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Thursday, August 23, 2012

'The Lieutenant:' Roddenberry's 'Before They Were Stars' Series

Warner Archives' recent release of the "Must Buy" two volume DVD set of "Star Trek" creator and god Gene Roddenberry's first television series the 1963-1964 drama/quasi-anthology series "The Lieutenant" is another example of how Archives is slowly catching up with the awesome Shout Factory as the provider of wonderful (and sometimes obscure) TV shows.

The WB Shop's description of "The Lieutenant" as a "A young Marine Corp lieutenant struggles to carry out his duties while under the guidance of a by-the-book captain during cold war peacetime" summarizes the show very well. 

It is worth mentioning that this overall serious series has a hilarious moment in which a general who is leading the titular lieutenant around the Pentagon comments that they are entering the only place in Washington where every man knows what he is doing. The next shot shows that the officers entered a restroom.

Fans of classic TV can also consider "The Lieutenant" a mash-up of "Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C." and "Star Trek." 

Like Enterprise Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Marine Lieutenant William Tiberius (no joke) Rice, who is played by "2001: A Space Odyssey's" Gary Lockwood, is a human mullet in that he is all business in front and all party in the back. Both  intelligent and dedicated military officers enjoy the ladies and latent homoerotic bonding with fellow officers. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Kirk and Rice were also Starfleet's and the Marine's "go guy" when the Klingons or other hostile aliens or an earth-bound challenge required a tough officer with a cool head and dedication to his federation or country. The similarity continued with Kirk being from Iowa and only working in outer space and Rice being from Indiana and only working at the California Marine base Camp Pendleton.

While Kirk commanded Starfleet's flagship, Rice commanded a platoon of infantry soldiers. Many episodes required that both men step out of that role to serve as a diplomat/goodwill ambassador or investigate an internal or external threat to good order.

Additionally, both Kirk's William Shatner and Rice's Lockwood were well-known for egos that greatly exceeded their looks and abilities. Apparently Larry Hagman had already committed to playing Air Force Captain (later Major) on "I Dream of Jeannie."

Rice and Kirk additionally also often faced the same dilemma when doing the right thing conflicted with the Prime Directive, which prohibited interfering with a planet's domestic policies, or other regulations. The fact that the bad guy on both series often was not really evil complicated things and was another reason that Gene Roddenberry is still so revered nearly 50 years after "The Lieutenant" premiered. He is at the top of my list of celebrities with whom I would have enjoyed sharing a Romulan ale.

An early episode of "The Lieutenant" titled "The Proud and the Angry" illustrates the above concepts well and also channels many elements of "Pyle" and the novel/film "The Great Santini." The plot has Rice going undercover as a recruit to investigate claims that a drill sergeant is brutalizing the marines that he is training. 

The drill sergeant setting high standards on the obstacle course, repeatedly shouting "I can't hear you," and yelling at recruits to stop smiling is Pyle's Sergeant Carter on the worst day of his life.

As a side note, an unrecognizable Rip Torn plays "The Lieutenant's" sergeant. This character is light years in appearance and demeanor from Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show" and Agent Zed on "Men in Black."

"Angry" requires Rice, and "The Lieutenant's" audience, to decide how tough is too tough. A directly referenced element of this is the fact that the newly minted marines will likely need to survive in Vietnam. Further, the sergeant lacks ill intent and has trouble not bringing his work home with him.

Roddenberry also addresses racism in "The Lieutenant" before presenting the highly controversial interracial kiss in "Star Trek." "The Lieutenant's" episode "To Set it Right," which the DVD sets includes but Wikipedia reported never aired during the series' network run, depicts the racism that a black marine faced. Nichelle Nichols, whose Uhara locked lips with Kirk in the aforementioned kiss, played the marine's fiancee.  

"The Lieutenant" also has some of the range in tone that distinguished "Star Trek." It did not go from an invasion of small furry creatures to godlike aliens threatening utter destruction. However, the first episode has the typically charming Bill Bixby as a new marine conning his way out of unpleasant assignments and the final episode has Rice battling an enemy army in a Southeast Asia jungle after his helicopter is shot down. 

The DVD set includes the extended version of the final episode that was released in movie theaters as a film. See a topless sexually aggressive woman and Rice using the term "bitch" in that 1964 movie based on a television series is surprising.

These episodes (and many others) illustrate many elements that made the series, and "Star Trek," so good but also contributed to "The Lieutenant" not lasting beyond one season. It's portrayal of all elements of military life is very consistent with my limited knowledge of that element of American society, the issues described above and many others that include false accusations of sexual assault and a subordinate taking advantage of a decades-long friendship are relevant today, and the Vietnam War was on everyone's mind.

One problem was that the American public did not want the Vietnam War invading their entertainment television, particularly during "The Lieutenant's" Saturday night time slot. They may not also have been quite ready to see accurate depictions of racism or be reminded that school teachers have some similarities to marines in being overworked and underpaid while being held to very high moral standards.

"The Lieutenant" probably would have done better in the '70s, particularly if it had followed Roddenberry's initial limited success with "Star Trek." 

Anyone with thoughts regarding "The Lieutenant," or "Star Trek" jokes that do not involve Uranus, is welcome to email me. Live long and prosper.