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November 10, 2016

The Universe Beyond

Gene Roddenberry’s post-Star Trek sci-fi shows

Herbie J Pilato
  • Gene Roddenberry on the set of Genesis II

  • Mariette Hartley in Genesis II. Note the double belly button.

  • The cast of Spectre

  • Majel Barrett-Roddenberry and Gene Roddenberry on the set of Questor

Few remember, but Gene Roddenberry was more than just the father of Star Trek.

Along with the popular series The Lieutenant, Roddenberry also created a number of other series.

Many of his significant television properties, aside from Star Trek, materialized after the initial demise of what is now known as "The Original Series," and prior to the development of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which ignited the feature film franchise in 1979.

The more recognizable of these non-Trek projects were several unsold made-for-TV science fiction pilots including Genesis II, Questor, Planet: Earth, Strange New World, and Spectre.

The most unique of these was Spectre, a two-hour gothic tale directed by Clive Donner for 20th Century Fox. Shot in England with Norway Productions in late 1976 under Roddenberry's watchful eye (and airing one year later in May), Spectre was co-written by classic Trek's Samuel A. Peeples, who penned the original Trek's second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

Spectre featured an interesting two-man paranormal investigative team: criminologist William Sebastian, played by Robert Culp (formerly of I Spy), and his alcoholic physician Dr. Hamm Hamilton, portrayed by Gig Young.

Prior to Spectre, Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had completed Questor for Universal, and Genesis II, Planet: Earth, and Strange New World out of the Burbank Studios for Warner Bros. Television, where he found that nearly all aberrant-oriented programs were ultimately bungled because they failed to go the distance within their fantastical suppositions.

The logic-within-the-sometimes-illogical story mandate that Roddenberry demanded for all of his projects (sci-fi-based or otherwise) was, in his view, not always showcased with integrity. For example, ghosts weren't really ghosts, just family degenerates looking to make their claim on the clan's goods.

D.C. Fontana, Star Trek's legendary story editor, and Roddenberry-confidant, explains, "Spectre would have tried stories as true. If a strange creature was introduced, it would have been legitimately strange. It would have developed that way because of some actual mutation, toxic poisoning or the like, and existed as officially bizarre.

"It would not have been a figment of some other character's imagination. Nor would it have been presented as a gag, trick or hoax of some kind. That was not the vision Gene had in mind."

As Roddenberry noted in the landmark book, The World of Star Trek, authored by fellow Trek scribe David Gerrold (who penned "The Trouble with Tribbles," one of show's most popular segments), Spectre was "something I've wanted to do for a long time."

Regarding Culp's Sebastian, and echoing Fontana's perceptions, Roddenberry went on to say, "It's a continuing character, in a supernatural show, in which, in the tradition of the great horror classics, we say these things are real. I've always been offended by ghost stories which in the end turn out to be someone trying to drive the heiress out.

"I say, if you're going to do ghost stories, let ghosts, spirits and demons and all these things be real because that's what the classics, Frankenstein and Dracula and all of those, did. It'll be in that tradition. I think the audience wants to be frightened, not cheated, at the end. We haven't had a supernatural series yet where reality was the base."

Fontana considered Spectre as the best of Roddenberry's post-Trek endeavors.

"It definitely had possibilities," she says. "I knew that just on the first read-through of the script. It was something that was not being done on television at that point, which applied to all of Gene's projects.

"But Spectre had several supernatural elements that I believed appealed to an enormous amount of people who simply liked to be scared. The creepiness was there; and I thought for certain that, had it gone on to be a regular series, it would have become extremely popular," much like The X-Files, which would debut decades later.

"You had a very similar format that lent itself to paranormal ideas from which solid and entertaining stories would have sprung."

Besides Culp and Young, the show also featured Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, Gene's devoted wife (who died in 2008, and who played Nurse Christine Chapel on the original Trek series), and a host of sophisticated British actors including Jenny Runacre, Ann Bell, James Villiers and Gordon Jackson (who's best known to small screen watchers as the butler from British TV's Upstairs/Downstairs).

In Spectre, Jackson played suspicious Inspector Cabell, while a pre-Alien actor named John Hurt stepped in as Mitri Cyon, an enigmatic millionaire and proprietor of a mystic mansion where peculiar circumstances and inhabitants co-exist.

One of the more bizarre residents included a verdant half-man/half-lizard reminiscent of the Gorn from the original Trek episode titled "Arena."

Approximately three years before Spectre, Roddenberry began work on Questor. According to Barrett, "Gene had created Questor with Leonard Nimoy [Trek's Mr. Spock] in mind. Leonard read the script and was very interested."

Instead, however, Roddenberry hired Robert Foxworth, later best known as Chase Gioberti on the prime-time soap Falcon Crest.

Barrett addressed the casting choice this way, "NBC had initially ordered 12 episodes of Questor as a series. Gene went ahead and started to set things up. Then the studio [Universal] went ahead and cast the film, which didn't sit well with Gene at all. At first, they said, 'Let's do the show.' Gene said, 'Fine. I have some casting suggestions.' 'Well, you don't have to worry about that,' they said. 'We've already cast it.'"

As Barrett said, "Nobody casts Gene's shows, and that's what he told them. They then said, 'Well, we're sorry, you must not have read the fine print in your contract [which granted studio approval of casting].'"

"He was quite displeased with their attitude," she said, "and their ideas."

Some of those notions would have been placed into action had Questor evolved into a series. One concept was to involve a number of robotic researchers (one of whom would have been played by Barrett) in constant search-mode for the man-like mechanism.

"Of course," she admitted, "that would have been lovely for me, but Gene was quite displeased with the studio's excessive intervention. So he supervised the development of the initial 12 episodes, placed another producer in line, and said goodbye."

The studio was stunned and perplexed. As Barrett further recalled, Universal asked her husband, "Where are you going?"

"I fulfilled my obligation," he replied to the studio. "You must not have read the small print in your contract."

Originally titled The Questor Tapes, completed and aired as just Questor, in a two-hour format, the final product still somehow strayed from its creator's original vision. Like his initial Trek pilot, "The Cage," and Star Trek: Motion Picture, Questor's rudimentary plot was deemed too cerebral.

"Gene was not actively involved with Questor," declares Fontana, "and he didn't have as much influence over the production as he would have liked."

NBC wanted a lot of action and sought to emulate The Fugitive and clone The Six Million Dollar Man, then a massive hit on ABC, while Roddenberry sought more of a sci-fi mix of Kung Fu.

As it was ultimately shot, Foxworth's robo-Spock searched the globe for his mysterious missing creator, scientist Dr. Emile Vaslovik (played by Lew Ayres), who was not of this world and was an android himself.

A portion of Questor's data bank had been misplaced. Jerry Robinson (played by M*A*S*H's Mike Farrell) was an intensely human scientist with a solid moral backbone who accompanied the "mandroid" on his search - a premise which would have allowed the duo to connect with all kinds of people in distress.

In the process, Questor would have been exposed to the constantly perplexing emotions of human beings. The robot could have and would have become increasingly more man than machine.

Had the automaton been granted a full slate of opportunity to dabble in self-discovery, he may have found answers to humanity's (i.e. the viewer's) universal ponderings, as showcased in the film's final reel:

Dr. Vaslovik is discovered in a remote cave. Questor and Robinson learn that the good maker is one of an extensive line of sentinels who, eons before, were positioned on Earth.

Vaslovik then relays to Questor the gist of the situation, saying, "Since the dawn of this world, we have served this species [called] Man. We protect, but we do not interfere [Trek's prime directive]. Man must make his own way. We guide him, serve him…aid him. But always without his knowledge."

Though D.C. Fontana initially viewed Spectre as the best of Roddenberry's non-Trek projects upon a first read, she became quite attached to the Questor project once more material became available to analyze. "But mostly," she admits, "I became fond of Questor because I did the novelization of the teleplay," in which she had returned to Roddenberry's original format.

Original Trek producer Gene L. Coon had completed a primary draft of the Questor script, but was stricken with lung cancer, and died soon after writing it. As Fontana remembers, "Roddenberry then did a second draft of the script which differed somewhat. Material from [Coon's] script was deleted, and I used that portion to fill in events in the novel. It wasn't left out due to a lack of quality I must say, but due to certain production costs and conflicts."

According to Fontana, Coon's rendition of Questor "covered quite a lot of ground, physically. It had to be tightened up to stay within the parameters of the budget."

Roddenberry complied, made Questor more production accessible, and without detriment to, or loss of charm with the characters, allowed the film to become, as Fontana labels it, "a strong property."

She felt Foxworth and Farrell contributed significantly to Questor's marketability. "I thought they shined in the film," she states. "They did a great job."

Despite Roddenberry's displeasure with the handling of Questor, from Nimoy's ousting from the lead, to other creative conflicts, Majel Barrett said her husband was more than satisfied with Questor's final result, and quite pleased with the lead actors.

"He thought that Robert Foxworth and Mike Farrell were excellent," she said, "and now it's hard to imagine anyone else in their roles."

On winning the Questor lead, Foxworth said: "I had done a couple of guest appearances on some shows at Universal. They wanted to tie me to a contract. I had some reluctance about doing that. It was an act of good faith on their part, because they said, 'Well, we have this pilot that we want to do. There are two male roles in it, and choose whichever one you want.' So I read it, I thought it was brilliant and chose the android."

As Foxworth recalled, "The joke at that time around the set was: 'Geeze, if this guy can make himself look like anything he wants, why is he making himself look like Foxworth?' I sort of quizzed myself about that. I said, 'Boy, can't I even make myself look like someone else; someone really extraordinary looking?' I thought it was fascinating that, here again, was this machine attempting to adapt itself to function in the world."

Still, much of the man Foxworth was in the machine, "I'm not basically an analytical person," he stated, "…but there is a small corner of my being that is, perhaps more so now than then. I was interested in being objective and analyzing Questor's behavior. As a matter of fact, while working on the film, I set up a video camera in my dressing room up above the table, pointed it upside down, which created somewhat of a barrier for me, in a good way.

"I could look up to watch a video monitor of my hand moving, upside down. That was opposite from the way we were actually working. But it helped me to disassociate myself from my movements. That helped me in my mind, as an actor, to separate the human aspects of my personal being from the mechanical aspects of Questor."

Foxworth went all out with the role and concentrated intently to make precisely mechanic-manic moves with his head. So much so, that he was nicknamed "Super Chicken" on set. "You could tell there was the highest degree of respect for me on the set," he noted wryly.

Foxworth was fond of playing TV's first mainstream sentient android, while his original take on the show's message remains no less than profound: "It spoke of the necessity of the symbiosis between the philosophical and scientific…if you will, between the religious and sectarian…between the creative act and pragmatism. It said, in simple terms, 'There is a great need for balance in the universe.'"

As to how the actor perceives the film's comparison to TV's other mechanical man Foxworth said: "The Six Million Dollar Man was a human being who still operated as a human being after he was made functional by artificial replacement parts. Questor was a machine from the get-go. Our movie was more a show of the mind, than of action.

"But like The Six Million Dollar Man, Questor represented morals, ethics, principals, values, and provoked the viewer to think, which is probably why it was never made into a series."

D.C. Fontana, who once wrote two episodes of Six Million Dollar Man, offers another view as to the Million Dollar/Questor dilemma.

"Once the studio viewed Questor and The Six Million Dollar Man side by side, they seemed to think that a bionic man and an android were exactly the same thing. So someone flipped a coin. Questor disappeared, and The Six Million Dollar Man won the bet."

Ultimately, most of what Roddenberry envisioned for Questor did not pay off. He gambled, lost and moved on - a decision Majel Barrett said he later lamented.

"If Gene regretted anything that he did, he mentioned just once, and only once, that he mishandled the Questor property. And that he should have gone ahead with it. But at the time, he felt so mistreated himself that he had to distance himself from the project. His ideas were ignored, he wanted out and left."

Questor, meanwhile, went on to inspire several future Roddenberry-related projects including Brent Spiner's character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Majel Barrett confirmed, Questor was "a precursor to Data."

Like Data, Questor was similar to the Tinman from The Wizard of Oz; he was the fabricated man with a heart and a great deal of spirit who wanted nothing more than to find his soul. It was a theme that was also explored in a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits TV series, titled, "I, Robot," based on the original short story by Isaac Asimov, in which an android is charged with killing its creator and faces trial for the murder.

Three decades later, "I Robot" was remade for Showtime's 1995 Outer Limits reboot. Ironically,both renditions featured Trek's Leonard Nimoy, who was first pegged to play Questor before Foxworth.

The 1995 "Robot" was directed by Nimoy's son, Adam Nimoy (an attorney-cum director who has guided, among other shows, Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as For the Love of Spock, a feature documentary devoted to his dad), and marked the first time Showtime remade a former Limits episode.

Although the elder Nimoy did not appear in Questor, his historic interpretation of Trek's Mr. Spock perfected the sci-fi concept of emotional and scientific breeding, while his double duty with Outer Limits allowed him to be the first actor to perform in two TV versions of the same material.

One year before Questor, Rodenberry's ideas were only slightly more appreciated with Genesis II.

Here, Alex Cord portrayed Dylan Hunt, a modern-day NASA scientist experimenting with cryogenics in a secret base in Carlsbad Caverns. An earthquake buries him alive, and he's trapped in suspended animation. One hundred and fifty-four years later, he's discovered and resuscitated by PAX, a super-civilized group of people left in the post-apocalyptic era of 2133.

It was a similar premise that was later utilized on Roddenberry's posthumous syndicated hit series, Andromeda, starring Kevin Sorbo as a character also named Dylan Hunt.

Two options to reanimate Dylan were presented: brain opiate implants and sexual healing - a distinctively creative Roddenberry trademark. Roddenberry many times employed exotic beings in his productions to supply antagonism and to use as instruments to create conversation on the human condition.

For Genesis, he created Lyra'a, who was played by classic Trek guest star Mariette Hartley. Lyra'a was a human mutant of exceptional corporeal and visceral bounty. A few years after NBC disallowed any belly button displays on Star Trek (or I Dream of Jeannie for that matter), Roddenberry took creative vengeance and endowed Lyra'a with a double dose of umbilical cord outlets.

As Majel Barrett said, "It was his revenge. After years of dealing with stressed-out censors on Star Trek, by the time of Genesis II, the networks were more relaxed."

As to those double navels on Lyra'a in Genesis II, Hartley said, "Well, they were cute, weren't they?"

Needless to say, it is Lyra'a who reanimates Dylan, who, in turn, becomes a team leader for PAX. Together with Isiah (Ted Cassidy, of The Addams Family0, Isaac Kimbridge (Percy Rodrigues), Primus Dominic (Barrett) and Harper Smythe (Lynne Marta), Hunt journeys beneath the surface in a projectile transport train convoying and conveying accord, wisdom, and formal direction to advanced societies.

Just as Star' Trek's Enterprise trekked from planet to planet, Genesis II's future super-train of sorts traveled from one earthbound mutated colony to the next. "There were not designated cities, per se," said Majel Barrett, "…but they were populated with various types of people, many of whom lived without any formal government rule. Yet most of the societies were similar to independent city-states."

Roddenberry was granted more creative freedom with Genesis II than Questor, but as he disclosed to a reporter in 1976, there were still conflicts with casting.

"When Genesis II was introduced, I wanted Lloyd Bridges for the lead. The TV people went to their statistics file [the TV-Q list used by advertisers to tell them what show sells what and how they will sell it], and told me that Lloyd Bridges in a TV sci-fier was not what the advertisers thought would sell the toothpaste. In fact, all 12 of my choices were dumped out the same way."

Despite this, the Genesis II pilot was filmed at the Burbank Studios in late 1972 and early 1973, and the buzz was high.

Like Star Trek, a Genesis series would have showcased adult human tales camouflaged by sophisticated science fiction. Roddenberry prepped as many as 15 teleplays.

The pilot, telecast on March 23, 1973, was well received, and the future looked characteristically Gene-Roddenberry-bright.

Then came the attack from the Planet of the Apes. The CBS broadcast debut of that movie skyrocketed in ratings on September 14, 1973.

Until that point, Genesis II had been the highest-rated film screened on television.

Apes jumped more than 10 points higher.

CBS wanted the big-banana ratings to continue and evolve on a regular basis and ordered Apes to a series.

The evolution of Genesis II was aborted; and Roddenberry's heart deflated, especially since, from the beginning, Genesis II's parent studio, Warner Bros. Television, was high on the property, enough to order an extra 15 minutes to release it theatrically to foreign markets.

A property that sprang from Genesis II, one that became Planet: Earth, aired on ABC the following season.

John Saxon replaced Alex Cord as Dylan Hunt, who still worked for the PAX foundation in this well-received, though critically-panned Genesis II sequel/remake.

Trek directing vet, Marc Daniels (who also guided episodes of among other TV classics, I Love Lucy), helmed Earth, which Roddenberry wrote with Juanita Bartlett, from a Roddenberry story. Harry Sukman did the music, and Trek veteran Robert H. Justman produced, under the guidance once more of Warner Bros. Television.

Telecast on April 23, 1974, but failing to win a series spot, Earth offered the return of Ted Cassidy as Isiah (the role he played in Genesis II) alongside Majel Barrett, this time playing Yuloff.

Diana Muldaur, who made frequent guest appearances in the original Trek series, and who would years later perform semi-regular duty as Dr. Pulaski on Star Trek: The Next Generation, acted on Planet: Earth, as Marg, who presided over a league of men-enslaving females (a concept that was later utilized on Next Generation).

Beyond his wife's involvement and the inclusion of Muldaur, and as with Questor and Genesis II, Roddenberry's gripe with Planet: Earth was once more his exclusion from the project's decisive casting process.

He said about Earth, "...the casting was just a horror. They turned down all the names I suggested. They were so far into the production date, they didn't even run screen tests on my people."

As Fontana said, "There's always the issue of money. The actor who you may have originally had in mind for your project may be requesting a salary which you are incapable of meeting. Or he may be asking for more money than your budget can allow.

"The actor's availability also comes into play. Maybe the person you want for a TV series has decided to move out of weekly television and into working only in mini-series, TV movies, or features. Or sometimes, that person is just engaged elsewhere and simply not available at the needed time."

Regarding Planet: Earth, and actor John Saxon (who was originally considered in the lead for Genesis II before lead Alex Cord), Fontana says, "Everyone was very high on John, and were quite happy with what he brought to the film."

Still, there were some who viewed Saxon's performance as a version of William Shatner's James T. Kirk: the strong, silent, virile type. To which Fontana responds, "There was an element of Kirk in Dylan that began with Genesis II. But that was more in the character and not the actor who portrayed him."

Even the opening narration by Saxon's Dylan in Earth's credits was extremely similar to Shatner's Kirk intro on the original Trek. Like Kirk.'s Trek introduction, Dylan's Earth offering explained the plot in a nutshell, with dramatic flair.

In light of Spectre, Genesis II, Planet: Earth, Questor, and even Star Trek, Barrett summed up her husband's life and career in this way, "Gene was inspired by making a living. Being rich was never a priority. Money was not the goal. He would have loved to have been rich, but that's not the way our lives worked out.

"Only now [at the time of this interview], I'm experiencing economic security; and of course, it's too late for him to enjoy it. He had only a moderate amount of fiscal success with Star Trek, which a lot of people don't realize."

Out of the entire non-Trek file of properties that were in Roddenberry's cabinet, she said said Questor was his favorite. "Though there were creative conflicts, Gene saw it as a well-rounded concept. It was a real thinker. Though Planet: Earth may have turned out to be as emotionally exciting as Star Trek, because it [the underground shuttle] had so many places to go."

Despite Roddenberry's fluctuating measure of participation with any of the non-Trek explorations, each concept managed to retain the look, feel, and mark of his optimistic vision of the future.

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