This One Goes Out to All the Ladies...
Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 1, Episode 4: "Women of the Prehistoric Planet"
The 1960 were a weird time to science fiction. That's the best statement I can think to make for films like Women of the Prehistoric Planet (and all its various ilk). It seems like everyone wanted to have eyes for the future, to see the promise of space travel and what it would mean for humanity. There was hope, there was daring do, there was the thought that we'd go out and colonize the galaxy much like we (as in white people) had colonized the Earth. That was to be our future.
Very few films or shows, though, really knew how to depict that in any kind of convincing manner. I've happily thrown shade at the original Star Trek for all the goofy storytelling and weird places that show would go, but that series still holds up, in a lot of ways, as a series that understood something of what it would take to be a space-faring society in the distant future. Movies like Women of the Prehistoric Planet do not. They're just bad sci-fi.
But before we get into all the issues with the story, let's clear up one thing right off the bat. Despite the film saying there are "Women" on this "Prehistoric Planet", this really isn't the case. There's one woman who actually goes to the planet, one of the crew members of a rescue ship (Linda, played by Irene Tsu), and the rest of the people that are on this planet are men. Cave men, yes, but hardly enough to qualify for actual "women". Anyone expecting a ship to crash land on a wild world and for the crew to be greeted by an Amazonian-style society were lied to by the title of the film (and the promotional posters).
Instead we have the story of a fleet of ships traveling from the planet Centauria. The Centaurians (all Asian actors) are making a peace treaty with the Humans (all White actors), and the vessels are traveling back to the Human home-world to sign the agreement and enroll some of these Centaurians in the humans' space academy. However, one of the vessels flies off course near a uninhabited planet. As we soon learn, the Centaurians on that ship doubt the motives of the Human fleet and thing they'll be enslaved by the Humans. They try for a mutiny but only succeed in forcing the ship down to the planet.
The rest of the fleet, led by Admiral David King (Wendell Corey) turn around and head back to this prehistoric world to search out the rest of their crew. However, due to the fact that time dilates near light speed, by the time the crew gets back to the crashed ship, 18 years have passed on the prehistoric world. The original crew most had died of by that point, but one man still lives here, Tang (Robert Ito), a child of two of the survivors of the crashed ship, now an adult man. Linda, one of the Centaurians, leaves the Admiral's ship to explore the planet, finds Tang, and falls in love. But there are other, savage men on the planet, and Linda and Tang will have to battle them while finding a way back to the ship before they get left behind.
Women of the Prehistoric Planet is a goofy movie. The production design is very cheesy, with a ship interior that looks like it was trying for "futuristic" but managed to achieve "what a 12 year old thinking the interior of a submarine looks like." It has a basic understanding of vessels but doesn't really know how that would apply to advanced technology or running a vessel through actual space. It's a bad kind of cheesy, something where you wonder how anyone could have thought, "this is what space travel will look like."
It doesn't help that this film came out literal months before Star Trek, a show that greatly redefined how to to depict space travel. When you compare that show against Women of the Prehistoric Planet, the difference is night and day. While the production design of Star Trek hasn't aged well in comparison to the shows that came after it (even in its own franchise) it still presents a compelling vision of actual space travel. This film does not and you have to wonder if they design of the film would have been different if it had come out even a year later.
Not that the show depicts anything well. It's not just the ship itself that suffers but also all the scenes filmed "on" the planet. That's because everything was done with cheap, obviously fake sets on sound-stages. Every set-piece is very obviously the size of a small room and the crew has to try and play against that, ignoring the cheap sets and rear projection matte paintings beyond. It... doesn't go well. It just looks bad, start to finish, and any hope the production team had of convincingly portraying this story goes out the window almost as soon as the film begins.
It doesn't help that the acting is universally bad in this film. Wendell Corey delivers everything in a weird, muted mutter that makes it hard to understand anything he says. Tsu barely acts at all, delivering all her lines like she was hit on the head and stunned before being shoved out on set. And Ito's Tang is barely a character, although he is at least saddled with a terrible accent that doesn't involve any pronouns at all. The rest of the crew is just generic and boring, forgettable almost from start to finish.
The film tries to have a message, about judgment and fairness and equality. It goes for a morality play of sorts, casting all the Humans as White and all the Centaurians as Asian, but it also ends up feeling very racist as it tries to tell its story of two cultures coming together. It has backwards ideas about how the two cultures are supposed to come together (as in, "join with us and you can be Humans too!"). Worse, it's basically all the Centaurian characters that die over the course of the story with the last two survivors, Linda and Tang, getting left behind on the planet. Well, okay, one Asian character survives: the cook. That's a very bad look, movie.
And that doesn't even get into the gender politics of the film. All the command crew are men, and they're also the only ones "allowed" off the ship when they land on the prehistoric planet. The women all work in communications, the switchboard of the ship essentially, and the few times they actually manage to leave the planet they're immediately reduced to the roles of damsels in distress. The movie may have wanted to be a morality play of sorts but it ends up quite the opposite. It fails at it, hard.
Finally, there's the ending which we simply can't ignore. Linda and Tang are left on the planet to start their own colony (I hope they're able to breed with the local cavemen because otherwise their colony is going to die of real quick from inbreeding and disease). As the ship pulls away from the planet, never to visit again, the Admiral states that the planet is now colonize, not just a planet with a scientific designation but a "blue planet". And then he names it "Earth" and as we pull out we see that, yes, it's our world. Just... really? This is the big twist we've apparently been building to (except not really because there's never any hint for it). It's a garbage tag ending that's laughable for the period (and only makes the ending of the mid-2000s Battlestar even worse as it also pulled that trick).
This movie is just wretchedly bad, start to finish. The robots and Joel do have a grand time tearing it apart, and for a Joel episode (which I always find to be slower than the Mike era) it's pretty good. But this is the kind of film that even with people laughing and talking over it, the film still just isn't very fun to watch. This is a decent episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix. but a very bad film.