After Star Trek was cancelled, Gene Roddenberry started to work toward a new project. 1977 was apparently a time when several similar occult projects were pitched for TV, which may be why Roddenberry’s Spectre was dropped for consideration as a series, but the pilot was released as a long-form film and it is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen.
Robert Culp, familiar to many for his stint on I Spy, The Outer Limits and Greatest American Hero stars as a world famous criminologist turned occult detective after he has a breakdown. His former partner ‘Ham’ Hamilton (played by Gig Young) answers an urgent summons only to find a man he expected to be in dire straights living a lavish life of success, surrounded by strange cryptic books and artifacts of ancient lore. It appears that William Sebastian has cracked, but it’s working out alright for him. In fact, no sooner does Ham arrive than a beautiful lady falls at Sebastian’s feet asking for his help. Sebastian is involved in a case involving the dealings of a powerful British family named Cyon. The female visitor identifies herself as Anitra Cyon and tries to influence Sebastian to drop the case entirely, and she plans to make it worth his while.
While Ham attempts to deny his recently diagnosed alcoholism by treating himself to the open bar, Sebastian exposes his guest as a succubus and destroys her using black magic. No sooner does one odd event happen then Sebastian reveals a peculiar scar on his chest to his former partner. It is a remnant from his dealings with the dark forces of the mystic world who asked a deed too base and offensive for his tastes, leaving him scarred both physically and spiritually. It’s all too much for Ham to take in, but Sebastian demands that the two of them travel to England to assist him in his investigation of the Cyon family.
The pair are flown to England by Mitri Cyon (played by John Hurt), an incredibly talented pianist and gentleman who has chosen to let his brother Sir Geoffrey steer the family estate. The plane is nearly destroyed in a freak bout of turbulence which Sebastian takes as further indication that there are forces at work trying to prevent him from uncovering the true nature of the Cyon family. It’s all nonsense to Ham who trusts his senses more than anything else and obviously feels that his good friend has lost his mind.
It turns out that someone in the Cyon family is indeed in league with a demon that has granted great power and success on them in return for unquestioning loyalty and sacrifice. It’s up to Sebastian and Hamilton to stop the dark forces of beyond from gaining a foothold in this world. Using their wits and the wisdom gleaned from ancient lore, the pair battle with demonic beings bent on world domination.
With a pitch like that and a stellar cast, how could you go wrong? The pacing is consistent with other TV productions of its time, but the black magic elements, nudity and sexual tones are highly unusual. I understand that the demon is using the attraction of lust and greed to drive the Cyon family to obey him, but it all gets a bit ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ at times with much of the nudity removed for domestic release (though much of it found its way onto a late night UHF transmission, legend says). Whatever the case, the conclusion is a ritual involving incest, rape and murder… how did any of this end up in TV???
Adding to the weirdness is Culp’s intense performance. I adore the actor, but his behavior is so over the top that it becomes a pantomime. In trying to ‘sell’ the occult angles of the story, Culp seethes with every line of dialog and exposition, making it all seem a bit much given the limitations of the program. I am used to watching Doctor Who were polysterene is meant to be terribly heavy, robots are made of aluminum foil and bubble wrap is terrifying, but when the monster of Spectre finally arrives, it’s a bit of a let down to find that it is basically a rented monkey suit.
I do think that Spectre is an oddity worth exploring if you can get your hands on it. One can see the similarity in the Ham/Sebastian relationship as a kind of Kirk/Spock routine as well. I just can’t get over the fact that someone like Roddenberry would be involved with a production steeped in so much perversion, but it was the 70′s, that was the hip thing, I guess.
I’m reminded of the Bronze Age of Marvel Comics that was so interested in black magic, monsters and the like and think that there must have been something in the water that similarly influenced this production. Predating the DC Comics/Vertigo series Hellblazer, Spectre does very much feel like a proto-John Constantine, both sexy and cool yet tragic and cursed all at once. Sebastian doesn’t seem to smoke, but he rocks a pair of aviator shades and flips a blood-red-silk-lined pea coat like it’s nobody’s business.
There are no commercial copies of Spectre available, but you can watch the entire (edited) film on youtube or buy a copy from any number of online resources.