Thursday, January 05, 2012

CULT TV-MOVIE FLASHBACK: Earth II (1971)


Not to be confused with NBC's Earth 2 (1994 - 1995), Earth II (1971) was the failed pilot for a TV series that first aired on American television in late November of 1971.  At that time, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was still a dramatic influence on genre productions, and Earth II looks and feels a bit like 2001 as a TV series, with much attention paid to space hardware and other technical details.  Additionally, Earth II is very much a political story; one about the need for humanity to grow up and truly consider the pervasive belief that "might makes right; thus we should be mighty," to quote one character.

Earth II opens in the near future as a rocket is launched from America on a "special mission" to carry the components of a space station into orbit.  The U.S. President (Lew Ayres) appears on national television and reports that the space station, Earth II, will be established not as an extension of United States power, but as an independent, sovereign nation with its own government and laws.  Only in this manner, the President believes, can Earth II solve the problems of hunger and poverty on Earth, and devote itself to the problems of all mankind.

Not everyone is so happy, however, to see the revolutionary mission launch.  A saboteur working for the Red Chinese government attempts to destroy the rocket on the pad, but the Coast Guard intervenes and the launch is a success.  The American people vote for the President's space initiative by turning on their lights in the dark of night, as the rocket travels over the continent.  Seventy-one percent of Americans believe in Earth II's mission of peace, a fact which the President -- a "citizen of this struggling planet" -- appreciates.

Some years later, Earth II is established, and has become the independent nation the former President dreamed of, one overseen by administrator David Seville (Gary Lockwood), one of the astronauts who was aboard the first launch. 

As the story proper begins, David welcomes to the station the Karger family, which includes conservative Fred Karger (Tony Franciosa), his wife/photographer Lisa (Mariette Hartley) and their son, Matt.  Fred is far less idealistic about political problems than Seville, and upon arrival demands "debate and decision" conferences for the entire Earth II population of 1,982  citizens regarding a new and pressing problem.  

Specifically, the Red Chinese have launched a nuclear device into orbit, one that is only 150 miles from Earth II.  Fred fears the nearby presence of such a destructive war machine, and believes Earth II should take aggressive steps to neutralize the threat.  David, meanwhile, suggests that to intervene with the Chinese nuclear device is to risk World War III  and also the very pacifist principles of Earth II.  The population votes and  sides with Fred, however, and a mission is launched to defuse the nukes in space.  The problem, of course, is that the Chinese -- if they become aware of the mission -- could detonate the missiles in space, destroying Earth II entirely.

After the defusing mission fails, the nuclear device is brought back to Earth II.  There, Fred demands a second "debate and decision" conference, this time over the issue of keeping the nuclear weapons permanently.  Specifically, he wants the peaceful Earth II to become a nuclear power, so it can no longer be threatened or bullied by forces like China.  Fred's wife, Lisa, vehemently disagrees with him on the issue, and launches the nuclear weapon into space towards the sun.  Unfortunately, the trajectory fails, and the weapon plummets towards the Great Lakes.

With little time available for a rescue attempt, Seville, Karger and the men and women of Earth II race to retrieve the weapon, and prevent the beginnings of World War III.

Although today the special effects in this TV pilot seem somewhat dated, and the overall pace is decidedly slow, Earth II is nonetheless almost revolutionary in terms of its intelligent approach to detailing with global political issues, and how they relate to the well-being of all mankind.  Overall, the plot might be described as the Cuban Missile Crisis in Orbit and indeed, that event is referenced directly in the dialogue.  

More uniquely, however, the plot is set up as a kind of back-and-forth between a Cold Warrior-styled conservative (Karger) and a more idealistic, future-minded progressive, Seville (Lockwood).  Delightfully, neither one is treated as a villain or as a two-dimensional punching bag.  Instead, both point of views are thoroughly explored, and the two men of different stripes learn how to work together for the betterment of all.  In Washington D.C. today, this spirit of cooperation seems to be the very thing that is missing from our debate.  As a people, we now cherish ideological purity, it seems, over compromise. 

Delightfully, when Karger and Seville debate the issues on Earth II's station-wide television broadcast, their words and arguments are instantly measured by a dispassionate computer.

This means that as the progressive and conservative each speak, the machine puts up sub-titles that help to better inform voters about what is being said.

One argument is spoken alongside with the chyron descriptor, "emotional appeal."  Another with the legend: "no evidence of this conclusion."   There's even one that reports the "argument [is] presented in unbiased terms." 

How I would love to see this idea played out in Presidential debates, with the media dispassionately, objectively and accurately noting the emotional and logical fallacies of the candidates as they grandstand, demagogue, and distort facts.  Somehow, I don't think it will happen.  But anyway, it's an excellent idea, and if our mainstream media were doing a good job, something like this computerized "translation" of a politician's words would already be in place.

More intriguing than the amusing chyrons, however is the nature of the debate between Karger and Seville.  Karger believes the Chinese should be confronted powerfully about their illegal action (putting a nuclear device in orbit), while Seville notes that there are already missiles pointed at space all over the Earth, in silos in many countries, and so there's no need to provoke a war simply because of proximity of one device to the station.  It's a battle between a person with too little trust, and a person with too much trust, perhaps. 

The character of Lisa (Hartley), is also portrayed in an interesting fashion. She notes trenchantly that we "cannot carry a stick and live for peace," bringing up the inherent contradiction of "fighting for peace." 

Yet this idealist and pacifist is the first to take matters into her own hands -- overruling the democracy of Earth II -- when it has chosen a path she doesn't approve of; her own' husband's.  Lisa launches the missile towards the Sun because she is not willing to trust in the people -- in democracy -- to decide the way she wants them too.  It's a very interesting depiction of democracy, and the role that hawks and doves each play.

But the conceit that comes through in spades in Earth II is this idea that conservative, progressive, hawk or dove, we can all choose to work together for the common good of the human race.  We won't always agree on how to reach the best solution, but -- by presenting arguments "in unbiased terms" -- we can choose a little from each philosophy, and then step forward into the stars.   Alas, I fear that even today this is not possible, since so many people in Washington D.C. and the heartland view political opponents as mortal enemies to America, not as fellow Americans who just happen to think differently.  I mean, I can't imagine what many modern Americas would think, even, of a sovereign space station in orbit.  Look at how the U.N. has been demonized over the last forty years, for example.  A sovereign space station, one truly independent of American control, would likely be viewed as a threat by many of our countrymen.  And yet, truly, we must make a crucial decision about space: is it to be the frontier of our best angels, or our worst demons? 

Earth II may be slow going at points, but it struggles with this idea in grand, intelligent and illuminating ways.  If we are ever to reach the Star Trek era of the United Federation of Planets and acceptance of all life forms, we must first come to accept that even here on Earth, we do not think alike. 

In terms of logic and internal consistency, Earth II is generally pretty strong, but with a few notable lapses.  For instance, no guns are allowed on the station (not even toy guns), and hence there are no security personnel on the station, as it were.  This (poor) decision means that there is no one present to stop Lisa from launching the nuclear device, and nearly causing World War III.  I understand that the station is all about "peace," but look what lax security and oversight nearly causes.  A station -- even one of peaceful means -- needs security personnel. 

Also, there's a tense scene near the end of the pilot during which Seville, Karger and other technicians work madly and quickly to defuse the Chinese nuclear bomb as the light of the sun threatens to melt several control leads.  A character named Capa (Scott Hylands) flies a shuttle pod to slow the rotation of the station to prevent passage towards the sun (and increased temperatures), but it's tough to understand why he didn't just fly the pod in front of the bay hatch where the work is being done, thus blocking the star's heat in that fashion.

If you're a fan of such productions as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), and Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) you'll find much to enjoy and appreciate in Earth II.  Like those other programs, it's about the space program in the near future, not the distant age of the 23rd or 24th century.  Accordingly, mankind is as much a threat to his continued survival here  as are the hazards of space travel. 

Personally, I've always enjoyed this idea tremendously and feel such efforts showcase a realistic side of man as a species.  We are capable of great achievements -- technologically and philosophically -- but we still have some growing up to do.  It's a race, I think, to see which part of the human equation takes the lead.  Will we become space pioneers of a new age, or introverts locked down on Earth and doomed, eventually, to self-destruction?

I would have loved to see Earth II run for a few seasons to kick around that idea.  Instead, I'll have to settle for this memorable pilot, which is now available at the Warner Archive.  I recommend you watch it, but with the caveat that you'll see something paced more like Kubrick than Lucas.

4 comments:

  1. Wow John, you managed to review all the '70s sci-fi pilots (the Roddenberry trilogy and Earth II) that I have on my Amazon wishlist! I'm so glad the Warner Archive exists. I'm just going to break down and buy them now that you got me thinking of them again!

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  2. Anonymous11:58 AM

    The TNT channel used to run this movie ever so often (up until the mid-90's), so I rememeber it from that. It's dated by more than just the special effects. The characters all wear early seventies' street clothes and hair cuts (Gary Lockwood could use a haircut). That utilitarian look extends to the sets too. Earth II definately doesn't have the visual flair of Gerry Anderson's 'The Day After Tomorrow' (which is just beautiful to look at). I do enjoy the serious and adult approach to the story-telling. This was a leap forward for intelligent sci-fi on television. An interesting comparison can be made to the 1967 pilot 'The Solarnauts' (available on YouTube) to show what an improvement to earlier scifi pilots this was. '2001' showing it's influence (even more so with Space:1999 a few years later).

    One thing to note, though...It seems that the space station design was made different as to not resemble the one in '2001'. That jumbled design just wouldn't work properly for artificial gravity (the same goes for the 'Moonraker' space station). The effects of the station are fine when shown from a distance. The camera lingers a bit too long on the undetailed model in the beginning. For the most part, the effects were superb for the time it was made.

    Choosing Communist China, rather than the USSR, for the 'villains' seems a bit more farsighted considering that the USSR no loner exists!

    For those who don't want to plunk down 20 bucks for the Warner Archive DVD, Earth II is available in the sci-fi section on some cable systems' 'On Demand'.

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  3. This is not to be confused with the Spielberg-produced "Earth 2" about terraformers settling on a distant planet. That only lasted one season, I believe.

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  4. Hi everyone, excellent insights here on Earth II.

    Brian C: If I had to prioritize in terms of the Warner Archive, I'd pick Planet Earth first. Man, that pilot is a series waiting to happen, still. I really love that one. After that, I'd love to see an intelligent Earth II series, with some of these "big" ideas grappled with.

    Hi Anonymous: Thank you for pointing out the unique wardrobe of Earth II. That's a tremendous point, that I wish I had mentioned, actually. The characters all do wear 1970s street clothes. I liked this affectation because it said to me it was set in the near future, but not everyone would be wearing skin-tight leotards, unisex outfits, or silver epaulets, or whatever. Instead, life would go on much as it is now: normal fashion. Unfortunately, this excellent idea is undercut by the mere fact that 1970s fashion is so outrageous that today, just as you say, the clothes (and hair cuts too...) date the production. Still, it was an interesting idea, I think...

    Jamie: Good point. I've been stuck on "Earth" titles here recently. I've reviewed "Planet Earth," "Earth II" and am on my way to soon review "Another Earth." Meanwhile there was also "Earth 2," the series you mention. Whew!

    best,
    John

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