This is a big week for Star Wars fans, courtesy of the nationwide premiere of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker and with Alden Ehrenreich from Solo: A Star Wars Story cast in the lead as John the Savage in Universal Studios’ third adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel.
Set to premiere in 2020, the Universal co-production with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, unlike Universal’s first two TV movie productions, is being produced as a weekly series. Initially developed for NBC-TV’s SyFy Channel imprint in 2015, the production moved to NBC’s USA Network division. As of September 2019, the currently in-production series is slated to air on the conglomerate’s recently launched online streaming service, Peacock.
Their second, previous version released in 1998 as an 87-minute telefilm starring Peter Gallagher (While You Were Sleeping, NBC-TV’s Law and Order: SVU) and Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek, Baffled!) was derided by critics and sci-fi fans as being “bland” and “boring” and inferior to the 1980 version. The poor reviews are attributed to its script being a greatly abridged version that was “loosely based” on Huxley’s concepts and not a straight adaptation of the novel. (In another Star Wars twist: the 1998 version also starred mainstay U.S Television actor Kristoffer Tabori as John the Savage, who later provided voice work on several Star Wars video games. Under his directorial name, K. T. Donaldson, Tabori helmed the SyFy Channel’s “mockbuster” of Cowboys vs. Aliens: 2009’s High Plains Invaders.)
In the wake of the Star Wars-inspired sci-fi revival sweeping the film and television industries, NBC-TV took another swing of the light saber with their first version of Huxley’s novel that aired on March 7, 1980—a mere three months after their British-produced adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles aired in January.
Keep in mind that Universal—the studio that brought you ABC-TV’s Battlestar Galactica and NBC-TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century—backed this adaptation, so don’t expect a big-budget Blade Runner (1982) dystopia. While BNW ‘80 captures the spirit of Huxley’s novel and maintains its dark, pessimistic tone, and runs long enough to go deeply into the book’s themes, plot and dialog (unlike BNW ’98), it’s undone by its low-budgeted sets and costumes. Thus, you feel like you’re watching a two-part episode of arc of NBC-TV’s cartoonish Buck Rogers in the 25th Century—the same problem that plagued The Martian Chronicles.
Since this was a TV project, NBC stuck with what they knew and hired Pittsburgh-born actor Burt Brinckerhoff, better known for his extensive TV directing resume, which included multiple Emmy Awards for the 1977 to 1982 dramatic series, Lou Grant. The scribe hired to wrangle Huxley’s 300 page-plus sociopolitical lesson into a three-hour film was Doran William Cannon, who penned the original scripts for the the “so bad it’s good” psychedelic all-star comedy Skidoo (1968) and the equally experimental oddball, Brewster McCloud (1970).
Set 600 years in the future, Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey and the early-‘70s Canadian TV series, and eventual film series, The Starlost) heads the cast as Thomas Grahmbell, the “Director of Hatcheries” who genetically engineers civilians for a well-ordered society. To assure everyone maintains the status quo, citizens are required to ingest mood-controlling drugs, have “sex without love,” and real-life pregnancies are banned. The dissidents to this humanless new order are the free-thinking poet Heimholtz Watson (Dick Anthony Williams; the Blaxploitation classics The Mack and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off), the bookish oddball Bernard Marx (Bud Cort from Brewster McCloud and the equally quirky favorite, 1970’s Harold and Maude), an old-world “primitive” John the Savage (Kristoffer Tabori), and Linda Lysenko (Julie Cobb; Star Trek: TOS “By Any Other Name” and TV’s Charles In Charge)—who becomes a criminal of the state for having a natural child birth.
Originally intended to air as a two-part, four hour mini-series (including commercials), at the last minute NBC ordered a series of cuts to pare down the film into a one night, three-hour movie, which means a half-hour of continuity-losing logic was excised from the film. However, when it premiered in the U.K on the BBC later that year, it ran in its original, full-length two-part format. So keep those two versions in mind if you decide to purchase a copy for your home library (you’ll want the BBC version). And caveat emptor those grey-market DVD-Rs with laser-printed covers flooding the online marketplace.
So, are the critics and fans right? Is Brave New World ’98 inferior to the 1980 version? You can watch the full NBC-TV 1980 version on You Tube and let us know what you think here on the site or over on our Facebook page.
And save us the aisle seat on Friday. May the Force be with you!
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker will be released theatrically on December 20 in the United States.