Remembering “The New People”: ABC’s late 60s attempt at a “LOST” island series

By on April 9, 2015

A commercial passenger jet encounters a severe storm over the South Pacific and crashes on a remote and mysterious island. The pilot and co-pilot are both killed, but most of the passengers survive; except for one older adult, none of them are over thirty years old.

The survivors quickly realize they must all work together in order to stay alive, but conflicts arise as they begin to turn against one another, disagreeing on the proper course of action.

This new primetime ABC drama — no, we’re not talking about LOST, a show we’ve written about before — was called The New People.

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When ABC’s LOST debuted in 2004, it didn’t seem there were many viewers at home, elder TV critics among them, who remembered this short-lived late 60s series — an Aaron Spelling / Danny Thomas production — that had aired on the same network during the 1969/1970 fall season.

After all, only seventeen episodes of the show had aired in total, from September 22, 1969 to January 12, 1970, and while fans of LOST gleefully learned about the show, briefly granting The New People a kind of newly-found minor cult status for a time, it was soon forgotten again and now seems to have slipped back into the ether, going off to wherever old TV shows go to die. Nevertheless, The New People left a lasting impression on those who saw it.

Initially , there was some confusion about who was, in fact, the creator of the show. The Twilight Zone‘s writer/creator Rod Serling was revealed early on as being involved in both the creation and development of The New People. In a January 1969 article about programs in development for ABC, Broadcasting magazine referred to the series as “Rod Serling’s The New People, being produced by Thomas-Spelling Productions,” and a critic for the Chicago Tribune, in his review of the first episode of the series, also stated the first script had been written by Serling, but when it debuted the credit for the first episode as broadcast was given to a writer named John Phillips. He was credited, however, with developing the show for television.

Serling must have bailed from the show pretty early on in the creative process, telling an L.A. Times critic, in a March 1969 interview, that it was “Aaron Spelling’s show.”

Serling: “He brought me the idea and I wrote the pilot script. Beyond that, I have nothing to do with it. The show is somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and San Francisco State. It may work. But not with me.”

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For 1969’s new fall season, viewers tuning into ABC expecting to watch shows they’d seen the previous year would have been surprised to note that the network had replaced their entire Monday night line-up with new shows, after ending the 1968-1969 season in a disappointing third place behind NBC’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In juggernaut, and CBS’s Gunsmoke and Here’s Lucy.

Gone were The Avengers (a British import), Peyton Place (which had been cut back to one half-hour episode a week in February of 1969), The Outcasts and The Big Valley, and in their place were four brand new series, all of them geared towards a younger demographic audience: The Music Scene, The New People, The Survivors (its full title was Harold Robbins’ The Survivors, an ambitious novel-for-television soaper starring Lana Turner and George Hamilton) and the anthologized romantic-themed comedy series Love, American Style. (The network decided to hold back the release of these last two for a full week, deciding not to risk diluting the premieres of both of these in the face of heavy competition from NBC that same week; back then, it seemed that the new fall TV shows all seemed to debut during the same week).

The first thing to note about the new Monday night lineup was that The Music Scene — a musical-variety show with a rotating stable of hosts that showcased contemporary rock and pop acts — began at 7:30pm instead of 8pm, and it was just 45 minutes long, not a full hour, and it aired back-to-back with The New People, which was also just 45 minutes per episode. This was a clever ploy ABC were trying out, believing the staggered start times would prevent viewers from switching over to another channel so that they would end up watching ABC’s shows all night.

Broadcasting called ABC’s Monday line-up the network’s “crap shoot, the big gamble, the go-for-broke night,” and it seemed that they were really focusing on The New People to anchor the evening. You can tell from its premise that ABC were trying to pull in a younger audience (the same way that they did with previous fall’s success, The Mod Squad), beginning with the show’s memorable theme song, performed by Kenny Rogers’ group, The First Edition, with words and music by Earle Hagen.

Introducing the show, an ABC press release proclaimed: “It is today, this time, this decade. But for a stranded group of young people on a remote island in the South Pacific, it is the Year One. Theirs, by a sudden thrust of circumstance, is a New World. Can they create a better one?”

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We’re introduced to “the new people” in the pilot episode, a group of roughly forty American college students on a goodwill tour in Southeast Asia, sponsored by the State Department, but the tour has been canceled because one of the students had disrupted it, feeling that what they were doing on the cultural exchange program was fake and a way to gloss over what was going on in the country with regards to the Vietnam War. The rest of the students had then become simply too radical and outspoken and the State Department ordered them back to the United States.

They were flying over the South Pacific when they ran into a heavy storm and crashed on an island named Bomao. The survivors then find that an entire town has been built on the island, an above-ground bombing test site, used at one time by the Atomic Energy Commission. There are buildings and dune buggies, food, weapons and other supplies, untouched and ready to be used. Other than the plane crash victims, they discover there were no people (just creepy crash test dummies) and quickly learn their chances of being rescued is slim because the plane’s radio has been destroyed. More importantly, nobody has any idea where they were — let alone how to contact help.

ZOOEY HALL;JILL JARESS;CARL REINDEL;ELIZABETH BERGER;MARK JENKINS

The characters didn’t stray too far from the stereotypical TV fare: there was the brainless football player, the outspoken female, the black student sick of being treated unfairly, and the stoic Marine with feelings, the only level head of the group. The only surviving adult was Mr. Hannichek (Richard Kiley), a mortally wounded State Department official who does his best to maintain order.

Of the forty students who took part in the cultural exchange tour, only six were featured regularly, including Stanley Gabriel (Dennis Olivieri), Ginny Loomis (Jill Jaress) and George Potter (Peter Ratray), who was once a ruthless marine, now a pacifist and the unofficial and sometimes protested leader of the new people. Rounding out the main cast were Susan Bradley (the lovely Tiffany Bolling), playing the disenfranchised daughter of a senator; Gene “Bones” Washington (David Moses) a man of color unable to foresee a better world for himself; and Robert “Bob” Lee (Zooey Hall), a loner from the South. Several other supporting characters were featured in numerous episodes, including Jack, Laura and Sally (Clive Clerk, Elizabeth Berger and Elaine Princi).

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These New People set out to create their own progressive, liberal, anti-establishmentarian society. Along the say, they deal with death, pregnancy, sexism, racism, drugs and violence. Episodes ranged fighting about building a shower for the women to a murder casting a shadow over this new society.

During the first episode, a racist student gleefully smothers a signal fire just as a rescue plan is flying over in order to trap a black student on the island forever, not realizing he is also stranding himself and everyone else. That rescue plane would report the island clear and no additional planes would be sent out.

Hannichek uses what little strength he has left to stop a mob from killing the racist student and then he dies (one annoyed critic later said that Kiley gave “what must have been the longest death scene in television history”). His death leaves the students alone on the island, forced to fend for themselves without the experience and advice of adults, yet eager to create a society free of the problems that had plagued the one they left behind.

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A two-part episode that aired in late November and early December involved power dynamics between the sexes: while one woman tries to keep a domineering man from forcing her to marry her, another accuses one of the men of rape. Problems with racism and sexism continually plagued the survivors — and brought up questions of law and societal respect again and again. In a typical episode, island rebel Stanley campaigns against building a water line for the girls’ showers fearing “an emerging power structure.” In another, electing an armed peace officer causes the New People to debate “law and order, gun control and the role of police in society.”

National TV critics weren’t particularly effusive in their praise for the show, some even calling it “preachy,” “a total bore,” or “loaded with slogans and abstractions masquerading as flesh-and-blood.” There were a few who were giving it a chance, but also warning that the “characters will need to display more humor and honor.” TV critic Jack Gould of the New York Times was a little more optimistic, noting that the series “began with many cliché contrivances but has an interesting potential.”

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Audiences didn’t seem to want to watch the new show, however, and ABC soon found themselves stuck in third place again, battling to find viewers who preferred watching Gunsmoke on CBS, leading into Here’s Lucy, or My World and Welcome To It over on NBC, which led into Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (which remained the top show on Monday nights once again). Just a few weeks after they debuted, all four of ABC’s Monday programs were in the bottom third of the Nielsen ratings, for the week October 6th through October 13th (when the third episode of The New People was broadcast) along with six additional ABC shows.

ABC decided to cut their losses pretty quick, and announced in early November that it was canceling both The Music Scene and The New People and moving The Survivors and Love, American Style to new nights.

The last episode of The New People aired on January 12, 1970.

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ABC replaced their Monday night lineup with It Takes A Thief and The ABC Monday Night Movie (formerly The ABC Wednesday Night Movie, moved to a new night), and the ratings began to pick up, so ABC must have been pleased. They locked The New People away in a vault somewhere and forgot about it. Pretty much everyone else did too.

Asked about the series years later, Aaron Spelling said, “It was one of our favorite shows to do, but so expensive.” Rod Serling seemed to have remained disgruntled about being involved with the show, and in 1970, he told an AP writer Jerry Buck that his pilot script was “carved up like beef.”

Serling: “I’m not cut out for series television. I can’t create anything excerpt anthology. Which makes me an anachronism since anthology is out now.”

In September 2012, the UCLA Film & Television Archive screened an un-aired 51-minute version of the pilot episode as part of a Rod Serling retrospective. This version of the pilot gave Serling written by credit, suggesting that ABC cut The New People from a 60-minute series to a 45-minute series, in the process “butchering” Serling’s script, he wanted nothing more to do with it

There was also a tie-novel, by the way, a kind of sci-fi spinoff called They Came From the Sea, written by by prolific TV tie-in novelist William John under the pseudonym Alex Steele, and published by Tempo Books, in September of 1969. The plot of the book takes place several weeks after the plane crash and starts out with a recap of the pilot, when three of the characters find a dead body on the beach. They can find no signs of what killed him until a crab-like creature with eyes on elongated stalks and thick black hair is spotted. The creature shoots out a lightning fast tongue which pokes some poison into one of the characters. This sets up a major plot point as the New People try to figure out how to set up a transfusion.

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Somewhat comically, a comic book version of The New People, published by Dell, was released right after the show left the air, but it lasted just two issues (January and May, 1970) before it, too, was canceled. They were later reprinted in Mexico in 1971 through publisher Organización Editorial Novaro as part of the TV Mundial (Worldwide TV) title.

In 2004, when The New People was brought to the attention of LOST writer/producer Damon Lindelof, he said: I wish we had known about it before, so we could’ve changed Charlie’s [Dominic Monaghan] band name to the New People instead of Driveshaft.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I remember this one was done in a 45-minute format, which made it useless for syndication salvage — all time slots on TV were 30 or 60-minutes.