*****SUB-SHUTTLE SIZED SPOILERS!!******
Back to the Future
After the cancellation of NBC’s “Star Trek” (1966-1969), the show began to develop an even stronger cult following through the magic of syndication, when it was sold to local stations and began to broaden its audience (which was how I fell in love with it, in fact). To that end, producer/creator Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991) tried his luck once more with “Star Trek: The Animated Series” in 1973, which only lasted a season and a half before, it too, joined its parent series in cancellation. The early 1970s saw a rise in dystopian futurism, with such end of the world offerings as the “Planet of the Apes” franchise (1968-1975), “The Omega Man” (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973). In the era of Watergate and the Vietnam war, Americans were feeling understandably cynical about the future. Star Trek’s once-shining optimism was beginning to feel a bit quaint. To that end, Gene Roddenberry offered up his own take on bleak futurism in a first attempt (of several) known as “Genesis II” (1973).
“Genesis II” is an odd mix of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” The story begins with US astronaut Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) being placed into suspended animation beneath the Carlsbad caverns of New Mexico. Once asleep, his chamber is trapped in a massive earthquake, and he’s all but forgotten. In the year 2133, Dylan is eventually revived by a group known as PAX, a group of scientist descendants living deep underground. PAX uses a global ‘sub-shuttle’ network developed at the end of the 20th century to re-connect with the rest of the world. Following a nuclear war centuries earlier, the United States has lapsed into primitive tribalism, with small, brutal factions vying for power throughout the continent. It’s up to 20th century throwback Dylan Hunt to show the pacifists of PAX how to go guerrilla on the fascist mutants of “Terrania,” who now control what was once Arizona.
The totalitarian, twin-naveled mutants of Terrania also have a dangerously dilapidated 20th century nuclear reactor that’s in desperate need of Dylan Hunt’s scientific know-how. A power struggle between PAX and Terrania for Dylan’s loyalty ensues…
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, the 1973 TV movie opens with Alex Cord narrating as ‘Dylan Hunt,’ the project leader of NASA’s “Project Ganymede,” which is using a hollowed-out scientific installation deep in the underground Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico. In the ‘future’ year of 1979, Project Ganymede is hoping to place Dylan in suspended animation for a week to test its viability for prolonged spaceflights. We see the slightly lecherous Dylan taking the brand new ‘sub-shuttle’ (a supersonic subway system) to his destination beneath Carlsbad. Aboard the shuttle, there is some awkward, Roddenberry-esque dialogue between Dylan and a project leader about humanity “finally growing up” (because it built a super-subway system…?).
In a secluded chamber deep within the caves, Dylan is strapped to a table and preparing for cryogenic gases to place him in suspended animation for a week (famous last words…). Before he goes under, he makes one last cringey request for a beautiful woman to wake him up. The door is sealed, the gases flood, and Dylan goes under. After a minute or so, a massive earthquake erupts in the caverns, sealing Dylan in his atomic-powered tomb for the foreseeable future…
Note: Dylan’s Rip Van Winkle story has a lot in common with Philip Francis Nowlan’s original “Buck Rogers” comic books (1929), whose titular hero also fell asleep in a cave for several centuries. Though in Buck’s case, it was accidental exposure to a natural gas that put him into suspended animation.
In the year 2133, a team of scientists bore through rocks and rubble to reach Dylan’s cryogenic vault, where they find his pale, unconscious, yet still-alive body. After equalizing the pressure, they awaken Dylan, who is barely able to speak due to severe dehydration. With the aid of Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), Harper-Smythe (Lynne Marta) and PAX leader Primus Kimbridge (Percy Rodriguez), Dylan is told where and when he is. A groggy Dylan is informed that PAX (Latin for ‘peace’) houses the pacifist descendants of the original NASA scientists who worked there 150 years ago. Dylan is moved on a stretcher into the other levels of the PAX (Latin for “Peace”) underground city, where he sees priceless works of art, and hears schoolchildren singing nearby. Still too foggy to fully grasp what his senses are telling him, Dylan is then taken to a secluded room to recover naturally, since PAX no longer employs the kinds of pharmaceuticals used in the 20th century.
Note: While I’m not inordinately fond of the Dylan Hunt character, the late Alex Cord (1933-2021) does his best work in the scenes where the emaciated Dylan is awakening from cryogenic suspension. His raspy, almost inaudible voice is very realistic, and the pale makeup gives him a ghastly, death-warmed-over pallor. The scenes of his revival are arguably the most compelling in the movie.
After a week or so of rehabilitation, Dylan is visited by Lyra-a, one of the people who discovered his body in the sealed chamber. Feeling well enough to speak (and flirt, of course), Dylan remembers hearing that he is in the year 2133, and that he’s under the care of a group known as PAX. Immediately, Lyra-a launches into an anti-PAX diatribe; telling Dylan that they use their now global sub-shuttle system to loot treasures and commit other atrocities worldwide. Dylan tells Lyra-a that he also remembers hearing children singing, which Lya-a too-quickly denies, suggesting it was ‘just a dream.’ When asked why she’s against PAX, Lyra-a then disrobes to reveal a second navel—she is a mutant from the nearby land of Terrania (nee: Arizona), and she’s infiltrated PAX to spy on it. Apparently, the sight of a tall, sexy blonde woman in a bikini bra is enough to persuade Dylan, and he immediately believes her, of course. Later that night, Dylan awakens to find Lyra tying up Harper-Smythe, who was sent to look after Dylan (and endure his harassing taunts about her asexuality). Without any thought given to the organization that rescued him, Dylan and Lyra-a escape the city and take the sub-shuttle to the edge of PAX’s underground installation. From there, they take an elevator to the surface…
Note: Dylan lost a lot of my sympathy by leaving poor Harper-Smythe bound and gagged in his recovery room, while she was looking after him during his recovery. Never once did he think to listen to her screaming through her gag that Lyra-a was lying to him.
Once free of PAX, Dylan is surprised to see a green and bountiful Earth, fully recovered from the nuclear war of centuries past. He and Lyra-a visit a small, cave-dwelling community of terrified surface dwellers, from whom they take clothes, provisions and horses for their long trip to Terrania. The cave-dwellers seem downright terrified of Lyra-a, which she too-easily dismisses as being ‘respectful.’
Note: Once again, Dylan never thinks to question exactly why the surface dwellers are so terrified of Lyra-a. Dylan Hunt is too easily swayed by a pretty face to be a ‘hero,’ in my book. Even famed interstellar skirt-chaser Captain Kirk wouldn’t have been so easily persuaded. And what the hell is up with the extra letter at the end of the mutant’s names, anyway? Lyra-a? Slan-n? It’s never explained, of course. Like their second navels, it makes no evolutionary sense whatsoever.
During their long horseback ride to Terrania, they stop along the way to take a look at a dilapidated fusion atomic power plant which provides energy to the city. The reactor still functions, but barely. Lyra-a asks Dylan if he is familiar with “such things?” Being a scientist, he tells her that the nuclear core elements most likely need to be rearranged. They move on…
Note: Later in the story, the plant is described as fusion-type, yet its condition of degrading core elements suggests a fission plant that runs on radioactive decay, not the fusion of atoms, which release heavier elements. This was a common mistake in science fiction at the time, including the movie “ALIENS” (1986), which describes a fusion reactor blowing up like a fission-style atomic bomb after ventilation is compromised.
After another day’s travel on horseback, Dylan and Lyra-a finally reach her home city of Terrania. Upon entrance, Dylan is surprised that their returning spy isn’t greeted more warmly by her people, who seem too terrified to meet her gaze. Once again, Dylan seems to have come down with a bad case of not-giving-a-s#!t, as he oohs and ahhs at Terraria’s gleaming architecture and skimpy-toga clad inhabitants.
Note: I always get a chuckle at the location they chose for the ‘future city’ of Terrania; the campus of University of California, at Riverside. I used to live walking distance from the campus for seven years in my bachelor days, and I know it very well. My wife is also an alum. The UCR campus was also extensively featured in TV’s The Night Gallery (“The Academy”), as well as the 1975 horror movie, “Bug.”
Soon, honored Terranian guest Dylan is allowed to spruce up with a haircut and fresh food, provided by slaves who attend their master Lyra-a on bended knees. After awhile, former NASA scientist Dylan seems to remember that slavery isn’t terribly cool. When he questions Lyra-a’s system of social justice, she asserts that the slaves are perfectly fine with their lives of servitude, since they were ‘rescued’ from poverty, and are treated like “beloved pets” by their physically and mentally superior Terranian mutant overlords. After Dylan is showered with pleasures comes the pitch; Lyra-a needs Dylan’s help. That little ol’ nuclear reactor they passed en route to the city is a lot worse off than she let on. Since it was made in Dylan’s 20th century, no one in Terrania is up to speed on its technology. Lyra-a tells Dylan he can remain in Terrania as a revered member of society if he agrees to repair the power plant.
Note: I know I’ve already harped on my dislike of Dylan Hunt, but it sure takes him a hell of a long time to ‘suddenly’ realize that the slaves who are feeding, clothing and attending their every need during his stay might not be doing so voluntarily…
While Lyra-a sleeps in her bed chamber under a thick fur blanket, Dylan sneaks outside the residence and goes for an unauthorized look around the city. He’s grabbed in the darkness by a giant, deep-voiced slave named Isiah (Ted Cassidy). Isiah is a former Comanche warrior (oh dear) who now works as an agent of PAX, and asks Dylan to hear him out. He and other agents have infiltrated the city and seek to stop Terrania’s slave operation, which kidnaps people from neighboring areas and ‘conditions’ them into meek obedience through electronic torture. Isiah asks Dylan not to fix the reactor.
Note: 1973 wasn’t exactly the most progressive era. The whitewash casting of Ted (“The Addams Family”) Cassidy as ‘Comanche warrior’ Isiah is bad enough, but his character also speaks in pidgin English, like ‘Tonto’ from “The Lone Ranger.” Even for 1973, Isiah sounds like something out of a bad 1950s TV western. Perhaps such a portrayal of a Native American isn’t too shocking from Gene Roddenberry, since TV westerns are where the writer got his start (“Have Gun Will Travel”).
The next morning, the too-curious Dylan is brought before the city’s leadership, where the effete elders introduce him to the ‘stems’—futuristic cattle prods which produce intense agonies as well as orgasmic pleasures. The pain/pleasure-doling stem devices are the key to Terrania’s army of obedient slaves. Even the willful Dylan is brought to one knee, after a writhing, firsthand demonstration of the device, courtesy of sadistic city leader, Slan-n (Harry Raybould).
Note: The sex toy jokes with the electronic ‘stem’ devices practically write themselves, but this is a PG-column, so I won’t go there. The ‘pleasure settings’ of the stems reminded me of the handheld “Orgasmatron” devices seen in Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi comedy “Sleeper.” “Sleeper” is another movie very similar to “Genesis II,” almost beat-for-beat in places. But at least the laughs in “Sleeper” are intentional.
The defiant Dylan is then taken to slave-processing, where he meets Isiah again, as well as two other undercover PAX agents, Dr. Kellum (Bill Striglos) and Singh (Harvey Johnson). The three agents have orders to bring Dylan back to PAX before he can repair the city’s nuclear reactor, but after seeing the kidnapping and torture of Terrania’s slaves, Dylan is now itching for some payback. The PAX agents tell him that is not their mission, but Dylan delivers an ultimatum; my way or the highway.
Note: Another racially insensitive portrayal comes with the character of undercover PAX agent Singh, played by (non-Indian) actor Harvey Jason, and who speaks with a cliched ‘Hinglish’ accent. While I applaud Roddenberry for attempting to include some diversity in the film’s characters (particularly in the PAX leadership roles), it feels more like tokenism, as those diverse roles are presented so two-dimensionally. This was also a problem in Roddenberry’s original “Star Trek” (1966-1969), as the characters of Lt. Uhura (the late Nichelle Nichols) and Lt. Sulu (George Takei) never even had onscreen first names. Granted, early Star Trek was a pioneering effort in racial/ethnic representation, but “Genesis II” came some four years later, during the height of blaxploitation cinema; there was opportunity to do better.
Dylan is given an ancient device by the PAX agents which looks like a giant walkie-talkie, but is, in fact, a highly sophisticated spying device. Sneaking back into the city, he is once again captured (he needs to work on his stealth approach) by a confused Lyra-a, who has feelings for Dylan which she is afraid of articulating, for fear of losing her status as an emotionally-detached mutant. Just as she is about to confess her desire for Dylan, he sneaks up from behind and coldcocks her on the back of her neck with the heavy spying device. Before knocking her out, he had the multipurpose instrument set for truth detection (as you do), and he learns that Lyra-a was being honest with him during her little confession. Oh well. Moving on. Snooping around the city, Dylan soon locates a storage space containing dozens of the Terranian sex toys–er, stem devices—which he liberates, and plans to use for an armed slave revolt.
Note: The clunky, brick-like device Dylan is given is ridiculous; not only is its size impractical as a listening device, but we’re told by Dylan that it also functions as a remote lie detector…?
Meeting with the undercover PAX agents, Dylan learns that Harper-Smythe has also been kidnapped and taken to slave-processing. Once there, she reunites with Dylan and the others. Dylan then takes the opportunity to tell Harper-Smythe she looks sexy in a slave toga (Gee, Dylan, thanks…). Soon, the PAX agents begin handing out stems to the slaves to overpower the guards, whom the slaves outnumber ten-to-one. Initially reluctant, the slaves’ hunger for freedom is soon ignited, and they quickly go to town on their oppressors—zapping them both strategically, and for overdue payback. Eventually, Terranian soldiers catch up to the escaping PAX agents, who reach the sub-shuttle station back to Carlsbad. The PAX liberators are also met by an uncharacteristically contrite Lyra-a, who pleads with Dylan to hear her out. Sending his fellow escapees on ahead without him, Dylan remains behind to hear Lyra-a’s plea. Once again, she begs Dylan to repair the nuclear reactor; if not for Terrania’s sake, then for hers—returning the favor of someone who saved his life on several occasions. The audience is left to wonder who has Dylan’s loyalty…
Note: How one lone scientist can be expected to repair an entire nuclear reactor singlehandedly is never exactly made clear, but then again, science and logistics aren’t exactly this movie’s strong suits.
The PAX leadership council meets to discuss a disturbing new intelligence report from Terrania—the Terranians have access to nuclear weapons, which they could fire at PAX if the nuclear power plant is repaired, enabling the launch silo to operate. With no word from Dylan Hunt, there is an incoming sub-shuttle heading at dangerous speeds back into the city; apparently operated by someone unfamiliar with shuttle controls. Using the sub station’s emergency stop, the shuttle screeches to a halt at the Carlsbad exit, and an exhausted Dylan Hunt is met my PAX councilman Primus Yuloff (Titos Landis) who gives him a ride aboard a small electric service car used to get around the underground facility. Dylan tells Yuloff they must’ve been expecting him. Yuloff replies they received an intel report about Terrania’s nukes. It’s soon clear the men are having two separate conversations. Dylan tells Yuloff that he didn’t repair the reactor; he set it to detonate. Yuloff tells Dylan no explosion has been detected…
Note: It might have given the movie some much-needed tension in its final act if we actually saw Dylan sabotaging the reactor before he hurriedly hopped the shuttle back to PAX. All of the really good stuff in the final minutes happens offscreen, and is delivered through exposition. First rule of motion pictures is show, don’t tell. Also of note, actress (and Star Trek alum) Majel Roddenberry (1932-2007), wife of writer/producer Gene, plays one of the ruling PAX council members.
Meanwhile, as PAX members gathers outside, overlooking the night landscape, a worried Dylan can’t imagine why the reactor hasn’t exploded yet. Then, without warning, it does—just as a young woman and two children are coming outside for a look at the stars (of course…). Moments later, a shockwave knocks down the gathered observers. Once that little bit of atomic trauma is ‘over,’ Primus Kimbridge asks Dylan if he killed anyone during his escape from Terrania. Dylan answers in the affirmative, to everyone’s disappointment, since PAX is a pacifist society committed to changing the old ways of humankind. Dylan agrees to do better, and they reluctantly welcome him into the PAX family. As a forgiving Harper-Smythe escorts the still-lecherous Dylan back inside, he makes yet another half-assed pass at her, ignoring her repeated insistences that she’s ‘unisex’…
Note: Am I the only one who’s concerned that the main characters foolishly stood outside (including a woman and two young kids) while a freaking radioactive shockwave from a nearby nuclear explosion washed over them…?!
When “Genesis II” failed to click, Roddenberry and company instantly did some retooling and repackaging with “Planet Earth” (1974), a sequel-reboot with actor John Saxon (1935-2020) taking over as Dylan Hunt, who is now a full-on PAX agent in this more action-oriented adventure. The character of Harper-Smythe was also recast with actress Janet Margolin. The only returning actor from “Genesis II” was the physically irreplaceable Ted Cassidy, as Isiah. Also returning was the expensive sub-shuttle and train station sets, too. Skipping Dylan’s origin story, “Planet Earth” jumps right into the action as if it were a regular episode. “Star Trek” veteran Diana Muldaur plays the vicious leader of a matriarchal clan who view men as little more than useful animals, to be kept subjugated with drugged food. Gene Roddenberry’s ill-conceived denouncement of sexism (by reversing it) feels more like an invitation for open misogyny, instead.
Note: While I appreciate the sequel skipping the lengthy setup and exposition of the original, it’s also a bit confusing, since the recast characters and revisions to the story make this approach problematic for viewers unfamiliar with “Genesis II”.
With a new team of writers that excluded Gene Roddenberry, the concept was dramatically altered into “Strange New World” (1975), not to be confused with the current Star Trek series “Strange New Worlds” which has, ironically, returned to Roddenberry’s original concept for Star Trek, with the starship USS Enterprise under command of Capt. Pike. “Strange New World” once again stars John Saxon, but as a different character; Captain Anthony Vico. Vico is one of a trio of PAX astronauts (Kathleen Miller, Keane Curtis) launched into space in cryogenic suspension as Earth is threatened by deadly asteroids. Their long orbit will return them to Earth many years later, where they’re due to revive a team of fellow PAX scientists deep underground, in hopes of restoring Earth to her pre-apocalyptic glory. However, things don’t exactly go as planned under Earth’s new management. Arguably the weakest of the three TV movies, “Strange New World” is the one that put this idea into suspended animation for nearly 25 years…
Following Roddenberry’s passing in 1991, the adventures of Dylan Hunt were once again trotted out, but this time with “Andromeda” (2000-2005); a radically reimagined space opera-version of Roddenberry’s 1973 original idea. Taking place in a galactic commonwealth thousands of years in the future (shades of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation”), Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo) is now captain of the Andromeda Ascendant—a starship in pitched battle with evil, warlike creatures called the Magog. During the battle, the vessel is thrown near the event horizon of a black hole, where the ship and crew are frozen in time for 300 years. Found by a salvage expedition, the series follows the Andromeda Ascendant‘s crew, as they try to rebuild their now-fallen galactic civilization. The series lasted for an impressive five seasons. Bearing even less resemblance to Roddenberry’s original idea than any previous version, “Andromeda” certainly has its fans—I, however, am not one of them. I gave it a few tries, and it was just wasn’t for me. Kevin Sorbo takes wooden acting to a level that would make Pinocchio blush.
Summing It Up.
At first, you almost wouldn’t believe “Genesis II” was a Gene Roddenberry story, until Mariette Hartley reveals her second navel (the man had some odd fetishes). It also bears a passing resemblance to Roddenberry’s own comically bad dystopian Star Trek episode, “The Omega Glory” (the one with the “Yangs” and “Kohms”/’Yanks’ and ‘Communists’), which ended with Kirk doing a famously awful reading of the preamble to the US Constitution. “Genesis II” reaffirms the notion that Gene Roddenberry was a great ‘ideas guy’ who really needed solid writers to will those ideas into successful screenplays. One only imagines what “Genesis II” could’ve been with the discipline of a Dorothy Fontana or a Gene L. Coon overseeing Roddenberry’s hot mess of a script. Roddenberry’s dialogue is terribly tin-eared, not to mention embarrassingly sexist and expositional.
Aside from the unwieldy series’ concept, part of the problem of “Genesis II” also lies with its characters. Alex Cord’s “Dylan Hunt” (a precursor to Gil Gerard’s womanizing, Burt Reynolds-in-space version of “Buck Rogers”) isn’t terribly likable as a series’ lead. Dylan’s preoccupation with sex leads one to believe that his talents could easily be sold to the highest bidder, so long as they looked like Mariette Hartley. The character might’ve worked if he had a stronger moral compass, but Alex Cord doesn’t exactly do his best with the material given, either. Replacing him with the more decisive, steady John Saxon in the followup movies was a smart move, even if it didn’t address the many issues with the weak central story. None of the characters in “Genesis II” come close to the chemistry and camaraderie experienced among Star Trek’s core triumvirate.
Note: Alex Cord was much more effective as a supporting character actor in the super-helicopter TV series “Airwolf”, where he played the morally dubious “Archangel,” aka Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III.
All in all, “Genesis II” is a bizarre curiosity. It’s a trip back in time to the almost-lost era of mid-1970s post-apocalyptic TV shows, such as Saturday morning’s “Ark II,” as well as the “Logan’s Run” and “Planet of the Apes” TV spinoffs, to name a few. This is one of those movies best enjoyed with a healthy dose of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”-style commentary (and perhaps some drinks) with a group of friends. At only 74 minutes, “Genesis II” isn’t the biggest waste of time, though it sometimes feels much longer. An added audience laugh/commentary track might make it go down a lot easier.
Where To Watch.
“Genesis II” can be purchased on made-to-order DVD-Rs from the Warner Archive Collection via Amazon.com (prices vary) and can be streamed for rental/purchase on PrimeVideo and iTunes (prices vary). It can also be streamed on YouTube (low-quality copies for free, or premium copies for rental/purchase; prices vary).