The Fantastic Journey

Roddy McDowall, and a glowing fork! That’s the only thing I remembered about this brief-lived slice of US telefantasy, but it’s a memory that lingered, and every so often I’ve checked to see if I might be able to watch the series again. And a couple of years ago it was issued as a DVD in the UK, all of its short 10-episode run. It was first shown over here by the BBC between 5th March and 15th May 1977. (The pilot went out on a Saturday at 5:25pm — the Doctor Who slot — while the other episodes were shown at 7pm on Fridays.) Amazingly, this overlapped with the actual US run, which started on 3rd February and continued for nine weeks before the show was cancelled, with one last episode being broadcast in June. After that, in the UK anyway, it was only ever repeated once, around Christmas 1978, which seems odd for a science fiction series once Star Wars mania had gripped the world.

The premise, as the show’s title sequence had it:

“Lost in the Devil’s Triangle, trapped in a dimension with beings from the future and from other worlds, a party of adventurers journeys through zones of time, back to their own time.”

The “party of adventurers” (a very D&D phrase, that), was initially a scientist, Dr Jordan, from the show’s present, along with his young son, some colleagues, and the crew of the small boat they’d hired. Entering the region of the Bermuda Triangle, they get swallowed by a glowing green cloud and wake the next day on the beach of an island that is, of course, on no known charts. Journeying inland they encounter wildlife from all over the world, and, soon, a bunch of 16th century pirates. Dr Jordan muses:

“I’ve been asking the wrong question. I’ve been wondering where we are instead of when. We’re in some kind of time-lock. A space-time continuum. Past, present and future exist together. Each on its own terms.”

Things are fully explained (as in, not explained at all) by Varian, a man from the 23rd century who at first poses — for reasons also never adequately explained — as a dumb savage in a dark wig:

“You see, as earth men, we’re each locked in our own time. We’ve had to live by the calendar. But here on this island, you begin to understand that even as the first man walked upright in his Neanderthal cave, man was also taking his first step on the moon, and there’s only a thin tissue of consciousness separating one event from the other.”

(I love this sort of hand-waving nonsense in a 1970s TV show. It recalls Professor Victor Bergman from the first series of Space: 1999, with his bon mots of the “The line between science and mysticism is just a line” sort.)

The show, then, consists of the “adventurers” journeying across this larger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside island, buzzing into a new time zone at the start of each episode then out again by the end. The party changed after the pilot episode, with the studio wanting more variety among the characters. (They also said there should be no historical time-zone episodes: only futuristic stuff.) The two characters from 1977 who remained were the kid, Scott (played by Ike Eisenmann, of Escape to Witch Mountain fame), and a young medical doctor with both cool and muscle, Dr Fred Walters. Joining them was Varian, the man from 2230 and the owner of the aforementioned glowing fork (a device used for both healing and, in extremis, destruction, which “focuses my thought and my energy. It’s kind of a sonic manipulation of matter”); Liana, daughter of an Atlantean father and an extraterrestrial mother, who has the ability to communicate with animals (mostly her cat, Sil-L); and finally, a couple of episodes in, Jonathan Willaway, played by Roddy McDowall — a “rebel scientist” from the 1960s, who is initially met as the villain of one story, but repents and joins the group. (I can’t help wondering why they had him come from the 1960s — only the previous decade — especially as he’s the main technical expert of the group. Was there some subtle cultural difference he was supposed to embody?)

The party are journeying in search of rumoured Evoland, where they hope to find a device that will send each of them back to their own time. Generally, in each episode, they encounter a civilisation in need of correction, fix it, then move on. Atlanteum, for instance, though apparently a futuristic paradise, is ruled by a giant pulsing brain, and that’s never a good idea. A couple of episodes seem to be addressing (with very broad strokes) issues of the day, as with youth culture in “Children of the Gods”, where the party stray into lands controlled by a community of children who execute all “Elders” — presumably anyone over thirty — until of course the party ask the same question the hippies themselves were no doubt pondering now the 60s had turned into the mid-70s: what happens when you grow up? Then there was “Turnabout”, whose main city is ruled entirely by men. The men keep the women as slaves, until the women take control and the men are all banished to prison, then the women realise they’ve just taken things to an equally bad opposite extreme. (I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t a joke — perhaps the series’ one and only hint of satire in its ten-episode run — in the fact that the city was ruled by yet another super-powerful computer, this time called “the Complex”. So, these domineering men and women are in the grip of “the Complex” — Freud would no doubt have agreed.)

If I’m honest, it’s easy to see why the show might have been cancelled. Roddy McDowall and the glowing fork — perhaps with the addition of Liana communicating with her cat by widening and narrowing her eyes — are its only truly memorable aspects. Although it was sprinkled with 70s weirdness, including psychic powers, the “Devil’s Triangle”, crystals, auras and energies, they didn’t result in the show having its own characteristic style of fantasy. Worse, perhaps, was that the main cast were all relentlessly heroic and moral, but otherwise quite bland, with the one exception of Roddy McDowall, who at least had a puckish sense of self-interest, and indulged in the sort of cartoonish over-acting that might have made the series work, if only anyone else had done the same. Even the guest stars — John Saxon, Joan Collins — weren’t given any opportunity to really indulge. There was certainly nothing like the banter and tension between Star Trek’s leading trio. (Though the show had a couple of links with Star Trek: its story-editor was D C Fontana, the story-editor of the first series of Trek; also, it re-used some very recognisable Star Trek sound effects in its last episode.)

Perhaps the best instalment was the tenth — the one that got broadcast after the whole thing had been cancelled, and which was only shown in the UK as part of its 1978 repeat. Certainly, it seems the most post-hippie-ish, with its community of extraterrestrial pacifists who have never encountered lying, theft, or murder before. And, it turns out you can live without those things: if you have psychic powers and your own super-powered Orb.

Not even a glowing fork can make up for your lack of an Orb.

Comments (4)

  1. Darren Jones says:

    I seem to remember an episode where instead of just killing the bad guy they turned back time and he became a baby again to restore his innocence.
    This sort of fitted in to the whole love and peace thing that the series represented.
    But my 16 year old self didn’t get it and thought he’s just going to grow up to be a bad guy again and inflict mystery on another generation.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I think that must be the last episode — the one with the Orb.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Think this was aired around the time I started secondary, with the result that my younger siblings got to see it as they were home earlier. I did catch one or two episodes. Enough to agree with you about Roddy McDowell being the most memorable thing in it. Also a performance that defined McDowell for me, as it was the first thing I saw him in. Like Smith in Lost in Space, he was memorable because he was that bit more dimensional.

    The show, then, consists of the “adventurers” journeying across this larger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside island.

    This made me think of Lost. Enough to make me wonder if the earlier series was one influence on the later.

    There are a lot of tv series from that period I’d like to see again, although I know quite a few of them would disappoint. I never realised the same couple who produced Captain Scarlet also produced Space 1999 – something that was particularly obvious when I watched an episode on Youtube a few years back. It still looked great, but the script could just as easily have been written for marionettes as real actors. I’d like to see Logan’s Run again, though. Also The Man From Atlantis (both of them as short-lived as The Fantastic Journey).

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, I agree about the woodenness of the characters in Space 1999! I’ve not seen Logan’s Run (the TV series), but do remember seeing The Man From Atlantis at the time.

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