The Fantastic Journey
Vortex was initially produced in 1976 as a ninety-minute pilot episode. When the series was picked up as a mid-season replacement, it was hacked down and restructured to remove now extraneous characters. Additional material was added so that it flowed into the second episode, Atlantium. The series began screening in February 1977, and regulars Scott and Fred are cited as coming from that year even though they set off in 1976.
The episodes I remember most strongly from childhood viewing of The Fantastic Journey are the third (Roddy McDowall’s introduction) and Riddles (which I found terrifying). As such, the original line-up of this episode stirs few remembrances. I suspect I would have been quite concerned at Scott’s sudden loss of his father and most of his friends. It seems the seventh episode (Funhouse) wasn’t shown by the BBC as it was deemed too frightening. A curious choice as it’s similar in tone to Riddles.
The differences between Vortex and the series The Fantastic Journey becomes are very evident, even given the restructuring. D.C. Fontana would later come on board as story editor for the series, and she fits snugly with the reformatting of the show as, essentially, Star Trek in the Bermuda Triangle. Each week a new civilisation is discovered, and each week a simplistic moral is delivered as a band of trekkers teaches the morally or ethically misguided something transformative. Fontana’s next series, Logan’s Run, would adopt a similar premise (and the later Sliders would utilise a not dissimilar jumping between worlds). But at the outset there doesn’t seem to be a clear guiding force.
The original teleplay was by Merwin Gerard, who produced a supernatural Twilight Zone-esque series called One Step Beyond (with which I’m unfamiliar). At this point it was known as The Fantastic Island (probably rejected as it’s too similar to Fantasy Island). Michael Michaelian (who would pen two more scripts for Journey) and Katharyn Powers (who would do likewise; crucially, Vortex follow-up Atlantium) then rewrote the script. Powers’ later credits would include Logan’s Run, Wonder Woman, several Star Trek incarnations and the TV version of Stargate. Presumably these two devised Varian. At least, Varian seems to have more in common with the New Age vibe of Atlantium than Gerard’s mysteries of the unexplained premise.
Bruce Lansbury produced The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible during the ‘60s. About a year before Journey he delivered the pilot for Wonder Woman. Perhaps the success of the latter inspired him. Coincidental or not, both Wonder Woman and Fantastic Journey feature WWII planes fetching up on a strange island. Lansbury’s success with fantasy-tinged material probably made the commission a no-brainer. He would go on to steer Knight Rider and Murder, She Wrote (for his sister Angela). Wonder Woman’s was a well-established property, of course. Journey’s origins can most likely be found in the 1974 publication of Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle (although it is Erich Von Daniken who is directly referenced within the series, when Varian mentions the Chariots of the Gods). Berlitz’s theories about the relationship between the destruction of Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle would find a voice in the first episode of the series proper, Atlantium.
Vortex was broadcast the same year as the initial cinema release of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Synchronicitously, both use the historical (1945) disappearance of Flight 19 (a squadron of Navy Avengers) as their starting point. It’s only the cause that differs (aliens or the Bermuda Triangle; take your pick). It seems that the original conception would have gone further, with Desi Arnaz, Jr. playing an aging survivor of the flight (in the broadcast version, we see only crash wreckage and a skeleton). The excision of Arnaz and the addition of Martin provide a good pointer of the way the show was heading (although, in due course, Varian too would be diluted).
Vortex also features an element that the producers would quickly nix; historical periods and peoples. The mythic past seems to be okay, because that’s fantasyland (Atlantis, Marcus Apollonius). But, going forward, nearly all those encountered would derive from other planets or the distant future. So the antagonist of Vortex is a dashing young Ian McShane, the leader of band of sixteenth-century privateers. Even though he’s Ian McShane, the future Blackbeard has no supernatural mojo to excite the network.
If NBC had no time for swashbuckling, it’s curious that another near contemporary of Fantastic Journey set up its store around little else. The Australian series The Lost Islands was first broadcast in 1976 (and lasted 26 half hour episodes). It features a handful of teenagers who are blown by a storm to the island of Tambu. The inhabitants are descendants of a ship that arrived there in the eighteenth century, and are ruled over by the 200-year-old Q (no relation to John de Lancie).
McShane’s Sir James Camden, an associate of Francis Drake, lacks insight into this realm.
Camden: Does Elizabeth still rule?
Jill: (pauses): Yes.
Well, she wasn’t lying. Camden and his crew have been trapped on the island for twelve years. He’s portrayed as shrewd and outwardly courteous, at least at first. Camden knows something strange is going on, as he refers to men who disappeared into “some kind of limbo”. Yet he seems to have an adverse reaction to any else’s nonsense. When the slow-to-catch-on Jill tells it like she thinks it is, he orders her to be burnt at the stake.
Jill: You know as well as I do this is 1976.
It’s lucky we have McShane to sell the part, as Camden’s transition from expressing designs on Jill (he fights lackey Paget to keep her from slavery) to ordering her death makes no sense. Other than as a means for the writers to added urgency to her rescue bid, that is. Camden has fallen the unfortunate victim to script revisions (or plain bad writing)
Dar-L: The candidates are in my vision.
Before talking about the regulars, and how the series kicks off (I’m getting this arse-backwards, aren’t I?) I should mention the other significant plot element. This has been shoehorned in to explain away half of the group’s absence from the subsequent episode. The privateer fun is intercut with Dar-L (Gary Collins) observing the travellers. We later discover that he’s from Atlantium, and during the course of the episode he makes cryptic reports back there. He refers to this place as “Zone B” and clutches a glass egg. During the last 10 minutes, we see him return to his city (the West Bonaventure Hotel; a number of pieces of modern architecture double for futuristic habitations in the series, no doubt part and parcel of cost-effective productions).
There, Dar-L chats with fellow members of the Triumvirate, the guardians of the city. They are the conscience-pricked Atar (Jason Evers) and rather foxy Rhea (Mary Ann Mobley).
The Source: This regeneration is essential.
Oh, and we also hear from a brain in a jar (the “Source”, voiced by Mike Road). It becomes clear that the Source is intent on using one of the travellers to regenerate (you just know it will be little Scotty, don’t you?). He/it is deteriorating and the city’s power is being drained as consequence; the Source is vital to the running of Atlantium. Their discussion reveals that the candidates, Fred, Scott and Varian, are merely of “passable” intelligence. As for Jill, Paul and Eve?
Dar-L: We can simply terminate the others.
The Source: Enough, I will say what is to be.
Well, that’s a relief. We wouldn’t want little Scotty’s dad to buy the farm. Would we?
The Source: Be rid of them!
Atar: Surely the Transfer Generator would be more appropriate? The knowledge that they are alive and amongst their own people would make our deception much easier.
The Source: Atar’s analysis is correct.
I have to admit, I’m not entirely convinced that they are sent home. The Source is clearly vacillating and only Atar has benign intentions. It seems like a lot of effort to go to (can it really be that easy to leave Evoland?) when a lie will do the trick. And Rhea deceives the trio in order to bring them to the city (she informs Scott that his father is waiting, but when they arrive it is announced, “They are back in their own time”). If it’s all so simple, why aren’t these Atlanteans extracting people from the “real” world?
And are we supposed to believe that Scott’s dad would leave him there (none of the explanations for his behaviour are remotely convincing)? The answer is; this a really lame attempt to explain away the cast changes. They’d have been better writing in a freak threshold-crossing mishap where the other three are flung back to the US. I’ll discuss this a bit more with the next episode. If Varian’s convinced the message is real, I guess I’ll have to believe him (although the advanced Atlanteans might have pulled the psychic wool over his eyes). But I also see no reason that the Pool of Mirrors might not provide illusory images.
I don’t know if the writers on Fantastic Journey were familiar with William Hartnell Doctor Who, but The Keys of Marinus sprang to mind twice while watching the series. The Source, a brain in a jar, is a ringer for the Brain Creatures of Morphoton (okay, minus the eyestalks). Riddles will play with the same veil between an enticing surface and decaying underneath as in the city of Morphoton (and there’s also The Celestial Toymaker in respect of Funhouse…) And the quest format is not a million miles from the TARDIS crew’s search for five keys across Marinus.
Jill: We’ll never get out of here!
The opening sequence of Vortex is quite effective. The ominous green cloud on the horizon, encroaching on the ship Yonder, still retains a certain atmospheric quality. This is added to by the eerie sound of a ringing bell, which spooks out the travellers.
Professor Paul Jordan (Scott Thompson) is leading a marine biology expedition, accompanied a number of students. Why he thinks it’s appropriate for his son Scott (Ike Eisenmann) to come along, I really don’t know. Liberal parents, eh? Scott’s as precocious as only plucky TV kids can be. As the introductory spiel informs the viewer each week, he’s “The 13-year-old son of a famous scientist”. In fairness, Eisenmann’s a reasonable actor and can only do his best with the material. Thompson was presumably the original lead (given that Varian came in at the rewrite stage) and he has an earthy, Gerald Butler vibe about him. Appropriate, as he has to spend much of the episode dashing about trying to rescue his students/son.
Carl Franklin plays Fred Walters, “a young doctor just out of medical school” (you have to love the no-frills character summaries). Fred’s the headstrong, have-a-go type, increasingly so as the series progresses. The first thing he does on seeing Varian is punch him. I’m unclear what his interest is in deep-sea studies, given his choice of career.
Fred: I’m no slave.
Ben: He saved my life and I… er, gave him his freedom.
Unlike many contemporary series, little is made of Fred’s race but the writers do occasionally embarrass themselves by trying to make him “hip” (and worse, they have Varian try to imitate his colloquialisms). In Vortex, there’s even a commendable lack of revisionism with regard to sixteenth-century mores (see the quote above). Franklin continued acting until the early ’90s, when his directing career took off. Later, as his film career sputtered at the turn of the millennium he has found solid work in quality TV shows including Rome, The Pacific and the recent House of Cards.
Neither of the other would-be regulars from the Yonder make much impression. But Eve Costigan (Susan Howard) is very much second fiddle to Jill Sands (Karen Somerville). It’s less of a surprise that ship’s captain Ben Wallace (Leif Erickson) lasts only one episode than it is that he last so long that you’re nearly fooled into thinking he’ll be regular. Alas, he falls prey to avarice and McShane’s pet rubber snake (Bess).
Eight survivors make it ashore, and the opening passages on the beach may seem a little familiar to any viewers of Lost (with a touch of King Kong, any version). As with Lost there’s initial hope of rescue. Which is quickly dashed (they are not on Greater Inagua). As with Lost, there are immediate casualties; two of Paul’s students attempt to return row for help but their bodies wash up soon after. As with Lost, indicators of other time periods quickly make themselves known, (there the Black Pearl, here a WWII plane and privateers). There is also a strange figure watching them (Jack’s dad in Lost, Varian disguised as an Arawak Indian here). Fortunately, we don’t stay on the beach for very long in this series.
That Journey doesn’t seem lacking prior to the arrival of Roddy McDowall (although after he has arrived, you can’t imagine it without him) is chiefly down to Jared Martin. A fixture of TV guest spots throughout the ’70s and into the ’90s, Martin had a recurring role on Dallas, but he’s best known to genre fans for Journey and the late ’80s War of the Worlds TV series. He’s a magnetic performer, which means that the essentially passive, and pacifist, Varian doesn’t come across anaemically. Everyone expects the male protagonist to beat up the bad guys, but the closest he ever gets is flipping out in An Act of Love.
Varian: Now, you simply have to imagine the longest phone call ever made.
Varian, “a man from the 23rd century, possessing awesome powers” embodies the purest form of New Age and hippy ideals. Also stranded on the island, he comes from the 23rd century (2230, to be precise) where he was a musician. Varian possesses awesome powers, the weekly introduction tells us, but if that’s the case he generally keeps them well hidden.
Martin delivers a monologue that presents an enticingly blissful vision of a future where music is used “to relieve pain and restore balance to the emotions and the mind”. There, they have unlimited resources because the power of the mind has been tapped. The planet is no longer spoilt because cities rise for miles into the sky; the land is used to grow food. The five races have melded into one and there is no more war, nor are there countries. Nothing is wasted; time, imagination, energy and effort, “Because we believe these things are the very essence of life”.
You can almost forgive him for being a pansy pacifist! After all, he has a very groovy glowing tuning fork (a sonic energiser) that can be used to heal or render unconscious. Only he can use it, and it takes a fair bit of effort on his part. There’s a problem with the series not really embracing Varian’s potential as it goes along, but Martin is never less than fully committed. One wonders that, if his people are so advanced, they are simultaneously so inferior to the Atlanteans (he admits he cannot explain the physics of Evoland, however, and it seems the Atlanteans are quite sussed on it). Why do his sensory abilities fail him so conveniently so frequently? And why are his healing skills often not much cop (he mends Ben’s broken arm very easily, but cannot cure all sorts of illnesses he encounters later)?
Varian comes on posing as an uncomprehending Indian dressed in a loincloth, having previously made the mistake of presenting himself to the privateers as future man. He endured imprisonment and a good flogging. I’m presuming his craft lies on the opposite side of the zone (Zone A?) to the threshold the travellers pass through into Atlantium; when I first saw the energy effect, I presumed it was there to conceal his craft from prying eyes. Regarding his craft, it’s slightly disturbing to see a half-naked man inviting a teenage boy back to his place, so it comes as a relief when he invites dad round too.
Varian: We’re in some kind of time-lock.
It’s Varian who provides a necessary layman’s version of what is going on in Evoland. The “thin tissue of consciousness separating one event from another” that ends in a phone call metaphor. And it’s Varian who leads the rescue attempt on Jill while simultaneously upholding his doctrine of non-violence. And it’s Varian who savours excellent vintages of wine (“French, 1986”).
Andrew V McLaglen directed vortex, although I wonder if the Atlantium sequences weren’t shot by the next episode’s Barry Crane. McLaglen was no slouch during his long career, mixing TV and film work (the latter including Chisum, The Wild Geese and The Sea Wolves). The stock footage of giraffes and assorted wildlife isn’t convincing anyone that the animals are anywhere near the cast, and it’s always evident that this didn’t cost a bundle. But the only really clumsy element is the insertion of Dar-L; it brings to mind Ed Wood’s employment of footage of Bela Lugosi.
One result of the refiguring of Vortex is that a modern viewer might mistakenly conclude that the observer represents the introduction of an on-going plot arc, rather than one resolved at the end of the second episode. In practice The Fantastic Journey shows surprising diligence regarding continuity, even if most episodes are stand-alone (we hear kitty Sil-El in this episode, before we meet his owner).
For all its patchwork quality, or perhaps because of it, Vortex is consistently involving. The cliffhanger conclusion (Dad’s gone home) is a real WTF? moment, and in a way it’s a shame the series didn’t carrying on lobbing this kind of curveballs at the audience.
Lost in the Devil’s Triangle, trapped in a dimension with beings from the future and from other worlds, a party of adventurers journeys through zones of time back to their own time.
Varian, a man from the 23rd century, possessing awesome powers.
From 1977, Fred, a young doctor just out of medical school.
Scott Jordan, the 13-year-old son of a famous scientist.
Liana, daughter of an Atlantean father and an extra-terrestrial mother.
And Jonathan Willaway, rebel scientist from the 1960s.
Together they face the frightening unknown on… the Fantastic Journey.