Gene Roddenberry’s Spectre

SpectreRobertCulp1In March, 1977, not long after my 11th birthday, I received a newsletter from Lincoln Enterprises announcing the pilot premiere of Spectre, an occult-themed thriller starring Robert Culp and created by Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry.

I was instantly obsessed.

Debuting on Saturday, May 21, Spectre aired from 9-11pm to low numbers. It was not picked up by NBC and the pilot was cast into the morass of late night horror movie rotation.

I caught it every now and then,even managed to video tape three-fourths of it so I could watch at my leisure, which I did until the tape wore out sometime in the early 90s.

Spectre admittedly suffered from shoddy production values, and some of the lore is a bit wonky, but I dare say you’d be hard pressed to find a better occult detective film in spirit.

original_spectre5Culp’s William Sebastian is everything you could want from a paranormal investigator. He is a world famous criminologist for starters, but he is also a tortured soul. A confrontation with Asmodeus himself left Sebastian physically and spiritually scarred, forcing him to dedicate his life to occult research and to battling the forces of evil wherever they might arise.

Robert Culp was always a solid actor and his approach toward portraying William Sebastian gave the character both an air of intellectualism and a vulnerability that is hard to pull off.

original_spectre3The pilot had a terrific cast that included Gig Young as Sebastian’s best friend and colleague, Dr. Hamilton, Majel Barret as his housekeeper Lilith, and a young John Hurt as Mitri Cyon.

There are a number of reason’s the pilot failed to find an audience. I suspect most of America was busy watching Starsky & Hutch or All in the Family instead, but ultimately, I don’t think the numbers were bad enough for NBC to pass on Spectre.

I suspect it had more to do with fear.

While Spectre is rather tame by today’s standards, in 1977, the pilot was more than a little titillating, with sexual roleplay on display and a couple of mass orgies filling Middle America’s TV screens.

Spectre had more than a passing resemblance to Eyes Wide Shut at times and that was probably a bit much for network executives.

Whatever the reason, Spectre didn’t make the cut and more’s the pity. If any show deserved revisiting, with modern sensibilities and production values, it’s this one.

Book - SpectreI tried to contact the Roddenberry Estate regarding the franchise’s availability, but alas, their lawyers ignored my pleas. And so, Spectre remains relegated to a distant memory, late night movie fodder, and youtube viewings.

Even the novelization, which is a cracking good read by Robert Weverka, is long out of print and hard to find.

William Sebastian deserves better. I still hold out hope that one day the Roddenberry Estate will allow new life to be breathed into Spectre, no matter the medium.

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One Response to “Gene Roddenberry’s Spectre”

  1. […] Among the pilots that Gene Roddenberry worked on during the 1970’s, The Questor Tapes (more on that at this link) and Genesis II / Planet Earth (more on those at this link) are better known to hardcore fans. But mostly forgotten is this supernatural drama that Star Trek‘s creator tried to launch during the latter half of that decade. It aired as a television movie in 1977 and starred Robert Culp and Gig Young as investigators looking into a case that involves the occult which ultimately leads to a face-off with the demon Asmodeus (who rather resembled the Gorn as you can see from the picture here). This was quite a leap for Roddenberry as science fiction had been his main playground since Trek bowed in the 60’s, but the pilot showed some promise. Culp and Young worked together well as the leads (modeled after Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson), and to an extent this predicted the direction of the many supernatural-tinged dramas that would follow in the years to come such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural (the latter most heavily). Unfortunately, the story in the pilot itself, which started out decent, eventually collapsed under its own weight and verged toward bad camp by the end of the movie. Perhaps because Roddenberry was not as comfortable writing in the supernatural realm (he was assisted by Trek veteran Samuel A. Peoples who had more experience writing sci fi and westerns). But the premise had potential, and if he could have pulled some decent writers onboard the show might have worked. Sadly, the pilot was rejected (the TV movie was shuffled off to a late May run by NBC) and has since been mostly forgotten by genre fans. It hasn’t even received the DVD treatment like Roddenberry’s other 70’s pilots did. The movie did get a theatrical release in Europe in 1977 which added some scenes, including nudity and violence not acceptable on American television. Some bootleg copies of that are circulating around on DVD for those curious. The story also received a novelization by Robert Weverka which expanded on the characters and background, but that is long since out of print and very hard to find. A reboot of this one might be interesting, but there are so many similar supernatural dramas like this on television these days that it would have a hard time standing out. The Questor Tapes and/or Genesis II would be much more ripe for a reboot, but Spectre is still interesting for what it was and worth seeking out for fans of Gene Roddenberry’s work. You can read more about the Spectre pilot over at Occult Detective. […]

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