Gene Roddenberry left Star Trek’s third season to write a Tarzan film that never got produced, setting a tone for the next decade of his career. He produced the wretched Pretty Maids all in a Row and slunk back to television, first with the animated Trek and then a deal with Warner Bros that would see him produce the underrated Questor and Spectre along with a new science fiction film, seemingly designed to distance himself from the optimistic SF albatross around his neck.
He cut a deal with CBS in 1972 to produce a 90-minute film, Genesis II designed to be a pilot for a potential series. He quickly reunited with many of the behind-the-scenes Trek team and got to work, creating a dystopia that began in 1979. We open in 2133 as Earth is recovering from nuclear war and mankind has been dramatically reduced in number. Apparently, the survivors didn’t learn any lessons as the two sides battle, with dollops of slavery, racism, and gender inequality still on display.
“My name is Dylan Hunt. My story begins the day on which I died.” A NASA scientist, Hunt (Alex Cord) slept through the worst and is awoken to find a world out of control. Using his perspective, he finds like-minded allies forming a rebellious group determined to repair and ultimately save mankind.
As a concept, it’s not bad. The execution, from Samuel A. Peebles’ script on down, is where the pilot film gets into trouble. Peebles’ writing was stiff, and whatever rewriting Roddenberry did, didn’t help. The characters are types, never fully fleshed out, and Cord’s heroic role is blunted by his cold, aloof performance (making him better suited as Airwolf’s Archangel a few years later).
The most interesting performer here is actually Mariette Hartley, who isn’t wearing much (thank you, William Ware Theiss), allowing us to see her two navels (long story), but she has charisma and presence, unlike just about everyone else surrounding her.
Set against an America that was still arguing over Vietnam, a public just waking up to the corruption in the White House, and where a generation gap made communication nearly impossible, the themes are bluntly handled and where Trek offered people hope, this showed that nothing was going to change. Despite reasonable ratings during two airings, the network dithered over greenlighting the series. Ultimately, they gave the one SF slot on the schedule (talk about your quota systems) to a weekly version of Planet of the Apes.
ABC was waiting in the wings, wanting the show, but like Trek got a second pilot order with the new network insisting on major casting revisions. Gone was Cord, and in came journeyman action actor John Saxon, who had an appeal of his own and was a popular name thanks to Enter the Dragon. Also gone was Hartley in favor of Diana Muldaur, who was game but unconvincing in her part. The sole holdover was Ted Cassidy, but he didn’t have enough to do.
Rather than use the current events of the day as a springboard, Roddenberry stuck to themes that didn’t translate well nor were they well-handled in the rewrite, this time from Roddenberry and relatively new to TV writing Juanita Bartlett (who acquitted herself later on series like The Rockford Files and The Greatest American Hero.)
Joining the reimagined show was producer Robert Justman, fresh off the beleaguered Search, and he wrangled the production into a 90-minute production that never quite gelled. Years later, he admitted it wasn’t a very good pilot, which explains why ABC didn’t go to series.
Warner Archive remastered these two telefilms and they look pretty darn good. They are certainly a cultural curiosity, worth watching if you are a devotee of Roddenberry. They’re not very good as stories or pilots, the lofty ideas never properly translating to the screen. (It should be noted that after Roddenberry left, the studio tried one more time with Strange New World which isn’t here and that’s fine.) There are no extras but having these two on one-disc is a nice keepsake for collectors.