The Great Unmade: Return of the Thing, Part 1

For those who don’t know, for a little over two years, I’ve been producing and co-hosting a podcast series called Masters of Carpentry, examining the works of John Carpenter film-by-film. It’s taken up quite a bit of my creative time and energies, hence me dropping off on contributing articles to Cinetropolis (especially the ponderous and poetic wanderings of a certain other filmmaker), but I’ve been looking for the proper way to explore various unproduced projects related to Carpenter and his oeuvre, and Tim was kind enough to tell me I could host them here. I’m not sure how often I’ll post, but I’ll run out of John Carpenter’s features come summer of ’17, and I’m committed to getting all of these stray works covered within a year after that, as I’ve got another director lined up I’d like to take a similar journey through.

Most of these I’ll cover in a straight article sharing my thoughts, though there’s a few where I’ll save my critical views for an adjoining podcast, like I’m doing here with Return of the Thing. In these cases, I’ll still fill the essays with as much production history and detailed synopses as I can to save myself from having to record and edit that all as audio. Seriously, it’s not that fun to just read into a microphone by myself for half an hour. I should note I’ve previously done an audio essay (hence my aversion to future ones) on Prey, a great survival horror script Carpenter co-wrote in the late 70s for director Bob Clark, which unfortunately floundered when the vaguely similar The Hills Have Eyes beat it to the punch.

Leading into Return of the Thing, as this is a UK-based site, I feel I should start with a few words about what we in the US have come to know as Syfy. It didn’t always go by such a spelling, which was later adopted purely for trademark purposes. Debuting in September of 1992, The Sci-Fi Channel was a tiny sibling of cable mainstay USA Network, which at the time was jointly owned by Paramount and Universal. Sci-Fi quickly became a haven of geeks, with their reruns of classic (and not so classic) scifi/fantasy and horror television, marathon blocks of Streamline anime releases, a weekly genre news show complete with video editorials by Harlan Ellison, and a website called The Dominion which became the main source of news for genre media before going on to host original fiction and some amazing audio dramas (Seeing Ear Theater, I highly recommend tracking it down). It took a few years to stumble through their first stabs at original programming with Mission Genesis (aka Deepwater Black) and First Wave, and they quickly became known as a license rescue dump to dole out final seasons for shows like Sliders, Sightings, Andromeda, and famously Mystery Science Theater 3000. They were also known for a syndication package they signed with MGM, making them the basic cable home for Stargate SG-1, The Outer Limits, and Poltergeist: The Legacy after episodes of each debuted on the premium pay channel Showtime.

After the instant cult debut of Farscape in 1999, Bonnie Hammer became general manager of the station and ushered them into the new millennium. She’s since become one of the most powerful people in television as chairman of NBC Universal, and her rise to president of the Sci-Fi Channel (by then re-named SCI FI) broke it out into the mainstream, despite continuing to struggle with show which rarely broke beyond a first season. The big successes of the first half of the decade were the 2003 shock reality series Scare Tactics, Invisible Man which ran from 2000 for two seasons before a failed deal with UPN crashed it, and the roaring success of Stargate SG-1, which SCI FI fully took over production of for its sixth season in 2002, then ran it for another five while adding on the sibling shows Atlantis and Universe, as well as a couple tv movies. Of mixed success was what ultimately befell Farscape, one of the network’s most famous creations, which was abruptly cancelled just as it was prepping for season 5. The reasons why have never fully been made clear, but that sudden yank, as well the lukewarm feelings towards the compressed follow-up miniseries The Peacekeeper Wars, did sour some memories for an entire generation of viewers.

One of the other big ventures of this era were miniseries, directly taking the reins from the wave of fantastical classics NBC adapted throughout the 90s with Hallmark and Jim Henson Studios. Remember Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Merlin, Don Quixote? There’s a direct line between those and the SCI FI minis, many of which would also come to be supervised by the Sr. & Jr. Halmi’s of RHI Entertainment. The first big production under Hammer’s reign was Dune in 2000, and this lead to Firestarter: Rekindled, The Peacekeeper Wars, Children of Dune, Riverworld, and Battlestar Galactica, which itself led into the ongoing series which infamously became the spearhead icon for the next generation of the network. Their grandest mini-series was, by far, the 20-hour, Emmy-winning, multi-generational saga Taken, by Steven Spielberg and Leslie Bohem, which is probably best remembered these days for having launched Dakota Fanning into stardom at age eight.

Before Battlestar Galactica fully launched at the start of 2005, 2004 was a transitional year for SCI FI. Stargate SG-1 was already in its 8th season, with Atlantis debuting alongside it. Andromeda was their latest license rescue as they brought the syndicated show to a close with a 5th season. The gonzo cult cartoon Tripping the Rift debuted after the original short had proven popular a few years prior. And Ghost Hunters launched, which soon brought with it a wave of lower-budget “reality” investigation shows which have also become a signature of the network.

2004 was also the year NBC Universal officially formed, leading to Hammer’s promotion to president of both SCI FI and USA, with BBC vet Dave Hower taking over as SCI FI’s general manager. A whole wave of upcoming miniseries were announced, including the Scott Bros. production of The Andromeda Strain, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Gale Anne Hurd’s production of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Martin Scorsese’s holiday apocalypse The Twelve, Dean Devlin and Bryan Singer’s The Triangle, Nicolas Cage’s production of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, and Nine Lives, another 12-hour saga from Spielberg and Bohem all about past lives.

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(illustration by Benjamin J. Colon, co-host of this article’s adjoining podcast)

And among these was The Thing. AKA, The Thing 2. AKA, Return of the Thing. They never fully settled on the title, and even the first and second halves of the scripts can’t agree on which it was going to be.

Returning from John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing was producer David Foster, this time as executive producer. Getting his start in the industry as a publicist for Steve McQueen, Foster went on to great success as a producer of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Getaway (both versions), The Drowning Pool, The Mean Season, Short Circuit 1 & 2, Gleaming the Cube, The River Wild, The Mask of Zorro, and The Core. It was Foster and his former partner Lawrence Turman who first brought the rights for the original novella “Who Goes There?” to Universal in the 1970s, and Foster felt the time had come to do something more with the property.

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Also signing up as executive producer (though it’s unclear if also as director) was Frank Darabont. After some oddball writing credits in the 80s with co-writer/director Chuck Russell (The Blob, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Fly 2), Darabont shifted to television where he wrote for George Lucas’s The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and helmed the television film Buried Alive. He suddenly shot into the spotlight with his acclaimed screenplay adaptation of Frankenstein (a version of which was soon helmed by star Kenneth Branagh), then making his feature directorial debut with the Oscar-winning Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption. What followed was a period of sporadic output and false starts as another 5 years went by before his next film, The Green Mile, was released to a mild if respectful reception, then 2001 saw his first outright bomb with The Majestic. Leading up to 2004, he was in a bit of a career lull. His attempts to first write, then produce, then direct an adaptation of Doc Savage with Arnold Schwarzenegger had gone nowhere. His rewrite of Spielberg’s Minority Report had gone uncredited, and the script he and the director spent over a year developing for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Gods had been unceremoniously dumped by George Lucas in a move which soured relationships to this day. His reunion with Chuck Russell to adapt the comic Way of the Rat fell victim to CrossGen’s collapse as a publisher. D.J. Caruso’s The Salton Sea, which Darabont had produced, gained some acclaim but little business. His long-gestating attempts to adapt Fahrenheit 451, The Mist, Tokyo Rose, Rivers in the Desert, Runt of the Litter, and Mine spun on the plates of studio turnaround, where they’ve mostly continued to spin despite fresh announcements every now and then.

The big bright spot, coming just one month before Return of the Thing was announced, was the release of Michael Mann’s Collateral, which Darabont co-wrote and executive produced. It wasn’t a huge hit, but gained instant acclaim and a breakout Oscar nomination for Jamie Foxx.

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Writing the script for Return of the Thing was David Leslie Johnson, who had zilch to his name at the time. Despite writing his first script at age 19, Johnson wouldn’t slip into the industry until years later when he scored a gig as a production assistant on The Shawshank Redemption, which was shooting in his hometown in Ohio. He and Darabont forged a quick bond, with Johnson becoming Frank’s personal assistant for the next five years, during which Darabont mentored Johnson’s development as a writer. It culminated in 1999, when the assistant job ended and a new chapter began as Johnson became one of the writers for Darabont’s attempted Doc Savage film, instantly putting him in an A-list position on a potential blockbuster. It never came to be, nor did a pilot Johnson wrote for Stan Lee, but he still had the backing of Darabont who brought him on board this new opportunity.

Now before I get into the script itself, let me restate that I’m keeping most of my commentary on its quality light as most of that can be heard in our episode at Masters of Carpentry. That said, I will reveal up front that I very much enjoy this script, and I really wish we could have seen what it would have become on screen. Seriously, it’s pretty easy to find online and is absolutely worth tracking down for a read.

Part 1: Exposure

Under the title Return of the Thing, this is a first draft dated February 11, 2005, roughly five months after the series was first announced to the press.

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Act 1

We open in familiar territory: the final scene of John Carpenter’s The Thing, where MacReady and Childs meet up again in the smoldering remains of the camp, eyeing each other suspiciously as they share a bottle of booze. Cut to six months later, and Mac and Childs are still there, dead, frozen solid, and half buried in snow as helicopters and snowcats finally move in. It’s the Russians, under the leadership of scientist spouses Alina and Yuri Lukanov. They want first dibs on anything potentially interesting before making any calls to the Americans and Norwegians, and it’s not long before their search leads them to the wreck of the alien saucer. As they lead a team down through the hatch, we jump forward 23 years.

In a clever spin on the characters Richard Jaeckel and Charles Martin Smith played in Starman (the first of several spins on other past Carpenter films), we meet the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Peter Avery and his undersecretary Roger Pritchard. Pritchard is being called in (helicopter on his front lawn and everything) because the Russians have contacted us with the revelation that a scientist boarded a commercial flight between the two countries while carrying a weaponized strain of smallpox. They also bring Dr. Anne Blackburn of the Center for Disease Control in the loop as jets are scrambled to reroute the airliner.

On board, we focus on a nervous man, a man we first saw 23 years ago as a young scientist among the expedition in Antarctica. As he notices the plane changing course, he suddenly lurches into what appears to be a heart attack. The flight crew tries to resuscitate him, breaking out defibrillator paddles. After a couple of hits… we cut to the cockpit as an explosion of screams and bizarre animal noises roar through the door behind the pilots. Looking through their peephole, one pilot is sucked through, and the trailing jetfighters can do nothing but watch as the plane careens down and crashes in the New Mexico desert.

In said desert, Frank Little Bear, a Navajo farmer, witnesses the crash and moves in on the wreckage, witnessing a coyote being yanked into shadows by a “flower of flesh”. A seemingly identical coyote emerges soon after, looks at Little Bear, then lopes away.

Act 2

In Russia, an aged Yuri Lukanov is telling everything he knew this would happen. His superiors rush him to an airport where he’s being sent to the US to assist. Accompanying him is Petrovsky, a hard-nose Security Service agent who insists they maintain the cover story of smallpox so as not to embarrass their country.

While Little Bear, now armed with a rifle, follows the coyote tracks in the desert, we start meeting the people of the nearby hamlet of Christmas, New Mexico as most go about their daily activities while the volunteer fire fighter team scrambles to follow Sheriff Hayes to the wreck. Central to it all are Bob, leader of the firefighters, an eager young boy named Michael who often sees things others refuse to take seriously (some shades of Invaders From Mars), and his mother Sara, who’s overworked as a waitress in the town diner. As often happens, Michael’s babysitter has bailed, so Sara leaves him with her sister Samantha, Bob’s wife, who lets him play with the neighbor girl Ginnie.

Avery, Pritchard, and Blackburn – quickly joined by epidemic specialist Nick Webber – are coordinating resources to set up shop in an old military base not far from the crash. It’ll take a few hours to move everything in, and they keep their fingers crossed that first responders are prepped to avoid contamination.

They aren’t, as Bob, the Sheriff, and other volunteer firefighters are digging through and hosing down the wreckage, their idea of a decon station being a kiddie pool and a box of Clorox laundry detergent. As they crack into the passenger cabin, reeking with smoldering bodies, one suddenly lurches to life. He’s covered in burns and they start digging him out.

That’s when the cavalry arrives as a fleet of blackhawks swoop in and survey the area, military semi-trucks circle it off, and hazmat suited soldiers keep their rifles trained on the civilians.

Watching it all from a nearby cliff is the coyote.

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Act 3

The entire area is quickly locked down, with air space rerouted and two perimeter rings established: one of hazmat soldiers, another several miles out of local cops, none of which have been fully briefed on what everyone is dealing with, as encapsulated by Sheriff Hayes and Pritchard hashing it out over how the scene of the crash was handled. The survivor of the plane is comatose, and everyone is testing negative for smallpox, so even the military doesn’t fully know what to look for, and it’s not being helped by Pritchard starting a few pissing matches to assert his authority as the person who’s supposedly in charge, despite everyone continuing to defacto their reports to Avery.

During this, Avery is none too pleased when Blackburn digs through Lukanov’s files and discovers he’s not a specialist in treating diseases, but rather a military scientist who manufactured them during the waning days of the cold war. On a video conference with Lukanov while he’s mid-flight, he’s honest about this and tries to be open about the real danger, but he’s constantly blocked by Protevsky who keeps spinning the smallpox story. When they learn the plane crashed, Protevsky instantly cuts the feed, arguing everything must have died in the explosion. Against Lukanov’s objections, Protevsky turns the plane around.

In the town of Christmas, people are starting to get fidgety. Cell phone and radio signals are being jammed. People are taking notice of news reports about the police perimeter, and nobody’s heard back yet from the volunteer firefighters. On the flip side, Luis, owner of the Atomic Bar & Grille where Sara works, is having a field day prepping for what he figures will be a rush of soldiers and cops who will need a place to eat.

It’s at the diner that we meet one of our other leads, another admirably appropriate throwback to past Carpenter characters. In the spirit of Napoleon Wilson and Snake Plissken, we have Hollis Gates, a smartass con chained in the back of US Deputy Marshall Mitch Brenner’s car. Suffice it to say, the two don’t get along. Brenner’s just passing through on his way to his prisoner’s arraignment hearing, but they find themselves trapped in the town by the road blocks.

Throughout this, Little Bear has continued tracking the coyote, but hasn’t caught up to it yet as, in a momentary mass of tentacles, it’s added an adorable bunny rabbit to its ranks, and much is made of the eerie sight of predator and prey moving as a team as they make their way to the outskirts of Christmas. Remember little Michael and Ginnie playing in the back yard? Well guess why she goes into the kitchen to ask her mom if she can have some carrots.

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Act 4

Michael is called inside for lunch, and we learn about Dale, Sara’s boyfriend, whom the boy is not a fan of. Outside, Ginnie suddenly finds herself surrounded by an entire handful of rabbits, all staring at her silently.

Pritchard finally makes his politics known, as he feels threatened by Avery and wants to undercut the Secretary’s authority in any way he can. He openly refuses to listen to orders, and leaks info to the press while withholding it from Avery, which leads to an embarrassing press conference. Webb and his team have also found the remains of the Thing within the airplane wreckage, and take the charred mass of flesh, teeth, and tentacles to a lab where they draw samples and dig into a messy autopsy.

On his plane, Lukanov acts ill so he can get at his bag, but ends up pulling a gun, shooting Pretovsky in the head, and taking the remaining crew and guards hostage as he orders the pilot to return their course to New Mexico. Reopening the call to Avery’s command station, Lukanov is bluntly up front about what he’s done, but says it was necessary because the smallpox lie could endanger every living thing on Earth, and all he asks is to be able to safely land so he can help them destroy this organism.

At the Atomic Bar & Grille, Luis’s hopes for a boost in business haven’t panned out, despite him constantly trying to sell people on his signature fried egg sandwiches. Heading out to check his chicken coop, Luis finds a hole in the fence and a coyote among the birds. He chases the animal off, but is surprised none of the chickens appear to be missing or dead. He briefly crosses paths with the pursuing Little Bear, who raises some suspicions about the coyote and ties it to his tribe’s legends about “skinwalkers” before continuing on his way.

Luis heads back in with a fresh basket of eggs, sending Sara home early despite her protests against another loss of pay, so it’s just Luis and an old regular named Shiner. As Luis plops one egg after another on a frying pan, one suddenly screams and rapidly morphs the moment it hits the hot metal, and the growing creature runs around the ceiling before attacking Shiner. As Luis digs out his shotgun, the remaining eggs burst into another Thing. Luis blasts them, but the blood and tissue which sprays his face begins burrowing into his skin as he screams.

(CONTINUED IN PART 2)

Stills in this article are from The Andromeda Strain (2008), Assault on Precinct 13 (1975), Helix (2014-15), The Mist (2008), Starman (1984), and The Thing (1982).

Noel Thingvall and his various blogs and podcasts can be found at The Noel Network.

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