Okay, we’ll start with a short intro for the newcomers: As implied by the phrase, “made for TV movies” are films that were created to be shown exclusively on television as opposed to having a run in theaters. Though they started in the mid-60s and continued on well into the 2000s, they were at their height in the 70s and 80s, and that where this column will mostly focus. Of course, this type of movie lives on today as direct-to-video, direct-to-cable or streaming movies. For more background, be sure to check out this introductory post, but for now let’s move on, shall we?
I mentioned in the introductory post that quite often, when a network commissioned a pilot for a new series that they decided not to go ahead with, they would re-purpose the pilot as a TV movie. That’s the case for this week’s show, Earth II.
The story opens with the launch of an Apollo-style rocket which is carrying the first parts of a new space station to be designated Earth II. Though the “Red Chinese” attempt to sabotage the launch, it lifts off successfully, and soon after the President of the United States (Lew Ayres)goes on television to make a quite interesting proposal: he sees the new space station as the salvation not only for the US, but for all mankind. Therefore he wants to make Earth II a sovereign nation with its own laws and its own governing body, open to colonization by anyone from around the world.
He even has a unique way of getting approval from the American people for doing this. Apparently the internet was down that week, so our current system of vote-by-tweet wouldn’t work, so he proposes that as the rocket flies over the US, everyone who is in favor of the plan turn on all of the lights that they would normally have off, and the ship will take pictures of the lights and then computers will compare the luminosity with that of a normal night, and if it’s brighter than usual he will take that as a favorable vote. As it turns out the verdict is 71% in favor, and 29% opposed (one has to assume that the “opposed” areas had turned off lights they would usually had on?). And thank goodness it passed, otherwise we’d have wound up with a very short movie.
Cut to an unspecified amount of time later, and Earth II is an established and thriving community with 1,982 citizens and apparently regular shuttle runs bringing both supplies and new colonists. We see one such shuttle arriving, and that is how we are introduced to the Karger family, father Frank (played by Anthony Fransciosa), mother Lisa (Mariette Hartley), and son Matt (Brian Dewey). Frank has long been opposed to the pacifist nature of the colony, feeling that if it truly is going to be the sanctuary that it was built to be it needs to more aggressive and be able to defend itself against any threat.
The truly pacifist nature of the new nation is soon emphasized when the Karger family are held up by customs because of young Matt’s toy gun. This is a kind of cute little scene because it establishes not only the rule that there are no weapons (not even toy ones) allowed on the station, but because when Matt jumps to try to get his gun back he suddenly finds himself floating in air because both of his shoes left the magnetized floor and he is in a zero gravity environment. Fortunately he is quickly distracted by a ball of water which later bursts when they enter a more gravity filled area.
Frank soon meets up with the leader of the colony, David Seville (Gary Lockwood, who was, of course, no stranger to space adventures since he was relatively fresh off of his role as Dr. Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey). David, of course, knows how Frank feels about the militarization of the station, and the two have a debate over the topic which is made more immediate by the discovery of a nuclear missile which has been put into orbit by those pesky Chinese only 150 miles from Earth II. To make matters worse, it is aimed at Moscow.
(By the way, this seems to be a good time to point out that although the colony is supposedly open to anyone from anywhere and has even been made a member of the United nations, the only people we actually meet that aren’t Americans are one Russian family. Even the token black person appears to be an African-American as opposed to perhaps being from the actual continent of Africa. There are no East Asians, no Indians, not even anyone white with a foreign accent. Yay for inclusivity!)
Anyway, the presence of the bomb seems to lend credence to Frank’s argument that the station needs to at least be able to defend itself. After a hastily called summit at the UN between representatives of Earth II, China, and Russia not only fails but leads to threats that any interference with the missile will lead to the Chinese immediately blowing it up, David decides that the best thing to do is nothing. part of his reasoning is not only that if they are going to truly change the world and stop the constant aggression and threats between countries they have to lead by example, but also that there are an unknowable number of missiles on earth held by different countries and pointing at each other, and that they can’t interfere with other nations’ sovereignty just because one of them is closer to Earth II than they would like.
Of course,Karger is appalled by the decision to do nothing about the missile, so he calls for a “D&D” over the issue. No, they’re not going to have role-playing game to settle the argument. One of the main laws of the colony is that whenever there is a major issue to be settled, especially when one disagrees with government policy, they can call for a Debate and Decision, wherein the debate is broadcast throughout the entire station, and then everyone of voting age gets to cast their choice. One interesting aspect of this is that as the debate is going on, a computer is apparently analyzing the statement made on each side and flashes up chirons at the bottom of the screen saying things such as “emotional appeal” or “no evidence of this conclusion” or even “argument presented in unbiased terms”. Can we possibly get one of those for the next debate between Presidential candidates?
(Honestly, I suspect if we did have such a machine even attempting such an analysis it would blow all of its circuits within the first 10 minutes or so…)
David loses the D&D even though Frank’s own wife Lisa speaks up against the idea, and a plan is soon formulated to send a mission to attempt to defuse the missile. The colonists, of course, know that every eye will be on them, so they try to be as secretive about it as possible, but eventually something goes wrong, and the Chinese attempt to blow up the missile, but fortunately that doesn’t quite work. in a last ditch attempt to salvage something from the mission, they wind up bringing the missile aboard the space station to decide what to do with it there.
Frank, not unexpectedly, wants to use the missile as the beginning of a defense force, making Earth II one of the world’s nuclear powers. David, on the other hand wants to shoot the missile into the sun, destroying it, honoring the peaceful ways already established by those living there. This leads to another D&D, but before all of the testimony can be given…
Well, that seems a good enough place to leave our recap. As I’m sure has become obvious by now, Earth II is not a slam-bang outer space adventure, but rather a thoughtful show more concerned with exploring ideas of right and wrong and pacificism vs militarism than it is firing ray guns at bug-eyed monsters.
It’s definitely true that the pace can at times seem slow. I mentioned 2001 earlier, and it’s obvious that that film, released just three years prior, was a major influence on this one, witth it’s often languorous shots of the exteriors of the ships and shuttles docking etc. except in this case rather then being set against classical music, we are given a score by the omnipresent Lalo Schifrin, known for composing music for movies such as Bullitt and Enter the Dragon, and of course for his iconic theme for Mission Impossible. And honestly, when one considers that they were working on a TV budget with 1971 special effects, these shots hold up pretty well.
And, in the end, Earth II itself hols up pretty well, too. It’s definitely a reflection, in a way, of the time in which it was made, but at the same time, the debate that it’s trying to have, centering around the best way to defend oneself and whether its better to try to live peacefully or aggressively as a nation (and, for that matter, the ramifications of living in a true democracy and how one lives with the results when a vote doesn’t go their way) are ones that we are still seeing, often intensified, even today.
Would Earth II have made it as a series? It’s hard to say. There certainly is a place for this type of intelligent science-fiction, and personally I would love to see more of it, but at the same time, it’s hard to know if this kind of format could have been sustained in the long run. Still, as a stand alone movie I definitely recommend if you find the idea intriguing, that you check it out. It’s readily available on YouTube, and on DVD from the Warner Archives.
Here’s your trailer: