Monday, September 29, 2008

CULT TV REVIEW: Planet Earth (1974)

Planet Earth (1974) represents creator Gene Roddenberry's second effort to get his Genesis II (1973) series premise aired on American network television. As you will remember, Genesis II concerned a 20th century scientist, Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) awaking in 2133 AD and helping the pacifist organization called PAX (Latin for peace) restore the "best of the past" while ignoring "the worst."

Because of his 20th century knowledge and know-how (and because of a system of sub-shuttles "honeycombing" the post-apocalyptic world...), Dylan proved a perfect "agent" of PAX to accomplish this critical mission of planetary reconstruction (think Irish monks in the Dark Ages...). Still, Dylan Hunt had to overcome his own twentieth century addiction to violence and killing.

Star Trek fans will also recall that Gene Roddenberry created two pilots for that classic NBC series, before the series was finally picked up for network television. Specifically, Star Trek underwent a radical change in leading man (from Jeffrey Hunt to William Shatner), and shifted radically in tone from the first pilot ("The Cage") to the second one ("Where No Man Has Gone Before.") In particular, the "cerebral," introspective nature of "The Cage" was replaced by a more action-packed, upbeat tone for Shatner's first episode, "Where No Man..."

One can detect a nearly identical shift at work from Genesis II to Planet Earth. In Genesis II, the brave men and women of PAX lived underground, in dark, depressing (and dimly lit) caverns. In Planet Earth, PAX folk live above ground, in a shiny, technological metropolis (replete with flower gardens and elaborate skyscrapers). Even Dylan Hunt's first voice-over is more upbeat and bright in language, explaining to the audience that in 2133 AD the land is "renewed," and the "air and water are pure again."


In Genesis II, the people of PAX wore simple garments and looked like Roman slaves. In Planet Earth, the people of PAX wear form-fitting and futuristic uniforms that are brightly reminiscent of Star Trek.

In Genesis II, PAX had no advanced technology or advanced medicine. By contrast, Planet Earth reveals a PAX replete with handheld computers, view-screens and large computer banks. The people of PAX are also more knowledgeable here, and there are doctors available who can perform advanced "bioplastic" heart surgery. These changes reveal a completely made-over PAX, one which (like the United Federation of Planets) is a virtual utopia.

Other changes have been made as well. A "recurring" enemy in the form of the barbaric mutants called "The Kreeg" has been added to the mix. These dangerous mutants, like the Klingons of modern day Trek incarnations, boast ridged (or bumpy) foreheads and a style of life geared heavily towards the militaristic. The Kreeg drive around the post-apocalyptic landscape in ancient, souped-up automobiles, and carry twentieth century fire-arms. Basically, It's like Mad Max with Klingons.

Some character relationships have also been tarted up to be as colorful and dynamic as the new environs. The flirtatious relationship between Dylan Hunt (here played by John Saxon) and sexy Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin) is more pronounced. The other members of Hunt's "Team 21" include the hulking Isiah (Ted Cassidy) and a physician named Baylock (Christopher Cary) who is an "Esper" capable of healing wounds with his mind. Baylock and Isiah share a friendly rivalry that is reminiscent of the Spock/Bones relationship on Star Trek, with Baylock dismissively referring to Isiah as a "savage" when Cassidy's character kneels down in prayer at one point.

Perhaps most significant is the change in Dylan Hunt himself. Saxon's version of the character is a man of action (like Kirk); one who is firmly in command this time around. He barks orders, plots strategy and is a firm, decisive leader, with precious little of the introspection or moodiness of Cord's incarnation. Honestly, John Saxon is a much better lead in this particular role, and his central performance holds Planet Earth together pretty damn well. Like Shatner's Kirk, he is a combination of physical agility/beauty and charming arrogance/swagger.





Another Star Trekkian touch: Dylan Hunt chronicles his adventures in a handheld device (a 1970s blackberry!). It's not the captain's log, but damn close. Instead, he calls it "a log report to the PAX council."

Given the changes to a punchier, more upbeat tone, philosophy is also played down in Planet Earth. Genesis II ended with the high-minded pacifists of PAX lecturing to Dylan Hunt (who had just saved them all from nuclear annihilation...) about the evils of violence and murder. In Planet Earth, the PAX folk are still peaceful in nature (they continue to use sedative darts as their primary weapons, called PAXer darts. for instance), but they never stop the action to wax philosophic or lecture about pacifism. And judging by the fight sequences here, the people of PAX have also learned the fine art of self-defense.

Directed by the late, great Marc Daniels (who helmed many episodes of Star Trek), Planet Earth (co-written by Juanita Bartlett and Roddenberry and produced by Robert Justman) also features a plot that is easier, in some sense, to identify with. In the opening minutes of the episode, gentle Pater Kimbridge, a leader of PAX, is wounded during a kerfuffle with the Kreeg. Dylan and Team 21 get Kimbridge back to Pax, but they require the skills of a surgeon named John Connor to save the old man's life. Unfortunately, Connor disappeared a year earlier in an "unexplored region" ruled by a matriarchy called "The Confederacy."


There in the confederacy, "males are bought and sold like caged animals." Hunt wonders aloud -- is this "women's lib...or women's lib gone mad?" Anyway, he resolves to infiltrate the Confederacy as a slave "owned" (as property) by Harper-Smythe, to locate John Connor and rescue his dying friend. He has just sixty hours to accomplish this task. What Planet Earth establishes with Dylan's mission is the bond of friendship between Kimbridge and Hunt. Hunt states that Kimbridge "is" PAX; both "grace" and "warmth." So underlining the action and weird central scenario in this pilot is a narrative that could have come from Star Trek; about the lengths friends will go to for friends.

Once inside the Confederacy of Ruth, Hunt becomes the property of a dominatrix named Marg (Diana Muldaur), who wins ownership of him in combat with Harper-Smythe. Marg decides she wants him to be a "breeder" (yes!), and Dylan soon learns that all the males here -- called "Dinks" -- are rendered docile by a drug extract (in their gruelish food...) that controls the human "fear/fascination" response. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this drug is sterility. Fewer and fewer children are being born in the Confederacy. The mission is now two-fold for Dylan: set right this topsy-turvy culture (men's lib!) and find the missing Dr. John Connor.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Hunt soon rebels against training, and Marg notes that "the human male is an unstable creature." She trains him herself (yippee!), forcing a tied-up Hunt to ingest a full vial of the dangerous extract, rendering him docile. But, in the best teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching tradition of Captain Kirk, Hunt fights the effects of the drug.

Once again, here's a Gene Roddenberry story with a decidedly kinky bent. Dylan Hunt is soon remanded to Marg's home as a "breeder" and once there he promises her that he's, uh...well...good in bed. He claims he has fourteen wives and that his body is attuned to "different practices" than The Mistress might be familiar with. Marg and Hunt share a scene that includes bottles of wine, a bullwhip (whoo-hoo!), and ultimately.. a bed. In the sack, Marg and Dylan proceed discuss the failure of both 20th century men's lib and post-apocalyptic women's lib as governing philosophies, and settle on "people's lib." Yep, in the words of Dylan Hunt, it's all just a "little non-verbal mutual respect."

Before long, the Kreeg attack the Confederacy, but Dylan has executed a plan to free the Dinks from their drug-induced docility and stand-up and fight. In the end, PAX outsiders, Dinks and Mistresses fight back the violent Kreegs (led by John Quade) and Dylan and Harper-Smythe get Connor back to PAX to save Kimbridge's life.

I hadn't seen Planet Earth in probably fifteen years, and my memory has always been that it wasn't as good; wasn't as "pure" perhaps, as the original, Genesis II. However, on a fresh viewing, I must admit, I actually prefer Planet Earth. John Saxon seems very comfortable (and appealing) as a leader of men (and women), and he's adept with the romantic and action bits. He's also highly charismatic and appears to be enjoying himself.

And that "light" Star Trek sense of esprit-de-corps and joie-de-vivre is definitely present too, so Saxon understands the style. True, there's less philosophical grandstanding, but the lighter touch is fun and entertaining, and it easily (and humorously) makes points about the timeless "battle of the sexes." Parts of the episode play well as satire; and in toto, Planet Earth is a lot less heavy-handed and grave than Genesis II. This is a planet you wouldn't mind visiting every week.

By making PAX more advanced in Planet Earth, Roddenberry is also better able to compare and contrast various cultures and societies. It's very difficult to be a committed pacifist when you live in desperation (underground in caves; wearing rags); a little easier to do so when some of the basic necessities of life -- like sunlight -- are met. The unisex uniforms also forge a sharp visual distinction between PAX and the other cultures too. The character dynamics here also seem more promising, or at least more colorful.

Alas, Planet Earth didn't make the grade either, and never went to series. A third attempt with this formula, also starring John Saxon (this time as Captain Anthony Vico) -- entitled Strange New World (1975) -- was next. Roddenberry had reduced involvement in that pilot, and it too failed to become a series.

Like Genesis II, Planet Earth has yet to have an official DVD release. Let's hope we see one soon.

5 comments:

  1. Star Trek is one of the best series, the greatest retro/cult style. I'm fond of it!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Basically ANDROMEDA was taking Roddenberry's concept of GENESIS II & PLANET EARTH and applying the STAR TREK template.

    It appears that the fourth time was the charm...

    ReplyDelete
  3. What's it gonna take for Warner Bros. to release these on DVD?!

    ReplyDelete
  4. All 3 are now on DVD. I recall watching "Planet Earth" on it's original premier. As a young Star Trek fan I recall being disappointed...

    ReplyDelete