I’ll Explain Later…
It is some time in 1975, give or take. I can’t be more specific than that. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wins best picture. Jaws has started the era of the blockbuster, basically creating a Hollywood culture based around huge “event” films and shunting smaller, less ambitious or more artistic films off to the ghetto of independent filmmaking. George Lucas founds Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects for Star Wars. Also, The Rocky Horror Picture Show opens, making it cool to sing along to Tim Curry in drag. Sensing the disturbance in the force, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are summoned to PBS to star in their first show together, Sneak Previews. Moe Howard and Larry Fine die. Drew Barrymore, Sara Gilbert, Johnny Galecki, Zach Braff, Milla Jovovitch, Tobey MacGuire, Angelina Jolie, and Fergie are born. The music world gives us “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, “Philadelphia Freedom”, “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “Sister Golden Hair”. The original version of “Lady Marmalade”, though released last year, hits #1 in March.
From the world of television, Jeopardy! ends its original run (It’ll be revived in ’84), Wheel of Fortune begins its. The Jeffersons premiers. Gene Roddenberry is contracted by Paramount to make a Star Trek feature film titled The God-Thing. It falls through, prompting Roddenberry to pursue the idea of bring Trek back as a TV series instead. A few scattered elements of The God-Thing are incorporated into Star Trek the Motion Picture, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and that episode of Futurama where Bender meets God.
The 1970s are the closest thing the Star Trek franchise has to an equivalent of Doctor Who‘s “wilderness years”: a period full of false starts, noncanonical spin-offs, and one big movie that fans are quick to disown these days as being all style and no substance. It is widely and correctly believed that had Star Trek: Phase II made it to air, it would have, even if successful, killed the franchise stone dead. An evolutionary dead-end that would have locked Star Trek into one particular mode that wouldn’t have a way forward.
And while I do not in any way, shape or form dispute this as the obvious truth, there is, all the same, a part of me that longs for a ‘Trek that is informed by the 1970s the same way that the original series is informed by the 1960s, and The Next Generation is informed by the long ’80s. Because Science Fiction in the ’70s had a fantastic weirdness about it born out of an intense, almost overwhelming sense of not giving a crap about things like whether the science or indeed the plot made a lick of sense. You could have the moon go wander the far-reaches of the galaxy. You could selectively reinterpret Mormon cosmology as a galaxy-spanning space opera. You could have Earth invaded by evil fetish costumes. You could have Space Amish. You could even do Jason of Star Command. It’s all good. As we all know now, when Star Trek finally did return at the very end of the ’70s, it chose to take the High Road, trying to be serious and a bit artsy — even pretentious — without being “goofy”. And as much as Star Trek The Slow-Motion Picture is derided for its psychedelic plot and sloth-in-treacle pacing, “Serious and a bit artsy, even pretentious, without being goofy,” ended up being the dominant model of how Star Trek was going to work from that moment on. But it didn’t have to be. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future showed us, I think, a model for how Star Trek could have worked if it had chosen to go lighthearted and unpretentious: still a bit artsy, but kinda goofy.
Speaking of Gene Roddenberry, though, dig this: in the ’60s, Gene Roddenberry’s office at Paramount was across the hall from George Pal’s. By the mid 1970s, George Pal’s star was waning. Though he worked on numerous projects (A sequel to The Time Machine; a sequel to When Worlds Collide; a sequel to The Wizard of Oz; and adaptations of Logan’s Run (Pal’s option would run out before he could get it off the ground and Saul David would later make the film instead) and HG Wells’s When The Sleeper Wakes (Didn’t get greenlit because Woody Allen was already working on a spoof, Sleeper)), the only one that made it to theaters was Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, which flopped. I think it was the age of the blockbuster that did it in for him. The same techniques that had won him numerous awards in the fifties and sixties just could not scale up to compete with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars.
So it’s probably fitting at this point in his career that George Pal would try his hand at television. It didn’t pan out. I don’t know how these things get decided, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Pal was kinda toxic in Hollywood for a while after Doc Savage. There’s not a huge amount of information available in the public sphere, but some time in 1975, George Pal put together a pitch for a Star Trek-like TV series based (loosely) on one of his great successes from twenty years earlier: he proposed making The War of the Worlds into a TV series.
George Pal’s pitch reel for the new series was released on DVD some years ago by a company called Retroflix. I haven’t been able to find any information about them or any indication of their legitimacy: they don’t seem to be any of the currently-extant companies by that name and I got my copy second-hand, but it’s viewable on Youtube in its entirety (links below). The pitch is divided into three parts. First, there’s an outline of the series, presented as voice-over accompanied by concept sketches. The second part is a little featurette in Pal’s studio talking about the design process and creative team. The last section is a short live-action demo reel. My DVD copy also included half an hour of rough-cut visual effects material from War of the Worlds and Pal’s other big 1950s Sci-Fi hit, When Worlds Collide without any accompanying explanation (Which is cool because some of the shots are scenes that take place at night in the film, hiding details visible in the bright studio lighting. Also, the heat ray effect is replaced by film scratches that look like lightning bolts. Not sure if they’d actually intended to use a lightning-effect at some point, or if that’s just a placeholder).
The pitch begins with a montage of clips from the film, but a story that’s been heavily modified. The narrator sets the stage as “late in the 20th century”, when mankind has achieved world peace, zero population growth, a “stabilized” ecology and ocean farming. This peace is shattered by an invasion “from the infinite depths of space”. We’re told that the invasion lasts for “decades” before, as is tradition, the aliens all keel over due to common Earth viruses. There’s a few things in the backstory that don’t quite add up, of course. The clips, which admittedly should be counted only as demonstrative, clearly show 1950s military being routed and 1950s cities being razed. The fact that microorganisms take decades and not days to kill the aliens is not a problem in and of itself; The Great Martian War does something similar, after all. And frankly, the basic conceit of harmless bacteria wiping out the aliens is tricky to hang onto once you’ve specified a proper space-faring civilization rather than just a civilization that’s more advanced, but still mostly planet-bound, able only to invade their nearest neighbor by launching ballistic space ships out of giant space-cannons: protection from alien disease should be something they already knew to look out for. In the original book, it’s not a big deal because the Martians only have experience of the two habitable worlds and theirs doesn’t have microorganisms. So I think ultimately, it’s a small thing to modify the ending so that a disease kills the aliens not because they hadn’t thought of it, but because after years of fighting somebody screwed up taking off his hazmat suit. Further, one thing that isn’t retconned is that the war is a total rout for the home team. It’s hard to imagine a global war lasting for decades when one side has absolutely no defense. The 1953 movie is frequently cited for its religious themes. Among the religious allusions in the film is the estimate that, unchecked, the aliens could conquer the entire world in six days, the same length of time as one of the biblical creation stories. The Great Martian War has to dial the aliens’ invulnerability way down to stretch the war out over multiple years. This is a point where it just doesn’t work to have it both ways: either the aliens are utterly invincible and can conquer the world quickly, or the aliens can be held in check but not defeated, to slow the war down.
The narrator does not say it outright, but I think we have to presume that recovered alien technology is adapted for Earth use, because Earth’s response is to launch a fleet of six “Hyperspace Carriers” in the general direction of the alien retreat. The proposed show centers around the crew of one of these ships, the Pegasus, commanded by Colonel James Anderson. The conceptual sketch of Pegasus isn’t entirely original. It’s quite clearly an upside-down version of an AMT model kit from the late 1960s, originally marketed under the name “Leif Erickson Galactic Cruiser”.
The Leif Erickson is an interesting ship in its own right. The model kit originally shipped with an accompanying two-page short story about the ship’s adventures, and some Beat Poetry set to Theramin music on a paper record, which is a bit of media so obscure that I’m only like 80% sure I know what it is (Probably the thing more often called a Cardboard Record). It’s never, so far as I know, appeared in any films or TV shows, but allegedly, it does show up in the background in some storyboards for Filmation’s Star Trek animated series. That’s not theft, and neither is its use by George Pal, because the Leif Erickson, the Filmation Storyboards, and indeed the War of the Worlds concept art were all designed by the same guy: Matt Jeffries.
Yes, that Matt Jeffries, designer of the original USS Enterprise and basically everything else in the original Star Trek (Except the shuttlecraft. Jeffries did design one, coincidentally also named for Leif Erickson, but his design was deemed too
good for this fallen, sinful world expensive and a simpler one was used instead). And that may well account for the biggest part of the visual texture of the demo. Namely, while it does feel very Star Trek, even more than that, it feels retro. The Pegasus/Leif Erickson has an old-fashioned feel to it, even for 1975. And the images we see of the inside of the ship are much the same. The bridge of the Pegasus has some obvious similarities to the Enterprise, but also reminds me a bit of Raumpatrouille Orion, or even Lost in Space. The costumes even bear a resemblance to Star Trek — not the series proper, but the early versions from the pilot.
We’re given a broad outline of a series-long story arc, which frankly shocks the heck out of me from 1970s TV. The Pegasus is described as a “fortress in battle,” “a place to grow up in,” and “a place to find love.” The Pegasus is cut off from contact with Earth near the planet “Mega”, and as another Earth ship had gone missing there fifteen years earlier (presumably they’d have worked out the timeline in a way that didn’t imply that Earth was completely defenseless and engaged in a decades-long war while at the same time sending interplanetary star ships out into deep space), Earth decides to recall the rest of the fleet to just hang out near home in case the aliens come back.
The first plot arc would see the Pegasus sending landing parties to Mega, where they’d discover that the earlier ship had been destroyed and its crew abducted. On Mega, they’d also meet the movie aliens again, who would now be revealed as merely a servant race to an even greater power. Following rules that would later be set in stone by Power Rangers, Stargate SG-1 and Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, as the Pegasus followed the trail through space, they’d encounter the various thralls of the unseen overlords in strictly ascending order by menace. The movie-aliens would be followed up by a race of cave men with force-lances, then by mind-controlled human captives.
The culmination of the arc would take the Pegasus to the homeworld of the overlords themselves, the planet Endor. Yes, really. Keep in mind here that Return of the Jedi is still almost a decade away. I haven’t been able to find any particular references explaining how “Endor” came to be a planet name. The most likely connection I can think of is that “Endor” is the elvish name for Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, though that’s some prime-ass nerdery right there. The name itself is biblical: it’s the name of a Canaanite town which is known to have produced at least one witch, which is probably also where Agnes Moorehead’s character on Bewitched got her name. Pal’s Endor is no forest moon, though. It’s a bit more Mordor: a polluted wasteland, weak suns dimmed by smoggy skies. The pitch stops short of explaining the nature of the unseen overlords, but does show sketches of a space battle between the Pegasus and movie-style war machines.
The second part of the pitch introduces George Pal, hard at work studying a Tholian ship and discussing sketches with Matt Jeffries. A nacelle from the USS Enterprise is visible in the background. We’re given a close look at the sketch, a “weapon system” consisting of a orb with an anteater-like proboscis and a three-segmented eye identical to the Martian camera-eye from the movie. Pal walks around the studio appreciating the various storyboards and models made by his team.
The last five minutes of the pitch consists of a proposed scene from the series. For all that’s wrong with the scene, one thing I find really fascinating is that it’s incredibly easy to follow despite the fact that there’s absolutely no setup. The scene presumably takes place late in the series. Captain Anderson, a slightly doughy blonde man, is on the planet Endor, and doesn’t want to be. The implication I take is that he’s been captured, and is now making his escape with the help of a defector, presumably a human who’s been cybernetically modified, as indicated by a modulation effect added to his voice. He leaves Anderson in a storage room to fetch him something less conspicuous than his red Joel Hodgson-style jumpsuit, where Anderson hides behind a table, then immediately blows his cover by inexplicably lifting up his arm to smell his pits just as a guard — presumably another modified human — looks his way. Fortunately, Anderson’s accomplice returns just as the Captain of the Pegasus is surrendering and chokes the guard to death by the chinstrap on his ridiculous penis-shaped helmet. The pair make their way to the loading ramp of a spherical ship that’s just landed, but are caught by more guards and surrender instantly.
The storytelling is good and straightforward — they never actually say what it is that they’re doing or who anyone is, but it’s all pretty clear in context. The set designs are lovely, they remind me a lot of things like the big underground sets in Star Trek, such as in “Devil in the Dark” and “What are Little Girls Made Of?”. The colors are really drab, but I have no way of knowing if that’s deliberate or just the age of the print.
That said, this little five-minute clip doesn’t really sell the show. You wouldn’t expect these to be the actors ultimately cast had they gone to series, of course, as we saw in the Captain Power demo reel, but man alive is this a doughy and uncharismatic bunch, the actor playing Jim Anderson especially. The accomplice is the best actor of the bunch by virtue of being merely “okay”. Except for his mustache, which is fantastic. The trick of having his voice modulated is a very clear way to wordlessly communicate that he’s one of the “robotic slaves” mentioned in part 1. Ironically, it’s the only thing about his communication that’s clear, since it muffles his voice so badly. The guards are even worse, basically indecipherable. The first major plot complication hinges on our action-hero-captain waving his arm around like an idiot when he’s supposed to be hiding. The Jim folds instantly when confronted, leaving his sidekick to do the actual murdering of the guard. It’s just not a very exciting scene for the purpose of selling me on the show: two guys trying to escape from an unspecified threat and getting caught twice. There’s no real sense of what kind of characters we’re dealing with or what kind of situations they’re going to encounter. Come to think of it, Anderson is the only named character in both the scene and the synopsis. That bit about Pegasus being a place to live, die, grow up and fall in love makes it sound like there was to be a character-driven element to the series, but nothing else in the pitch really supports it.
Worst of all, though, the visual “oomph” is all from the set design. This is, remember George Pal, the man who gave us Puppetoons and When Worlds Collide. The man who gave us the beautifully iconic clockpunk Victorian time machine in The Time Machine, and, for that matter, the war machines from War of the Worlds, possibly the most iconic alien warship in the history of sci-fi cinema. There’s nothing like that in this demo. The only visual effect we have is what I assume is some sort of underground landing complex, and that’s not really a very George Pal sort of visual effect. No, this doesn’t look like a part of George Pal’s War of the Worlds: if anything, it looks more like Matt Jeffries‘s War of the Worlds. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but maybe not what anyone would be looking for out of George Pal’s War of the Worlds The Series.
And that’s the big problem with this pitch. If there was ever a specific reason given for why this pitch was never taken to the pilot stage, it’s been lost to history. But if I had to guess, I’d say that was it: in spite of Pal’s involvement, this just doesn’t look, feel, or sound like a continuation of the 1953 film. The tale of an Earth expedition, going out into space in the wake of a narrowly-repelled alien invasion has legs, don’t get me wrong. “Humans chase the aliens back home,” is practically its own subgenre of Science Fiction. Even in the War of the Worlds franchise, it’s not an idea that’s escaped notice. It will be, after all, the hook that Goliath ends on. It’s an idea that goes all the way back to the beginning, in fact. Before the ink had even dried on the original novel, Garett P. Serviss had written an unauthorized sequel (To a bootleg, no less) titled Edison’s Conquest of Mars, a reporter’s account of a star-studded mission to the Red Planet, where Thomas Edison, Lord Kelvin, and an array of other late-19th-century political and scientific celebrities proceed to commit gleeful genocide while being really really racist (Though some of the racism is clearly marked as satire, such as the German linguist who takes everything as proof of Aryan supremacy, or the slightly goofy old soldier who accidentally refers to the Martians as “Indians”).
But if you’re going to completely rewrite the nature of that first war, it makes you start wondering what the point is of making this a nominal sequel at all. There are basically two sketches in that opening plot synopsis that reflect this show’s movie origins. Beyond that, this could just as easily be a sequel to pretty much any alien invasion movie. Or, y’know, a completely original franchise.
If you came to this pitch looking for a follow-up to War of the Worlds, you won’t find much of that here. As it stands, this looks more like a kind of retro Star Trek. The Matt Jeffries design work gives it the look and feel of TOS-era Trek, while what Pal has contributed looks to be not so much War of the Worlds as a non-specific ’50s Sci-Fi movie vibe that, ironically, makes it seem even more akin to Trek‘s very earliest days. You know, the version of Star Trek that didn’t get picked up, and had to be substantially rewritten. Without the distinctiveness of Pal’s War of the Worlds shining through, this seems more like a retro-styled knock-off of Star Trek (And the gratuitous appearance of Trek props in the middle section seems like a shameless attempt to reinforce that). And in 1975, Paramount didn’t really need another Star Trek. After all, they already has Star Trek: The God-Thing in development.
If circumstances had been different — in particular, I think, if it were a few years earlier or Gene Roddenberry didn’t already have a new Trek in development — Pal’s War of the Worlds series probably could have gotten picked up. But I can’t imagine it would be anything other than a footnote in the history of TV Science Fiction. As a way to make a TV show, it’s okay I guess. But as a way to continue the story of the 1953 film, or indeed, as a way to continue the story of The War of the Worlds in general, this falls short.
Which isn’t too surprising I guess; with its “And then God smote the invaders,” ending, it’s not like the 1953 film was really crying out to be continued. Pal himself had to pretty much discard the entire outline of the original movie in the revised version of the backstory. To try to take the movie as filmed and work forward from that would be an utterly bizarre thing to try…
To Be Continued…