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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.

For those of you who know me, or who have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that two of my favorite shows are The Middleman (which I wrote about here) and Doctor Who (which my good friend Jeremy tackled on this site previously).  So it was with great surprise recently that I discovered a “professional” version of “fan fiction” (another article for anyone interested) written by the creator of The Middleman, Javier Grillo-Marxuach. 

He wrote the following as a gift to fans of The Middleman this Christmas, and he has graciously allowed me to repost it here.  Read, enjoy, and have a wonderful holiday season… and if you’re interested in some of his other projects, then by all means, please check out his own website, The Grillo-Marxuach Design Bureau, full of his work on shows like Lost (and all the way back to Dark Skies), and comics like The Middleman and The Flash.  Happy holidays, and may they be filled with wonder and fun….

SOMEWHERE IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
8:00 a.m.

“Fudgety-Bow-Wow, Dubbie!”

The Big Green Cheese’s language was extra-salty today, but Wendy Watson couldn’t muster the gumption for a witty rejoinder for two distinct reasons.  Reason number one?  Two adamantine thoughts currently raging like an electrical storm in her brain:

Wendy Watson, Middleman-in-training

Thought number one: an intense calculation of the tangled path of clues and conspiracies that had led her to this present, and precarious situation.  The winding and dangerous intrigue of the past few days included but was not limited to: a. the kidnapping of a genetically-enhanced, superintelligent dolphin from a children’s waterpark in Dubuque, b. the sudden manifestation in a Bhutanese monastery of the Vitrioplasmoid Consciousness – an alien entity comprised pure hatred expressed as a small pool of malodorous brown bioluminescent ooze and c. the HEYDAR’s discovery of a not inconsiderably large rift in the fabric of space and time emanating from this location.

Thought number two: a certain yearning for her aunt Margarita’s Ropa Vieja, a thick and vinegary Caribbean stew of meat, peppers, and onions whose preparation inevitably filled the house with a. a delicious and savory aroma and b. the irresistible strains of Miguel Bosé’s signature 1980‘s hit single Amante Bandido.

Thought number two always intruded into Wendy’s mind during moments of extreme danger… and may have been the key contributing factor to her trademark serenity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Reason number two for Wendy Watson’s lack of a witty rejoinder?  She was – indeed – experiencing a moment of extreme danger when she heard the voice of her employer: hanging upside-down, her legs magnetically shackled to a shining steel girder over the Coliseum-like lair of yet another egomaniacal-male-chauvinist-pig-supervillain who was probably neither breastfed as a baby nor picked for the football team as a child…

…and beneath her, an army of somewhat comical salt-and-pepper-shaker-shaped robots… all sporting plunger-shaped manipulator arms and lethal gunsticks… all crying out the same word with shrill and excruciating homogeneity:

“EX-TER-MI-NATE! EX-TER-MI-NATE! EXTERMINATE!”

The Middleman and Wendy
in
THE WIBBLY-WOBBLY, TIMEY-WIMEY, JIGGERY-POKERY

The Middleman

While The Middleman’s wide stance and arms-akimbo gave him the necessary heroic demeanor as he leaped from a sparkling Tesla coil onto the ramp leading to the current supervillain’s coliseum-like lair, the truth of the matter is that he had very little idea as to what expected him on the other side…

…aside from an appropriately grandiose architectural enclosure, a doomsday device of unfathomably Byzantine construction, a robotic army, and a sidekick in peril.

“What is that thing beneath you, Dubbie?”

In spite of the distracting thoughts and blood rushing to her head, Wendy somehow gathered the strength to turn to her boss and give him the lowdown:

“While you were fighting the Tesla-powered mechanical octopus -”

“You mean defeating the Tesla-powered mechanical octopus,” corrected The Middleman with a tooth-gleaming smile to complement his usual meticulous exactitude.

“- I discovered that Kanimang Kang has gathered the necessary elements to open the Cinderellica!”

“Sweet singing mice!  Not the Cinderellica!” Declared the Middleman – but no sooner had he made his distress clear that a Jumbotron (because, after all, what coliseum could ever be complete without one) flared into light and motion on the far wall of the coliseum…

“My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity!”

“Shoulder of Orion!” Snarled The Middleman, recognizing immediately the face of his arch-nemesis, “it’s Kanimang Kang!”

…and indeed, across the screen blazed the dark-lensed-Shuron-Sidewinder-bespectacled visage of Kanimang Kang: head of the Federated Agents of Tyranny, Betrayal and Oppression’s Yoke, dressed in his signature beige Mao suit and sporting his trademark Ronald Reagan coif.

Manservant Neville, member of F.A.T.B.O.Y.

Behind Kanimang Kang snivelled the gorilla-suit-and-necktie-clad, twin Tommy gun-carrying form of Manservant Neville: the often-believed-to-be-dead-at-birth older evil twin brother and namesake of a business leader once renowned as the greatest new technology visionary in the world!

“Ha-ha!” chortled Manservant Neville, “Middleham’s about to hear a monlogue!”

“Indeed, Manservant Neville,” declaimed Kanimang Kang, “how else will our enemy know what he gave his life to fail to stop.”

Instead of marshaling the final ember of a consciousness about to black out to execute the most epic eye roll in the history of contempt, Wendy simply blurted out the following –

“They are using the hyper-intelligent dolphin to perform the ongoing calculations that keep open the rift in time and space, with which they punched out a window to the planet Necros, through which they teleported the salt-and-pepper shaker dudes, whose combined weapons will blast open the Cinderellica, inside which is trapped the M.P.T.I.T.U. – “

“The Most Powerful Thing In The Universe,” confirmed The Middleman as Wendy drew a tortured breath to finish briefing her employer:

“ – which they will corrupt through exposure to the Vitrioplasmoid Consciousness into a weapon of unspeakable power!”

Her last thought before passing out? “Amazing, what a girl can learn while the boss is out defeating a Tesla-powered mechanical octopus.”

“Oh, phooey,” came The Middleman’s response.

“Damn you, sidecar!” Shouted Kanimang Kang – clenched fists shaking with the impotent frustration – his once-magnificent rant now sanctioned with extreme prejudice: double-tapped execution-style in the back of its metaphorical spine by the lethal weapon of brevity.

Having now duly cursed his opponents – and been vexingly deprived of a gordian explication of his nefarious scheme – Kanimang Kang exchanged befuddled looks with his sidekick.  After a vaguely dispirited shrug, Kanimang Kang casually reached over to his control panel and flicked the tin toggle that engaged the nuclear-fusion reactor powering the brobdingnagian clockwork holding shut the gargantuan bellows maintaining the seal on the dauntingly large hatch of the sarcophagus containing the Cinderellica.

“KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANG!” cried out The Middleman.

And while the unveiling of the Cinderellica – entombed in all of its transparent, slipper-shaped, crystalline vastness from the Beginning of Time Immemorial beneath what was now Kanimang Kag’s Coliseum-like lair – may sound like so bombastic and operatic-in-magnitude a process as to take hours to complete, in truth, it took a mere fraction of a second.

The shattering of the foot-formed glass crypt by the fire of the thousand gunsticks mounted on the salt-and-pepper shaker cyborgs took no longer.

Neither did the corruption of the M.P.T.I.T.U. by the dark thoughts and tortured soul of the Vitrioplasmoid Consciousness.

By the time The Middleman reached for his utility belt, the hybrid life force resulting from the corruption of the M.P.T.I.T.U. by the Vitrioplasmoid Consciousness had long-ago decided it was better off without the stewardship of Kanimang Kang, Manservant Neville, the legions of F.A.T.B.O.Y. and the salt-and-pepper shakers, and all had been smitten in a series of lightning strikes punctuated by a. eruptions of bimechanical offal (in the case of the salt-and-pepper shaker dudes) and b. far messier eruptions of purely biological offal (in the case of the humans).

By the time The Middleman fired his grappling gun and was halfway through his arc over the ball of light and dread where the salt-and-pepper-shaker dudes had once stood – hoping to make the final, desperate act of his life the simultaneous rescue of his sidekick and dropping of a Hydrogen Atomizing, Incendiary Load, Multi-Armament-Radiating Ypsillon (so named for it’s Y-shaped form-factor) into the opening maw of the Cinderellica, the fate of the world had already been signed, sealed and delivered.

The Middleman’s final desperate act of self-sacrifice was to have been in vain.

Had he not heard – over the clamor of exploding cyborgs and henchmen – an aural phenomenon he had many years ago vowed to never forget… an echoing, pulsating mechanical howl best described as the animal husbanding of the arooga-horn from a Ford Model-A and a 1930’s Parisian hotel elevator inside one of the vacuum tubes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop circa 1963.

AROOGA-THUMP…AROOGA-THUMP…AROOGA-THUMP!

By the time The Middleman’s swashbuckling trajectory had taken him to the spot where Wendy Watson hanged unconscious – but before he was able to flip the switch arming the Hydrogen Atomizing, Incendiary Load, Multi-Armament-Radiating Ypsillon – both he and his sidekick were in a different place altogether.

Inside the cobalt blue police call box which had inexplicably materialized over the late Kanimang Kang’s Coliseum-like lair and briefly hovered in space before vanishing with a final echoing AROOGA-THUMP!

"bigger on the inside"

MIDDLEMAN H.Q.
MERE MOMENTS LATER

The journey back to Middleman HQ took a mere flick of a fly’s wing, but that was enough time for Wendy – even in her groggy state – to exhaust every possible variation, innuendo and entendre – both double and single – about the “box being bigger on the inside.”

As The Middleman punched his way out through the front door of what was clearly a ship designed to travel through time and relative dimensions in space, all that was left were his ongoing protestations:

“Who are you?  What have you done with him?”

The jolly young chap who followed him out seemed deeply unconcerned with The Middleman’s flaring anger:

“AAAH! Middleman headquarters – I can practically smell the history!”

Wendy Watson – holding up the rear as usual – could not help but check out her savior’s tight, hipstery jeans, the ever-so-rumpled tweed blazer, the peeking collar of his Paul Smith shirt, and – of course – the finely-sculpted mane of hair partially hidden by the viking helmet.

This man looked no different from the legions of cute artist wannabees who served her lattes at the Java Applet coffee house a block away from her surprisingly spacious yet unrealistically affordable loft on a daily basis… yet he had not only just saved her – and the boss’ life… he also seemed strangely familiar.

“But I am him, Clarence – you just have to look a bit closer… or we could just skip the pleasantries and go about saving the planet as you know it.”

The Middleman had already made his decision on that score – he spun on his boots, simultaneously unholstering the B.T.R.S. scanner, which responded to his touch with its signature “BORP!”

sonic screwdrivers are cool

At the same time, their jolly savior reached into his jacket and pulled out a device similar in size to a compact bicycle pump…

… with a little blinky thing on the end, and a room-filling trill.

The two heroes stood off for a moment, each of their signature devices making its own unique and annoying noise – borp/trill-borp/trill-borp/trill – until a numinous cloud appeared in the space between them: a magical apparition of smoke and technology manifesting a series of images…

…a white-haired grand-dad, a coot in a fur coat and a Moe Howard hairdo, a dashing lothario with an aquiline nose and a sweeping crest of hair, a floppy-fedora-wearing hippy wrapped in an impossibly long scarf, a nordic youth with a celery buttoniere, a wide-faced and imperious rake in an impossibly tasteless coat, a heavy-browed gentleman under a Panama hat, a dewy-eyed pre-Raphaelite, a leather-clad geordie straight out of the Red Riding Trilogy, and – finally – a dapper, bespectacled mod.

“Caves of Androzani!” hissed The Middleman as he stood down, “you can turn off the slide show…I get it.”

“I don’t – ” chimed in Wendy Watson – intending her voice to snap, but the courage snatched from her conviction by the undeniable cuteness of the hipster sexgod standing before her…

“- and I would appreciate it if someone – anyone – could tell me what just happened.”

“What just happened,” tattoed the hipster sexgod as he turned to face her, a cute little bowtie framing his Easter Island face and massive yet strangely sensual nose, “is that your Dirk Squarejaw employer is put off that I conveniently stopped him from giving up his life in absolute vain!”

“That is NOT true,” countered The Middleman, “I was just about to -”

“To what?  Try to stop the Most Powerful Thing In The Universe with a mere firecracker?”

Hipster sexgod draped himself on the central console, crossing his legs as he tucked his signature device into his jacket before adding that:

“You G.I. Joes are all the same, thinking that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with the careful application of high explosives.”

“I don’t care if you are the man I knew – you are NOT the man I knew,” retorted The Middleman without any seeming awareness of – or desire to reconcile – the contradiction in his words, as his mind was busy background processing a way to salvage this debacle – “now God knows what Kanimang Kang has brought about!”

“Hey, boss, how about you give skinny-jeans a break… the man did save our lives.”

Before The Middleman could explain himself, a familiar voice filled the room…

“You cheeba-suckers really pinched a loaf in the hay this time!”

Wendy Watson buried her face in her hands.  Though by now she was completely used to Ida’s ongoing accusations of drug addiction, incompetence – and her endless wellspring of euphemisms for defecating on the bed – this was not anyone’s idea of a good first impression.

“Oh great,” croaked Ida with weary familiarity as she bustled by the blue box and the mysterious guest, giving neither a second glance, “it’s you.”

“Hello, Ida,” intoned hipster sexgod with an unsettlingly casual tone, “you remain as sweet as apple cider.”

"THAT was a doctor"

“Oh, shut the front door,” exasperated the cranky android, “you looked a lot better with the capes and the kung-fu and the white hair and the puffy shirts and the crushed velvet smoking jackets and the criminally age-inappropriate companion… now THAT was a doctor.”

Wendy turned to hipster sexgod, “wait a minute – wait – you’re a doctor?”

“I. Am. The Doctor.” Declared hipster sexgod, fixing his bowtie.

“Whats with the viking helmet?” rasped Ida, plugging herself to the HEYDAR.

“I wear a viking helmet now,” shrugged The Doctor.

“Viking helmets are cool,” colluded Wendy Watson.

“Well hang on to your helmet, motherhumpers, ‘cause this world is about to end, no thanks to any of you donnie-pumpers.”

With a flare of a mechanical nostril, Ida activated the many screens of the HEYDAR…

… and all of them depicted horrible scenes of destruction across the planet!

Big Ben in ruins.

The Washington Monument a pile of rubble.

The White House a cinder.

Hoover dam underwater.

The Eiffel Tower melted.

Detroit strangely unchanged.

“Sweet mother of Roland Emmerich!”

"Time Tsunami" Coming in 2018

The Middleman rubbed his temples as The Doctor restrained himself from quipping that he served as an uncredited technical advisor on the august film-maker’s disaster epic Time Tsunami (coming to theaters July of 2018) out of respect for his American friend’s intense distress over the devastation roiling before them.

What else could he do? It was exactly this profound sense of empathy – this uniquely human quality of caring for the lives of others – that kept bringing The Doctor back to Earth to recruit his traveling companions.

“Well, it’s a good thing we have a time machine at our disposal, now, tell me, Ida… just how is Guy Goddard?”

“Don’t get me started,” eye-rolled Ida, “how’s Captain Jack?”

“Don’t get me started,” The Doctor threw up his hands, “I mean, really.”

“This is no time to mince around reminiscing about past exploits,” barked The Middleman, “we have a bad man running around with the M.P.T.I.T.U., how do we stop him?”

“You Americans – so concerned with structure and the proper order of things… I could have sworn you just took a dramatic pause for a commercial break!”

“My boss does have a point,” peace-brokered Wendy Watson, “there is a bad man and an army of salt-shaker-thingys -”

“Daleks,” corrected The Doctor, “the very reason I chose to pop in when I did… right after my sixth regeneration materialized in a puff of improbability inside my TARDIS to warn me that a rift had opened above the battle of Necros – and rather insolently informed me that it was up to me to find out the disposition of the Daleks who were teleported from the fray… and almost gave me a black eye. I was a violent sort back then.”

“Right.  Daleks,” concluded Wendy Watson, trying to disguise that she was completely unmoored by all of this new information.

“We do not have to worry about the Daleks, love… or your arch-nemesis Kanimang Kang,” purred The Doctor as he leaned closer to Wendy Watson’s confusion-and-annoyance-streaked face… a state of mind compounded by her heart’s fluttering in a way she had not felt since young Tyler Ford had been packed off to Greenland a few months ago.

“See,” continued The Doctor, his tone soothing, “they were destroyed when the Vitrioplasmoid Conscience merged with the M.P.T.I.T.U.”

“I never met a deus ex machina I didn’t like,” nodded The Middleman, stroking the five o’clock shadow on his chiseled chin.

“Right there with you, dear boy,” chirped The Doctor.

Ida, in all her glory

“Hey!”

Ida.  About to spoil the party.  She excelled at that.

“Don’t know if this has occurred to you hoolies… but just because the bad guys are all croaked doesn’t mean we still don’t have to figure out a way to destroy a little something that just happens to go by the name ‘The Most Powerful Thing In The Universe’!”

“I’m working on it,” whispered The Doctor as The Middleman stepped up, shaking his finger – one of his trademark contingency plans clockworking its way through the sharp corners of his methodical brain:

“The M.P.T.I.T.U. is not de facto an evil being, it is merely powerful.  Kanimang Kang knew this, which is why he used the Vitrioplasmic Consciousness to corrupt it into a force of unspeakable power.”

“So,” jumped in Wendy Watson, if we can get in there before the Vitrioplasmoid Consciousness compels the M.P.T.I.T.U. to destroy the world… but after the Daleks are destroyed…”

“We will only have the Most Powerful Thing In The Universe to contend with – as opposed to the Most Powerful Thing In The Universe AND your arch-nemesis AND all of his minions AND an army of genocidal hybrid life-forms!”

The Doctor was almost giddy – but it was not long-lived…

“But how… howhowhowhow… do we turn the M.P.T.I.T.U. back to the side of good after it has already been exposed to a life form of pure, all-corrupting evil?”

Not quite a Buddha Fish, I don't think...

“Will a Buddha Fish do the trick?” Quizzed The Middleman.

“A Buddha Fish?” The Doctor repeated, his tone mocking as he made a John Cleese-like silly walk straight into The Middleman’s personal space before making a wildly exaggerated show of his turning-away-aggravation:

“A Buddha Fish?  You might as well ask for the thirteenth regeneration of Rassilon!”

The Doctor’s tone then turned to a pensive whisper as he spun his back on Wendy Watson, Ida, and The Middleman – cradling his ample chin in the palm of his hand…

“It might take me some time to figure this one out… perhaps the three of you should come with me aboard the TARDIS and flee the coming devastation… have some adventures…”

…his features then darkened with a brooding romanticism that made Wendy Watson want to jump his bones immediately.

“…and have all of your lives devastated by sheer measure of your contact with me.”

“I have a Buddha Fish in the Middlevault,” offered The Middleman, his broad shoulders pulling back as he broke into a determined stride across the main hub of Middleman H.Q.

“Why don’t I just go ahead and get that,” he added, “and then we can go right on over and save the world.”

“You do NOT have a Buddha Fish!” Exclaimed The Doctor.

“Wah-wah-wah!” Interjected Ida, “you watch that attitude when the Jolly Green Giant’s on a roll!”

“Actually, I do have one, and it’s a funny story how…see, your first… uh… regeneration? Incarnation? Anyway, some other version of you borrows it from me six years from now and then loses it in a simultaneous competitive chess match against sixty-seven Grand Masters of the Clotharian Rebel Fleet… of course, that only turns out to be a distraction tactic to keep their best military strategists busy while Wendy and I stop Extreme Aldwyn from invading the planet…”

High... Maximum... EXTREME Aldwyn

“Extreme Aldwyn? You mean ‘High’ – I mean ‘Maximum Aldwyn’.”

“No, Dubbie, I mean Extreme Aldwyn, he got… uh gets… will have a promotion…”

“I hate that guy!”

“…anyway, six years ago, The Doctor came back and we went on a grand adventure to get back the Buddha Fish from the Clotharian Grand Masters – then in exile and working as towel boys at the pleasure hive of Eroticon 6 – the end result of which was that he, uh – the then-Doctor -”

“The first Doctor,” came the Eleventh Doctor’s definition.

“Right – the first Doctor entrusted the Buddha Fish to me for safekeeping in the Middlevault… only back then, he was a kindly old grandfather-type, as opposed to the beatnik you see before you.”

“Weirdly, that made absolute sense,” said Wendy Watson, her head not spinning at all.

“You know, Dubbie,” The Middleman said in his most “the more you know” tone, “everything that’s happening to us right now is exactly the reason why The Middlelore explicitly forbids this kind of timey-wimey, higglety-pigglety, jiggery-pokery.”

“Timey-wimey, higglety-pigglety jiggery-pokery?”

The Doctor rolled the words in his mouth as if taking them for a test drive, “I’m not sure I like the sound of that…”

“Anyone want to come up with a plan to stop the deaths of billions of people?” Shrieked Ida from her desk.

“Right. I take my TARDIS,” schemed The Doctor, successfully concealing his growing and unnatural dread of the unpleasant, superannuated female android, “land at the exact point in space and time and then find a way to safely deliver the Buddha Fish into the maelstrom of death and destruction – thus ending the M.P.T.I.T.U.’s reign of terror.  Neither one of you can do it, of course, as I’d rather you not come face to face with yourselves in an alternate timeline… but otherwise, this is a cracking good plan!”

“As much as I live to volunteer for the ultimate sacrifice,” began The Middleman –

“ – and he does,” finished Wendy.

“The risk of a time paradox resulting from my meeting myself – even in the recent past – is just too frag-warbling high.”

“Really?” Head-tilted Wendy Watson, “I always wanted to walk up to myself and say ‘I’m YOU… from THE FUTURE!’”

“Sorry dubbie – but if you – or I – were to cause a fabric of space-time-unraveling paradox after all we’ve been through… well, that would just be a flipsy-flopsy.”

“Oh stop beating around the burning bush, ya pansies, I have a combat-forged Tilonium Battle Chassis and a full complement of defensive shielding: let me at ‘em and I’ll save the freakin’ planet, seeing as none of you have the cojones to man-up and take the plunge!”

The Middleman, Wendy Watson and their honored guest all exchanged glances, and then:

“Let’s wax this duck!”

“Allons-y!”

“Oh, brother.”

MIDDLEMAN H.Q.
THREE AND A HALF SECONDS LATER

As The Doctor cut a high-spirited jog to the Middlevault, and Ida slumped at her desk – folding the final origami of this iteration of her existence, knowing that O2STK would immediately send down an identical model – a new Ida with an even more visually assaulting dress and all of her memories – and wondering how she got stuck with this rat-bastard bunch of panty waists for heroes – Wendy Watson quietly buttoned her boss at the mouth of the corridor leading out of the Main Hub.

“What’s a Buddha Fish?”

“Well, Dubbie… The Buddha Fish is a unique organism bred by the High Transuniversal Lamas of Samadhilon 5. It acts like an ichtyo-psychic lens, focusing all the good will of the universe into a single unified grain of consciousness. Any sentient being that comes into contact with the Buddha Fish immediately gives up all ambitions and material concerns in exchange for a life of quiet contemplation without any expectation of outcome.”

“OK. And – uh – who’s the guy in the viking helmet?”

“The Doctor? Oh… he’s the last of Time Lords of Gallifrey.”

“Strangely,” shrugged Wendy Watson, “that makes complete and total sense.”

The Doctor popped his head back into the Main Hub:

“How would you feel about ‘wibbly-wobbly’ instead of ‘higglety-pigglety’?”

SOMEWHERE IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
8:03 A.M.

The details of how Ida was delivered into the glowing jaws of death and architectural carnage by the timely manifestation of the TARDIS are – frankly – tedious and academic.

Suffice it to say that The Doctor arrived just in the nick of – well, he got there the at the exact and appropriate moment.

He then pushed a crotchety old woman out the door to his time ship (because even he knew that – deep down inside – she was not a crotchety old woman, but a combat-forged Tilonium Battle Chassis wrapped up in the burlap-like skin, hideous house dress, and loud costume jewelry of a crotchety old woman… which may have been why he had by then grown so afraid of her… or maybe it was merely that she was just. so. mean.).

All the way down, the crotchety old woman shouted the following words…

“COME GET SOME YA PRIMORDIAL SCUM!”

At the moment the crotchety old woman’s outer layer of skin, combat-forged Tilonium Battle Chassis, and, lastly, her awful frock, melted in the sweltering heat of the supermassive outer layer of the M.P.T.I.T.U./Vitrioplasmoid Conscience hybrid – revealing the most-exalted form of the Buddha Fish – the erstwhile Kanimang Kang’s lair, as well as all of his plans for world domination, vanished swiftly in a puff of inner peace and kindness toward all beings.

The TARDIS then vanished… its distinctive AROOGA-THUMP noise signifying to all that the plan had come together, the day belonged to the forces of good, and all was right with the world.

THE ILLEGAL SUBLET WENDY WATSON SHARES WITH HER EQUALLY PHOTOGENIC ROOMMATE
10:30 P.M.

The genius brains behind O2STK may have manufactured the latest-generation Middlemobile with an obsidian coat of the Mikheyev/Smirnov/Wolfenstein automotive finish (a type of paint designed to capture runaway solar neutrinos and use their free and clean energy to run the electric engine underneath the hood without polluting the environment)… but they also gave The Middleman’s conveyance the adequately muscular body of a 1967 Pontiac GTO and a speed-responsive sound-and-vibration mechanism that gave the car the appropriate road feel and vulpine thunder of a true American Muscle Car.

The Middlemobile, then, idled noisily outside of Wendy Watson’s loft.

Inside, The Middleman and Wendy Watson congratulated one another on a job well done… though neither of them truly – or entirely – understood how exactly the Hydrogen Atomizing, Incendiary Load, Multi-Armament-Radiating Ypsillon had succeeded in destroying the Most Powerful Thing In The Universe… especially after its melding with the Vitrioplasmic Consciousness had rendered it into an absolutely destructive force of ultimate evil.

But The Middleman never met a Deus Ex Machina he didn’t like… and Wendy Watson was starting to see the wisdom behind his philosophy.

Kanimang Kang – or at least this latest holder of the mantle of Kanimang Kang – was gone. Manservant Neville was once again presumed dead. Most importantly, Kanimang Kang’s Rube Goldberg device of death was no more.

Schlepping the dolphin back to Dubuque had been a chore, but it certainly beat the living meatballs-and-tomato-sauce out of being killed.

As the freight elevator door to the hallway leading to her bizarrely spacious yet annoyingly affordable loft opened, Wendy Watson looked ahead to see the familiar shape of Noser… no doubt once again seeking refuge in the hallway from the depredations of his roommate, Anvil.

“Yo, Wendy Watson.”

Noser’s voice was sweet and welcoming.

“Hey Noser,” replied Wendy Watson, “how you doing?”

“I’m breathing, Wendy Watson, but it’s become a chore.”

“Now that I’ve seen The Doctor, don’t call me anymore.”

Noser smiled as Wendy Watson pushed open the door to her loft.

WENDY WATSON’S BEDROOM/ART SPACE
11:45 P.M.

While the hard work of this – or, really, any – day in the service of O2STK generally insured a good night’s sleep, Wendy Watson found herself unable to summon the sandman, and thus busied herself with a new painting…

…of a man with a distinctive nose, pronounced brow, geometric jaw and a cascade of shiny brown hair. The portrait took shape quickly, the man’s image calling to her with the vivid urgency of a relevant memory; even though nothing in her past indicated the intersection of this man’s life with hers.

The colors followed quickly: the saturated earth tones of his Paul Smith shirt and the dark burgundy bow-tie popping against the warm inner glow of his pale, but not even remotely pasty skin.

Wendy Watson painted furiously but precisely: her every brush stroke capturing the elusive character of a man she had never met but was sure she knew… a moment in a time she was certain had never happened but felt as alive in her mind’s eye as any remembrance…

…and when the painting was done:

“That’s my imaginary friend!”

Lacey.

“What?”

“How do you know what he looks like, dub-dub?”

Wendy Watson swiveled her stool to see her equally photogenic roommate – still in the fatigues and beret she habitually wore to her Occupy Wall Street protest… and, thankfully, bereft of the swelling and redness she often brought home as a result of the sustained pepper spray attacks from the local police.

“What are you doing home?” Asked Wendy Watson.

“Oh,” she shrugged, “it got a little ripe inside the tent again, so we’re all going home to shower in shifts… how do you know what my imaginary friend looks like?”

Wendy Watson swiveled back and forth between Lacey and her newest work of art – head spinning:

“This is your imaginary friend? The guy who showed up in the fireplace of Doctor Barbara Thornfield M.D., Ph.D.’s mansion all those times and kept you entertained with wild stories of time travel?”

“Yes, dub-dub, that’s him!”

“Your imaginary friend was a time traveling hipster sexgod?”

“No – it was nothing like that – I mean, yeah, I thought he was cute and all… but he was just an imaginary friend.”

Lacey’s voice took on a faraway tone as she completed her thought:

“I know that now.”

“Wait a minute – now you know that?”

“Oh, dub-dub… it’s not like Doctor Barbara Thornfield M.D. Ph.D. didn’t already have me work all of this out with a team of psychotherapists when I was a tween… anyway, the last time I saw my imaginary friend… I was twelve: he promised he would come get me on the day of my graduation from art school…”

“You mean our graduation? And you never told me?”

“Like I said… I’d already worked this whole thing out with a team of mental health professionals.”

“Weird,” replied Wendy Watson, “I just thought I was painting one of the new baristas over at the Java Applet… I think that’s where I saw this guy anyway… he does look so strangely familiar.”

“Yeah,” Lacey replied dreamily, “must be a coincidence… and I have a world that needs to be saved, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go shower…”

Lacey turned to walk down the spiral staircase, but not before having a final look at her best friend’s work.

“If you ever do see that guy? And it turns out he isn’t just a cute barista, but a time traveling adventurer from parts unknown?”

“Yeah, Lacey?”

“Tell him I’m over him.”

CHESTERTON SCHOOL OF THE ARTS
GRADUATION DAY
TWO YEARS EARLIER

The passage of time had only made Lacey Thornfield’s intelligence and inner strength brighter.

As she walked across the dais to collect her diploma – her cap and gown hand-painted with Guy DeBord slogans – The Doctor knew that she would make for a brilliant companion: the sort of beacon of innocent compassion that he direly needed to remind himself of what was truly important… of the simple truths that a creature of his 953 years could so easily forget.

The TARDIS would keep for a few hours undetected in the scenery shop of the school’s theater building. All The Doctor had to do was wait until she was alone, make eye contact, and the magic would return… off they would go…

…but The Doctor’s thoughts needle-slipped to a halt with the intrusion into his mindscape of a sound he had not even thought about for almost a decade and a half.

A harmonic resonance years-ago dismissed as no longer relevant to his existence.

The Eye of Harmony.

Opening.

Could it be?

The Doctor rushed back into the TARDIS – bounding through corridors and mezzanines, peeling back layer after layer of trans-dimensional architecture to reach a remote and neglected room: a piece of his own mythology he had long since discarded as no longer relevant to his day-to-day existence…

…and there, in the echoing chamber, the Eye glared up at him… and a numinous cloud of smoke and technology manifested over the storm at the center of the black hole that powered his ship.

At the center of the cloud?

A strapping man in an Eisenhower jacket – clear-eyed, full-hearted, and sporting that can’t-lose look so common of heroic human males; all of them always endearingly unaware of the vastness of space and time.

The man in the Eisenhower jacked seemed familiar – maybe from a long-forgotten episode of a past regeneration.

“Do to her what you did to Sarah Jane,” said the man in a flat, affectless mid-western American voice, “ and you will have me to answer to.”

And with that, he was gone.

CHESTERTON SCHOOL OF THE ARTS
THEATER ARTS BUILDING
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER

Now perched on a scaffold, The Doctor watched Lacey Thornfield – this time through a window high atop the shop.

She bounded across the quad, carefree, with a group of friends – among them a dark-haired beauty with a focused and determined look in her coffee-colored eyes.

The Doctor trained his eyes on Lacey Thornfield’s friend for a moment… and her visage transported him to time he was certain had not yet happened, but which felt as alive in his mind’s eye as any remembrance.

He knew what he had to do.

Bowing his head, The Doctor climbed off the scaffold and returned to the TARDIS.

On the quad below, Lacey Thornfield fell behind her friends, slowing down to a walk for a moment to look up at the theater arts building.

For a moment, she could have sworn she heard the “arooga-thump” that always accompanied the appearance of her childhood imaginary friend… the one her mother paid an army of psychotherapists to dispel back when she was twelve…

…but the sound soon dissipated into nothingness, and Lacey Thornfield looked ahead to see Wendy Watson, beckoning.

Lacey Thornfield broke back into a run and joined her friends in celebration. The future was wide open.

Again, thanks to Javier Grillo-Marxauch for permission to repost his terrific story here.  For those of you who want to know about all the many geek references in this story, here’s a link to an accompanying post detailing all the wonderful, wacky, and just plan fun things contained and referenced within.  I hope you enjoyed this story, and I’ll be back in a week or two with more remembrances of long-forgotten short-run shows here on Friday @ 8/7 Central.  –Tim R.

“We’re trying, as we go along, to deal with what war is about.  We’re looking at how our guys, as soldiers, see the war.  They’re not really involved in the big happenings or decisions, but they get their orders and go about obeying them.”
–Glen Morgan, Co-Creator of Space: Above and Beyond

Mankind has always been a species of conflict.  Wars have been fought for the noblest of reasons, and for the least worthy as well.  But there’s a great deal of science fiction, both literary and televised, which posits a future where mankind has put aside its conflicts and joined together in a journey to the stars.  A journey into Space: Above and Beyond.

Of course, since the essence of good storytelling is the drama of conflict, the obvious antagonists for a united planet are those we discover elsewhere.  But just because there’s an external threat doesn’t mean that the only conflict has to be “us vs. them”.  Sometimes, the best drama is found in discovering exactly how people will react when faced with something that threatens their very existence and the way of life they believe in.  Will they find courage?  Will they hide behind others?  Or will they simply discover their own essence along the way?  The people you never thought worthy might just be the wild cards you need to survive.

In the 1995 FOX series Space: Above and Beyond, viewers follow the members of the Fighting 58th Squadron of the US Marine Corps Space Aviator Calvary.  In the year 2063, a united Earth has begun to colonize outside our own solar system, thanks to the discovery of predictable “wormholes” in space that let humanity travel great distances despite the lack of faster-than-light engines.  When one of the colony ships is attacked by a previously unknown race, the Fighting 58th and their fellow “Space Marines” must protect both Earth and its colonies, and try to battle the unknown enemy.

Nicknamed the “Chigs”, these aliens, and their fights with our humans, form the backdrop for stories of heroism and doubt, bravery and cowardice.  1st Lt. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) was slated to be one of the crew of the attacked colony ship, where he and his beloved girlfriend were planning to start a new world together, literally.  At the last minute, he was replaced on the mission, and decided to enlist with the Marines and pursue his only way to rejoin her.  His motivation is purely for her, and when he has the chance to find her again, he goes AWOL for a brief time.  While his initial priorities are not with his squadron, he soon learns to have their backs… just as they have his.

“Everyone–Grab the ass of the person to your right!  Well now, isn’t that beautiful.  Do you feel it?  His ass is yours!  Her ass is yours, and yours is theirs.  You may fly in individual rockets, but you are a squadron!  You are a team!  And if you risk your ass, you risk the team.  You people have been here six weeks now, and you still do not know how to work together!  Well, you WILL learn to work together, or that fatty clump of flesh in your hand will be blown to the far corners of the universe–And yours will be right behind it!!!”
–Gunnery Sargeant Frank Bougus, instructor for the early training of the 58th

Capt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) is the leader of the squadron.  While a youngster, she watched as her parents were killed by “Silicates”, an early version of Artificial Intelligence that rebelled against humanity (in a conflict known as the “metal wars”).  Wanting to prove herself and driven by her past, she joins up to face her fears, and to (hopefully) become a member of the “Avenging Angels”, the best squad in the Marines… until that group is decimated in the first major Chig battle.  Now, she’s got nothing but inexperienced people hoping to turn into soldiers, literally a set of “wild cards” that she hopes will be ready when called upon… but can she trust them with her life?

Because of the “Silicates”, mankind has a negative impression of any “non-human” creations, including the newer, more advanced “in vitros”.  Biologically human, they were created rather than “born”, and their version of an umbilical cord is located in the back of their neck.  Seen by some as second-class citizens, their own fight for recognition as “normal” is what led to Nathan West’s bumping off the colony flight… and the addition to their squadron of 1st Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland).  Nicknamed “tanks”, Hawkes and his fellow “in vitros” are essentially “born” at age 18, and while their emotional growth is limited at best, their physiology is stronger and more durable than most humans.  While some in the military see them as “disposable” pieces to be sent in to make the way for the “real” humans, the 58th (after a rough start) begin to see him as one of their own instead of just cannon fodder.

1st Lt. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) probably has the farthest to go to become a soldier, as early on his most endearing trait is being a screw-up.  But when he’s captured and subjected to torture, he has to make a choice with consequences for the rest of his life.  1st Lt. Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) is his closest friend on the squad, and she’s also their tech expert.  After leaving another relationship behind, she’s looking for a fresh start with the Marines, and may finally have found a group of people where she belongs… if they can all just stay alive.

Their commanding officer is Lt. Col. T.C. McQueen (James Morrison), formerly the leader of the “Avenging Angels” and the only survivor of their run-in with the Chigs.  He’s an “in vitro” as well, and while he understands the feelings some have for his kind, he also knows the military, and sometimes men and women are ordered to lay down their lives for their comrades in arms.  He realizes that those decisions have absolutely nothing to do with who you’ve been or how you were born.

“Courage.  Honor.  Dedication.  Sacrifice.  These are just the words they used to get you here.  Now the only word that means a damn to you is Life.  Yours.  Your buddy’s.  The one certainty in war is that, in an hour, maybe two, you’ll either still be alive, or you’ll be dead.”
–McQueen’s opening speech to the 58th, his new command

The military is a completely different life from that which the rest of us lead.  Personal identity is often subsumed in the quest for preparedness and the immediate obeying of orders, with no questions asked.  The job of a soldier is to do what he is told, and not to question those who outrank him or her.  Many believe that the military is wrong in eliminating, at least initially, that which makes each of us unique.  But the goal is not to eliminate the person, it is simply to eliminate the doubt, not just in each other but in each person themselves.

There is duty, honor, and tradition in the service, but those things are earned, and earned with the hard work of all.  It’s a long and difficult road to travel, even in the best of times.  And the universe presented in Space: Above and Beyond was far from ideal for all its soldiers.  Racism reared its ugly head in the perception of both the alien Chigs (about which we knew very little) and the “in vitros” (which were simply a different type of human).  Situations were faced by the crew with little or no information, and sometimes misinformation (which was even worse).  And yet, one of the most important questions is asked by one of the characters in the pilot episode, one which every soldier has to answer to his own satisfaction.  We all have something to live for.  But for soldiers, the question is also “What would you die for?”

Ready to battle. But for what?

Most people never even think about such a thing.  I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve never had to realistically face death in my life.  Injury, yes, multiple times.  Emotional pain and sorrow I wouldn’t wish on anyone else, of course.  But to come to terms with a person’s own death is something beyond my ken.  And yet, a soldier has to ask themselves that question every day, and come up with an answer that allows them to keep going, to work and endure a harder life than most can imagine, especially during wartime, and still be expected to be as human as the rest of us.

The amazing part is that most succeed, and come home to us all safe and sound.  Some suffer, and some valiantly end up sacrificed so that the rest of us can go on, never having to even ask the question of ourselves.  But we should all be thankful for their service, both in peace and in war, for making it safe enough for the fellow humans to, hopefully, continue to strive for ourselves and those we love in other ways.  Someone has to make the choice so many others do not, and for those people we should be more than grateful.

The stories of Space: Above and Beyond were set in a future with spaceships and aliens, but at the series core was an examination of what it takes to be a soldier, to answer those questions no one else in society really dares to ask, and to find a way to live through the worst.  Just like the title of the “Avenging Angels”, the men and women of the 58th got a nickname for their group as well.  It was, as you’ve likely already guessed, “Wild Cards”, due to their unpredictability and their own natures.  And, even though it was never explicitly stated for all of them, the name was probably also due to their own answers to the question  “What would you die for?”  They each had an answer for themselves, and that was part of their journey as Marines.  Capt. Shane Vansen said it best:

“Even if we are trained to die, we have got to believe that we’re going to live.”

The Fighting 58th were well and truly “Wild Cards” to the end.

MORGAN WEISSER (Nathan West) guested in numerous series, including The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Alias, and NCIS.  Born to an acting family, his father started multiple theatre groups in Los Angeles, and Morgan has been active on both the television screen, in movies, and on stage.

KRISTEN CLOKE (Shane Vansen) appeared on numerous episodes of Millennium, plus was seen on Quantum Leap, The X-Files, Felicity, and Men of a Certain Age.  She gained more than most out of Space: Above and Beyond, as she became happily married to producer/creator Glen Morgan after the series, and they’ve produced two children, along with her two step-children.

RODNEY ROWLAND (Cooper Hawkes) started out as a fashion model before a colleague convinced him to try acting, and Space: Above and Beyond was one of his first roles.  He also appeared on The X-Files (sensing a pattern here?) and was a regular on Pensacola: Wings of Gold.  He’s most recently been a recurring character Veronica Mars and Weeds, both under his preferred name of Rod Rowland.

JOEL de la FUENTE (Paul Wang) starred in 100 Centre Street and High Incident, and has been featured in ER, All My Children, and Canterbury’s Law.  He’s best known these days for his recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, on which he’s appeared occasionally for almost a decade.

LANEI CHAPMAN (Vanessa Damphousse) had already found her way into “space” previously, having appeared as an Ensign four times on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Other roles included series such as The Pretender, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Cold Case.  She’s changed her name slightly, so that her more recent roles list her as “Lanai” instead of “Lanei”.

JAMES MORRISON (T.C. McQueen) was ALSO on Quantum Leap, Millennium, and The X-Files (I told you there was a pattern here…) in addition to recurring roles in HawthoRNe, Private Practice, and 24.  A many of almost too many talents, he’s a singer/songwriter, has written and directed award-winning stage plays, produced short films which have appeared in numerous festivals internationally, and is a certified yoga instructor (and still teaching both yoga and theatre currently).

“Had it been created in this era of cable channels and websites dedicated to science fiction, I wonder if it would have run for a hundred episodes.”
–Jesse Alexander, Producer and Writer on such series as Alias, Lost, and Heroes, when asked about Space: Above and Beyond a decade later.

The complete DVD set for Space: Above and Beyond was released in 2005, and although it contains no extras, you can still get all the series episodes, unedited, including the amazing finale.  While the majority of the show is not found easily on the internet (as rights holders have been cleaning up youTube lately), the two-hour pilot (in hour episode form) can be streamed here.  Although they haven’t been updated in a while, some of the best fan sites for the show are located here and here, and lots of information can be found about the adventures of the Fighting 58th.  A number of novelizations were written based on episodes of the series, six in total, and there is also a small private company that makes custom resin model kits of many of the spaceships seen in the series, available for purchase.

“These characters are always facing what may happen in the last minutes of their lives.  What do you say to the last face you may see before you die?  What are you thinking at that moment?  These characters experience those feelings a great deal on [Space: Above and Beyond], and facing them together, over and over again, makes them very close.  So, it’s in those moments that everyone’s true colors are revealed.”
–Kristen Cloke

Some disagree on the necessity of war, and rightfully so.  There are unjust wars, and unjust reasons for fighting them.  But even if the true goal of humanity is peace, there are still those individuals who would prefer power over justice, and their own way for all over allowing people to choose their own path.  When all else fails, these people must be confronted, for the good of the rest of us.  Thankfully, there are those who believe that justice and choice are worthwhile values to be protected, even at the cost of their own lives, so that others can continue to live without threat of fear or oppression.  While we can’t always agree on any particular fight, we must all surely give thanks for those who are willing to stand up, not for themselves, but for their loved ones, and for people they’ve never even met, in order to protect the ability to freely live.  And the amazing thing is, most are willing to protect even those who disagree with them, just because it is the individual’s “right to choose” they are defending and not the actual choice.

While I wish this piece could have been posted a week ago on Veterans Day, it was these thoughts throughout that week that led me to Space: Above and Beyond and the ideas in this article.  Veterans Day is a time to reflect, in whatever way appropriate, on what those who choose to serve have done, and what they continue to do.  No single individual is perfect, and mistakes are made by the humans involved, both in real life and in the depictions of them on television.  But that doesn’t make the idea any less proper, or any less worth the time and effort (and yes, sometimes sacrifice) those men and women make for all of us.  Space: Above and Beyond may have only been a science-fiction television show, but it dramatized the type of people we all desperately need to be real.  Because without them, we’d have already lost.

Vital Stats

A two-hour pilot and 22 hour-long episodes — none unaired — all on DVD
FOX Network
First aired episode:  September 24, 1995
Final aired episode:  June 2, 1996
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Not initially.  The show premiered on Sunday nights, but was promised a spring slot at Friday 8/7 Central for a steady run… which was promptly pre-empted by FOX anyway.  Although it did well there, the Fighting 58th had already lost the war for viewers.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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