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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 daughter...an 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?
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."