Ten years after the Batman inspired camp Superhero craze of the mid-1960s collapsed, the networks were poised to unleash dozens of costumed crusaders and weird science fiction concepts. Most were extremely lame, the TV industry in the seventies just didn't get sci-fi or have any understanding of what the superhero phenomenon was all about.
One of the myriad problems with almost all of these productions was in the details, like costume design. Perhaps they figured the producers of Star Trek had done such a piss poor job that no one would notice. Did they not realize we could see Spiderman's pit stains or that putting men in flimsy pastel cotton tunics wasn't the most masculine look?
In May of 1977 Star Wars kicked Hollywood's ass, followed by the blockbuster Superman movie in 1978. The big three networks scrambled to craft a post-Star Wars TV landscape but television's womb was a barren as Tatooine so naturally they turned to established concepts they could bastardize.
Here's a brief rundown of the various projects with a superhero or science fiction influence that the networks and studios announced in trade publications like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety from the beginning of 1977 until the end of 1978. How much of this was concrete and how much PR BS you'll have to decide for yourself - and this is likely not a complete list, I'll update it as I find more information.
1977 opened with every 1970's fan boy's dream - Star Trek was returning to weekly television!
Paramount began making tentative plans beginning in 1974 for Star Trek to be mounted as a small-budget motion picture. As late as 1976 it was on the studio's schedule but a proper script had never been drafted that pleased everyone. They were in no hurry, there was no serious demand for science fiction after dogs like Logan's Run, Death Race 2000, Future World, Damnation Alley, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Rollerball - all released in the 2 years before George Lucas changed everything.
After Star Wars-mania exploded in the summer of 1977 Paramount switched gears and announced that Star Trek would return to television instead. Production was tentatively scheduled to begin in January 1978 with 22 episodes debuting in April of 1978, when the networks were in reruns.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was tapped as Executive Producer; just a few years earlier Paramount offered him the chance to buy the Star Trek franchise outright from them for $100,000 but he didn't have the money. That would have been one of the biggest corporate blunders in history.
Story Editor D. C. Fontana, who was working with Roddenberry on the film's development, was not available due to her commitment to supervise the scripts on Logan's Run.
Although they had hopes to sign all of the supporting cast, Paramount had no plans at first to approach William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy was on Broadway with Equus and Shatner's career was in cold stasis after his western drama Barbary Coast tanked on ABC in 1975-76.
Paramount didn't expect to get Leonard Nimoy to sign on to a weekly series anyway, for one thing he was furious with Gene Roddenberry over a pilot Roddenberry screwed him out of a few years earlier. Paramount hoped he would appear as a guest on the first few shows to pass the baton to a 100% Vulcan Science Officer. An actor, David Gautreaux, was hired to play the Vulcan role and screen tests with full makeup and costume were shot. The actor was later given a small role in Star Trek The Motion Picture as the Commander who's ship was blown up by V'Ger in the first few minutes.
Before long William Shatner became attached to the Star Trek TV project, this after Paramount announced the Enterprise set had been rebuilt (highly unlikely but okay...) with George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, and Majel Barrett reportedly all signing on.
In the completed 2-hour pilot script James T. Kirk returns to San Francisco to take the helm of a newly refurbished Enterprise resting in space dock. These events would be taking place after the Enterprise's five year mission was completed. Commander Kirk, as he would now be known, would stay above the fray while his new Number Two, a sensuous female "who is hairless except for eyebrows and eyelashes" beamed down with the guys in the red shirts.
The production was expected make heavy use of blue screen technology, projecting the actors against miniature sets to save money, a technique Space 1999 used in 1975.
The Star Trek TV production was to be the lynchpin of The Paramount / Hughes Network's concerted effort to go head to head with NBC, CBS and ABC. Star Trek would anchor their first full night of programming, on Saturdays.
NBC took the threat seriously, offering to buy the new Star Trek sight unseen and give it a primetime slot (Friday night no doubt, right?). This offer only emboldened Paramount, they passed on NBC and announced a $400,00 weekly budget for the show, around $2 million in today's money. $100,000 a week was considered astronomical in the 1970s.
In December of 1977 filming was weeks away but the start date for the series was moved up to September of 1978. Nimoy, Takei and Kelley were out, for whatever reasons.
By January 1978 the studio did another about face, deciding a Star Trek motion picture made more sense given the astronomical box office receipts Star Wars was enjoying. They didn't have another viable sci-fi oriented project in development, Star Trek was it. Paramount assigned Gene Roddenberry to adapt the TV pilot into a feature but made it clear that they were still willing to produce a Star Trek TV series for a fall 1978 release if enough stations signed on. Which sounds highly unlikely but that's what made the trades.
MAN FROM UNCLE
MGM had been floating the idea of a revival of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. for at least three years prior and once again in early-1977 but nothing came of it. It finally did happen, a bit too late if you ask me, with The Return of the Man from UNCLE in 1983. It was even suggested in 1977 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could join Star Trek in Paramount's Saturday night network scheme. Oh, what could have been.
Before RoboCop there was Future Cop. Ernest Borgnine starred as a tough flatfoot partnered with a robotic police officer in a pilot film that aired to big ratings on ABC in 1976. This led to a one-hour weekly series pickup in March of 1977; that flopped, lasting only 6 weeks.
This fiasco was most notable because science fiction writers Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova sued the producer of Future Cop and the studio that backed it. They proved Future Cop was plagiarized from their original 1970 storyline Brillo, which was in development for a possible series at ABC in 1973. The authors won a $337,000 settlement.
Future Cop was slightly re-imagined in 1978 as Cops & Robins for a TV movie / pilot for which (I think) Ellison and Bova also received a court ordered payout.
In Spring of 1977 the aforementioned Harlan Ellison was signed by filmmaker William Friedkin (Sorcerer) to pen a Felliniesque 2-hour TV version of Will Eisner's 1940s comic strip sleuth The Spirit. Sad to say this did not come to fruition.
A Spirit TV movie was produced a decade later with Sam Jones in the starring role but without a script by Harlan Ellison.
A BOY AND HIS DOG / BLOOD'S A ROVER
Around the same time The Spirit deal was inked NBC bought the rights to Harlan Ellison's short story / motion picture A Boy and His Dog for series development. Ellison was hired to write the pilot called Blood's a Rover wherein Vic and his telepathic canine Blood would be joined by a female character, Spike.
While the series didn't come off Ellison published a brilliant short story prequel to A Boy and His Dog in 1977, "Eggsucker", that appeared in Ariel magazine.
In 1977 Universal Television obtained the rights to 8 Marvel comics characters including Spider-Man, The Human Torch, Captain America, Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, The Incredible Hulk and 2 other unspecified four-color heroes (I'm guessing Daredevil and Thor since they turned up in two 1980s Incredible Hulk telefilms).
First to make it to the screen was Spider-Man in the fall of 1977 starring Nicholas Hammond as the web slinger. Ratings were strong for the CBS TV movie so a series was tentatively launched. Very tentatively, 5 episodes were filmed for April 1978 debut.
From the very beginning the producers of Spider-Man let Stan Lee know they didn't want any input from the comics people. Big mistake. Changes were made in the basic DNA of the character. Instead of getting his spider powers directly from a radioactive bite, this Peter Parker possessed a powerful exo-skeleton that stuck to walls and sprayed webbing. No colorful super villains, no wise-cracking, and you could see the seams in Spidey's flimsy lycra costume.
Besides Peter Parker, only J. Jonah Jameson and Aunt May from the comics ever appeared in the series. Various actresses played Aunt May but David White (Larry Tate on Bewitched) was cast as J. Jonah Jameson in the pilot, he was the most effective aspect of the production. He was replaced by Robert F. Simon when the series was launched.
6 more episodes aired in the fall of 1978 and winter of 1979; because they usually garnered strong numbers they were tossed like a salad across CBS' weak lineup that season.
Comic's fans hated the series, Stan Lee even came out publicly against it. The network was cool to the concept from the beginning but ratings were very good despite the series not having a permanent timeslot. Because of high production costs and low network interest Spider-Man was not renewed after two very short seasons.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Two Incredible Hulk TV films debuted in November of 1977, one of the better adaptations of a Marvel character. Strong ratings led to a very successful series in 1978.
The main character's name was changed from Bruce Banner to David Banner because of the 1950's gay slur associated with Bruce. Richard Kiel (the guy with the teeth in The Spy Who Loved Me) was initially cast as the green skinned monster. At the last minute Kiel (who was clearly wrong for the role) dropped out and was replaced by Lou Ferrigno.
Incredible Hulk telefilms continued for 6 years after the series ended in 1982.
THE HUMAN TORCH
Now this sounded exciting - a teen who bursts into flames, can fly through the air and hurl fireballs at his opponents. Can you imagine?
Universal, home of The Bionic Woman and Quincy, M.E., developed a storyline about a race car driver that, as a result of a fiery crash, gains the power to control flames. There would be no mention of The Fantastic Four, making the show somewhat similar to the solo Human Torch Strange Tales comic book adventures in the early-sixties. This one never made it past the pre-production stage.
Universal's lock on the character affected another highly anticipated Marvel project. When the Fantastic Four cartoon was sold to NBC for fall of 1978 the Human Torch could not be included because of the conflict. He was replaced by a flying contraption that looked like a Gilbarco gas pump, ruining the chance for the ultimate animated FF with storyboards by creator Jack Kirby and plots adapted from the comics by Stan Lee and Kirby. Not that NBC would have approved of a cartoon character that burst into flames on Saturdays anyway.
Reportedly similar to the comic book character in name only, Sub-Mariner sank when Man from Atlantis was beached.
Monday nights at 8:00 in September of 1977 Lucan aired on ABC. Lucan centered on a 20 year-old boy, raised by wolves in the woods, trying to make his way in civilization, looking for the parents who left him behind. Lucan had a special connection with wild animals and wolf-like senses. Tracking him were bounty hunter Prentiss (Don Gordon) and ruthless University researcher Dr. Hoagland - who performed experiments on Lucan when he was discovered as a boy.
This adventure/drama only ran irregularly but garnered robust ratings, at least for the first few outings. Kevin Brophy starred in the title role.
LOGAN'S RUN and WONDER WOMAN
In an attempt to cash in on the sci-fi craze CBS scheduled a fantasy block on Friday nights in the fall of 1977 that consisted of Logan's Run followed by Wonder Woman.
Friday nights had traditionally been the death night for speculative fiction and this proved no exception. From Star Trek to Planet of the Apes, it seemed like every time a network had a cool show with a sci-fi twist they scheduled it on a Friday night where it flopped around like a dying fish.
Logan's Run was based on the 1976 movie of the same name where the population is put to death after they reach the age of 18. Logan and his friends would weekly try to spirit away souls from the killing machine but ultimately this one note concept collapsed after the first episode. It only made it to television because the prop vehicles and sets were available, that's my guess.
Wonder Woman was an acquisition from ABC who would not commit to a weekly timeslot for the series despite high ratings. ABC had so many hit shows in the target demographic they didn't have room for them all!
CBS brought the Amazonian Princess from World war II to the present time, changing the title to The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. After Logan's Run was cancelled mid-season Wonder Woman remained on Friday nights for a season and a half paired with The Incredible Hulk.
THE BIONIC WOMAN
Also in 1977, at the same time CBS jumped on Wonder Woman, NBC picked up The Bionic Woman from ABC where it also was a top rated show with no permanent timeslot. TV shows moving networks never worked out particularly well, see The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Taxi, Get Smart, and the two shows above. Maybe it's because the new networks liked to tweak the series with predictable, committee-think results. Bionic Woman lasted only one run around the track on NBC.
THE MAN FROM ATLANTIS
After four very successful television movies that aired early in 1977, The Man From Atlantis was green-lit for a weekly slot. Starring Patrick Duffy, this unlikely drama was about a man-fish that could talk to people on the surface with a microphone in his swim trunks. Yes, that was a mic in his pants - that was all he was wearing!
As the series progressed storylines became more and more campy, even bringing on Victor Buono (King Tut on Batman) as a super-villain. Because of the lower budget for the weekly series and lame scripts this show became the punchline for late night jokes for the next two decades. Weeks after The Man From Atlantis was harpooned Patrick Duffy turned up on a mid-season series called Dallas on CBS. Now that was science fiction!
Rankin-Bass' animated adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's classic aired November 27, 1977.
OTHER 1977 PROJECTS: Granville Van Dusen starred in a TV-movie World of Darkness in 1977, an Exorcist type drama that CBS was considering as a mid-season replacement.
Fresh from their Saturday morning successes with Shazam! and Isis, Filmation planned a live action Plastic Man for primetime.
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