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“If things get weird, or weirder, or strange, or just if you’re not sure what’s going on, just… you just call me, all right?”
–Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files

Weird, weirder, and strange are exactly what Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden deals with best.  (Yes, that’s his full name.)  If things aren’t quite what they seem, then he’s the one with the magic touch to figure them out.  And when I say magic, I mean Grade-A sorcerer-type spells and magick that could put Harry Potter to shame.  Because Harry Dresden is the only Wizard in the Chicago phone book.

Based on a series of novels by author Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files was a 2007 Sci-Fi Channel series relating the adventures (both magical and mysterious) of Harry Dresden (Paul Blackthorne).  A private detective by trade, he’s blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with the ability to do magic in our ordinary world.  And he’s not the only one….

Harry is assisted by Bob (Terrance Mann), a ghost who walks through walls, can’t interact with anything physically, and whose essence lives inside a skull that Harry keeps.  Bob is well-versed in the knowledge of arcane magic, but has to rely on Harry to actually create and perform the actual spells and such (due to his inability to manipulate things physically).  Although rather snarky (and who wouldn’t be after hundreds of years stuck in a skull), Bob is a source of information and insight to Harry, which comes in handy when dealing with the aforementioned “weird” happenings all around him.

Harry also has to deal with the magic hierarchy, personified by Morgan (Conrad Coates).  Morgan is a Warden of the High Council, who is the enforcer of rules for those who have magical ability.  Since Harry often has to deal with rather negative elements in his investigations, he and Morgan often clash on methods, but they also have a grudging respect for one another, and are as likely to be on the same side in a fight as they are in opposition.

The skeptical Lt. Murphy

All this magical stuff is a bunch of hogwash for Chicago Police Lt. Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz), but she knows Dresden is good in a pinch, especially during some of her stranger cases.  She’s trained to find evidence, not believe in hocus pocus, and she’s very good at her job… and although (like Morgan) she can sometimes be antagonistic to Harry while trying to do that job, she sees him as an ally and a friend.  But she doesn’t see magic, and Harry tries to keep it that way… with limited success.

“You have all of this fantasy element coupled with these really real people, so it almost makes it more believable.  You don’t feel like it’s a fantasy, you feel like this is really stuff that could be happening.”
–Valerie Cruz

The Dresden Files is really a detective show masquerading as a SF/Fantasy series.  Whereas most private eyes would deal with missing persons and cheating spouses, Dresden gets to deal with bringing an already dead murderer to justice and spectral dragons invading his combination home/office.  Harry is a reluctant hero, with darkness in his own past, and he just wants to get through most days with as little hassle as possible… but he also wants to do the right thing for those who can’t help themselves, especially when he’s the one with the “power”, quite literally, to do so.  But again, it’s a power that Harry has to keep hidden from “ordinary” people (like Murphy), thanks to the edicts of the High Council.

Of course, magic has always been about creating something that isn’t necessarily real to the rest of the world.  Sort of like television, really.  And the magic of television is ever-present in the making of The Dresden Files.

“The show is not the books. It is not meant to follow the same story. It is meant as an alternate world, where the overall background and story-world is similar, but not all the same things happen. The show is not attempting to recreate the books on a chapter-by-chapter or even story-by-story basis.”
–Jim Butcher, author of the books on which the series is based.

“As much as I love demonic monkeys flinging flaming poo at people, which is the opening scene in one of Jim’s books… that doesn’t quite play as well on television.”
–Executive Producer Robert Hewett Wolfe of The Dresden Files

Harry from the book "White Knight"

The changes between the books and the series are significant, focusing on different needs and different strengths for a different medium.  The Dresden Files took many of the best qualities of the books, using them to make a great television series.  The world of magic is much more elaborate in the novels, yet streamlined for television.  Budgets forced more emphasis on characters instead of action and spectacle.  Even small details were changed, like Dresden’s wooden magic staff becoming a hockey stick in order to look less out-of-place in a normal world, or his trademark long black duster becoming more of a rumpled worn leather jacket.  But that adaptive process was magical in its own way, considering what the creative team had to do in order to portray that world on our screens every week, especially with the limitations of budgets and real-world locations.

Here are a series of quotes by Executive Producers Robert Hewett Wolfe and David Simkis on how their creative “magic” adapted the show for television.  For example, in casting process:

“We had a very long process to find Murphy.  In the books Murphy is a 5-foot tall Irish blonde… and so there was quite a bit of controversy when we cast a Cubana, a Cuban-American actress.  But we just thought that she brought the best qualities of, again, both that sort of humanity, but also the strength.  I believe that Murphy knows how to fire a gun, and wouldn’t hesitate to if you were a ‘perp’.”

The character name also had to change to Connie (from Karrin in the books) due to legal reasons, as there was at the time a real Chicago policewoman named Karyn Murphy!

The production adapted sets:

“Our Police District, which is actually an old Mercedes-Benz dealership in a different part of Toronto from the main sets.  We just took over the lease, I think, and we put all these dividers in.  (…) The whole place is basically just a reclaimed and remodeled car dealership that we grabbed the lease on, and it saved us from building any walls and was a really nice and economical way of creating that environment.”

It even re-designed characters, considering in the novels Bob is just a disembodied voice housed in a skull:

By the way, that's an axe wound in the back!

“It just became pretty obvious early on that if Dresden was going to have a confidante, that if he was going to have a friend, if he was going to have a ‘Watson’ so to speak, somebody who he could share these mysteries with and sort of bare his soul to,  that you just can’t get any sort of expression or any sort of sympathy from a skull, whether it’s flaming or not flaming or whatever it was doing.  Or however intriguing the voice is, or the voice artist would be.  So the decision was made very early on once we all sort of had the pilot in hand to re-cast that role, or cast that role for the first time.”

Let's trade accents, OK?

Here is one of the best bits of magic human actors can make.  Paul Blackthorne is actually English and Terrance Mann is American, but whenever the cameras started to roll they both had to switch accents so Dresden was the Chicago detective and Bob was the ghost who had originally lived in Britain!

Not only did the producers not follow the same story elements, they really didn’t even follow the same city:

“One of the nice things about [filming in] Toronto actually is those kinds of locations that really you don’t necessarily have the same quality of in Los Angeles that don’t look like Chicago.  (…)  It was really important to us, if we weren’t going to shoot in Chicago, to shoot in someplace like Toronto.  That looks a lot like Chicago, where we could actually pull off a credible Chicago, to the point that we showed the pilot to a critic from WGN she didn’t realize that we shot in Toronto.”

They even went so far as to cheat the weather:

Morgan watching over Harry (as usual)

“The first morning of the first day, pouring rain.  In fact, the single rainiest October day in Toronto history!  (…)  We’re actually at the lakeshore to “play” the water, but you can’t see it (…) and [Harry and Morgan] are under a tarp to catch the rain so they don’t get soaking wet, which I like to think is a little subtle bit of wizardry.  Neither one of them wants to get wet in the rain, so Morgan puts up a little magical umbrella, but you can see the rain occasionally in the foreground and they’re clearly dry as a bone.  So weather-wise it works for Chicago, unfortunately it just obliterated our background, and you look at the two of them, they’re sitting there in the rain, completely dry.”

So, the trick here isn’t that Harry Dresden is capable of magic, or even that his magical world interacts so often with our mundane one.  The trick here is that producers, directors, writers, actors, and an army of crew members can take those worlds and create them on television for us to enjoy and marvel at, and although we all know many of the obvious “special effects” that are used, it’s the magic of television that creates even more we never notice, all in the service of telling us a great story.  And that’s really the best magic trick of all.

PAUL BLACKTHORNE (Harry Dresden) starred in a couple of series in his native England (Peak Practice and Holby City) before plying his trade in Bollywood (in the film Laagan) for which he learned to speak Hindi.  Coming to America, his regular roles included the series ER, Lipstick Jungle, and a villain on season 3 of 24.  He is in demand as a guest actor as well, having recently appeared on Leverage, White Collar, and Warehouse 13.  An avid photographer, his work has been exhibited in London and New York.

TERRANCE MANN (Bob) has a Broadway résumé that reads like a “greatest hits” collection, including 2 Tony nominations and starring roles in Cats, Le Misérables, Assassins, Beauty and the Beast, The Addams Family, and The Scarlet Pimpernel.  His first big movie role was in the film adaptation of the musical A Chorus Line.  On acting, he said, “Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”

CONRAD COATES (Morgan) is a Canadian actor and has appeared in recurring roles in Kyle XY, The Zack Files, and La Femme Nikita, and Degrassi: The Next Generation.  He has guested on numerous Canadian-based productions, including Warehouse 13, Slings & Arrows, Earth: Final Conflict, and War of the Worlds.  He also landed a part in the recent Tron: Legacy feature film.

VALERIE CRUZ (Connie Murphy) has been seen as a regular on Dexter, True Blood, Hidden Palms, and the first season of Nip/Tuck.  Guest shots have included roles on Crossing Jordan, Grey’s Anatomy, Invasion, and Dollhouse.  Her Cuban ancestry helped her gain the role as Dr. Zita Alvarez in the upcoming ABC medical series Off the Map.

Harry, Murphy, Bob, and Morgan. A magical cast.

The Dresden Files is available on DVD, with a couple of commentaries and a behind-the-scenes featurette that details some of the process of turning the book series into the TV version, and the episodes are also available at Hulu.  The books are still going strong, and you can find them in various formats at Amazon.com as well as most popular booksellers.  Author Jim Butcher has his own website where you can find out about upcoming books and more, including comic/graphic novel adaptations, the audio book versions read by actor James Marsters, and even a role-playing game so you can enter the world of The Dresden Files yourself.

If you ever hear mysterious sounds that go “bump” in the night, or a long-dead acquaintance suddenly re-enters your life, there’s really only one place to go, and only one man who can help.  I happened to stumble across a business card once that might do you some good.  It says:

“Harry Dresden – Wizard.  Lost items found.  Paranormal Investigations.  Consulting.  Advice.  Reasonable Rates.  No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.”

Just call him up.  Because although he’s not on TV anymore… he’s in the book.

Vital Stats

12 aired episodes – none unaired (although the pilot was lengthened to 2 hours at one point and shown as a movie version.
Sci-Fi Network
First aired episode:  January 21, 2007
Last aired episode:  April 15, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Sunday at 9/8 actually, garnering decent ratings in a highly competitive timeslot, but it likely would have done better with Friday airings since Sci-Fi had developed an audience there already.

Comments and suggestions encouraged, as always.

–Tim R.

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Last week’s show was Dark Skies, which took the reality of history and pretended there was an unseen fictional story behind it.  This week presents a show that did the opposite, taking some of the world’s best known fiction, and pretending that there was actually an unseen reality behind it.

“I first came up with the idea of putting Jules Verne at the center of his own adventures when I discovered that he had originally written Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea because he was furious at the Russian invasion of Poland.  Suddenly it came to me… what if there had been more reality behind the Jules Verne fantasies than we even knew?  And what if I wrote a series of stories which revealed the true adventures behind Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, then added to these stories some of Verne’s actual contemporaries – noted figures as diverse as Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, and Frank and Jesse James!”
–Gavin Scott, creator of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne

The cast of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne

So, let’s say that all of the fantastic adventures Verne wrote about in his later years ACTUALLY happened to him… but not exactly the way he wrote.  In other words, the stories we’ve come to know as classics are actually fictionalized versions of the “real” events shown in the series.  So, we meet Jules Verne (played by Chris Demetral), not as the seasoned and famous author, but as a young artiste in Paris, full of brilliant ideas, but trying to figure out what he’s really going to do with his life.  His path crosses that of a former member of the British Secret Service, Phineas Fogg (Michael Praed), and his valet Passepartout (Michel Courtemanche), who have recently come into the possession of an airship (dirigible) called the Aurora.  The Aurora serves as the unofficial home base of the group, allowing them to travel almost anywhere in the world (there’s even a five-episode “arc” that takes place in America roughly during the Civil War).  They are joined on their adventures by Rebecca Fogg (Francesca Hunt), Phineas’ adopted cousin, who is essentially the first female secret agent.  She is the Victorian era version of Mrs. Peel from The Avengers:  sexy, capable, and more than able to handle herself in a fight.

Young Verne, inquisitive as always

And fight they all must, thanks to the existence of the villain of the piece (and there’s always a villain, isn’t there?).  In this case, it is Count Gregory (Rick Overton), leader of the League of Darkness and champion of the aristocracy (and opponent of the democratic movement sweeping Europe and the Americas at this point).  Since chaos and disharmony are good for their cause, the League is always interested in creating anarchy in any way possible.  And they want the brilliant mind of Verne, if only for his imaginative designs of fantastic ships (such as rockets, tunneling devices, and an early version of the Nautilus submarine) which they intend to build and use in their conquests.  And so the ongoing conflict in many episodes is created.

We now have the set-up for fantastic adventures and daring escapades, many of which will (supposedly) make it into the future Verne’s amazing tales… with the names and events SLIGHTLY fictionalized, of course, so as to protect the “actual” people involved.  Quite a nice trick, if you can pull it off.  And the producers were pulling no punches in trying to do so.

The Aurora -- One of the most beautiful ships ever on television.

A 100,000 square-foot soundstage was created in Montreal (it was actually a former railway warehouse, complete with railroad tracks running through it), and the city streets of Paris and London were recreated there, as well as the interiors of the Aurora and assorted caves and other locales needed for the series.  The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne was the first hour-long series shot completely in Hi-Definition, and for its time used more special effects per episode than many theatrical movies.  Of course, being the first to do anything is basically saying that you’re the one who gets to discover where things can go wrong, “working the bugs out” as it were.  It didn’t help that most potential outlets for the show (it was originally on the Sci-Fi channel here in America, before landing in syndication on local stations) weren’t set up at the time for HD broadcast.  Therefore, the wonderful HD production values were reduced to being transferred to film anyway, with the result being probably less than what film itself would have provided, although the digital effects were more than worth it.  The Aurora, in particular, is shown in numerous flying scenes, and, at times, is simply breathtaking.

The remodeled (and now state-of-the-art) HD production facility and the period setting weren’t cheap, and the show was rumored to cost almost $2 million dollars an episode — in 1999.  Worse, that money didn’t show up on the screen after the transfer to film, especially when the fight scenes and quicker camera movements looked somehow “off”, because the digital information didn’t transfer properly to regular film technology at that point.  So, here’s what you ended up with:  A show about futuristic events that took place around the 1860’s, shot with state-of-the-art technology that didn’t look, as presented, like it was filmed with current filming methods.  And it cost $40 million dollars for 22 episodes.  Not exactly pocket change.

No, this is not Gavin Scott looking for funding... although it probably felt like it!

Creator Gavin Scott had to go on his own “around the world” tour to get this dream produced in the first place.  He had been shopping the idea of the series to various potential financial partners for a number of years.  First, he found some connections in California (Crest Films, specifically), but no one that could put together all the funding for the concept.  He then went to England, and got some of the money from a production company named Talisman, then an insurance company called Flashpoint ponied up some more cash.  A German production company climbed on board, and finally it became a Canadian co-production, with the caveat that it was filmed in that country, for tax reasons.  Note that nowhere in this equation is there any mention of an actual broadcast outlet… because as of that time, there wasn’t one.  This was $40 million dollars riding on, literally, faith in the concept.  It was all “deficit spending”, with filming finished on the first season before the show had been sold to ANY broadcast outlets.  Talk about amazing adventures….

This was definitely NOT business as usual for television, let alone the rather atypical subject matter of the steampunk flavored Jules Verne.  A Sci-Fi series that’s also a period piece is not an easy sell, even though you’ve got 22 episodes already made.  Fantastic though it might be, both story-wise and production-wise, it still had to find that elusive audience ratings-wise.

The show ended up being bought in the US by the Sci-Fi Channel, by the Space network in Canada, and by other outlets around the world.  Thereafter, it was syndicated to local stations as well, in an attempt to make enough money back to warrant a second season, but unfortunately, that never happened.  Even though there were significant plans to build a Nautilus set, and bring in Captain Nemo (and his daughter Laura as a love interest for the young Verne), a second season was just as impossible as some of the real Jules Verne’s fantastic tales… no matter how much we wanted to believe in them.

CHRIS DEMETRAL (Jules Verne) was best known as Jeremy Tupper, the son on the HBO comedy Dream On, prior to becoming Jules Verne.  He left the acting business shortly after the series, and is now one of the editors of the website WickedInfo.com, specializing in reviews and interviews of numerous comedians, musicians, and other up-and-coming stars.

MICHAEL PRAED (Phineas Fogg) has done most of his work in his native England, becoming the cult hero of the British series Robin of Sherwood.  American audiences knew him best as Prince Michael of Moldavia over multiple seasons of Dynasty.  Currently, he acts as narrator on the long-running BBC documentary series Timewatch, and concentrates much of his performing on his stage career, including a recent tour as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

FRANCESCA HUNT (Rebecca Fogg), also from England, starred in the British series Strathblair and Roughnecks before becoming the first female of the British Secret Service in Jules Verne.  In addition to acting, she also happens to be a competitive swimmer, and an excellent swordswoman, doing many of the fight scenes and swordplay on the series herself.  Coming from a talented family, she recently “appeared” with her real-life sister, India Fisher, in the Doctor Who series of monthly audio plays.

MICHAEL COURTEMANCHE (Passepartout) gained fame as a French-Canadian comedian, selling out arena shows with his “mime and sound effects” style of comedy.  An accomplished physical comedian, he later turned to the production side of the camera, forming a company called Encore Television and producing for Canadian television and film.

RICK OVERTON (Count Gregory) has had a long career as a stand-up comedian, and an equally long one in films and television as varied as TV guest shots from NYPD Blue to The Office; and film roles from Willow to Cloverfield.  Most recently he’s been seen in a recurring role as the slightly bumbling FBI agent Taggart on Leverage.  He’s also an accomplished mimic, and is credited additionally on Jules Verne as a “creative consultant”, as he conceived and built many of the original models for Verne’s fantastic machines, including a time machine, the tunneling engine, and best of all, the Aurora itself.  (Oh, and he’s also just a really great guy.  I got to meet him this past spring, and he’s just fantastic!)

GAVIN SCOTT (Creator/Producer) has always been involved in making the fantastic, having written or produced the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Space Rangers, Small Soldiers, and The Borrowers, as well as The Mists of Avalon and Legend of Earthsea mini-series for the Sci-Fi channel.  Oh, and if you’re into REALLY fantastical adventure, check out Scott’s current project, The Adventures of Edward and Henrietta, in which he uses his own sculpted figures to tell a web story that’s like a combination of Jules Verne and whimsical Monty Python.  Hard to describe, but it’s sure something unique.

The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne has never been made available on DVD (too many people/companies/countries have to sign off on the deal to make it happen), but bootlegs are out there.  Numerous clips of the show are available on YouTube, however, including many “broken up” full episodes.  These also showcase the amazing guest list this show was able to acquire, including Patrick Duffy, John Rhys-Davies, David Warner, Margot Kidder, Michael Moriarty, and Rene Auberjonois.  The best fan site for more information is from TwoEvilMonks, who also have information on series like Alias, The Mists of Avalon, and Firefly.  They also have the original promotional brochures for Jules Verne, so you can see what the series was like during its creation, and the changes it went though.

Looking towards the next adventure

The real Jules Verne was one of the first authors to ask the question “What if?”  Gavin Scott asked that same question, and it led both men to adventures and experiences that were both amazing and fantastic.  The best part is, we all get to come along for the ride.  Watch The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and let your imagination take you away.  Adventure, excitement, and beauty, all the things that television, and life, should be.  And then, find your own way to change fantasy into reality.  Ask yourself “What if?”

Vital Stats

22 aired episodes – no unaired episodes exist
Sci-Fi Channel in the US, and Space in Canada, and syndicated around the country.
First aired episode:  June 18, 2000
Last aired episode:  December 16, 2000
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central:  Yes, when it aired on the Sci-Fi channel originally, that was EXACTLY the spot.  Why am I not surprised?

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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