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Sci-Fi TV of the Disco Era: The Grounded Astronaut

Sci-fi television falls back to earth in the “grounded astronaut” cycle of ’70s-era sci-fi TV.

Social Sci-fi

Granted, some will find this laughable, but consider: we’re still negotiating gender equality. Planet Earth finds the right balance between self-aware humor and a provocative “what-if” yarn. Roddenberry co-wrote the film with Juanita Bartlett, who wrote for some of the better series of the era, including The Rockford Files and the superhero comedy The Greatest American Hero. It also looks great, made at a time when television aspired to be more like film, rather than the reverse.

This was the heyday of the high-profile TV movie, so NBC commissioned (and later rejected) a third Pax pilot, the perfunctory Strange New World (1975). This one kept John Saxon, but Roddenberry had moved on to Star Trek: Phase II, which never got as far as a pilot but bequeathed ideas to both Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). Roddenberry dreamed up many other prospective series, two of which were produced posthumously: Earth: Final Conflict (1997-2002) and Andromeda (2000-2005, with former Hercules star Kevin Sorbo).

If the Dylan Hunt saga had clicked, the series would have visited a different feudal culture each week. (Since the Star Trek timeline included a dark age, the Pax saga was almost certainly a stealthy prequel.) This basic format got quite a workout in the ’70s: Saturday morning had Land of the Lost and Ark II. At night, there was Fantastic Journey and the TV versions of Logan’s Run and Planet of the Apes.

Like the starlost shows, this culture-of-the-week template was partly inspired by the redoubtable good-Samaritan series of the ‘60s: Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive. In retrospect, the notion of a feudalized future also reflects the rise of identity politics, which could explain why these shows failed.

The Planet of the Apes movie cycle (1968-1974) holds up because it wasn’t just a gimmick, it was social-sci-fi. The catch is that the plot has to be a metaphor for something that’s tough to even think about (humanity’s self-destruction, a race war), or the restless viewer starts to wonder, “Why am I watching actors in masks?” This sets a difficult task for a weekly, major network TV show: there’s never been a successful werewolf series, and viewers resisted both versions of V and the TV versions of Beauty and the Beast and Robocop. The rise of CGI may have broken the curse; witness Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

Nevertheless, CBS turned down Genesis II in favor of a Planet of the Apes series slated for fall 1974. Rod Serling helped develop the series, and the first episode is fine, but that’s because it’s an abridgement of the original 1968 film (which Serling co-wrote with recovering blacklist-victim Michael Wilson, from Pierre Boulle’s novel). This parallel couldn’t last, because the movies turn on their OMG reveals, exactly what you weren’t going to see on a TV series of this era. Also, whereas the movies concern flawed characters, TV’s grounded astronauts Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) are so heroic, even on a planet of apes they stay clean-shaven.

Although the one-season series is compromised, it’s not a write-off. While the social commentary is muted compared to the feature films, the main characters are continually frustrated by the prejudices and superstitions of both apes and humans: almost everyone fears science and reason and takes slavery for granted. Indeed, Planet of the Apes may have failed in the US ratings because of its underlying hopelessness: Virdon and Burke ostensibly seek technology to return to their own time, but seem doomed to wander a Western United States that’s regressed to a medieval mindset. Aside from the temporal setting, only their implanted devotion to the material world separates them from Caine (David Carradine) of Kung Fu (1972-1975).

In this incarnation, the native humans can talk, and live in towns as the apes do; thus, Virdon and Burke can blend in, especially since they’re befriended by an enlightened chimp, Galen (franchise mainstay Roddy McDowall). Still, the ossified ape hierarchy has the paranoia of all tyranny, and hates these men just because they’re smart and want to help, as in the sturdy offering “The Interrogation”. The best episode is probably “The Trap”, a tragedy of mutual racism that packs a punch despite being suitable for kids. The high-romantic episode is “The Cure”, with a coltish Sondra Locke well-cast as a villager who falls for noble Virdon.

The cast is good, especially McDowall and Mark Lenard behind the masks, and recognizable guest stars including Jackie Earle Haley, Marc Singer, William Smith, and John Ireland. The series is impressively preserved on a four-DVD set, although there are no extras. Like Roddenberry’s Pax pilots, the Planet of the Apes series has a lush, shot-on-film look, reminding us the gloss of classic Hollywood lasted longer on the television side.

Surprisingly, the better TV-sequel might be the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975). Where the live-action show is tentative, the cartoon is loose and trippy. Although aimed at children, these 13 episodes inject some life into the franchise’s politics by finally pairing a black man and white man as equals. (In his definitive Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene argues the cartoon’s real subtext involves the details of the Vietnam War.) While its extensive palette may have been intended as compensation for the era’s notorious “limited animation”, the show looks pretty cool on today’s home screens. (It’s on DVD, and streams on Amazon and Hulu.)

By the late ’70s, we’d grieved the Apollo Program enough to allow for space-related comedy, some of it intentional, as with Mork and Mindy and the short-lived parody series Quark. In a previous article, I reviewed Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1978-1981), a tongue-in-cheek block of sci-fi cheese; as the title implies, Astronaut Rogers had to sleep 500 years before he got flying again.

Also at the tail end of the ’70s was Salvage 1 (1979), one of Andy Griffith’s stabs at a comeback during his dry spell between Mayberry and Matlock. Griffith’s character never saw a pile of junk he didn’t like, even if it was in outer space, so in the pilot, he builds a rocket from spare parts. In addition to predicting the privatization of space travel, Salvage 1 is the grounded astronaut achieving self-awareness.

The pilot movie (actual title: Salvage) might not redeem your time, but it’s halfway adorable, full of what used to be called “can-do American spirit”, as a plucky team of misfits gets their scrap-rocket to the moon (here, that’s about as hard as driving across Nebraska). In the 16 stories that followed, the regulars seek the lost or undervalued: a WWII plane, a treasure map, an iceberg needed to relieve a drought. At the time, (what we’d call) sustainability had buzz, if not compliance, as “recession” became a household word and the price of oil hit inflation-adjusted highs. Still, a sci-fi series starring Griffith was a tough sell, and the show plays more like a detective series, as the erstwhile sheriff foils villains and eludes by-the-book government types. It’s vaguely like Ghostbusters, but less funny. (Several Salvage 1 stories are available on DVD-R.)

It’s a sign of that time that Griffith wasn’t the only space garbage-man of the era: he was preceded by the title character of the half-forgotten, half-season parody Quark. (You know a show’s short-lived when it fits on one DVD.) Quark (1977-1978) is a witty sitcom, created by Buck Henry, better known for The Graduate and the spy spoof Get Smart!. Quark is a forerunner not only to 3rd Rock From the Sun and The Big Bang Theory, but also Clerks: 15 years before Kevin Smith broke down the ethics of killing “independent contractors” on the Deathstar, Richard Benjamin’s Quark greets a Stormtrooper with this line: “I don’t want to hurt you, you’re probably the victim of a weak economy” (in “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms”).

The wickedest Quark episode might be “May the Source Be with You”, which lampoons American transcendentalism from tent revivals to “The Secret”. Preparing to face deadly enemies, Quark’s initiated to an ancient mysticism, but ends up arguing with the disembodied “Source” about whose lack of faith is ruining the mission.

Despite nods to Star Wars and Flash Gordon, Quark was mainly a Star Trek parody, mocking everything Fantastic Journey held sacred. As such, it’s an early spoof of political correctness. In the first episode, a speaker welcomes all beings “regardless of species, life-system, eco-mass, or shape”. Tim Thomerson plays a character that today might seem progressive, offensive, or both: “Gene/Jean” (Tim Thomerson) is transgender, but here that means comical swings between gender stereotypes.

Quark deserves to be better known, but had cracks when launched. Genre parody is best centered on a true believer (Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun), but Benjamin’s Quark is actually a reasonable person’ it’s everyone else who’s off-the-wall, including his plant-based science officer, Ficus (Richard Kelton); the cloned space-babes, Betty I (Patricia Barnstable) and Betty II (Cyb Barnstable); and Andy the cowardly robot (Bobby Porter). Also, parody series are inherently problematic: parody deflates pretensions, which only takes a few minutes (in a cartoon or sketch); maybe 90 minutes in the case of a movie-length parody. With that said, it’s too bad Mel Brooks didn’t hook up with Buck Henry for a movie version of Quark, instead of making his disappointing Spaceballs (1987).

Amid all these flopped series in the ’70s, there was one grounded astronaut who actually turned a profit, as well as laying the foundation for the superhero film genre. He’d suffered a terrible crash, but his colleagues decided they had the technology, they could rebuild him: better, stronger, faster. In a future installment, I’ll revisit bionic man Steve Austin, a.k.a. The Six Million Dollar Man.