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Voyagers!

“We’ve got a responsibility at 7 and that’s the bottom line.  We’re in a very special hour of television and we feel it strongly.  That affects everything we do.  If the public wanted to watch good TV, there’d be good TV on.  If they’d rather watch ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ then that’s what the network has to give them.”
–James Parriott, creator

Phineas Bogg and Jeffrey Jones: Voyagers!

Educational television is almost an oxymoron.  And yet, in the fall of 1982, the television networks were mandated by the Federal Communications Commission that on Sunday nights at 7/6 central, programming had to be either educational or public affairs presentations.  The #1 show on television at the time was CBS’ 60 Minutes, airing in that slot.  And so, not only did any prospective “sacrificial lamb” entertainment show have to go up against that ratings juggernaut, it also had to conform to the “educational” constraint.  NBC’s answer:  Voyagers!

Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum) is a Voyager.  Lifted from his own era, he (and others like him) journey through time and space, correcting the events of history where necessary.  They travel  using a device called an “Omni”, which has a date, location, and red and green lights (if red, something has gone wrong; if green, time has been fixed correctly).  Ordinarily, Voyagers also all have Guidebooks, a sort of manual telling them the way time is “supposed” to turn out.  Bogg, unfortunately, lost his Guidebook, in the process of saving a young boy from the year 1982, Jeffrey Jones (Meeno Peluce).

Jeffrey, however, turns out to be better than any printed Guidebook.  He has become a walking history textbook, having essentially memorized his recently deceased father’s work (his father was a history professor).  So now, Bogg and Jeffrey travel through time, fixing the timeline, occasionally messing it up (but not so badly that it can’t be fixed by the end of the episode), and meeting up with the greatest figures of history.

Cleopatra and Bogg, in New York City!

“I got to write for Cleopatra!  In one script, I wrote for Cleopatra, Babe Ruth, and Lucky Luciano!  In another , I wrote for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt!  How many people get to say that?  I learned a lot because we based it on fact.  Research is my favorite part and allowed me to ‘do well’ by the characters.”
–writer/producer Jill Sherman-Donner

Other episodes featured such notables as the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Marco Polo, Douglas MacArthur, and Thomas Edison, to name but a few.  Events throughout history were portrayed, including the almost obligatory “time-travel” trip to the Titanic, in which Bogg and Jeffrey meet another Voyager, and find that the ship may go down with the Mona Lisa on board!  All this was in keeping with the mission of making the show educational as well as entertaining, with varying degrees of success.

Obviously, this show was intended for younger viewers, at least initially.  Jeffrey was the audience’s surrogate, being an interesting, smart kid; just the type that the show was designed to create and appeal to.  His knowledge of history was extremely good, which occasionally got on Bogg’s nerves.  Bogg was known to repeat, under his breath, that “…smart kids give me a pain.” The episode end-credits even had a voice-over from Meeno Peluce reminding everyone that, if they were interested in finding out more information about the eras and people shown in the episodes, they should “…take a voyage down to your public library.  It’s all in books!”  (Maybe Bogg should have told him about this internet thing they’d have in the future….)

The show also needed to attract adult viewers as well.  Jon-Erik Hexum had matinee-idol looks, and Bogg had a distinct tendency to fall into a romance with most every good-looking female in any particular episode.  The show was also full of action sequences, from an aerial battle with the Red Baron to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  It was difficult, if not impossible, to recreate ancient Rome one week and 1920’s New York the next, especially on a modest TV budget.  Extensive use was made, therefore, of both the Universal film library and of the Universal Studio back-lot.

Universal, at one time, had an incredibly extensive film library.  They had done tons of pictures of all kinds, and if you needed a scene of the Pearl Harbor attack, they had footage of Japanese Zeros dogfighting.  If you needed pirate ships, an attack on the Alamo, or old film from an Errol Flynn Robin Hood epic, they had those too.  And Voyagers! was tailor-made for such a wide variety of stock footage, from Cleopatra to the beginnings of the US/USSR Space Race.  It saved all kinds of money as well… which is also why the back-lot got so much use.

In 1982, the Universal back-lot wasn’t really a tourist attraction.  That’s being kind.  It was almost a forgotten place as far as the public was concerned, even though the studio tour buses were still going through on a regular basis.  It wasn’t the type of “theme-park” experience that it is today.  It was still very much a working studio area, even though it wasn’t being used nearly as much as it had been in its heyday.  And yet, it was a perfect place for Voyagers!

“Back then, the back-lot was in pretty bad shape.  They had the tour going through it, but it wasn’t really dolled up.  It was in a dilapidated state, and they didn’t charge television companies to use it.  Now they do.  But in those days, they said, ‘You can use whatever is back there.’  So we would just wander around and go, ‘Oh, wow, we can use that.  We can do a steamboat gambling show and involve Mark Twain.'”
–James Parriott, creator

Of course, nowadays, watching the episodes back-to-back, you start to notice things… like, for example, the Roman arena that was used for gladiator fights was used weeks later as the setting for a Wild West show with Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley.  Or that the same courtyard doubles for fights in a number of different wars in different episodes (and once in the SAME episode), from pirates raising their cutlasses to WWI street battles with resistance fighters.  You save money everywhere you can, especially when you’re making a variety of period pieces with no standing sets,  featuring battle scenes, stunts, and everything else that costs money in Hollywood.  (This is why one episode even takes place on “a Hollywood sound stage”!  We can do that, easy!)

Worse yet, the structure of most episodes required not one, but two different time periods.  For example, Cleopatra ends up being accidentally transported with Bogg to 1920’s New York, which means in this one story we have ancient Egypt and period NYC, which probably can’t double for each other!  How many sets can you reuse in an episode featuring both Albert Einstein and Marco Polo?  You get the idea.  It was an ambitious series, but one that had to pay for that ambition somewhere.

NBC had to cancel the show.  It ranked 82nd out of 84 shows that year.  And they weren’t actually trying to win the time slot (not against 60 Minutes, anyway).  Second would have been good enough.  As Jon-Erik Hexum rather candidly stated:

“Considering the time period, I don’t think we’ve done that badly.  I would say we’ve done marginally poorly.  Really!  You take any show NBC has got–even Hill Street Blues–and put it in that time slot; I guarantee you it will end up in the toilet.”

And that was even with Hexum’s extraordinary efforts, personally, to get it renewed.  NBC was ready to pull the plug after 13 episodes, but needed a replacement that fit the “educational” constraint.  Their planned show from their news division, Monitor, wasn’t quite ready.  Thanks to the combination of a fan letter-writing campaign and Hexum himself spending $5,000 of his own money to print and send out posters to schools advertising the series, the network ordered an additional 7 episodes of Voyagers!

Up against Drake, the villainous Voyager

These 7 episodes (along with the final episode of the original 13) showed a slightly different take on the show, developing a mythology of sorts and showing other Voyagers, including a continuing nemesis for our heroes.  The time-travel stories also tended to have at least one more modern element each episode (something the adults watching were more likely to relate to as a memory rather than just an event plucked out of a history book).  It was also revealed that Jeffery’s presence wasn’t quite as accidental as originally portrayed, and that he was always destined to become a Voyager.

Finally, however, time ran out, and the show was cancelled in the spring of 1983.  If only there was some way to go back in time and fix that obvious mistake in the timeline.

JON-ERIK HEXUM’s first real Hollywood job was being cast as Bogg in Voyagers!, although he had turned down roles in The Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPs.  He followed with a high-profile role in the TV-movie Making of a Male Model, and in the fall of 1984 was the male lead in a new series called Cover-Up.  During the filming of that series, he accidentally was killed due to injuries received from a prop gun which he was holding.  Many believe that he was destined to be a huge star, had his life and career not been cut short at the age of 26.

MEENO PELUCE had been a frequent guest star in many series as a youngster, prior to Voyagers! He had also been a regular in the TV series version of The Bad News Bears, and the comedy series Best of the West.  After his role as Jeffrey, he performed in more guest roles, including appearing with his real-life half-sister Soleil Moon-Frye on Punky Brewster.  As an adult, he not only was a history teacher (ironic, isn’t it?), but has established himself as a professional photographer, with portraits of many stars and musicians.

Series creator JAMES PARRIOTT has been involved with many genre series, coming to Voyagers! after having produced The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman.  Thereafter, he produced, among others, Misfits of Science, Forever Knight, Dark Skies, Threat Matrix, Grey’s Anatomy, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently, Defying Gravity.  With that list, his name will show up again in this blog, I’m certain.

JILL SHERMAN (now Jill Sherman-Donner) also worked on The Incredible Hulk, and was a producer/writer for Magnum P.I., Freddy’s Nightmares, and (though she is loath to admit it) Baywatch.

Where to next, kid?

If you want to learn more about Phineas Bogg, Jeffrey Jones, or the Voyagers! series, then take a voyage down to your public library…. wait.  Instead, you can check out The Voyagers! Guidebook, with a timeless(!) array of information and great pictures from the series, as well as information on three scripts that were never used in the show.  Our modern version of time travel, the DVD set, is available as well.  Although sadly lacking in extras, it is still amazing that a show that did as poorly in the ratings as Voyagers! got a DVD release.

Maybe our memories are the best time travel of all.  That’s why this blog exists, you know….

Vital Stats:

20 aired episodes — no unaired episodes exist.
NBC network
First airdate:  October 3, 1982
Last airdate:  July 10, 1983
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central:  Yes.  Once, actually.  On Dec 3, 1982, NBC aired an episode as an experiment on a Friday night.  Networks can’t resist.

As always, comments are welcome.

–Tim R.

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