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.



timeslip_dvdBroadcast in 26 episodes from the end of September 1970 to March 1971 (only one of which survives in colour), Timeslip was intended as an ITV rival to Doctor Who. Its two mid-teen leads, Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield), discover the ability to slip through a time barrier they find by the fence of an old military base while on holiday. In the first adventure, it takes them back to the Second World War, when the base was in use as a research outfit. The kids arrive at the same time as some disguised German soldiers who are intent on nabbing some of the latest British technology. The bounders!

A few things made the series immediately different. Usually, kids’ time travel (or any time travel — The Time Tunnel, for instance, or Doctor Who) takes its heroes to the distant past or distant future, but Timeslip stuck to the 20th Century (including trips to a pair of alternative 1990s), with its final adventure being set in 1965, a mere five years in the show’s past. In addition, Liz & Simon are constantly meeting the same people in different adventures, or different future versions of them. In the first story, ‘The Wrong End of Time’, Liz meets her as-yet unmarried father (just before he has an amnesiac episode that explains why he doesn’t remember meeting her), while in the two 1990s adventures, Liz gets to meet two entirely different versions of herself, as well as a future version of her mother. The great thing is that Liz hates the first version of herself she meets, and Beth (as she’s come to be known) hates her back:

Beth: At a certain time in my life I had to take some important decisions. Break with the past, become a different kind of person.

Liz: But why? What’s the matter with me? I’m still as I always was. I don’t want to change.

Beth: My dear, I was a little idiot when I was you. I had to do something about forcing myself to grow up, finding a purpose to my existence. We can’t be fools all our lives, I’m afraid.

While, in the last episode of that adventure — ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ — Liz gets her own back:

Beth: (of Liz) She’s nothing to do with me.

Liz: But I am. I am you. Only you’re not me and that’s the trouble. You’ve changed too much.

Things get complicated once Liz & Simon realise they can change the futures they visit by going back to their own era and making sure certain things don’t happen. After ‘The Time of the Ice Box’, Liz & Simon take another trip to the 1990s, only to find it now ‘The Year of the Burn-Up’, a technocratic future where a sabotaged climate control is making a serious mess of things. (But at least, here, Liz likes her future self.)


As if the protagonists meeting various versions of their future selves isn’t complicated enough, there are also a number of clones of various people. (The first one we meet is the Director of the ‘Ice Box’ research establishment. Played by John Barron, who I’ve only ever encountered before as CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, he comes across as an unintentionally comic version of CJ, with an attempt at an American accent. I kept expecting him to say, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by slipping through time barriers…’) And, once it’s clear some of these futures are only possible futures, Simon starts talking about there being both clones and projected clones, who are only possible-future clones… And this in a final story appropriately titled ‘The Day of the Clone’.

‘The Day of the Clone’ is, I think, the best story of the lot. (It’s also the only one by Victor Pemberton, writer of the Doctor Who story ‘Fury from the Deep’; the other Timeslip stories are by Bruce Stewart, and can get a little repetitive with all their being captured/breaking free/getting recaptured loops.) If nothing else, this last story ties up the whole serial neatly, which is some feat, considering the number of different timelines, and different versions of people, we’ve encountered.


By the time of ‘Day of the Clone’, Timeslip is taking a decidedly anti-technocratic stance. ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ takes place in a future research establishment trying to develop an immortality drug, HA57, under the command of an autocratic Director who believes his computer to be faultless, and so it can only be deliberate sabotage by his employees that’s making things go wrong. In ‘The Year of the Burn-up’, there is actual sabotage to the climate control computer, but all the technocrats are too busy hunting down the un-sociables and outcasts who refuse to be part of their Brave New World to realise the sabotage is happening, till it’s too late. In ‘The Day of the Clone’ the technocratic future is the present, with a secret government-funded research base, R1, being used to develop the same immortality drug, HA57, as appeared in ‘Time of the Ice Box’, only they’re testing it on student volunteers, and it’s having the opposite to its intended effect. To keep the volunteers quiet, they’re given ‘hypnotherapy’.


It’s here you get a sense of the mood of the times. One of the young volunteers, a student who thought she’d do a bit of good for society in her university holidays, learns what’s been done to her, and reveals the growing feeling, by the start of the 1970s, that early-60s optimism, with its faith in paternalistic governments and the forward march of technology, was getting a little tarnished:

Maria: Trust you? Trust… That’s something I’m rapidly forgetting. I came to this place with hopes. We all did. Hopes we could help build a decent future. Now you tell us we’re only helping to destroy the future. Well I don’t know who to trust or believe anymore.

Key to all this is the often-ambiguous character of Commander Traynor, who encourages the children’s time-hopping in the hope of learning a few technological secrets from the future, and who becomes an increasingly darker figure as the series progresses.


Timeslip stands on the border between being a fun kids’ SF-adventure series and the slightly weirder, more idealistic one-off productions of the 70s, like Children of the Stones, The Changes, and so on. Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty, in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama, say Timeslip was ‘perhaps the most ambitious serial of the 70s in storytelling terms at least’. It backed its science fictional ideas with advice from Geoffrey Hoyle (son of, and collaborator with, SF author and astronomer Fred Hoyle), and managed to sidestep becoming a mere attempt at cloning Doctor Who by tying its stories up so tightly with the possible future and actual past selves of its key characters, something most SF (apart from Back to the Future, which shows how much fun can be got from the idea) does its utmost to avoid.


The Prisoner

The Prisoner is a sort of Cold War, spy-thriller, 1960s-for-1860s version of Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Number 6 (whose name, I suspect, was intended to give him seniority over 007) disappear into another world — Wonderland on one hand and the Village on the other, both of them parodies of a very familiar-seeming England — and there do their best to both defend and discover their identities via a series of eccentric, surreal, threatening and nonsensical encounters. After all, what better way to find out who you really are than to have to defend your individuality against every form of attack 1960s paranoia can come up with, from brainwashing to hallucinogenic drugs, mind-transference to social isolation, even involvement in politics?


History has made Britain surreal. Its cultural self-image is littered with old, unmoving artefacts and practices — judges in periwigs, soldiers in Busbies, undertakers in top hats, penny-farthing bicycles, grown men in old school ties and old school blazers. Its upper echelons — the slowest to change, so the most surreal and divorced-from-reality — are drenched in weird rituals, silly costumes, nonsensical-but-pompous titles, rules that must be obeyed because they’ve always been obeyed, and ways of doing things that have just always been that way. The only reason Number 6 can’t tell which side it is that runs the Village is that its comically parodic, overly-British version of British life is both ridiculously over-the-top and spot-on accurate at the same time.


Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland have an uneasy sort of humour: the humour of nonsense, or absurdity, something that can so easily slip into cosmic or Kafkan horror. In a sense, The Prisoner is a sitcom, as sitcom characters are characters who, whatever happens to them in the course of an episode, always return to the same situation, the same personality, by the end. This is true of Number 6, who even manages to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’, only to insist on parachuting back into it, whereupon he finds himself, of course, in the same situation as when he started. The basic joke in The Prisoner-as-sitcom is that everyone and everything is a calculated deception meant to break Number 6’s sense of himself. Ha ha ha.


The basic situation of The Prisoner is also similar to many horror stories, where the protagonist finds themself in an isolated village whose inhabitants seem to share a secret, and may be working at making them one of them — as in, for instance, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.


Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland end with a trial — a nonsensical, mock-trial — which both Alice and Number 6 rise above and destroy. (The Prisoner also sees Number 6 made into the new Number 2 and put upon a throne, just as Through the Looking Glass sees Alice made into a queen.)


Detectives, spies and secret agents were a peculiar sort of 20th century Everyman. I like to think of this collection of character-types as Existential Agents. 1908, the year that saw the publication of the archetypal Occult Detective (Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence) also saw the publication of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the first Existential Agent I can think of. Whereas Occult Detectives embody the encounter between rationality and the irrational/supernatural, the Existential Agent embodies the quest for identity, against either social or psychological forces. One pops up in Dennis Potter’s superlative The Singing Detective — which, like the final episode of The Prisoner, also features a singalong of ‘Dem Bones’ — questing through his creator’s real and fictional pasts for the clue that will release him from his personal Hell. I suspect Twin Peaks’s Dale Cooper of being at least half an Existential Agent, which immediately throws Fox Mulder under a shadow of doubt, too. (Existential Agents aren’t necessarily secret agents. Secret agents hunt for secrets; Existential Agents have secrets, often from themselves.)


What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s like Number 6’s explanation of his entry into the Village craft competition (a genuinely escapist piece of art) in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’:

‘It means what it is!’

Or, from ‘Hammer into Anvil’:

‘It means what it says!’

What both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland do is work towards creating a destabilised world, denying any obvious sense of narrative, as well as any obvious sense of rationality, to break up all certainties and create the sort of free-flowing, let-it-all-hang-out, deliquescent reality in which, free of external constraints, Number 6 and Alice can really find themselves. It’s a bit like that strange gloop a caterpillar turns into before forming itself into a butterfly.

But why am I asking what it all means? Remember, “Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.” Or, as they say in ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’:

‘It is possible that there is no clue to be found… Breaking a code or cipher is a finite problem. But, as I’ve said… we don’t know that there is a problem. And if there is, on what level of reasoning it is set.’

Which sounds, as it should, like the purest nonsense.