Planet Earth (1974) -***
We all know the story. Gene Roddenberry produces a pilot for a sci-fi television series, but the network doesn’t bite. He’s convinced the premise is sound, though, so about a year later, he tries it again with a new cast, revised production design, and a more humanistic script in which the hardcore science fiction stuff serves to illuminate the personalities and relationships of the major characters, instead of vice versa. Nevertheless, Roddenberry does carry one figure over from the first pilot to the second, a peculiar, saturnine man from a culture alien to the rest of the cast, whose ways are poorly understood and somewhat mistrusted by his comrades— oh, and he also manages to sneak Majel Barrett into the new version as well by shifting her into a different role. I’m not talking about “Star Trek,” though. I could be, obviously, since that’s the origin of the series in a nutshell, but weirdly enough, that history repeated itself almost exactly in the early-to-mid-70’s, on a completely unrelated project. The failed first pilot this time was Genesis II; the second attempt (which was no more successful than its predecessor at winning a network buy-in) was Planet Earth. Planet Earth too ultimately saw the light of day as a TV movie, and it must have given anyone who tuned in without knowing of its origins an unbearable case of déjà vu. You see, unlike with “Star Trek,” Roddenberry kept all the main Genesis II characters even as he hired new actors to play them, and the script for Planet Earth was built up from one that would have become a regular episode had Genesis II been cleared for series production. Consequently, I’m going to treat Planet Earth as a sequel to Genesis II despite all the surface-level discrepancies between them. In some ways, this film even works a little better if you look at it from that perspective.
For starters, taking Planet Earth as a sequel certainly makes sense of the rather drastic in-media-res beginning, in which Dr. Dylan Hunt (John Saxon, from Cannibal Apocalypse and Hands of Steel, taking over from the forgettable Alex Cord) and Pater Isaac Kimbridge (Rai Tasco, of The Black Gestapo and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde— and note the change in Kimbridge’s title as compared to the Percy Rodrigues incarnation of the character) lead Harper-Smythe (now played by Ghostbusters II’s Janet Margolin), Isiah (still Ted Cassidy), and a new character called Baylok (Christopher Cary, from The Sword and the Sorcerer and Lifepod) on a scouting mission into what used to be Southern California. We join them just as they’re getting into trouble with a band of post-apocalyptic neo-Nazi mutants called Kreegs, which is disorienting in practice, but becomes less so if we assume that we’re already supposed to be acquainted with four of the team’s five members. In any case, the Kreegs hold several advantages over our heroes. For one thing, they’re unencumbered by anything resembling the Pax oath against the taking of sapient life. For another, they’re immune to the tranquilizers fired by the Paxers’ dart pistols, but the Paxers have no corresponding natural defense against the Kreegs’ rifle bullets. Most of all, Hunt and the others are stuck on foot until they can reach the nearest station for the supersonic subway their people use to travel the globe, whereas the Kreegs have motor vehicles— 20th-century automobiles which they’ve converted to burn wood-pulp biofuel. Even so, the explorers are able to reach the threshold of their tube shuttle stop before Kimbridge is gunned down by one of their pursuers. The wound isn’t instantly lethal, but it’s well beyond the treatment capacity of either the team’s portable medkits or Baylok’s psychic healing ability.
The news gets worse once the doctors at Pax get a look at Kimbridge. The Kreeg bullet took a piece out of his pulmonary artery, and although he can be kept stabilized for a short time with the clinic’s best life-support equipment, he’s sure to die unless bioplastic surgery can be performed within the next two to three days. Furthermore, the best man for the job is currently on an expedition to the Eastern Mediterranean; no way could he be summoned back in time to save the pater. There’s another surgeon almost as qualified, but he— Dr. Jonathan Connor (Jim Antonio, from Pigs and Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls)— disappeared some months ago in the territory just beyond Kreegland. That region is rumored to be controlled by a tribe of xenophobic female supremacists, so it’s hard to imagine that he’s still safe and sound after all this time. But long shot or not, Dylan determines to play it. He owes Kimbridge way too much to do anything else. His plan is a conspicuously bad one, however. While Isiah and Baylok scout around in the wilderness for possible Connor hideouts, he and Harper-Smythe will attempt to infiltrate the Society of Ruth directly, posing as a wannabe joiner and the captive man she’s brought along in the hope of buying admission.
Hunt and Harper-Smythe’s half of the mission goes awry almost immediately. The first person they meet is a high-ranking Ruthite named Marg (Diana Muldaur, from The Other and Maneaters Are Loose!), who promptly challenges Harper-Smythe for ownership of Dylan. As you might imagine, a girl who was raised from birth in a place called Pax isn’t much for fisticuffs, and Marg administers to Harper-Smythe one of the most one-sided ass-whippings in recorded catfight history. Hunt, for his part, remains unclear on the concept even now, and keeps pestering Marg about Jonathan Connor no matter how many times she slaps him and orders him to keep his mouth shut like a proper “dink.” By the time they reach the main Ruthite village, Marg has decided that Dylan’s more trouble than he’s worth in his current state of training. She determines to sell him at the slave auction tomorrow. In the meantime, she places Hunt with an obedience-school kennel run by Villar (Johanna De Winter) and Bronta (Corinne Camacho)— but before he takes up his position there, Hunt is left to cool his heels in the same pen as (that’s right) Isiah and Baylok! Both men have clearly had something done to them. They’re skittish to the point of panic, and neither one seems to recognize Dylan at first. Eventually, though, he gets it out of Baylok that the Ruthite women put psychoactive chemicals in the food they give their males, to make them fearful and compliant. That forewarning almost enables Hunt to escape that night, but Villar is not as easily overcome as Bronta. Just the same, his performance suggests to his would-be trainers that Marg may have underestimated him.
Meanwhile, Harper-Smythe wastes an entire afternoon and evening wandering in the wilderness. Eventually, she blunders onto the property of another Ruthite called Treece (Sally Kemp, from The Invasion of Carol Enders and The Glove), where again she is forced to fight— this time for the simple hospitality due any traveler among civilized people. That gets the girl from Pax pissed off enough to win, after which Treece flummoxes her by becoming a gracious and welcoming host. The women’s chat over dinner brings to light quite a bit of vital intelligence. First, Treece and Marg are rivals to some extent, the main point of contention being Marg’s family monopoly on the secret formula for the dink drug. They’re also on opposite sides of an emergent controversy over the wisdom of keeping the dinks drugged in the first place. No one argues against the benefits of controlling the natural masculine tendency toward irrational violence and aggression, but the uncomfortable fact is that birth rates among the Society of Ruth have declined precipitously since the practice of dink-doping became widespread, and have now reached an unsustainably low ebb. Marg doesn’t want to face that fact, though, any more than the CEOs of BP and Exxon-Mobil want to face the facts of man-made global warming— and for exactly the same reason. The other important thing Harper-Smythe learns from Treece is that although Marg intends to sell Dylan at auction tomorrow, Harper-Smythe can get him back in the same way that she lost him in the first place. All she has to do is win this time.
Somewhat surprisingly, Harper-Smythe accomplishes just that when she calls Marg out just as Dylan ascends to the auction block. However, she soon winds up trading him back. That’s because it turns out that Marg’s stable of house-dinks includes none other than Jonathan Connor. What’s more, he alone of all the males in the village still has his full faculties about him, because his medical training has enabled him to invent an antidote to dink dope. (Mind you, he doesn’t normally make a habit of advertising that.) Once Hunt has been dosed with Connor’s formula, the Pax agents devise a twofold plan to get away from the Society of Ruth, and to hurry Connor to Pater Kimbridge’s bedside. As I said, Harper-Smythe will offer Hunt back to Marg in trade for the doctor. Then, while Dylan keeps Marg busy by unleashing upon her the full might of his unsuppressed masculine charms, Harper-Smythe and Connor will sneak off to spike tomorrow’s shipment of dink dope with the antidote, rendering the drug ineffective. The men will surely rise up against their owners as soon as they’ve digested their breakfast, affording our heroes the perfect opportunity to scamper off unnoticed. The Paxers haven’t figured on one thing, however. The Kreegs have been aware for some time what pushovers the Society of Ruth’s men are, and one ambitious Kreeg chieftain (John Quade, of Hammer and Night Terror) has finally gotten the big lightbulb to try conquering the Amazons next door.
I do so love it when Gene Roddenberry attempts to tackle sexism and gender roles. It’s the one area where his instincts failed him (generally in hilarious ways) every single time, even when his heart was unmistakably in the right place. The most infamous example of the latter case is probably the first-season “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, “Angel One”— and rightly so— but Planet Earth would surely run that one a close second if more people had seen it. The first indication of what’s to come arises when Hunt briefs Harper-Smythe, Isiah, and Baylok on what Pax has been able to learn about the Society of Ruth. At the end of the rundown, the camera gazes up at John Saxon, and he intones as seriously as he is able, “Women’s lib? Or women’s lib gone mad?!” I’ll give Planet Earth credit at least for recognizing that a female chauvinist society must be something more complex than a mere point-for-point inversion of the familiar male chauvinist variety, and for devising a couple halfway-plausible ways for the Society of Ruth to do things differently. (And while I’m at it, I’ll salute once again Roddenberry’s unrivalled knack for outmaneuvering the censors. Heaven knows how he got away with having the Ruthites refer to their men as “dinks.”) But from the moment Dylan utters that “women’s lib” line, you know this is going to turn into yet another story of matriarchy bowing before Penis Invictus. The scene in which that bowing occurs is a humdinger, too, easily outdoing any of the times when Captain Kirk’s dick saved the day.
Speaking of which, the Kirk-like behavior of this second incarnation of Dylan Hunt is neither accident nor coincidence. Although the immediate provenance of Planet Earth’s script was the pile of unused Genesis II leftovers, this story had actually been gathering dust in Roddenberry’s filing cabinet since the days of the first “Star Trek” season. So if Hunt now comes across as a poor man’s Kirk, it’s because the foundations of Planet Earth were laid with the real thing in mind. John Saxon, alas, is no substitute for William Shatner. He lacks the capacity for hamming without shame that enabled Shatner to sell Kirk’s Pan-Galactic Lady’s Man shtick, coming across as squirmy and self-conscious during the critical seduction scene. That leaves Diana Muldaur in an impossible position. We’re asked to believe that Hunt is such a juggernaut of sexual potency that Marg rethinks her whole worldview based on a single night in his company, but he’s such an obvious dope that she looks thoroughly ridiculous falling for him. And that’s too bad, because Muldaur, up to that point, has acquitted herself far better than Saxon, mostly reconciling the seemingly incompatible demands that come with playing both Babe of the Week and Queen Bitch. Indeed, she’s easily the best thing about this fairly silly movie, and her performance here will come as a revelation to those who remember Muldaur mainly as that awful, schoolmarmish doctor from the second season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Thanks to Planet Earth, it will henceforth be a part of my personal fan-canon that Dr. Pulaski spent her youth living in a gender-flipped Gorean back-to-nature commune.
On the whole, Planet Earth is markedly less serious and less ambitious than Genesis II, but it’s a lot more fun. Much as I criticize John Saxon for botching his William Shatner impression, it’s a hoot to watch him try. He is, at the very least, a welcome improvement over Alex Cord. And while it certainly doesn’t work the way it was intended to, the seduction scene between him and Diana Muldaur is exactly the kind of squirmy spectacle I salivate for whenever I see that Roddenberry is out to tell me once again that “Sexism’s bad, m’kay?” Some of the other recasting is a step up, as well. I like the new Harper-Smythe much better than the old, partly because Janet Margolin is much more charismatic than Lynne Marta, and partly because this version of the character dials way back on the tiresome Youth Anti-Sex League business. Baylok is a nice addition to the cast, too, even if he doesn’t get a chance to do very much. Finally, I think we all know there was no way I wasn’t going to love a tribe of Road Warrior lizard-Nazis, right? Considerably more than with Genesis II, I’m disappointed that Planet Earth didn’t go to series. I definitely would have enjoyed spending more time with this version of Pax.