Friday, December 30, 2011

Into 2012 (Deeds, Not Words...)

Well, the year 2011 has been the biggest so far for this blog in terms of readership, and we topped last year's number of hits by well over 30,000 unique visitors.  I also posted more frequently this year than in any year since the blog began, in 2005: over 380 posts.

In terms of content, 2011 was the year of my first blogathon (in honor of the great Lance Henriksen and co-sponsored with author Joe Maddrey), and the span of such events as Planet of the Apes Week, the Matrix-a-thon, The James Cameron Curriculum and the Tim Burton Brief. 

I've had a blast, and I hope you did too.

As we move into 2012, I am starting up a new recurring feature called "1982 in Film," which reviews movies from the great genre year of 1982. 

This was the span that brought the world highlights such as Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Creepshow, The Dark Crystal, E.T., Firefox, Poltergeist, Q, The Secret of NIMH, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing and Tron, as well as cult movies such as The Beastmaster, Class of 1984, Cat People, Timerider and The Last Unicorn.  I'll be reviewing ALL of these memorable productions in 2012, in remembrance of thirty years since '82.

Also in 2012 on the blog, I'll be writing  retrospectives of the Jurassic Park film trilogy and Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy.  Plus, to celebrate the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises in July, I'll be featuring a Batman week much in the vein of the Planet of the Apes week last year.

Finally, I'll be continuing to look back at some of the unexcavated gems of Star Trek: The Next Generation to celebrate that program's historic 25th anniversary. 

And, of course, in 2012 I'll continue to examine cult-tv faces of different sci-fi tv tropes and conventions, and highlight "collectibles of the week."  Also, come summer, I'll be offering another director retrospective...or two.

Stick around! The best is yet to come...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

From the Archive: 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 dramatic 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) represents 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 James T. 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 on a handheld device.  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 if 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 his new 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 to 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. 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.

Today, Planet Earth -- the best Roddenberry version of this concept -- is available for purchase at the Warner Archive.

From the Archives: Genesis II (1973)

In the early 1970s, Great Bird of the Galaxy and Star Trek revered creator Gene Roddenberry attempted to launch a new science fiction TV series entitled Genesis II. Today, this program is something of a legend to thirty-something genre buffs. Myself included. I for one have often wished that a clever producer would inherit this promising property and remake it today as a new series.

For those whose memory banks have failed, the Genesis II pilot basically filled in a period of Earth "future" history, post 20th-century (and post-World War III, or in Genesis II terminology, "The Great Conflict") but pre-Star Trek Age.

In other words, the proposed series would have depicted Earth's adolescent struggles as man emerged from a deadly childhood (consisting of war and lust...) and became -- in the words of of Gene Roddenberry's teleplay -- a "grown up."  Roddenberry commissioned twenty hour-long scripts for Genesis II, and they're all still out there, even in 2011: a veritable first season's worth of adventures ready to produce right now. One of those stories, by Alan Dean Foster ("Robot's Return") even became the basis for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and "V'Ger."

Despite a library of twenty scripts ready to produce, despite a fascinating premise about future Earth's evolution, CBS passed on Genesis II in favor of a TV version of Planet of the Apes (1974). Refusing to surrender, Roddenberry re-fashioned elements of the Genesis II premise and produced a second (more colorful and action-packed) version of the material called Planet Earth. If you're a fan of the 2000 - 2005
 syndicated outer space series Andromeda, you may also recall that certain elements of that Kevin Sorbo series (including the name of the Genesis II hero, Dylan Hunt), were incorporated from this 1970s TV movie and pilot.

Genesis II commences in the late 1970s with a Buck Rogers-style premise. American scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) takes part in a suspended animation experiment deep inside a NASA facility inside Carlsbad Caverns (and adjacent to the Continental Defense Command). As Dylan is put to sleep in a pressure chamber, there is an inconveniently-timed rock fall and the facility is permanently buried, destroyed. Hunt is left for dead. Abandoned.

In voice-over narration, Hunt reports "My name is Dylan Hunt...and my story begins the day on which I died." He then reports (accompanied by flashbacks...) how he served as the chief of the suspended animation project (known as Ganymede) since 1979, and how he arrived at the Carlsbad facility (from Washington DC) on a highly-advanced "sub-shuttle" which could travel 1135 kilometers an hour. The plan was to connect every nation in the world with these sub-shuttles, thus "bridging" continents. The sub-shuttles were necessary because surface and air travel had grown too vulnerable to attack (apparently, according to the prescient dialogue, China was on blazing ascent).

In the year 2133 AD -- some 154 years after the cavern accident -- Dylan Hunt is awakened by team members of an organization called PAX (Latin for "peace.") Pax's leader is a stoic, impressive black man, Primus Kimbridge (Percy Rodrigues), and he is accompanied on the rescue mission by a feisty human woman named Harper-Smythe (Lynne
Marta) and a gorgeous half-Tyranian mutant, Lyra-a (the foxy Mariette Hartley).

In a scene demonstrating Gene Roddenberry's finely-developed penchant for kinkiness, Dylan Hunt's physiological revival nearly fails (his skin has actually turned blue...). To survive, Hunt's body needs to "want to live." Yes -- as Dylan reveals in voice over -- there is apparently a deep connection between "the will to survive" and "the need to reproduce." It is that connection that spurs metabolic revival post-suspension.

Cutting through the techno-jargon, what this means simply is that Lyra-a must make love to Dylan to restore the twentieth-century scientist to health.

And did I mention that Lyra-a has two belly buttons?

o, from the haze of a half-coma, Dylan begs Lyra-a: "make me want to live." She happily obliges. Note to self: if I am ever in suspended animation for 154 years, I would like Lyra-a to be present to revive me.

Anyway, cut to sometime later (*ahem*) and Lyra-a is still nursing the recuperating Dylan Hunt back to health. She promptly asks if Dylan remembers how she "cared" for him and then strips down to a bikini and shows off her double-belly button. Okay: best post-apocalyptic TV pilot ever,

As Lyra-a flaunts her fetching twin navels, she also provides some critical story exposition. Tyranians are apparently mutants with two hearts, and vastly superior strength. And they need Dylan's help because their nuclear reactor is malfunctioning. Lyra-a also claims that the people of PAX are militaristic plunderers (looting various c

In other words, in a world ruined by war, the greatest wrong imaginable is killing...even the "justifiable" killing of an enemy. If the human race is to grow up, it must eschew violence totally. The people of PAX will not sacrifice their ideals for security; not murder other people in the name of "peace."

"I hope I'm up to it," says Hunt, committing to a bold, and perhaps difficult future.

I've written above, perhaps a bit too snarkily, about the sexual aspects of Genesis II, but in fairness, this pilot also boasts Roddenberry's penchant for intelligent social commentary. Not merely in terms of the anti-war, pro-peace message, either, but in terms of gender and race equality. For instance, the attentive viewer will notice immediately the "unisex" and integrated nature of PAX. Blacks, and whites, men and women, hold the title "Primus" and work together to build the future. There's also great (and highly-amusing) scene here in which Harper-Smythe complains bitterly that the world was destroyed by "lust" (lust between the sexes, lust for property, lust for power...), and it rings true enough that we recognize the concern.

And even though Genesis II occurs post-holocaust, there is room for hope (Roddenberry's famous, trademark optimism) in this troubled world. The Earth survives, and has been gifted with "a second chance."

On the other hand, this message is muddled by some of the visuals. For instance, much of Genesis II occurs underground, in dark, unpleasant caves. True, some caves are decorated with art; and there's also a garden in evidence, but the visual reveals the truth: the peaceful (good) people of PAX have been relegated to living in a basement. They wear rags that look like potato sacks. Though the citizenry are idealistic, though they have hope, their "home" looks pretty grim. This is one element that is changed in Planet Earth. It infuses PAX's world with spiffy uniforms (recalling Star Trek) and vibrant, upbeat-colors (more Star Trek). Genesis II is probably more intellectually honest about what a post-apocalyptic state would look like; but Planet Earth is definitely more palatable in terms of visuals.

Other visuals are a mixed bag on Genesis II. The Tyranian City is a perfect example. It is depicted with a great matte painting (from a distance.) But up close, the city looks just like your friendly neighborhood community college campus. Likewise, some exterior vistas are impressive (like Hunt's first view of the outside world), while other locations look suspiciously like Southern California ranches. And, there's some clumsy insertion of stock footage here too. When Lyra-a and Dylan ride to the Tyranian city, the episode cuts to stock material of squirrels and raccoons gallivanting.

So, how is one to assess the pilot overall? Well, the climactic action in Genesis II is pretty darn uninspiring, truth be told, and the overall tone lacks Star Trek's joie-de-vivre. Also, there's little sense of esprit-de-corps between the protagonists. (Again, this is understandable, given the grave circumstances...) However, the set-up of the series (it's just one sub-shuttle ride to new civilizations and new life forms...) and the powerful ideals of the PAX characters (their evolved view towards violence and war) certainly held great potential. Also, the idea of a man like Hunt - who embodies both the best and worst of the 20th century - dealing with a "brave new world" seemed to promise so much.

I still think this would have been a great series and I mourn the decision not to green light it. The pilot offers the Roddenberry touch (and his writing style) in spades, and is immensely entertaining. Also, you can't deny Genesis II was ahead of its time. Just a few years later, the short-lived Logan's Run TV series would adopt a familiar formula. That series involved hover-craft (not sub-shuttle) trips to various post-apocalyptic cultures-of-the-week.

If you think about it, Roddenberry nearly accomplished the impossible here: he excavated a second great series formula, one that held for the possibility of so many exciting and diverse stories. I don't know that there is any Mr. Spock-style break out character in Genesis II, but Lyra-a, with her philosophy of "self-interest" and her inability to "feel love" as humans "understand" it, could have made for some very interesting moments and dynamic character interaction. Also, the idea of Earth getting a new beginning - a second genesis - is one of enormous optimism, something that over time (and some brighter photography...) might have resonated with audiences the way Star Trek's spirit of universal brotherhood did.

So why isn't anybody remaking this as a series, using the 20 original scripts as foundational material?
ivilizations for ancient treasures), descendants of the very soldiers responsible for the "Great Conflict" in the first place.

Lyra-a helps Dylan escape from PAX in a still-functioning sub-shuttle and escorts him to the grand Tyranian metropolis (located in old Arizona). There, Dylan learns the truth: Tyranians practice deceit as "a virtue" and believe that "self-interest is the natural order of life."  The Tyranians also enslave human beings, whom they euphemistically refer to as "Our Helpers."

Furthermore, the Tyranians control human beings with technological wands called "stims," devices which can deliver eight degrees of pain...or eight degrees of pleasure. Again, this is incredibly kinky when put in practice (what with all the wand touching and all...), but frankly, that's the patented Roddenberrian touch I missed most in the modern incarnations of the Trek franchise. Bring on the double-belly buttons and the pleasure sticks. Please.

The remainder of the TV-movie involves Dylan learning that PAX is actually a noble organization, one committed to "preserving the best of the past" and "letting the worst of it be forgotten." With the help of a PAX team, including a Native American named Isiah (Ted Cassidy), Dylan stages an insurrection to free the Tyranians' human slaves. He also learns why Lyra-a really brought him to the city: they have a nuclear missile aimed at PAX's headquarters, and need Dylan's help making it functional.

Genesis II ends with a nuclear detonation at the Tyranian nuclear facility (far from the city). Dylan has double-crossed the Tyranians and removed their weapons of mass destruction permanently. Interestingly, the pilot then ends on a strongly pacifist, philosophical note. The men and wo
men of PAX, though facing annihilation, are angry that Hunt has killed Tyranians. "Did you take lives?" They ask with disapproval. Of course, he has ("I saved everyone!" he says), but the people of PAX believe his choice was immoral, and don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk. "You must swear to give your life rather than to take another," they insist.

Genesis II is now available on DVD, courtesy of the extensive Warner Archive.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Strange New World (1975)

"What is this, some kind of Alice in Wonderland game?"

Captain Anthony Vico (John Saxon) confronts the mysteries of Eterna in Strange New World (1975).

Strange New World (1975) is usually considered the third of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's efforts to launch his Genesis II/Dylan Hunt series concept, following Genesis II (1973) and Planet Earth (1974). 

The only problem, of course, is that Gene Roddenberry's name is found nowhere in the credits of Strange New World, now available on DVD through the magnificent and indispensable Warner Archive.

Indeed, Roddenberry reportedly passed on this third series attempt, even though it stars Planet Earth lead actor John Saxon, utilizes the "PAX" name from the earlier pilots, and features the same general story of men from the present waking-up in a post-apocalyptic future and attempting to restore the auspices of  human civilization in a newly barbarous world.

In Strange New World, three astronauts aboard the space laboratory PAX -- Captain Anthony Vico (John Saxon), navigator Allison Crowley (Kathleen Miller), and Dr. Scott (Keene Curtis) -- are awakened from hibernation after 180 years (in the year 2173) only to learn that Earth has faced a terrible holocaust.  Swarms of meteorites destroyed whole portions of the planet surface at the end of the 20th century, virtually ending human civilization.  Intriguingly, this calamity makes Strange New World the only one of the three pilots not to feature the element of man destroying himself in a nuclear war.  Here, the cosmos are to blame for our troubles.

Returning to Earth and roaming the country side in a vehicle called a "Vesta Explorer," the three astronauts attempt to home-in on a Pax "recall" signal which will lead them to the underground cave where their loved ones await, all trapped in hibernation.  Their first mission in this "strange new world" is to wake-up their fellow PAX-ers from "an endless sleep."

In the first portion of this Robert Butler-directed pilot, following a heavy-handed voice over narration from Saxon, Vico, Crowley and Dr. Scott run afoul of a land called "Eterna" that has apparently conquered death. 

With Saxon's Vico wearing a red toga, and the lush green community grounds all around, plus several athletic young folks in colorful stretchy suits, this portion of the show resembles Boorman's Zardoz (1974), at least superficially.   There's the sense of a surrounding "dark ages" while inside a protected compound, one group of Eternals (Eternans?) live in a kind of stagnant, unchanging paradise.   The outsider in both situations -- Connery in a loincloth in Zardoz and Saxon in a toga in Strange New World -- represents the change agent.

Very quickly, the PAX astronauts learn that something is rotten in the state of Eterna, namely that a 212-year old surgeon played by James Olson has "conquered" physical death through the creation of clones.  These disposable people serve as organ donors (a la Parts: The Clonus Horror, or The Island).  And some of the clones, known as "Defectives" are even forced to wear masks in public so as not to offend good taste.  Unfortunately, the self-same surgeon has not come up with a cure for senility, and is rapidly losing his mind.  His ultimate plan is to have Dr. Scott replace him as leader of Eterna, but Scott rebels when he learns that the surgeon plans to drain all of Vico and Alison's blood to boost the immunity of Eterna's denizens.

In Strange New World's second tale, the triumvirate of Vico, Scott and Crowley encounters a lingering war between descendants of Federal wild-life rangers and criminal poachers in what remains of a nature preserve.  The poachers get their hands on Vico's deadly flare gun, which unsettles the balance of power, and Vico and Scott must interfere in a battle not their own to save the day. 

In the end, Vico recommends the rangers alter their culture to incorporate the poachers.  The rangers, who live by the ancient "Code of Fish and Wild Life" manual realize that the book's words were "written for a different time," and must be updated to meet the challenges of today, not the past.

For many years, Strange New World has been considered the worst of the three Genesis II-styled pilots from the mind of Roddenberry.  In large part, this judgment may arise because PAX plays the smallest role in the action here.  The idea inherent in Genesis II, Planet Earth and Strange New World is that the Earth is destroyed...but that man can -- through his auspices of decency, science, technology and morality -- rebuild it. 

In other words, there's the optimism of Star Trek present in the concept, but it's tempered (dramatically) by the fact that a new dark ages comes before man's ascent to the maturity (and the stars?).  That idea is more cogently conveyed in Genesis II and Planet Earth, both of which showcase a functioning PAX organization in the future of the New Dark Ages, one replete with Trekkian-like uniforms, ethnically-diverse members, and high-tech equipment.  All of that is missing in Strange New World: It's basically just three astronauts (in grimy outfits, no less), roaming around in a boxy RV, looking for signs of life.  The optimism factor is largely absent.  PAX is a relic of the past, absent in the present, and only a vague hope for the future.

There's also far less humor and overt sex appeal in Strange New World than in either of its predecessors.  The pilot sets one story in an antiseptic advanced culture (Eterna) and one in a desperate primitive culture, and there's an inherent darkness in both realms.  Vico and his friends leave Eterna with all the citizens dead, a questionable decision, if you think about the nature of a post-apocalyptic world.  It's one thing to dislike and disapprove of an immoral culture.  It's another thing to annihilate it -- and all its inhabitants -- when it is the only game in town.   And yet, again, the Eterna interlude feels very much of the style of the Planet of the Apes films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the aforementioned Zardoz

This is a dark, dystopian future, perhaps more out-of-synch with the Roddenberry aesthetic than either previous pilot. 

The second tale in Strange New World is actually slightly more optimistic.  It does breach a rapprochement between rangers and poachers, but it's also kind of dark and gritty.  The photography in this portion of the film is particularly strong: Strange New World looks authentically like a feature film.  But it feels only intermittently Roddenberry-ian, to coin a phrase.
There's also no doubt that Strange New World pointed to a central trope or convention of 1970s cult television and film: the post-apocalyptic road trip in an RV. 

TV series such as Ark II (1975), Logan's Run (1977) and films such as Damnation Alley (1977) all featured heroes broaching new, strange cultures each week in nifty, futuristic vehicles.  The Vesta Explorer seen here is a pretty cool ride though it receives relatively little screen time.

Of the three Genesis II-styled TV pilots, I actually admire Planet Earth (the second attempt) the most.  Saxon is a more charismatic lead than Alex Cord (from Genesis II), and that pilot (Planet Earth) has more sex appeal, more humor, more color and more Star Trekkian optimism than either Genesis II or Strange New World

The touches I like most in Strange New World are almost throwaway ones.  You'll notice, for instance, that Allison wears a wedding ring and makes brief mention of her lost husband and interesting character touch that might have proven valuable in continuing stories.  What if Vico and Allison fell in love? 

Also, Keene Curtis is very good as Dr. Scott here, at first tempted by the medical knowledge available in Eterna and then, in the second story, willing to settle down, to "slow down" and "start living."  There's every possibility that had Strange New World gone to series that these two supporting characters would have made very interesting counterpoints to Saxon's heroic but dour Vico.  Would they have lost the passion for their mission, and just wanted to settle down somewhere?

It's always fun, as a fan of Star Trek, to gaze at the ideas in Strange New World and consider how they have played out in early and later Trek incarnations.  The second story in Strange New World, the one involving the Poachers, plays like a more cynical, less optimistic version of "The Omega Glory."  There, technological "parallel" cultures had descended into barbarism, but the "Yangs" still spoke the "worship" words of the U.S. Constitution!  Here, of course, the wildlife manual provides the words of importance, but the idea is the same.

And the story in Eterna -- with clones suffering from the equivalent replicative fading -- very much points to the second season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Up the Long Ladder."

The special effects and sets in Strange New World are all serviceable, as are the performances.  There's no denying that the program is a serious effort, and -- with a little fine tuning -- would have made a good series.  Too bad it didn't get the chance to expand upon all the potential.

Finally, being a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I especially enjoyed the moment in Strange New World wherein John Saxon decked Chunk Beefslab -- Reb Brown ("Space Mutiny") -- but then had to face an army of Reb Brown clones. 

Reb Brown clones.  Now that's dark...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 96: Beast Wars (Hasbro; 1995 - 2000)

If you're the parent of a young child in 2011, an absolute constant in your life is likely the Transformers, those famous "robots in disguise" who have remained ensconced in the pop-culture firmament since the mid-1980s. 

Not unexpectedly, my five year-old son, Joel, is a Transformers fanatic, but he has developed a special affinity for one particular branch of the Transformers universe: Beast Wars.

Joel's obsession began when we innocently picked up Season One of the animated Beast Wars TV series (1996 - 1999) at Target about two months ago and got hooked. 

We've watched the other, more-widely seen Transformers cartoon series together, but -- at the risk of offending the purists -- the original show often bores me to tears.  There are so damned many Autobots and Decepticons to keep track of, and, well, I just can't seem to do it.  There seem to be hundreds of them, and their personalities (save for a few, like Starscream) seem kind of interchangeable to someone who is watching with one eye while fixing his son breakfast or lunch, or getting things together on a school morning.

But Beast Wars is a different animal, if you'll pardon the pun. 

The series is set in the future of the Transformers universe, and involves only a handful of characters (at first), all stranded on a "mysterious" planet.

On one side of the battle is the crew of the Axalon, the "Maximals:" Optimus Primal, Rhinox, Rattrap and Cheetor. 

On the other side are the Predacons: Megatron, Waspinator, Terrasaur, Tarantulis, Inferno and a few others. 

And bridging the gap between "good" and "evil" are great characters such as Black Arachnia and my favorite of all the Transformers (in any incarnation of the franchise): Dinobot.  I can't say enough good things about the writing and development of the Dinobot character, or the use to which the writers ultimately put him.  The episode in which Dinobot "dies" saving the human race is absolutely stunning...and deeply affecting.  It traumatized both me and Joel, but boy was it well-done.  I plan to do a full-fledged "cult tv flashback" on Beast Wars at some point (as soon as Joel and I digest it all).

Anyway, over the course of the three seasons, the Maximals and Predacons battle each other, and vie to control "protoforms," new would-be troops who land on the energon-laden planet in stasis pods. 

In the second year, some of the series characters get an upgrade to "transmetal" category thanks to a "quantum surge," and the same event also precipitates the arrival of protoforms called "Fuzors," which are hybrids of two distinct life-forms, and which do not, apparently, contain "sparks" like the Maximals and Predacons.

More characters are added to the series over the years (including the noble Silverbolt, Tigatron, Air Razor, Quick Strike and Depth Charge)....and as you might guess, ALL the characters have corresponding toys.  In fact, some characters have multiple toys once you factor in the Transmetal upgrade.  For instance, there's Optimus Primal, Transmetal Optimus and then, finally Optimal Optimus.  Whew.

So it has become my son's obsessive mission in life to collect Beast Wars transformers, all of whom feature a "beast" mode and a robot mode.  When the Predacons go to robot mode they say "terrorize," (as opposed to say, "convert," in the Gobot lingo...) and when the Maximals transform into robots, they declare "Maximize."  

Joel is currently maximizing his Beast Wars collection, acquiring Fuzors, Transmetals and others by the boatload.   There are some wacky ones too, like a Flying Squirrel ("Nightglide") and even a Skunk (called "Stinkbomb.")

Like the Transformers, these Beast War toys are usually of pretty high quality, and come with assortments of accouterments, including missile launchers and whirring saw blades.   Some of the toys are more show accurate than others, but all of them function as creative puzzles for Joel as he assiduously shifts them from form to form.

My feeling about Beast Wars: The toys are great, but -- incredibly -- the TV series is even better.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Silicon-Based Life Forms

Identified by Brian: Dr. Who: "The Krotons."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "The Devil in the Dark" (Horta)

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "The Savage Curtain" (Yarnek/Excalbian)

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "All that Glisters."

identified by Brian: Dr. Who: "The Stones of Blood."

Identified by Brian: Blake's 7: "The Web."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Home Soil."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Silicon Avatar"

Identified by Brian: The X-Files: "Firewalker."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: Enterprise: "In a Mirror, Darkly." (Tholian)

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Chromastone on Ben 10: Alien Force

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Diamondhead on Ben 10.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Happy Holidays to all the readers on the blog.  I hope you all have a safe and wondrous holiday spent with family and friends, and that Santa is good to you.  Drink lots of egg nog.