Culp De-Programmer

SPECTRE — a failed TV pilot devised by Gene Roddenberry. Download it! Slap it in the Panasonic! Watch it!

Stars Robert Culp — my new hero! as Gene Roddenberry William Sebastian, a stylishly dressed criminologist and expert in paranormal abnormality, who, assisted by Dr Ham Hamilton — who I kept thinking was played by Bradford Dillman, but is actually the murderer Gig Young — “He looks nothing like Bradford Dillman. Why did I think it was Bradford Dillman?” “You just wanted it to be,” claims Fiona. “I deny the accusation!” — this sentence has really lost its way. Back up. Start again.

Our two decrepit intrepid heroes journey to London, England, to investigate a case of possible satanic possession at a stately home newly outfitted as mod shagging palace by incumbent Sir Geoffrey Cyon (James Villiers). Just as in SOME GIRLS DO, Villiers is surrounded by dolly birds, although whether in this film they have had their heads hollowed out and filled with radio-controlled microchips is never stated — but going by their behaviour, I’d say the answer is YES, and Roddenberry has the remote.

Gig’s bedchamber — and waterbed — is invaded at night by Allo Allo‘s Vicki Michelle, plus a dominatrix and a schoolgirl, but that’s just the beginning of the diabolism in store! The problem is figuring out which of the Cyon scions is possessed of the Devil — Villiers (who definitely is), Ann Bell, who might be, and John Hurt, who probably definitely is. “I remember being very disappointed in him for doing this,” says Fiona. Whereas I don’t remember it at all. If I did, I’d like to think I wouldn’t be watching it now. Fiona has no such excuse, other than wanting something cheery after running PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD.

John Hurt tries out for the role of a Klingon.

James Villiers turns into a cat.

Tits! Obvious cutaways of tits to try and sell this as an X-rated horror movie abroad. Clive Donner directed this — I’m starting to think he was never very good, you know. His camera swoops in, leering, in like a dirty eagle, every nipple a merit badge.

Jenny Runacre smiles slyly in the background, which you’d think would be enough, and Culp is pretty delightful, channeling Shatner’s heavy pauses. Gordon Jackson is on hand, as ever.

“You hear a lot about Bradford Dillman,” I observe, “but you never hear about his brother, Rochdale.”

Culp is such a Roddenberry substitute, he even has Majel Barrett (Mrs R) as housekeeper. And the voodoo curse on him, manifesting as chest pains and a blob of mortician’s wax on his manly abdomen, is presumably a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of the heart condition that slew the Star Trek creator.

Why Gene Roddenberry wrote science fiction: his first wife was named Eileen Rexroat. It was inevitable.

More Wiki —

“Star Trek theme music composer Alexander Courage long harbored resentment of Roddenberry’s attachment of lyrics to his composition. By union rules, this resulted in the two men splitting the music royalties payable whenever an episode of Star Trek aired, which otherwise would have gone to Courage in full. (The lyrics were never used on the show, but were performed by Nichelle Nichols on her 1991 album, “Out of this World.”)”

The only Star Trek lyrics I ever heard require to be sung with a Scottish accent —

Star Trek! It’s a funny tune!

It goes UP and then it goes doon!

AND! just when you think you’ve got it mastered,

It flies off like a crazy bastard!

I think perhaps those are not canonical.

As someone who grew up with a lot of terrible, boring, generic American TV (Petrocelli, The Fall Guy, Fantasy Island, Kojak, Dallas) I kind of wish Spectre had been commissioned. It’s not boring. It’s terrible and ridiculous, but not boring. If it had run, there might have been some good episodes, but even if they were all dreadful, they would have been more diverting than all the lawyer and cop and doctor shows, and with Culp and his polo neck, they’d have been more fun than Kolchak, too.

In some dreamy alternate reality, this series ran for decades. David Duchovny eventually took over from Culp.

15 Responses to “Culp De-Programmer”

  1. James Villiers has always been a favorite of mine. His ineffable imperiousness makes him perfect for a sci-fi villain.

  2. Yes, I’d have loved to seem on Trek, as a vast, toffee-nosed intelligence.

  3. mndean Says:

    I had no idea your young life was blighted by those sort of television shows. That you had to see Lee Majors at all is tragic, but an entire series! I know people who defend American television programming, but they usually stick to the ’50s/early ’60s heyday as there wasn’t a lot of ’70s or ’80s TV worth defending.

  4. Clearly, any medium that could produce Bilko, Dragnet and The Twilight Zone had a lot going for it. How it got into that rut it was in when I happened along is something I’ve never read a clear theory about.

    The Brits were rather smug during this period, although looking back I recall a lot of boredom, game shows and horrible “light entertainment” — but at least we were making some strong drama. We scarcely are now.

  5. I know the question of how to create something new which would have some of the charm of The Avengers has exercised a lot of minds in TV-land. British telly completely lost the ability to do fantasy sometime in the eighties. The new Dr Who showed that at least some kind of success was possible, but the follow-ups on that don’t inspire me with much enthusiasm.

    I did spend a couple of years pitching ideas to TV, but it was pretty joyless. Coming up with ridiculous ideas was groovy, but then explaining them to somebody at the BBC who thinks their latest docu-soap is cutting edge was rather soul-destroying.

  6. Actually, the history of how The Avengers evolved is fascinating. There was a glum and realistic drama about a police doctor starring Ian Hendry. Steed turned up as an enigmatic bowler-hatted and slightly suspect “man from the ministry” — kind of like Christopher Lee’s guest spot in Deathline. The character was popular…

    And I guess since it was felt unlikely that Patrick MacNee would create a lot of smouldering sexual chemistry with an actress, it was decided to have a female star who was sexy and powerful IN HER OWN RIGHT, which was unheard of at the time. Thus Honor Blackman, and eventually Diana Rigg.

    It’s a lot like Fred and Ginger…

  7. mndean Says:

    What’s worse is the Brit programs that get imported to the US to show locally on our PBS station for the past 20 years are usually the safest, most boring things in creation. After about five episodes of As Time Goes By, I started getting really stabby towards Judi Dench and wanted to dismember that twit character played by Philip Bretherton.

  8. Haven’t seen Spectre since I was a kid, but it sounds just bonkers enough to check out again. It’s a shame it didn’t become a series, because 70s American TV could’ve used some insanity to liven things up. There’s another unsold pilot film called Baffled! with Leonard Nimoy as a race-car driver who develops psychic powers after an accident and uses them to solve a mystery in an old dark house. How that never sold is the true mystery here.

    I recently caught Culp’s Hickey & Boggs, which re-united him with I Spy co-star Bill Cosby. It was a complete failure at the time of release, possibly because it’s incredibly downbeat and grim, so anybody going in hoping for some I Spy-ish banter and camaraderie probably left feeling depressed. It’s become a bit of a cult item in recent years. I thought it was a bit carelessly plotted and overlong, but both Culp and Cosby are very good in it, and Culp’s direction was impressive enough to make me wish he’d directed more films.

  9. I grew up in that televisionary trough. Kolchak — the very name puts a damper on my day. On the other hand: Columbo. You’re welcome.

    That was the great age of “white ethnic” TV drama characters, though, a bounty for dark-haired Caucasian actors. Recently I’ve been watching episodes of the late 50s/early-60s series “Naked City” — a jaw-dropping treasure trove of writing, directing, and (especially) acting talent, shot on location — and was brought up short by the name of the hard-ass lieutenant in charge of the NYC police precinct. Mike Parker. Really? Mike Parker? One of the other cops is named Arcaro and lives with his Italian mama, but the square-jawed putative lead has a square-jawed name as well.

  10. The performances in Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents are often absolutely amazing also. I imagine that felt normal then. I see a lot of decent work in modern TV but little that knocks me for six like that.

    I was aware of Columbo as a kid because of TV impressionists, but I don’t seem to have watched any until I was much older. Star Trek re-runs were key, and Dr Who and The Goodies were my idols. The most significant TV show ultimately though was Brownlow and Gill’s Hollywood, which helped turn me off TV and onto cinema.

  11. GeraldF Says:

    Jenny Runacre, John Hurt and James Villiers! Why haven’t I heard of this?

  12. Because it was made for TV, and it isn’t, in any conventional sense, very good? Well worth chortling through though.

    I do wish it had more Runacre action though.

    The website!

  13. Brownlow and Gill’s Hollywood was a pretty huge deal for me too. Here it ran on the local PBS station, and I was completely captivated by every episode. I came away from it with a burning desire to see every Erich von Stroheim film I could find. Back in those days, this was a very difficult desire to fulfill.

  14. It’s still not so easy, since virtually none of his work exists as he intended it. But at least you can now see what there is, with a bit of searching.

    It was a real gateway drug, that show. I thrilled to the climax of the Fairbanks/Walsh Thief of Bagdad, then found the movie itself a little hard to sit through when it played a couple of years later. Building up the concentration to watch silent drama didn’t happen all at once. (And to be fair, watching it on commercial TV with ad breaks is pretty difficult.)

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