Jack of All Trades is like a gourmet meal for goofballs.  If you took a dash of Wild Wild West, add a dash of Get Smart on top, and a garnish of F Troop, and a helping of Moonlighting… that’s what you’d get.”
–Bruce Campbell

Back when I started this website, one of the first articles I wrote was about The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., headlined by cult hero Bruce Campbell.  The series is one of my favorites, and the show got an unfortunate early demise despite its wild adventure and comedy mix.  There’s a reason the article for it was called “Just under over-the-top”, as it described perfectly the fun tone and presentation.  But Bruce Campbell has done much more in his career, and there’s one other show he later did which fits on this site.  The show is called Jack of All Trades… and it abandons all pretense of being UNDER over-the-top.  Here, there’s no longer any subtlety involved… and in this case, that’s a good thing.

In the 2000 series Jack of All Trades, we meet Jack Stiles (Bruce Campbell), an entertaining rogue if ever there was one.  A former spy (or “secret agent”, before the term was popularized), he worked for the early US Government during the Revolutionary War, and was now entrusted with preventing the formerly allied French from gaining a foothold in a slowly building America.  Despite their differences (and there are many), he teams with a British agent, the lovely Emilia Rothschild (Angela Dotchin), and they establish themselves on the tiny East Indies island of Palau Palau, hoping to fight the enemy French from within their own colony.

In order to fool the French,  Jack pretends to be the manservant of the regal Rothschild, while Emilia takes on the bearing of a respected member of society’s elite (and supposedly on the side of the governing French).  She and Jack are really there to spy on their mutual French enemies and foil their plans for world domination.  And while there’s an obvious attraction to each other, neither is used to taking any orders from someone else, and both sexual tension and friction are played in equal measure amidst the rollicking adventure.

Croque

To help with fighting the French, Jack also takes on the alias of the legendary Daring Dragoon, a supposed local legend and masked hero.  Using both covers as Emilia’s attaché and the local populace’s fascination with the “reappearance” of the Dragoon, Jack and Emilia embark upon their true mission:  opposing the brother of Napoleon, Governor Croque (Stuart Devenie),  and Croque’s personal lackey, Captain Brogard (Stephen Papps).  Our heroic pair then proceeds to foil various plans and schemes of others, including many historical figures like Bonaparte himself.  In reality, Emilia is often Jack’s assistant instead of the public portrayal as his superior, and she’s also rather adept at mechanical invention, coming up with various devices to foil villainous plots along with the swashbuckling of Jack’s Daring Dragoon.

Brogard

Captain Brogard:  “So, we meet again, Mister Fancy Sword and his flowing cape.”

Jack (as the Dragoon):  “Give me some credit, will ya?  You know how hard it is to wear this thing and still look dashing?”


the Daring Dragoon

Between the Zorro-like pastiche of the Dragoon, the deus ex machina of some of Emilia’s machines, and the general lack of historical accuracy given in the production of the series, there’s no two ways about it:  Jack of All Trades was designed purely as an action romp, complete with cartoon character villains and plot holes big enough to drive war cannons through.  But that certainly didn’t stop the show from being entertaining, and that was the whole point.

From the opening, you knew this show was different.  The rousing theme song features a large cast, clever lyrics, explosions, dancing pirates (even one with a peg leg, on a table no less), and a talking parrot.  Subtlety be damned, this was in-your-face joyful fun.  It did such a fine job of setting the scene and demonstrating the style of the series, it was nominated for an Emmy!  Jack of All Trades was no place for sensitive drama or introspective scripting, and the theme alone let everyone see just what they were in for.

And the show delivered on that promise, at least most of the time.  There is some good role reversal going on between Jack and Emilia and the roles they have to play for the French leaders in order to keep their true identities hidden, and whenever Jack dons the garb of the Daring Dragoon Bruce Campbell simply shines.  Stories included numerous French attempts at conquest with Napoleon Bonaparte, a meeting with explorers Lewis and Clark, and faking the death of one of the principals to clear the name of the Dragoon.  And just when you thought the show couldn’t get any crazier, they broke out the Marquis De Sade, and a sex-game based triathlon ran in pseudo-fetish costume (or at least as “costumed” as television could get in the year 2000).

Governor Croque: “The Marquis de Sade is my second cousin, twice-removed.”
Jack Stiles: “I can see why you removed him.”

Trying to be true to the actual setting of 1800 was a lost cause, and even became a running gag at times.  Canada was constantly mistakenly(?) mentioned as being under French control instead of British, and historical characters visited Palau Palau even though their own “real” timelines never had them near the place (or even alive at the time).  Jack of All Trades was never designed for the remotest attention to detail or reality, it was simply designed as silly, fun entertainment.  And that’s just the way Bruce Campbell wanted it.

“I have a good time.  It’s one of the reasons I took Jack of All Trades.  It’s like a guarantee that I will have fun every day .”
–Bruce Campbell

Modern audiences might know Campbell from his current run as sidekick/mentor Sam Axe on the USA series Burn Notice.  He’s played the part since 2007, which is easily the longest running regular gig he’s had in television, although he’s known for many others.  He was an occasional guest (and fan favorite) as Autolycus on both Hercules:  The Legendary Journeys and sister series Xena:  Warrior Princess, both of which were shooting in New Zealand before and after his stint in Jack of All Trades.  I’ve mentioned his star turn in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. previously. He’s also had a movie career which includes the cult favorite Evil Dead/Army of Darkness movies, cool zombie pictures that became influences on the current television hit The Walking Dead.

Campbell is a successful bestselling author, with tongue firmly in cheek, writing the semi-autobiographical tomes Make Love!  The Bruce Campbell Way and (making fun of his chiseled good looks) If Chins Could Kill:  Confessions of a B-Movie Actor.  He knows his niche, and while he’s possessed of great dramatic skills when they’re necessary (a stunning two-part Homicide:  Life on the Street comes to mind), his personality and desire seems to be more in line with poking fun, both at himself and others, with the characters he plays.

He’s also become associated with good friend Sam Raimi, a producer of film and television who has used Bruce in many of his vehicles (as listed above), but considers Campbell his “good luck charm” and will find small roles for him in various films.  Whether he’s a wrestling ring announcer or a French waiter, or his part ended up on the cutting room floor, Raimi wouldn’t make a film without him.

Fortunately, the aims of Jack of All Trades dovetailed with Raimi’s needs, and the series was shot utilizing some of the resources Raimi had already set up for Hercules and Xena in New Zealand.  The monetary exchange rate was excellent at the time, and a production which would cost millions of dollars in Hollywood only cost a bit over half of that down under.  An added plus was locations and scenery that simply wasn’t available in California, especially when you’re trying to replicate (even inaccurately) a South Sea island like Palau Palau.  The only real problem was time… but not in the way you might think.

Cleopatra 2525

When Jack of All Trades premiered, it was paired with a futuristic series called Cleopatra 2525, and sold as a set known as the “Back-to-Back Action Pack”.  It was also sold as only a 30-mintue program, with Cleopatra 2525 filling the other half of the hour.  Once you remove the necessary commercials (as they pay for the production), and the elaborate opening credits and any end credit sequence (required by various unions, no matter how they’ve been shrunk on modern-day shows), you’re left with an actual available running time of only about 20 minutes per episode, if you’re lucky.

That may be enough for a typical situation comedy, with a modest plot set primarily in a living room or office.  It becomes a terrible burden, however, when trying to make a period show set on a South Sea island, with multiple characters foiling elaborate schemes, plus character relationships and secret identities, not to mention trying to add action/adventure qualities with an over-the-top comedic tone.  Jack of All Trades really tried to be exactly that:  a show which presented all types of things to all people, in the name of entertainment.  But ultimately it couldn’t do everything it had hoped, primarily because of the time constraints.

But at least it had fun trying.  And perhaps “fun” is the one quality most important in any show, for viewers, cast, and crew.  And, as the opening credits sang, if you didn’t know that… you don’t know Jack.

All about the fun

BRUCE CAMPBELL (Jack Stiles) and his career are detailed in the article itself, but mention should be made of his recent trip overseas to visit US troops during the recent Iraqi conflict, and of his brother Don’s involvement.  Don has almost 30 years of experience in the military, and the brothers support each other in their endeavors.  Bruce has appeared at multiple sites in support of the troops, and Don has helped with some of the military-related roles Bruce has played over the years.  Entertainment takes many forms, and is especially valued by those whose hard work helps make us free to enjoy those moments.

AMANDA DOTCHIN (Emilia Rothschild) is a native of New Zealand, and her career has been primarily down under.  She’s best known there for the Lawless series of TV-movies, where won awards for her portrayal of a private investigator.  She left the acting business a few years ago and moved to Great Britain, where she now makes a living in the fashion industry.

STEWART DEVENIE (Governor Croque) is another New Zealand actor, and a favorite of director Peter Jackson.  He’s had an extensive theatre career as both an actor and director, and taught acting at the New Zealand Drama School.  He also founded the Playfair Ltd. theatre company, based in Auckland.

STEPHEN PAPPS (Captain Brogard) also appeared in both Hercules:  The Legendary Journeys and Xena:  Warrior Princess before joining Jack of All Trades.  Continuing his acting in Australia and New Zealand, he was seen in America most recently guesting on Legend of the Seeker (which filmed, like Hercules and Xena, in New Zealand).

Jack of All Trades has been released on DVD (although there aren’t any extras included), so you can enjoy all the fun and adventure for yourself.  Bruce Campbell has his own site, of course, full of information about his previous projects, his current stint on Burn Notice, and upcoming appearances at various conventions around the country.  He may be a self-confessed “B-movie” actor, but many would love to have his career, his fans, and his popularity.  On his site, just as in Jack of All Trades, you can see why.

No matter what the Hollywood power structure might believe as a business, for viewers television will always be primarily an entertainment medium.  One which is invited into our homes, as a part of our everyday lives, to bring us both dramatic and humorous moments to make our existence more interesting or, at the very least, provide an outlet for escape.  Depending upon the scene and the episode, Jack of All Trades did this well, with likable characters and humor, in a setting and style seldom found on most programs.

Much of the credit has to go to Bruce Campbell, for although he’s a self-proclaimed B-list actor, he’s been a welcome part of many productions, and his executive producer credits on both Jack of All Trades and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. meant his trademark humor was more than evident.  It only proves that, even though he plays a supporting role on the current Burn Notice, when the series was tapped for a special TV-movie, it focused upon his character and his backstory before the show continuity began.

Campbell may not be a star in the strictest Hollywood sense, but for those who appreciate his humor and dedication, he’s one of the brightest stars in both television and movies.  He doesn’t have to master Hollywood, especially when he can become popular on his own terms.  To those who love his work, he’s already a Jack of All Trades, and a master of entertainment.

Vital Stats

22 half-hour episodes — none unaired — available on DVD
Syndicated
First aired episode:  January 22, 2000
Final aired episode:  December 2, 2000
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Perhaps, but not likely.  Since the series was syndicated, it aired at various different times on different stations who bought the rights.  It also was known to flip-flop with Cleopatra 2525 at times, occasionally airing before it, and occasionally airing after.

(By the way, this didn’t fit in the article, but I found a picture that’s the very definition of “cult hero”:  Here’s Bruce Campbell, wearing Clan Campbell tartan dress, posing with Conor Macleod’s Highlander broadsword, in front of statues of Robert the Bruce and William “Braveheart” Wallace, at Edinbrugh Castle in Scotland.)

Thanks to the HeroChan website for this!

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

As they would say in the cartoons, it’s time to buckle those swashes and get ready for some derring-do.  This show may not have been animated, but the action and adventure certainly was.  In fact, there’s almost more entertainment than could packed into a regular show.  And the hero of the piece?  Well, he’s been a hero throughout his career… but maybe not a grade-A one.

Five quotes:

Here, there’s no longer any subtlety involved… and in this case, that’s a good thing.

…an entertaining rogue if ever there was one.

“You know how hard it is to wear this thing and still look dashing?”

“It’s like a guarantee that I will have fun every day .”

…a show which presented all types of things to all people, in the name of entertainment.

A lively and fun show, existing for no other reason than to entertain, and a star whose work has always existed to do the same.  There’s a little of everything to be found, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“A fascinating subject, the Bermuda Triangle is like the ‘open sesame’.  It was there as a doorway into an infinite number of stories that had to do with the imagination more than anything.”
–Executive Producer Bruce Lansbury

There have been many ships and planes “lost” in what is known as “the Bermuda Triangle,” a mysterious area of the Caribbean just south of the US, with unexplained phenomena and unusual happenings.  At least, that’s the way it was back in the ’70’s, when imaginations ran wild with ideas of various people being transported to who knows where, or even who knows when.  While it was always a wonder about where they ended up, one show in the ’70’s decided to use those concepts to tell stories about all sorts of possible destinations.  On this show, it was all about The Fantastic Journey.

The (ultimate) cast of The Fantastic Journey

The Fantastic Journey aired 10 episodes on NBC beginning in 1976.  The initial pilot concerned a small group of scientists exploring the questions of the Bermuda Triangle, and becoming part of the unknown themselves when their sailing vessel is swallowed up by a mysterious green cloud (and you KNOW it’s mysterious because it’s GREEN, such easy television shorthand that it got used in a similar show a decade later).  The passengers awaken on an island, shipwrecked, unable to contact the mainland, and wondering how to survive.

Included are Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), a doctor just graduated out of school, who was acting as the medical advisor for the group.  He is joined by young Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann), the son of the scientist in charge of the expedition, and a history buff whose inquisitive nature sometimes causes problems.

These two meet up with Varian (Jared Martin), who first appears to them as an Arawak Indian, but he’s actually in disguise.  While the island they’re on apparently is somewhere in the 16th century, complete with renegade pirates, Varian is actually from the year 2260, and is just as stranded as Dr. Walters and Scott.  A pacifist by nature and belief, he uses a “Sonic Energizer” to focus his thoughts and do everything from heal injuries to open locked doors and create explosions.  (Think of Doctor Who‘s “sonic screwdriver”, except it looks like a fancy tuning fork.)

While there were others who survived the wreck, they didn’t survive the pilot, as some characters (including Scott’s father) were “lucky” enough to be sent home, as the initial episode was “adjusted” to eliminate them, leaving only Varian, Dr. Walters and Scott.

“The original idea was to go both directions in time.  In the pilot we had gone back in time.  NBC didn’t like that.  They said the past was boring and that we should only go forward in time.  But we couldn’t go out and shoot another pilot.  They decided to find some way to shoot some new footage about the future and insert it.  Also, the pilot was two hours long and they wanted to show it in an hour-and-a-half time slot as an extra-long episode to kick off the series.  So all these things were going on.”
–Jared Martin

Varian becomes the de facto leader of the small band, and he tells them the island they’re on houses many different times and places, all at once, and their way home lies somewhere in a place called “Evoland” many “time zones” away.  Their first journey after the pilot leads them away from the 16th century into a place called Atlantium, where they gain another traveler (or, really, two).

Liana and Varian

Liana (Katie Saylor) is a woman with an unusual heritage, said to be the daughter of an extraterrestrial mother who joined with her human father.  Deceptively strong due to her mixed parentage, she also possesses increased mental abilities, including telepathic skills.  She utilizes these with her pet, Sil-el, who appears to us as a cat (but quite possibly could be something more).  Liana doesn’t trust the new government of Atlantium (nor should she, honestly), so she decides to join Varian and company on her own search for home.

Varian, Dr.Willoway, and guest Joan Collins in the episode "Turnabout"

The next stop of the group, in the third episode, picks up another member for their journey.  Dr. Jonathan Willoway (Roddy McDowall) is a scientist from the 1960’s, but years ahead in pure scientific knowledge.  Trapped in a world of androids, he sees the group as a way to avoid his confinement and, although he has few skills to get along with other humans, he becomes a reluctant addition to the party.

At least initially, Willoway inhabits the “villain” role in stories, due to his selfishness and inability to relate to the others.  While at first this plays more like the comedic Dr. Smith of Lost in Space, McDowall’s talents (and some extensive script work) create a much more likable character in later episodes.  While there are still opposing views in place (Varian’s pacifist nature, Scott’s inquisitiveness, Liana’s non-human values), the group goes on together for the good of all.

“When I first brought it to the network, they kept trying to hammer it into a science fiction mold.  It was originally called The Incredible Island where all things could happen and did, you know, and it was a place where you could tell all kinds of stories, just as Serling did in Twilight Zone.  And basically we ended up doing that.  We didn’t do sci-fi at all. I leaned towards science fantasy, which permits you to a broader range of story and it pushes the imagination a little more than pure science fiction.  Science fiction tends to become the victim of rules and regulations and what has been done before and a categorization process.  That happens in science fiction.  Science fantasy allows you to express yourself in any way you want to as long as it opens the mind.”
–Bruce Lansbury

The world of Atlantium

It also makes telling stories much easier when you don’t have pesky rules around to get in the way.  Lansbury’s original idea was much more based in historical settings, although futuristic ones were possible.  As a history buff, Scott was going to be one of the sources for information, as was Dr. Walters for his medical knowledge.  But in a purely science fiction/fantasy premise, characters with advanced ideas were needed, especially when their explanations could be adjusted for story purposes; hence, the addition of Liana and Dr. Willoway to the group.

All those changes would suppose the series was about the characters themselves.  Perhaps that would have been more true if The Fantastic Journey had lasted longer than a mere 10 episodes.  But initially, the series was about the amazing places the group would discover as they made their way towards Evoland and, possibly, a way home.  It was not about significant character growth.

“The difference between doing something like this and doing a contemporary show is that everybody knows the whole typical format, the whole set; they know the stereotypes — they know everything — whereas, when you’re talking about something futurist, that’s fantasy.  You have to create that atmosphere for them.  You’ve got to make them believe that place.  More than anything else, they’ve got to get a feel of the place that you’re talking about.”
–Carl Franklin

There’s a good reason the show’s title is The Fantastic Journey.  It’s really about all the places they went, and the cultures they encountered.  While I admit freely that I may have been a bit disparaging of this series at one time (especially when I discussed a similar series, Otherworld), more recently I’ve discovered something that’s true about many shows:  different shows balance character and context in vastly different ways.  Two shows (like The Fantastic Journey and Otherworld in this example) might be very similar in premise, but they can be light years apart in execution.  And while I may like one over the other, for reasons of personal preference, they can both be successful at what they wanted to do.  I came to see The Fantastic Journey in a new, better light, simply because I realized it wasn’t about the characters, and my desires for their growth.  It really was about the journey… and showing the journey is exactly what the show set out to do.

A "women's liberation" story in scantily clad costumes. Of course. Welcome to the '70's.

The world encountered might be one filled with only children, or an examination of violence among a society of pacifists, or the old SF saw about a world run by only women and the idea of “male liberation.”  Each world was used to portray, through both the world itself and the reaction of our “outsider” characters, different points of view in a dramatic context.  And although the 1970’s view of “right” often prevailed, there’s enough shown from the more futuristic characters to see that there might be better ways to approach things than what existed in the past.

Because of this emphasis on message over character, individual advancement and growth of the regulars became pushed to the background, to the detriment of some very good actors.  But hopefully the actors knew that going in, simply because the stated premise of the show wasn’t about them, but what they encountered.  If it was just about the characters, Lansbury and company might have just kept the original cast from the pilot and gone on from there, but they didn’t.  They assembled points of view instead.

“Coming out of the pilot, we dropped two characters and acquired two more.  We acquired a girl from Atlantium and we acquired Dr. Willoway.  They were to balance a cast with Ike Eisenmann’s character and the black doctor, and it worked out in Varian who was a musician who healed with music.  And he was a very popular character incidentally.  But basically it was looking for a balance that would give us stories that went in every direction.  We always had a villain, so that you saw the darker side of human nature, and the better side of human nature hopefully always prevailed.  We overcame that dark side and looked to a future which was brighter.”
–Bruce Lansbury

There’s a balance on most shows between “character” and “situation,” and each show on television weighs that balance differently.  Some shows lean heavily toward the “character” side of the equation, and that’s where I believed Otherworld thrived, even when their premise and the “civilization of the week” ideas of The Fantastic Journey held much in common.  But I’ve since realized both shows succeed on their own merits, simply because The Fantastic Journey, even in its title, set out to be about the trip and not the people involved.  I criticized the show for having characters as ciphers, merely to set out different points of view for each society they met… and yet, since that was the actual goal, the creators and actors really did do their jobs admirably.  In my limited view, I just thought, initially, that it should be a different job.

But I was wrong.  Even the labors involved in the recasting (which took three episodes of the series to accomplish) showed that the producers were more interested in exploring the ideas inherent in the portrayed societies than in our characters’ growth.  Their character reactions were interesting, certainly, but served a wider canvas than just the effects upon their person.   The commentary on each society was designed to show the characters from our own time a new and sometimes better place.  That commentary also meant to show the “future” characters that those from our time might actually have gotten something right, something they may have lost in their attempts at enlightenment.  We current-day humans may not have all the answers, but we’ve got a few good ideas, and we’re willing to both teach and learn from the future.

And I’m willing to learn, too.  It’s all part of The Fantastic Journey.

In a search for answers to the Bermuda Triangle, Dr. Walters and Scott found an entire world full of ideas, choices, and discoveries to experience, and others joined them in their travels searching for their own solutions.  And while The Fantastic Journey was about those larger notions, the most important one was ultimately finding their way back, utilizing the differences and strengths of each other to help in their own travels.  And together, through all these wonderful experiences, they might actually find their way home, and learn something along the way.

CARL FRANKLIN (Dr. Fred Walters) was a guest star on many shows in the ’80’s, most notably as a recurring character chasing The A-Team.  He’s focused primarily on directing since the early ’90’s, most recently with an episode of Falling Skies this past season.  As a director and screenwriter, he (and the film) won multiple awards for Devil in a Blue Dress, a film noir set in the late ’40’s featuring Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle.

IKE EISENMANN (Scott Jordan) is well-known to genre fans as Cadet Peter Preston in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and made his mark starring in the original Disney films Escape from Witch Mountain and the sequel Return to Witch Mountain.  In later years, he worked in post-production roles on many animated and live-action projects, both becoming a sound engineer and lending his voice to occasional characters.

JARED MARTIN (Varian) first came to prominence in The Fantastic Journey, but he’d appeared in many series previously, including The Rookies, Night Gallery, and Columbo.  He’s best known to the public at large for his recurring role as “Dusty” Farlow on Dallas, and was one of the leading fan suspects for the famous “Who shot J.R.?” plot (even though the producers hadn’t considered him at the time!)  He starred in the television version of War of the Worlds, and later created the Big Picture Alliance, helping introduce inner city youth in Philadelphia to filmmaking and production, a task he was heavily involved with for the next 15 years.

KATIE SAYLOR (Liana) had appeared on Police Story and Cannon prior to her role on The Fantastic Journey.  She unfortunately became severely ill during production of the series, forcing her to bow out of the final two episodes, and her recovery apparently took approximately a year.  She retired from the acting business as a result of her health issues, and reportedly passed away due to cancer in 1991.

RODDY McDOWALL (Dr. Jonathan Willoway) was featured on this site for his lead role on the televised version of Planet of the Apes, portraying a similar character to the ones he’d played in the original feature film series.  Popular and well-mannered, he’s remembered as one of Hollywood’s last real gentleman stars, and his collection of early film and television memorabilia now is kept by the Motion Picture Academy (the people who give out the Oscars).  Willoway was actually written specifically to interest McDowall in the part, as the producers wanted him to join their series… and after reading the script, he did!

The Fantastic Journey is unavailable as a commercial DVD, so the bootleg route is the only reasonable way to see them all.  The opening is available on YouTube, as are a few episodes (in chunks, of course).  The show itself is well-remembered by many, even though it lasted a relatively short time, and there’s a great fan site here with information on the series stars, episodes, and a few articles published during the original run.

Ready for the next journey

“For the near future, at any rate, I think the future of science fiction will be in the movies, not on TV., which is sad.  The people who most need to be educated are the ones who don’t go to films, who sit at home, turn on the TV set, and absorb anything that comes their way.”
–Jared Martin, on the demise of The Fantastic Journey

Oddly enough, the above quote comes from Martin in early April of 1977, not quite two months before the original Star Wars opened in movie theaters and Hollywood (and science fiction) were changed forever.  Perhaps if The Fantastic Journey had held on a bit longer, it might have been part of the fans’ journey as well, towards a new and different world for both the series and for science fiction and fantasy in general.  An unexpected enlightenment waited just a bit farther down the road.

And maybe that is the ultimate purpose of any journey, whether it’s one of a televised nature or a personal one.  Those that feel the goal is the nebulous idea of “enlightenment” sometimes forget that it’s not really a goal per se.  Enlightenment is never really fully achieved, but it’s the path taken to get there that brings us home, full of fresh ideas and wonder.  And that’s what all the characters in The Fantastic Journey were really after, once you look at it that way.  All any of them wanted was their own version of enlightenment, their own way home.

Vital Stats

10 episodes — none unaired (although a rumored 11th script, Romulus, is apparently out there)
NBC Network
First aired episode:  February 3, 1977 (90-minute pilot)
Final aired episode:  June 17, 1977 (airing two months after the regular run of the series ended in April)
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, the series normal timeslot was Thursdays at 8/7, up against hits The Waltons and Welcome Back, Kotter.  The journey to ratings success was troublesome to begin with.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

When you’ve lost your way, sometimes it’s not so much where you’re going, as what you discover during your search.  For five very different people, what they encounter is far beyond their normal lives, no matter where (or when) they originally came from.  They’d like to get back home, of course, but until then, who knows what they’ll run into?

Five quotes:

…and you KNOW it’s mysterious because it’s GREEN…

“They said the past was boring and that we should only go forward in time.”

“Science fiction tends to become the victim of rules and regulations…”

“You have to create that atmosphere for them.  You’ve got to make them believe that place.”

…we’ve got a few good ideas, and we’re willing to both teach and learn from the future.

Come join a trip to the unknown, where the journey is much more important than the destination.  Departure will be on this Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“Nobody had tried to make a funny cartoon on Saturday morning for, I think, almost twenty years.  What was the last one, probably George of the Jungle?  Jay Ward was the last guy who actually tried telling jokes on a kid’s cartoon.  And then nothing…”
–Writer Jim Reardon

Jim Reardon should know.  He became a writer/producer on The Simpsons for 14 years, a show which has become the longest running entertainment program on American television, and later was nominated for an Oscar as co-writer for the Pixar movie WALL-E.  But a quarter of a century ago, just before The Simpsons started out as short segments on The Tracey Ullman Show, Reardon had recently graduated from California Institute of the Arts animation classes.  He and a bunch of other fresh-faced newbies in the television world were about to turn animation on its ear, led by one old radical and one almost forgotten cartoon hero.  The radical was Ralph Bakshi, and the show they produced together was Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures.

Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (with new arch-nemesis, The Cow)

On Saturday mornings in 1987, CBS aired a re-imagining of Mighty Mouse, an old Terrytoons character from the late 1940’s who’d become a popular television feature in the ’50’s and early ’60’s.  A young artist named Ralph Bakshi had worked on many of those old Terrytoon productions, before becoming an animation upstart with animated movies like Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, and Fritz the Cat (which was the first animated movie to earn an “adults only” X-rating).  While many were surprised that Bakshi and his animation studio were involved in producing a show for Saturday morning television aimed at youngsters, Bakshi believed that animation was for everyone, and that making purely “educational” programming meant making “boring” programming.

After meetings with ABC and NBC, and pitching original ideas for animated programs with no success, he went to CBS with an idea for a revamped version of Mighty Mouse, made for both kids and adults, and the network gave him a modest budget with the hope that something new might be conceived.

They had no idea what was coming.

“What do you remember about (the original) Mighty Mouse?  ‘Here I come to save the day’ and he flies in.  That’s all they remember.  So we had a lot of leeway to play in.”
–Jim Reardon

Night of the bat-bat, a parody of Batman comics and movies

While the original theme song of “Here I Come to Save the Day” is something of a cultural memory, the character of Mighty Mouse is basically a ripoff of Superman, just done as a mouse.  He battled cats (who were naturally evil from a mouse point of view) and a few deranged rodents along the way.  But Bakshi and company decided that Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures was simply the vehicle they were going to use to tell entertaining and occasionally cutting social satire, using the character as a framework to host their own stories.  Their sense of parody and desire to break the (then) conventional mode of Saturday morning cartoons led to a tremendous amount of creativity.

Characters would break the “fourth wall”, speaking directly to the camera (and the audience at home).  Backgrounds were stylized, and heroes and villains were designed as way-over-the-top, exactly as satire demanded.  Episodes spoofed everything from other staid Saturday morning shows to libertarian novelist Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (a book which, not surprisingly, very few usual Saturday morning viewers were familiar with).  Bakshi’s edict was not to toe the line, but for the animators to have fun, and to make something THEY would enjoy, with no thought given to network desires or supposed audience marketing reports.  So that’s what they did.

“I don’t think you could afford to put all the names in the same room now that came out of that first season.  Ralph basically was too cheap to hire real television writers.  He didn’t want to pay them, and so….  But to give him credit, he also felt he was just going to get sad, tired, same old television Saturday morning thinking.  And he thought ‘I want fresh blood, and I also can get it cheap if I go to students coming right out of school’ and he was right!”
–Writer Andrew Stanton

This started a revolution in animated television, and many of those young men and women involved in The New Adventures went on to become involved in some of the most successful shows and movies in animation history.  Working on Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures were people like Jim Reardon and Andrew Stanton, who went on to write and animate for Pixar Studios and their productions of Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and WALL-E.

Pixar Studio's Monsters, Inc., brought to you by those involved in The New Adventures

A developing producer for Bakshi Studios was John Kricfalusi, who went on to create The Ren and Stimpy Show, and was involved in many other shows for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.  And character designer Bruce Timm has been instrumental in the looks of everything from Tiny Toon Adventures to the numerous award-winning updates of DC comic properties on television, like Batman:  The Animated Adventures and Justice League.  Modern television animation would not be remotely the same without the talented people Ralph Bakshi first gathered together to work on Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures, and television changed significantly because of them.

“I let the guys perform.  And you know what?  They perform “above”….  They can’t believe that they’re free, and they perform well.  That’s the major Bakshi secret.  You hire talented guys, and tell ’em not what to do.  A lot of studios hire talented guys and tell them how to do it.  It’s mindless.  It boggles the imagination.  It’s like hiring Norman Rockwell and telling him how to draw!”
–Ralph Bakshi

This group of people (and there are more, just not space here to mention them all) led a revolution in animation, both on television and later in motion pictures.  They may have been young, but they had found a place where they could create with few boundaries, and the developed skills that changed animation.  Many of the leadership of Pixar Studios first worked together on The New Adventures, and their new and unusual styles became something others in the medium couldn’t wait to try.  Within the next year television saw radical departures from the norm of animation like Bettlejuice, and the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in theatres, combining live action and cartoons. Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures was a critical success (both in and out of the industry), and the series was on the verge of becoming a popular one as well.

Of course, with change always comes a bit of controversy.  And when a Saturday morning show is being led by someone who once notoriously released an X-rated picture, animated or not, then obviously there’s a target that someone else is going to find a reason to shoot at, worthy or not.  Enter the Reverend Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association.

Reverend Donald Wildmon

Started one evening in the mid-’70’s because Reverend Wildmon decided that nothing on television could be watched by families with young children, the American Family Association led boycotts against select shows (in addition to books and magazines) which they believed promoted ideas that children should be protected against.  These shows included popular (yet controversial) shows like All in the Family (and its portrayal of race relations through Archie Bunker) and Three’s Company (which engaged in sexual innuendo and had a lead character who “pretended” to be gay).  Rev. Wildmon and the AFA also protested against radio shock DJ Howard Stern and Madonna’s music video for the song “Like a Virgin”.  And yet, it is hard to understand the firestorm of allegations started by this organization over a particular cartoon.  Rev. Wildmon and the AFA singled out one scene in a segment of Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures entitled The Littlest Tramp, saying it promoted drug use.  John Kricfalusi recaps the story from there:

“The flower-sniffing controversy.  I don’t even know why this was a controversy.  If you actually watch the story and see the context, there’s a little flower girl, (writer) Tom Minton’s “littlest tramp”, and she stands on the street corner with flowers, trying to sell them to people.  There’s this mean guy based on Kirk Douglas, and at one point he crushes her flower.  Mighty Mouse shows up just afterwards, and because he’s nice to her, she gives him the only thing she has, and it’s this crushed flower, and he puts it in his pocket.  And later, Mighty Mouse thinks back to the flower girl, and says, ‘You know, I knew somebody like that.’ and smells it, like you would smell a flower.  And it goes up his nose.”

One of Rev. Wildmon’s followers down in Mississippi saw the segment, brought it to his attention, and soon there were cries for a boycott and loud demands that CBS fire “that pornographer” Bakshi (even though Fritz the Cat got an X-rating for language and not nudity).  OBVIOUSLY, they were promoting the sniffing of cocaine to children!!!

The "flower-sniffing" sequence

Well, of course they weren’t. The only thing obvious about the previous sentence was the sarcasm of the capital letters.   Even a show as occasionally subversive and radical as The New Adventures wasn’t trying to turn America’s youth into drug-crazed zombies, and Mighty Mouse himself had no effects from the incident other than memories of his association with the girl (which was the whole point).  Still, thanks to the shrill rallying cry of Rev. Wildmon and the AFA (who claimed large numbers, but never proved them), there were news stories in major newspapers, and even a mention in Time magazine.  But ultimately the noise brought MORE attention to the series, not less, and the entire escapade shows how useless and idiotic an out-of-context controversy can be, and how a “tempest in a teapot” can be made out of something innocent.

“And the weird thing is,  there’s plenty of stuff in the cartoon that you COULD go after.  There’s all kinds of stuff that they could have jumped all over.  Instead, they just made something up.”
–John Kricfalusi

In this case, the flower-sniffing really was the most innocent thing in the story. Although it’s a parody of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl, the Kirk Douglas-inspired human villain ends up getting spanked over the knee of Mighty Mouse, and ends up repenting and marrying the mouse-girl… just before they both drive off and their limo explodes in an atomic blast, complete with mushroom cloud.  Corporal punishment, inter-species marriage, and even the explosion of a nuclear bomb passed without comment, but don’t you DARE show anyone smelling a crushed flower to remind them of someone else’s kindness!!!

the Mighty Heroes, from 1966

The initial season of Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures ran for 13 half-hour episodes, and a second six episodes followed the next year.  While many of the segments were outright parodies, some barely featured Mighty Mouse at all, while others revived previous Terrytoon characters like Deputy Dawg and nemesis Oil Can Harry.  In one segment, Mighty Mouse must help a group of aged super-powered heroes — collectively known as the Mighty Heroes — as they attempt a comeback (but unbeknownst to them, Mighty Mouse is doing all the work, and they’re just succeeding due to his unseen efforts).  The Mighty Heroes piece was a tribute to Bakshi himself, as he had created a 1960’s Saturday morning show early in his television career featuring those characters in their prime (and is fondly remembered by some of us, including me, who was a faithful watcher as a youth).  Even with the progressive ideas of The New Adventures, there was still room for some nostalgia… especially flavored with satire and snark.

Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures is available on DVD, with a great behind-the-scenes documentary called “Breaking the Mold” (from which many of the quotes in this article were taken).  There is a more detailed account of the “flower-sniffing” controversy on the show’s Wikipedia site, including comments from Bakshi about his strong feelings against drugs in general, and against the misinterpretation of this particular piece of work specifically.  And while Mighty Mouse was briefly resurrected yet again for a commercial in 2001, it was hastily yanked off the air after the destruction of 9/11, which was similar in vague respects to the events on the ad.

“Ralph once said a film or a cartoon is only good if it’s a reaction against something else.  And Mighty Mouse was a reaction against a lot of mediocrity.”
–Tom Minton

The late 1980’s were a time of change, both in the world at large and in the industry of television.  The world was becoming a smaller place, with governments finding their direction after the Cold War had ended, and both uncertainty and promise awaited.  Television was changing both in content and technology, with new, independent stations, and the rise of cable networks by the score allowing for different ideas to be prominent.  Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures led the way in this department, with young minds and fresh ideas, and although they (by their own admission) made some mistakes, the radical Bakshi and his crew of upstarts re-created an old icon for a new generation.

The same thing was going on everywhere, in every medium, with old ideas being reinvented into new thoughts and new ways of seeing the world.  Television could act as the eyes bringing us that view, and by allowing Jim Reardon, Andrew Stanton, John Kricfalusi, and all the others a voice, they found something all of us can learn from.  You could hear that voice, even now:  “Here I Come, to Save the Day!”  They were a Mighty Mouse (and his mighty creators) that roared, and they continue to do so to this day….

Vital Stats

19 aired episodes — none unaired — available on DVD
CBS Network
First aired episode:  November 22, 1987
Final aired episode:  October 22, 1988
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Hardly.  Although some of the humor that went over kids heads might have been more understandable there, it was still smarter than some of the stuff in prime time.  No wonder it didn’t last.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings, for seeing old things in a new light, and for giving voice to those who would change what has gone before.  This is especially true for some (then) fresh-faced college grads with different ideas on how to approach an old medium, and how (with a little help from one old radical) their ideas made it on the air.  In doing so, they changed television for kids (and adults) in this country forever.

Five quotes:

“That’s all they remember.  So we had a lot of leeway to play in.”

…a book which, not surprisingly, very few usual Saturday morning viewers were familiar with.

“It boggles the imagination.  It’s like hiring Norman Rockwell and telling him how to draw!”

“There’s all kinds of stuff that they could have jumped all over.  Instead, they just made something up.”

“…a film or a cartoon is only good if it’s a reaction against something else.”

This one was reactionary.  Which means it was also pretty good, and it led to other work which has won Oscars and Emmys.  A whole generation likely owes its modern entertainment to some of these people, and you can read about them this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

Bracing for a great series to produce its final episode can be like watching an egg-on-a-spoon race: you tense up, hoping your player doesn’t drop it at the last moment.
James Poniewozik of Time Magazine

No, I am not going to quit writing these articles.  Nor am I being canceled, like so many of the shows on this site.  Besides, I’m having too much fun.  But it’s time for another general article on television, and this time, I’m going to focus on how various series end their runs, both voluntary and not, and the different ways different shows take their leave.

(FAIR WARNING:  Spoilers abound ahead about lots of shows, and how they finished.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

In 1983, CBS aired the highest-rated entertainment series episode in history.  Reaching over 120 million viewers in the US, the final episode of the long-running M*A*S*H earned an unprecedented 77 share, meaning that 77% of all televisions on at the time in the entire country were tuned to the finale.  It was called Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, and thanks to the modern splintering of television viewership and the explosion of cable networks, such numbers will likely never be seen again by entertainment programs.

Fans of M*A*S*H had fallen in love with the misfits of the 4077th Military Hospital, to the point where the television series lasted longer than the actual Korean War during which it was set.  So the emotional goodbye to the characters was fitting, and such an ending was needed for both cast, crew, and the public at large, if only because they’d affected our lives in so many ways.  But we can use the title of this landmark episode as our guide to all the other finales of shows, both long and short, and of how the idea of a finale is approached.

GOODBYE

Most of the time, this site deals in short-run television, and those shows which have had their dreams of a long and successful existence ended far too soon.  Often cut down in mid-stride, most series fall into this category (considering that only a third of any freshman crop of shows ever reaches a second season anyway).  Some shows have tried to avoid this problem by creating cliff-hanger endings, hoping that by causing wonder amongst viewers about what might happen if the show is brought back for another season, it would live to tell more tales.

the second season "prequel"

Producers and cast read the ratings, and although hopes are always for the best, bad news can still be disheartening.  The producers of ABC’s Sledge Hammer! were so certain their series was destined to be cancelled, they ended their scheduled final episode with all the regulars inside a building… which they promptly blew up with an atomic bomb!  Figuring there was no reason for survivors, they went out (literally) with a bang… only to be the subject of a surprise renewal a few weeks later, and a HUGE hole to write themselves out of.  The best part?  They did so, simply with a caption before the first shot of the next season’s premiere, telling viewers the following season takes place “five years before that nuclear explosion.”  And so they continued.

Most shows simply have business as usual, only because word of ending production comes down from their bosses in the midst of normal filming, with no notice of finality.  Even if there’s hope of renewal, some shows design their seasons around an arc for their characters, so shows might end… or they might continue.  John Rogers (producer/creator of my fave show Leverage) deliberately hates cliffhanger endings (and has stated so on many occasions), so he’s purposely made each season have a type of ending, but with enough openness to allow for the adventures to continue (and fortunately for me, it will start its FIFTH season next year).

To leap, or not to leap...

FAREWELL

Some shows have not been renewed when they finish production for the year, and have to plan out a final episode not knowing whether it will be a season-ender or possibly a series finale.  Quantum Leap has a notorious last episode, entitled Mirror Image.  After an unusual encounter with many familiar faces, time-traveler Sam Beckett must choose if he should return home, or continue with his leaps through time.  Ultimately, he chooses to continue (as well he should, because the series may have continued as well), but there’s a final on-screen message, saying that Sam never returned home.  This may have been added after filming but before the episode aired, when the production company learned Quantum Leap was not going to return for another season… but fans reacted strongly to the news of a less-than-happy ending for their hero.  To this day, some wish for a more proper “wrap-up” to the series.

Fellow genre show Eureka still has one more season to go on SyFy Channel, which will air in Spring of 2012, but the show has already been cancelled officially and all episodes have been filmed.  Word didn’t come down until the final week of shooting, however, and once again fans were outraged (especially when it was learned that the final season was to end on a cliffhanger).  Under pressure from fans (and with the encouragement of cast and crew), SyFy quickly ponied up the money for a final resolution episode, so the residents of Eureka could end their five-season journey properly.  Of course, it won’t hurt that SyFy will promote this episode like crazy, but having some semblance of closure is better than the open-ended alternative.

On the other end of the spectrum is a show where all involved can read the writing on the wall, and know the end is near.  I’ve already talked about Wonderfalls on this site, and the fall from network grace they felt during production.  Even though the series was cancelled early, the producers were allocated a filmed 13 episodes, and treated them as a mini-series with a beginning, middle, and end.  Even though you have to get the DVD set to see them all, at least those in charge gave all of the fans their own gift, and the characters a way to reach the end of a journey.

And yet, the desires of business sometimes mean another journey has to start.  Many shows (including the beloved M*A*S*H mentioned above) have reworked themselves into sequel series, with a change of location or setting.  Most of these have been less than successful, simply because audiences were satisfied with the ending given, and it tarnishes the emotion of the departure if characters are simply back in a new form the following fall.  So shows like AfterM*A*S*H and Archie Bunker’s Place (the direct sequel to All in the Family) still show up, for business reasons if nothing else.

AMEN

“There are two ways to wrap up a canceled or ending TV show.  There’s the oft employed looking back at an empty room and closing the door option.  Then there’s the ‘WTF! Let’s stab their eyeballs with crazy!’ approach.”
–Greg Welsh of Cracked.com

There are lots of shows that have done their goodbyes the right way.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show (a contemporary of M*A*S*H) literally did the “closing the door” option, with the characters all leaving the WJM-TV newsroom for one last time, and shutting off the lights for good.  Friday Night Lights gave their series a proper send-off this past season, appropriately ending with a final triumphant football game and closure to the journey of their main characters.  And three of the four modern Star Trek series all had satisfying endings for their respective crews (movie sequels notwithstanding).

Star Trek: The Next Generation did the “look into our characters future” trick as an effective last episode.  But in that fourth series, Star Trek: Enterprise, we see a much less effective way to leave.  The main people behind the long runs of the other shows in the franchise came back and, for the finale, they wrote a self-professed “love letter to the fans”… and messed it up completely, since it focused on characters from the other series  instead of the Enterprise crew.  Those who stuck with Star Trek: Enterprise to the end actually preferred the final season, once “the powers that be” let the new producers make the show they wanted.  But those same powers returning for the finale left a bad taste in the mouth of many, and resulted in a much less than triumphant ending for the show–to the point that the ongoing novel series had to retroactively construct a better ending, allowing a beloved character to continue after his on-screen death!

Of course, at least this kind of misfire is understandable.  But the concept of “Amen” for a series finale leads to making these episodes somewhat incomprehensible, or at least misguided.  On modern favorites like The Sopranos, Lost, and the Battlestar: Galactica reboot, the endings were more open to interpretation rather than being a truly final moment for these shows.  Some fans of The Sopranos were so confused by the “instant blackout” ending that they called their cable providers, thinking their service had cut out just at the pivotal final moment… but there was no actual “moment”.  Lost was confusing enough at times, so perhaps they can be forgiven for their choices, and at least they followed form for their ending.  But for a SF series primarily based in space, Battlestar: Galactica ended with a stroll by two characters (one likely imaginary) through what looked to be Central Park in New York City, baffling more than a few with their choice and leaving viewers scratching their heads.

"doing nothing" in jail

Then there’s Seinfeld, and an ending that was so underwhelming that the actors all later reunited on a different show to provide better closure.  On the original Seinfeld ending, our four main characters were sent to jail for doing nothing (violating a “Good Samaritan” law by not offering assistance when needed).  Of course, Seinfeld was sold on the idea of it being a series “about nothing”, so this ending was likely a great laugh in the writers’ room.  But that’s not how the viewers felt about those characters, and so the denouement was not a good one.

The co-creator of the show (along with Jerry Seinfeld) was Larry David, who went on to create and star in Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Knowing the troubled reputation of the Seinfeld finale, he wrote a Curb episode involving a Seinfeld reunion (and featuring the four main actors and some of the recurring ones).  While this was not an ending per se, it did seem to help give a better moment for the fans.

“Series finales are a tricky business — what works for one show might be disastrous for another.  See, we viewers are a loyal bunch. We get emotionally invested in our favorite characters, who we’ve probably spent more time with than our own friends and families.  Not only do we want them to have a fitting send-off, with plenty of laughter and tears, just like the network promos promise, but we want closure, or at least the closest thing to closure you can get with people who don’t actually exist.”
–Kat Giantis of MSN Entertainment

Of course, the ultimate finish (as far as pure TV enjoyment was concerned) was the delightful (and surprising) way that Newhart ended.  A veteran of many years of television comedy, Bob Newhart’s second successful series (about a quirky Vermont inn) was just as strange as usual (if not more so).  But near the end of the finale, Bob’s character is hit in the head by a golf ball, and he blacks out… only to wake up in the familiar bedroom of his previous series, The Bob Newhart Show.  He then awakens his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette, reprising her role from the earlier show a decade ago) in one of their typical bedroom scenes, and tells her of this very strange dream he’s had about running an inn in Vermont!  It was a great ending that was true to a series, and yet allowed those who loved Bob Newhart and followed him through both shows a great, unexpected present.

"The Bob Newhart Show" and "Newhart", old and new

Finally, I did say I wasn’t going to end these articles, and I mean that.  But real life, and holiday celebrations, means I’m taking a couple of weeks off from here (although there may be a repost or two of my faves, or at least something brief to make it through two weeks).  Consider it a brief hiatus, or rerun season, or just that bit of anticipation knowing a new season of articles is coming.  I’ll be back here soon with new words about old shows, and putting the fun train back on track.  In the meantime, I hope everyone gets lots of goodies (I know I’m getting a bunch of new DVDs for the site, and two have already arrived), so watch, enjoy, and have fun… and come back here soon!

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always!

–Tim R.

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