Silent Running…is IMPORTANT! (Part 2)

The Phantom of the Cineplex

The stylistic connections between the two films (Silent Running and Star Wars, continuing from Part 1 of this article) were so profound and their execution so alike, that Silent Running’s standing as prior art would later save Universal in court when Twentieth Century Fox (NOT Lucasfilm itself, as I had earlier written) tried to take legal action regarding their new project, Glen Larson’s, Battlestar Galactica.  Both John Dykstra and Ralph McQuarrie worked for Universal on Galactica and it showed.  Fox lawyers were eventually able to list thirty-four similarities between the two fictions and all but two of the detailed points of comparison could be applied to half of film and television production of the time.  Only when combined with these specific complaints, that the spaceships appeared worn and used instead of stereotypically (at that time) sleek and that robot/drone/droid characters were prominently featured, did the scope of the filing narrow its focus to the subject, NBCUniversal Television’s budget busting prime time Space Mormon fantasy.

Valley Forge to the rescue!  Not only did the clearly pre-extant American Airlines space freighter model appear prominently in the Galactica’s rag-tag fleet (actually, triplicated into three other ships to flesh out the armada), establishing that some of the general aesthetic could not have been taken from Star Wars and that Dykstra, for his part, was continuing with his own previous work, but Universal even countered that the whole look and feel of (what is now called) “The Imperial Era” was lifted from Silent Running!  They also called Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox out on the matter of drones and droids.  Battlestar Galactica would run its course before Fox could settle the issue in court, but the outcome was that Universal and Glen Larson just kept on trucking with Buck Rogers in The 25th Century, which was, like, five whole centuries up on Fox.  Hilariously, Lucas had unselfconsciously confessed his childhood inspiration and Universal ALSO owned the old B&W Buck Rogers serials.  They shot the space sequences for the new show with McQuarrie-designed spaceships and they probably laughed like unmedicated lunes.

It somehow always escapes the survey of these sorts of commentaries that NBCUniversal had previously solidified its visual conception of spaceship architecture in the Saturday morning children’s television shows Space Academy and Jason of Star Command, which ran from 1977-81.  These shows used techniques in development since Silent Running, but clearly show a foreign influence with the inclusion of stylistic elements from Space: 1999, which broaches a new subject in the broader matter.

While the connections, materially and in talent, between the earlier Silent Running and the later Star Wars are well-known and this article really covers no new ground in merely compiling the widely circulated separate facts of the matter — from the American side of the market  — I will try to impress upon the reader the importance of the obscure British vector of influence which is always neglected in these examinations.  In order to do this, I should first explain that, in the United States, science fiction television programming for three decades was largely shaped by three parties:  Irwin Allen, Glen Larson, and, believe it or not, Sid and Marty Krofft (who produced more science fiction television programming than anyone).  In the United Kingdom, however, the functions of these men would all be performed by one luminary figure, television pioneer Gerry Anderson.

Gerry and his wife, Sylvia, were responsible for the production of a staggering amount of British children’s and teens’ science fiction programming, mostly in the employ of Century 21 (not to be confused with today’s 21st Century Fox) and ITC Entertainment.  Using Supermarionation and later Supermacromation (which is really Muppeteering under another name), the Andersons crafted a distinctive style which is today consumed in even portions of nostalgia and parody.  Their last production before the theatrical release of Silent Running was a ridiculous live action show, 1970’s UFO.  UFO could, at first glance, be misidentified as a product of the late 1950’s, placed somewhere between the release of Forbidden Planet and the airing of Lost in Space.  Set in the far-off future of the 1980s, It was so awfully retrograde in its expectations that it can be compared directly to Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lost Saucer, except that, whereas the later was deliberate cornball, the former was absolutely serious.  Now, contrast this to the Andersons’ immediate follow-on, Space:  1999, which was originally meant to be the cannonical sequel to UFO…but first, a sidebar word about Canada.

UFO was meant for first broadcast in Canada in 1970, with the United States to follow pending syndication arrangements.  Initially favorable ratings returns for UFO in the US market would later provide the impetus for ITC to green light production of 1975’s Space:  1999.  MEANWHILE, Douglass Trumbull is developing the closest thing we could ever hope to get to a sequel to Silent Running, a TV series entitled Starlost, which features huge generational starships drawn up along the same lines as Valley Forge, featuring geodesic environmental domes joined by a latticework of exposed trusses.  The setting is a few centuries removed from the events of Silent Running (which would have taken place in the earlier years of THIS century, by the way), in a post-Earth human exodus.  Show runners clearly intended that viewers would make the association between the two properties and, in a bookend reversal to the film plot, the TV protagonists start off as nature-loving primitives and rediscover the space-traveling legacy of humanity.  This show was developed by 20th Century Fox (stop, let that sink in, go to the top of this page, reread down to here, and let that sink in) and pitched to BBC.  BBC would pass on the project, and Fox would, instead, partner with Canada’s CTV to milk government subsidies.  Trumbull’s Starlost was broadcast in Canada in 1973, directly between the runs of ITC’s UFO and Space:  1999 and after having shown the goods to the British.

I am not about to accuse the Andersons of copying, not anymore than would I accuse Glen Larson of copying George Lucas (hey, just noticed the initials), but the differences between UFO and Space:  1999 cannot be accounted for by a mere five-year cultural drift.  The impact of 1972’s Silent Running and 1973’s Starlost had an immediate and profound effect on the subsequent development of the Andersons’ live action shows.  Gone forever are the flying saucers with the green aliens and the red spandex.  Banished are the purple-haired space babes in silver catsuits.  Moon Base Alphans’ will wear much more serviceable, if more executive/administrative, jumpsuits.  Plane-like spacecraft are replaced with more NASAesque flying cargo carrier craft built with box truss sections bridging geometric engine nacelles.  More importantly, the visual effects employed are quite different, with a greater attention to the use of debris and exhaust gases.  While the use of music and “cues” for beat changes, especially in the first season, would be more like 2001′, with moments of sanitized, contemplative silence, the use of other sound effects, for engine noise and explosions in space, would mirror their use in Silent Running/Starlost.  The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Space:  1999 was produced by the Trumbulls rather than the people who brought us Thunderbirds.  In fact, the special effects artist behind both Thunderbirds and Space:  1999 was Brian Johnson, who had worked with Trumbull on ‘A Space Odyssey!

To return to the divergence I introduced four paragraphs ago:  The Andersons originally set up shop for the production of Space:  1999 at Elstree Studios but, fearing for the financial security of the studio at the time, hurriedly and secretly relocated to nearby Pinewood Studios.  Elstree, where some of 2001:  A Space Odyssey had been shot, was saved by George Lucas’ decision to occupy the whole complex of sound stages with his closed sets used for the interior shots for Star Wars, and (what we now call) A New Hope was filmed concurrently with the recording of the last season of Space:  1999.  Lucas had chosen the location for several reasons, the collected pool of technical talent being a major consideration.  He communicated with and visited Brian Johnson and would eventually offer him the role supervising the special effects for Star Wars.  Johnson would ALSO turn Lucas down because of his commitment to the Andersons, but he would later join Lucasfilm for The Empire Strikes Back.

I do wonder whether he approached Trumbull before Johnson, and if poor Dykstra was actually his third choice.   Anyway, the point is that everywhere Lucas turned, he found graduates from the school of Trumbull, exhibiting a style he had perfected in Silent Running.

Wow, this article is running long, I never meant for it to be a two-parter.  There are some other points of Silent Running importance worth mentioning.  The film represents an early example of in-film sponsorship promotion, the sort which is commonplace today and expected from corporate sponsors like Pepsi and Pizza Hut, though I doubt that American Airlines understood that they were going to be cast as the bad guys of the film.  Joel Hodgson refers to Silent Running as the inspiration for the look and situation for Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Rob Grant and Doug Naylor likewise credit the film for inspiring Red Dwarf.  The film either saved or reinvented Bruce Dern’s career and gave him coattails long enough for daughter Laura to ride on her way to her acting career.  Bruce’s role in the film would even create the mold into which Laura’s future roles would be cast.  In Silent Running, Papa Dern plays a botanist, who gets his crew killed and, as the last living soul aboard his ship with a martyr complex, “heroically” sacrifices himself by destroying his ship.  In Jurassic Park, daughter Laura plays a botanist too, a paleo-botanist.  Later in…wait.



Please kindly disregard this article

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