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This month’s release from the blog Cinematicshadows is a pretty special one. The blog’s author, a fan of the ’70s kung-fu movie called “PARAGON”, released a restored version of the 1974 film recently. In 1974, the film was released in Hong Kong, but it had several major flaws.
Originally planned for the United Artists film studio, the film was eventually distributed by the independent studio Troma Entertainment in 1974. Paragon was directed by Roberta Findlay, and stars Susan Morrow and Hope McLeod. It is a parody of the comic book and superhero genres, with a superhero named Paragon, played by Morrow, who battles evil with the assistance of her sidekick, The Kid. The film was given a limited theatrical release and was never sold on video.
When I first started blogging about Star Trek fan films, the very first blog I posted was about the 1974 fan production PARAGON’S PARAGON by showrunner JOHN COSTENTINO. Some people mistakenly think this is the very first Star Trek fan film, but films like this have been around since Star Trek TOS was still on the tube. I recently discovered the remains of a 1967 silent film called THE THING IN THE CAVE, which used real props and tunics apparently borrowed from the Paramount set! In 1968, a film student approached JEAN RODDENBERRY about making a Star Trek fan film. Gene was all for it, but a lawyer from the Paramount studio refused.
But in 1974, Star Trek was very different. The original series hadn’t aired for half a decade, and although a small, well-realized animated series of 22 episodes featuring the voices of most of the cast of the original series aired in 1973-74, there wasn’t much going on with Star Trek at the time. I don’t have to say anything. In the early 1970s, TOS reruns became more frequent on television, Star Trek conventions began to become popular in 1972, attracting many thousands of fans, and the word Trekkie made its way into the vernacular (usually to describe an obsessive, nerdy fan who uses these terms as colloquialisms).
But in 1974, Trekkie fans are still hungry for new Star Trek material. Literature on Star Trek is limited to adaptations of episodes by author James Blish in anthologies of novels and an original story titled Spock Must Die! published by Bantam Books in 1970. Since there were no other original stories about Kirk, Spock, Bonesm and the crew, the Trekkings created their own underground fanfiction with typewriters and distributed their original stories from person to person at conventions. Much of the fan paraphernalia from the mid-1970s, such as the plans and technical manual for the U.S.S. Enterprise, wasn’t available for a year or more.
In 1974, a layman from Warren, Michigan named John Costentino ventured into this Star Trek content desert. John was not only an artist, engineer and amateur filmmaker, but also a big fan of the Trekkie series. And he made a film that may not be the first Star Trek fan film, but certainly the first great Star Trek fan film with elaborate sets, costumes, lighting, makeup, a 65-page script and a running time of 100 minutes. John spent nearly $2,000 of his own money on the project (which is about $11,000 to $15,000 today!), half of which was spent on making sets, such as the replica bridge, transporter room, and elevator of the Enterprise.
Originally shot in Super 8, the film was shown at conventions for several years and eventually transferred to a limited number of VHS tapes. But over the years, this important part of Star Trek fan history has been forgotten. That’s what we thought.
In April 2012, a fan with a VHS copy of the film posted 8 minutes and 39 seconds of Paragon on YouTube, but the spoken dialogue has disappeared, apparently lost in time. Instead, background music from Star Trek accompanied the limited footage. And that’s all that was left of Paragon for the fans….. until the spring of 2021, when the same fan, ROBERT LONG II, unexpectedly released two 15-minute videos with restored sound! It’s still not a complete movie, it only contains the first 25 minutes plus 5 minutes of future views. But it’s much more (and stronger!) than what we had before. You can take a look here:
I met Robert and did an interview with him, which I’ll share with you next time in part two. He explains where and how he got a copy of the first generation film and how he helped restore the soundtrack. But first, I’d like to republish most of my original post on the background of Paragon’s creation, based on a detailed blog written by John Constantino years ago, as well as other background information I’ve gathered from various sources…..
Before embarking on what would become his work, John made a series of short comedic films (12 to 30 minutes). But Star Trek was his love, and he spent months researching materials and prices, designing and building sets and props, collecting costume designs (and having his seamstress mother sew them!), making prosthetics for Klingons, Organics, and Vulcans (it took an hour and a half to two hours to prepare each alien), and even designing and printing his own enlarged slides for the bridge panel screens.
In addition to the bridge (built in John’s basement, of course!), he and his friends built the transporter room, the ship’s mess hall, the officers’ quarters, the briefing room, the turbolift, part of the shuttle’s outer hull, and the interior of the Klingon ship. Twelve Starfleet crew uniforms were sewn, along with two Klingon outfits and three Organic robes. With makeup supplies, camera equipment and batteries, lighting ….. It’s amazing that John Cosentino could do all this for so little money!
As with many contemporary productions, the bridge was the most impressive and difficult set to build. And remember, this was back in the days when TVs didn’t have freeze-frame capabilities, so you could carefully study and analyze the sets of Trek episodes, even if promotional photos were available. So John did his best to design and build something as close to the original Enterprise deck as possible, and it wasn’t far off!
Wood and wooden panels were combined with cardboard/ chipboard, Plexiglas, acetate and various other building materials that were painted with oil paint (because water-based paint would deform the cardboard). The buttons were colored balls in the middle of the hole. Among these bulbs were 60 and 100 watt incandescent lamps wrapped in foil cups to reflect and amplify the light. And because these lamps were heated near combustible materials, asbestos paper was placed between the material and the lamp. Yes, asbestos! Welcome to 1974.
But the fire hazard didn’t stop there! A powerful 500-watt bulb was placed inside the science station to give the observer a blue glow. This means that scenes where the researcher is looking at the camera could not be filmed for more than a minute before the lamp overheated and went out! In addition, a layer of plexiglass was placed in the room to protect the actors’ eyes in case the 500-watt bulb exploded! Oh, the things we do for Trek.
All the lights behind the deck panels were connected to the turn signals, and the acetate covering the holes was painted in various translucent colors. In all, there were hundreds of feet of wires, plugs and sockets scattered like a spider web behind those few deck panels, and they drew about 3500 watts of power. While filming on the bridge, the studio lights used an extra 4000 watts, and occasionally someone would make coffee upstairs without warning or use the toaster in the kitchen, and the fuse box would blow! Other disturbances during filming, such as the sound of the dishwasher, the flushing of the toilet, or even just the footsteps of a person walking across the first floor, could easily be picked up by the microphones.
The story itself is largely based on the original first Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die! James Blish. However, so as not to steal anything from Star Trek, the ship’s name was changed to USS Paragon (hence the film’s title: Paragon’s Paragon), the captain was now Richard Kirk, the first officer was Mr. Selleck, Dr. Costa, Ensign Tokato, etc. Without going into too much detail, the Klingons find a way to project an energy field around the planet Organia that robs the Organians of their powers and allows the Klingons to start an interstellar war. I’m trying to get Mr. Spock, uh, Mr. Door Selleck through the field, divide him into good and bad. But unlike the enemy within, they both turn out to be identical in temperament and logic, and so he is the one and only Vulcan first officer. Finally, Kirk can afford it on his own, but how do you choose?
The film was shot in color with Super 8 sound and shown at conventions in the following years. But alas, time and destruction have taken their toll on the original Super 8 film, and even the Beta and VHS copies made years later have succumbed to the Earth’s magnetic field. There doesn’t seem to be a copy of the full, 100-minute fan-made film intact almost half a century later.
By today’s standards of high-end cameras (even on cell phones), green screens, elaborate sets, CGI digital effects and crowdfunding resources, Paragon may not be a good comparison. And, of course, the acting jobs were taken by friends and relatives of John Costentino, none of whom had any training. But if you look through the lens of 1974, John Cosentino was a visionary capable of incredible achievement. Today’s amateur filmmakers are following in John’s footsteps from over four decades ago.
Next time we talk to a fan who saved at least one game from Paragon, Robert Long II. How did he get a copy and what did he do to restore it? And has anything else from this groundbreaking fan film been preserved in visible form?
I also offer you a special gift: I found a long lost RAIL blooper from Paragon!
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