Saturday, June 03, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Flies (September 11, 1976)

“For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to re-build what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind.”

-          Voice-over narration for Ark II (1976)

Since it is summer-time and I am working on a book, I am going to re-post my retrospective of the post-apocalyptic Filmation series Ark II for the next few weeks. I'll blog a fresh series in the fall!

Ark II aired on Saturday mornings beginning September 11, 1976 and ran for fifteen 22-minute episodes. Like many science fiction TV efforts of the time, it was rather determinedly a “civilization of the week” program; meaning that each week, the diverse protagonists traveled (usually by a ground vehicle; sometimes on foot…) to a new and strange civilization.

Basically, it was Star Trek all over again, only without the U.S.S. Enterprise and outer space as useful backdrops.  With some variation, the format was seen in The Starlost (1973), Planet of the Apes (1974), Logan’s Run (1977) The Fantastic Journey (1977) and in the 1980s program Otherworld, to name a few examples. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself had attempted to take the civilization of the week formula to new heights with Genesis II and Planet Earth, two made-for-tv movie/backdoor series pilots from the early 1970s.

Although it aired during America’s optimistic bicentennial year, Ark II was set in the new Dark Ages of 25th century, and focused on a large, impressive, high-tech tank-like vehicle, the Ark II, which traversed the wasteland in order to aid the survivors of an environmental disaster. 

In a hold-over from the popular youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ark II’s crew is described in each week’s opening narration as a “highly trained crew of young people.”

Specifically, the crew of Ark II consisted of the bearded Captain Jonah (Terry Lester), scientist Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), and young scholar Samuel (Jose Flores).  In a weird, unspoken acknowledgment of Planet of the Apes’ continuing popularity, these young humans also traveled with a talking chimpanzee named Adam who could play chess and drive the Ark in a pinch.   

You may have noticed that all the crew names listed above arise from Judaism, and thus carry resonances beyond the obvious.  In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah was a “truth seeker,” which is a term you might use for the stalwart captain of Ark II.  Ruth was the name for a “companion,” in the same text, and Samuel was a man on the cusp of two eras, the last Hebrew judge and the first prophet.  Similarly, on Ark II, the young Samuel is a child of the Dark Age who will also live in the period of the New Enlightenment, or recovery. As for the ape, he is named for Adam, the first human male. 

The name “ark,” of course, calls up imagery of Noah’s Ark, the craft that repopulated the Earth after a disaster, the Great Flood.    

The first episode of Ark II is called “The Flies.” Written by Martin Roth and directed by Ted Post, it finds Captain Jonah recording his log entry numbered 1444. The Ark is patrolling Sector 83, Area 12, investigating a gang called “The Flies” that is responsible for “serious infringements on the rights of the others.” The assignment: bring “discipline” and “reason” into their lives.  The name “The Flies” conjures images of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954), which also concerned a society of children.

Unfortunately for Jonah, the Flies -- an interracial gang of youngsters -- are entirely loyal to their leader, a rapscallion named Fagan and a scoundrel played by the one-and-only Jonathan Harris, Lost in Space’s Dr. Smith. Fagan is named after Charles Dickens’ famous Oliver Twist character Fagin, a “receiver of stolen goods” and man who encourages a life of crime in children, turning them into thieves.  In Ark II’s “The Flies,” Fagin and his group of thieves discover ancient poison gas canisters, ones that are still functional.

After capturing Jonah, Fagan takes the poison gas cylinders (and a gas mask to protect himself), and heads to the HQ of a local warlord Brack (Malachi Throne), who lives in the “the Village of the Lords,” actually the Ape City set from the live-action Planet of the Apes TV series and films. Fagan believes he has found “the ultimate weapon,” and attempts to wrest control of the warlords from Brack. Brack beats Fagan at his own game, however, and captures the Flies, forcing Fagan to forfeit his leadership

Ruth, Samuel and Adam save Jonah and free Fagon and the Flies from warlord subjugation.  They also retrieve and dismantle all the dangerous gas canisters without ever resorting to violence. Instead, they neutralize the gas and change it into Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas).

Finally, the episode ends with a moral statement from Jonah: “weapons man creates to use against others can easily be turned against himself.”

Although the series is now over forty years old, the look and production design of Ark II remains admirable.  The main cast, for instance, wears skin-tight and attractive space-age uniforms with computerized belts and cuffs (replete with wrist communicators). 

One can see how this design influenced later Star Trek outings, including The Motion Picture (1979).  Also the exterior, post-apocalyptic set design is kind of interesting: a mix of the Old West, Vikings, and the aforementioned Planet of the Apes. Interestingly, Ark II presages the barbarity and chaos of The Road Warrior (1981) on a TV budget and within TV restrictions.

The Ark II itself, built by the Brubaker Group, remains a remarkable piece of hardware, a life-size, operational vehicle. It looks thoroughly convincing….especially in motion. In the series, this high tech truck is equipped with a protective force field.  The Ark II also billets a smaller exploratory vehicle, the fast-moving roamer.

I find it fascinating that Ted Post directed this premiere episode of Ark II.  A veteran director of The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller, his movie career had taken off in the early 1970s with Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973).  

Given this impressive CV, it’s odd that, by 1976, Post was helming Saturday morning television. He does a good job handling the actors and action in “The Flies,” and of introducing all of the various tech, from the Ark itself, to the roamer, to Jonah’s rocket pack (which looks identical to one used on Lost in Space years earlier.)

Next week on Ark II: “The Slaves.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Oh, Brother."

In “Oh, Brother,”Hoo-Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) takes Little Ben, a tiny pig, for ransom on the little pig’s birthday.

The evil wizard plans to keep the pet until the denizens of Lidsville pay him all their back-taxes. Mark (Butch Patrick) decides it is time to fight Hoo-Doo with some old artillery, and war threatens to come to the world of hats.

Just as the rebellion of Good Hats heats up, Hoo-Doo’s nice brother, Bruce (Charles Nelson Reilly) unexpectedly shows up. He’s the white sheep of the family for his decency and generosity, and is horrified at his brother’s behavior. He returns Little Ben to the Good Hats, and decides to do good for Lidsville.

This decision does not sit well with Hoo-Doo.

Charles Nelson Reilly makes the most of a juicy (ad silly) double role in “Oh, Brother,” playing Hoo-Doo’s twin sibling, Bruce as well as the evil wizard.  Bruce is the opposite of Hoo-Doo in every way, counseling peace and love, and suggesting that everyone in Lidsville should treat each other like…brothers.

Bruce goes further than that, however. He also demands that the Bad Hats return all of Ho-Doo’s illegally collected money.  Before the half-hour is over, Bruce has even overseen a musical number, noting that peace has come to Lidsville.

When Hoo-Doo returns from a visit to the Imperial Wizard, he is shocked to see that his brother has destroyed his fortune. Bruce informs him that by giving up the money Hoo-Doo could finally be liked. But to Hoo-Doo this is anathema. Hoo-Doo doesn’t “want to be liked.”  Instead, he wants to be “rich.” Or, as he notes, specifically, “rich and mean.”

This episode, “Oh, Brother,” works well in part because it again puts CNR front and center, but also because it doesn’t obsess on the gimmick of getting Mark home to the “real world,” only to see hopes quashed at the end of the installment.

Next week: “Hoo-Doo Who?”

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Films of 1969: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun

From Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey until George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) the space film genre -- in film and on television -- evidenced a deep belief in man’s capacity to tame the solar system, and offered a realistic rather than glamorous portrayal of man himself. 

In other words, man’s technology had improved to the point where (near) space could be conquered, but humanity itself remained as venal, as grasping, as competitive, and as conflicted as ever. 

Another film from the same milieu is Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (British title: Doppelganger).  This science fiction film was a perennial on WABC Channel 7’s 4:30 pm movie in the New York market during the mid-to-late 1970's, and as such, represented an early obsession both for me and my older sister.

To this day, you can likely ask my sister about that strange science fiction movie from the 1970's in which a man removes his eyeball in a red-lit darkroom, or another man pile-drives his wheelchair into a mirror, and get a visceral response from her about the imagery.

Beyond those personal memories, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun arises from the impressive stable of British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and seems a perfect representation of their brand in its glory days.

And what does that brand entail, precisely?

It's a simple three-part formula, really. 

The gadgetry and miniatures.

First, the typical Anderson production boasts high-tech gadgetry galore, created with an eye towards scientific accuracy, and with elaborate, state-of-the-art costumes, sets, props, and miniatures. 

Near future man on the cusp of space exploration.
Secondly, said production showcases a narrative focus on the near future "space age,” when man is not yet so “evolved” that he is unrecognizable as man.  In the Anderson canon, stories often occur just as turn-of-the-century man is taking his first footsteps into the solar system at large.  The advantage of this setting is its appeal to the young.  I’m a perfect example, I suppose.  I was captivated by Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and Space: 1999 at a young age, and believed that such futures were possible -- nay probable -- in my life time.

The Mystery.
And finally, the perfect Anderson production highlights, a macabre, deeply disturbing "twist" that exposes the nature of the universe as something beyond modern man’s capacity to conceive or conquer.  In space, we are confronted with a realm where there are no easy answers, no pat solutions.

For example, in UFO (1970), we learn that aliens are harvesting our organs. In Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), the moon is blasted out of Earth’s orbit and sent careening into a universe of monsters and mysticism that 20th century man is psychologically and technologically unprepared to encounter.

Personally, the Anderson creative formula represents one of my favorite types of storytelling, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a potent, crisply-edited declaration of all the ingredients I tallied above.   It is a sharp -- and often unsettling -- mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the James Bond films of the Connery era and even a little bit of Planet of the Apes (1968) tossed in for good measure.

The explicit premise of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is that there exists beyond the sun a “mirror” world.  It is a heretofore-hidden planet and a reverse “copy” of Earth. 

As the movie explains, all the matter here on our Earth has been “duplicated” there on that planet, but in reversed fashion, much like you’d see while gazing into the mirror.  Accordingly, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun supports its theme by featuring a number of compositions involving mirrors or other reflective surface.  I find this visual approach quite intelligent, and the leitmotif of mirrors forecasts a brilliant line of dialogue spoken in Solaris (1972) a few years later: “We don’t need other worlds, we need a mirror.”

In Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, an American astronaut, Glen Ross (Roy Thinnes), and the men and women of a European version of NASA called EUROSEC discover that very mirror, and in the end knowledge of that mirror (and that world) drives at least one man, Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) insane. 

What remains delightful about this fact is that the movie leaves the exact reasons for Webb’s insanity open to interpretation, as we shall see.

Beyond the creepy idea of a world identical to ours, but in reverse, Journey to The Far Side of the Sun impresses due to a few other key factors. 

First, the film climaxes with an unrelentingly grim final act, and an uncompromising, bleak finale.  You can’t make the claim the movie lacks the courage of its convictions.  There is no ameliorating Hollywood bullshit to make serviceable the possibility of a happy ending (see: Oblivion [2013]) here.

And secondly, the film’s Anderson-esque approach to space travel -- basically that it’s a dangerous and expensive enterprise -- makes the whole film feel incredibly grounded, and therefore incredibly believable.  One of the film’s main protagonists, the aforementioned Webb, is downright Machiavellian in his manner of getting things done.  He’s on the side of the angels, but his methods aren’t exactly…nice.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun remains a dazzling head-trip from an era (and team) that believed space travel was inevitable, but one that proves --- because of the meticulous nature of the production -- both compelling and scarily believable, even in 2014.

 “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun dramatizes the story of EUROSEC, a European space agency run by the hard-driving Jason Webb (Wymark), a man determined to launch a space mission to examine a new planet discovered in the solar system, one that we can't observe from Earth.

The recently launched Sun Probe snapped images of the alien world using its "cine camera" and brought back to Earth the "first photographic evidence" of the heretofore undetected planet. This discovery is vetted in a sequence that forecasts today's video-conferencing capability, with Webb making an address and visual presentation to EUROSEC members across the globe.

Because a space flight to the new planet will cost a billion dollars, America and NASA are brought in to share the cost of the journey.  An American astronaut and the first man on Mars, Colonel Glen Ross (Thinnes) will command the mission.  At home, however, Ross is facing more earthbound problems. He has not been able to conceive a child with his sexy but harsh wife -- the daughter of an ambitious American politician -- who tells him his sterility is due to his work in space.

“You went up there a man, but you came back less than a man,” she snipes.

Going along with Glen on the mission is John Kane (Ian Hendry), a British astrophysicist who has never been to space before. Together, these men train for the arduous six week mission and the film follows every detail of the process. From there, the audience is treated to sweeping shots of colossal rockets on launch pads (courtesy of special effects wizard Derek Medding), pans across vast mission control centers, and intense close-ups of space-suited astronauts ready to commence the mission.

When Ross and Kane reach the distant planet, their lander crashes on the surface and Kane suffers devastating life-threatening injuries. But Ross awakes to find himself on Earth…or a duplicate of Earth where everything – including the writing -- is reversed. 

After several interrogations by EUROSEC, Ross is able to convince the alternate version of Jason Webb of the truth: he completed his mission successfully, and now he stands on an alien world.  Just as another Ross – originating from this world -- is now talking to a “mirror image” or doppelganger of Webb on Glen’s Earth.

Webb and Ross devise a plan to get him home, but a miscalculation involving the polarity of electricity scuttles the mission, killing Ross and nearly destroying EUROSEC in the process.

Years or perhaps decades later, later a defeated Webb -- an old, very sick man -- gazes in a mirror at a rest home, and reaches out longingly for the mirror image there…

“How much is it going to cost us this time?”

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is dominated, oddly enough, by discussions of money. Jason Webb is the head of EUROSEC, and a man who finds himself a beggar, asking for money to further man’s scientific frontiers. 

French, German, and American members of EUROSEC are not impressed by his proposal to land men on the distant, newly discovered planet, and tell him so. 

How much is it going to cost us this time?” asks one character. 

A realistic estimate?” queries another. 

“Such a sum is out of the question!” declares a third council member, when talk of a billion dollars is bandied about.

The point here I suppose is, well, when was the last time the Emperor asked Darth Vader how much it would cost to build another Death Star? 

That’s not a dig at Star Wars so much as an acknowledgment that many popular space or science fiction franchises simply ignore matters of money or the economy because their creators assume that such talks are boring, or out of place in science fiction drama.   

I would argue a different tact: discussions of space travel economics tend to make futuristic productions seem more realistic, and that’s an important task when you consider that -- nestled at the far side of the sun -- there exists a mirror planet housing duplicates of every single one of us. 

It helps us to accept the unbelievable, in other words, if we know the rest of the story is, actually, grounded in recognizable reality.

When he must solicit funding from the Americans for his mission, Webb must also compromise and accept an American commanding officer for the task.  He is willing to make this accommodation because he understands the importance of the space flight. Again, what is being showcased quite explicitly in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is the horse-trading of politics.   It’s not romantic and it isn’t pretty, but again, it’s true to who we are as a species.

Some of Webb’s compromises are much more distasteful, however, and that’s a realistic touch too. 

For instance, Webb knows there is a security leak at EUROSEC and, at least tacitly, allows information about the new planet to be leaked to Europe’s enemies (presumably The Soviet Union or Red China…) so as to get the Americans on his side for the mission.  He has the spy (Herbert Lom) killed, but not before the leak occurs.

Because now he can taunt the Americans with being second-best. “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”

Mission accomplished.  The only thing that could get us to Mars tomorrow is the knowledge that Putin is trying to get there today.

This idea of space travel as a political and expensive game also plays out in Space: 1999 episodes such as "Dragon's Domain" and in several UFO episodes, wherein Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) must go before the unimpressed faces of bureaucracy to request more funds for SHADO.

Again, I view such discussion of politics and money as a necessary bow to reality and accuracy, and in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Webb is able to afford to build the Phoenix -- the rocket bound for the alien world -- only because he knows how to play the political money game better than anyone else does.

In Moon Zero Two, we saw how big money was “civilizing” the moon and squashing personal freedom.  Here we see how money is a necessary evil if space is to be explored.  It’s the other fuel source that powers our rockets, our moon bases, and so on.

Outside this acknowledgment of reality in a genre that is often given to wild flights of fancy, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is resolutely creepy because it subtly asks vital questions regarding its unusual “doppelganger” premise.

What if there were two versions of you? What if everyone here on Earth had an exact duplicate there, on the other world?

Would the existence of that duplicate take away from our own senses of individuality and identity?  Would society collapse?

Could we still claim that Earth is the center of the universe (and center of God's universe), if just across the solar system existed a second Earth, exact in every way?

The climax of the film involves an elderly Jason Webb -- wheelchair bound and debilitated by heart disease -- pondering, no doubt, the very questions I ask above. He spies his reflection -- his double -- in a wall-sized mirror and reaches out for it.  His “other self” is just out of reach, and he begins racing for attempt to touch the unknown, to understand the self, to bring together two opposites.

So has Jason gone mad because he can’t truly encounter his other self?

Or is he insane because he now possesses knowledge of that other self’s existence, and information that, therefore, he is no longer the singular creation he believed himself to be?

Or finally, is the reflection in the mirror simply a notation, a deadly reminder, that he lost his greatest game?  He never got back to that planet.  He never succeeded. 

When Jason reaches out so desperately, is he trying to strangle the memory of his greatest failure? Or accomplish by touch that which rockets could not: intimate interface with the other world?

I love that Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally boasts a smashing ending, but also one open to many interpretations.  

The leitmotif of doubling or reflections builds splendidly to this emotional pay-off.  Throughout the film, we see reflections in ponds, and even the imaginary “other” Ross as he delivers his theory of doppelgangers to Jason. 

In the end, Jason is near death, and he must reckon with the knowledge that the universe is far more bizarre than he could have imagined.  His final act is one of exploration failed.  And that’s a mirror image of the Phoenix’s failure. In the end, the mirror is shattered, and contact with the other planet is not made.

Certainly, there will be those among us who gaze at Journey at the Far Side of the Sun and decry the deliberate, methodical pace (a trait it shares in common with Kubrick's Space Odyssey).

In our day and age, we've become accustomed to shock cutting, myriad close-ups, and the whiz-bang pace of blockbuster films. By contrast, this film is perhaps a relic of an earlier, less adrenaline-addicted age.

To enhance its sense of reality, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally wallows in the details and minutiae (but also the beauty...) of space travel. It attempts to methodically and precisely capture the details of the endeavor, from its accurate depiction of weightlessness to the impact of G-forces on the fragile human body. I'm afraid this is the kind of thing that movies today just don't have the time for anymore. CGI monstrosities and vistas have made us forget about the wonders of our own age: rocket launches, weightlessness, or the view of Earth from space.

Even the opening credits of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun seem to boast this love of technology.  We are treated to multitudinous shots of spinning tape reels, the digits on computer punch cards, whirring teletype machines, and other touches that don’t exactly seem “romantic.”  And yet there is a real beauty to them too as they are presented in montage form alongside Barry Gray’s soaring sound-track.  In the early 1970s, Robert Wise adopted a similar approach with the credits of The Andromeda Strain, making them a brand of computerized art-form.  One can sense the same idea at work here: Our technology is our doorway to other worlds, other experiences, and it is, in a way, quite beautiful.

That idea of beauty, of course, is countered, in the film’s finale, when man makes a mistake with his technology, and disaster blossoms.  But still, there are moments in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun that veritably promise a golden age of space travel and space technology. These moments still have the capacity to inspire.

I’ll be writing more about this idea in the weeks ahead, but I’ve always believed it was a bum rap that Anderson programs and films got tagged with the description of “wooden.”  On the contrary, the characters and the presentation of the characters in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun are realistic, and multi-dimensional.  There’s an administrator who is fighting for the side of good, but does bad to get the job done.  There’s an astronaut who gets hosannas from the world, but only raw hatred from his wife at home.  There’s a EUROSEC security chief who is a beautiful female, and yet doesn’t feel the need to be butch or bullying, or even domineering.  Instead, she is gentle and kind.  Every one of these characters shows the inherent contradictions and surprises that humanity is capable of.

There’s a perfect scene here, too, that expresses this notion. 

It occurs right before the Phoenix lifts off.  The scene is set in Mission Control at EUROSEC, and all the sounds of computers and intercoms go silent for a moment, replaced with the solitary pulse of a human heart-beat

This sudden, unexpected, living beat reminds the viewer that we -- the human race -- are at the center of all this technology.  Humanity is what makes space exploration possible.  We may make mistakes, we may miscalculate, but our heart-beat is at the very center of things, making all accomplishments possible. 

In short, this scene is a perfect metaphor for the movie itself.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "Tomorrow's Tide" (October 18, 1974)

On the coast, Virdon (Ron Harper), Burke (James Naughton), and Galen (Roddy McDowall) stop to rescue a man strapped to a raft in the sea.  

As the humans note, someone put him "on the outgoing tide...deliberately!"

The unfortunate human's name is Gahto (John McLiam), and he has run afoul of the local ape culture, which depends on fishing for its economic growth.

The humans in the community are fishermen who live a life of servitude, and fear the "Gods of the Sea," (sharks). They also wear "bands" of enforcement around their wrists, showing their status as slaves.

Before long, Virdon and Burke are captured and taken to the fishing village. They claim to be expert fisherman, but to prove themselves to the apes must survive a trial in the water...swimming beneath a sheet of fire.  The astronauts both survive, and soon begin to share with the humans more advanced fishing methods, including the use of nets...

Unfortunately, "Tomorrow's Tide" is another veritable time-waster in the Planet of the Apes TV catalog.  The episode features no sense of mythology whatsoever, about the world's history or even about Burke and Virdon's attempts to return home.  

Instead, the episode focuses on the twin narrative obsessions of the series at this point, which are, in order, tricking the local ape government officials (so as to make them look foolish), and bringing 20th century know-how to the primitive human and ape cultures.

Again, it is rich that this series champions 20th century humanity, given that it was that brand of humanity that, essentially, destroyed the world, and thus gave the future to simian-kind.

"Tomorrow's Tide" is distinguished by some lovely location footage. The shots set at sea are impressive, especially in long shot. There's also a lot of swimming in the episode, and much effective stunt-work.  

Beyond those virtues, however, the episode is largely devoid of interest or surprise. Roscoe Lee Brown and Jay Robinson play guest-starring apes, and do good work in their roles but there are no larger issues around the narrative to react to, or to analyze here. 

As I pointed out in my previous episode reviews, Planet of the Apes: The TV Series rarely focuses on matters of mythology; like the hunt to find a computer to play Virdon's computer disc. The series also rarely if ever focuses on the history of this "upside down" world, making audiences aware of how the apes established dominion over the Earth. 

Even the issue of racism, which is the series' bread-and-butter is not addressed very thoughtfully here (as it is, for instance, in the brilliant episode "The Deception.")

I remember reading a long time ago, that Charlton Heston  intentionally reduced his participation in the franchise because he feared that it would eventually just become, in his words, adventures with monkeys.  

The TV series, at this point, features no real drive or urgency, and the story features no forward momentum.  It is, for lack of a better word, adventures with monkeys.  There are captures, and rescues galore, but no real depth.

Next week: "The Surgeon."

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.