Monday, February 15, 2016

Inspiration: The Fantastic Journey

Long ago, in a magical time called the Seventies, there was a brief television series called The Fantastic Journey.  With only ten episodes, there was insufficient material for re-run syndication; however, that single viewing captivated your humble host's youthful imagination.  Thanks to the Information Age – and YouTube specifically – the shows can be viewed again.

The Fantastic Journey is quite similar to a role-playing campaign.  In fact, the introductory narration for each episode describes the protagonists as “a party of adventurers.”  Each episode, the party encounters a different 'civilization of the week' and the plot would include an allegory in the vein of Star Trek (which is hardly surprising given that D.C. Fontana was one of the story editors).  Yes, The Fantastic Journey is like a campaign; however, it is a campaign with a player retention problem.

The premise of the series is rooted in the Bermuda Triangle, which was something of a fad at the time.  A scientific expedition becomes shipwrecked after encountering an eerie, green cloud in the triangle.  Among other personnel, the expedition includes a 'famous' scientist, the son of said famous scientist, Scott (played by Ike Eisenmann of Witch Mountain fame), and the token minority, Fred (played by Carl Franklin), a recent graduate of medical school.  Because the night sky has no moon or stars (only a “strange glow”), they realize they are experiencing something out-of-the-ordinary.  They decide to hike inland where they see mountains and the television audience sees stock footage of koalas, giraffes, and other animals of disparate biomes.  It seems our protagonists are somewhere beyond normal reality.  Then they meet up with Varian (played by Jared Martin).  Of course, they don't know it's Varian – all they know is that he's some guy in a wig and a loincloth.

I didn't like Varian, but at the time my young mind didn't understand the difference between character motivation and plot contrivance.  At first, Varian doesn't say anything and the protagonists assume he's an Arawak Indian.  He slips away from the camp at night and Scott, the kid, follows him.  Varian explains that he is from the year 2230 and he shows Scott his – now inoperable – futuristic craft.  Naturally, when morning comes, Scott's father and the other members of the expedition form two search parties and go looking for Scott.  Varian and Scott are found by Scott's father.  Varian explains that he disguised himself as an Arawak Indian because, when he first arrived in the area, he was captured by English privateers from the 16th century.  He couldn't reveal himself to the expedition until he was certain they weren't affiliated with the privateers.  Of course, when he was certain, he didn't reveal himself but walked off in the middle of the night instead.  So, the other search party gets captured by 16th century privateers because Varian didn't bother to warn people they might get captured by 16th century privateers.  But it's OK because everything works out, right?  No, a guy dies because of the privateers!  Thanks Varian.

The uncaptured protagonists decide to wait until night to rescue the captured protagonists.  Meanwhile, Varian regales everyone with how awesome and New Age-y the 23rd century is.  It turns out than Varian is a musician, but in the 23rd century musicians are healers.  (Yeah, Varian is stepping on Fred's skill set.)  Varian is able to heal people by using the “sonic energizer,” a device that looks like a crystal tuning fork.  Actually, Varian can use the energizer for all kinds of things (i.e., whatever the writers need it to do); essentially, it is a deus ex machina gizmo (although that sounds redundant).  Yet using the energizer for purposes other than healing is “draining,” so there's a reason he doesn't use it at every opportunity.  Varian is also a pacifist; he won't even destroy inanimate objects to cause a distraction in the rescue attempt because “it's wasteful.”  (My RPG analogy breaks down at this point because I can't imagine a player character that wimpy.)  One more thing about Varian before I continue:  In another episode, he's asked to help free an oppressed group of people.  Although he doesn't condone such oppression, he's not willing to do anything about it because it's none of his business.  (He does end up helping, but that's beside the point.)  I still don't like Varian.

The pilot episode ends with Varian and the (surviving) members of the expedition heading east.  Varian relates that the Arawak say there's a place to the east where anyone can find a gateway back to his own time.  (Note that no Arawak characters appear in the show.)  Eventually, we learn that this Bermuda Triangle version of Emerald City is called “Evoland.”  In order to reach Evoland, the party must traverse various “time zones” that are separated by invisible doorways.

After the pilot, the series was retooled.  Originally, the producers intended the protagonists to encounter displaced persons from various eras of history in the time zones, but a decision was made to forgo the historic angle and just concentrate on the science fiction elements.  Also, the expedition members other than Fred and Scott were removed from the cast, leaving Varian as party leader.  With regard to story continuity, it was necessary to explain the absence of the missing cast members .  This leads us to the second episode, “Atlantium.”  (Don't worry, I'm not going to cover every episode.)

So, Atlantium is a city of Atlanteans run by “The Source.”  (Exterior and interior shots of Atlantium were filmed at the recently constructed Bonaventure Hotel.)  “The Source” is a throbbing pile of brain pudding marinating in a bubbling liquid.  It needs to be rejuvenated by a fresh intellect – said intellect being destroyed in the process.  Apparently, the missing cast members “went ahead” of the others and “The Source” sent them back to their original time (because they weren't suitable to replenish him or whatever).  I think the audience was supposed to believe that the characters really did go home yet, even as a child, that sounded fishy to me.  When Fred and Varian become bothersome, “The Source” makes arrangements to eliminate them.  Why would he bother to send the others through time?

At the beginning of the episode, Varian, Fred, and Scott appear through a doorway and find that the others aren't waiting for them.  A guide from Atlantium explains to the trio that the others went to the city; the guide then leads them there.  Arriving at Atlantium, the trio are told that the others have gone to their correct time, but the trio can't immediately follow because whatever powers the time travel needs to “recharge.”  Would Scott's father have left him like that?  Of course not, but Scott needs some reassurance – as does the audience – that his father's departure is legit.  The Atlanteans produce a letter written by Scott's father that satisfies everyone's concerns.  Varian informs Scott that his father really wrote the letter because he can sense the father's aura in it.  (The father could have written it under duress or in a trance state, but whatever.)  Later, Varian's marvellous aura detection ability fails him utterly when a Scott simulacrum fools him.  (The real Scott is being prepared to rejuvenate “The Source.”)  In another episode, Varian says he can also detect “alpha waves.”

Anyway, as hinted at above, “The Source” selects Scott to rejuvenate him.  By the time the episode ends, “The Source” is destroyed and the Atlanteans are free to rule themselves.  However, without “The Source,” the Atlanteans have no more time travel (if they ever had it in the first place).  So our heroes set out to find Evoland via the doorways.  They are joined by Liana (played by Katie Saylor) and Sil-El (uncredited) as regular cast members (although they drop out for the final two episodes).

Liana has an extraterrestrial mother and a father “of Earth.”  Apparently, she was born on her mother's world (which has stronger gravity than Earth) and came to Atlantium at an early age.  She joins the party on their quest for Evoland because she wants to return to her mother's beautiful “City of Spires.”  Aside from her heavy-gravity enhanced physiology, she can cause people (or men at least) to lose consciousness by staring into their eyes.  She could also telepathically exchange information with Sil-El by staring into his eyes (or maybe her eyes).  You see, Sil-El is a cat.  As John Kenneth Muir states, “It was a daring and original move to include a cat as a regular character.”  Nowadays, we have LOLcat memes, but positive feline role models were rare in Seventies' media.  Excellent for reconnaissance, Sil-El became a valued member of the party.

I can has Evoland?
The third episode introduces the final member of the party, Willaway, “a rebel scientist” (played by the inimitable Roddy McDowall).  Rather than the Bermuda Triangle, Willaway was lost in the Devil's Sea (another of Ivan Sanderson's vile vortices).  Actually, Willaway is the villain of the episode.  Instead of trying to find a way back to his own time (1963), Willaway has set himself up as the ruler of a time zone and surrounded himself with servile androids.  With regard to interacting with genuine humans, Willaway states, “Society and I do seem to have our problems.”  Also problematic is the fact that the androids belong to an alien community.  By taking over their androids, Willaway caused the community to flee to the swamps.  By the end of the episode, Willaway is deposed and the aliens occupy their rightful place.  Varian invites Willaway to join the party, introducing an interesting dynamic to the team.  When Willaway asks why, Varian reminds him he's from the future and says, “I know more about you than you do.”  Not to slight the capable performances of Eisenmann and Franklin, it was McDowall who made the series memorable.

What was my point?  Oh yes, The Fantastic Journey as a role-playing campaign.  In the show, party composition could easily change from episode to episode, similar to a campaign with an inconstant player roster.  Aside from a 'new' setting from week to week, there is the big picture to consider.  Do people appear in the time zones through random chance or is there some overarching logic at work?  “Evoland” suggests evolution.  Perhaps people are brought into the time zones for some grand purpose (or to serve penance, such as the case with Marcus Apollonius in the episode “Funhouse”).  Perhaps people are taken to the time zones to be tested and/or to improve themselves.  Perhaps Evoland is not just a location, but a state of being.  One one occasion, a red cloud envelopes and transports the party.  Perhaps there are clouds of different colors working at cross purposes.  In the surreal episode “Riddles,” the party encounters one of the mysterious “riders” that help guide travellers to Evoland.  There must be some organization, some intelligence that sustains the riders.

1 comment:

  1. I most enjoyed your comments and info, were you also a "ufo" fan, any military service, and about 500 more queries..