Thursday, September 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 57: Strange World (1999)

I felt a tingling sense of deja vu while watching the alarmingly-derivative Fringe (2008) pilot the other night, and it wasn't merely because the whole thing seemed like the dumbed down, Cliff-Notes versions of the far superior X-Files.

No, my memory banks kept tripping on another sci-fi TV series that sought to aggressively mine some of the same "fringe" territory as this new J.J. Abrams series.

That program was called Strange World (1999) and it aired on ABC from March 8 to March 16, 1999. Although thirteen episodes were developed and crafted by uber-producers Howard Gordon (24) and Tim Kring (Heroes), the program was only broadcast three times on ABC before the network unceremoniously pulled the plug. At the time, I remember being terribly disappointed by the quick cancellation, because the series felt like it might actually go somewhere interesting, despite the fact that it tended to orbit similar kinds of stories as The X-Files or Millennium.

Strange World focused on Dr. Paul Turner (Tim Guinee), an M.D. who had been exposed to a deadly toxin during the Gulf War. (Remember the series aired before we were back in Iraq...). In the early 1990s, Turner returned Stateside only to learn that he was being kept alive by a mysterious antidote, one administered by a secret cabal's representative, the Mysterious Japanese Woman (Vivian Wu). While attempting to resolve this mystery, Turner also took a job at US ARMIID (United States Army Medical Institute for Infectious Diseases) to investigate, and I quot:, "the criminal abuses of science in the United States."

So yeah, this is pretty much what Oliva Dunham is doing in Fringe. Oopsy.

What kind of stories did Strange World tell? Well, they were few in number, I can tell you that! More importantly, the plots involved the terrifying side effects of illegal scientific experiments (gee, just like the engineered plague we saw in Fringe's pilot!).

One Strange World episode, "Lullaby," centered on pregnant women learning they were pregnant not with human babies, but with developing human organs that could be "harvested" by the shadowy conspiracy. Another episode (the pilot), concerned an illegal and unethical cloning operation. The last story aired on ABC, "Azrael's Breed," involved a scientist who was pushing "the boundaries of death" by injecting the brain cells from dead people into the minds of the living to create so-called "death memories."

The X-Files outlived good imitators (Nowhere Man), bad imitators (The Burning Zone), and sometimes just mediocre ones (Sleepwalkers, Prey). Strange World seemed pretty promising, as I recall, though in fairness Guinee looked as though he was the victim of a cloning plot involving David Duchovny.

The facet of Strange World that I found most appealing (and which granted the series some sense of urgency) was the personal nature of Turner's quest. His life depended on discovering the answers to the weird weekly cases and scientific riddles. He knew he was a "pawn," a piece of a larger puzzle and so had to sort of "gut check" himself to make certain he was operating by his own agenda, not the (unknown) agenda of the cabal.

Okay, so Strange World is not a great show, but maybe it is one that would have matured and improved if given a little time and support. I wonder if Fringe, which has some Strange World DNA mixed in with its corrupted X-Files genetic material, will survive longer...

If you're interested in Strange World, I understand that the Chiller Network has aired all thirteen episodes. I know I'd love to see the show again today. I suppose there's no fan base out there pushing for an official DVD release...


  1. Anonymous1:38 PM

    Don't forget Howard Gordon was a key member of The X-Files staff for most of its run as well.

  2. I agree that Fringe is derivative of Strange World, but it's not the only one this season. Another show this season that reminds me strongly of Strange World is Eleventh Hour. True, the scientist is working for the FBI, not the military, but both men investigate criminal abuses of science. Familiar, much? Lol. Also, I once signed an online petition to get Strange World on DVD, but I know it probably didn't do any good. Separately, someone else was suggesting we all e-mail Fox, so I did that, too. Dang, I miss this show so much. XD

  3. Oh! One more thing... the creator knew that the network execs were not happy about it and that there was a large chance that it was going to be cancelled, so instead of making a show without an ending, he made it as a thirteen-part mini-series, a self-contained story, which I think is great. :D Can't believe it was cancelled after only three episodes... same as that show Smith (Ray Liotta, Amy Smart, and that guy who's now on The Mentalist as thieves!)