Friday, July 22, 2016

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) was, 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.

1 comment:

  1. Good review of this pilot for a potentially interesting television series. The Vesta Explorer replaced the underground Subshuttle system that we saw in both Genesis II and Planet Earth. I suspect that the real reason that we did not see the cast outside walking around the Vesta Explorer is simply because the Vesta Explorer was a prop and it's scale was too small. It was built on a small Amphicat vehicle like the Space:1999 moon buggy was.
    Too small to have the actors stand outside by the Vesta Explorer. It was basically a prop, unlike the full-scale ARK II.