Sunday 20 October 2019

more failed pilots - Planet Earth (1974)

After his 1973 Genesis II pilot failed to be picked up as a series Gene Roddenberry tried again the following year with the same basic concept and surprisingly Warner Brothers Television financed another pilot. This was Planet Earth. This time the screenplay was co-written by Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett.

Genesis II had not been entirely lacking in potential but suffered from a noticeable lack of action. Planet Earth tries to rectify this by going for a more straightforward adventure formula.

Once again we meet NASA scientist Dylan Hunt (played this time by John Saxon) a century and a half in the future after an experiment in suspended animation goes wrong. This aspect of the story was given a lot of attention in Genesis II but it’s glossed over in a few seconds of exposition in Planet Earth. Which is a pity since it makes the whole premise a bit pointless. We don’t get to see Dylan Hunt trying to making sense of this strange new world in which he finds himself.

The idea presumably is that this is a sequel to Genesis II so we already know the backstory but in fact it’s a sequel that changes things considerably. PAX is now a much more high-tech civilisation.

As in Genesis II the future Earth, having suffered a nuclear war, is home to a variety of competing societies. The most advanced is PAX. They’re the most civilised and enlightened society because they worship science and everyone knows that scientists are always right.

PAX regularly sends out teams to the other societies on the planet to teach them how to be properly civilised. The way to be civilised is of course to be exactly like PAX. On one of these expeditions they encounter a band of violent marauding mutants and their beloved leader is injured. He’s going to need specialised surgery but the only surgeon capable of doing the operation was captured by another barbarian society a year earlier. So Dylan Hunt and his three sidekicks set off to rescue the unfortunate surgeon from the barbarians.

The surgeon, Connor, was captured by a society of amazon women who keep men as slaves. Dylan and his team members all manage to get themselves captured and Harper-Smythe finds herself having to fight the cruel and sinister Marg (Diana Muldaur) for ownership of Dylan. All the women want to buy Dylan because he looks like good breeding stock. They all desperately want babies since babies are in very short supply. Their men are drugged to keep them docile and that seems to reduce their breeding capabilities.

What the women really need is for their men to be real men, especially with mutants running about. The women just need someone like Dylan Hunt to demonstrate how useful a man can be.

It all plays out very much like an extended episode of Star Trek. In fact it’s way too much like a Star Trek episode. And not one of the better ones. The PAX is clearly the Federation. They’re idealistic and progressive and generally virtuous. The mutant bands are the Klingons. The women’s society is the kind of alien society you see in Star Trek, even down to the costumes. The PAX people wear uniforms that look uncannily like Star Trek Federation uniforms.

John Saxon is always a very entertaining actor but he makes Dylan Hunt a bit too much of an obvious James T. Kirk clone. He may have been a safer choice than Alex Cord (who played the rĂ´le in Genesis II) for an action adventure series but I thought Cord’s performance was the more interesting of the two simply because it was less Kirk-like.

Diana Muldaur does the best she can with the script she’s given but Marg was always going to be a rather limited character.

Ted Cassidy plays pretty much the same character he played in Genesis II - he’s an Apache chief but a loyal PAX foot soldier.

Dylan Hunt’s other sidekicks are irritating psychic Baylok and pretty scientist Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin). Unfortunately she just doesn’t quite convince as an action heroine.

Planet Earth has a bit of a Planet of the Apes vibe to it - both visually and with the idea of a world turned upside down.

The subshuttles are the same as those used in Genesis II, and they’re still a good idea. If you’re going to do a science fiction series you need some cool technology and they make a nice change from starships and robots.

The decision to make PAX more or less pacifists (they only use stun guns) is more dubious - it makes them seem a bit too smug and self-righteous.

When Planet Earth failed to excite network executives Roddenberry (perhaps wisely) gave up on the whole idea. But Warner Brothers (perhaps very unwisely) decided to make a third attempt. By this time they owned the rights to the concept so without Roddenberry’s involvement they came up with yet another pilot, Strange New World. Not so strangely, it was a failure as well.

All three pilots are available on DVD in the Warner Archive series. The first two at least look great but both would have benefited enormously from an audio commentary to give them a bit more context.

I think Genesis II could have worked if only Roddenberry had gone back to it and added a few more action scenes. Planet Earth suffers from being Star Trek without the exciting stuff like starships. Both are worth a look with Genesis II being the more interesting. I haven’t seen Strange New World yet so I cannot comment on that one.

Friday 11 October 2019

failed pilots - Genesis II (1973)

Gene Roddenberry came up with a pretty good idea when he created Star Trek. The execution of the idea was sometimes brilliant and sometimes terrible but Star Trek still deserves its legendary status among TV sci-fi series.

Naturally enough after Star Trek was canceled Roddenberry tried to come up with another great TV science fiction idea. He tried really really hard but never quite succeeded. Genesis II was one of several failed pilots for which he was responsible in the 70s. Interestingly enough he made no less than three failed pilots at the time all utilising the same basic idea.

The basic idea is in fact a direct rip-off of Buck Rogers. In 1979 scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord)  is experimenting on suspended animation, with himself as the test subject. He expects to be asleep for a few days. What he doesn’t know is that the secret research facility under Carlsbad Mountain is about to be buried by an earthquake. He wakes up in the year 2133.

He is brought back to life by the beautiful Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), who is half-human and half-Tyranian. She has two hearts which of course means that she has two navels (no I have no idea why that’s supposed to make sense either except that it’s an excuse for her to take most of her clothes off).

There had been a nuclear war many years earlier and now there are a number of competing societies. There’s PAX, apparently descended from the scientists of the 20th century and since they worship Science! they’re naturally the good guys. Then there are the Tyranians. They’re rich and evil and cruel and they keep humans as slaves. They dress like ancient Romans so we know they’re bad guys.

The Tyranians are apparently mutants (or at least I think they're supposed to be mutants although I must admit that I was a little bit confused on this point). Lyra-a is therefore half-human and half-mutant, a very Gene Roddenberry concept.

Some 20th century high technology still survives in the world of 2133. Nuclear power plants are still functioning, as are the ultra high speed underground railways. The trouble is that nobody now knows how the technology works so they can’t fix it if it breaks down.

The really bad news is that some nuclear warheads and some missiles still survive as well.

Lyra-a works for PAX but she’s actually a Tyranian spy. She’s beautiful but because she’s half-Tyranian she’s cruel and emotionless but because she’s half-human she’s not completely cruel and emotionless and of course she’s going to fall in love with Dylan Hunt.

Both PAX and the Tyranians want Dylan Hunt because he actually understands the high-tech stuff. The Tyranians want him to repair their nuclear power plant.

Dylan gets himself mixed up in a PAX conspiracy to start a slave revolt but he doesn’t know what to do about Lyra-a. He knows he shouldn't trust her but she’s really hot so he wants to trust her.

The major weakness is that the PAX people come across as irritating smarmy do-gooders with a passionate devotion to art, science and everything virtuous. They’re socially progressive atheists who know that science is the answer and that if we try we can all learn to get along. They’re a typical Gene Roddenberry idea of a utopia which actually strikes me as being a holier-than-thou nightmare society.

If the PAX people suffer from being too annoyingly virtuous the Tyranians suffer from being too obviously and too completely evil.

Alex Cord makes a decent enough hero but with perhaps not quite enough charisma.

Mariette Hartley is excellent. Ted Cassidy (best known as Lurch in The Addams Family) plays an Apache chief working for PAX. Which kind of works because at least it adds an offbeat touch.

The subterranean shuttles are quite cool although they’re also stolen from Buck Rogers. It’s almost as if all the good ideas here have been borrowed from elsewhere while the bad ideas are Roddenberry’s.

The costumes are as cringe-inducing as those featured in the worst episodes of Star Trek. The sets are not too bad.

It’s easy to see why network executives who saw this pilot had serious misgivings. There’s just not enough action and we have to wait a long time for any action at all. There’s too much talking. The dialogue is awful. It has too much of the feel of a Star Trek episode, but without starships and proton torpedoes and without the excitement that Star Trek provided (at least some of the time).

This might be giving you the impression that I hated Genesis II but I didn’t really. It does have all the faults you’d expect from Gene Roddenberry but it also has some of his strengths - and some of the strengths of Star Trek. This is a future world of many competing societies without any one dominant power so it’s a setup with plenty of potential. The idea of a world with high technology that is slowly failing because nobody knows how it works is extremely good. And it is a lot more interesting than most post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Genesis II has been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series and it looks terrific. The lack of extras is disappointing - it would have been great to get some insights into the directions a series might have taken.

Genesis II was not entirely lacking in promise and despite its flaws it’s worth a look. Star Trek had most of the same flaws but it still worked.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

three more TV Ellery Queens

Some remarks on a further three episodes of the 1975-76 Ellery Queen TV series.

The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument is interesting for its subject matter. Ellery Queen is a series about a writer of murder mysteries who enjoys success as an amateur detective. in this episode a popular writer of detective stories is murdered (having just been awarded the coveted Blunt Instrument Award). So we not only have a mystery writer as hero, but a mystery writer as victim as well. And one of the suspects is a rival mystery writer! It’s like an extended mystery fiction in-joke.

This is a story in which the decision of the producers to set the series in 1947 becomes somewhat significant. At this time the traditional puzzle-plot detective novel was falling out of favour with critics and publishers who were increasingly enthusiastic about suspense stories and hardboiled crime thrillers (although it’s worth pointing out that the reading public did not necessarily go along with this change in tastes). In the story the murder victim, Edgar Manning, is a writer of traditional puzzle-plot mystery novels. His rival, Nick McVey, is a writer of hardboiled crime fiction - a genre that Manning considers to be no better than thinly disguised pornography. In fact 1947 was the year that Mickey Spillane’s first novel I, the Jury was published. And many writers and fans of traditional mysteries certainly considered Spillane’s books to be pretty much thinly disguised pornography.

And while Ellery (the Ellery Queen of the TV series that is) does not give an explicit opinion on the matter from everything we know about him as a character it’s fair to assume that he’s likely to be more sympathetic to Manning’s traditionalist view of the genre.

None of this really has any relevance to the plot but it does add an interesting extra layer to the story.

The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument deals not just with mystery writers but with their publishers as well. If the rivalries between writers are fierce the rivalries between publishers are positively brutal.

The two rival publishers both have motives for murdering Edgar Manning. His secretary, his mistress and his research assistant all have motives as well. That rival author, Nick McVey, has a motive too. And most of the motives have something to do with the fact that Manning was a mystery writer, which is another fun touch.

The clues are certainly there and in this case I actually spotted the clue that mattered, although to be honest I think it was just a little bit obvious.

As usual with this series the guest cast is very strong.

A very strong episode.

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap is another episode in which the fact that Ellery is a writer of mysteries is important, indeed vital. A woman dies after apparently jumping from a balcony. She has been reading one of Ellery Queen’s novels. And there is reason to suppose that in some way she was reliving a crucial scene from the novel.

The guest cast is extremely impressive, with Ida Lupino as the murdered woman, Susan Strasberg as her stepdaughter, Craig Stevens as her failed actor husband, Don Ameche as her psychiatrist, Jack Kelly as her lawyer and the wonderful Anne Francis as her nurse.

The rivalry between Ellery and Simon Brimmer becomes a kind of running gag in the series. Brimmer (John Hillerman) is a radio personality who hosts a murder mystery radio series (so we have yet another character who could be considered to be in the detective fiction business). Brimmer is always trying to beat Ellery and his father Inspector Richard Queen to the solution of murder cases. If he could actually solve such a case it would of course be fantastic publicity for his radio show. Unfortunately while Simon tries very hard his solutions always turn out to be wrong. That’s not to say that his solutions are foolish. They’re often very clever and very well thought out. They’re just wrong, because there is always some detail he has overlooked and much to Simon’s chagrin Ellery always spots that missing detail. In this instance Simon Brimmer’s solution is extremely clever indeed and it’s tantalisingly close to the truth, but once again it’s wrong.

Ellery Queen is a series that aims to adhere to the conventions of the puzzle-plot mysteries of the golden age of detective fiction and one of those conventions is that the mystery must be fairly clued so that the reader (or in this case the viewer) has a genuine chance of finding the solution. In this episode the vital clue is certainly there in plain view.

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap is another strong episode.

The Adventure of Veronica's Veils is a theatrical murder mystery. Theatrical impresario Sam Packer’s new burlesque show is about to open when Sam (played by George Burns) dies suddenly of a heart attack. At his funeral he springs a surprise - a film made before his death in which he claims that someone was going to murder him. He goes on to name four suspects - his wife Jennifer, his financial backer Gregory Layton, comic Risky Ross and burlesque dancer Veronica Vale (Barbara Rhoades). He also leaves instructions for Simon Brimmer to investigate his murder.

It’s all very embarrassing for the police since the autopsy indicated that Sam’s death was due to natural causes.However a second more thorough autopsy reveals that Sam Packer died of cyanide poisoning.

There is a slight problem, since for various reasons there doesn’t seem to be any way the poison could have been administered. In this story the howdunit is as important as the whodunit. It is in fact a simple but clever murder method. And the script plays pretty fair with the audience.

One of the strong points of this series is the settings which always turn out to be ideally suited to murder. That was also a definite strength of the early Ellery Queen novels back in the 1930s.

The Adventure of Veronica's Veils works very satisfactorily.

So three episodes and they’re all good. This was an extraordinarily consistent series. I don’t think there’s a single episode that could be described as a dud.