“We had walked all night… how far we had come, and toward what, I couldn’t say. Only one thing was certain… we were very far away from anything familiar… and all we could do now was keep moving.
–Hal, father of the Sterling family, after being transported to Otherworld.
We all have a sense of home. It’s where we feel safe, where we feel comfortable, where we know we can center ourselves and be who we really are, and always be accepted. Or, at least, that’s the hope of most of us, and the reality for many. But for the Sterling family, a 1985 vacation outing to the Great Pyramid of Giza turned that whole idea upside-down, and for them, home suddenly became some Otherworld.
How it happened isn’t really that important. Something about a rare once-every-ten-thousand-year planetary alignment, and being stuck in the Great Pyramid of Giza (by some crooked sightseeing guide who ducked and ran the minute the walls started shaking). The important part is, by the end of the first act, you know this: The Sterling family (father Hal, mother June, older teenage boy Trace, slightly younger teen girl Gina, and youngest son Smith) have all been transported to who-knows-where via some green misty vortex. By the end of the second act, in the midst of trying to get help to figure out where they are, they’ve accidentally assaulted a vindictive military type named Kroll. They’ve also taken his rather unique crystal, which is used to access all sorts of computers and such. More importantly, the crystal is used to help cross the “Forbidden Zones” that have been set up to separate different groups of people to keep them tranquil, unique, and easier to control (at least from the military point of view). In other words, in no time at all, they’ve officially gone from Egyptian sightseers to militant rabble-rousers, a threat to the peace in an unfamiliar new world, and have the worst of the military brass as their personal enemy… and all they essentially did was stop and ask for directions.
“I don’t think we’re in Egypt anymore.”
–Smith Sterling, wondering where they’ve ended up.
Actually, once you get past the set-up, Otherworld is a great show, full of unique concepts on the old “What if…?” SF question, like “What if there’d never been Rock and Roll?” or “What if women ran everything and men were the ones always objectified?” These concepts weren’t always done with the most subtlety, or with the best production values (it is the mid-80’s we’re talking about here, and special effects on TV aren’t all that special), but the ideas were at least solid, if not provocative, and the show had one hidden value I’ll mention in a bit..
First, however, an example: in the rest of the pilot, the Sterlings have been given new jobs and lodgings (despite the objections of the “bureaucrat” in charge), and the kids are starting school. It’s not all that different from our world, although the cans of food are generically labeled “meat’ and “good food”; and the social studies class teaches that there were “77 different territorial capitals” before military unification, including the world headquarters, Imar. Trace, the oldest boy, starts to fall in love with one of the female students, Nova. Then the family finds out that, not only is mom June getting sick, but Kroll, the military brute, is hot on their trail… and they all have to decide what they’re going to do….
“I thought you were going to sleep.”
“I don’t want to be up there all alone… what are you doing?”
“Starting a diary…”
“…that makes me think it’s not going to be over soon.”
–Hal and June, on their first night in this new place
According to legend, the way home (back to Earth) is apparently through Imar, if they can cross the “Forbidden Zones” using the crystal and find the capital. And, knowing that Kroll is closing in, it’s time to go. Mom’s feeling worse, the other Sterlings are starting to feel a bit unwell, and the family is ready to leave… except Trace is suddenly nowhere to be found.
The reason mom is so sick (and the rest of the family is becoming that way) is that the excessive mining done in this zone is all radioactive… and the mining is performed by androids, who’ve modeled their entire society upon the ancient human race. Which means…. only human-like androids live in this territory.
The military and the Sterlings aren’t androids, of course, but everyone else is… including Nova, the girl Trace has fallen for. That doesn’t matter, he’s still in love, and amazingly, so is she…and Trace is trying to convince her to join his family, to escape this world.
“I want you to come with us… with me.”
“I can’t… I can’t cross the Forbidden Zone. You could stay… let your family go. We’ll find a way to prevent the sickness….”
“I can’t desert my family….”
“Don’t you see? That’s exactly what you’re asking me to do.
“That’s not the same…”
“It’s not??? You look at me like I’m some kind of cheat. It’s the same. I love you. That’s real. These are real tears. If you cut me, I bleed. It’s the same… what makes me not human?”
–Trace, trying to convince Nova to join him, in Rules of Attraction, the pilot of Otherworld
With the crystal, and a sacrifice from Nova, Trace and the Sterlings make it into the “Forbidden Zone” and off to the next territory… and their next episode, together. But this pilot establishes one thing that the other shows of this type refused to ever do consistently, and it did it by teaching Trace that lesson in the first episode–that his family has to come first.
It seems that, starting in the ’70s (and maybe before, with anthology series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits), television was always obsessed with a “high-concept” idea of some TV series that would visit a new world each week. Something strange and unexplainable had happened in (or to) “our” world, and the regulars would be thrust into a new civilization or society, different from our own, with new weekly threats and unusual ways of life. Objectively, it was simply a device to comment, from the outside, on our own society. In that respect, Otherworld was no different.
In the early ’70’s, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry tried this no less than three times, with pilots for possible series (called Genesis II, Planet Earth, and Strange New World, all available on DVD). None worked. In the late ’70s, there was the NBC series The Fantastic Journey (which, while ambitious, never could make up its mind what kind of show it wanted to be) and the CBS series version of Logan’s Run (where more time was spent chasing than exploring). There was a Saturday morning series of this style called Ark II, but it was concerned with ecology and education more than drama and characterization. The concept even hit Sliders later in the ’90’s, which successfully lasted for more than 4 years (and about as many formats, including one season which I like to call “guess what movie we’re ripping off paying homage to this week” season). But all of them made one critical mistake, and while it’s a mistake that may appeal to the writer/producer/network promotions department, it simply makes no sense for the viewer who watches the characters on the show.
Otherworld got it right, for the right reason, because it cared more about the family than it did about any society they found themselves in.
Here’s the secret of this type of show (and many others, for that matter). The new environments, the situations, the dangers the regulars have to face… are really all both interchangeable and irrelevant. The IMPORTANT thing is how the characters we care about REACT to those environments, situations, and dangers. And by placing the Sterling family unit at the crux, Otherworld was about the FAMILY, and not those other societies. The commentary was secondary to the core relationships of Dad, Mom, and Kids.
Those other shows mentioned earlier were more concerned with the “whys” and “hows” of each new society, commenting on our own. They threw strangers together as their “regular cast”, all with different strengths, different motives, and different reasons for being there, and explained a whole new world with them every week. And during this “travel group creation”, their characters were designed to have attitudes and differences that would create conflict, and therefore drama, and then would use those “differences” to illuminate facets of those societies, instead of using them as actual characters. They were created as viewpoints, not people.
Otherworld was more concerned with how those “whole new world” changes either threatened or strengthened the family bond of the Sterlings. This was the drama illustrated with Trace and Nova above, and Nova, the android, was the one who taught Trace the lesson. (The other shows almost always had this the opposite way around, with our “enlightened” heroes teaching all the lessons to the “less than perfect” societies.) On Otherworld, the drama was external to the family, and that made us root for them more. And on the few occasions when it was internal, family still won. Trace and Gina might be tempted to become huge rock stars, but they’re still Sterlings first. No matter what world they were in or threats there were, it was still their love of each other that got them through, and not scientific technobabble, a socio-political position, ecological advancement, or even a broken time-travel machine.
Otherworld lasted eight episodes on CBS, scheduled on Saturday nights at 8/7 Central. There probably would have been a bit more significant argument about some of the social and political (and especially military) issues on the series, had the show been scheduled during a later time period. Conversely, it was the idea of the earlier time period that I think made the show focus a bit more on the family, and less on the societies, to its advantage. While the show doesn’t exist on DVD, you can see the episodes streamed online, and also find a good amount of information both on the show’s wikipedia site (about the actual mythology of the show) and on Otherworld Online, the site that hosts the online streams.
SAM GROOM (Hal Sterling) had a recurring role in the operations room of The Time Tunnel, before becoming Canadian surgeon Dr. Simon Locke (known as Police Surgeon here in America). Numerous other roles included soap opera stints on All My Children, One Life to Live, and, (ironically) Another World. He now teaches acting at HB Studio in New York.
GRETCHEN CORBETT (June Sterling) is best known for playing lawyer/friend/sometime girlfriend to Jim Rockford in 30-some episodes of The Rockford Files. For the last decade, she has been Artistic Director of the Haven Project, a theatre organization helping underprivileged kids in Portland, Oregon.
TONY O’DELL (Trace Sterling) played brainy (and somewhat arrogant) high school student Alan Pinkard for five seasons on the ABC comedy Head of the Class. This stint was successful enough that he’s pretty much left the business since then, doing some occasional voice-over work on the side.
JONNA LEE (Gina Sterling) did guest spots throughout the late ’80s and most of the ’90’s, including Hardcastle & McCormick, Silver Spoons, and Murder, She Wrote, and was also a correspondent on Sci-Fi Channel’s Inside Space. After retiring from acting, she’s now a successful artist and sculptor.
CHRIS HERBERT (Smith Sterling) was in most of the episodes, but was actually cast later (the actor in the pilot wasn’t available for the series, which means that Herbert actually isn’t in the first and fifth episodes, both taken from the pilot filming). After appearing in Airwolf, the ’85 New Twilight Zone, and Murder, She Wrote (didn’t everyone appear on that sometime?), he went through college, working on a Master’s Degree in Christian Education, and teaches Film Studies in the L.A. area.
JONATHAN BANKS (Nuveen Kroll) is still acting, most recently in episodes of Castle, Lie to Me, and a recurring role in the series Breaking Bad. Other notable regular roles include 4 memorable years on the series Wiseguy and the comedy Fired Up. Usually known for menacing and villainous characters, he also had movie roles in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop.
“…whether we would ever see home again, I couldn’t say… that’s why I’m keeping this diary, in case we don’t make it. I want to leave a record behind so that someone will know our story.
–Hal, on the road through the Forbidden Zone, to their next territory
The inspiration of the Sterlings to each other as a family was what made a difference to those they met in Otherworld; but it was because they could count on each other as a family that made the show work in OUR world. This isn’t to say that there weren’t family conflicts, or that drama couldn’t be mined from them. But you could still root for the Sterlings every time, and not have to take sides in the argument, or wish that they would just leave one of the argumentative group behind (and believe me, on more than one of the other shows listed above, I WANTED a character or two to be left behind….)
But never here, not on this particular show… of course, I wasn’t necessarily rooting for everyone to get home too quickly either. I have to admit, I just wish I’d been able to see more of their Otherworld first. I wanted to be able to count on them, the way they counted on each other.
8 aired episodes — No unaired episodes
First aired episode: January 26, 1985
Final aired episode: March 16, 1985
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central. No, almost worse, on Saturdays at 8/7 Central. Although, in some Otherworld, who knows?
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.