The television landscape is overflowing with failed pilots; those poor souls who try to go to series, but are forever doomed to perish in the eternal hellfire of the forgotten. (And YouTube.) Sometimes the shows are not picked up for financial reasons, and sometimes they just give off a "hell NO" vibe that even TV executives can’t miss. And then you have Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s mastermind, who by the mid-’70s produced failed pilot after failed pilot. His last try before the impending Trek-aissance was Spectre (1977), a very well-made Satanic Panic meets Sherlock Holmes proposal that promised a lot of ghoulish fun had it been picked up. As is, it’s a groovy (and randy) time capsule of an era when the Devil had his share of air time.
Produced by 20th Century Fox Television, Spectre originally aired May 21st as an NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, and was most certainly trounced by CBS’ All in the Family and ABC’s Starsky and Hutch. I mean, it didn’t get picked up, so bigots and cops continued to rule the airwaves; frankly, I think audiences were just about done with Beelzebub for the time being, anyway.
Well, let’s see what our TV Guide has to say:
SPECTRE (Saturday, 9:00pm, NBC)
A former criminologist enlists the aid of his doctor associate to investigate an occult possession in England. Robert Culp, Gig Young star.
And we open with said doctor, Hamilton (Young – Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) arriving at the estate of his former colleague, William Sebastian (Culp – A Cold Night’s Death), who quickly informs him that a) part of his heart was stolen by a demon, and b) they are to go to England to work a case of a woman who claims her brother is possessed. No sooner does he utter these words than the woman herself, Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell – The Shuttered Room), arrives to tell Sebastian that the investigation isn’t necessary. When she tries to seduce him, he realizes she is a succubus sent to destroy him before he even leaves, and he dispatches her with a sacred book that causes her to burst into flames. Hamilton misses the action, and sticks by his assertion that the supernatural doesn’t exist, even though Anitra has vanished.
Off they head to England then, in a jet flown by one of Anitra’s brothers, Mitri (John Hurt – Alien); a pleasant and laidback member of the family, certainly more so than Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers – Asylum), the oldest brother and the member who Anitra suspects is possessed. A quick view at his hedonistic lifestyle at Cyon House would bear this out; there are voluptuous vixens at his beck and call, as this house has no use for stuffy butlers or dowdy cleaners. As Sebastian and Ham (as he’s affectionately called) sniff around, they discover that an excavation underneath the ruins on the property unleashed Asmodeus, Prince of Lechery (and apparently the demon in charge of gambling in Hell—hey, I looked it up!). As luminaries in the business world are dying and Sir Geoffrey’s standing is on the rise, all eyes point to him as the reincarnation of Asmodeus. Can Sebastian and Ham find out the truth before their trip across the pond turns into a double funeral?
So many demonic TV films of the time lay back on their exploration of the occult; maybe a name here, definitely red robes everywhere. Spectre is packed with spells, incantations, and ideology that are well-researched enough to be mildly disturbing. Not truly upsetting of course, unless one is so inclined to believe any of the brimstone-filled tomfoolery afoot. But a strong effort is made by Roddenberry and co-writer Samuel A. Peebles (Final Chapter: Walking Tall) to take their mythology seriously, to ground it for those susceptible to the occult teachings. And it works, because you at least believe they take the material somewhat to heart.
I say somewhat, because of course there is dry humor throughout, and even some broad takes, such as when a flustered Ham nearly succumbs to some saucy succubi with a proclivity for leather, school girl outfits, and whips. Old Gene always knew how to throw in the lascivious amongst the sci-fi space trappings, and this setting really allows him to get his freak on. (Inserts of topless minions fill the end orgy, a routine way to sell the material theatrically abroad.)
In addition to the randy behavior, Roddenberry has no trouble with creating some spooky moments as well; the succubus burning, Sebastian and Ham standing in a pentagram in order to avoid a demon from breaking in, their journeys to the underworld of Cyon House—all provide moments of low-key suspense, well staged by veteran British director Clive Donner (What’s New Pussycat?).
But the real promise lost with Spectre was the chance to see Sebastian and Ham fight evil week in and week out; Culp and Young’s chemistry is light and natural, much like Holmes and Watson as Roddenberry was shooting for. Alas, it was not to be; Gene would fire up the Enterprise shortly thereafter, and Young’s suicide in ’78 put an end to any further adventures. Sometimes the networks just plain get it wrong; Spectre was The X-Files blueprint that deserved more than 110 minutes in the spotlight. However, there are pilots that don’t even make it to air, and any time spent with Sebastian and Ham is better than none at all.Next: It Came From The Tube: REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES (1980)