Thursday, June 01, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Stranger (1973)

On a return voyage to Earth in a space capsule, astronaut Colonel Neil Stryker (Glen Corbett) and his two astronaut cohorts experience terrible turbulence. While still in space, they black out.

Stryker awakes -- apparently on Earth -- the only survivor of the space mission. He finds himself locked in an unfamiliar hospital, however, while tended to by friendly Dr. Revere (Tim O’Connor), a man he has never met. Stryker grows suspicious over time, as his quarantine in the hospital goes on.

Soon, he engineers an escape from the facility, and learns that he is actually on a different planet all-together: Terra.  The planet seems very much like Earth, down to the make of certain cars and fashion sensibilities, but it possesses three moons. 

Also, Terra is in the grips of a totalitarian state.

About thirty-five years earlier, a political philosophy called “The Perfect Order” came into effect on Terra, dedicated to “harmony” and “peace.” Unfortunately, it is the harmony and peace of an overbearing state government, one of a huge bureaucracy and constant surveillance of its people.

After his escape, Stryker is pursued by Benedict (Cameron Mitchell) and other agents of the state, who fear that one man outside the Perfect Order can do “a lot of damage” to Terra’s harmonious way of life.

Stryker befriends a physician, Dr. Batina Cook (Sharon Acker), who takes him to a dissident and professor (Lew Ayres). Together they plan to get Stryker aboard a rocket, so he can return home to Earth.

Unfortunately, Benedict and his goons are closing in, jeopardizing Stryker’s escape from Terra. He misses his launch window, sees his allies killed, and realizes that his immediate future is on this alien world in which he is a stranger.

The Stranger (1973) is a fascinating and largely-compelling TV-movie of the early seventies, directed by Lee H. Katzin, who helmed the first episode of Space: 1999 (1975-1977), “Breakaway,” in roughly the same time period.

Much like Gerry Anderson’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), this American tele-film focuses on a kind of parallel Earth, here called Terra.  Terra and Earth can’t see one another, because they exist in the same orbit, on opposite sides of Sol. But both planets have developed human civilization. Both planets have developed automobiles, and, at this juncture, early 1970’s fashions.

The most intriguing aspect of The Stranger is undoubtedly the social commentary. The TV-movie was produced during the Cold War, in the era of Détente, and so it is not difficult to picture “Terra” as a globalist Soviet Union. The ruling government is a giant, overwhelming bureaucracy, and the teleplay, by Gerald Sanford, name checks “The Department of Medical Assistance,” “The Department of Communications,” and “The Department of Protection” specifically. There is a bureau or agency, it seems, for every aspect of life.  This world has some elements in common with the more right-wing, fascist world of The Last Child (1971).  Both TV-movies depict overbearing government (whether left or right wing), suppressing the individual liberty of citizens.

Significantly, the world of Terra has no war, no starvation, and “perfect order,” but the cost is high. Every citizen has an official profile on record, for instance, that the government can access at any time.  The ruling “Inner Council” also runs a “protective surveillance” program which sounds a lot like our warrant-less spying program.  Enemies of the state, meanwhile, are remanded to the sinister “Ward E,” where they are tortured and brainwashed into supporting the “The Perfect Order.” In the course of this TV-movie, Batina is tortured and brainwashed, and made an agent of the state via the coercive techniques of Ward E.  The TV movie also depicts the agents of the state, like Benedict, as gray-suited, evil bureaucrats.

One of the most effective scenes in “The Stranger” witnesses a desperate Stryker hide out in a book-store, in hopes of finding out about the history of Terra. The owner of the book shop gives him a text that he claims “goes back to the beginning.”  Stryker finds out that it actually only goes back 35 years; to the inauguration of “The Perfect Order.”  All previous history has been erased from record, so it can no longer provide ideas for dissidents or would-be insurrectionists.  This is a touch that George Orwell would be proud of.  There is no history other than the approved history of the State.

Terra’s quasi-Soviet state has also outlawed religion, and one creepy scene suggests that the television sets – which look just like ours -- watch the citizenry, instead of vice-versa.

In all, The Stranger does much with very little, at least in terms of social commentary. On the surface, the society of Terra looks exactly like our own.  Scratch that surface a little, however, and the world is, indeed, positively Orwellian.

This TV-movie was intended as a pilot for a series, but one that never materialized. The Stranger is enjoyable as a stand-alone 90 minutes, but it may be just as well that it never became a weekly program. The TV-movie gets in all the relevant social commentary about totalitarian states (and communism, perhaps), but seems to be building towards a less noble end: a mindless format that apes the once-popular The Fugitive (1963-1967).

As you may recall, that “man-on-the-run” series had a lone hero being chased by law enforcement and a hapless pursuer, while he tried to prove his innocence. Countless series have followed this format. The Stranger appears to have been headed in the same direction, alas.  At the end of the TV movie, Stryker is stranded on Terra, a hapless pursuer, Benedict, hot on his heels. Our protagonist’s goal is to find a way off the planet and return home to Earth.  Ostensibly, along the way, he will interact with many Terrans, just as the Richard Kimball, or David Banner, for that matter, interacted with people of all stripes while on-the-run.

I suppose what might have distinguished The Stranger is the fact that Stryker is on an alien world, running for his life in a totalitarian state.  That fact alone would have made the stories less common-place, or run-of-the-mill.  The tendency towards soap opera dilemmas might have been diminished.

And yet, the opposite might have been true.  If the program had gone to series, it may have simply mindlessly transplanted the restrictive Fugitive TV formula to an alternate world.

A fascinating glimpse and what might have made a unique series in the early 1970’s The Stranger is a remarkable artifact, today, of the Détente era.


  1. A 'successful' version of the series would have had Stryker's interactions with individual, average Terrans gradually weakening the underpinnings of the state, which would have shown up partly as background material, and partly in the episodes where he interacted with his pursuers.

    Which, again is successful, would have led to conversations about which political model is better, or most fruitfully, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each.

  2. John, great review of this memorable '70s telefilm that would have been an interesting series. I remember watching this with my family as a very young boy in '73.
    The two Earths was explored in The Twilight Zone "The Parallel".


  3. Well done John! Loved this movie as a kid. Well, maybe not loved it but the concept of alternate realities and parallel worlds definitely made a huge impression on me in the 70's (and still does). If memory serves I recall a scene when Stryker runs to a phone booth to call NASA and asks the operator to connect him to Florida where gets a perplexed response, something like "Florida? What's a Florida?" I thought that was so Twilight Zone cool!