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Friday, March 15, 2013

The Doomsday Machine

This is another of those quilt-like film projects, revived from the dead. It was begun in 1967 with a tentative title of "Doomsday +7", but it was never finished. It sat on a shelf until 1972 when producer/director Harry Hope bought it. He added some footage to finish the story (sort of) and titled it Doomsday Machine (DM). The original footage starred Bobby Van, Ruta Lee, Mala Powers and Grant Williams. These were all well-known television actors who still had some market value in the early 70s. Grant Williams was The Incredible Shrinking Man ('57). Mala Powers played in a few 50s sci-fi films too. The eventual title, too, harkens to 1967, when it was the title of one of the episodes of Star Trek's second season. (though the two stories are completely unrelated, except that the two doomsday devices had a similar purpose (the ultimate Cold War threat weapon, and that both end up getting used and wiping out both sides.)

Quick Plot Synopsis
A chinese female spy sneaks into a secret facility. Far beneath the earth is a 'doomsday' device -- a nuclear weapon that Mao's China intends to use as the ultimate Cold War leverage tool. Her pictures are studied in Washington. Experts say that if the Chinese use their device, it will crack the earth and make it explode. The seven astronauts of Project Astra prepare for their upcoming mission to Venus. The launch date is moved up suddenly, and three of the male crew are replaced by three attractive female astronauts. The usual battle of the sexes lines ensue. They blast off. Aboard ship, there are tensions. They see the earth destroyed and realize they were sent as Adams and Eves in a Noah's Ark to save mankind. The destruction of earth and their new roles does not sit well. Kurt, in particular, turns into a jerk, trying to dominate Katie. Georgianna has a soft spot for Danny as the "boy" of the crew. Tough Marion and Tough Ron (the skipper) butt heads, but come to like each other. Old Doc is wise and sage. Dodging hunks of the blown up earth has reduced their fuel supply. Increased radiation means they must land sooner than planned. All this means that only three of them can land. But which? Doc programs the computer to make the most logical selections. Meanwhile, Kurt attempts to rape Katie. While fending him off, she accidentally opens the air lock. They are both sucked out into space and killed. The computer chose Doc, Marion and Georgianna. Danny wonders why people let computers run their lives. All agree, they'll all try a landing despite the risks. However, the spent booster stage won't disengage. Danny volunteers to pry it free, knowing he'll be left behind. He can't do it alone, so Georgianna joins him. The landing stage is free, so Doc, Don and Marion fly down. Danny and Georgianna spot a derelict Soviet spacecraft and 'fly' over to it. Aboard (they never take their helmets off and no longer sound like Van and Powers), they find a dead cosmonaut. Danny charges up the batteries and there is enough fuel to land. They lose contact with the others in Astra. A disembodied voice saying it is the collective voice of the Venusians tells Danny and Georgianna that they will not be permitted to land. They (humans) blew up their home. Instead: "Your journey will continue. Something very strange and very great awaits you beyond the rim of the universe. An now, last of man, your journey will begin." Stock footage of a second stage booster fires. There is a long look at some model planets in front of a star field. The End. Fade out.

Why is this movie fun?
The basic premise, the story and the execution are so thoroughly 50s, it's hard not to enjoy them. The original concept was very much in the ethos of 50s B sci-fi. In fact, if viewed in black and white, it would virtually indistinguishable. On that note, the very "mod" vibrant 60s colors used in the rocket interior sets, have a nostalgia value too.

Cold War Angle
As a product of the mid-60s, Cold War themes were much more in vogue. The commie Chinese are behind it all. Their nuke takes on the symbolic power of all nukes. Yet, by the early 70s, dystopia was more in vogue, so a "doomsday" spin was still marketable. Nukes would reduce mankind back to an Adam and Eve state -- a theme explored since the early 50s, (q.v. Arch Obelor's Five, '51).

Patchwork Project -- The movie project started with a story outline by Stuart J. Byme with a working title of "Deadmen in Space." According to a post on imdb, two men, Fred Long and a Henry Blum acquired the rights to the screenplay and began producing the work in 1967 as an Allied Artists production. Originally retitled as "Armageddon 1975", it was re-retitled as "Doomsday + 7". Herbert J. Leder was the director of the '67 footage. Cost overruns, mismanagement, and perhaps some other intrigue apparently killed the project before it was finished. Little of the film's ending had been shot yet. Five years later, producer Harry Hope acquired the rights and the shelved footage. None of the original actors were available (or interested) in completing the film, so Hope had to improvise. Harry and a Lee Sholem directed the new footage, but with very little skill (or care).

Saving White Bread -- A friend of mine, with a particularly sensitive eye regarding ethnic diversity, would probably have kittens at the premise in DM. The all-white crew aboard the space ark in When Worlds Collide ('51) caused him to label WWC as "racist" film. DM would get the same tarred brush, no doubt. The saving of the human race comes down to white Americans. Granted, it was a NASA project that was hastily reconfigured as Eden 2, but still. Only the presence of Major Bronski keeps it from being an all USA Eden.

New Via Hope? -- Some of the "new" 1972 footage is obvious. There is a clear break between when Danny and Georgianna spot the derelict Isvestia 2 and when they board Isvestia 2. Once aboard, they never take their helmets off and the voice-overs are not Bobby Van's or Mala Powers' voices. One might also suspect that the Mission Control footage with Casey Kasem was also shot in 1972. Kasem was a frequent voice talent for TV shows in the 60s, but his first film appearance was in 1967 in a tiny bit role. By the early 70s, however, Kasem had done some more prominent roles (in less prominent films). Thus, it seems the mission control footage was probably "new" via Harry Hope.

Non-Ending -- The film, as Hope finished, stops without any resolution. The collective Venusian voice monologues about how Danny and Georgianna aren't allowed to land on Venus, but that they'll have some other amazing fate "beyond the rim of the universe." Then it ends, or at least stops. This non-ending does not fit with all the build-up and character development by Byrne and Long. Everything up to the point where Long's production ends suggests that the five remaining people were to have a happier ending on Venus. Danny has Georgianna, Marion has Don and the wise old Dr. Perry as their Moses-figure. Imagining Venus as a prehistoric earth would have been par for the course in the mid-60s. Compare with Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet ('65) and Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women ('68). Having our two Adams and two Eves land on a "prehistoric" planet smacks of Eden. This would have been a very logical conclusion for Byrne's story.

Four Rockets In One -- An amusing detail to watch for is how the Astra ship is shown as four different ships. One of them is the JX-1 rocket from Gorath ('64). Other clips were re-used from Gorath too. There are two different hub-and-ring craft (yet to be identified), and the rocket from Wizard of Mars ('65). Other clips, especially the whole avoid-the-meteorite segment were also lifted from WoM. This last is not too surprising, as David Hewitt was the "special effects" man on WoM as well as DM. Perhaps he got some rights to the material in lieu of payment.

Bottom line? Don't watch DM as a single entertainment item. Instead, watch it as a frankenfilm, brought back from the dead with a few spare parts. In its 1972 completion, it is a mediocre film that can be confusing if one expects smooth continuity. Bobby Van is as annoying as he usually was, but the ladies are rather nice mid-60s ladies. The film, in its 1967 trajectory, would have been a bit banal, but not too bad. The non-ending (see above) drains out what little B-grade power the '67 project had created.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

This one I've seen a few times, and it's clearly a hodge-podge of ideas, characters, footage. I've often wondered if it were two incomplete films merged into one.