In 1977, producer Bruce Lansbury brought to the small screen a show called The Fantastic Journey, a startling tale about a small group of people trapped on a mysterious island — decades before J.J. Abrams would conjure up his series Lost — and though this particular series didn’t even manage a full season, thanks to the evil machinations of NBC network’s executives, it was quite a remarkable little adventure show, and deserved more than to become “One of the Forgotten.”
In the pilot episode “Vortex,” a small but diverse group of “eggheads” take a boat cruise into the Bermuda Triangle — to what end is never exactly addressed — with a party consisting of Professor Paul Jordan (Scott Thomas), his thirteen year-old son Scott (Ike Eisenmann), young African American Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), university students Jill Sands (Karen Somerville) and Eve Costigan (Susan Howard), marine biologists Andy (Jack Stauffer) and George (Byron Chung), with the boat itself being operated by Captain Ben Wallace (Leif Erickson) and his First Mate Carl Johanson (Scott Brady). Don’t worry about remembering all those names and characters because most of them won’t make it past the pilot episode.
When night falls, the boat loses power as well as the use of its radio, as it’s drawn towards a mysterious glowing green cloud. The first casualty is poor Carl, who during the stormy passage into the cloud falls overboard, and when the rest of them find themselves washed ashore the following morning, Carl is nowhere to be found. Professor Jordan and his son do a quick reconnoiter, where they soon discover that they are on a massive island, one with mountains in the distance and no sign of indigenous people. So it’s clear that they are on some strange and uncharted island, which has Andy and George eager to try and take the ship’s surviving dingy back out to sea in an attempt to make it into the shipping lanes. This does not go well for the two marine biologists, as they are both found washed ashore, dead, the very next day.
The group soon encounters a man dressed like a member of an extinct indigenous tribe — standard loin cloth and long hair style — but the man is clearly not too primitive as he carries a device that instantly heals Captain Wallace’s broken arm, and when Scott follows this strange individual into the jungle (Scott does this wandering off thing quite a bit on this show), he discovers that the man is not a primitive tribesman at all, but a man from the 23rd Century named Varian (Jared Martin) who, like our intrepid group of castaways, was also marooned on this strange island. He later tells the group that, “In Earth year 2230, I was a musician, and my work was very important to me because in my century, musicians do nearly all the healing.” From this, Professor Jordan deduces that, “We’re in some sort of time lock, a space time continuum. Past, present and future exist together, each on its own terms.” Unfortunately, running into musicians from the future is far from their only concern, as also located nearby is a group of 16th Century privateers, led by Sir James Camden (Ian McShane), and Jill, Fred and Captain Wallace are soon captured by these English ruffians.
The trio are rescued, with the reluctant help of Varian, who is opposed to violence and destruction of any kind, but Captain Wallace succumbs to greed and runs back to grab some Spanish treasure, which leads to his demise at the end of the poisoned fangs of Camden’s pet cobra. Thus, another member of the original party exits the series, and the show isn’t finished yet, as only three of the original nine will make it to the second episode. This is easily the highest attrition right I’ve ever seen in a television series. This would be like if the second episode of Lost only included Jack, Hurley, and Walt, and it’s this kind of shake-up in casting that would have been a key reason for the show’s failing, as a certain amount continuity of cast members is something audience members of the time were more used to, but for me, the bigger issue came along with how the show ditched the next three cast mates.
Varian explains to the travellers that, “Here on this island, even as the first man walked upright out of his Neanderthal cave, man was also taking his first step on the moon, and that there is only a thin tissue of consciousness separating one event from the other.” He further explains that the island is honeycombed with many different “time zones,” all separated by invisible fields, and that one step through these “invisible gateways” can take you from the 23rd Century to the 16th Century in an instant. They also learn that the only way home is to head towards the Eastern Shore, to a mythical terrain called Evoland, where a device purportedly exists that could send any person back to his appropriate home in time. At the end of the pilot, Professor Jordan, Jill and Eve step through one of these invisible gateways, but when Varian, Fred and Scott step through, they find no sign of Scott’s dad or the two girls, but they are met by an Atlantean named Rhea (Mary Ann Mobley) who tells them that Professor Jordan and the two girls had gone on ahead to the city of Atlantium.
Yet when they enter the city, they are quickly informed that Scott’s dad and the two girls have gone back to their own time. Needless to say, that rather upsets Scott. Dar-L (Gary Collins), one of Atlantium triumvirate, gives Scott a letter written by his dad, explaining that he knew that Scott would be fine while in the capable hands of Varian and Fred, and that he needed to get home as soon as possible so as to relieve the pain that Scott’s mother must be going through. Now the level of bullshit here is just staggering, and at first I’d assumed this was some duplicitous scheme of the Atlanteans, but turns out the letter was genuine, and that Scott’s dad is just such an asshole that he couldn’t wait five damn minutes for his son to show up. If the showrunners were so eager to get rid of these three characters — which seems a like strange thing to do after just one episode — why not have it be revealed that the Atlanteans murdered them, and that the letter was a fake? We quickly learn that the city is run by a giant brain in a jar, simply called The Source, and that it needs a new body for rejuvenation, and that it had chosen Scott to serve that purpose, so having them kill off Professor Jordan, and those with him, would certainly be in keeping with their evil plan.
Lucky for our trio, the Atlanteans were about to have a rebellion, led by an Atlantean named Liana (Katie Saylor), who is the daughter of an Atlantean father but with an extraterrestrial mother, and with her help Scott is saved and The Source is defeated. When all is said and done, she decides to leave Atlantium with our heroes. Now, Liana is quite an interesting character; she has some psychic abilities, such as telepathically communicating with animals — which comes in handy when she uses her cat as a spy — and she also has greater than normal human strength due to her mother being from a planet with a higher gravity than that of Earth’s. Sadly, her “super strength” is rarely used, so instead of having a show featuring a woman kicking serious ass, which would have been awesome, we often see Liana captured and in need of rescue by the boys. This is such a criminal waste of potential, especially when you consider that over on ABC they had Lynda Carter tossing around Nazis as Wonder Woman, so why not make Liana the action hero of this show? With pacifist Varian in charge of our trio, it would have been natural to have her as a physical back-up, but instead, fisticuffs and flying dropkicks were left to George.
In episode three, “Beyond the Mountain,” the group were separated after being engulfed by a mysterious red cloud, so while Varian, Fred and Scott end up in a dreary swamp, Liana finds herself in a small little utopia run by a man named Willoway (Roddy McDowall), who we later learn is the only human inhabitant, as all the other “citizens” are robots. Willoway is very happy to see Liana, but she is less than thrilled when he announces the fact that they are to be married — even his robot “son” seems a tad jealous — and it’s only with the arrival of Varian, Fred and Scott, along with the little green men who original lived in this utopia before Willoway betrayed them and had them ousted, that she is saved from an awkward matrimonial situation. What is quite surprising is that after the little green men reclaim their homeland, and exile their usurper, Varian offers Willoway the opportunity to travel with them, stating that the Dr. Jonathan Willoway he knew was a man who treasured life over death, and whose achievements became the building blocks of the future that Varian comes from.
It’s not every show where an episode’s villain ends up becoming a regular cast member, and he’s not even given the cowardly aspect we got with such charactera like Dr. Smith from Lost in Space — he becomes a valued member of the team, whose somewhat “flexible moral compass” serves them well, from time to time.
The rest of the season finds our group running into various science fiction clichés, with only the excellent work by science fiction legend (and this show’s story editor), Dorothy Fontana, preventing The Fantastic Journey from becoming a running joke. The network wasn’t too keen on having our heroes running across figures from the past, maybe it cost too much to find period sets and clothing for those kinds of episodes, and thus the 16th Century privateers were the only historical encounter our heroes would have. Instead, they ran into a post-apocalyptic city run by children — think “Miri” from the original Star Trek series — then there was a military dictator (John Saxon) who wanted to march across and conquer the various time zones, a society that practiced human sacrifices, who wanted to chuck Varian into a volcano, Willoway is briefly possessed by an ancient Greek magician (Mel Ferrer) in a “Funhouse” of horror, then in the episode “Turnabout” we find a society where sexist men have enslaved women, but the slave queen (Joan Collins) leads a rebellion, and our heroes are captured so as to be used as breeding stock. We even have an episode where space convicts (Richard Jaeckel and Nicholas Hammond) make things tough for an alien colony of pacifists (Cheryl Ladd and Lew Ayres).
In the ten episodes that make up this brief run, our heroes come across a helluva lot of aliens, for every dystopian future society they come across they encounter two made up of aliens who got sucked in by the Bermuda Triangle, making this show more Lost in Space than Time Tunnel. Sure, we are told these aliens races are from the future, but they’re aliens, does it really matter what time zone they came from? The repetitive nature of these encounters was probably key in the show’s cancellation, as one could easily imagine how “old hat” our heroes stumbling from one alien society to another would get, until eventually reaching the fabled Evoland. The show’s formula became quickly apparent.
• Our heroes would step through a gateway.
• They would encounter a strange society.
• Varian would not want to interfere.
• Willoway would want to get the hell out.
• Scott would befriend one of the residents.
• Varian would change his mind about interfering.
• Ben would then get to punch or dropkick somebody.
• Our heroes would then step through another gateway.
You can see how that could get tiresome after a while, but with the addition of Roddy McDowall to the cast they really had an ace up their sleeves, as any scene where Willoway had to debate the bizarre aspects of whatever Topsy-turvy society they’d wandered into was a true joy to behold. McDowall was simply brilliant, and I would have happily listened to him read the phone book for fifty minutes, but even his valiant efforts could not save the show from being flushed by the network executives.
The Fantastic Journey certainly had an interesting concept, and the cast were uniformly excellent — that is, once they settled down to our four main heroes — and the show allowed time to develop some great comradely moments between them, but the network’s decision to no longer have our characters encounter people from the past was a huge mistake, as a show about time travel kind of needs that aspect or it’s just becomes another generic space opera, only without the cool spaceships. Since its cancellation, we’ve had several shows with similar themes, but I for one would love to see a complete reboot of the series, for with a proper budget, and writers given free reign, you could really give modern audiences a real Fantastic Journey.
The Fantastic Journey (1977)
Show Rank - 7/10
If The Fantastic Journey had been given another season could they have course corrected, and turned this show into Must See TV? Sadly that will go down as one of the great answerable questions, but of the ten episodes we got there was some solid writing to found, as well great acting, all adding up to a lot of fun.