A friend and I were talking about how each generation has its own brand of pop culture. He was trying to make a case for… well, I forget what, exactly. But somehow we got around to science fiction in the seventies and he said, “You guys were obsessed with the Bomb, everything was about atomic war and living in the ruins.” He rattled off a list of movies and TV shows and I had to agree they were all very pessimistic on their face.
But he was still wrong about the reason. Here’s why.
First of all, yeah. That case is there to be made. SF in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, at first glance, was often very pessimistic.
But that’s not ALL of the story. In fact, it’s not even very much of the story.
Absolutely, the first generation to grow up under the threat of nuclear war put a lot of that anxiety into the science fiction of the time. You saw it in movies ranging from Godzilla to Dr. Strangelove to even crazy Z-movie stuff like The Horror of Party Beach. The thought of waking up to find yourself in a world glowing with radioactive fallout just because some angry general pressed a button scared the hell out of everyone. It was almost a given that at some point it was going to happen and we’d all go up in a giant fireball. Naturally, that idea came up in a lot of stories when all the kids raised on duck-and-cover were old enough to get into the movie business.
But here’s the thing. Very little of it was intentional.
This is key– technology always precedes art. Always. All the way back to the days of our caveman ancestors when some guy named Ug picked up a rock and learned he could make marks on a wall with it: he didn’t arrive at the idea of drawing a picture until he discovered the tools to do it with. And so on. The tools that are available to the artist is what governs the nature of the art you are getting.
So if you figure that the tools available to filmmakers are governed in large part by technology and budget, it soon becomes obvious that you just couldn’t make decent movies of science fiction classics like Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel or Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight back when they were current. All those space exploration sagas of two-fisted engineers that were bursting with Pioneer Spirit and Good Old American Know-How who built their own rocket ships and set off for the Final Frontier would have to wait. That’s where the hope and optimism was in SF, and for the most part it was largely unfilmable. Once in a while you’d get a Forbidden Planet but that kind of thing was vastly outnumbered by all the other horror-type stuff…. however, it was because of the budgeting, not the world view.
So post-apocalyptic SF was attractive to TV and movie people in the seventies because the bar was set way higher for the look of spacefaring science fiction stories after 2001 in 1968. Suddenly, spaceships had become a lot harder to pull off. So most studios opted for the cheaper kind of story, not because they had no faith in humanity, but because they didn’t have to build everything. Most of the time they could re-purpose stuff already on the lot, especially if they shot outdoors. In 1968 Planet of the Apes cracked the biggest problem they had with the screenplay when someone suggested they shoot it, not as a futuristic space-travel story, but as a Western. Film most of it outdoors in the desert.
It was a masterstroke. Putting the talking gorillas on horses and giving them rifles made the movie possible. And it was a huge hit, spawning four sequels, a television series, a cartoon, and even a toy line.
That’s where it started. Apes was the template, but the guy that launched it as an SF film trend, in my opinion, was Gene Roddenberry.
It happened like this. Roddenberry was a working TV producer coming off Star Trek in 1970, and he was looking to create a new gig. (Being the patron saint of Trek fandom was still a ways in the future.) He still liked science fiction, but he had learned a lot of budget lessons there the hard way, and was resolved not to make those mistakes again on his next project. Instead of expensive spaceships, Roddenberry reasoned, why not a post-apocalyptic landscape that you mostly dress with ‘ruins’ scavenged from around the studio backlot? No more rows of computer banks with all the flashing lights and screens. Just recycled Western sets and a little bit of costume trickery and presto, it’s the year 2133. Meanwhile, apply the Trek formula of a continuing cast of heroes flung into weird and intriguing situations every week. Also, at around the same time, CBS had been running the Planet of the Apes movies on TV to huge ratings success, so the networks were definitely looking for more. Post-apocalypse was in.
Genesis II was the first run at the idea, in 1973. Dylan Hunt, a man from our time (played with macho sincerity by Alex Cord) awakens from 174 years in suspended animation to discover that after an atomic war, the world has fragmented into feudal city-states.
He is befriended by the beautiful mutant Lyra-A (Mariette Hartley, sporting two navels) and she helps him to escape to her city of Tyrania.
However, it transpires that the Tyranians are evil despots. Lyra-A only wants Dylan’s technical knowledge of ‘the old machines’ to repair a missile-launch system that her people can use to take over the region. After a certain amount of running around and getting chased and beaten up by all sides, Dylan reluctantly agrees to join an organization called PAX, which is tasked with preserving only “the best of the past.” Together with the other members of his team, including a somewhat prudish woman named Harper Smythe and a white savage named Isaiah, Dylan and PAX will presumably journey all across the ruined America from one freaky feudal settlement to another, meddling in people’s affairs wherever they decide help is needed, until our troubled land is whole again.
It’s not a bad movie. Mariette Hartley is always great, and it was genius casting to get Ted Cassidy for Isaiah, though he doesn’t have a lot to do here. Cord is okay. Mostly though this is all about setting up the premise, laying groundwork for lots of things Roddenberry clearly meant to get back to later.
The second swing at this pilot the following year, Planet Earth, is not as smart as Genesis II but it’s a hell of a lot more fun. Basically, everyone got a coolness upgrade. The casting is better, the PAX uniforms are sharper and more STAR TREK looking, and everything just moves faster now that all the establishing BS is out of the way. Even the “sub-shuttle,” the planetary subway system that takes the PAX team to each new adventure, got spruced up. On the left is the ‘salvaged’ version from Genesis II, and on the right is the slicked-up Planet Earth version.
Dylan is now played by John Saxon and he gives the character a sly subtle humor that Alex Cord could only dream of. Likewise Harper Smythe is now played by Janet Margolin, who turns the character’s original prudishness into an adorably earnest innocence. The only returning cast member was Ted Cassidy as Isaiah, and he gets to be a lot cooler in this one as well.
The story this time is about the PAX team tracking a missing surgeon through a superfeminist matriarchy who keep men only as pets, trying to find him in time to perform a lifesaving operation. Complicating matters is a supermacho mutant group of soldiers about to mount an attack on the women’s country. Dylan and his team have to rescue the surgeon and incidentally keep the mutants from annihilating the women, while simultaneously persuading the Amazonian women to be somewhat less awful to their males. Thankfully, the sexism of Roddenberry’s original story is leavened considerably by the rewrite from Juanita Bartlett, and I’m certain the satirical humor is all hers. (She would go on to a distinguished writing and producing career at The Rockford Files and In The Heat of the Night, among other things.) Planet Earth also has one of the most wonderful fight scenes ever filmed, when Saxon and Cassidy lead a bunch of the Amazon women’s male slaves in a beatdown of the attacking mutant soldiers. (Seriously, as far as I’m concerned, Cassidy’s Isaiah is the high point of his career and I’m extremely bitter the show didn’t sell, mostly because of that fight scene.)
By this time Roddenberry was tired of trying and moved on, but ABC still liked the idea– and Saxon. So they tried one more time, with Strange New World in 1975. This time Saxon is one of three time-displaced astronauts, frozen and shot into orbit to escape a meteor storm. 180 years later, they’re awakened back on earth and tasked with reviving the rest of their frozen colleagues at the secret underground PAX shelter.
And naturally, they’re going to encounter various weird feudal enclaves of human survivors along the way. In the case of Strange New World, we basically got two sample episodes stitched together. In one, the PAX crew finds a utopian village (in togas, of course; always with the togas) with a terrible secret, and in the other, they find that a superstitious nature cult has sprung up around the ruins of an ancient zoo.
Saxon and his fellow actors try hard but frankly Strange New World is just not very good. But it is the first appearance of what would come to be a seventies SF trope– a team of heroes tooling around the ruined Earth in a big silver bus loaded with tech, trying to Find A Thing.
We saw this again on the big screen a couple of years later, in Damnation Alley.
Now, the original novella by Roger Zelazny, about a group of military guys trying to get a vaccine to one of the last surviving enclaves of human civilization, is a pretty nifty little post-apocalyptic action story, and if it had gotten a wider reception I’d be inclined to call it the source of all these big-bus-through-the-wasteland stories. Instead, I would have to call it part of the wave, not the source. Zelazny’s agent encouraged him to expand it into a full novel so he could sell it to Hollywood, and ironically it was going to be the big studio SF release that year, 1977. But they couldn’t get the footage right for the giant mutant bugs living in the irradiated desert and so as a plan B, the studio reluctantly turned their marketing support to another SF entry, despite the fact that they weren’t very happy with it… a weird little space movie called Star Wars.
So through no fault of the filmmakers themselves, the culture changed and post-apocalypse was no longer the preferred flavor of the moment. A few months later Damnation Alley limped into theaters and sank with hardly a ripple. I still kind of like it, mostly for the performances of George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent as bruised idealists hiding hope beneath a veneer of military hardassery, even though they are aware that the organization they are sworn to is long gone. And the Landmaster is without a doubt the best of the big futuristic buses designed for this sort of story.
A close second for “best bus” has to go to the Saturday morning show Ark II, though.
Considering it was in development literally at the same time as Damnation Alley, and that it actually made it on to television a year or so earlier– September of 1976– and there’s no evidence that either production was aware of the other, I have to conclude that it’s the same kind of coincidence that gave us Man-Thing and Swamp Thing‘s near-simultaneous debuts, or the Doom Patrol and the X-Men arriving at the same time… or even 30 Rock and Studio 60 appearing the same season on the same network. These things happen.
Ark II was kind of the kid’s table version of Damnation Alley. Each episode opened with this narration over a montage of the Ark and crew… “For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to rebuild what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge, manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind.” Then Terry Lester as Jonah continues: “Ark II log, Entry Number 1. I, Jonah…Ruth…Samuel,…and Adam are fully aware of the dangers we face as we venture into unknown, maybe even hostile, areas. But we’re determined to bring the promise of a new civilization to our people and our planet.”
Because it was Saturday morning TV in the seventies where you couldn’t ever throw a punch or show anyone in serious jeopardy at all, it’s a tribute to the production that it is as engaging as it is. Filmation really knew how to get the most out of their budget. Probably my favorite dodge they used was renting a genuine working jetpack for a day and dressing the operator like Captain Jonah, then shooting a day’s worth of film of him actually flying the thing from every possible angle. Thus they had a great stock library of jetpack shots that could be used in any episode. However, they only had the one double, so only Jonah ever got to don the jetpack in the stories. (I don’t think it was ever addressed why no one else could use it.) Still, it looked very cool and added a layer of realism to the undertaking. The Ark actually worked as well, though the interiors were all studio stuff. The DVDs are prohibitive but I think there are a couple of episodes up on YouTube. For a kid’s show it holds up pretty well.
The last of the big-bus shows of the seventies had an unlikely genesis: Logan’s Run.
This was another screen adaptation of a novel that it took a studio years to crack, largely because they had no grasp of what it actually was. As originally set up, Logan’s Run is a chase story across a future landscape where the background is the foreground (in the same way that Soylent Green is basically a police-procedural murder mystery designed to showcase its setting.) In this case, the background is built on the then-timely topic of youth-worship that seemed to be consuming the culture– in Logan’s world, everyone over 21 is agreed to be put to death, so annoying old people are no longer a drain on resources. Peel away the satire, though, and the spine of the original Logan novel is essentially a noir sort of crime story: a cop turning against a decadent system and using his insider knowledge to advantage. In the book (which by the way is terrific) the chase ranges all over the continent using special ‘mazecars’ that transport passengers through the countryside at great speeds… a lot like the sub-shuttles in Genesis II, actually, though again it’s doubtless just coincidence. And anyway Logan was first, the novel debuted in 1967.
But the movie condensed the action to just a single locale, the City of Domes, and the story, when it does take Logan and his girlfriend Jessica out of the city, presents them with the same ruined landscape showing broken-but-familiar landmarks that was rapidly becoming a cliché by this point. Nevertheless, the movie was a modest hit, and with the success of this new Star Wars thing in theaters, it was easy to sell a TV series based on that. The show came out in the fall of ’77 and by this point it had gotten so far away from the original idea that it was almost ridiculous to still call it by the name Logan’s Run.
The pilot starts with kind of a riff on the movie story but gets Logan and Jessica out of the city much sooner, and on their way out they discover a handy silver hovercraft. Their first adventure is in a city of androids, where they are joined on their search for “Sanctuary” by an older android named Rem. So now, still being hunted by Logan’s bitter former partner Francis, Logan, Jessica and Rem are driving around the ruined landscape in their big silver bus from village to village… come on, you know the words, sing along.
Even so, there are some good bits here and there. The show only ran 14 episodes and though the setup doesn’t make a lot of sense– Francis should have figured out that his mission to hunt down Logan and Jessica was ridiculous once he emerged from the domed city and saw that his whole life was a lie… and logically, if all they wanted was to live out their lives in peace, Logan and friends could have settled in any of the little villages they helped out once that week’s problem had been solved. There was no compelling reason to search for “Sanctuary” at all, really, once they were out and found the climate was actually rather pleasant and there was plenty of water and food, let alone after the first couple of weeks of visiting other settlements… many of them with amenities as nice as the city Logan and Jessica had fled.
But if you can get past that, there were some cool stories told. Several Star Trek alumni worked on the show, notably David Gerrold, Harlan Ellison, and Dorothy Fontana, though all of them later expressed dissatisfaction with the experience, and Gerrold actually took his name off his episode.
Speaking of Harlan Ellison, one of the more interesting entries in the genre is the movie adaptation of Ellison’s award-winning novella A Boy And His Dog, which made it to the big screen with the original plot largely intact in 1975.
I mention it mostly because even though it remains just a moderately well-received cult SF film, there were talks of turning it into a TV series and I believe Ellison was working on a pilot script, Blood’s A Rover, at one point. The series never happened but there were some tie-in comics produced with art by Richard Corben, and Ellison says the Blood’s A Rover screenplay’s adaptation into a full novel is one of his ongoing projects.
And what about the most successful post-apocalypse franchise of all? Planet of the Apes, the 1974 TV series, didn’t have a big silver vehicle, but in most other ways it adhered to the on-the-run-from-village-to-village formula.
The premise of the show, much like would be done with Logan’s Run a couple of years later, is a retooled version of the big-screen movie, scaled way down and disposed of in the first few minutes of the pilot episode. Astronauts Alan Virdon and Pete Burke crash-land on a strange world where intelligent apes rule over a population of human slaves. Rapidly they discover that this is actually Earth in the far future, and once they have befriended a youthful chimpanzee named Galen, they are on the run from the vicious gorilla General Urko and the repressive government he represents.
Rarely has anyone been more excited for the debut of a TV show than twelve-year-old me was for this one, but honestly, again, it’s pretty weak tea compared to the source material. Even as a kid I found it to be largely a disappointment, though I couldn’t have told you why, exactly. It just felt… off.
As an adult seeing it now, I can tell you that it’s because as far as I can tell, the TV series got everything from the movies exactly backwards. In the movies and in the novel, the real villain is not the oppressive ape dictatorship– it is mankind and his inherent savagery. The apes are the result, not the cause. The overriding theme, especially in the original five movies, is that really, apes deserve to be in charge because we humans blew it with our inborn, inescapable tendency towards hateful barbarism. (The new cycle of movies that began a couple of years ago gets this part exactly right, which I think is one of the reasons Apes fans like them despite the filmmakers changing virtually everything else.)
But the TV show had it reversed. The human fugitives Virdon and Burke are always the smartest guys in the room, even more than Galen, and each episode usually turns on the two NASA pilots rigging some revived bit of technology to help out a human village or rescue a friend from Urko and his gorilla soldiers: crop rotation, a malaria cure, or in one particularly silly outing, hang gliding. Seriously. Judging from this TV show, NASA astronaut training involved memorizing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and also possibly the Anarchist’s Cookbook. I’m not sure Planet of the Apes is all that viable a continuing-character series idea anyway; the movies were more about the history of the fall of human civilization, with different characters from one film to the next (though several recur.) In any case, though, the TV show with its human good guys showing up the ignorant primitive apes every week definitely was the wrong way to go.
This is turning into a pretty deep dive into the topic, and even restricting myself to the seventies I found a lot more than I originally supposed. There’s enough material for a book, really, once you get into the eighties and the Mad Max stuff, Metalstorm, Spacehunter, etc., etc… not to mention the recent TV revival of the genre with shows like Jeremiah, The Walking Dead, The 100, and so on.
But there is one more seventies TV show in the village-to-village category of science fiction that, even though it technically doesn’t count as post-apocalypse, still gets an honorable mention. The Fantastic Journey.
This was a short-lived mid-season replacement that premiered in early 1977, and was story-edited by Dorothy Fontana (on her way to Logan’s Run that same fall.) In this case, the story is about a shipwreck in the Bermuda triangle where the survivors land on an island that is a sort of nexus of realities, where the place is peppered with “zones” that take the hapless castaways from one time period to another, with each zone weirder than the last. (Marvel Comics was using this idea a couple of years before in Man-Thing, and I like to think that comic’s dimensional refugee Howard the Duck might have been on the island somewhere too.)
The amazing thing about this trainwreck of a series is that it made it on the air at all; it literally changed formats three times in the first four episodes (there were only ten in all.)
It was originally supposed to be about the stranded passengers from the ship, but the network wanted a more diverse cast, so half the survivors were abruptly dumped from the story after the pilot and Katie Saylor was added as Liana, an Atlantean telepath. Then Roddy McDowall joined the cast as the roboticist, Willoway. If they’d had a little more time they might have actually nailed it, because once McDowall joined the cast it was almost a good show; the premise of all the different periods in human history colliding on this island was an intriguing hook to hang it on, especially since as originally designed our heroes would be just as likely to run into a band of sixteenth-century pirates as they were alien visitors from the 30th century. It was kind of a hot mess in its execution, though I have a certain nostalgic fondness for it. In any case, the troubled production mostly ended up being a dress rehearsal for the TV version of Logan’s Run, since a lot of the staff migrated over to that show when Fantastic Journey came to an ignominious end.
It was an odd period for science fiction on American television, especially since so many different productions between 1973 and 1978 ended up going to almost the exact same place in their approach to the material, despite virtually none of them being what you would call successful.
Except one. The first one. In a strange, backhanded way.
In 2000, Robert Hewitt Wolfe took the notes for Genesis II and Planet Earth and retooled them into what became Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. With the advances in special effects over the twenty-five years since the original seventies pilot movies, it was possible to do it as a space show. So Andromeda recounted the adventures of High Guard Captain Dylan Hunt, who, upon his revival from suspended animation, assembles a ragtag crew of misfits and sets off across the galaxy in the starship Andromeda, trying to restore civilization to a ruined, post-war universe. The scale is larger, but it’s basically the same concept as Genesis II. It was one of the bigger successes in first-run television syndication and ran for five seasons, and there were even a series of hardcover tie-in novels produced as well. The first year and a half is pretty good, though I lost interest when Wolfe left the series halfway through the second season.
But it’s always amused me that the one genuine commercial success of the lot was achieved by retooling the idea into exactly the kind of space adventure show Dylan Hunt’s creator was so desperately trying to avoid doing in the first place.
Housekeeping note– I keep forgetting to mention this, but when you click on to any of the Amazon links we’re putting in the columns here at the Junk Shop, if you then buy something there, we get a referral fee. Even if what you buy has nothing to do with what we are linking to, if you go there through our doorway, we still get a little something. Lord knows it’s not a lot, but every little bit helps, and it keeps us from having to load the place with annoying ads. So if you do your Amazon shopping by clicking through one of those links after visiting us, we surely appreciate it, and thanks in advance.
Back next week with something cool.