Alexander the Great “Pilot” (part 1 of 7)
Note from the author: This recap was originally posted in 2005. It was updated March 14, 2010 with new screencaps and new snarky comments, thanks to the long overdue DVD release of the Alexander the Great pilot, available now from Amazon.com!
Also, I heard this was all based on some historical figure from history or something? I don’t know. I only passed history class in high school because of a bitchin’ grading curve, so don’t ask me.
Every now and then, I watch something that simply begs to be recapped here. In the case of Alexander the Great, a rejected TV pilot from the ‘60s, there are two big reasons I’m writing about it: One, I originally intended to post this to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, which… didn’t quite happen. But more importantly, Alexander is played by William Shatner, everybody! If I had to estimate, I’d say the Oliver Stone movie was 5% of my motivation in writing this. The other 95%? All Shatner, baby.
Folks, it’s time for us to face the complete reversal of a truism we’ve held dear for nearly forty years: William Shatner is a good actor. That’s right. I said it. He totally is!
If you don’t believe me, will you take the word of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences? They’re the ones who gave him an Emmy in 2004. For acting. In a competitive category. Yes, William Shatner won a real, valid, non-counterfeit Emmy for being the best actor out of a group of five. What’s next, the star of Booty Call winning an Oscar? Oh, yeah, right.
Shatner is currently appearing as attorney Denny Crane on ABC’s Boston Legal, showing a range that few knew he had. I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek in my life, obviously, but I never think of Captain Kirk while watching Denny Crane, which says a lot.
Denny Crane is the role that won Shatner his Emmy, which was well-deserved, and all the more so because he’s been a mainstay on TV screens since 1951. In addition to starring in hits like T.J. Hooker and Rescue 911 (and yes, those were hits, and I’m not listening to you, la la la), Shatner has guested on every TV series ever made, from the original Twilight Zone to Columbo to Mork & Mindy to Saturday Night Live to 3rd Rock from the Sun. He’s also appeared in a number of TV movies, some great (The Andersonville Trial ), and some not so great (The Horror at 37,000 Feet).
And befitting his status as a TV journeyman, it should come as no surprise that Shatner made his fair share of unsold pilots. One of these saw him cast in the unlikely role of Alexander the Great.
Shatner is no stranger to the Agony Booth (meaning this website, not the actual agony booth, but that too), not only appearing a couple of times in the Worst of Trek section, but also singlehandedly turning the film Impulse into one of the sleaziest (and thus, greatest) camp classics ever made. Therefore, thanks to this recap, William Shatner has become this website’s very first Three Strikes Repeat Offender!
But whereas Impulse showed us Shatner a few years after the glory of Star Trek’s original run, Alexander the Great takes us to a much more pleasant time: 1963, a few years before Shatner landed the role of James T. Kirk.
It’s easy to see why Alexander the Great was never picked up. Following Alexander’s historical exploits in a weekly series isn’t all that bad of a premise, but this pilot is a real yawner. There’s nothing you haven’t already seen in a thousand sword and sandal films, and overall, it’s a pretty pale imitation of the 1956 film Alexander the Great, which featured Richard Burton wearing an even worse wig than Shatner in his T.J. Hooker days.
But this pilot is still worth delving into, not only because of Shatner’s appearance, but because it also features John Cassevetes, Joseph Cotten, and Adam West [!], all in small supporting roles. This is hardly a full-tilt camp classic, but at least it’s somewhat leaning in that direction, thanks to the presence of Shatner and West and Cotten and Cassevetes all tramping around the desert in man-skirts and chest plates.
As expected, the storyline of the pilot plays pretty fast and loose with the facts about the life of Alexander of Macedonia. And that’s even allowing for how most “facts” about Alexander were recorded by historians centuries later, and were most certainly embellished to one degree or another.
What we do know is that Alexander was one of the most ambitious conquerors in history. Some three hundred years before the birth of Christ, his army conquered a region from Macedonia to India, nearly the entire civilized world at the time. And he was able to do it all before dying at the age of 32, after having spent most of his life beating back—and finally destroying—the forces of King Darius of Persia.
I tried to figure out exactly which historical incident plays out in this episode, but after spending some time researching it on the web, it’s obvious it never actually happened. The story is pretty much a hodgepodge of faces and places associated with Alexander, all tossed together at random.
For instance, there’s at least one character who dies in this episode, despite outliving Alexander in real life. Also, names are doled out haphazardly, as in the case of Alexander’s love interest in this pilot, who has the same name of a real-life queen who actually adopted Alexander. So I’m guessing historical accuracy wasn’t a high priority for the producers. Along with originality, memorable dialogue, or spending lavishly.
But if the years-after-the-fact memory of Adam West is to be trusted, they had some other tricks up their sleeves. According to the All Movie Guide, West once said the producers included “an elaborate orgy sequence, with Alexander consuming mass quantities of wine as dancing girls undulate all around him.” If such a scene was ever filmed, it doesn’t show up here. My hunch is that Adam West was merely misremembering, with time blowing a minor scene into something huge by the time he was asked about it. There is in fact one short scene with men and women celebrating and consuming wine, but it’s absolutely nowhere near the drunken Dionysian rager described by West.
And if that scene was actually filmed for the pilot, it was obviously cut out by ABC in order to be shown on what was essentially a kid’s show. Yes, this pilot actually aired just once in 1968, as part of the anthology series Off to See the Wizard, a show where animated Wizard of Oz characters would introduce various cartoons and live-action segments. In other words, the show was an easy way for MGM to burn off assorted shorts and unsold pilots in its archives.
But all in all, we should be thankful this series was never picked up. If Alexander the Great had taken off, Shatner and West probably would have never gone on to do Star Trek or Batman, respectively. And no Star Trek, no spin-offs, no movies… no Enterprise. No ‘60s Batman… no Wild World of Batwoman. Hmm. Okay, I think I better get to the actual episode before I change my mind about being thankful it was never picked up.
A crash of thunder starts off the opening credits, which are filled with regal trumpets playing the Alexander the Great theme song. The camera pans across a cheap diorama scene of Greek soldiers battling Persian soldiers.
And the credits have a cutesy little quirk about them: All of the Es are replaced with Sigmas. Isn’t that just precious? Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re actually, you know, in ancient Greece? …What do you mean, the Epsilon and the Sigma have absolutely no relation to each other in the Greek alphabet?
As the credits roll, a loud male chorus, probably fresh off providing chants for a Viking epic, bellows the lyrics to the Alexander theme. They go:
[One octave higher] Alexaaaaaaahn-dah!
Nice. Short, simple, and to the point. I think even 24’s opening theme is a more complex piece of music.
The episode opens on the branches of a dead tree. An overly melodramatic narrator says, “Persia. 2,297 years ago.” So, I guess ancient Persia looked a lot like Utah. “A land of rock!” Awesome! Did it look like the cover of Houses of the Holy? “Of sand! Of war! Of barbaric war!” No gentleman’s battles in ancient Persia, I’m afraid.
“For this was the kingdom of Darius, king of kings! Ruler of all western Asia!” And the narrator is pronouncing “Darius” like “Darry-us”, when the accepted pronunciation is “Duh-RYE-us”. Though, it’s possible the accepted pronunciation has changed since 1963, so maybe this isn’t a result of the filmmakers’ incompetence. Maybe.
As he talks, the camera pans down that dead tree, and several bodies are hanging by ropes from the branches. A man in a standard Greek soldier outfit rides up on horseback. Yes, he’s got the whole ancient ensemble going, complete with the gold helmet with a Mohawk, and the solid gold mutton chops. I believe this is a loaner from the guy who works the front door at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.
Alas, the narrator isn’t done yet. “For centuries, the winds of battle swept this land dry of life! Until one day from Greece, from the West, came a man to bring life to the soil! And civilization! And peace! A man who was known as…” The soldier on horseback turns and cries, “Alexanderrrrrrr!” See how nicely that dovetailed with the narration?
A horse gallops into frame with a caped figure on its back. After the horse obliges us by rearing up and whinnying for no reason, it’s revealed that the guy on its back is the Shat-Man himself as Alexander the Great.
Alexander sees the three bodies and rushes over, followed by several of his soldiers. Alexander rides at a breakneck pace, and a wide shot reveals it is indeed William Shatner doing his own horseback riding here. This should come as no surprise to people familiar with his work, since the man has plainly had a lifelong love of riding that’s worked its way into a number of his movies. For instance, Shatner is the reason why that whole scene between Kirk and Picard had them both on horseback.
Shatner rides up to the dead tree, and orders the three corpses cut down. All the men dismount, and as the soldiers hack at the ropes with swords, we finally get a good look at Shatner’s Macedonian active wear.
It’s a pretty standard period outfit, probably left over from whatever Spartacus rip-off had most recently finished shooting. Shatner’s got the chest plate happening, and oh yes, the man-skirt happening as well. I wonder if he hung onto this outfit and wore it again for “Plato’s Stepchildren”.