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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.