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“Myths are just the truth a few generations later.”
–Detective Jesse Reese, about to learn a very unique mythology

The sources for television shows are many, but certain things are quite often tapped as places where creative ideas can be born.  The costs of, say, comics are decidedly less, and yet the combination of the visual and description is not really that far away from what is needed for many series.  Combine that with the style and action-orientation of some graphic novels, and you have the makings of a potential success.  Sometimes, you get 10 years worth of Smallville based upon the Superman mythos.  Other times, you end up with Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey

In the fall of 2002, The WB network had just found success with the aforementioned Smallville and its take on the formative days of Superman.  Looking for a companion series, they took the ideas from a comic called Birds of Prey, and adapted them for television.  Birds of Prey focused on three super-heroes instead of one, along with a parade of super-villains and characters with a legacy full of angst and problems, set in the city of New Gotham.  Taking place roughly seven years after the traditional Batman stories (and slighty farther in the future of our own time), Birds of Prey was an ambitious series, with lots of character interplay, special effects, large amounts of back-stories… and asked probably a bit too much out of those who watched it.

As far as characters, let’s start at “television normal” and work our way up.  There’s a detective on the New Gotham police force, Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore), who wonders about some of the strange goings-on in the city, especially at night.  His partner obliges with an information dump for viewers, speaking of the history of the city, and the development of “meta-humans”, with powers beyond those of normal people.  Each is different… and each can be deadly.

Helena and Reese

While investigating a break-in, Reese discovers Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), a.k.a. Huntress.  Endowed with significant strength and a combination of abilities and a costume that allows her limited flight, their meeting is… tense.  While there’s obviously an attraction, and while they both share a willingness to rid New Gotham of the criminal element, their methods are significantly far apart… so, at least for now, their relationship is the similarly distant, despite their connection.

Reese:  “I thought you worked alone.”
Helena Kyle:  “I keep trying.”

Helena is (as told to us in a flashback sequence in the pilot) the daughter of the criminal Catwoman and the heroic Batman (although Batman wasn’t aware of her existence).  If that isn’t enough to cause personality difficulties, she watched another person gun down her mother right in front of her — an event which has recently resurfaced in her therapy sessions.  It also caused her to go into the vigilante business like her legendary father, and she now scours the city at night as Huntress, seeking those who break the law, even as she struggles with her own past.

Helena and Barbara, contemplating their dual lives

In her fight against crime, she teams with Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer).  In the past, Barbara also had a secret identity.  As Batgirl, she fought side-by-side with Batman, and knows what the whole “alter-ego” thing is about.  At the same time as Catwoman was killed, Barbara was also felled by a bullet, this one shot by The Joker.  Barbara lived, but she was confined to a wheelchair.  She took the now orphaned Helena as her ward (shades of Robin!) and became known as Oracle, a computer and technical expert in manipulating sources of information and knowledge.

Teamed with Helena to hunt down villains in their own way, their “lair” is inside New Gotham’s clocktower.  Looking out over the city as a protective duo and helping to fight the good fight, they’re hoping to be able to do their work in secret, but things don’t always go as planned….

“Sometimes, when I touch people, I see things… things that only they know.  And sometimes, when I dream things… they come true.”
–Dinah

In the pilot, they team up with one more person, a teen named Dinah (Rachel Skarsten) who has the ability to see inside the minds of those she touches.  Dinah had visions as a child of both the shootings above, and as a teen she’s sought out both Helena and Barbara to understand her gift, and what had happened.  They decide (after Dinah saves their lives with her ability) to help her understand her powers, and so she becomes the third of their trio.

Also assisting them is Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie), the loyal butler from Wayne Manor.  A reminder of Helena’s past (as she ostensibly is the heir to Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, now sadly deceased), he is also the only other person who originally knew of Barbara Gordon’s secret identity as Batgirl.  He provides a sounding board for various members of the team, and assists them as a moral compass when things get hazy (and considering their assorted pasts, that’s likely a good thing).  He’s become a helpful addition, if only because fighting crime doesn’t leave a lot of time for the normal things in life, like grocery shopping and cleaning.

“Hey, time out!  There will be absolutely no use of superpowers to settle domestic disagreements!”
–Barbara Gordon (Oracle)

Using the information from Detective Reese, the Birds of Prey (as they were named in the comic) continue their battles, both with the criminal masterminds of the day, and with their own pasts.  Dinah comes by her powers as a result of her heritage, which is explored in detail later.  Helena particularly has some rather vexing issues to address, as the psychoanalyst she’s been seeing for years hasn’t exactly been treating her correctly.

“This whole thing is gonna send me straight to my shrink.”
–Helena Kyle

Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a.k.a Harley Quinn

Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara) not only has been treating Helena, but her reputation as a doctor in dealing with the most unusual cases has landed her as New Gotham’s resident “go-to” person when confronted by some of its more demented criminals.  Unknown to most, however, she’s not exactly sane herself, thanks to her relationship with The Joker back in the day.  As alter-ego Harley Quinn, she’s a mastermind as crazed as any she’s been charged to treat, she just hides it better from the world.  And she has her own vendetta against those whom she sees as having wronged “her love, Mr. J”, and if she ever finds out about Helena’s alter ego or the people she’s teamed with, hell hath no fury….

“Never send a businessman to do a psychopath’s job.”
–Dr. Harleen Quinzel

Television has a style all its own, and yet it does its best to adapt various source materials (such as comics) to tell its stories.  It’s almost like spoken and written English is made up of many other words taken from various sources and languages.  It helps tremendously, however, when the language is extremely visual, as television is a very visual medium.  Therefore, it only makes sense when the small screen looks to translate a property from the comic/graphic novel arena into its own.

But not all are successful adaptations (I’ve featured one of them previously).  Birds of Prey was ultimately unsuccessful, even though it came on the heels of the popular Smallville series, which re-examined the Superman legend in detail as a prequel.  But everyone pretty much already knew the story of Superman, or at the very least the general parameters.  And that’s where Birds of Prey had difficulty.

Many had heard of Batgirl, and while those familiar with comics might be aware of some of the lesser characters (like Harley Quinn, or Black Canary, who guested in an episode), much of the mythos surrounding Birds of Prey was brand new to an extremely large percentage of viewers.  (Just look how long it took to explain the premise of the series while writing this article!)  In order for the people watching to get immersed in the tales being told, there was a large amount of back-story for them to know and understand before their empathy with the characters would be complete.  And if viewers didn’t have that knowledge of the individuals’ pasts, then the stories being told on the show wouldn’t have the same emotional resonance.  They’d be incomplete.

This is the battle many shows face.  Some keep it very simple, and just tell a procedural where the plot is the important part and the characters are practically interchangeable with some on other shows.  Situation comedies, with their shorter length, often hang a character’s back-story on a rather simple premise, and then just do variations on the theme (like Tim Taylor’s fascination with tools on Home Improvement, or Mama Barone’s way of using food as comfort on Everybody Loves Raymond).  And if a show is on long enough, plenty of back-story can be “laid in” to various future episodes so a clearer picture emerges for the audience, and a more complex character can be developed.  But this takes time… and sometimes, there’s a lot of information that has to be dumped into the audience’s lap before even the first story can be clear.

Apparently, the first story on Birds of Prey wasn’t really that clear to begin with.  Portions of the pilot episode were reshot, and Dr. Quinzell was recast (it was originally Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks fame).  One would think it would have been necessary in order to better explain the complex history of the characters, but the opposite is actually true.  The “alternate” pilot is included on the DVD set, and scenes give viewers even more information, mostly concerning some possible friction between the regulars.  While this helps viewers understand the characters more, it is information which can be used later, instead of as part of the initial introduction of the characters.  Perhaps a two-hour pilot would have allowed for both to exist, but that wasn’t part of the network’s plans.

“I felt the direction the show took didn’t come close to the potential it had. I had some great writers on staff – they have since gone on to write on Heroes, Fringe, Lost, Dexter. (…)  I think my team could have made something exceptional, and I’m sorry that Birds of Prey didn’t live up to that for fans.”
–Laeta Kalogridis, Executive Producer and writer for the pilot and 2 other episodes.

Initial ratings were good, but simply didn’t continue.  The WB was somewhat surprised, as they had hoped for another winner from the comic world, but it wasn’t going to be Birds of Prey.  The initial 11 episodes were shown, but the series was cancelled.  Amazingly, The WB did allow production of the final two hours, which were shown a few months later.  This “finale” allowed producers to tie up various loose ends surrounding the continuing plotlines on the series, a luxury most short-lived television shows aren’t allowed.

But again, the necessity of those final two installments was because there was even more information to be given, in order for a proper finish to the series.  The back-story that was laid in as early as the pilot was finally paid off, at least to a degree.  It was a worthy journey, but ultimately a lengthy one, especially if measured in knowledge of the characters.  And while I have nothing against deep, complex characterization — I love the process of discovery.  So… just peel the layers back instead of making me eat the onion whole and I’ll enjoy it so much more.

ASHLEY SCOTT (Helena Kyle/Huntress) has been featured here before, on the series Jericho.  Other television credits include Dark Angel, CSI, and NCIS.  Movie roles include the remake of Walking Tall, 12 Rounds, and The Kingdom.  She got her start as a child model before deciding to try acting.

DINA MEYER (Barbara Gordon/Oracle) has also been seen on this site previously, for her work on Point Pleasant.  Also coming from a modeling background, she had parts in Castle, Miss Match, both versions of Beverly Hills 90210 (one of the few non-regulars with that claim), and a featured role in the Saw movie series.

RACHEL SKARSTEN (Dinah Lance) is a Canadian native, and spent much of her youth studying ballet and becoming a top hockey goalie (and that’s a rather unusual combination).  She actually quit acting for a brief time after Birds of Prey to return home and finish her schooling, as she’d quit high school to play the part of Dinah.  She’s since returned to performing, and been featured in Flashpoint and The Listener.

SHEMAR MOORE (Detective Jesse Reese) had, before his acting career took off, appeared as a contestant on The Weakest Link game show, but was voted off and did not win.  After Birds of Prey, he later became a regular for a season on the soap The Young and the Restless, and has most recently been a member of the cast on the successful series Criminal Minds.

IAN ABERCROMBIE (Alfred Pennyworth) was acting for decades, both in his native Great Britain and in America.  In Hollywood, he’s been seen in everything from Get Smart in the ’60’s to Moonlight a few years ago.  He also was active in voice work, portraying Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars:  The Clone Wars.  He unfortunately passed away just this last week, at the age of 77.

MIA SARA (Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn) is best known to most audiences as the girl who skips school with her boyfriend in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  She starred with Tom Cruise in her first feature, Legend, and will be seen in the miniseries The Witches of Oz (playing, of course, a witch).  Birds of Prey was one of the very few regular roles she’s ever played on television.

The DVD set for Birds of Prey has a couple of special bonus features, rather unique and especially appropriate for the topics in this article.  As part of the cross-promotion of the show, The WB also created 30 animated webisodes using the characters and settings of Birds of Prey, and has included them on the DVD.  There is also an alternate version of the original pilot, with less overt narration and more character scenes (some of which showed up in later episodes), but it doles out even more information than the televised version.  Fans can find more information on the show at, appropriately, the Gotham Clock Tower, a fan site with tidbits about the series, its stars, and many pictures to peruse.

Barbara:  “Sometimes I close my eyes and I can almost feel it… what it was like to race across rooftops under the moon…”
Helena:  “Cold, wet, and hell on your nails.”

Complex characters and situations are something that television excels at, given its longer form and frequent installments.  But expecting people to learn tons of information about their on-screen heroes before their visualized adventures really begin is difficult, and it can turn many viewers (and television screens) off when they have to work to that degree.  This was especially true when Birds of Prey was advertised as a darker comic book.  And while the angst and emotion certainly lived up to its billing, the vast majority of viewers (who thought of “comics” as something a bit lighter) were unimpressed.  And regular comic aficionados (who prefer the term “graphic novel” for the stories, with good reason) felt the adaptation lost a bit in the translation from page to screen, which is entirely possible given the different needs of the respective mediums.

Ultimately, however, the flaws that hampered the success of Birds of Prey were more in presentation than in the material itself.  A longer pilot, with more time to present the massive amounts of data necessary, would have gone a long way towards developing a series with lasting impact.  Although the webisodes helped a bit, even just promising more back-story to come, instead of forcing people to digest it all immediately, may have been enough.  .  Birds of Prey may never have been allowed to soar, but I’m uncertain as to whether it was really their fault at all.  It may have taken off… but it was never really allowed to land in the hearts and minds of us at home.

Vital Stats

13 aired episodes — none unaired — available on DVD (including the unaired version of the pilot)
The WB Network
First aired episode:  October 9, 2002
Final aired episode:  February 19, 2003
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No.  Wednesdays at 9/8 Central, and a victim of the reality craze when scheduled up against the newly popular The Bachelor and the debut of its sister series The Bachelorette.  A complex series on the youth oriented WB network, the audience for Birds of Prey was elsewhere.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–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.

“I actually had dinner with William Goldman and picked his brain about The Princess Bride before I did WizardsThe Princess Bride was my favorite book.”
–Executive Producer/Creator Don Reo

Dirk Blackpool vs. Erik Greystone in the opening of Wizards and Warriors

Every fan of “genre” movies (be it featuring science fiction, fantasy, or just plain quirky fun) is likely familiar with The Princess Bride.  While the book was written back in 1973, it became a modest hit when it was released as a movie in 1987, and de rigeuer for those who’ve fallen in love with its unique combination of wit, style, and fun.  Its combination of high fantasy and occasionally low comedy made it a favorite of many, especially those drawn to the ideas presented in stories about knights and princesses, knaves and magicians, and the romance and adventure contained within.  It has become a cult classic in the best sense of the term, ranking high on many lists of both the greatest comedies and the greatest love stories ever told.  The Princess Bride became required viewing for all those with any serious “geek” credibility, to the point where one friend was advised to “turn in his geek card” when it was discovered he’d never actually seen the movie.  (Don’t worry, that omission was rectified fairly quickly… and with much laughter and fun.)

Well-aware geeks knew about the original book, long before the movie had ever reached the local cineplex.  Don Reo was one of those people, and fortunately, he also was a TV producer.  With The Princess Bride novel in hand, and conversations with author William Goldman having taken place, he took the wonderful mixture of fantasy and comedy to CBS who, four years BEFORE The Princess Bride movie was seen by the public, gave a green light to a new hour-long comedy/drama set in medieval times called Wizards and Warriors.

While it certainly wasn’t The Princess Bride, Wizards and Warriors was still a terrific mixture of high fantasy and low comedy; Don Reo’s take on a television version similar in tone and style to the book he loved so well.  In Reo’s version, the story takes place on the dragon-shaped continent of Aperans.  Here we find two very different kingdoms:  the virtuous kingdom of Camarand, and the nefarious land of Karteia.  Karteia’s battle against Camarand has been going on for quite a while, but never fear — virtue always triumphs in the end, no matter what evil has in store… and no matter how much fun the viewers have along the way!

Erik and Marko

The hero of our story is Prince Erik Greystone (Jeff Conaway), virtue’s golden boy himself.  He’s such a hero that, when he’s in full sunlight, he practically has a halo.  Valiant as any other hero, he’s never afraid to fight for what is right and just.  And although evil may cheat, he never, ever would.  He’s aided in these battles by his trusty servant Marko (Walter Olkewicz).  One of the strongest men in the kingdom, he’d rather eat than fight, but stands by Erik’s side through thick and thin (although the very idea of “thin” reminds him of diets, and those he simply can’t stand).  But when defending the honor of his Prince Erik and their blessed Camarand, Marko can always be found at the ready… or the buffet line, depending on the time of day.  Together, they face the deadly schemes of the week, and the forces of evil conspiring against their kingdom.

Vector and Dirk

Erik’s mortal enemy is Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr), leader of Karteia.  Drop dead handsome, he’s also the sworn rival of Prince Erik, and he would use any nefarious means available to win (even if normal means would be simpler and easier).  He’s aided in this effort by the scantily clad witch Bethel (Randi Brooks), who has her own eyes on the political prize of ruling the continent, even though as a magical being she’s supposedly prohibited from doing so.  Her indirect aid enabled Dirk to control the powers of the magician Vector (Clive Revill).  Vector’s plans are ostensibly to help Blackpool rule the land, but Vector is also not above trying to scheme his way to freedom from Blackpool’s service either.  If Vector could ever prove Bethel’s complicity in the matter, she would be gone, and so the two magical rivals try to hinder each other, even as they are supposedly united to help Blackpool.

In addition to fighting the schemes of Blackpool and the magic of Bethel and Vector, Erik has one other little problem.  Since childhood, he’s been promised in marriage to the Princess Ariel Baaldorf (Julia Duffy).  Ariel can’t concern herself with petty problems like kingdoms at war and all that noise, especially when there are parties to plan and shoes to buy, and a potential wedding in the future (even though the groom seems to be just a TAD reluctant).  Besides, there’s this silly hat….

“Well, we never, ever considered it a comedy. We always thought of it as an adventure show.  Nobody ever considered it to be comedic.”
–Don Reo

Like a movie, there was no laugh track on Wizards and Warriors.  The cast played everything absolutely straight, as if the fantasy scenes were truly life and death, completely real… which just made them more funny.  It’s a secret of comedy that, as soon as the actor/character lets the audience know that they’re in on the joke, there’s no longer really any joke.  The humor is lost.  And most times (if planned correctly), the more honestly and believably a scene is played, the more funny it becomes.  This was the aim of Don Reo and Wizards and Warriors.

The idea trickled down to the rest of the crew.  Many installments were directed by actor/director Bill Bixby, whose years on The Incredible Hulk made him a perfect choice to combine reality and fantasy.  James Frawley was the director of the pilot episode, and cut his teeth on directing The Monkees back in the ’60’s, as well as directing The Muppet Movie just a few years earlier.  So a group was assembled that knew how to anchor a world of imagination into a filmable place.

Dirk and Bethel

As a Set Designer, Peter Wooley had worked on everything from Mel Brooks’ comedy western Blazing Saddles to fraternity humored Porky’s Revenge, with a long and storied history in Hollywood.  Although he was a veteran of both drama and comedy, and well-versed in historical realism (including the supposed medieval setting of Wizards and Warriors), he knew the tone of the show would call for something… unique.

“There was always that line that we walked. The actors could perform absolutely dead on the money and the directors could direct that way, but as far as the look was concerned, it was always supposed to be just a little off-center.  We really didn’t want to say, ‘This is absolutely the facts’ or [this is] ‘absolutely serious’ — we just didn’t want it that way.  It was neither fake nor real.  It was whatever just tickled us at the time.  We didn’t want it to be outright cheesy, we always wanted to have a look, but we never really wanted to say, ‘Oh, this is the way it really is.'”
–Set Designer Peter Woodley

Ariel, kidnapped by Dirk

The episode titles for the series were filled with doom and gloom, as appropriate for a momentous fantasy.  “Night of Terror“, “Skies of Death“, and “Caverns of Chaos” conjure up images of swordplay and derring-do, with mighty battles and magical mystery.  But with the addition of a few odd characters here and there, the momentous fantasy morphs into a romp worthy of notice from a comedic perspective as well as a dramatic one.  While Jeff Conaway is great as the wholesome Erik, Duncan Regehr as Dirk Blackpool practically steals every scene he’s in, with a silky evil grace and ridiculously tight-fitting leather pants.  And Julia Duffy, as the spoiled princess, would go on to play a modern-day version of her character in the sitcom Newhart, complete with addiction to shoes and a clueless lack of understanding that there’s more to the world than just HER.  But then, none of this was reality, no matter how it was played….

Much like its inspirational beginning in The Princess Bride, Wizards and Warriors was, first and foremost, a storybook.  And like all storybook stories, while there may be some type of magic or mystical realm, there must still be a sense of reality, even if it’s a different reality from the one we exist in today.  Wizards and Warriors was at least successful in creating that tone, and the work of all the regulars (and a great many recurring actors) portrayed a world which was fanciful, fun, and yet filled with the kind of menace and threat found in all great fairy tales.  Reo, Conaway, Regehr, Duffy, and all the rest were pitch-perfect in their presentation of kingdoms which actually might exist, just tilted slightly enough to be fun and adventurous.

“I’m not sure what happened with Wizards and Warriors, but satire is a very difficult genre to do on television.  It’s a difficult genre to do anywhere.”
–Director James Frawley

Vector and Bethel, perhaps plotting a return to television?

Of course, networks aren’t known to be fans of satire.  And there are more than a few in the audience to whom fun and adventurous mean something quite different from menacing dragons and magic spells.  Wizards and Warriors only lasted a few months, scheduled on Saturday nights with lackluster promotion and little faith in its chances to begin with.  Whether due to scheduling issues, being misunderstood by the audience, or just not having a popular enough tone, the series came to an abrupt end, filming only 8 of the originally ordered 12 episodes.

But the memory of Wizards and Warriors lives on, especially for those of us who reveled in the laughter and the adventure, the imagination and the almost-reality of it all.  And although we now live in a world where Disney seems to have the trademark on fairy-tale Princesses, there’s still a place where we can find a terrific storybook kingdom.  Just like the inspiration it found in The Princess Bride, it’s a place where Wizards and Warriors still rule supreme.

JEFF CONAWAY (Prince Erik Greystone) succeeded Barry Bostwick as the lead role of Danny Zuko in the Broadway production of Grease, but ended up with the second male lead of Kenickie in the film version with his friend John Travolta (Conaway had to stoop to make Travolta look taller).  Known for his comedic work on the hit series Taxi, he later became a regular on Babylon 5 after stopping by one day to observe filming.  Pressed into service in a minor role that ended up recurring, and he became a regular before the five-year run finished.  An addiction to pain killers (due to a back injury suffered during the filming of Grease) haunted him throughout his life, and he died due to associated causes in 2011.

WALTER OLKEWICZ (Marko) had regular roles in The Last Resort, Partners in Crime, and Dolly (with Dolly Parton).  Best known as Dougie on Grace Under Fire, he’s also appeared in multiple roles on Night Court, Family Ties, and Barney Miller.  His son dropped out of high school to take care of Walter during an illness, but the youth was one of only six people in the country to record a perfect 4000 test score on the GED test later that year.

DUNCAN REGEHR (Prince Dirk Blackpool) has made many hearts swoon with his darkly handsome good looks and dashing style.  He was the title character (and performed many of his own stunts) in The Family Channel’s adaptation of Zorro, and played recurring roles in the original V series and on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine.  A man of many talents, he was a champion figure skater in his youth, and almost made the Canadian Olympic Boxing team.  He now splits his time between acting and art, and his paintings have graced many significant collections, including the Smithsonian, and museums in China, Canada, Denmark, and Scotland.

RANDI BROOKS (Witch Bethel) appeared in many TV series during the ’80’s, including Mork & Mindy, The Greatest American Hero, The Dukes of Hazard, and Magnum, P.I.  She was a regular on the short-lived The Last Precinct, and later retired from the acting business to raise her three children.

CLIVE REVILL (Wizard Vector) has been featured here before for his role in Probe.  An international actor, he’s been in many British productions as well as American ones.  Interestingly enough, he was the original voice of the Emperor (and is still credited as such) in Star Wars:  The Empire Strikes Back, although his voice was later replaced for continuity’s sake by actor Ian McDiarmid, who performed the part in Return of the Jedi.

JULIA DUFFY (Princess Ariel Baaldorf) was a standout for seven years on Newhart (where she was nominated for an Emmy as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy EVERY YEAR she appeared), and starred in Baby Talk, Designing Women, and The Mommies.  She was the original choice for the role of Diane on Cheers, which later went to actress Shelly Long.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children.

While Wizards and Warriors has yet to be commercially released on DVD, there are bootlegs out there, and recent rumors hint at the possibility of a licensed release in the near future.  As far as information on the show, there’s a terrific website called The Land of Aperans, which was invaluable in the composition of this article, and I urge anyone with interest in the series to go visit.  It’s well worth the effort and there’s a tremendous amount of material there.  And here’s a particularly good clip of Dirk and Vector from the series, showing both the seriousness and the camp of the show.

The end of Wizards and Warriors was unfortunate.  Some blamed the expense of creating a new and different world every week, and others say that today’s special effects would be a much greater boon to the project.  If you look at more current schedules, fairy tales seem to be making a comeback, with ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm showing two very different looks at storybook storytelling.  But Wizards and Warriors was simply a show before its time, and twenty years later, its audience has grown up into people who now make television of their own, with their own ideas of fantasy.

But the inspiration for much of modern fantasy, with tongue in cheek, comes from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.  And whether producers were influenced by the original book or the seminal film, its influence ranged far and wide.  The one that was just a bit ahead of the curve was Wizards and Warriors, and I can only hope it also paved a bit of the way for today’s humorous fantasy, and can be remembered as a slightly off-kilter part of royalty as well.

Vital Stats

8 episodes aired — none unaired — Not yet available on DVD (but there ARE rumors!!)
CBS Network
First aired episode:  February 26, 1983
Final aired episode:  May 14, 1983
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, but if there’s a worse slot, it was on Saturdays at 8/7 Central.  It aired on a night when there was only ONE show in the top 30, and that was rival ABC’s The Love Boat.  Putting it on Saturdays was a curse more effective than magic.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“…she basically put a scalpel in the hands of Indiana Jones.”
–Shonda Rimes, on Creator/Producer Jenna Bans of Off the Map

I’ll be honest… I don’t like to take my medicine.  In this case, though, I’m talking about medical shows.  They aren’t really the kind of shows for me, as this is the first real “medical drama” I’ve covered, and I’ve been writing these articles for a year and a half.  Even if they’re a staple of television (thanks to a new story walking into the hospital every week, and a procedural-type mystery waiting to be solved), there’s never been much difference to me from Medical Center in the ’70’s to ER in the ’90s, all the way through to House and Grey’s Anatomy currently on the air.  But there is one recent show I really liked in this vein (so, of course, it only lasted one season).  Ironically, it was called Off the Map.

Off the Map: a patient room with a jungle view

Airing on ABC in the spring of 2011, Off the Map was different from the ordinary medical drama in many ways, but most of those differences sprung out of its setting:  the South American jungle.  Three young doctors, each running away from something in their past, end up becoming the newest staff at a remote overseas clinic, far away from all the gleaming hallways and fancy equipment they are used to.  Without access to so-called “modern” medicine, there are new dangers, and new solutions, which are discovered every day.

“Practicing tropical medicine in a third-world country is a different game… You don’t have high tech, you don’t have big pharma – you have your brain, you have your instincts.”
–Dr. Ben Keeton, founder and head of the clinic

Mina, Lily, and Tommy

The new recruits are Dr. Lily Brenner (Caroline Dhavernas), who’s looking for a new start after the death of a loved one back home and, although she’s extremely bright as a medical professional, she’s had a crisis of confidence after those previous events.  Dr. Tommy Fuller (Zach Gilford) has no lack of confidence, but what he does lack is ambition.  He skated through medical school and plans to become a plastic surgeon rather than deal with disease, and sees this time as a tropical vacation.  He’s forced to deal with the reality of medical practice and the humanity of suffering, both of which he’d preferred to ignore… until he can’t any longer.  The last of our trio is Dr. Mina Minard (Mamie Gunner), a relative “loner” who also doubts herself, as her lack of personal skills had caused her to misdiagnose a young patient, resulting in a death that could have been prevented.  Although she comes from a family rooted in the medical profession, it’s exactly the “profession” part she needs to escape, and instead come to terms with what “healing” is about, both for herself and her patients.

Drs. Zee and Cole, together (?)

The clinic’s current staff includes their leader, Dr. Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson).  Described by Lily as “one of the world’s greatest humanitarians”, his passion is medicine… but his demons do exist, and his choices often cause moral dilemmas in both keeping the clinic open and deciding who gets treated, and how.  Dr. Otis Cole (Jason George) seems to be a laid-back, easy-going soul, but has a past as a drug user and an uncertain future due to his indecision over a serious relationship.  The romance in question is with Dr. “Zee”, Zita Alareina Toledo Alvarez (Valerie Cruz), his co-worker and peer.  An expert in local botanical medicine, she watches over the others with a fierce protectiveness.  She expects maturity in both the newbies and her current staff, and when Cole doesn’t seem serious about their personal relationship, she has choices to make.

Ryan and Ben

“Zee” isn’t the only one with choices.  Dr. Ryan Clark (Rachelle Lefevre) has been in an intermittent relationship with her boss, Ben Keeton, and we first meet her when she’s choosing to leave the clinic… only to come back, and then decide to leave again.  Her mercurial nature is challenged when a threat to her own health is discovered, forcing her and Ben to confront their feelings for each other, and the secrets Ben hides.

A young local teen, Charlie (Jonathan Castellanos), serves as translator for these doctors and their patients.  While he’s very interested in becoming a doctor someday, he’s only 14, much too young for any actual structured medical education… but that doesn’t stop him from trying.  Of course, developing a crush on one of the new doctors doesn’t help matters any, but he is a vital window into the local culture and a guide to more than just the aches and pains of the citizens.  And his background has a few surprises for the new doctors, especially Tommy….

There’s a lot of soap opera here, but all of it is told around the very different medical dramas found in the uncharted wilderness of the jungle.  When the first day’s rounds are spent high on a zip line, trying to save an unconscious man whose arm has become mangled in his rope/pulley system, Lily realizes all too well that life at the Clinic is nothing like any medicine she’s ever practiced.  Facing issues like dealing with the corrupt local government, where payoffs are the norm for needed drugs (and even local drug lords are necessary “friends”), it’s a different world from anything she, or the viewers, expect.

“They don’t have the technology and resources at their disposal that they have on Grey’s (Anatomy) or Private (Practice) or ER or really any other medical show that’s been on TV in the last few years.  (That) really allows us to sort of delve into stories that no one else can really do, and I think that’s what makes the show so exciting.”
–Creator/Producer Jenna Bans

Mina’s struggle with the locals and the language barrier, and Tommy’s dealings with the long-held superstitions and methods of the populace, created a new and rich world for a medical drama, even without the soap characteristics.  Cases included a man who was literally enveloped by a giant snake… which had to remain wrapped around his body while the doctors transported him back to the clinic, as the pressure of the snake squeezing the life out of the victim was also the only thing holding his vital organs together until they reached treatment.

Distrust of “new” medicine in favor of old wives’ tales and tradition also led to the discovery by our characters of what nature provided instead, and these remedies were used repeatedly when the modern-day miracles weren’t available. Native methodology wasn’t seen to be “old,” just different.

And did you really know that coconut water was a great temporary substitute for saline solution when someone is dehydrated?  The new doctors didn’t.  So imagining a coconut hanging in place of an IV bottle is strange enough.  And climbing up a tree in an emergency to cut down young coconuts and save someone’s life doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched when you realize why.  This is medicine the hard way.  Amputating a leg is difficult enough… having to do it underwater offshore is just crazy.  Yet that’s what they did.

In Off the Map, nature was found to often be a substitute for technology, as far as the medicine was concerned  But making an hour-long medical drama is still difficult for television, no matter how much easier it is for storylines.  As noted above, even though new plots are available with every guest character shown, the problem becomes one of both time and clarity.  Medical shows are hard to film, especially on location.

“You have to understand the mechanics of shooting a scene.  The O.R. is just a hole because you have to shoot what they call the master, which is the big, wide shot which has everybody.  Then you come in close for everybody’s original coverage: my close-up, Martin [Henderson’s] close up, Caroline [Dhavernas’s] close-up, Rachelle [Lefevre’s] close-up.  The close-up of the people, the close-up of the prosthetic.  There’s so many different shots… Friday becomes what we call Fraturday because we’re there until really early Saturday.”
–Jason George

Adding to all that the matter of very specific medical terminology, plus the need to present it to an audience in a way that seems natural but also doesn’t fly over their understanding, means medical dramas are far more complex than most realize.

Not your ordinary house call... or filming experience

As if this wasn’t enough, Off the Map also added the burden (or advantage, depending on your point of view) of filming almost entirely in remote locations.  Utilizing the crew and sites for the recently ended series Lost, the clinic was built in its entirety in Hawaii (which doubled for the unnamed South American country), complete with examination rooms, offices, and operating theatre used for filming.  A soundstage was seldom used.  Much of each week’s story was told in the wilderness, and the 100 or more cast and crew on site obviously had to do their work in the “pristine” jungle, with little access to usual amenities.  Even the bathrooms were glorified Port-a-potties (which also had to be hauled in).  Now try to film the O.R. scene Jason George talks about above, plus outdoor night shooting on occasion and other distractions.  Medical shows are hard enough, but with all these extras it is amazing any of the actors even survived.

Off the Map didn’t survive as a series, of course.  ABC was initially excited about the show, increasing their original order of episodes from 7 to 13 for its summer run.  Part of its pedigree was Shonda Rimes, who’d brought the network success with medical dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.  But audiences didn’t respond to the combination of exotic locales and soap opera characters, and the series wasn’t long for this world, especially with the costs involved.  Despite the terrific cast and the unique setting, by the end of summer the show really was off the (television) map for good.

CAROLINE DHAVERNAS (Lily Brenner) is a welcome sight and a favorite here.  Her performance as the lead in Wonderfalls is remembered very fondly.  A native of Montreal, she is fluent in both French and English, and has provided her own voice when her performances have been dubbed for foreign release.  She is active in French, English, and Canadian productions, and in demand all over the world.

ZACH GILFORD (Tommy Fuller) starred as quarterback Matt Saracen in the critically acclaimed TV series Friday Night Lights.  He was a perfect fit for Off the Map, as he leads adventure trips for youth in locations like Alaska, Hawaii, British Columbia, and the South Pacific.

MAMIE GUMMER (Mina Minard) comes from an acting heritage, the daughter of famed actress Meryl Streep.  In addition to a recurring role on The Good Wife, she’s made headway in the theatre world, winning awards in Los Angeles, and performing earlier this year Off-Broadway in The School for Lies.

MARTIN HENDERSON (Ben Keeton) was born in New Zealand, and began his career in Australia.  A well-known actor down under, he starred on TV in Shortland Street, Home and Away, Sweat, and Big Sky, constantly working for over a decade.  After coming to America, he landed a leading role in the box-office success The Ring and the movie Smokin’ Aces before traveling to Hawaii for Off the Map.

JASON GEORGE (Otis Cole) Is a veteran of numerous TV series, his first being the soap Sunset Beach.  (He was only a few credits shy of his Masters of Fine Arts degree at the time, and his college counted the gig as “Independent Study” and awarded him the diploma anyway!)  Since then, he’s been a regular on Titans, Off Centre, Eve, What About Brian?, Eli Stone, and Eastwick before joining Off the Map.  He’s also well-versed in stage fighting and combat choreography.

VALERIE CRUZ (Zita Alareina “Zee” Toledo Alvarez) has also been featured on this site before, as police detective Connie Murphy on The Dresden Files.  She’s been seen on Nip/Tuck, Hidden Palms, Dexter, and True Blood.  Currently a regular on the SyFy series Alphas, she will be back for its recently announced second season.

RACHELLE LEFEVRE (Ryan Clark) is also bi-lingual, and she and cast mate Caroline Dhavernas would sometimes fall into French language conversations on the set together.  She was part of the successful Twilight movie series, but had to drop out of the recent third movie due to scheduling conflicts.  Currently, she’s again playing a doctor, this time on the new CBS series A Gifted Man.

JONATHAN CASTELLANOS (Charlie) was only 15 when filming Off the Map, but he’s already had a recurring role in the police drama Southland.  Other guest star appearances included Rules of Engagement, Side Order of Life, and Boston Legal.  An avid musician, he plays both guitar and drums when not involved in acting.

Off the Map was released on DVD in August of 2011, containing a few behind-the-scenes featurettes and some outtakes as well.  Individual episodes are also available in HD for purchase through Amazon Instant Video (or for free, if you’re a member).  Although full episodes aren’t available for general streaming anymore (thanks to the DVD release), there is the usual selection of clips promoting the series at TVGuide.com.  Marketing has gotten to the point where even network promotional posters are sold, and the very recent Off the Map was no exception.

“Ask, and the jungle provides.  It has everything you need.”
–Lily

The jungle does provide everything, except perhaps for more than 13 episodes.  Off the Map really was a different way to present a medical drama, and yet it probably tried too hard to be much like its forebears, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.  There were times when Off the Map lacked a solid direction, veering between the drama of the regular characters and the complexities of medicine in a new and different frontier.  Fans of one may have been turned off by the other, and the result, like the medicine, was just too different for most to take.

But I loved it, and followed the show faithfully.  I believed the new and unusual miieu was intriguing, and the actors were terrific.  Even the soap plotlines were varied enough, thanks to the setting, for me to feel like I was watching something interesting and different.  Something you wouldn’t find on a normal television series.  Something Off the Map.

Vital Stats

13 episodes aired — none unaired (All available on DVD)
ABC Network
First aired episode:  January 12, 2011
Final aired episode:  April 6, 2011
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, but it might have stood a better chance of survival there.  ABC aired it on Wednesday nights at 10/9 Central, against Top 20 CBS show Blue Bloods and with the soon-to-be-also-cancelled Mr. Sunshine as a lead-in.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

In nature, an imperfection in an oyster is slowly encased by a calcium compound, and the layers built around it form what we know as a pearl.  Sometimes, the underwater process creates something of great value, and sometimes the result is not so perfect, but still amazing.  Something similar came from the depths of the ocean back in 1977, a show that had great promise despite the flaws in its premise.  And despite the lack of perfection, there’s still something worth watching in adventures under the sea.

“This show has style.  It’s not great science fiction.  I can see the wires holding up this thing that’s supposed to be floating, but it’s cool.  Our show wasn’t about production values.  We had great expectations.  We always dreamed far ahead of our technical abilities.  We were so serious about doing a good job, despite the lack of equipment.”
–Patrick Duffy, star of Man From Atlantis 

Patrick Duffy and Belinda J. Montgomery

Man From Atlantis aired on NBC, first in early 1977 as a set of four TV-movies, then as a short-lived regular series starting that fall.  The man is question is known as Mark Harris (Patrick Duffy), whose body is washed ashore one day by the tides, unconscious.  He is revived, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Elisabeth Merrill (Belinda J. Montgomery), a scientist who works for the Foundation for Oceanic Research.  This quasi-governmental organization is headed by C. W. Crawford, Jr. (Alan Fudge), and tasked with research of the world’s seas.

Mark is suffering from amnesia thanks to his injuries, but he’s soon discovered to apparently have been born and raised underwater as he possesses gills, subtly-webbed hands and feet, and amazing swimming speed below the surface.  He also has rather unique eyes, able to see in the darkness of the depths of the ocean, and a body which can withstand the pressures of the deep.  With these gifts,  he becomes a valuable part of the Foundation.  In exchange for his talents, he also wishes to find out about his origins, and perhaps the civilization he originally came from (thought by some to be the original Atlantis), and the resources of the Foundation are the best way to pursue his inquiries.

One of those resources is the Cetecean, a state-of-the-art submarine designed to travel all over the world’s oceans, literally delving deep into the unknown areas of the globe.  Since roughly three-quarters of the surface of the earth is water, that’s a lot of area to search, especially multiplied by the incredible depths involved.  So, where does the team begin?

“The sea is my home.”
–Mark Harris

In the first four TV-movies, Mark’s origins are explored and, although no real answers are found, there are at least some tantalizing hints.  During a search for an undersea prototype sub, Mark discovers an underwater complex headed by Dr. Schubert (Victor Buono), a rather villainous type who also becomes obsessed with Mark’s existence, and who wants to learn about Mark’s abilities at any cost.

Two of the TV-movies concern the possession of humans by other species, one from outer space (which crash-landed in the ocean) and another by killer spores from beneath the sea.  The virtue of these stories was that much of the action took place on land, meaning less time for then-expensive underwater shooting.  While in our current times, faking underwater filming is much more effective thanks to computer graphics and modern technology, the basics of shooting a tremendous number of scenes in a water tank doubling for the vastness of the ocean’s depths back in the late ’70’s were a major headache for producers.

The fourth TV-movie, subtitled The Disappearances, aired in June of 1977, and was one of the highest rated programs of that week.  Its performance, and the consistency of ratings for the previous entries, led to NBC ordering up weekly adventures of the Man From Atlantis.  If there had been difficulties before with filming and production deadlines, trying to create these strange new underwater worlds on a series budget and seven-day shooting schedule was going to be almost as impossible as breathing underwater without gills.  But the producers hoped that perhaps, with a few tweaks, it could be done.

“The one drawback is, if you’re underwater, everything has to be underwater, and how do you do that?  I would go underwater and then appear mysteriously in another dimension.  We would do the sets that didn’t have to be wet.”
–Patrick Duffy

While there was less exploration of the vast underwater areas of the earth, stories now focused more on Mark and the jeopardy posed when he wasn’t regularly around water.  Continued survival required his being subjected to the necessary effects of water, or his gill tissue would dry up and ultimately suffocate him.  So, we have episodes where he’s locked up in jail by a misunderstanding sheriff, with Mark unable to make it back to a body of water to survive.  Mark’s solution?  To make such a disturbance within the cell that the sheriff is forced to “punish” him with a blast from the nearby firehose, used to “cool off” rowdy prisoners (but allowing Mark his much-needed water supply for at least a short time, until help can arrive).

“When we got it as a one-hour TV series, we knew what it was going to be — it was a wet Batman.”
–Patrick Duffy

Man From Atlantis had evolved from an adventure series set in Earth’s last remaining frontier to a glorified camp comic, mainly as a result of budget and time concerns more than any actual preference to tell stories with less actual human (Atlantean?) drama.  Despite the desires of all concerned to make something more serious, practical realities demanded stories that could be filmed and aired with a quicker turn-around.  The series had gotten a late order for episodes anyway, so scripts were rushed, and “filmable” became another term for “good enough”.  The results were less than stellar, with depth of character (both personal and dramatic) exchanged for action and black-and-white villainy.

Victor Buono as Dr. Schubert

The Dr. Schubert character made a few appearances again in the series, although his motivations were much more due to his obsession with Mark and less to do with the perfection of an underwater society (as seen in the pilot).  A potential amorous relationship hinted at in the TV-movies between Mark and Elisabeth was pretty much forgotten, other than concern for each others’ welfare when necessary jeopardy was involved.

Many associated with the series were relatively new to the television business, and didn’t truly understand the complexities that would be involved in such an ambitious undertaking.  It was especially grueling for Duffy as the lead, having to “act” underwater in many scenes.  Although his later successful TV series have made him a well-recognized star, he still has an incredible fondness for the role….

“…this was my first television show. I was a mid-20’s actor.  I was a carpenter by trade, and then I turned around and I’m the head of my own network primetime show.  It was a game changer for me, a real life shift.  And it was an adventure.  It was science fiction, it was Buck Rogers, it was me being on a sound stage – first of all, was very exotic, but to be on a sound stage where they’re trying to do all of this strange science fiction underwater stuff was so exhilarating, that you could put a gun to my head now and I wouldn’t do half the things that I volunteered to do in 1976.”
–Patrick Duffy

All the enthusiasm in the world can’t make up for lack of real drama, budget, and the difficulties of filming a television show underwater.  Ultimately, the series devolved into something that, according to Washington Post critic Tom Shales, might have been better suited for kids on a Saturday morning instead of adults on a Tuesday night.  Advertisers must have thought so too, as there were prototypes for action figures created, as well as art kits, novels, and of course, real comic books.  (Ironically, the books and comics allowed for more characterization than the series itself!)  While these items may have endeared Man From Atlantis to legions of younger viewers, those adults who really counted in the Nielsen ratings found something else to do other than watch a program they believed was just for kids.  Therefore, the subsequent lack of ratings spelled doom for Mark Harris and his friends.  The Man From Atlantis may as well have discovered Davy Jones’ Locker, the final resting place of all those who’ve died at sea….

PATRICK DUFFY (Mark Harris) went from Man From Atlantis straight into the role that made him famous, Bobby Ewing on Dallas.  A decade or so later, he headlined Step by Step, for which he also directed 49 episodes.  Although born a Catholic (on St. Patrick’s Day, hence his name), he converted to Buddhism around the same time he became an actor.  He will be featured next summer on TNT’s revamp of Dallas, with primarily a younger cast but also showcasing him, Larry Hagman, and others from the original show

BELINDA J. MONTGOMERY (Dr. Elisabeth Merrill) was on many shows as a guest actress in the ’70’s and ’80’s, including The Streets of San Francisco, Marcus Welby M.D., and Miami Vice (recurring as Sonny Crockett’s ex-wife Caroline).  She’s best known as Doogie’s mom Katharine on the long-running Doogie Howser M.D.  She’s mostly retired from acting now, preferring to indulge herself in her first love, painting,

ALAN FUDGE (C. W. Crawford, Jr.) is also a television veteran, with numerous roles to his credit.  He was a regular on three other show besides Man From Atlantis, those being Eischied, Paper Dolls and Bodies of Evidence.  Recurring parts include such series as 7th Heaven and L.A. Law.  Still a working actor, he’s recently been featured on The Closer and The Office.

VICTOR BUONO (Mr. Schubert) was well-known for playing villainous roles, often with a somewhat comedic bent.  His portrayal of arch-nemesis King Tut in multiple episodes of Batman as well as Count Manzeppi in The Wild, Wild West cemented this reputation among a generation of TV viewers.  He was also a poet, and his verse was commonly featured during his appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, often making self-referential comments about his large frame.  He passed of a heart attack in 1982.

A show with only 13 episodes really doesn’t have enough material for rerun syndication in America, and even adding in the TV-movies makes only 21 hours available.  Surprisingly, Man From Atlantis holds the distinction of being the very first American television series ever sold to stations in mainland China.  The British syndication of the show actually beat the venerable Tom Baker and Doctor Who in the 1978 ratings race.  Despite its place in the memory of many who grew up during that time period, it has not been commercially available on DVD until very recently, although you won’t find it in stores.

Warner Brothers has started a “Made-on-Demand” DVD system, allowing for select older, less publicly popular series to gain new life (and money to be made off their back catalog).  Two DVD sets are now available, one containing the 4 original TV-movies, and the other containing the 13 episodes of the series.  This allows fans to acquire and relive the adventures of their television memories with good quality rather than resorting to iffy bootleg copies, also allowing the studio and those responsible for their creations the chance to earn a small bit of cash back from their earlier endeavors.  “Made-on-Demand” also means there’s no longer necessity for shelf space, storage, and wildly incorrect estimates of demand for titles, all positives for viewers and manufacturers alike.

Man From Atlantis returns?

Although Dell Publishing printed novelizations of the original 4 TV-movies (which I’m proud to say I’ve owned all these years), opportunity also might occur because of the newly increased interest provided by the DVD release.  Patrick Duffy’s love for the show (and its original possibilities) have led him to write the first of three proposed books about the Man From Atlantis, telling the story (and providing more significant answers) in the fictional realm.  While he’s currently seeking a publisher, in this day of e-publishing and the Print-on-Demand version of the new DVD system, I have little doubt that these new adventures will soon see the light of day.

“We found out that doing true science fiction is really difficult on a weekly basis, especially in the 1970s, when it didn’t involve just creating a computer program.”

–Patrick Duffy

While some may deride the story quality of Man From Atlantis, the idea is still a wonderful exploration of what it means to be human and the worlds beneath the surface.  Producers Herb Solow and Robert Justman, veterans of the original Star Trek series, saw the undersea world as their version of Trek‘s outer space, a place where an infinite number of stories could be told, and infinite number of possibilities existed.  But even Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had to wait until the animated adventures of Star Trek to tell a story about an underwater planet, as production realities simply didn’t allow that type of episode presentation on a television budget, let alone a series full of them.

No matter what the aspirations, sometimes a television series simply can’t be what it should be.  Like Mark Harris on land, Man From Atlantis was simply out of its depth.  But despite its imperfections, it is still a pearl… just not a perfect one.

Vital Stats

Four two-hour TV-movies plus 13 hour-long episodes — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode: March 4, 1977 (TV-movies); September 22, 1977 (series)
Final aired episode:  June 20, 1977 (TV-movies); June 6, 1978 (series, although the actual cancellation happened back at the end of 1977, and remaining episodes were run off during the next summer)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The series time slot was Tuesdays at 8/7 Central, great for the kids, but not so great for the success of Man From Atlantis as a whole.  In this time slot, it sank.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“The United States of America would like to invite you… to come spy with me.”
–Mr. Lavender, in the opening of Masquerade

Rod Taylor as Mr. Lavender

Don’t go on a cruise to the Caribbean this season.  Join World American Tours instead, the bus company that travels all over the world to provide our guests the best vacation they’ve ever had.  Join our uniquely trained tour guides and see sights ordinary tourists never get to visit.  Not only will this vacation be special, but (thanks to a deal we’ve worked out with the US Government) we’ll pay YOU an entire year’s salary to join us on this once-in-a-lifetime whirlwind adventure!  A free trip, a glorious time, and wonders to explore beyond your wildest dreams….

… with only one little catch.  You see, there’s this job we need you to do while you’re here….

Sounds like a scam?  Some thought so.  The trips were real, and so was the money.  But World American Tours was a front for the CIA, and the job (even if it’s something you do every day) is the most risky thing you’ll ever do.  Because you’re engaging in espionage during the Cold War, and there’s only so much our team can do to protect you.  Appropriately, what’s going on is an elaborate Masquerade.

Premiering at the end of 1983, Masquerade presented the somewhat tongue-in-cheek adventures of a beleaguered CIA chief, known only as Mr. Lavender (Rod Taylor).  His entire operation had been compromised, leading him to a radical idea:  instead of spending the time and money to train new spies (which he figured would take over a year to do), he’d simply spend the money to gather hard-working, patriotic Americans to do his spy work now.

Paying each citizen a free trip abroad and a year’s salary, Mr. Lavender brought people of all walks of life and all special skills together for a unique brand of espionage.  As they were total unknowns to the spy community, they could easily infiltrate without tipping off enemies.  Of course, what you gain in anonymity you lose in experience…  but it’s only one mission for each, right?  What could possibly go wrong?

Greg Evigan as Danny Doyle

“The other members of our team, sir… aren’t they going to be a little put off by having to work with two rookies?”

“Won’t bother them.  They’ve never been on a mission either.”

–Lavender, responding to Danny and Casey about their new assignment

Kirstie Alley as Casey Collins

Well, now that you mention it… plenty.  These people weren’t trained spies at all, so they had handlers to help them out with all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.  Lavender chose two relatively new CIA training graduates as assistants (remember, the entire previous staff had been compromised), and charged them with wrangling the untested newcomers (much to their chagrin).  Danny Doyle (Greg Evigan) and Casey Collins (Kirstie Alley) were there more to be conversational foils for the characters and providing a reason for dumping plot information, but they also provided some contrast to the covert proceedings.

So, with real (but still green) agents undercover as “tour guides” if our ordinary Americans got stuck (or did something really foolish, like get caught), the episode guest stars got on with the normal things their characters knew.  Like the plumber from Minneapolis, sent to Paris to cause hotel drains to plug up at a precise moment.  Or a thief from Chicago brought  in for the use of his pickpocket skills.  Or an out-of-work actor chosen because he could become a dead ringer for a Russian diplomat.  Whatever skill or ability was needed, that person soon “won” a free trip overseas and a year’s salary, just to do what they already did everyday.

“Welcome to Operation:  Masquerade.”
–Lavender, to the gathered “operatives”, in every episode

Each episode starting with a briefing aboard a private airplane on the way to some foreign locale, where Lavender would lay out the plan to those he had chosen for the mission.  They were free to back out anytime before the plane landed, but after that, they were “in”.  The presentation was like the opening tape recording of the late ’60’s series Mission:  Impossible, where the bad guy was shown and the group was informed of what they had to do… but whether they could do it without complications was the interesting part for the audience at home.

The “ordinary Americans” are where The Love Boat angle comes in, as they were guest stars each week.   Portrayed by various actors who weren’t necessarily on the A-List, but still were recognizable enough to bring an audience to the show, they ranged from movie actors, to television favorites, to celebrities who were only known for being, well, celebrities.  Classic television names like Cybill Shepard, Ernest Borgnine, and Lynda Day George worked alongside baseball great Steve Garvey, supposedly in Italy or Germany or even Brazil, just to present a feel-good caper show that was comfortable and easy on the brain.

And, perhaps, that’s why Masquerade didn’t do so well in the ratings competition as it did in the Cold War.  Storylines on The Love Boat, as a romantic comedy, lent themselves to more silliness and less consequence, whereas on Masquerade, mistakes made by our guests didn’t lead to comical misunderstandings, but to apprehension and imprisonment by a deadly enemy.  It’s hard to make escapist ’80’s television when the threat is so worrisome.  The stakes for the characters (and therefore the viewers who identify with them) are not comfortable ones by any means.

One would hope that Masquerade would be a more serious show as a result, but producer Glen A. Larson wasn’t known for that kind of depth on his series in general.  Plots used some really odd ideas, like beauty contestants (supposedly with martial arts skills) going up against ninjas and the Yakuza.  Yeah, that sounds rather silly (and unfortunate), but this was the height of the ’80’s, and some shows weren’t asked to go for the cerebral, by any means.  Using The Love Boat meets Mission:  Impossible as a template caused many (including the network) to focus on the vacuous first part, to the detriment of the dramatic second, ruining the series as a whole.  Having to play the “outrageous” as completely straight overwhelmed any credibility Masquerade may have hoped for.

sheet music for Crystal Gayle's opening theme

A decent idea descended quickly into a combination of silly spy thriller and unintentional (?) comedy, but maybe there was a reason for some of that.  Masquerade was the fourth try for the concept, as pilot movies had been done for the same concept (titled Call to Danger) in the ’60’s and ’70’s.  Containing varying degrees of seriousness, they never got off the ground as series, but at least Masquerade showed enough style to get episodes ordered beyond the pilot.  The opening title sequence shows much of the ’80’s James Bond influence, with over-the-top spy flair and terrific music by Crystal Gayle.  (In fact, one of the best remnants of the series was that theme song, which even got a release as sheet music during the run of the show.)

The show never really had a chance anyway, as it aired on Friday nights in 1984, in the path of the buzzsaws that were Dallas and Falcon Crest.  As mentioned previously in my article on The Quest, this was a spot for networks to gamble, as any ratings they could gather against those two series were something of a gain.  Dallas and Falcon Crest were simply unbeatable for years on Friday nights, and Masquerade failed as spectacularly as anything else put up against them.  It replaced an even more forgettable show, Lottery!, about the winners of a Publisher’s Clearing House type sweepstakes, and the dramas that ensued.

Another problem with the scheduling was premiering Masquerade in the middle of December, and running it during the holidays, traditionally low-rated times for any television programming.  The show ran through January, then was pre-empted for eight straight weeks (to run off remaining Lottery! episodes), before returning in April, where it resumed with another five episodes before being removed from the airwaves permanently. (Apparently, World American didn’t have any tours running during February and March that year….)

All told, Masquerade was a good idea that went bad very quickly.  Even the best ideas become shallow imitations of themselves when decent writing, production values, and acting aren’t part of their presentation.  Add in a woeful time slot with killer competition, and an airing schedule that almost no show could survive intact, and perhaps the show was appropriately named.  Whatever was left after all those problems was little more than a shell of what could have been, a pretend copy of a TV series, with a neat idea and not much more.  Truly a Masquerade….

ROD TAYLOR (Mr. Lavender) played many iconic Hollywood roles in his career, including leads in the original The Time Machine and Hitchcock’s classic The Birds.  Regular series roles included appearances on Outlaws, Bearcats!, The Oregon Trail, Falcon Crest, and Walker, Texas Ranger.  Most recently, he played Winston Churchill in the hit film Inglourious Basterds.  Taylor was also the voice of Pongo, the lead dalmatian in the original Disney animated film 101 Dalmatians.

GREG EVIGAN (Danny Doyle) has starred in numerous different series, from A Year at the Top (with David Letterman bandleader Paul Schaffer) and BJ and the Bear (with a chimp for a sidekick) through his biggest success, My Two Dads.  The syndicated TekWar (with William Shatner) followed, plus short-lived stints on Melrose Place, Pacific Palisades, and Family Rules.  He’s a consistent guest actor in many series, and most recently appeared in Desperate Housewives and Cold Case, as well as a number of TV-movies.

KIRSTIE ALLEY (Casey Collins) made a splash as Lt. Saavik in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan before becoming a mainstay on television.  Her role as Rebecca in Cheers won her an Emmy, and a starring role in the successful sitcom Veronica’s Closet followed.  While her ups-and-downs with weight loss have made tabloid fodder (and been featured in a reality series, Fat Actress), she was recently the runner-up in season 13 of Dancing with the Stars.

Masquerade isn’t available on DVD, but the episodes are up on YouTube thanks to the generous links of a certain user named imstillstuckinthe80s, where you will also find some other show episodes if you happen to be searching for another lost series.  There’s also an Italian site (in English) for Greg Evigan with stills taken from the show, but unfortunately not much else.  One would hope for a DVD release, considering the name value of the regulars, but such a thing hasn’t happened at this time (and it’s unknown what kind of shape any remaining copies might be in anyway, as there wasn’t a market for home video in those days, and a failed series often stayed forgotten as far as preservation was concerned).

Sometimes, you don’t ask for Shakespeare.  Sometimes, just escapist fare with a bit of fun, a bit of deception, and a bit of style fills the bill.  For those things, Masquerade did pretty well, but for any who asked more of the series, then perhaps it fell short of the mark.  To be a great series, it has to be all those things.  With better execution (and a little less over-the-top scripting), there’s still a quality show here somewhere.  We were just left with something pretending to be otherwise.

Vital Stats

1 90-minute pilot and 11 other aired episodes — 1 unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  December 15, 1983
Final aired episode:  April 27, 1984 (with a large 2-month gap in the middle)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  An hour later, Friday @ 9/8 Central.  I don’t care how it was disguised, it was still fodder for Dallas at the time.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“I had three different separate shows running with three different writing crews, shooting crews, and casts. I would go into my dailies to see the filming from the day before and I’d be in the dailies for like three hours. It was really hard, but we had a great time””
–Producer/Creator Kenneth Johnson on making Cliffhangers

Welcome to the thrilling days of yesteryear!  Pay your nickel admission to the theater, and sit back with popcorn in hand to watch this week’s exciting adventures of heroism and dastardly villiany!  And when it’s all over, make sure you come back next week… you don’t want to miss seeing how our hero (or heroine) gets themselves out of their terrible predicament, because (of course) all good serials end with a terrifying cliffhanger!

OK, that’s from the movie screens of the thirties and forties, and Saturday afternoon serials like the original Buck Rodgers and The Perils of Pauline… but since this is a television site, I’ll have to settle for a show that tried to harken back to those days, the 1979 series Cliffhangers!

Three shows in one

Even though it was a throwback to an earlier time, Cliffhangers was unique for a television format.  It featured three very different “shows” during each hour, with each part finishing, of course, on a cliffhanger ending.  Like the old Saturday movie serials, an installment of each continuing story was featured every week.  So, viewers would see roughly 20 minutes of a modern-day globe-trotting action-adventure show, followed by a strange hybrid of sci-fi western, and finally a good old NEW gothic horror story, all in an hour program.  Something for everyone, NBC hoped.

And NBC rested a lot of hopes on Cliffhangers, as it was a spring replacement series in 1979, after NBC’s ENTIRE new fall line-up had been canceled before the previous November was out.  They were willing to try anything at this point, and in Cliffhangers, the network tried three different things… all at once.

CHAPTER 1:  Stop Susan Williams starred actress Susan Anton as the title character, a news photographer whose reporter brother had apparently been killed.  The incident was thought by most to be an accident, but Susan had received a frantic and urgent call from her brother just before his death, which led her to believe there was more to this story.  She convinced her editor Bobby Richards (television veteran Ray Walston) to send her after clues left in an address book she found in her brother’s apartment… just before someone tried to kill her.

Susan and Jack

What ensues is a world-wide journey (on the Universal back-lot, of course) from Marrakesh to Nairobi to Washington, D.C. with threats to Susan’s life at every turn.  She meets up with Jack Schoengarth (Michael Swan), a scoundrel who happened to know her brother in the past, and is periphially involved in the events the brother was investigating (and Susan is now trying to stop).  They find various clues along the way, as Jack is busy saving Susan each week from exploding cars, deadly cobras, and even rampaging elephants about to stampede!

Basically, what’s being emulated here is the classic The Perils of Pauline from 1933, just updated to a present-day setting.  NBC thought that Susan Anton was “the next big thing”, so much so that she was not only featured on Cliffhangers, but she had her own weekly variety series airing elsewhere on the schedule at the same time.  Unfortunately, the network’s love affair with Susan wasn’t shared by television audiences, and both shows were gone before the next season.  But that’s giving away the ending, and we’re supposed to be wondering what’s going to happen next….

“Don’t touch that dial!  It’s time for chapter three of The Secret Empire,  portions of which are in beautiful black and white!”
–The voice-over narration on the FIRST installment of The Secret Empire

Sheriff Jim Donner

CHAPTER 2: The Secret Empire was a definite departure from Stop Susan Williams.  In the beginning a traditional western, it soon became something quite different.  Basically a remake of a relatively unknown 1935 Gene Autry movie serial called The Phantom Empire, it combined cowboys with science fiction (showing that Firefly wasn’t the first… just the best).

Marshall Jim Donner (Geoffrey Scott) is on the trail of the Phantom Riders, masked horsemen who’ve been stealing gold shipments in 1880 Wyoming.  What starts as a typical western, complete with love interest/frontier doctor Millie Thompson (Carlene Watkins), shortly turns into a science fiction epic.  Donner stumbles upon the Phantom Riders hideout, a hidden cave containing an elevator leading to a futuristic underground city.  As the serial progresses, Donner discovers the evil leader of the city, Thorval (Mark Lenard), whose cunning plan is to brainwash the citizens above and take over their world.

To do this, Thorval needs gold to power his “compliatron”, hence the gold robberies.  The brave lawman uncovers not only the evil plot, but finds a resistance movement trying to stop Thorval, who’s already used his machine on many of his citizens.  “Donner Jim” (as the resistance calls him) rallies the rebels in order to help save both the underground city and his own people… and he ends up captured and re-captured multiple times along the way.  Donner’s serial cliffhangers include traditional western endings like his horse jumping a cliff (into a previously unseen river), and sci-fi threats like being attacked by a monstrous green creature from the underground (he’s “rescued” when the creature turns out to be friendly), and being “shot” by a futuristic ray gun (which merely immobilizes him, instead of killing him).

As if those aren’t enough, in later episodes Donner’s old and new friends end up in the Cliffhangers endings (both above and below ground), with Donner rescuing them to become the rightful hero of the piece.  All this was designed to evoke the feelings of the traditional movie serials, and in this respect The Secret Empire really couldn’t lose, since it was also the one most closely based on an actual serial from that era.  There was a distinct lack of updating done on this segment of the show (other than eliminating Autry’s “singing cowboy” schtick), and it was probably the most traditional, even if the hybrid subject matter was also the most unusual.

The underground city

The really unique feature  of The Secret Empire was the deliberate decision to show all the “old western” above-ground adventure in “beautiful” black and white (with a slight sepia tinge), while the underground futuristic environment was shown in color.  The dichotomy actually worked rather well, and was an excellent nod to the early 30’s origins of the Cliffhangers genre.  Unfortunately, there was one other inadvertent nod to that type of storytelling:  the series only lasted long enough to almost get to the end of the story, with both Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire left as REAL cliffhangers, at least on the network run.  More about that later, because now, it’s time for our final exciting Cliffhangers tale….

“How would you like to be alive 100 years from now?  As young and vital as you are, 200 years from now?  To behold the earth in 500 years and beyond? (…)  I am offering you something no one else can… immortality.  Like the eternal sea.  Think of it.  The ceaseless tide….  I know you are beginning to feel it. (…)  When you fully comprehend the gift only I can give… I will be waiting.”
–Dracula (Michael Nouri) seducing his potential victim Mary (Carol Baxter)

Michael Nouri as Count Dracula

CHAPTER 3:  The Curse of Dracula was the only truly original tale featured on Cliffhangers, even though the idea of Dracula, horror stories and gothic romance had been around for quite a while.  Using the traditional vampyre mythos, creator Kenneth Johnson crafted a modern-day story concerning Kurt Van Helsing (Stephen Johnson), the grandson of the famous vampyre-hunting Van Helsing, and Kurt’s girlfriend Mary Gibbons (Carol Baxter).  They were on the trail of Dracula (played with distinctive flair by Michael Nouri), who by now had lived over 500 years and was apparently teaching Eastern European History at a local college (night classes only, of course).

Yes, this all sounds rather campy, and yet this was the one story where camp took a back seat to atmosphere and style, and although there were occasional deliberate laughs (Dracula runs a light, and tells the belligerent officer “I know red when I see it.”), the series was never played as anything but honest and serious (which, if you think about it, is rather hard to do with a mythology rife with possibilities for being overplayed).  Nouri shines as a villain who seems tortured by his existence, yet still understanding of his legacy, no matter what it may have cost others.  And even though the traditional story is about Dracula and Van Helsing, it’s Mary who pays the emotional cost.

The Count and his intended, Mary

The Curse of Dracula was the most popular of the three serials on Cliffhangers, and it was probably the best acted and written.  Viewers loved the emotional struggle of Mary, who at one point is a vampire hunter and at another becomes romantically attracted to this denizen of the night.  Far in advance of today’s vampire versions found in Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and Moonlight, Nouri’s portrayal of the ageless Count was one of the first on prime-time television to be a romantic lead, even if he was ostensibly the villain of the piece.  This was one of the highlights of The Curse of Dracula, as at times Dracula was the threat in the cliffhanger, and at times he was actually the one saving someone else from his jealous minions.

The Curse of Dracula actually got an ending on television.  Supposedly, we joined each serial “in progress” and Curse started with Chapter Six… in the premiere episode.  The Curse of Dracula also benefited from a “recap” special when Dracula ’79 aired part-way through the season, as the numbering caused some viewers to believe they’d missed installments (they hadn’t).  Dracula ’79 was simply a re-edited version of the story so far, airing halfway through the series run, in an attempt to allow viewers who had missed the beginning of the series to catch up.  This unfortunately didn’t attract enough people to the show to save it, and so, with a resolution to The Curse of Dracula and apparent cliffhanger endings for both Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire, Cliffhangers ended most appropriately.

Cliffhangers isn’t available on commercial DVD, although there are rough bootlegs out there.  Some of these include the missing “final” episode, which contains no Curse of Dracula, but the last episode of Stop Susan Williams book-ended by the final two installments of The Secret Empire.  In reality, all three stories had a conclusion, but NBC canceled the series and left one installment unaired, making certain that Cliffhangers really did live up to its name.  All of the stories were re-edited into movies for sale in syndication and abroad.  Stop Susan Williams became The Girl Who Saved the World, while The Curse of Dracula became The World of Dracula (since there was already a movie by the Curse title).  There’s a couple really great websites, one with lots of background on the show, and another with more specific installment-by-installment information, and both are filled with an amazing amount of knowledge on Cliffhangers.

“Well, I’ll tell you why nobody remembers it.  It’s because we were on opposite Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley when they were getting forty shares in reruns.  It was the absolute nightmare timeslot of all time and it’s funny because Cliffhangers was, at the time, the most expensive one-hour show ever made for television.”
–Kenneth Johnson

NBC in 1978 was a sinking ship, having canceled their entire new September lineup within three months of their premieres.  Spring series like Cliffhangers got a chance only because everything else had fared so poorly, but it took more than just a season for NBC to recover from their previous terrible Fall.  NBC was desperate to be rescued by almost any show, as the only hit they had at the time was Little House on the Prairie.  But with nothing to build upon, it would take a lot longer than Spring for their fortunes to change… it would take years.  And Cliffhangers apparently wasn’t the show (or “shows”, if you want to look at it that way) to come to NBC’s rescue.

Unfortunately, as many critics rightfully pointed out, Cliffhangers was based on the “filler” material that was shown between old-time movies, and perhaps more effort should have been focused on “feature” entertainment than “filler”.  But that belittles all those who loved (and still love) that kind of entertainment, and not everything is going to be Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind.  There will always be a place for excitement, chases, and heroes (and heroines) facing dire peril and doom…

…until the next death-defying chapter, and the thrill of the rescue!  Bring on the Cliffhangers!

Vital Stats

10 aired episodes — one unaired episode
NBC Network
First aired episode:  February 27, 1979
Final aired episode:  May 1, 1979
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, but probably anything NBC aired at any time would have ended just like Cliffhangers.  Something had to go Tuesdays at 8/7 Central against Happy Days, and this was it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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