❉ Glen McCulla on the Great Bird’s last throws of the dice before returning to Trek…
A mere three months (to the day) after The Questor Tapes aired on NBC another Roddenberry pilot would hit the airwaves, as April 23rd 1974 saw the airing of Planet Earth on the ABC network. Having been disappointed with CBS’ dropping of the “Dylan Hunt, man of today trapped in the future” series that could have progressed from Genesis II, Roddenberry decided to give the concept a second go, taking one of the mooted episode outlines titled ‘The Poodle Shop’, the story being a retread of the hoary old pulp SF staple of the “society of women” that had been old hat even by the time Doctor Who had tried it back in 1965 with Galaxy 4, the seed for the story had been laid in Genesis II when Lyra-a informs Hunt “You would do well to avoid the woman’s country, Dylan – males are tolerated there only as pets”.
Being on a new network, Roddenberry and director Marc Daniels (who was an old Trek hand, having directed fifteen episodes of the live action series and written an animated instalment) opted to recast , the part of Dylan Hunt going to veteran thespian John Saxon whose sci-fi credentials included the 1965 John Gilling invasion creeper The Night Caller (alias the more lurid title Blood Beast from Outer Space) and the Curtis Harrington 1966 space vampire mash-up Queen of Blood.
Though a total top-down recast with the exception of Ted Cassidy’s Isiah, Planet Earth follows on somewhat from the events of Genesis II (a ‘semi-sequel’ I suppose, much like Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk to Ang Lee’s Hulk) with Dylan Hunt already established in the 22nd century – the land renewed, the air and water pure again, the conflicts of the past are gone: it is a new Earth – as a member of the civilisation of Pax. Restating via a perfunctory audio narration his origins in the year 1979 and new existence here in the space year 2133 as part of the Pax science team who voyage out from their city via the underground rocket shuttle network (both the prop and travel footage of the shuttle shooting through the subterranean tunnels cannily recycled from the earlier pilot) to explore the – cough – strange new world out there, and try to rebuild a wider human civilisation.
“Their mission”, as the stentorian voiceover informs us, “is mankind. Rebirth of… PLANET EARTH!”
Venturing out into the wild plains of the Californian wilderness to survey the land that is once again becoming fertile, Hunt’s team – clad by good old William Ware Theiss in unfortunate and unflattering one-piece unitards that resemble a pastel-green version of the uniforms that the Enterprise crew would endure in a beige variation in 1979 – find themselves ambushed by a pack of Kreegs, “that mutated form of human capable of understanding only machinery and warfare”. Hovering over the horizon like the mounted gorillas of the Planet of the Apes franchise that had seen the end of Genesis II as an ongoing series when CBS had opted for a televisual rendition of Pierre Boulle’s simian saga over Roddenberry’s show, the helmeted Kreegs are revealed to sport a boney cranial ridge that would be reused for the Klingons in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, transforming them from cut-price Fu Manchus to the bony-headed honour-bound bores beloved of many a fan to this day.
Escaping the Kreeg ambush, the team find that their most senior member Pater Kimbridge (Rai Tasco) has suffered a serious gunshot wound. Fleeing into the subway tunnels and returning via sub-shuttle to Pax, the ministrations of the telepathic ESPer Baylok (Christopher Cary, in a role whose name seems eerily reminiscent of the Clint Howard-puppeted Balok of Star Trek‘s ‘The Corbomite Manoeuvre’) and the shamanistic prayers of Isiah come to nought as Kinbridge continues to slip away – his only hope the replacement of the damaged part of his pulmonary artery with a prosthesis, a procedure that can by performed by only one man: the missing Dr Jonathan Connor (Jim Antonio) who vanished over a year previously.
Sent out by administrator Yuloff (your regulation Majel Barrett cameo) into the unknown regions which harbour rumours of “an Amazon society where males are bought and sold like captive animals”, Hunt and his team (Baylok, Isiah and Harper-Smythe [Janet Margolin]) reach the boundary of the Confederacy of Ruth. Splitting the team and sending Isiah and Baylok ahead in the sub-shuttle to the old power station at the heart of the region, Hunt puts Harper-Smythe in charge and has her bind him and lead him on a leash (kinks ahoy!) into the Confederacy as her tribute (“Women’s lib gone mad” mutters Dylan, as only a relic from the 1970s can). Greeted by the imperious Marg (Diana Muldaur, already a two-time Trek veteran and later season two TNG regular as Dr Kate Pulaski) who challenges the passive Paxian and swiftly relieves her of her property, dragging Hunt into the village as her own.
In the slave pen, Dylan encounters Baylok and Isiah, who have already been captured and cowed into subservience (the timeline here is a bit skewed, in all honesty – I guess Hunt and Harper took a lot longer to reach the Confederacy overland on horseback than we were made privy to in the edit) by “the treatment”, which Hunt quickly ascertains to be some sort of a drug given to the ‘Dinks’ in their food. Taken to a slave cattle market where they are appraised as chattels by the Ruthians, Hunt is found promising as breeding stock by dint of his Outsider-ness, after his ‘treatment’ of course.
When Harper-Smythe rides back into town and challenges Marg to a duel for the return of her property, we are treated to a knock-down drag-out catfight between two comely protagonists in skimpy skirts and halter tops that must have had the Great Bird-Dog of the Galaxy gleefully tumescent. Discovering the errant Dr Connors – who has developed his own antidote to the servility drug – serving at the house of Marg, Harper trades Hunt (for whom Marg has developed a fascination) for the surgeon with whom she returns to Pax after distributing the counteracting agent among the Dinks, who must overcome their conditioning and band together alongside the Ruthians to save the settlement when the Kreegs – intent on obtaining the drug that can subjugate all men before them – attack. In gratitude and recognition of the possibility of males not being totally inferior, the Ruthians agree to cease production of the drug, which has been leading to their population’s slow decline in any case.
A breezy action-adventure spin on a clapped out science fiction cliche, Planet Earth manages with a good director and cast to transcend its roots in Roddenberry’s worst instincts (the same ones that gave us such dreck as Mudd’s Women and The Omega Glory) to be enjoyable. Still, this wasn’t enough to see Dylan Hunt’s second attempt at life granted a reprieve, and ABC passed on progressing the pilot to a series.
However, the idea still had a bit of mileage to it, as ABC and Warner Bros television department would rework the basic precepts of Roddenberry’s material for one last throw of the dice without his direct participation. Strange New World was directed by Robert Butler, who had called the shots on the original Jeffrey Hunter-starring Star Trek pilot ‘The Cage’ back in 1964, and saw the light of the airwaves on ABC on the 13th of July 1975.
Retaining John Saxon but renaming the character as Anthony Vico, the film veered away from the original conception of the lone modern man thrust into the future and of Pax as a serene and somnolent city-state to have Saxon’s Vico as one of three astronauts (along with Kathleen Miller’s Allison Crowley and Keene Curtis’ William Scott) sent into orbit by the PAX foundation in 1994 and returning to Earth in 2174 after a disastrous asteroid collision with the mission of rebuilding humanity As Roddenberry was not involved in the production of this pilot – which once again did not go ahead as a series – it is beyond the purview of this essay. The Dylan Hunt concept would, however, be revived years after Roddenberry’s death in the form of the rather terrible Kevin Sorbo vehicle Andromeda, which would see Captain Hunt reincarnated as a right-wing muscle-bound lunk in outer space for five long and painful seasons.
Airing on NBC on the 21st of May 1977, Spectre would see a departure from the Dylan Hunt framework once again and something of a return to the two-man tag team of a strange man with preternatural abilities and his Everyman assistant that The Questor Tapes had initially explored. This time however, the emphasis would be less on the science-fictional elements that the ‘android exploring its own humanity’ set up had broached – this time the focus would be very much on the diabolical and supernatural.
In the lead role of investigator of the wyrd William Sebastian, Roddenberry cast Robert Culp – a performer perhaps most famous for starring alongside Bill Cosby in swinging Sixties espionage adventure series I Spy as well as featuring in the role of Trent, the eponymous mysterious amnesiac on the run in the classic Harlan Ellison Outer Limits instalment ‘Demon with the Glass Hand’.
Alongside him as his companion Dr Amos ‘Ham’ Hamiton is Gig Young, Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for his role as Rocky in Sydney Pollack’s 1968 neo noir They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and about to co-star in Robert Clouse’s 1978 Brucesploitation kung fu flick Game of Death (the film on which he would meet his fifth and final wife, 33 years his younger Kim Schmidt, whom he would shoot before turning the gun on himself only three weeks after their wedding – proving that not all Kimmy Schmidts are unbreakable). With Culp’s tall and lean looks and sardonic detached style, he fits the Leonard Nimoy/Robert Lansing type, whilst the more earthy and humourous Young slotted into the more humanistic and realist Bones McCoy slot.
As the film begins Sebastian and Ham, who worked together as police psychologists, haven’t seen each other in many years and as we are informed by Gig Young’s voiceover (“I come here to meet a man I vowed never to see again”) whilst his car pulls up in Sebastian’s driveway they did not part on good terms. Ham first encounters the mysterious housekeeper Lilith (Majel Barrett – of course it’s Majel Barrett! Did you even think for a second that there’s was a ghost in hell’s chance of her not being in this?) who surreptitiously snips a lock of hair from the back of his head before showing him in to see the doctor. As Sebastian acknowledges that “Neither of us have done very well apart” he elucidates upon their current straits – Ham is in career freefall due to his growing alcoholism (a trait shared with Young in real life) and “that business with the nurses” – remember, nurses like nuns are people too – while Sebastian himself has drifted away from his previous employment and become immersed in the Kabbalistic. Having summoned a spirit in the Aleutian islands, he was horrified by the acts the daemon expected of him and tried to renege on their bargain – to which the creature responded by branding his heart and almost killing him, his life saved only by the faithful Lilith and her hoodoo voodoo.
As Lilith’s prowess is proven when Ham tries to have a drink and reacts by almost immediately vomiting – her hex cure via a form of magical aversion therapy though he insists he does it out of habit, not addiction – a visitor arrives in the form of Ms Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell of Tenko), a scion of an aristocratic British family who had previously hired Sebastian to investigate her elder brother. As he leaves Ham outside and guides Anitra into an inner private room filled with his collection of mystical artefacts (similar to the Sanctum Sanctorum of Marvel’s Doctor Strange), Sebastian grows increasingly suspicious of his guest’s strange behaviour as she at first asks him to call off the investigation and then attempts to seduce him. When she recoils from a cross he brandishes a book and banishes her with it, the touch of the Book of Tobit turning her first into a crone and then into mist. Informing Ham that Ms Cyon was in fact never there and that they have received a visitation from a succubus of the pit, he determines that Ham is to join him on his trip to England to ascertain what malediction has befallen the Cyons. As they board the private plane of youngest family member Mitri Cyon (bloody hell, it’s John Hurt!), an oppressive atmosphere seems to gather and halway over the Atlantic the aircraft is caught in a violent storm, which Sebastian states has been sent against them by the hand of the Unseen Things.
“We’ve even given them names”, he tells Ham. “Mammon. Beelzebub. Asmodeus. Leviathan. Asteroth.”
“The… Devil?” asks his fearful friend.
Greeted at the airport by the Cyons’ chauffeur (chauffeuse?) Sydna (played by Jenny Runacre from Robert Fuest’s hallucinatory rendition of Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme), Sebastian asks to stop by first at the home of his colleague and co-paranormalist Dr Qualus at the esoterically-named Number 3 Merlin’s Mews only to find the good doctor dead – “torn to pieces” as he tried to crawl inside the protective confines of a pentacle – and his house ablaze. When Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cabell (Gordon Jackson of The Great Escape and Upstairs, Downstairs) recognises Sebastian as “one of the world’s leading criminologists” he puts his own doubts about the paranormal aside to lend a hand in the case, confirming (off the record, of course) that this is the latest in a string of slayings the victims of which were all linked in some way to Sir Geoffrey Cyon but that the Yard’s hands have been somewhat tied by Sir Geoffrey being close to several prominent members of Her Majesty’s government.
Arriving at last at the brooding house of Cyon the duo discover that the great edifice, once an Abbey, transformed in the words of the shrewish Anitra (lot less sexy than her syph-like succubus self) into a “den of iniquity” adorned with Dionysian statues and artwork of frolicking fauns that would have suited the ribald private grottoes of Tiberius and Caligula on Capri, as well as the staff consisting of buxom maids (including ’70s Page 3 star Penny Irving, a post-Virgin Witch/pre-‘Allo ‘Allo Vicki Michelle and Lindy Benson of Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair) in regulation diaphanous gowns.
The urbane Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers – Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, For Your Eyes Only) shows a weary forbearance at the pair as he lays out the terms of the agreement made with his sister (“It’s a good thing that my sisiter is so wrong about me”) – Sebastian must thoroughly prove or disprove the presence of evil in the house and whether Sir Geoffrey is under its malign influence or it is merely his more puritanical sibling disagreeing with his free lifestyle.
“You see, gentlemen, I make no apology for living openly what most men do in secret.”
Surrounded on all side by omens and dire warnings – Ham almost falling to his death when the staircase bannister unexpectedly gives way, Mitri being attacked by a pack of dogs, almost killing him, and the presence of a foreboding Stonehenge-like circle of ancient dolmens on the grounds of the estate – the suspicion begins to grow that Sir Geoffrey is long dead, replaced by Asmodeus himself in human form. Temptation also rears its enticing head to lead them stray, as Ham is woken in the night to find not only two of the maids in his bedroom (Ms Michelle in a sheer nightie, Ms Irving dressed as a milk maid) but also the voluptuous housekeeper-cum-butler (Angela Grant) dressed in leather and wielding a whip. He’s a stronger man than me to resist, that’s all.
Discovering and translating a collection of ancient manuscripts written in Coptic script, Sebastian divines that Asmodeus and his cult gained a foothold in the British isles some time before the 6th century BCE, and was only defeated when the Celtic tribes and their Druids banded together and sealed him up beneath the stone circle. Believing that the daemon was released during works on the cellars and grounds of Cyon House in recent years, he informs Ham and Inspector Cabell of his fateful findings and sets out to to explore the underhenge of tunnels beneath the circle (“the secret place – his own black cathedral”) where he turns out to have had the wrong brother after all: it is Mitri Cyon who is the host of Asmodeus and holding court with his coven of curvaceous cuties in a Sabbat.
Rescuing Anitra from sacrifice amid carnal cavorting – including a lot of topless shots of the buxom Bacchanals thanks to the inserts made to extend the pilot for cinematic showings in Europe – and temporarily banishing Asmodeus with a spell, the scene was set for an ongoing series pitting Sebastian and Ham against the Prince of Lies and his familiars that, like the Peter Hooten starring Doctor Strange series piloted around the same time, would never come to pass due to the networks balking at portraying the Dark Arts in a weekly show. Standing on its own, Spectre is a neat little supernatural thriller cum police investigation somewhere between Dennis Wheatley and Jim Rockford and is well directed by Clive Donner who adds a touch of class to the pulpy proceedings.
After all these attempts to create the New Star Trek, Roddenberry would finally return to the original wellspring and agree to revive his most famous creations. From 1975 he began working on a script provisionally titled The God Thing, to be helmed by The Questor Tapes director Richard Colla, which would have seen the Starfleet heroes investigate an intergalactic probe which manifests itself to them in multifarious forms asking each time “Do you know me?” and eventually materialising in the image of Christ as a carpenter bleeding from his head, hands and feet – the probe being a 2001 monolith type of technology sent out an intervals of millennia to guide primitive races.
“With that,” said Roddenberry, “we begin pondering the notion that perhaps mankind has finally evolved to the point where it’s outgrown its need for gods, competent to account for its own behaviour without the religiously imposed concepts of fear, guilt or divine intervention.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, no network was up for that, so Roddenberry went back to the drawing board and enlisted Jon Povill as a co-writer. Povill would work on two successive attempted screenplays – one in which a mysterious cloud affects the inhabitants of Vulcan, regresses them to their aggressive meat eating primal selves and threatens to plummet the Vulcans into war with the rest of the Federation; another in which an encounter with a black hole leads to James Doohan’s Mr Scott being thrown back in time and disrupting the cause of history by averting the Second World War – before other writers such as John D. F. Black, Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg pitched their own ideas to Paramount.
It would be Alan Dean Foster’s In Thy Image, however – a pilot script prepared for the mooted Star Trek II series – that would be plucked from the pile and be granted the homour of being not only the first live action Star Trek to go into production since 1969, but the first voyage of the Starship Enterprise on the silver screen. Directed by veteran Robert Wise, Star Trek: the Motion Picture would take Gene Roddenberry’s creations to unparalleled levels of popular success with not only five direct sequels but innumerable and continuing spinoffs and a legacy that may well endure until the 23rd century and beyond.
❉ ‘Planet Earth’ (1974) was released on Region 1 DVD by Warner Brothers Archive Collection in November 2009, and is available to buy or rent from Amazon Prime Video. Also available from Amazon & New Used. ‘Strange New World’ (1975) was released on Region 1 DVD by Warner Brothers Archive Collection in May 2010. Available from Amazon New & Used.
❉ Not officially available in any format on home entertainment, you can watch ‘Spectre’ (1977) on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LimAIJAzo1U
❉ Glen McCulla has had a lifetime-long interest in film, history and film history – especially the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He sometimes airs his maunderings on his blog at http://psychtronickinematograph.blogspot.co.uk/ and skulks moodily on Twitter at @ColdLazarou