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.


Fantasy: Realms of Imagination at the British Library

Currently running at the British Library (until 25th February 2024), the Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition manages to pack a lot into its four rooms. If one of its aims is to cover the breadth of fantasy as a mode of creative expression, they’ve certainly succeeded, as the exhibition covers books, film, TV, art, games (both digital and physical), as well as oddities such as Bernard Sleigh’s “Ancient Mappe of Fairyland” from 1918 (is it art, a story, a game?) which greets you as you enter.

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service manuscript, and some Owl Service plate

The best thing, for me, was certainly the opportunity to see some original manuscripts. A page from Alan Garner’s Owl Service (written in red ink) was presented alongside an example of the Owl Service plate that inspired it; there was Michael Palin’s notebook in which he was working out the plot for Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and a page from C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe manuscript beginning: “This book is about four children whose names are Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter” (alongside Lewis’s own map of Narnia); as well as handwritten pages from Angela Carter, Diana Wynne Jones, and E. Nesbit, among others.

C S Lewis’s Narnia map

My favourites among the manuscripts, though, were the ones which featured drawings. (Do any but fantasy authors create drawings as they write?) I didn’t know, for instance, that Ursula Le Guin produced illustrations (for herself, I think, rather than publication) for the Earthsea books. Alongside her manuscript for A Wizard of Earthsea was a drawing of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, and a page (perhaps done in ink wash, and certainly easier to make out in a photograph) depicting Tenar’s first sight of Ged in The Tombs of Atuan.

Ursula Le Guin’s artworks for her Earthsea books

I did know, on the other hand, that Mervyn Peake peppered his Titus Groan and Gormenghast notebooks with drawings, but it was wonderful to see them. The illustration of the Prunesquallors, for instance, was alongside a page on which Peake had written out the dialogue for a scene (with no he said/she saids). There was also a double-page drawing by G K Chesterton of characters from The Man Who Was Thursday (it turns out Chesterton can draw quite well), and Susanna Clarke’s plans of the house from Piranesi.

One of Mervyn Peake’s notebooks

And speaking of Piranesi, as well as manuscripts, there were printed books on display, among the more impressive of which was an edition of Piranesi’s Carceri, which I was surprised to see showed one plate over a double page spread (I’d have thought they’d print one to a page, to avoid losing details in the fold); and a first edition of William Morris’s highly illuminated Story of the Glittering Plain.

Piranesi’s Carceri

William Morris’s Story of the Glittering Plain

The other thing I love to see up close are paintings, though there were only a few here. Few, but all good ones: for instance, Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke (which reminds me, one aspect of fantasy the exhibition seemed to have missed out on was music — it would have been great to have had Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” playing through one of the exhibit’s little hold-it-to-your-ear listening devices alongside the painting). What struck me about this painting, which for a long time I had as a poster on my wall, was that it was smaller than I expected — which made the level of detail all the more impressive.

Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, and a Brian Froud painting for The Dark Crystal

Ditto for an Alan Lee original. In a display that included Gandalf’s staff from the Peter Jackson films and a page of notes from Tolkien commenting on a proposed BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, there was an Alan Lee watercolour depicting the assault on Helm’s Deep. It was, perhaps, little larger than A3, but the level of detail was incredible. Distant figures — millimetres high — were tiny but sharply outlined, and my mind boggled at the level of hand-control Lee must have (as well as the fineness of his brushes).

Tolkien display including an Alan Lee painting; C S Lewis’s manuscript for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There were also a couple of Brian Froud pieces from The Dark Crystal, alongside a display of props from the film: costumes worn by the gelflings, along with a shard of the Dark Crystal itself. (It didn’t glow as I approached, so I guess I’m not the chosen one. Or does it mean I’m not a Skeksis? Maybe I’m glad it didn’t glow…)

Dark Crystal costumes and props

There were also film loops from Pan’s Labyrinth and Princess Mononoke playing on enormous screens. Also (for some reason on a tiny screen), a scene from Xena: Warrior Princess. The Xena screen, small as it was, was right next to what was surely the most unimpressive display in the exhibit, the case dedicated to sword & sorcery.

The Sword & Sorcery display: Black God’s Kiss by C L Moore, Imaro by Charles Saunders, Robert E Howard’s World of Heroes

This contained three modern paperbacks. Just that. They looked like they were social distancing. This made me wonder if, alongside exploring the breadth of fantasy as a genre (in books, films, art, games, TV), there needed to be some exploration of its sometimes overwhelming mass. An exhibit like this, tastefully showcasing the manuscripts of great works, perhaps needed to switch tack when representing something like sword & sorcery, which, to my mind, needed a case stuffed with examples of trashy-covered paperbacks: so many you’d be overwhelmed. (But perhaps it was difficult, with sword & sorcery, to find covers that would keep the exhibit schoolchild friendly!)

Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks

Similarly, with the display of D&D rulebooks, I thought they looked a bit sparse and sterile on their own, and could have done with a few polyhedral dice, dungeon floor-plans, characters sheets, pencils and so on strewn about — an element of playfulness amongst the respectfulness.

Michael Palin’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail notebook

I’ve probably missed out a lot in this run-through of the exhibition’s highlights. It seemed quite well-spaced when I was walking through, but now I realise how much it packed in. There was, in addition, an area mocked up like the Red Room from Twin Peaks, scenes from computer games (including one you could play, but I wasn’t about to show up my lack of skills), a Warhammer set-up, some pretty impressive LARP costumes, ballet costumes, and more.

Ursula Le Guin manuscript for A Wizard of Earthsea

I’ll end, though, with an echo of the last exhibition I covered on this blog, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth exhibit that was held at the Bodleian (five years ago, I’m shocked to see). There, I commented on the tiny-ness of some of the handwriting on display, which reached its apogee in a letter from Tolkien’s mother. That, though, is nothing compared to the tiny-ness of the Brönte siblings’ writing in their hand-made books detailing their imaginative world of Glass Town. One tiny, tiny book, filled with tiny, tiny writing defied my attempts to read it, so I have no idea how anyone actually wrote it:

One of the Brontes’ Glass Town books


The Walking Dead

Earlier this year I started working my way through The Walking Dead, after only being vaguely aware of the show up to that point. I’m now a little over the halfway point of its entire eleven season run. It has obvious affinities with some of the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve covered on this blog, such as Day of the Triffids and The Death of Grass — the opening, with Rick Grimes waking up in hospital to find the world has ended being straight from Wyndham, while the brutality and descent into ruthless survivalism is John Christopher cubed — even though neither of those is about zombies. It also has a lot in common with Game of Thrones: both shows started in 2010; both had some pretty addictive storytelling, with ensemble casts and multi-episode subplots; and both had a penchant for killing off major characters with little or no warning. At its height, The Walking Dead attracted an audience of 17 million. Downtown Abbey, another massively popular show that also started in 2010 and which seems (though I’ve never seen it) the opposite to The Walking Dead in every respect, only got 13 million. There’s probably some sociological lesson to be drawn from that, but I’m not going to attempt it.

For the first season and a half, I wasn’t really gripped. The characters — who you need to care about in this sort of story — were mostly dominated by a group of emotionally inarticulate and self-destructive men, shouty and confrontational one moment, lacerating themselves with self-blame the next, while the women in the main did the cooking and cleaning and reminded each other that things like guard duty, expeditions, and making decisions were best left to the men. Then a plot twist arrived midway through season 2 that — perhaps because I wasn’t 100% engaged by this point — was so unexpected, and so brutal, I was suddenly and totally hooked. (It involved zombies in a barn, if you’ve seen the show.)

It still took till about season 4 before I began to feel interested in any of the characters, as they’d finally developed beyond the soap opera level of emotional immaturity (self-blame alternating with self-righteousness, in constant rotation), but the show has been pretty consistently gripping ever since.

I don’t binge watch it, though. However moreish the plot, or cliffhanging an ending, to watch more than one episode a day — or even one a day for an entire week — just feels too much. The show is almost constantly brutal and gruelling. (And gruesome. Every episode or two there’s a reminder of just how disgusting it must be to deal with the half-rotten dead on a day-to-day basis.) Which left me asking, at its worst moments, why do I keep watching it? Game of Thrones at least balanced its brutality with a sort of Sword & Sorcery joie de vivre and a dark sense of humour. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has virtually no sense of humour, and the closest its characters get to the joy of being alive is a sense of relief they’re not yet dead.

One thing the show has, though, is an engagement with the idea of what it means to be “good people”. People keep telling Rick & co.’s group of survivors they’re “good people” — certainly they are, compared to some of the other groups we meet, who are militaristic, fascistic, opportunistic, or even cannibalistic. But each time someone says this, the latest story arc would end with a moment that seemed to say, “Do you still think they’re good people?”

A formula began to emerge. Rick’s group would encounter another group, and that group would either be actively hostile (one group, for instance, had commandeered a tank, and used it) or apparently friendly but secretly up to some serious nastiness (the aforementioned cannibals). Rick & co. would fight their way back to freedom, and (mostly) survive, but only at the cost of having to sink to new levels of brutality. At one point, Rick — having pointed out that as long as they’re not like the “walkers”, the zombies, they’re not entirely a lost cause — finds himself having to bite a chunk out of his opponents’ neck to win a desperate fight. Just like the zombies do. By the end of a storyline, the group are often so covered in blood — mostly other people’s — that they’re barely distinguishable from zombies anyway. Finally, Rick says: “This is how we survive… We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead…”

With the fifth season, the group arrive at a community that has managed to stave off the worst of this sorely-changed world’s ravages, and suddenly they find themselves in something like the civilised world they used to inhabit — but so battle-scarred and toughened by a series of utterly traumatising and degrading backs-to-the-wall experiences that they’re like homecoming veterans, totally incapable of sleeping because the quiet is too quiet, the calm too calm. At the same time, they don’t see this as an invitation to relax. Rather, they fear losing the edge the constant fight to survive has given them… But don’t worry, Rick & co., something terrible is bound to happen soon to bring those survival skills to the fore once more!

Another thing I like about the show — if like is the right word — is a quality it shares with a lot of the darker types of fiction and film I like, and which I’ve come to think of as bleakness. Bleakness is there, quietly, in the opening scenes of Alien, in the cold whiteness of the Nostromo’s interior and the getting-up-too-early feel of the crew waking from hypersleep, just as it’s there in the round-the-dining-table discussions about how they’re going to survive this killer alien out here in space; it’s there in the unforgiving landscapes of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Thing; it’s there in the all-encompassing labyrinth of love, lies and deception in Vertigo; it’s there in the disconnection between even the closest of people in The Silence; it’s there in the harshness of a fascist regime in Pan’s Labyrinth and the helplessness of children in The Institute; it’s there in the fragmented psyches of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition stories; it’s there in the cosmicism of Lovecraft. It’s pretty fair to say, where this blog is concerned, it’s never far away.

This bleakness is perhaps best summed up as a disjunction between the humanity of the characters and the hostile, or simply uncaring world they inhabit. The Walking Dead has it to a particularly harsh degree, and the question, for me, is always: can they, these characters, hang on to their humanity in the face of such a dehumanising world?

With The Walking Dead, it’s a constantly uphill struggle. There’s no rest, no respite, otherwise there’s no show, and the characters will only be worn down by each loss, each set-back, each moral compromise. (Unless the final episode of season 11 has a happy ending!) And that’s perhaps the thing that has led to me slowing down my watching of the show: it’s just too relentless, at times, in its bleakness. (I confess, I’ve recently started to check Wikipedia to see when long-standing characters meet their inevitable demise, just so I’ve got some warning.) In a world where everyone is forced to be at least a little bit wicked, there’s never going to be any rest…