So little has been written about Gene Roddenberry’s work outside of Star Trek, and yet the guy produced a movie and four television pilots in the ten short years between the original Star Trek and The Motion Picture. On this, the fiftieth anniversary of his most renowned creation, it’s time to reconnect with Roddenberry’s lost productions and see how they laid down the blueprint for Star Trek’s Next Generation.
Starting us off is Roddenberry’s first attempt at a TV show after Star Trek, 1973’s Genesis II which, despite the odd roman numeral at the end, is not a sequel to anything previously produced. Apparently the pilot film did extremely well, ratings-wise, and was green-lit with several story outlines ready to be filmed. Unfortunately, CBS decided Genesis II allowed is not and went with a Planet of the Apes show instead. I find the pilot’s reported popularity very interesting because it’s not particularly great. The opening is a mixed up jumble of scenes and narration, some of the concepts are downright laughable, and the hero flip flops so often between allegiances it can be hard to keep up. To be really frank, nothing Roddenberry produced outside of Star Trek was flat out amazing, but it’s all still worth watching because they have a very Roddenberry quality about them that’s both familiar and comforting no matter how goofy things get.
Genesis II is the story of contemporary NASA scientist Dylan Hunt, here played by Alex Cord, getting trapped inside his own suspended animation experiment for 160 years. If the name Dylan Hunt sounds familiar to you it’s because it was later used for Kevin Sorbo’s character in the 2000 series Andromeda.
Hunt sleeps in his stasis chamber until the year 2133. The earth, at this point, has experienced a massive nuclear war and is only now starting to rebuild. Hunt is accidentally woken up by a group of underground dwellers called the PAX. They are amazed to find what they believed to be a dead body still barely breathing. Like Spock telling McCoy how to replace his own brain, a half-conscious Hunt attempts to tell the PAX, through barely audible grunts, how to revive him; however, the PAX have no knowledge of medicine and can’t comply.
Fortunately one of the biological concepts that makes the xenon gas-based hibernation work is – I’m not making this up – the “need to reproduce”. Hunt grabs the shoulder of a leggy blonde PAX, played by Mariette Hartley (Zarabeth from “All Our Yesterdays”), begs her to make him “want to live”, and he soon recovers. Yes, folks, Dylan Hunt survives because he’s horny.
Hunt himself is a fury chested, mustachioed sex god, the like of which can be seen in the previous year’s Deep Throat and Roddenberry’s own 1971 film Pretty Maids all In a Row. He’s the very embodiment of a man willing to screw a brave new world into submission. It’s no secret that Gene’s expression of sexuality had all the poignance and complexity of kid peaking at his dad’s Playboys. It’s splatted all over his 70’s and 80’s work including Lt. Illia’s bizarre vow of chastity in The Motion Picture, and the various sex-comedy tweaks Gene made to first season Next Generation episodes like “Justice” and “The Naked Now”.
Because of this it should come as no shock that Hartley’s Lyra-a drops her robe the moment she’s alone with Hunt revealing her twin belly buttons of doom. The legend Roddenberry created around this aesthetic decision was that NBC wouldn’t allow him to show Hartley’s single navel on Star Trek. So when he got his chance he stuck two on her Genesis II character. This, of course, seems like nonsense considering there were many, many, many, many belly buttons on Star Trek. Many. Hartley, herself, can’t remember the incident, so I’d chalk it up to Gene creating another fantasy about his war with the censors.
Like the crew of the Enterprise, the PAX leadership, headed by Percy “Commodore Stone” Rodriguez, is a rainbow coalition of ethnicities and accents. Roddenberry’s belief in a future of racial harmony and cooperation was definitely a legitimate and heartfelt one. It’s a shame, then, that the PAX’s first issue of business is discussing whether Lyra-a can be trusted due to her being a half-breed cross between a PAX mother and a mutant from the city of Tyrania (as in “tyranny”, get it?). There’s an actual genetically reductive discussion about how her twin-naveled evil might override her human purity. “An oath means nothing to a mutant!” exclaims the Greek one. ”Her people practice deceit as a virtue!” says the Asian one.
Later on Ted Cassidy’s character, who’s violent stoicism is an obvious prototype of Lt. Worf, will be referred to as a “White Comanche” who’s very heritage makes him an “ideal warrior”. That description may work ok for you when applied to a bumpy-headed alien, but when it’s pointed at a white guy with a head band playing a Native American it just seems icky. These are some embarrassingly mixed messages from the guy whose more ardent fans consider him the most racially progressive writer to ever grace Hollywood. Gene, no doubt didn’t mean to be so tone deaf and, for me at least, his dedication to racial harmony is nothing but sincere. But if you’re going to talk about a man’s vision you’re going to have to eventually bring up his myopia.
Worst of all, Lyra-a really is an evil, mutant temptress in the same vein of many female antagonists in the Original Series. She convinces Hunt, almost solely with the power of her bare midriff, that the PAX are the villains and that he needs escape with her to the mutant’s city. Much of the discussion of Lyra-a is similar to that of Spock’s dual genetic/cultural nature, but with a lot less nuance. Her mutant side apparently drives her to trick and seduce Hunt into helping her people, but her human half just wants the love, strange love, a well-groomed NASA mustache teaches. It’s all the pain and frustration of a mixed race individual condensed into a good girl/bad girl trope.
What really sets Hunt against the PAX, however, isn’t Lyra-a’s arguments but the fact that the PAX have abandoned all their “animal lust” which they blame for the war that leveled the planet. Their civility stems from their gender egalitarian nature where men and women dress the same, talk the same, and do the same work. All this equality somehow precludes serious boning. This, unfortunately, is a common misconception that still exists today – women are sexless by nature and only through the prowess of a man will there ever be physical love. By extension, a society in which the sexes are equally respected will be bland and passionless as the male libido will be automatically repressed. So when Hunt can’t seduce his pure PAX caretaker he immediately makes a run for the mutant city of Tyrania. Again, the plot literally revolves around Hunt’s fickle pickle.
To his credit, Roddenberry, with the help of master designer William Ware Theiss, was as interested in sexually objectifying men as he was women. While the PAX have their sexless, brown jumpsuits, everyone in Tyrania, including Dylan Hunt, struts around in barely-there togas that would make Zardoz blush. While the original Star Trek’s miniskirts and overly revealing dresses are impossible to defend, it should be acknowledged that William Shatner’s clean shaven chest was on display as often as could be rationalized. This attitude would continue into Next Generation where both the guys and the gals wore short skirts and skin tight spandex. It’s interesting to note that in Next Gen’s third season, as Gene’s influence waned, the skants disappeared, the alien costumes became more conservative, and only the women continued to wear tight uniforms.
After a few happy days lounging in retro-futurist Roman splendor getting his mustache trimmed and being hand fed by white-clad nymphs, Hunt starts to realize Tyrania is not all it’s cracked up to be. There is a rigid caste system and institutionalized slavery is rampant. When Hunt refuses to fix the Tyranian’s aging nuclear plant one of their luxuriously coiffed leaders attacks him with a sadomasochistic weapon called “the stim” which is capable of delivering pleasure as well as pain (again, shades of Spock’s Brain). He’s rescued by undercover PAX agents who are there to foster a slave revolt. Hunt agrees to help them, makes a magic weapon-sensing device, gets captured and freed again, and finally convinces the slaves to rise up and flee.
In the end Hunt tricks Lyra-a into expressing love for him by claiming his “weapon detector” is actually a “truth detector”. Because he sees her feelings are real and “human” he finally agrees to abandon his new PAX friends in order to fix the Tyranian nuclear reactor. Days go by and the PAX consider Hunt dead until he shows up at their base asking if they saw the nuclear blast he set off. Apparently, in one last act of deceit, the Tyranias actually wanted him to fix a left over nuclear warhead that was aimed at the PAX. Several technicians were killed in the blast, much to the disapproval of the PAX leadership who abhor the violence of the olden days.
Pacifism is another of Roddenberry’s core beliefs and it’s the only one that is completely immune to criticism and cynicism. When Hunt insists he did what he had to to save their bacon the PAX tell him they are all willing to give their lives before taking the lives of others no matter what the reason. The discussion is ended when the nuclear shock wave finally hits the PAX base, blowing everyone over and terrifying a group of children. The sight of the PAX children huddling in fear of what Hunt has done convinces him to only reconstitute the best achievements of his time and abandon the violence of the past for this new way of peaceful coexistence.
This is a really well earned and completely earnest moment as well as a very interesting turn for a Roddenberry hero. Kirk and Picard are civilized men who almost always have answers to the big questions. Their pontifications on humanity are legendary. Hunt is a different breed. He is the kind of savage who destroyed this world. Despite all his advanced technical knowledge it is he who will need to be civilized.
Almost all pilots are sloppy affairs. They need to create new characters, worlds, and antagonisms and often, as is the case with Genesis II, in only one hour. This final moment tells me the show, no matter how flawed, would have had real potential to do something different: teach the world Roddenberry’s utopian views by learning with the lead character instead of by being preached to by him. That’s a show I’d happily watch the crap out of.
Of course, Hunt ruins the entire mood in the closing shot by trapping a PAX woman in an elevator and making a really gross pass at her with the line “I bet you have a great pancreas”. Nice one, Gene.
Here’s some of my stray, uncategorized thoughts and observations:
• Majel Barrett is part of the PAX leadership. She doesn’t do much, but it’s great to see her.
• “Women’s Country” is alluded to. This will come up again in the second pilot attempt for this series, Planet Earth.
• The hyperloop style “subshuttle” that can take characters across the world in minutes is a very cool effect that must have cost a lot of the budget. You can be sure stock footage of it would have been used the same way the Enterprise was in future episodes.
• The PAX have no knowledge of medicine or medical equipment. Intravenous needles are alien to them. Percy Rodriguez is utterly shocked that Hunt wants them to “inject an alien substance into his body”. Yet their only hand weapon is a hypodermic needle that delivers a knock-out drug. This is an inconsistency that would have become harder to explain in a long running series.
• It’s also odd that the PAX are so unwilling to take a single life to protect themselves, yet they’re ok with unleashing thousands of armed, blood-thirsty slaves on the Tyranians.
• The show’s opening title font is Rude Extra Condensed Black if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things.
Up next: Spectre.