Ponderous New World. Pedantic New World. Boring New World. Warner Bros.' direct mail-order service, the Archive Collection (you know I love you), has released 1975's Strange New World, the third attempt to wring every last drop of Gene Roddenberry goodness out of one of his failed TV pilot ideas. Starring John Saxon, Keene Curtis, and Kathleen Miller as the three frozen Birdseye® astronauts returned to Earth's post-holocaust future, Strange New World is rightfully considered the least successful of the three TV pilots based (however loosely this go-around) on Roddenberry's concept. It's remarkably talky and thin for what should have been an exciting, saleable sci-fi outing, with little in the way of characterization or action to recommend it. I would imagine Strange New World could only be of interest to the most hard-core Roddenberry fan...and only tangentially, at that.
Earth. The present...or maybe a little in the future, from 1975's perspective. High above our big blue marble floats the PAX Space Laboratory, an orbital station launched by the science group PAX and manned by three astronauts: hunky Captain Anthony Vico (John Saxon), former test pilot and now commander of this particular team; willowy Dr. Allison Crowley (Kathleen Miller), navigation and communications expert; and clever, bald Dr. William Scott (Keene Curtis), the team's physician. A heavyweight group, to be sure...not that there's much to do up there in the lab, anyway. You see, the astronauts are currently involved in PAX Earth Orbital Experiment No. 743: Suspended Animation, which is being tested for long-term space travel. While the astronauts sleep, NASA detects a mass of asteroids headed directly for them. The astronauts - and all of Earth - are doomed. As a last ditch effort to save the space station and the sleeping astronauts, their hibernation period is extended 180 years as their space station is re-routed to loop around the sun. Programmed into their computer is their new mission: when their ship returns to Earth, they are to land and seek out the PAX scientists (as well as several of the loved ones of the astronauts) who have been cryogenically frozen at the PAX headquarters, and reestablish civilization on the planet. Easier said than done. Landing on Earth, the three astronauts seek out the PAX headquarters' automated distress signal, yet they're waylaid first by a seemingly Utopian society of ageless, beautiful elites who really want the astronauts to stay, and second by a group of feuding forest and swamp dwellers who naturally involve the PAX team in their unkempt, malodorous shenanigans.
I'm sure this is old, old news to Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry fans, but some background on Strange New World's pre-production history is called for here. Roddenberry, the creator and producer of television's Star Trek, must have looked around in 1973 and wondered what the hell had happened to his failed television series. Not exactly a barn-burner in the ratings when it aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969, the series miraculously took off in syndication, where little kids like me loved the action and the weird aliens, and where older hippie brothers like mine got high and loved the weird aliens (relax; this was still the early 70s before the Star Trek cult/religion became so pompous and self-important). Back during the dark, pre-cable days when weekend TV could be positively brutal to addicts jonesing for a fix ("Paul...Lawrence Welk is on!"), Star Trek, like other cool, exotic shows such as The Avengers or Monty Python, was an oasis in the desert to viewers looking for something besides public affairs shows and televised church services. Once the Star Trek conventions started popping up, and the studio hucksters saw all those nickels changing hands, talk of reviving Star Trek as a new series or feature film began in earnest. So imagine Roddenberry surveying this scene, and wondering how he was going to get in on all that gravy? Simple: trade his fame as the creator of the newest pop culture phenomenon into cash by selling a "new" Star Trek-like sci-fi series. First came Genesis II, debuting as a made-for-TV movie (intended as a pilot) in the spring of 1973, written by Roddenberry and featuring Alex Cord as Dylan Hunt, a NASA scientist who volunteers to test his space hibernation system...and promptly gets buried in an earthquake for hundreds of years, waking up in 2133 to find a post-apocalyptic Earth that needs a lot of help, particularly from PAX, an organization made up of scientist descendants of NASA. Warner Bros. produced the pilot, and almost got a series buy from CBS on it...before they went with the "safer" bet of the soon-to-be-cancelled Planet of the Apes TV series (had the entire Mego® playset and Ape action dolls. Brother sold it). Revamping the concept the following year, scripters Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett created Planet Earth, this time starring John Saxon as Dylan Hunt, who again reawakens in a future Earth devastated by war, and who joins up with PAX to civilize the various pockets of humanity that roam the planet...including, um...a race of super-woman who keep men as their slaves. Airing in April of 1974, ABC said thanks, but no thanks to a series based on this recycled, equally unsuccessful concept.
But Warner Bros. wasn't giving up. They could see that the Star Trek franchise was still minting coin, and by 1975, the whole paranormal thing was big money in the mainstream pop culture (Chariots of the Gods, The Exorcist, Bigfoot, UFOs, all-night Planet of the Apes marathons at the drive-ins, the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster, the Osmonds), so they weren't going to give up on Roddenberry. Roddenberry, however, bowed out of any future dead horse-beating of Genesis II and Planet Earth, so Warners first checked with the lawyers ("Yep...you own it."), kept the skeleton of the story, added some astronauts, changed some names, and came up with Strange New World, and aired it on ABC Sunday night, March 13th, 1975. And a grateful world said, "Is Kojack on?" Ix-nay to a eries-say, Gene. Sad to say, the background story on Strange New World is infinitely more exciting than anything that shows up on the screen here. I've seen my fair share of one-off pilots that the networks used to shove off on us during the spring and summer months back during the 70s and 80s, but I must say that Strange New World is one of the dullest examples of the format I've ever seen.
It's not that the pedigrees of the behind-the-scenes talent is suspect. Director Robert Butler is a veteran of countless episodic TV series, including Star Trek, while contributing screenwriter and executive producer Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Sorcerer) is no slouch, either, when it comes to constructing an exciting, action-oriented story. So why is Strange New World so utterly devoid of interest? Regardless of your feelings on what may or may not have been borrowed for the two episodes that are combined for this pilot (there's a lot of Zardoz and Lassie in here, along with bits and pieces from numerous other sci-fi outings), the resolute humorlessness of the piece is fatal. Strange New World is the very definition of "dour," with the neurasthenic cast given nothing in the way of audience identifiers in the script upon which they can build intriguing characters. Strange New World is really quite remarkable in that it has almost zero depth of characterization. We know nothing about these characters when the film starts, and we wind up in the same dark, 97 minutes later. Who are these people? What do they think about? Or feel? We don't even get clichés or stereotypes to hang on them; they're just names on bored actors who move around unconvincingly from one pedestrian set-up to the next. Vico knocks a guy out the minute he gets a chance...and we don't know why. Later, Vico and the Doc want to save Allison from the swamp dwellers...but we can't for the life us understand why; we don't buy that they're a tight group. Just as fuzzy, the two plotlines are as adrift as the characterizations, particularly since we have no grounding, no stake in seeing the astronauts accomplish their goals: we never see PAX. We don't know what it's about. We have no connection with it, so who cares if these astronuts find it?
We can't even get off on the stock conventions of the genre because they're so muted here by both design and obviously intent. Cerebral sci-fi is just fine, but not when the concept is inherently stupid (explain to me again why the host bodies are dying and the clones are getting dumb?). So if I can't enjoy the ideas, can I at least have a little action? Nope, not in Strange New World. In the first "episode," you can crack up at all the lifted Star Trek sound effects (I love how they keep using the "door swoosh"...when a door isn't opening), or the chintzy model work (the sun behind the space station is obviously, ridiculously, a light bulb), or wonder if the astronauts' Vesta Explorer vehicle is a prototype for the RV coming up in Damnation Alley. But once those silly Seventies medical scans are completed on the astronauts (lots of solarized double negative images) in rooms that look like the rental halls at the local Ramada Inn®, we're stuck in "Eterna" with Catherine "Daisy Duke" Bach walking around as a guide to what could only be some kind of wacky Charles Manson/EST/Amway youth hostel. The silliness just grows as senile James Olson plays with his num-nums and Saxon tries to execute some stiff martial arts in a too-short red toga. And when we finally get to the destruction of the "collective womb" room (that fetus looked about as real as the one I saw in a pickle jug at the county fair), I heard explosions...but all I saw were flashing hidden lights.
The second "episode" isn't any better, set in an overgrown zoo (was this shot at JungleLand, USA, anyone?) where forest men led by Ford Rainey (who looks just like Blossom Rock as Grandmama Addams) and Rudy from Used Cars talk to the animals and read their scripture - and mete out their branding/killer punishment for transgressing against nature - out of The Code of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (the script makes sure we get its anti-Bible, anti-religion slant by having Rudy tells the disillusioned Rainey at the end, "The articles [in the Good Book] were written for a different time. Things change."). Dr. Allison has to be the dumbest astronaut ever (if you're in unfamiliar territory, and you see a little goat trussed up four feet off the ground as cage-bait for a man-trap, would you immediately walk over to let it out? Jeeeee-zus!), but she looks good with her hair down and her clothes off in that cage (too bad Strange New World is too prudish to indulge in the routine sexploitation that Roddenberry's Star Trek always ladled up). And how is anybody in the cast going to compete with Deliverance's Bill McKinney, looking like the kid from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome all grown up, running around the woods looking for his next Ned Beatty? The ending to the story is a stilted, actionless wet fizzle, naturally, leaving one to wonder how in the world anyone connected with Strange New World thought it would be an effective selling tool for a primetime network series. Must have been that Roddenberry name...surreptitiously thrown about.
The original materials used for the full-screen, 1.33:1 transfer for Strange New World look a little rough at the beginning (lots of scratches and dirt during the opening intro), but overall, color is acceptable and the image is sharpish. Right on par with other made-for-TV movies (shot on film) from that era.
The split Dolby Digital English 2.0 English mono audio track is agreeably loud, although I did hear from time to time some buzz that might be a result of the aggressive transfer. Still, it's nice not to have to strain to hear a vintage TV show's audio for a change. No close-captions or subtitles.
Come on...it's Warner Bros.' Archive Collection.
Honestly, it's really stretching a point to even market this in connection with Gene Roddenberry, since he had nothing to do with this third attempt to wrestle a TV series out of one of his post-Star Trek ideas. It, um...doesn't help matters that, ah...Strange New World stinks, either. Some Roddenberry completists may feel the need to buy this DVD ("That shelf just doesn't look right with Genesis II and Planet Earth and Andromeda up there, and not Strange New World...."), but I'm not even going to recommend a rental for the unsuspecting. Skip it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.