He’s first and foremost the Star Trek guy, but the creative mind of Gene Roddenberry — born this week in 1921 — also ventured far beyond the voyages of the Enterprise. A quartet of awesomely bizarre TV projects he made in the years between Star Trek and The Next Generation offers fascinating proof of this.
Roddenberry, a military vet and former LAPD officer, started off writing for TV Westerns and crime dramas before the coming of Star Trek, which ran from 1966 to 1968. The show’s growing popularity among fans, even after the show left the air, led to Star Trek: The Animated Series in 1973-74, and eventually Star Trek: The Next Generation, which premiered in 1987 and was still going strong when Roddenberry died in 1991.
This is all old news to Star Trek fans. But what was Roddenberry doing in those years between Trek projects, other than spreading the Trek gospel at sci-fi conventions? A glance at his filmography tells the tale: four TV films in a row that Roddenberry hoped would be pilots for new series that never materialised.
The 1970s were an epic time for weird-arse horror movies, thanks to a variety of real-life (the Manson murders) and show-biz (the phenomenal success of The Exorcist and The Omen) influences. Though spooky detective drama Spectre — produced by Roddenberry, who co-wrote the script based upon his story — never became a series, it remains a startling time capsule of just how mainstream the occult and its theatrical trappings had gotten by 1977, especially considering the “Satanic Panic” cultural backlash that followed in the 1980s.
Spectre’s set-up gently riffs on Sherlock Holmes and Watson (as well as the male-colleagues-who-are-magic-together-even-when-they-disagree dynamic Roddenberry often utilised — see also: Kirk and Spock), but at a certain point it takes a hard turn off Baker Street and plunges into the same vat of demonic cheese that spawned similar works like 1975’s The Devil’s Rain. Veteran actors Robert Culp and Gig Young play Sebastian (a brilliant detective who also happens to be an occult expert) and Ham (a sceptical physician), who’ve drifted apart following a successful stint solving perplexing crimes.
Their friendship feels lived-in enough to make Ham’s willingness to drop everything and rush to Sebastian’s side seem reasonable, though everything that happens after that just gets sillier and sillier, as the two men set out for England (via private jet, after defeating a succubus, and Sebastian’s revelation that he’s been cursed by a demon and Ham’s miracle cure from alcoholism thanks to Sebastian’s in-house witch, who’s played by Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett) at the behest of an aristocratic woman who believes her brother might be possessed.
Unfortunately, the only easily accessible way to get your eyeballs on Spectre is via a random murky YouTube upload, so there’s no HD rendering of, say, the eye-popping Black Mass at the film’s climax, featuring a pre-Alien John Hurt and a scantily clad contingent of demon worshippers.
That said, Spectre isn’t all that visually dynamic. It’s mostly people standing around talking, with incredibly in-depth mythology that Roddenberry clearly spent tons of time developing. So much of Spectre is just so freaky — not just the supernatural stuff, but the oft-baffling behaviour of even its non-possessed characters — that it really should be a better-known cult classic.
Genesis II (1973)
“My story begins on the day on which I died,” NASA scientist Dylan Hunt (Airwolf’s Alex Cord) announces at the start of this pilot, the intended lead-in for another Roddenberry series (he wrote the script and co-produced) that was never made. It’s an intriguing hook, and we’re rapidly brought up to speed by more of Hunt’s narration, as he describes the futuristic wonders of 1979 — which include advancements in suspended animation, intended for astronauts on deep-space missions. But when Hunt volunteers for guinea pig duty, an earthquake hits while he’s “under,” and he’s left in stasis until 2133.
Unsurprisingly, things have changed… a lot. Following a nuclear war, the optimism of his own time has been replaced by a post-apocalyptic dystopia — where the warring factions include the underground-lurking descendants of his NASA colleagues (including one played by Majel Barrett), as well as a race of haughty (yet campy as hell) humanoid mutants, who use bejewelled, uh, cattle prods to control the humans they keep as toga-clad slaves.
Unlike Spectre, which runs for an hour and 40 minutes and feels like a full-fledged (if slightly open-ended) film, Genesis II is a hair over an hour and feels like the first chapter of an unfinished book, with a “this fight is far from over” type of feeling (the TV-style end credits hammer this home too).
It also feels thematically similar to Star Trek, from its costumes, sets, and wigs to its protagonist — an outsider with unique knowledge, in this case priceless technological know-how that’s otherwise long since lost to the past — exploring a strange new world while he figures out who he should side with, and getting distracted by a beautiful mutant along the way.
Planet Earth (1974)
As it happens, another one of Genesis II’s chapters did make it to the air, sort of, as a standalone story with the deceptively generic title of Planet Earth. With slightly elevated production values that are even more reminiscent of Star Trek, it recycles several of Genesis II’s characters, establishing shots, props, and sets, and lifts its story from something that’s mentioned in passing when Dylan Hunt visits the big mutant city for the first time: one of Earth’s post-apocalyptic societies is a matriarchy where men are kept as pets.
Roddenberry produces and co-writes this one, sharing a credit with The Rockford Files’ Juanita Bartlett. And though the lead character is again a “man from the past” named Dylan Hunt, this time around he’s played by B-movie superstar John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Black Christmas, Enter the Dragon). After a little narrated backstory, Planet Earth plunges you right into Hunt’s now-established role working with PAX, the most, uh, Starfleet-like faction of humanity on a planet that’s overrun with rampaging mutants. (For those keeping score at home, yes, Majel Barrett cameos as a senior PAX official.)
“Women’s lib… or women’s lib gone mad?” Hunt muses as the PAX team heads to the Confederacy of Ruth, where they aim to liberate an esteemed doctor from the local population of men who are drugged into submission, then sold at auctions for various purposes (field work, breeding, etc.)
As that cheeky observation suggests, Planet Earth offers up an intriguing idea that ultimately doesn’t play out quite as empowering onscreen as it sounds on paper… for instance, there’s a catfight between women in halter tops over who gets to “own” Hunt. Roddenberry obviously knew what audience he was aiming for, and a topsy-turvy Handmaid’s Tale, this ain’t.
As a side note, Saxon would later play a Hunt-like character in 1975’s Strange New World, another made-for-TV movie that Roddenberry wasn’t directly involved in — and the character name “Dylan Hunt” resurfaced when the Roddenberry-inspired space series Andromeda hit the airwaves in 2000.
The Questor Tapes (1974)
The Questor Tapes — another failed pilot, it’s the tale of an android, played by Robert Foxworth, who goes on a journey of robot self-discovery after his creator disappears, leaving him unfinished — actually got a second wind a few years back when Rod Roddenberry announced a new series based on his father’s original idea was in the works. Gizmodo reported at the time on an interview the younger Roddenberry did with Newsarama, explaining the enduring appeal of one of Gene’s most enduring character types:
If you look back at all of my father’s works, pretty much all of them, for the most part, have a particular character, and I call it the Roddenberry character, which is, whether it’s Spock, Data, the Hologram Doctor, Seven of Nine, whatever these characters are, they are always aliens.
They come to us as the aliens, but they end up being the most human. Because they’re always questioning humanity and what it’s about. And searching for that humanity inside of them. And Q is another example. All of those characters are the Roddenberry characters, because they are the ones who sort of point it out to us, or the other characters on the show, what we take for granted and how beautiful it is to be a human. And that our mistakes are what make life worth living. That’s how we learn and how we grow.
Those are the characters that are so important. But Questor is essentially the first of those characters… I know my father really identified with that. And in some of his notes, he talks about how great it would be to sometimes be an android or be a Vulcan, and be void of emotions and be logical decisions only. Of course, he understood the value and importance of emotions, but he would just kind of chuckle about it.
That was back in 2010, so obviously the show never happened — maybe for the best, since Gizmodo co-founder Charlie Jane Anders once described The Questor Tapes as “bland, preachy, and insipid… the most boring ‘Data questions his humanity’ episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only with the video playback slowed down to half speed.”