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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.

In earlier essays, I covered the “starlost” phenomenon, ’70s series about questing, outer-space refugees: The Starlost, Battlestar: Galactica, and Space: 1999. These shows dominated outer-space television in North America, but Hollywood programmed other sci-fi about astronauts. To resolve that contradiction, we’ll need the social context, which also helps explain US TV lagging, while the British were spinning low-budget silk (Blake’s 7, Sapphire and Steel, and the best of Doctor Who).

The usual summation: the ’60s were the party, the ’70s were the hangover. Asked for elaboration, most of my fellow graybeards would mention the bitter end of the Vietnam War, including its home front spinoff, Watergate. That’s true enough, but most wars end with bitterness; witness the dozens of films noir about World War II veterans. More telling, perhaps, is President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 speech about America’s “crisis of confidence”, a fitting cap to a decade of energy shortages and cultism. The media dubbed it “the malaise speech”, despite the fact that Carter never used that word.

Another key to understanding the sci-fi of the era: the shrunken profile of space exploration. In the ’60s, NASA was perhaps the most popular Federal project, partly because fallen leader John F. Kennedy was associated with the “space race”. Television covered every moment leading up to the first moon walk in 1969, and Hollywood pitched in with movies and TV shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Star Trek, the made-in-England 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Jetsons had a dog named Astro, and Houston chose the same name for its new baseball team, which played, of course, in the Astrodome.

As our radio-alarm-clocks flipped to the ’70s soundtrack, however, the Apollo Program was curtailed by budget cuts and sharply declining interest. The scientific idealism of the ’60s was victim to chronic civil unrest, distrust of authority, and general exhaustion, as Americans turned to self-improvement (meditation, back-to-the-land/find-your-roots trends); hedonism (swinging, cocaine, disco); and all things para- (the paranormal, paranoia), including persistent rumors that the moon landings had been faked. In keeping with the zeitgeist, most of our TV astronauts of the decade would be lost, passive, or grounded.

This wasn’t so long ago. The notion that Stanley Kubrick directed a moon-landing hoax is one of the theories argued in Room 237, the 2012 documentary devoted to deconstructions of Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (1980). In Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009), the shrunken space program of the ’70s is backdrop for creeping alien invasion, led by a Mephistophelian Frank Langella. Whereas Richard Nixon was accused of waging war to save face, Langella, who’d recently played Nixon, plays a character with half-a-face (courtesy of CGI).

Even if you didn’t buy the moon-landing paranoia, ’70s headlines indicated that the Western project was losing altitude: the energy shortages, a rash of hijackings and other terrorism, the crisis on Apollo 13 (dramatized in the 1974 TV movie Houston, We’ve Got a Problem, as well as the Tom Hanks movie, Apollo 13). This was the era of the disaster film, typified by the vehicular catastrophes of Airport (parodied by Airplane) and The Poseidon Adventure (remade in 2006). Disaster in the air also informs the starlost shows, which begin with cataclysm, then exodus.

Television wasn’t about to abandon astronauts as national avatars, not when military and CIA narratives were ratings poison. Instead, we got astronauts in existential crisis. As Irwin Allen’s franchise of spectacular juvenilia limped into the ’70s, sights were lowering: the poetically christened Spindrift of Land of the Giants (1968-1970) isn’t a spaceship but a “sub-orbital transport vehicle”. In the first episode, she hits a Planet of the Apes-style space-time warp leading to an outsized planet. Over two seasons, the regulars do little but elude the giants, the oafish citizens, and the grasping agents of an authoritarian government (Land of the Giants is available on DVD and on Hulu).

Even more obscurely, 1972’s telefilm The Astronaut is basically the made-for-Lifetime version of the existential astronaut. Susan Clark plays the pre-feminist wife of the title traveler, who’s so much more considerate since he came back from Mars. That’s because her real husband is dead, and the duplicate (Monte Markham) is part of a NASA cover-up, aided by some plastic surgery. The implication of this smart, talky curio is that the space program, far from being a glorious new adventure, is another rat-race trap. The most dated scenes come when the two pawns decide to marry: instead of ending up at a black site, love conquers all, as the sun flares in the camera lens.

Theatrical movies had their own existential rocket-men, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Capricorn One, and a 1969 trip by Space: 1999 producer Gerry Anderson, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. In 1973, Anderson’s film was reworked (without credit) for TV as The Stranger, a jilted pilot. This time, it’s Glenn Corbett as the bemused astro-nought, shipwrecked in a vaguely socialist dystopia where the Feds dress like stereotypical English Lit professors.

Whereas The Hunger Games is baroque, the alt-Earth of The Stranger is betrayed by eerie details: three moons in the sky, everyone’s left-handed, histories stop at 30 years. (Only a year later, Saturday-morning’s Land of the Lost also had three moons and was reached through a “dimension lock”, so it was a crowded neighborhood.) The Stranger steals from the best — also 1984 and The Twilight Zone, with character names from the American Revolution — and it’s worth catching, if only on YouTube; like many TV movies (including The Astronaut), The Stranger is unavailable on home video.

Of course, not all space-set TV movies hold up. Despite Mariette Hartley and Gary Lockwood, Earth II (1971, out on DVD-R) wastes its spacestation setting on the old “which-bomb-wire-do-I-cut” plot. An 11-year-old Stowaway to the Moon (1975) may sound cute, but by the end you’ll identify with the astronaut who vomits in his helmet.

As the ’70s ended and sci-fi blockbusters reigned at theatres, made-for-TV movies got serious about the genre, with 1980 adaptations of The Lathe of Heaven (a classic telefilm), The Martian Chronicles (not as bad as they say), and Brave New World (just as bad as they say). This was a false spring, however: Hollywood would learn that audiences didn’t so much want outer space or sci-fi, they wanted triumphal escapism; thus, the box-office immolation of Blade Runner, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Iceman.

In my last article, I referenced William J. Adams’s article for Fantastic Films magazine (issue #29), which made the case that Battlestar: Galactica (1978-1979) was sabotaged by ABC. In Questar #10 (December 1980), Adams defended the entire sci-fi genre against a benighted TV industry, in an essay teased with the unforgettable cover-blurb, “TV and S.F.: Could It Be War?” That line sums up the adolescent time-wasting of sci-fi fandom, but also had a point: in the ’70s and ’80s, American television seemed determined to destroy every decent science fiction series that reached network schedules.

Even today, it’s tough for buzzed-about sci-fi to survive on major networks, witness Jericho, Revolution, and Dollhouse. It was worse in the ’70s, when CBS took almost two years to run just 14 episodes of their live-action Spider-Man series. Around the same time, both The Bionic Woman and Project U.F.O. somehow went from Top 30 to cancellation within a year’s time. Some narratives found refuge in print: Battlestar: Galactica launched various novels and comic books in the 25 years between its TV incarnations.

Many fantastic series began with multiple TV movies, indicative that one successful pilot-movie wasn’t enough to persuade the suits. If a series survived year one, it would often be reworked to make it “more commercial”. This was still going on in 1994, when the second season of NBC’s SeaQuest added four new cast members. (The third season added a new lead, Michael Ironside, and changed the time frame and title, before the poor hectored beast finally sank to cancellation.)

Project U.F.O. (1978-1979) tried to break the sci-fi curse with hardheaded realism: it’s based on the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book, and has opening narration by Jack Webb of Dragnet. Unfortunately, this approach means the protagonists can’t find hard evidence regarding UFOs, a disappointment to viewers who’d seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also based on “real accounts”). Inevitably, some fans accused the Air Force of suppressing the two-season Project U.F.O. — it’s still not on home video — but really, that probably wasn’t necessary.

Fantastic Journey (1977) has a very broad premise that helped it slip past genre prejudice into prime-time — the Bermuda Triangle hides space/time gateways to various alternate universes — but also worked against the series developing any distinctive personality. This show tried to challenge the white-male normativity of US television with the four adult regulars, including a half-alien woman and a “hip black doctor”. Unfortunately, the show plays like a dour Sliders (1995-2000).

Though its premise was very Irwin Allen, Fantastic Journey was heavily influenced by Star Trek, then omnipresent in reruns. (Many of the ’70s shows recycle the familiar Star Trek sound effects, which does them no favors.) Now relegated to YouTube, Fantastic Journey is more stilted and saccharine than its role model. Maybe the cast should’ve controlled the series: Jared Martin went on to the relatively gritty War of the Worlds (1988-1990), Roddy McDowall anchored the Planet of the Apes franchise, and Carl Franklin became a noted film and television director (One False Move, House of Cards [US]).

In the long history of Hollywood/sci-fi conflict, the most passive aggression may have been aimed at Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. The Hollywood powers had to be irritated by the syndrome, documented by William J. Adams, of cancelled fantastica doing better in syndicated reruns, epitomized by Roddenberry’s Star Trek. In those days before the various revivals, Trekkies (this writer included) watched the original 78 episodes countless times, a social phenomenon that seems unlikely to recur.

Roddenberry was still in his professional prime, and had little success in feature films, so he kept making TV pilot movies. None of the four made it to series, but they retain some interest, with half of them concerning a grounded astronaut (well, a NASA scientist) named Dylan Hunt. This is Roddenberry’s version of the Buck Rogers narrative (itself a twist on Rip Van Winkle), as Hunt acts as his own guinea pig in a suspended-animation experiment, only to wake up post-apocalypse. Genesis II (1973) is a decent set-up, with a waggish Alex Cord navigating a politically correct, war-weary future, but the script gradually self-destructs. For the longest time, Cord doesn’t know who the good guys are, but you will: the rival city-states are named Pax and Tyrania.

CBS declined Genesis II, so Roddenberry retooled for 1974’s Planet Earth, which could be a sequel except that Alex Cord and his pornstache were replaced by strong-jawed John Saxon. Many preferred Genesis II, but Planet Earth is the one to watch (all the Pax movies are available on DVD-R) if you can wrap your brain around this plot: the itinerant do-gooders run afoul of a matriarchal colony, and soon a flinty Diana Muldaur has made Saxon into one of her submissive “dinks”.

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.

Thomas A. Foster writes about popular culture in the context of social change. He has written for Video Watchdog, Rue Morgue, and Senses of Cinema.