From the Editor’s Desk: Both of these “hard science” TV movies were produced, in part, by ABC-TV as weekly series pilots — which the network, passed. Regardless of the twenty-years difference between the films, fans have confused the two films — as result of mistaking Gary Lockwood starred “in a TV movie about miners on the moon.”
So, lets review Earth II . . . and examine the elusive, out-of-print and distribution Plymouth.
You wanna see a movie directed by Uncle Rico’s dad, you know from Napoleon Dynamite . . . well, since we just finished off “James Bond Month,” Lazlo Hollyfeld from Real Genius?
Then this is your movie.
Earth II is directed by Jon Gries’s pop, Tom, whose bat-shite crazy TV series resume lead him to directing Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds in 100 Rifles, Charlton Heston in Will Penny, Charles Bronson in Breakout and Breakheart Pass, along with with the ultimate Charles Manson document, 1976 Helter Skelter. Tom Gries died on January 3, 1977, shortly after — and amazingly, somehow, making Muhammad Ali not look completely incompetent — completing 1977’s The Greatest (but it’s still pretty bad, even with Ernest Borgnine of Marty in it).
But let’s get back to Earth II.
As we all know, 2001: A Space Odyssey was a game changer and everyone wanted back in the sci-fi game. So here we have Gary Lockwood — Frank Poole from Kubrick’s classic — as well as Mariette Hartley from Gene Roddenberry’s endless cycle of post-Star Trek endeavors, mainly Genesis II. Yep, that’ s Anthony Franciosa (Tenebre), Lew Ayres (Battle for the Planet of the Apes), and Hari Rhodes (Malcolm MacDonald from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) along for the interstellar intrique.
As with most all U.S. TV movies, Earth II was an overseas theatrical feature, known as Killer Satellites, and it pushed its 2001, Apes, and Star Trek connections (Mariette Hartley was in one of that series’ popular episodes as Spock’s love interest) in its marketing materials. And it worked. But the foreign box office was better than the U.S. TV ratings; as result, Earth II wasn’t picked up for a weekly series as intended. But Gary Lockwood didn’t mind; he’s on record as saying he hated working on the production, eschewing it overly complex, sociopolitcal plotting.
Since this is very easily obtained as a still-in-print DVD and VOD stream, the reviews on this (rife with plot spoilers) are many. The basic gist of the story, if you haven’t guessed, is about a “second Earth,” that is, an orbital international space station. When things go amiss in Communist Red China and a nuclear missile comes to threaten the station’s 2000-strong pacifist inhabitants, they search for a way to solve the problem — without violence.
So, is Lockwood right?
Yeah. This is a bit slow to the point of boring. And it is complex, way too much for the young minds sci-fi-on-TV was geared for. And that complexity also resulted in the cancellation of the Planet of the Apes TV series and for Roddenberry’s Genesis II (and its reboots as Planet Earth and Strange New World) not going to series. Natch for Rodenberry’s The Questor Tapes.
But in terms of science accuracy, Earth II is stunning and the special effects are effective — just remember: in 1970 years. One can’t help but wonder if the creators behind TV’s Babylon 5 and the later SyFy Channel Battlestar Galactica reboot pinched from this classic TV movie (and we all know the debates regarding Babylon 5 vs. Star Trek: Deep Space 9). If you enjoy your sci-fi with intelligence, without the Lucasian Flash Gordon trimmings, then this “Before Star Wars” romp is for you.
This one is widely available on DVD and all the usual VOD platforms, but we found a free version — a really clean rip — over on You Tube.
Earth II was one of the many films we didn’t get around to reviewing during our month-long Star Wars ripoffs and galactic droppings month. You can catch up on those films with our Before and After Star Wars explorations. And since there’s a little bit o’ post-apoc in Earth II, be sure to check out our two-part post-apoc blowout with our Atomic Dustbins, Part 1 and Part 2. And since were on the subject of both Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, be sure to check out our “Exploring (Before “Star Wars”): The Russian Antecedents of 2001: A Space Odyssey” featurette.
“Remember that TV movie about miners on the moon?”
Did you hear the one about the 8 million dollar TV movie — the most expensive ever made, in part by ABC-TV — that no one watched? Well, they watched, but forgot all about it, soon after. Then they wracked their brains years later trying to remember the film, scouring the Internet to find it?
Well, it wasn’t a tween-teen fever dream. The film is real. And it was made a lot later than you remember, because you’re remembering Earth II (1971), itself another, well-made TV movie pilot (and overseas theatrical) produced by MGM-Warner Bros. for ABC-TV. So, yes, in 1990, you really did read an article about Plymouth’s production in Starlog Magazine — complete with that memory-haunting, (now, easily Googled) black and white production still of miners decked out in Alien (1979)-styled miner-space suits exiting a pressure hatch (also, the lead, here isn’t Gary Lockwood, but the always likable Dale Midkiff).
Plymouth — which debuted on Sunday, May 26, 1991 — was a co-production between ABC-TV, Walt Disney Studios (their Touchstone PIctures arm), and Italy’s Rai uno radiotelevisione. As result of Rai’s involvement, Plymouth played as a theatrical feature (?) in the Eurasian marketplace. It eventually turned up on European television (in the U.K. in July 2001), and as a Spanish-language Argentinian VHS. After its stateside debut on ABC-TV, Plymouth replayed once more as part of ABC-TV’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” that aired on Sunday nights (which ended production in 1997).
Then, Plymouth vanished from stateside television. It’s never been syndicated for UHF-TV nor for the retro-channels, such as the sci-fi-centric Comet. While DVDs are in the market, they’re grey market DVDr, since Plymouth has never officially been issued to VHS or DVD in the United States.
During a 1998 interview regarding the 30th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), actor Gary Lockwood, who starred in Earth II, said he hated working on the ABC-TV project due to “its complexities.” And that’s the problem with Plymouth: too complex (expensive) for its own good. Lockwood, of course, was referring to Earth II’s plotting — and Plymouth has its plot complexities. So, yeah, this isn’t Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 or its predecessor, U.F.O: so no goofy aliens, here. But Plymouth is dangerously close to Battlestar Galactica territory via its plot and character departments.
Sure, Plymouth, like Earth II, is a “hard science fiction” piece that deals with the physical and psychological challenges facing the first moon base colony populated by the citizens of a Northwestern U.S. mining-timber town displaced by a corporation’s Chernobyl-Love Canal-styled disaster. UNIDAC, the company responsible, also operates a financially-failing helium-3 mining operation on the moon. A deal is stuck: the citizens of Plymouth, Oregon, will move to the moon and run the operation.
Plymouth completed production in 1990, remained shelved for year, and then was passed over as a series replacement. ABC-TV declined to purchase the series because, “It just didn’t meet our needs.” (And they probably knew another BSG flop when they saw one.)
While the production values are stellar (Lockheed served as tech advisors), and the writing (from director Lee David Zlotoff of TV’s MacGyver fame) and acting are on equal: this is all too “Battlestar Galactica on the moon,” with little action and too much human yakity-yak drama: e.g., a UNIDAC worker and Plymouth citizen (the town’s female doctor) engage in forbidden love that leads to an outlawed pregnancy, teen-bickering love, a souped-up moon buggy prototype (no, not Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra!), and the mischievous son of the town’s now pregnant doctor as the series’ resident “Boxey,” skirting (weekly, if this went to series) security protocols, as he finds himself (and a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trapped in a construction-mining tunnel. Oh, and a solar flair hits the moon, which increases cancer risks. You see where this is going: no space battles, no aliens. But, eventually: juvenile delinquent moon buggy racing.
If Plymouth did go to series — as did NBC-TV’s 1993 to 1996 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reimaging, seaQuest DSV (by producer Steven Speilberg and writer Rockne S. O’Bannon) — it would have, in order to survive in the ratings, ditch its “hard science” trappings for aliens, etc. (and SQV brought on a talking dolphin!), which caused Roy Scheider quitting that show. Yeah, Plymouth probably would have gone “Daggit,” too, for the kids, and brought on the eventual human androids kerfuffles.
You can learn more about the production of Plymouth at the “Say, Hello Spaceman” blog in a discussion about the impressive space suits’ creation, as well as the suits’ repurposing in Unearthed (1991), The Outer Limits: The Voyage Home (1995), and Star Command (1996). The “Beamjocky” blog on Live Journals also delves into the suits and the “hard science” of helium-3.
There are more TV movies to be had with our “Week of Made for TV Movies,” “Lost TV Week,” “Son of Made for TV Movie Week” and “Grandson of Made for TV Movie Week” tribute spotlights to those films that, in many cases, are even better than the movies that played in theatres.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.