Today, if you turn on Netflix or Cable television, you’ll most likely come across at least a half-dozen shows involving a variety of heroes travelling through time to fix history, including such shows as Timeless, The Librarians, and the Travelers, yet back in the 80s this was a relatively rare concept for television. Other than Doctor Who and his companions, whose adventures weren’t limited to travelling through time as the Tardis took them across the galaxy as well, there was only one other notable pair of time travellers, and that would be the characters of Phineas Bogg and Jeffrey Jones on Voyagers!
Airing on NBC during their 1982-1983 season, Voyagers! introduced television viewers to the misadventures of time traveller Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum), who due to a malfunctioning Omni — which is the small compass-like device that worked as this show’s time travel machine — ends up in the bedroom of a young orphan boy named Jeffrey Jones (Meeno Peluce). During the scuffle with Jeffrey’s dog, which had its teeth buried in Bogg’s Voyager Guidebook, the poor kid is knocked out of the window which forces Bogg to dive after him before Jeffrey becomes street pizza. Bogg activates his Omni before the two make a bad impression on New York City and he and Jeffrey are whisked through time until eventually landing on the banks of the river Nile circa 1450 BC.
The wrinkle here is that the Omni was not supposed to reach any year later than 1970, but Jeffrey’s room was clearly in the year 1982 and it’s because of this that the Omni is unable to return Jeffrey back to his own time. Not only is this bad, but it becomes clear that without his Guidebook, which got left behind with Jeffrey’s dog, Bogg will have a hard time completing his missions as a Voyager. And who exactly are Voyagers and what is their mission, you ask? Unfortunately, the show was cancelled before we learned much about this mysterious group of time travellers, other than that a certain number of people have been plucked from various times and places to be brought to a Voyager training facility where they would be schooled on world history — Bogg being more interested in a cute girl in his class rather than learning history being the reason he ends up needing the encyclopedic Jeffrey — and then these “Voyagers” would be sent off to keep history on track. Questions like, “Who set up this organization?” or “What is causing the deviations in time that need to be fixed?” were never addressed, and the episode “The Trial of Phineas Bogg” is the only real glimpse we get behind the curtain, where we find Bogg on trial for violating the Voyager Code.
Lucky for Bogg, Jeffrey’s late father just so happened to have been a history professor and Jeffrey himself is basically a walking-talking history book. So with Jeffrey taking the place of the lost Guidebook, Bogg is able to continue on with his job of fixing historical events, and this sets up the show’s basic formula. The Omni will literally drop them in on some particular time period — say Paris during the first World War — they learn that the Germans are winning due to their Zeppelin air superiority and Jeffrey would inform Phineas what is wrong with said events, such as the fact that the Germans should not be winning the war, which Jeffrey deduces is because the airplane hadn’t, for some reason, been invented yet. This leads to a second time jump where our heroes travel even further back in time to fix this problem, such as getting the Wright Brothers to stop fighting over a woman and invent the bloody airplane.
For a show about time travelling adventures, Voyagers! really delivers on its premise, as each and every week Phineas and Jeffrey bounce in and out of one crazy adventure after another as they try to push historical events back onto their proper course. They help Spartacus (Dan Pastorini) escape the Roman Coliseum so that he can lead the slave revolt, they prevent Teddy Roosevelt (Gregg Henry) from being killed by Billy the Kid (Frank Koppala), we see them run into the likes of Marco Polo (Paul Regina) and Lawrence Arabia (Judson Scott), and they even aid a fellow Voyager (Suzanne Barnes) in preventing the famous Mona Lisa painting from going down with the Titanic. What this resulted in was a show that wasn’t just a fun adventure series, but an informative one, as the writers did their best to treat historical events fairly accurately — some fudging done to make it work for an hour-long episode was to be expected — and each episode would end with Meeno Peluce saying in voice over, “If you want to learn more about Abe Lincoln or Charles Dickens, take a voyage down to your public library. It’s all in books!”
Now, as fun and informative as this show was, it wasn’t without some glaring flaws — though many of them were due to omissions of information that we may have learned if the show had lasted more than one season — and the biggest flaw would be the show’s lack of continuity. This being a show from the 80s, a serialized story arc wasn’t something audiences were expecting, so these showrunners didn’t bother to give them one, but this resulted in a season that just bounced around — like its time-travelling heroes — without any real stakes. In the pilot episode, Bogg goes from being a bit of a scoundrel to a loving father figure to Jeffrey rather quickly, which luckily works because Jon Erik-Hexum and Meeno Peluce have such a wonderful natural chemistry between them that is truly heartwarming at times, but the events of each following adventure doesn’t seem to have much impact on either of these characters, and considering one of them is just a kid, you’d think this would be a given.
There is no real connective tissue between one episode to the next — we even have Bogg meeting younger versions of historical figures that he’d run across on previous missions, but he is completely unaware that they’d ever met before, and being that we have no clue if this job as a Voyager has an endgame, it lessens a viewer’s investment. Will history be constantly in need of tune-ups?
• Phineas and Jeffrey never seem to have any problem acquiring clothing after being dropped by the Omni into a particular time period. Are we to assume Bogg is able to quickly steal the necessary clothing? The two of them don’t seem to travel with money, so buying the right attire is out of the question, and in one particular episode, they get spare clothes from Billy the Kid, which raises the question, “Why was Billy the Kid carrying around clothes for a young kid like Jeffrey?”
• And where exactly do our two heroes keep their regular clothing? We see them jump back and forth through time wearing various period outfits, from Roman gladiatorial togs to Victorian suits, but by the next episode we’ll be seeing Phineas Bogg back in his standard swashbuckling attire and Jeffrey in his trademark red and white striped shirt. Are these outfits stored in some kind of dimensional portal? And with all the action and mayhem these two find themselves in, it’s hard to believe one pair of pants and shirt would survive for very long. Also, who is cleaning and servicing them? Bogg certainly doesn’t seem to be the type to do laundry.
• The Omni only malfunctions when the plot requires it to — going into “automatic mode” and sending them off to some random time — but we do see Phineas and Jeffrey use the device to go to specific times, which leads to a big question, “If they fail on a particular mission, why not use the Omni to go back and try again?” Would there be a paradox issue? Could it result in them running into previous versions of themselves? We learn very little about how time travel in this show works, and I doubt the writers gave it much thought either, but such a powerful device opens up a can of worms that this type of show must deal with eventually; lucky for them the show got cancelled before things got too messy.
• In the aforementioned episode, “The Trial of Phineas Bogg,” we learn that the council can track the Omnis used by each of their Voyagers and that they have been aware of Jeffrey joining up with Bogg, so why in the hell did they wait so long to step in? And though Bogg’s Omni was unable to take Jeffrey back to 1982, what was stopping Bogg from bringing Jeffrey before the council and asking them to take the kid home? Was his Omni unable to return to Voyage headquarters as well?
• In that same episode we meet an evil Voyager named Drake (Stephen Liska), a Voyager prosecutor who wants to see Bogg kicked out, he falsifies evidence to get a conviction, but we never get a handle on what his big plan was. We learn that he’d been getting a variety of other Voyagers “disbarred” as some kind of power play, but to what end? Does he plan on becoming the head honcho of the Voyagers and thus controlling all time and space? In the episode “Jack’s Back” — which was the last episode to air — we have Drake framing Phineas for the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper, but that was just a bonus as he’d already been to 1888 London to screw with the timeline. And I’m left asking, “How does wrecking time advance Drake’s goals at all? Is he screwing things up just out of spite? Has Drake joined an Anti-Voyager organization?”
Sure, some of those criticism could have been resolved if the show had been picked up for a second season, with elements like the organization behind the Voyagers being better explained, but I doubt it. Mostly this kind of show was the product of the time and of this particular genre, as writers for a program such as Voyagers! weren’t expected to think “Big Picture,” they were just worried about making an hour of fun and lighthearted entertainment. Of course, this sentiment didn’t stop them from dabbling in such dramatic aspects of changing history in ways not directed by the Omni, such as Jeffrey wanting to warn people about such events as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the sinking of the Titanic, and then diving into such delightful episodes as “Cleo and the Babe,” where Cleopatra (Andrea Marcovicci) is accidentally lost in 1920s New York City, where she then teams up with Lucky Luciano (Michael Gregory) to prevent Babe Ruth (William Lucking) from hitting is home run record.
A few years later, legendary television producer Donald P. Bellisario would create a time-travelling gem called Quantum Leap, where physicist Sam Beckett would be sent through time by an unknown entity to correct historical mistakes, but unlike Voyagers!, that series tackled events on a much smaller scale and also managed to last five seasons. The sad thing here is that Voyagers! could have lasted five seasons, but idiot network execs cancelled the show so they could replace it with a news program to challenge CBS’s 60 Minutes, and they even failed at doing that as well.
Voyagers! may not have been the “thinking man’s” science fiction series, but no one can say it wasn’t a hell of an entertaining ride, and if its short run got just a couple of kids interested in history, well that’s more than can be said about a lot of the stuff you find on television these days. So if you are looking for an exciting and fun journey through history, set your Omni to 1982 and check out Voyagers! You won’t be disappointed.
“We travel through time to help history along… give it a push where it’s needed. When the Omni’s red, it means history’s wrong. Our job is to get everything back on track. Green light, kid! We did it!”
Show Rank - 7.5/10
Of all the time travel television shows that have populated the airways, from Irwin Allen’s Time Tunnel to Eric McCormack’s Travelers, I would stack Voyagers! against any of them, and mostly for the genuine heart that Jon Erik-Hexum and Meeno Peluce brought to the table.