptic (and if they were both womanizers, this being a Roddenberry show).

Sebastian is visited by a seductive woman claiming to be Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) and telling him that she was mistaken in believing something supernatural was going on at her estate. Sebastian figures out that she’s a succubus and burns her up with a book, though Ham is locked out of the study and doesn’t see it happen. Later, when flying to London in a private jet piloted by Mitri Cyon (Hurt, who looks amazingly young), the jet loses power and almost crashes, in what Sebastian interprets as another supernatural attempt to scare him off. Perhaps these are simply tests of his resolve?

In London, Sebastian takes Ham to meet an occult expert, but his house is on fire and they rush inside, finding him dead just short of the center of a pentacle drawn on the floor. They’re oddly untroubled by the flame and smoke as they examine the scene, then get into the pentacle to evade a demon of some sort that’s driven away when the fire department arrives along with a Scottish inspector (Gordon Jackson) who’s the Lestrade of the piece, I guess. The inspector, Cabell, is investigating a string of murders and desperately does not want the influential Sir Geoffrey Cyon linked to them.

Cyon Manor is an old abbey, refurbished inside with lots of erotic-themed artwork. Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) leads an openly hedonistic lifestyle and keeps a household staff of sexy young women, who (among other services) entertain prominent leaders of finance and government from time to time. The real Anitra, looking more “spinsterish” than her succubus impostor, believes Sir Geoffrey is possessed by a demon, though he insists she just disapproves of his lifestyle, and she privately admits to Sebastian and Ham that she may just be jealous of the more attractive women surrounding her, though Ham says he finds her more attractive. Oh, and Sebastian finds the coffin from his voodoo doll in the house (but not the doll), and there are various attempts on their lives including glass shards in the wine and a breakaway balcony railing. Sebastian reads the journal of the dead occult expert, who feared that “Cyon” was possessed by Asmodeus, the Prince of Lechery, though it’s unclear which Cyon he meant. (The mythology presented for Asmodeus has only the most cursory connection to the real lore.) Later, Cyon’s women make a comically exaggerated attempt to seduce Ham, but Sebastian interrupts. He takes Ham to investigate strange wails coming from a small henge called the “Druids’ Firepit,” only to be waylaid by a Creepy Groundskeeper (TM) and his hounds. According to the journal, the Firepit is where Asmodeus was bound by the ancient druids until Cyon’s excavations released him. Sebastian explains to Cabell that Asmodeus takes the form of a dead person whose body has not yet been found, but Sir Geoffrey has alibis for a couple of the murders. (At this point, is anyone not expecting John Hurt to be the demon?)

Still, the movie keeps trying to make Mitri seem sympathetic and Sir Geoffrey look guilty, while arranging things so Sebastian and Ham can discover the underground catacombs where Asmodeus escaped from and prepare magical defenses. But they may be too late — Anitra is reported missing, and when our heroes witness a debauched ceremony in the catacombs below (complete with extra nudity added in the European release), they find not only that Mitri is Asmodeus and Sir Geoffrey is his disciple, but Anitra is their sacrificial victim. Suffice to say that good triumphs and evil is destroyed, and along the way, John Hurt turns into a really silly-looking lizard monster. Then there’s an obligatory Roddenberryesque tag where Anitra shows up at Sebastian’s home and charms Ham with her newly glamorous appearance.

Well, this was a mixed bag. The idea of a Holmes-like supernatural detective had promise, and Robert Culp did a terrific job as usual. But Gig Young was disappointing as Ham, not managing to achieve the same kind of chemistry with his co-star that Shatner had with Nimoy or The Questor Tapes‘ Mike Farrell had with Robert Foxworth. Casting Young would’ve been problematical if this had gone to series — not only was he unreliable due to his heavy alcoholism, but a year after this was made, he killed himself and his new wife for reasons that were never understood. Which makes it creepier to watch him than John Hurt.

The Roddenberry preoccupation with sex got a little tedious too, but by ’70s standards I guess it wouldn’t have been too bad. It’s odd that, both here and in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (which Roddenberry scripted and produced), Roddenberry portrays characters as licentious as promiscuous as himself as villainous figures. Was that just the only way he could sneak such things past the censors, or did it reflect some ambivalence about his own proclivities? We’ll probably never know. Anyway, the constant debate between Sebastian and Ham about whether the supernatural had a rational explanation was a little tiresome as well, but I suppose that’s because I’m looking back from an age where there are countless series that take the supernatural for granted — and even they generally go through the same beats of skepticism and doubt in their pilots. Ham was fully convinced of the supernatural by the end of the pilot, so that wouldn’t have been an ongoing issue except where guest stars and authority figures of the week were concerned. This could possibly have worked as a series, given a better co-star than Gig Young. But it would’ve had its problems that might have kept it from holding up too well today.

I’ve also finally gotten around to watching the 1978 Dr. Strange pilot movie, the one ’70s live-action Marvel Comics adaptation that I don’t remember seeing. I was curious because it was reportedly more authentic to the source than other contemporary Marvel adaptations like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (both airing on CBS, like this pilot). Apparently it’s the one project that Stan Lee consulted on most closely. Although it’s still pretty revisionist compared to the recent feature film version. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere, Jr., who would later head up the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.

After a main title sequence featuring the distinctive Blaster Beam musical instrument, we go to a Steve Ditkoesque dimensional plane where a vaguely seen, multi-eyed stop-motion demon called the Nameless One assigns Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) to strike at the current Sorceror Supreme, Lindmer (John Mills), before he can pass his power to Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who works as a psychiatric resident at a New York hospital and is apparently quite the ladies’ man, like most ’70s TV leads. Lindmer sends his aide Wong to locate Strange, whom he knew years before. Wong is played by Clyde Kusatsu, later ST:TNG’s Admiral Nakamura and one of three Star Trek veterans to have played the role (George Takei voiced him in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, and onetime DS9 guest Paul Nakauchi voiced him in the 2007 animated DVD movie). The next day, Morgan strikes at Lindmer by possessing a young woman, Clea (Eddie Benton), and pushing him off a bridge. He survives, but is concerned that Clea is now in danger, since such possession has consequences.

That night, Strange and Clea both fall asleep watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (a reminder of the days when there were only a few channels on TV) and share Clea’s nightmare as she relives her possession and is stalked by Morgan. Clea flees into the street and almost gets hit by a cab, whose driver finds her amnesiac and takes her to the hospital, where Strange recognizes her and has her admitted. She insists she’ll die if she falls asleep, so she’s upset the next morning when Nurse Ratched (well, the nearest equivalent) tries to give her a sedative. While Strange argues with Ratched and the uncaring hospital administrator about his more compassionate admissions policies, Morgan tests the wards on the Sanctum Sanctorum (with its iconic window accurately rendered) and Lindmer uses a straight-up Jedi Mind Trick to get in to see Clea. He instead ends up talking to Strange, who turns out not to be aware of him or his world. But Lindmer gets him interested enough that, when the uncaring administrator tricks Clea into taking a tranquilizer that puts her in a coma, Strange goes to Lindmer and gets the expository speech about sorcery. Turns out Lindmer and Strange’s father were friends and worked together to protect Strange from the demonic forces that killed his parents. Lindmer convinces Strange to take a journey into the astral planes to rescue Clea’s wandering soul, and it’s a very psychedelic journey with Strange flying through a 2001/Time Tunnel corridor of trippy lights and fighting a Ted Cassidy-voiced black knight in a blurry astral realm before spiriting Clea’s spirit back to her body.

Dormammu — err, the Nameless One is mad at Morgan for failing to kill Strange because she thinks he’s hot, so he gives her one more chance. But Strange is still unconvinced even after his mystical journey, walking out on Lindmer — and Morgan uses the old “pretend to be Lindmer’s cat trying to get out of the rain so Strange will carry you across the threshold” trick to get into the Sanctum, strike Wong down, and overpower Lindmer, calling on the demon Asmodeus (oh, hi again, how’ve you been?) to spirit him away. Morgan then interrupts Strange’s date with Clea (now his ex-patient, so it’s ethical, allegedly), sends her back to sleep, and takes Strange with her to the astral plane, where she seduces him with wealth, power, knowledge, and, err, other stuff. But he resists the temptation and finds the power to battle her, rescuing Lindmer and foiling Morgan’s plans. He then accepts the transfer of Sorceror Supreme power from Lindmer to him, under the auspices of an Ancient One that’s just a bright light with Michael Ansara’s voice. And somehow Morgan is back pretending to be a motivational speaker or something, a hook for the theoretical series to come, despite her fate at her master’s hands just minutes of screen time before.

This is very ’70s, but actually pretty good. It’s a decent interpretation of the material, it’s pretty well-written, and the effects are rather good for a ’70s TV movie (although it occurs to me that this was the same studio and the same year as Battlestar Galactica, though a different effects house, Van Der Veer Photo Effects, who did some Star Trek work a decade or so earlier). I’d expected it to go a bit differently, with Lindmer dying due to Strange’s mistake and Strange vowing to make amends. But I guess if CBS’s Spider-Man wasn’t willing to use that origin for Peter Parker, I shouldn’t have expected it here. TV heroes at the time were generally expected to be more infallible and pure than that. And I imagine, given that Strange was a practicing resident here rather than an ex-surgeon, that the intent would’ve been to use a lot of standard hospital-drama tropes, with Strange continuing to clash with his uncaring administrator much like Quincy or Trapper John, and to use that comfortable formula to ground the more fantastic elements and make the show more palatable to the general audience, much like how many genre shows today get shoehorned into a crime-procedural mode. Which could even have worked, with good enough writing, and De Guere did a pretty good job of that. Stan Lee blamed its poor ratings on being scheduled opposite Roots; if not for that, maybe it would’ve gone to series. I doubt it would’ve been as good as the contemporary Hulk series, but it would probably have been better than Spider-Man. Too bad the pilot is all we got.

Gene Roddenberry’s THE QUESTOR TAPES

February 19, 2014 4 comments

I finally got around to buying the print-on-demand DVD of Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot The Questor Tapes, featuring the android character who would be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data. The reason it took me so long, after acquiring his Genesis II and Planet Earth pilots on DVD last year, is that I already had TQT on VHS tape and figured I’d use my VCR/DVD dubbing deck to archive it digitally. Now that I’ve actually found the time to begin transferring my old tapes, though, I realized my copy of TQT was way too low in quality — I’m pretty sure my VHS tape was copied in turn from a Beta recording off a TV movie — and that I’d be much better off paying for the inexpensive DVD release. Granted, the quality of that release isn’t that much better. It’s not remastered from the source, but is apparently just a reissue of a pay-TV edition, judging from the opening copyright disclaimer. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.

Questor was Roddenberry’s attempt to revisit the Kirk-Spock dynamic, with a logical, hyperintelligent lead character relying on the moral and emotional guidance of his human best friend. For the pilot, he brought in former Star Trek writer-producer Gene L. Coon to cowrite the script, which was a great choice, since Coon had a knack for writing close friendship between men. Batman producer Howie Horwitz is the credited producer (with Roddenberry as “executive consultant,” a title generally used for a creator who’s no longer in charge of the production), and the pilot was directed by Richard Colla, who would later direct the pilot movie of Battlestar Galactica.

The pilot is interesting in that it’s structured as a mystery revolving around the title character’s purpose for existence, creating a lot of ambiguity about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It opens at Cal Tech, where top scientists from five nations (evidently including the US, the USSR, China, France, and one other) have come together in Project Questor, an initiative to assemble a revolutionary android designed by the Nobel-winning Dr. Emil Vaslovik, who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. It quickly becomes evident that nobody understands the advanced technologies underlying the android’s components, not even the lead assembler, Vaslovik’s protege Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell). And the programming tapes Vaslovik left have been half-erased by the project’s attempts to decrypt them. At first, the programming seems to fail; the android remains inert.  But that night — as project head Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon) is digging into Robinson’s background, suspicious that he may know more than he’s telling about Vaslovik’s intentions for the android — Questor himself awakens and gives his smooth plastic form a makeover using the project’s equipment, turning himself into Robert Foxworth. It’s actually a very clever effect — in continuous shots, we see the equipment removing the “robot” makeup and revealing Foxworth’s features underneath, creating the illusion that it’s actually molding those features onto the mannequin-like form. I’d forgotten that these scenes have a horror-movie quality, since at this point the audience has no way to know whether Questor is the hero or the villain.

Indeed, his actions are quite morally ambiguous at first. Once he breaks out of the lab, he forces a terrified Jerry to come with him, although it gradually becomes clear that he is programmed to be incapable of killing. Still, Jerry convinces Questor to accede to his guidance on matters of morality. Although he lets that slip a bit when they get to a casino in Universal-backlot London and Questor uses his computer senses to cheat at craps in order to obtain “specie,” as he keeps calling it. Virtually this same sequence, right down to the android using his superstrength to unload a pair of loaded dice, was later reused with Data in TNG’s “The Royale.”

Questor remembers enough about Vaslovik’s past to lead him to the home of Lady Helena Trimble (Dana Wynter), a prominent socialite and alleged courtesan,who turns out to be an information broker who worked with Vaslovik, leading Jerry to suspect that Questor may have been built for espionage purposes or worse. Especially once he discovers the secret information center where Questor, like Vaslovik before him, can monitor spy images and sensitive secrets from all over the world, possibly affecting millions of lives. Helena insists the motives behind this technology are benevolent, but Jerry has already called in Darro. Will his trust in Questor’s friendship win out over his doubts, and can Questor win over the cynical Darro to their side?

Spoiler alert: The movie climaxes at Mt. Ararat, where we learn that Vaslovik was himself an android, the latest in a line of androids who’ve been subtly guiding and safeguarding humanity for 200,000 years. Their mission is not to control us, but only to assist us to make our own decisions. But Questor is the last; if humanity survives to the end of his 200-year lifespan, it will have outgrown its childhood and won’t need a nanny anymore.

I think the pilot still holds up pretty well, although it’s not perfect. Foxworth’s jerky line delivery as Questor is a bit annoying after a while, although it gradually softens over the course of the movie. The Questor-Jerry relationship maybe develops a bit too quickly, but the same can be said of many TV relationships; a certain amount of shorthand is just part of the form. And some of the dialogue doesn’t flow as smoothly or logically as it could, and there are some abrupt transitions. It feels like a fair amount was cut out, although the running time on the DVD (96 minutes) is consistent with what the runtime for a movie in a 2-hour time slot would’ve been in 1973, so the cuts would’ve been in the original.

Still, Foxworth, Farrell, and Vernon are strong leads, and the core relationship is pretty solid — inspired by Kirk and Spock, but different enough to be fresh. Jerry is no Kirk, particularly not where women are concerned; at one point, Questor encourages him to seduce Lady Helena for information, but he’s terrible at it and can’t bring himself to use her that way. And Questor, much like Data, is rather the opposite of Spock: lacking the inbuilt potential for emotion (part of what was erased from the programming tapes) but eager to learn more about how to be human. The suspense over the purpose and morals of Questor’s creation is interesting, although resolved a bit too easily. And I kind of like it that there’s no villain in the story, just people with conflicting views and goals, doing what they think is right.

And there’s a lot here that seeded later SF productions. I’ve mentioned Questor as the inspiration for Data. Also, the music cue that composer Gil Melle uses in the Project Questor lab scenes would be repurposed later that year as the theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And when Questor finds Vaslovik’s Mt. Ararat lair, the device that “heals” him and infuses him with his missing knowledge makes the same “ta-ta-tang” sound effect (albeit truncated) that would later become the trademark sound of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (also from Universal).

The sad thing about TQT is that it almost became a series. As detailed in this excellent overview article (no longer “live” but preserved in the Internet Archive), a season of the show was actually commissioned, but the executives insisted on changes to make it more like The Fugitive — drop Jerry, ignore the ending where Questor found his answers, and have him be a lone hero on the run from the authorities. Apparently they wanted the benign-intervention angle dropped, uneasy with the idea of alien androids playing God — which I think was unfair, because the movie made it clear that Questor’s interventions were meant to be rather subtle. Rather than cave to network pressure, Roddenberry walked away from the show altogether, killing the project. This one movie is all we got. Although maybe that’s just as well, if the only alternative was to see a watered-down version that eliminated the core relationship and the core premise. (Said premise itself being Roddenberry’s latest attempt at the “aliens secretly guiding humans” premise from his Star Trek backdoor pilot episode “Assignment: Earth.”)

There was an attempt to reboot the series in the early 2000s, under the guidance of Herbert J. Wright, a former TNG producer who’d been attached to the abortive 1974 Questor series. Unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 and the project fell through. The rights are currently held by Imagine Entertainment, and in 2010 there was talk about a reimagining to be developed by Tim Minear; but nothing seems to have come of it. They keep trying, but they just can’t seem to get it off the ground.

Foxworth would later go on to play two major villains in the Trek franchise: Admiral Leyton in Deep Space Nine‘s “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost,” and Administrator V’Las in Enterprise‘s Vulcan Civil War trilogy. Farrell would never appear in another Trek or Roddenberry-related production, nor would Vernon. However, the pilot features a couple of Trek veterans in bit roles at the Project: Majel Barrett (who was in every Roddenberry production from TOS onward) as Dr. Bradley, one of the scientists, and Walter Koenig (unrecognizable under a Sonny Bono-ish hairdo and mustache) as Darro’s assistant Phillips. The matte paintings and visual effects in the movie were done by the great matte artist Albert Whitlock, who had previously done the matte paintings for TOS. (His paintings do enhance the “Ararat” location, but there are enough moving shots to make it clear that the featured mountain peak is real; I just wish I could find out where it was. It looks nothing like the real Mt. Ararat, but is extremely striking.)

Despite the abandonment of the series, the pilot got a novelization by Roddenberry’s former Trek colleague D.C. Fontana — the only novel on her resume other than Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, although oddly the front matter of the book credits her with a Ballantine title called The Winds of Space, which was actually the title of a TV pilot that Fontana reportedly had in development around 1972-3. Perhaps there was a plan for her to novelize the pilot script, but it fell through.

Although it was Fontana’s first novel, it reads pretty well. It’s quite faithful to the script for the most part, but it adds a lot of material that fleshes out the story considerably and fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie. Notably, there’s a new thread of intrigue as the various nations partnering in Project Questor are all eager to get possession of the technology for themselves and trying to co-opt or bribe Jerry into selling out to them. It helps raise the stakes and helps explain why Darro is so concerned about Questor falling into the wrong hands. We learn a lot more about Lady Helena and Dr. Vaslovik, and there’s an added subplot about Questor using his precise computer projections to play the stock market and make millions by buying and selling at exactly the right moments — somewhat prophetic, I think, given how much stock trading today is dependent on computers. Although it clashes a bit with the movie plot, since the reason Questor suggested that Jerry seduce Helena was because they didn’t have the means to pay her. Fontana doesn’t provide a suitable alternative motivation for the wealthy Questor of the novel to suggest seduction.

The biggest departure from the movie is in the third act. The movie gives Questor a deadline of three days (after their time at Helena’s) to find Vaslovik, or something terrible will happen, and he figures out Vaslovik’s location just before he’s recaptured by Darro’s men. In the book, though, the deadline is extended to seven days, and he doesn’t get the vital clue before his recapture. Instead, there’s a sequence where he’s given the resources and personnel needed to attempt to track down Vaslovik — which seems a rather pointless addition, since after days of futile searching, he ultimately ends up getting the vital clue in the same coincidental way he did in the movie. It’s the one part of the novel that feels like it serves no purpose beyond padding the word count.

But it’s also just about the only part that doesn’t feel like an improvement. Although the novel is long out of print and much harder to track down these days than the DVD, I recommend it as a valuable supplement to the film. Some parts of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but others enhance the “reality” of the film considerably.

In my Genesis II/Planet Earth review, I talked about how I choose to interpret them as an alternate timeline of the Trek universe. But I’ve always liked to think that Questor actually took place in the Trek universe itself — and that maybe Data’s creator Noonien Soong learned some of what he knew about androids from Questor somehow. (Although a direct lineage doesn’t work, because Questor’s brain was based on something called “bionic plasma” rather than a positronic matrix.) Of course, since TQT was from Universal, that can never be officially asserted, but there have been several references in various Trek novels implying that Questor may have existed in that universe:

In Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity, Roberta Lincoln reminisces about helping Gary Seven retrieve some secret robot plans called “The Quasar Tapes, or something like that.” Roberta recalls that they were in the Pentagon rather than Cal Tech, but that still fits; maybe the Pentagon stole the plans from Vaslovik, and Gary and Roberta got them back into civilian hands.

In Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil — and its followup, the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack — we see that Flint, the immortal android-builder from “Requiem for Methuselah,” would live on into the 24th century and adopt the pseudonym Emil Vaslovik, becoming a mentor to Noonien Soong. There’s no mention that Vaslovik was the name of a real historical figure — indeed, given that TQT’s Vaslovik was a famous Nobel laureate, it might’ve been a bad idea for Flint to choose such a conspicuous pseudonym — but it’s possible to fudge things and surmise that Flint had known Vaslovik and/or Questor back in the 20th century and learned about androids from them.

And I’ve followed their lead and inserted a reference in my own work: in Watching the Clock, a member of Gary Seven’s Aegis organization refers to “those damn androids” as if they were the competition. And there’s another very subtle nod coming up in my DTI eBook The Collectors.

Although that competition thing is the main problem with having Questor in the Trek universe: aren’t he and Gary Seven basically doing the same thing? And since Gary and Roberta have been doing it six years longer, are Questor’s efforts even necessary? But seeing the movie again, I’m thinking maybe they don’t overlap that much. We know that Gary’s mission was to prevent humanity from destroying itself as it moved through the era of its greatest crisis. So he and Roberta are dealing fate-of-the-world stuff. By contrast, the Vaslovik androids are on a much subtler mission, just guiding and protecting human beings who have the potential to do good and make the world better — not making their decisions for them, but helping them survive or get the education or resources or opportunities they need to fulfill their potential. Maybe speaking a word in the right ear, as Questor puts it, to nudge someone in the right direction. They’ve been at it since the dawn of Homo sapiens‘ existence as a distinct species, and while there have been times in that 200,000-year span when we were at risk of extinction, it probably hasn’t been a concern for most of that span — or at least it wasn’t something that could’ve been affected by the ability to influence human decisions, not until the nuclear age. So maybe Questor’s activities are on a small enough scale that Gary’s activities don’t render them redundant. They could have even complemented each other, with Gary and Roberta tackling the big crises and Questor and Jerry and Helena helping out the little guys who fell through the cracks. Maybe that’s why Gary wanted to make sure the Questor Tapes ended up in the right hands.

Of course, that idea is somewhat dependent on the fact that neither show went past the pilot stage. If both shows had been made, they might have ended up telling fairly similar stories — and of course neither would’ve acknowledged the other. But then, if A:E had been made, Roddenberry wouldn’t have tried to revive the concept with Questor anyway. As it is, though, we’re free to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have been.

Gene Roddenberry’s GENESIS II & PLANET EARTH

I finally decided to buy the print-on-demand DVDs of Genesis II and Planet Earth, two of the failed SF pilot movies that Star Trek‘s Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced in the early ’70s. I used to have them on videotape, but I apparently lost the tape somewhere along the line, so this was the only way I’d get to see them again, and I found a place where I could get them pretty cheaply.

Genesis II (1973) was Roddenberry’s attempt to do another series built around the “thousand worlds” premise of ST, a team of heroes travelling to a different exotic society or environment each week. In this case, it was a post-apocalyptic future where the survivors of global nuclear war had fragmented into multiple diverse, bizarre societies — but, with typical Roddenberry optimism, the fall of civilization had cleansed the planet and let it (eventually) become a pristine paradise again. The hero was Dylan Hunt (played here by Alex Cord), a 20th-century scientist trapped in a suspended-animation experiment in 1979, and revived in 2133 by a society called Pax, nominally dedicated to rebuilding and restoring the best of civilization. But the woman who nurses him back to health, Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), belongs to a civilization of superhuman mutants called Tyranians, and she claims Pax are aspiring conquerors and helps Dylan escape from them — whereupon he soon finds that Tyrania isn’t the paradise she claimed. (Really, a name like Tyrania is kind of a giveaway.) The cast also included Percy Rodriguez (Commodore Stone from ST: “Court-martial”) as the Pax leader, Primus Isaac Kimbridge, and genre stalwart Ted Cassidy as Isiah — the most unfortunate part of the film, supposedly a “white Comanche” who speaks in stereotyped TV-Indian broken English.

The premise made use of a vehicle called the subshuttle, essentially an underground bullet train system started in Dylan’s time (when fear of war had made aboveground transport seem too vulnerable) and expanded in the decades before the war. The system has survived and been maintained by Pax, serving as the means for Pax’s operatives to travel the world. (And it couldn’t possibly have worked as depicted. With so little clearance between the shuttle and the tube walls, with no evident vents, and with the tubes clearly not in vacuum, air resistance would’ve kept it from going as fast as it was shown to travel.)

It’s an interesting film and the concept had potential, but Cord is not the most appealing lead actor, and there are aspects of Pax that might’ve been offputting in a weekly series — they lived in underground bunkers in Carlsbad Caverns, and they embraced a rather ascetic “unisex” philosophy that disdained lust and sexuality as the cause of civilization’s downfall, as explicated by the uptight supporting character Harper-Smythe, played by Lynne Marta (though it was suggested that the young were starting to reject that view). All in all, it could be better, and it’s understandable why CBS rejected the series (instead opting for the similar Planet of the Apes TV series which lasted for only half a season), and why, when Roddenberry then pitched it to ABC, they asked him to retool it for the second attempt (Roddenberry had a knack for getting second pilots made, it seems).

This was 1974’s Planet Earth, this time starring John Saxon as Dylan Hunt and Janet Margolin as Harper-Smythe, with Ted Cassidy returning as Isiah (the only holdover from the original cast) and Christopher Cary added as Hunt’s fourth team member, the “esper” doctor Baylok. (Which is pronounced the same as Balok from ST’s “The Corbomite Maneuver” — a character that Cassidy provided the voice for, kind of. That always weirded me out a little.) This time out, Pax has relocated to a beautiful, advanced aboveground city (about where Albuquerque once was, judging from a shot in the opening titles), and the “unisex” beliefs are nowhere to be found — female extras in Pax City are wearing revealing William Ware Theiss outfits, and Harper-Smythe now appears to have a thing for Dylan.  Isiah’s portrayed a little better, speaking more coherent English and no longer in what I guess you’d call “redface” makeup, but Baylok still calls him “the savage” at one point.

ST’s former associate producer Bob Justman was brought in as producer this time, and Roddenberry cowrote the script with future Rockford Files staff writer/producer Juanita Bartlett. The story is a very ’70s conceit: to find a missing doctor, Hunt and Harper-Smythe must infiltrate a society where women (primarily Marg, played by Diana Muldaur) keep men as slaves and pets — which Dylan actually describes as “women’s lib gone mad.” There are definitely ways in which it plays out as the kind of sex-preoccupied male fantasy you’d expect from Roddenberry, or from ’70s TV in general: Dylan uses his virility to seduce Marg and convince her that men aren’t so bad. But it seems to me that Bartlett’s hand adds some wit to the proceedings, so that Dylan’s seduction plays out more comically and tastefully than it otherwise might have, more about getting Marg drunk and philosophizing about mutual respect than getting her laid.

The movie also features villains called the Kreeg, a brutish, warlike band of mutants with electronically deepened voices and knobbly head ridges that appear to be a prototype for the revised Klingon makeup that would be introduced five years later in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  (I can’t find a makeup credit for Planet Earth, though, so I don’t know if it was designed by the same person, Fred Phillips.)

All in all, despite the iffy gender politics of the premise, Planet Earth is an improvement on the first pilot. Saxon is a much more charismatic and sympathetic lead than Cord, as much of an improvement as William Shatner was over Jeffrey Hunter as the Enterprise captain. Margolin is also a more appealing Harper-Smythe than Marta. There’s more charm and wit to the writing. The aboveground setting and the new Pax-team uniforms are an improvement (despite the uniforms’ unappealing color scheme), and Pax’s society seems more worth fighting for. Isiah is less offensive, and Baylok could potentially be an interesting character, but was quite underutilized here. The downside is that there’s less ethnic diversity in the lead cast; the first pilot featured a team member named Singh (seemingly the only South Asian surname Roddenberry knew) in a fairly prominent role, but here, Dylan’s team is all-white, and the one major black character, Kimbridge (here retitled “Pater” and recast as Rai Tasco), is sidelined. This is something of a reversal from the Trek pilots; in “The Cage,” the main cast was all-white, but the network pushed for more diversity in the second pilot (since recent analyses had revealed the buying power of minority viewers), and that’s how we got characters like Sulu and Uhura. Here, things unfortunately went in the reverse direction.

Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did. In his entire career, the only non-Trek series that Roddenberry ever got on the air was his first, the non-SF series The Lieutenant in 1963, and that only ran for one season. 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. (The leads were astronauts on a sleeper ship who returned to an Earth devastated by asteroid bombardment.) So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.

Of course, the concept of a hero named Dylan Hunt who slept through the fall of his civilization and fought to rebuild peace and stability in the post-apocalyptic world was resurrected after Roddenberry’s death as the premise of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, transposed to far-future outer space and starring Kevin Sorbo as Hunt. A couple of other elements from the original films made their way into Andromeda: Harper-Smythe inspired the Harper character in name if nothing else, and I daresay the genetically superior Tyranians inspired the genetically superior Tyr Anasazi and his Nietzschean race. But otherwise it was a very different show, more the creation of Robert Hewitt Wolfe than Roddenberry, and blending the fragments of the Dylan Hunt universe with concepts from other failed Roddenberry pitches (such as the idea of an intelligent starship as a lead character, from an unused premise called Starship). Not to mention that the show went badly astray once Wolfe was fired after a season and a half. I really don’t want to get into that here; it would be reopening old wounds.

One reason I decided to buy these movies was to test a hypothesis. I’ve long entertained the conceit that maybe the G2/PE universe was an alternate timeline of the Trek universe, maybe one where the Eugenics Wars were more extensive and escalated to a nuclear conflict. That was never more than an idle musing before; but in recent years, since Pocket published its Mirror Universe and Myriad Universes anthologies, I’ve taken to cataloguing alternate Trek timelines more systematically in my personal chronology notes, and I got to wondering about whether I could actually add these movies to my list.

At first I was concerned it might not work, because the state of things in 1979 in G2 already seemed rather different from what we know of the Trek world in that time (not too different from ours, but with a more active space program). But then I thought, what if the divergence was earlier? What if, say, Gary Seven hadn’t intervened in “Assignment: Earth” and after? In that case, Earth would’ve begun an orbital nuclear arms buildup starting in 1968, which would fit neatly with the mid-’70s war fears that led to the creation of the subshuttles in G2. Also, according to the novel continuity, without Gary Seven’s intervention, the eugenics program that produced Khan and the Augments would’ve been more extensive, and the Eugenics Wars would’ve been bigger, potentially escalating to the level of global cataclysm. And the “mutant” Tyranians and Kreeg, claimed in the films to be the products of radiation, make far more sense if they’re descendants of the Augments. The timing works too. The undated cataclysm had to be after 1992, the date given for the construction of a subshuttle station seen in PE. However, the most advanced technology Pax has dates from Dylan’s century according to dialogue, suggesting that the end came no later than roughly the turn of the millennium. Which is no doubt where I originally got the idea that it was a bigger, alternative version of the Eugenics Wars. So I think it works rather neatly. The Dylan Hunt timeline could well be the future that Gary Seven was sent to Earth to prevent. (Which would mean that in the Trek universe, without the war fears driving things underground, Dylan’s hibernation experiment would’ve most likely happened elsewhere and he would never have been trapped in stasis by a cave-in. Indeed, his research could’ve led to the cryogenic technology of the Botany Bay.)

The other question I had was whether the two films could fit in the same timeline as each other, given the changes between them. The recastings are easily waved away, just like any TV or film recastings (e.g. Saavik or Cochrane in Trek). The change in Isiah’s makeup and hair can be just as easily ignored, or rationalized by saying he was in disguise in G2. The character changes can be rationalized; Isiah could’ve learned better English, Harper-Smythe could’ve softened in her unisex views after Dylan deflated some of her cherished myths about his era, and Kimbridge’s change in title could’ve been the result of either a promotion or a retirement from the Primus council. The hardest thing to rationalize is the Pax city suddenly materializing between movies; but maybe Pax had had the city all along, yet had retreated to the Carlsbad bunker due to the threat of Tyranian attack, a threat which was resolved by PE. Alternatively, maybe Pax made an alliance with the city and relocated there between movies — which might better explain the different, non-unisex clothing style. (If the city’s about where Albuquerque was, that would make it a bit under 300 miles NNW of Carlsbad Caverns, explaining why we didn’t see it in G2. The climax of G2 suggests that Tyrania is considerably closer to Carlsbad, though, not far over the horizon. Since they had nuclear weapons, they might’ve been somewhere around Alamogordo or White Sands, perhaps. Lyra-a mentions Phoenix as they ride toward Tyrania, but it can’t possibly be that far away.)

One other minor discrepancy: in G2, Majel Barrett plays Primus Dominic and Titos Vandis plays Primus Yuloff; whereas in PE, Barrett has a tiny role as a character credited as Yuloff. But Barrett’s PE character was never addressed by name onscreen, so the credit could simply be an error. Or maybe Dominic married Yuloff in the interim.

The timing’s also a bit tricky. In PE, Dylan says he was born on February 3, 1944 and is 189 years old, adding up to 2133, the same year as G2. But it’s easier to reconcile the movies if you assume some time passes between them to allow for the changes. But there’s an easy handwave: Dylan was drunk when he calculated his age. He could easily have been off by a year or two.

So I think the two movies can be treated as a single continuity if you squint a little — which is true of a lot of continuity in any TV or movie universe. Sure, if I’m defining them as an alternate Trek-universe timeline to begin with, I could just as easily say they were two slightly variant timelines; but with only two movies, I’d rather treat them as a connected series if possible.

Of course, this all has to remain strictly informal speculation. The copyright on these movies is owned by Warner Bros., not CBS, so I wouldn’t be allowed to incorporate these characters and ideas into a licensed Trek novel. But that’s why it’s fun to think about. It lets me get back to speculating about something Trek-related purely for recreation, rather than for work.

It’s worth noting, however, that Roddenberry himself may have worked some ideas from G2/PE into his ST:TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” The chronology precluded them from fitting in the same universe even then, but a lot of concepts in TNG were recycled from earlier, failed Roddenberry projects: Riker and Troi were reworked from Decker and Ilia in TMP and the failed Phase II sequel series, while Data was a blend of Phase II‘s Vulcan character Xon and the android lead of the 1974 pilot film The Questor Tapes. The depiction of “the post-atomic horror” in “Farpoint” bears some similarities to the G2/PE universe, so I wonder if maybe Roddenberry had the idea that Trek history could’ve happened similarly but with different timing, that the Federation could be descended from a group equivalent to Pax which had rebuilt the Earth after a less extensive WWIII. It definitely reflects the same idea that things would have to get much worse for humanity before we finally came to our senses and built a better world. Of course, later Trek installments, primarily First Contact, depicted Earth history in a very different way. But it’s interesting to speculate about what Roddenberry may have intended.