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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Strange New World

Someone at Warner television must have really believed in Gene Rodenberry’s “PAX” story line. In ’75, they tried a third variation on the PAX theme. This time, the title was Strange New World (SNW) — taken from the prologue of Star Trek. Roddenberry himself had lost enthusiasm for the project by this point and bowed out. Warner pressed on. John Saxon stars again as the leader, though renamed Anthony Vico instead of Dylan Hunt. This third and final installment in the PAX Trilogy is more of a derivative than a sequel. The establishing back story is different. This pilot also failed to engender enough interest to get development into a series. It had no theatrical release, hence the VHS box in lieu of a poster.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Set-up Story: The science community of PAX has an orbiting space station. It’s three-person crew are undergoing hibernation experiments. A swarm of deadly meteorites is headed for Earth. PAX extends the timers on the hibernation computers and sends the space station into a long orbit around the sun to get the station out of the path of the meteors. Earth is pummeled into the dark ages. The space station returns 180 years later. Upon awakening, their new mission is to find PAX where other survivors may be in suspended animation too. Captain Anthony Vico (Saxon), Dr. Allison Crowley and Dr. William Scott, zoom down in a shuttle. From there, they roam the “new world” in a eight-wheeled vehicle named Vestia. From this commences two distinct “episodes”. Eterna is an advanced civilization enclave that tricks the 3 PAX folk into range via a faked PAX signal. They are stunned and brought inside. Once in, it is clear that all is not right in paradise. There are no old people and no children. The 20-30-somethings live “forever”, doing nothing much. Their leader, The Surgeon, shows them advanced surgeries and science, since they’ve been advancing science for the missing 180 years. Surgeon wants Scott to take over as the new leader, as Surgeon is going senile. The Eternals use clones to provide donor organs to keep fixing themselves up, but with each cloning, their resistance to disease decreases. Surgeon wants to drain Vico and Allison of all their blood to rejuvenate the clones’ immune systems. Scott rebels and the cloning lab “blown up.” Somehow, this kills all of the Eternals at once. The PAX team flee. Animaland is a tale of mankind divided. The team first encounter the outsiders, the poachers. Allison is captured by the Insiders, so Vico and Scott employ the aid of a poacher named Badger to find her. Instead, they get captured too, and Badger gets the much-coveted flare gun. The insiders are descendants of park rangers, so their mission is to protect the animals — from the poachers. Eventually, Allison and Vico convince the old Warden that they are good-guys, when they stop an attack by Badger and four poacher henchmen. In parting, the wardens agree to share water resources with the poachers and maybe become friends someday. They also promise to not be so hide-bound to their old Fish & Wildlife Manual as their law book. The PAX team drive on, still in search of the PAX base out there…somewhere… The end.

Why is this movie fun?
The premise of SNW has some intriguing possibilities. Seeing some previous tropes recycled had some amusement value too.

Cultural Connection
60s Optimism Meets 70s Pessimism — Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series placed its emphasis on an optimism about mankind and their future. This may be part of why the original series developed a cult following among the young. The 70s however, was a very different decade. Technophobia and pessimism about all the BAD things that science would do, was the rule of the day (decade). Roddenberry’s PAX story placed an emphasis on the gloomy side of humanity and its history. Whereas Star Trek’s Federation was a better upgrade of contemporary society, the background in the PAX Trilogy is of a post-apocalyptic Earth with mankind starting over in all its brutalism and bad tendencies.

Neo-Sequel — First, there was Genesis II in ’73. This was revamped as Planet Earth in ’74. The third installment of the PAX Trilogy was more a re-telling of the original premise in Genesis II, but with variations. Both feature someone from the past in suspended animation, awakening to a post-apocalyptic Earth, primitive survivors and getting captured by one side or another, or both. The PAX team roam from adventure to adventure, encountering “strange new” enclaves of survivors. SNW varies things in that the PAX team are all there is of PAX. In fact, PAX lives on in name only and as a sort of long-lost McGuffin for the team to search for.

Episode One: Eterna — James Olson stars as the leader of a supposed Utopia named Eterna. This episode has more than a passing resemblance to Zardoz. A colony of immortals who cheat mortality with clones. Where Sean Connery served as the outsider that crashes the system, Saxon does exactly that — also in a scanty red costume. Where Star Trek had its noble Prime Directive, the PAX folk seem unburdened by any such moral foundation. By blowing up the cloning lab, they manage to somehow kill all of the Eternals. The PAX team just walk off, stepping over the bodies, as if to say, “Oh well. That didn’t turn out very well, but let’s push on.”

Episode Two: Animaland — Somewhat recycling the premise in Star Trek’s “The Omega Glory” episode. Instead of Yangs and Kohms, the PAX team discover a community of wardens who care for (and almost worship) animals with a former state park, and a tribe of scruffy poachers who live on the outside. There is an environmentalist undertone to the episode. Friends of the Animals are nominal good guys, who, like the Yangs, have a pseudo-religious devotion to their pre-holocaust documents. In this case, it was a Fish & Wildlife book of regulations. This book has clearly been ignored or heavily amended over the years, as death penalties seem rife. Not quite SOP for the current Fish & Wildlife Service.

Weak Sister — Among fans of the PAX Trilogy, SNW is often regarded as the weakest of the three. SNW had a less complex plot line — 3 people roving in search of a lost base. It also had just the three main characters. These three were somewhat stock characters too: The macho/implusive/fight-prone leader, the token pretty female, the wise older guy. The woman is somewhat stereotypic in being the damsel in distress which needs rescuing by the hero. SNW doesn’t develop the three much at all. Perhaps this was what the series episodes was intended to do. But, in just the pilot, it leaves the 3 rather flat. The special effects were fairly modest too. The overabundance of stock library music and effects gives the production a generic-TV-show quality. Warner tried, but not terribly hard.

Enterprise On Wheels — The little multi-wheel vehicle, Vestia, serves a similar role to the starship Enterprise. Her mission was to be the vehicle that ferries the crew from weekly adventure to weekly adventure. Instead of planets, as on TOS, they would have been isolated enclaves of somethings “strange.” In this, Vestia functions like the tube trains in Genesis II and Planet Earth, but with more individuality, like the Enterprise.

Pre-Logan — The move Logan’s Run (’76) and subsequent TV series by the same name, made a much bigger impression on the culture than SNW did. People who see SNW after its original broadcast (via VHS and later DVD) often see it as a poorer version of Logan’s Run. This, despite the fact that SNW came first. In this case, being first was not a ticket to immortality.

Bottom line? SNW is passable entertainment, if one is accepting of 70s style television production values. Fans of TOS and/or the PAX story line, can find some additional fodder, even if in diminished quality. Fans of 70s style dystopias will find more of the same. Not great stuff, but not bad either.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Excellent review and commentary!