Sunday, August 24, 2014

Genesis II (1973) & Planet Earth (1974) & Strange New World (1975)



          Following the demise of the original Star Trek series in 1969, writer-producer Gene Roddenberry spent the ’70s trying to launch a new TV show, as well as moonlighting in features. None of his wilderness-years projects clicked, so once Star Trek was revived in 1979 with the first of myriad feature films (and, later spinoff TV shows), Roddenberry resigned himself to being the godhead of a franchise. Within this context, it’s interesting to look at this trifecta of TV movies, each of which represents a fresh attempt at repurposing the same underlying material. Given the similarity between the underlying material and the ethos of Trek, these movies prove that certain themes and tropes were ingrained into Roddenberry’s DNA.
          The best of the telefilms, though that’s not saying a whole lot, is the first one, Genesis II (pictured above). At the beginning of the story, near-future scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) is put into suspended animation as part of an experiment. An earthquake buries the laboratory surrounding Dylan’s chamber, so he’s revived more than a century later by citizens of PAX, a peaceful society living underground in the postapocalyptic future. Things get dull quick, because Dylan is smothered with exposition from PAX official Isaac (Percy Rodrigues) and from Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley). Turns out Lyra-a is not from PAX; instead, she’s a mutant from the country of Terrania. Before long, Dylan and Lyra-a flee PAX, because the mutant has convinced the 20th-century man that PAX is secretly warlike. Upon reaching Terrania, however, Dylan discovers that humans are used by Terranians as slaves, so he leads a rebellion against Lyra-a’s people.
          Repeating mistakes from the worst Trek episodes, Genesis II features ridiculous costumes suitable for a cabaret show on Fire Island, overwrought discussions of morality, and turgid storytelling devoid of humor. (Sample dialogue: “You will find it profitless to lie to us, human! Will you repair our nuclear generator?”) Cord is stalwart but stilted, while Hartley’s sexy in a soccer-mom sort of way, but it’s fun to groove on the voices of Trek veterans Ted Cassidy (“Lurch” from the ’60s Addams Family series) and Rodrigues (who later narrated the iconic Jaws trailer). Genesis II contains interesting concepts, but the presentation is far too clinical.
          Predictably, the next version of the material, Planet Earth, is lustier in every sense of the word. Re-conceived by Roddenberry as an action show, instead of a show about ideas, Planet Earth replaces Cord with campy he-man actor John Saxon in the role of Dylan Hunt. The story skips the set-up and gets right to Dylan leading a team of PAX adventurers into a land ruled by cruel amazons, with the nominal goal of rescuing a doctor who’s needed back at PAX for emergency surgery. The vibe of Planet Earth evokes Trek even more than the vibe of Genesis II did. Hunt contrives elaborate strategies, employs flying tackles, and makes out with two different women. (One is Janet Margolin, who would have been a series regular, and the other is guest star Diana Muldaur.) Hunt even narrates the onscreen action in voiceover via “log entries.” Still, the added testosterone means that Planet Earth is significantly dumbed-down from its predecessor, although Planet Earth seems like the most viable launching pad for a series of any of these three flicks.
          The final—and most lavish—spin on this material, Strange New World, was made without Roddenberry’s involvement. (That’s the cost of selling a concept to a network.) Saxon returns, now playing the new role of Anthony Vico, and this time the story involves three modern-day people thrust into the future. The explanation this time is that a meteor shower hit the Earth while the trio were in suspended animation aboard a space station. The pacing of Strange New World is painfully slow, even though two separate adventuress are crammed into 97 minutes. The first involves Anthony’s team encountering the people of Eterna, who survive using clones and other medical miracles but need blood from normal people. The second story dramatizes a clash between Anthony’s team and groups of savages living in a forest and a zoo, respectively. In both narratives, endless exposition and tiresome fight scenes ensue.
          It’s all quite flat and talky, but the photography is atmospheric, the outer-space shots look great, and the supporting cast is colorful: Avuncular Keene Curtis and lovely Kathleen Miller play the teammates of Saxon’s character, and guest stars include Catherine Bach, Martine Beswick, Reb Brown, Richard Farnswoth, Gerrit Graham, Bill McKinney, and James Olson. (Hardcore ’70s junkies will recognize all of these names.) There’s also an amusing contribution to the annals of sci-fi vehicles, because the characters tool around postapocalyptic Earth in the space-age equivalent of a Winnebago.

Genesis II: FUNKY
Planet Earth: FUNKY
Strange New World: FUNKY

3 comments:

William Blake Hall said...

Thank you for this! I'm usually a sucker for the Buck Rogers story -- modern man sleeps and wakes to adventure in the far future (even though, apart from Erin Gray, I still hated the Glen Larson ripoff of that name) -- so I feel a little more forgiving to "Genesis II." Clinical ... you may be on to something, with a screenplay that ends with Cord complimenting a woman's pancreas. Items of trivia: the name Dylan Hunt got recycled as the name of the starship captain in the TV show "Andromeda" starring Kevin Sorbo, and Roddenberry went on to cast Robert Culp as, of all things, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of the supernatural in the TV movie "Spectre."

William Blake Hall said...

Oh -- and Roddenberry also produced "The Questor Tapes," about a robot generally carrying out the same "extraterrestrial secret agents trying to save Earth" mission as the original Star Trek episode "Assignment Earth," which was itself a failed pilot.

William Blake Hall said...

One last note -- why do Terraneans have two hearts? To somehow justify Hartley possessing a double navel. After so many years of having to obey the "be sure to cover the navel" rule on "Star Trek," Roddenberry made sure to write in Hartley's double navel as pure payback.