The Great Unmade: Return of the Thing, Part 3


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Act 5

Wise finally gets info on what’s beneath the town: an old Cold War nuclear missile silo base which was decommissioned in the 60s. Sure enough, prowling around the tunnels, Little Bear and Gates find themselves in a giant, empty missile silo. They’re not alone as the coyote appears. And another, and another. There’s a dozen coyotes, a pack of Things, sprouting human faces and appendages as they start chasing the duo, who lay in best they can with what bullets and exploding arrows they have left. They start climbing a rickety ladder, but it gives way, leaving Gates high and dry as Little Bear slams into a platform below, breaking his leg. With the felled Things already reforming, the two finally share their names and a promise that Gates will return, to either save Little Bear or end him should it be too late.

On the base, Blackburn, Lukanov, and Webber are still struggling to come up with a new test as they go over all the past incidents. It’s decided they should try waking up the survivor, the horribly burned passenger from the plane crash. They do so, and he mumbles out what he saw, the man on the plane faking the heart attack, then springing into Thing form when he was zapped with defibrillator paddles. As the survivor suddenly crashes and receives the paddles himself, Lukanov also remembers the report of the coyote on the fence, and MacReady’s account of the defibrillator scene from 1982. The answer is electricity.

Pritchard and Dobson casually make their way to a guard station overlooking the helipad, but Pritchard’s attempt at small talk is interrupted by Dobson whipping out a gun and executing both guards. He drags Pritchard to a helicopter where they take the pilots hostage and order them to take off. Additional guards quickly catch on and run over. The pilots refuse to budge, so Pritchard shoots them too, drops the gun, and leaps out, claiming he was taken hostage by Dobson. The soldier dives into the guards and they all start wrestling over weapons, until one guard gets him with a taser. As the current flows into Dobson, he erupts into a Thing. He’s torched as Pritchard again realizes how badly he keeps fucking things up.

In the meeting hall, Samantha wakes to find herself being tied down to her cot. The townspeople have come for Michael, and Bob is with them, promising the boy will just be sealed in a locker for the time being. Sheriff Hayes steps in with a baseball bat, shaming everybody for their cowardice and paranoia. Bob reconsiders, but not the lead asshole, Harold, who beans Bob with a lead pipe before Hayes starts turning suspicion towards him. As Harold starts swinging at the crowd, the whole mob takes him down and starts beating the life out of him.

Act 6

Blackburn and Lukanov pull out another sample of Avery’s blood. The hot wire test is again negative. They ready an electrified coil next. In the isolation chamber holding Avery, Pritchard suddenly slips in through the airlock, admitting he set Avery up and offering to confess this to the others in exchange for full retirement benefits and a pardon. Blackburn and Lukanov are suddenly on the other side of the glass telling Pritchard to get out of there. For one last time, Pritchard is hit with just how badly he’s fucked up as Avery transforms into a Thing and kills him. Using Pritchard’s ID card, the Thing makes it through the airlock and starts banging through the locked outer door. Blackburn and Lukanov trigger the sprinklers in that room, turn on as many electric instruments as they can, and hop on a rubber mat on top of a table. In a nod to the 1951 Thing from Another World, the creature steps on the electrified floor and is zapped until it crumbles into a scorched ruin.

In the underground base, Little Bear has managed to splint his leg and is hobbling down a corridor. Hearing a noise, he whips his flashlight around to find a little bunny rabbit staring at him. Elsewhere, Gates is marking corners and attempting to find his way out. He ducks and hides as another raiding party of Thing civilians passes by, lugging stripped parts and metal sheeting.

In the meeting hall, the mob is covered in blood as they continue beating Harold to a pulp. Sheriff Hayes and Samantha grab up Michael and another boy, Taylor, and slip away to a restroom. Soldiers pour in but are attacked by the mob who quickly disarm them, kill a few, and take the rest hostage, with a dazed Bob as their reluctant leader. They hear glass breaking and capture Hayes and Samantha, but the boys were able to slip out.

As they slip around patrolling soldiers, Michael follows Taylor to a hole in the ground, which Taylor says is a spot he’s used to playing in. Michael enters, only to slide deep into the ground until he lands in another corridor of the old base. Sara is there, telling him everything is going to be okay. Taylor’s eyes open into fanged mouths as he helps her back Michael into a corner. Gates rounds a corner, blasting them with his rifle to hold them off long enough for Michael to get away. The convict and the boy start scaling up a hole. Soldiers on the surface tell them to freeze, then see the Things coming up right behind them. Gates and Michael are pulled free as the hole is filled with flame.

Pritchard comes to, finding himself strapped to a chair in the isolation room, with Blackburn, Webber, Lukanov, and Wise on a direct feed with the President as they demonstrate their new electricity test. Wires pump Pritchard full of electricity, and Avery’s head sprouts out. They keep the charge going, sprouting the man on the plane, the coyote, various animals. Lukanov’s wife Alina comes out, telling him it’s not too late for them to all become part of a peaceful new order, a collective consciousness where everyone can live forever. Lukanov keeps cranking in the volts, and it reverts back through Blair and Palmer from Carpenter’s flick, the alien corpses we saw on the ship, various creatures from unknown stars, until it settles on a single protoplasmic form. “What do you want?” “LIVE!” “What do you want of us?” “DIE!” With a final surge of electricity, it explodes into lifeless, primordial jelly dripping off the walls.

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Act 7

Blackburn finishes leading a series of tests through all of the base personnel, giving an orange badge to everyone who’s cleared. The President is satisfied with the results and orders their evacuation with two and a half hours left to go before the bomb drops. The nuke itself won’t be enough to take out the Things in the underground silo base as it was designed to survive WWIII, so they need to go down and plant thermobaric explosives which will flush out the tunnels by igniting the very air itself. Given his recent knowledge of the tunnels, Gates is given a presidential pardon in return for leading the mission. Joining him and all available troops are General Wise and Lukanov. The Russian scientist and Blackburn share a handshake of earned respect before parting ways.

While they head down into the tunnels and start following the markers Gates left behind, Blackburn heads to the meeting hall to settle things with the remaining people of Christmas, who are still holding seven soldiers hostage with Bob demanding everyone be set free. Blackburn drops the bombshell of the pending nuke and tells them they’re welcome to stay and go up as ash, but nobody’s leaving without going through the test. They ultimately surrender and, one by one, their blood is drawn and electrocuted.

In the tunnels, the lead group comes to an opening leading to a vast warhead staging area, where the 300+ Things of Christmas, plus what soldiers they’ve converted, have assembled dozens and dozens of tiny little flying saucers, each about four feet in diameter. Gates, Wise, and Lukanov figure the Things are planning a mass exodus, and that they’ll need to access the control room which opens the silos to get out. That’s the target objective. Unfortunately, a long snake neck with the tooth-eyed head of Taylor rises up and spots them (Gates: “You gotta be kidding”) and screeches out a warning to all the Things below. All 300 drop what they’re doing and arm up with guns, blades, clubs, and start sprouting exoskeletal armor and lethal insect limbs as they approach the tunnel. Stepping out from their center is Little Bear.

Gates straps on a flamethrower and walks out, buying some time as other teams move in by sharing a word with Little Bear, who goes on some more about the skinwalkers and how they’ve turned out to be the balance he always longed for. Gates doesn’t buy it, and with reinforcements arriving, the war begins. Soldiers tear into them with bullets, flame, and bombs, but Things fight back, with weapons and bodyparts that scurry to a life of their own. Even adorable little Ginnie is taking troops out with a massive M-16 in her arms until Gates opens up on her with the torch.

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Act 8

In the meeting hall, every remaining civilian is assigned a number. As Blackburn calls numbers out, individuals have flamethrowers trained on them as they’re separated from the group. Bob. Samantha. Michael. Others. Sheriff Hayes and those who aren’t called edge away, refusing to help as the named are taken outside. The named freak out, sob, panic, huddle together as they’re rounded up in the square and an execution squad approaches… then passes right by and lights up the hall, with Hayes and his group shrieking into Things as the building burns around them. In a town of just over 300 people, only sixteen humans remain. Bob, Samantha, Michael, and the others are ushered onto planes and evacuated along with all personnel. With less than 20 minutes left till the big one drops, Blackburn orders her plane to wait behind.

The battle is still raging fierce below ground. Gates and Little Bear are in a standoff, with Gates finally torching the Thing. But Little Bear’s head pops free and sprouts legs, just like the headcrab in Carpenter’s film. It barks out a shriek, and all around the battle, the heads of dozens of things pop free and scuttle away, swarming into the tiny flying saucers which they’re now the perfect size for. As the silo door opens, the saucers lift into the air.

Soldiers start picking off as many as they can as Wise and Lukanov lead a charge on the silo control room. Wise is cut down as he tosses one of the charges to Lukanov. The Russian scientist makes it into the room and finds Sara at the controls. She turns on him, but he casually tasers her and walks by as she drops to the floor. He shuts the silo door just before any can escape, and saucers crash and rain down to the floor. Except for one, which wobbles a bit, then heads out the tunnel through which Gates and Little Bear first entered the facility.

As Things tear through the control room door, Lukanov calmly pulls up a chair, pulls out the photo of his grandson, smiles, and blows himself and the control room to hell with the charge. Gates and the remaining soldiers tear ass out of there, making it to the surface just before their charges also go off. Half the town sinks in as plumes of flame geyser from silo caps and cave entrances. Blackburn thinks she sees a glint of silver zipping away, but it’s gone before she can be certain.

Sound drops out of the remaining scenes as “Gayane’s Adagio”, a song Lukanov used to hum to his grandson, plays over the remainder:

Gates and the few remaining survivors hop on board and Blackburn clears her plane to take off. As they fly away, the bomb drops, and we linger on the sight of Christmas, New Mexico, eaten by a flash of light and transforming into a blooming mushroom cloud.

Weeks later, Blackburn is testifying before a congressional hearing, and reiterates the results of Blair and Lukanov. If even just one cell of the creature escaped, all of humanity will be wiped out within three years.

As her testimony plays out, we cut to the crowds of New York’s Times Square. Among the flood of humanity is a familiar man: Frank Little Bear.

The End

So why wasn’t this miniseries made? I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any quotes yet from Darabont, Johnson, or anyone else involved revealing what actually happened. It was announced, then took a year for both episodes to be written. There was a reel of production art by Vincent Guastini’s VGP effects, who have done creature work for the likes of Super Mario Bros., Thinner, Dogma, and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. The reel also includes some early, unused designs for the prequel movie, but sadly none of the art seems to correspond to specific sequences in the script. They’re good, just general Thing concepts.

Otherwise, word of this project just went silent. Part of it might be that the SCI FI mini-series had fallen into a bit of a slump at the time. The year this was announced saw the debut of The Legend of Earthsea, which was quickly reviled and dismissed by fans and original author Ursula K. Le Guinn. That was followed over the next two years by Triangle and Lost Room, neither of which did particularly well. It wasn’t until the end of 2007 that the format hit a bit of a resurgence due to Tin Man, but as I’ll get to in a moment, by then it was too late. In fact, looking at the seven other miniseries I listed earlier which were announced around the same time as Return of the Thing, only three have gone on to be released. Triangle I just mentioned. The Scott Bros Andromeda Strain debuted in 2008, though it was shifted over to sister channel A&E. The Dresden Files was reworked as an ongoing series, but crashed and burned, and is also dismissed by fans of its original author. Red Mars shifted over to Spike where it keeps flipping on again, off again, and every now and then we hear someone else giving Ringworld a go. The Spielberg/Bohem Nine Lives was briefly retooled for NBC before once again being shelved as multiple similar shows about past lives and resurrections beat it to the punch. The Twelve was going to be Martin Scorsese’s first major work for television, but he instead moved on to Boardwalk Empire.

SCI FI has still had success, as the ongoing Battlestar Galactica series finally launched in 2005, shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13 would hit in the following years, and Stargate didn’t finally wrap until the decade came to a close. But this is also the period that Wrestling began airing on the network, Ghost Hunters led to a wave of questionable imitators and spinoffs, and more and more focus was being put on the SCI FI Original movies being produced by Asylum and others. When the channel was finally rebranded to Syfy in 2009, it felt like the final box loaded up as The Sci-Fi Channel of old moved off into the distance and this new tenant with a similar name seemed eager to give its audience anything but actual science fiction. Things have started to come back around, but the later half of the 2000s was a time of sour tastes and alienated viewers, and limited success at branching into new markets.

Universal might also be a big part of why Return of the Thing didn’t move forward. In 2004, producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman scored big for the studio with Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, and they eagerly began pursuing the Thing property in the hopes of relaunching it as a franchise. Universal sat on it for a couple years as the miniseries went through initial development, but by the end of 2006, it was announced that Ronald D. Moore, the head writer/producer of Battlestar Galactica, was already at work on a script for a film reboot of The Thing. Over a year would again pass before it was clarified as being a prequel and Moore had moved on from the project, but the ball was already rolling, and come 2011, David Foster and Universal had their relaunch of The Thing in theaters. And sure enough, we covered it on an episode of Masters of Carpentry.

The end of 2006 also saw word that Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist had finally gotten the greenlight, and he had the film out by the following year. In our podcast, we do hold up The Mist as a “what if” sample of what parts of this miniseries could have looked like had Darabont in fact been the one to direct it. Not just in terms creature attacks, but building dread, the military suddenly moving in, people turning on one another. It should be noted though, that between Return of the Thing and The Mist, Darabont directed an episode of The Shield which introduced him to the guerilla handheld cinematography of Ron Schmidt, and the two began a collaboration which continues to this day, so had he directed Return of the Thing, it’s unlikely it would have been done with the same technique. Anyways, Darabont has continued to have mixed success in his career. All of the projects I mentioned earlier that he’s repeatedly tried to get off the ground keep coming up again and again, yet none actually get made. It’s been nine years since his last film, The Mist, and while his pilot for The Walking Dead is rightfully acclaimed, it’s largely been overshadowed by his notorious firing from the show and the series of bitter lawsuits which are still circling through the courts. He also created/wrote/produced/directed the series Mob City, but that was cancelled after just six episodes. He worked on the scripts for Godzilla and The Huntsman: Winter’s War (which he was also originally up to direct), but didn’t receive any credit on either. It’s been a rough decade for the once lauded filmmaker.

David Leslie Johnson, on the other hand, has seen his star continue to rise in the time since Return of the Thing. The Black List is an annual industry report of the most talked about spec scripts written each year. In 2007, Johnson’s screenplay for Orphan appeared on the list, and was filmed and released in 2009. That same year, he again appeared on the list for his script Red Riding Hood, which hit theaters in 2011. He penned a couple episode of The Walking Dead, but didn’t stick with the show after Darabont was sacked, and worked again with Frank on a couple episodes of Mob City. He was among the handful of writers on Wrath of the Titans (which I still enjoy, dammit). 2016 will see the release of both The Conjuring 2 and Unforgettable for him, and he’s currently attached to Aquaman, Dungeons & Dragons, and another reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. As I said in the podcast, Return of the Thing is the type of script which will instantly make me a fan of a writer, and he has yet to let me down with what I’ve seen since. You want to perk my ears on a project? Get David Leslie Johnson to write it.

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And that’s it. This project is dead and shows no signs of life, and I sincerely doubt that’ll change in the future. Further nails in the coffin were the prequel film and its failure with both critics and ticket sales. And Syfy’s original series Helix, produced by Ronald D. Moore, which had a similar setup, many suspiciously similar sequences, even a character who’s basically Blackburn, before it veered off in a bizarro yet amusing direction. Also, there’s that Andromeda Strain miniseries. In their updating of Michael Crichton’s thriller, they added political backstabbing, attempts to weaponize the virus, nukes, the virus being intelligent. Ultimately, Return of the Thing took too long to get off the ground, focus shifted before it could move forward, and lesser things have since come around which beat it to the punch.

That said, it would still make a hell of a comic book series. Just sayin’, Dark Horse.

One last time, if you started with this article, please feel free to follow it up with our podcast discussion of the script at Masters of Carpentry, and chime in with your comments on how you feel the mini-series could have turned out had it moved forward.

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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