CULT TV FLASHBACK #62: Otherworld (1985)
"Other Worlds lie outside our seeing; beyond the beyond; on the edge of within. The Great Pyramids: erected by the Ancient Ones as a barricade at the portal between two dimensions; two separate realities. This is the story of one family drawn through a mysterious vortex into the other world and their perilous trek homeward."
-Opening narration to Roderick Taylor's Otherworld (1985)
In January of 1985 -- just days after Ronald Reagan's second inauguration as President of the United States -- CBS introduced a new science-fiction TV series entitled Otherworld. Created by Roderick Taylor, this obscure but fascinating genre series was something of a wolf in sheep's clothing.
On the surface, Otherworld looked rather rather like The Cosby Show or Family Ties meets Lost in Space or The Fantasic Journey.
However, underneath the superficial "family" veneer of the series, Otherworld was often something else: a satire and pointed social commentary on American life in the Gipper's 1980s. It was Gulliver's Travels all over again, made modern, or rather, made futuristic.
To be certain, the show wasn't always great (and some episodes were downright bizarre and surreal...) but -- also like Star Trek before it -- Otherworld boasted a weird, attractive sort of charm; a quirky, individual sense of humor and joie de vivre that could, for the most part, gloss over the budgetary inadequacies and the occasionally trite writing.
The first episode of the series, "Rules of Attraction," set up the series premise, protagonists and ground rules. Hal Sterling (Sam Groom) and his wife June (Gretchen Corbett) were typical American middle-class parents -- Reagan democrats (and yuppies...) -- with 2.5 kids: teenagers Trace (Tony O'Dell) and Gina (Jonna Lee), plus pre-adolescent Smith (Brandon Clark in the pilot; Chris Hebert thereafter).
As "Rules of Attraction" began, the Sterling family, on vacation in Egypt, decided to visit the Great Pyramids on a very special day; a day in which six planets in the solar system would align in a manner that "hadn't happened in over 10,000 years."
Before you can say "Land of the Lost," the American family Sterling is whirled through a glowing blue vortex and into an alternate dimension, a mysterious "other world." Yes, It's the same premise, to a degree, that informed not only Land of the Lost, but Fantastic Journey as well.
Only in the latter venture it was not a planetary alignment, but rather a force in the Bermuda Triangle (a strange green cloud) that opened the doorway to another world. Still, The concept of humans crossing over between our world and an "Otherworld" is also one common to ancient mythology; not just Egyptian lore, but Celtic myth as well. For instance, in Irish myth, it was believed that such dimensional crossovers were indeed likelym but only on special calendar days (like planetary alignments...).
But Otherworld derives inspiration from many sources. Even the character names have been created with an eye towards literature and pop culture. The family name "Sterling" means, literally, "admirable" or "fine," even "the best" or "the very best." This is an appropriate choice since this American family in a strange new world represents us as we'd like to be; at our finest.
"Hal Sterling" also sounds a lot like Rod Serling, don't you think? Again, that's appropriate, given the Twilight Zone nature of the dimensional vortex. And Mom's name is June. In case you've forgotten, "June Cleaver" is the name of Barbara Billingsley's matriarch in Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963). Finally, the little boy's name is Smith...as in Dr Smith on Lost in Space. And yep...he's the little tyke who's often getting into trouble (playing with military weather control devices, even, in one episode).
Anyway, after arriving in the "Otherworld" underwater (!), the Sterlings swim to the shore of a strange, foggy lake and spy two moons in the night sky. "I don't think we're in Egypt anymore," young Smith quips.
Searching for help and hoping to be rescued, the Sterlings make for a desert road, only to be intercepted by a hovercraft piloted by a Zone Trooper Commander named Nuveen Kroll (Jonathan Banks).
A sort of otherworldly Nazi Commandant, the villainous Kroll attempts to arrest the family for illegally traversing "The Forbidden Zone" between Provinces, but the Sterlings incapacitate Kroll, steal his all-important "Class One Access Crystal" (a kind of master key to computers and gateways in this strange world) and make off with the hover craft. When he awakes, Kroll makes it his duty in life to catch these "terrorists."
Yep, Kroll becomes, in Muir lingo -- the hapless pursuer; the cliched character who -- in the spirit of Barry Morse on The Fugitive or Jack Colvin on The Incredible Hulk -- chases the good guys each and every week, but never manages to catch them.
After ditching the hover vehicle on the border of a province called Sarlex, the Sterlings attempt to "blend in" with the local community. They go to an orientation with other newcomers, and are given housing and even job assignments. Hal gets a job at a printing press and Mom -- a veterinarian back in America -- is assigned the duties of housewife. "This is a time warp back to the 1950s," she complains.
Meanwhile, while attending high school, Trace falls head-over-heels in love with a beautiful girl named Nova (Amanda Wyss), and she begins to tell him something of this strange world.
For instance, there are 77 independent provinces in this Other World, and the distant city of "Emar" is the capitol. Emar, in case you wondered, is also the name of a real historical city, one of great power in the Bronze Age, in the Third Millennium B.C. In this Other World, however, Emar is ruled by a fascistic dictator, The Praetor. He brought all the provinces together in a war of "Unification."
Even today, however, strange obelisks mark the long road to Emar, and some people believe that strange magics there can send strangers home to their dimension. "They say a long, long time ago, people from other worlds would follow monuments to Emar and return home kings and sorcerors," Nova reveals.
As Dad begins keeping a journal of the family's adventures ("I want to leave a record behind, so someone else will know our story," he explains), the Sterlings soon learn that all their neighbors in Sarlex are actually "plasmoid replicants," human-like androids created to work in the local Sarlex mines, where a new form of radiation is lethal to human beings. When June falls ill, the Sterlings realize they have to leave the province immediately, but Trace wants to remain with Nova.
And this is where the premiere episode of Otherworld gets really clever: Trace asks Nova to leave her family behind and join him, because she's "just" an android. She replies that perhaps he should leave his family; and Trace responds that it's "not the same" because she's a "machine." Suddenly, we're in the territory of racism here; not malicious racism but ignorant racism just the same...and not on the part of some otherworldly alien; but on the part of our all-American boy, our "Sterling" representative.
Nova's response to Trace's ignorance is brilliant and telling: she shows Trace exactly the location of her android "soul" and then asks Trace pointedly: where's yours? This moment is not heavy-handed or preachy and comes up almost as a surprise. It's one of Otherworld's smartest and most unexpected twists, because as Americans we expected the Sterlings would be teaching those otherworlders our values; not vice-versa. Here, we get schooled.
The remaining seven episodes of Otherworld involve the Sterling family's trek across the provinces (following the obelisks) to Emar. As you might expect, Kroll is always in pursuit. Just a little behind...
The second episode aired, "The Zone Troopers Build Men" by Coleman Luck, finds the Sterling family (living a new life as the "Hardins" in the Tarka Province) horrified to learn that for flunking out of high school, Trace has been drafted into the Zone Troopers.
His superior at boot camp is none other than Star Trek's Mark Lenard, here portraying a heartless man with a mechanical hand/torch device. The Sterlings follow Trace to the"Triangula" province to attempt to free the boy from bondage, but the episode really concerns Trace making his own decisions...becoming a man; stepping out of his father's shadow.
Although Hal warns that "This is not the United States; they don't see things like we do," Trace manages to live up to the Zone Trooper ethos ("Proficiency, pride and prowess"), while simultaneously renouncing the belief that "compassion is a weakness."
In a move reflective of the Vietnam War experience (a big deal in the 1980s, with films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hanoi Hilton and so on...), Trace -- now a Zone Trooper -- refuses to fire on innocent civilians during a bombing raid aboard a "vampire attack craft." The point here is that proficiency, pride and prowess necessitate something more than blindly following orders. Even soldiers under orders must be moral; most question command.
Otherworld's third episode, "Paradise Lost" finds the family stranded at an island resort, "Club Paradise," where there is a dark underside beneath the idyllic exterior. Located on a volcanic island, the resort was formerly a military base; one devoted to biological experiments.
It turns out the club's beautiful hostess, Scarla Ray (not to be confused with Charlotte Rae...) is mass-producing "coloma," a drug that is the "essence of life," which "gives us joy untouched by death" and "transforms us into Gods."
Ray acquires this vital (and apparently addictive...) drug by extracting it from the souls of the unwitting vacationers. In one sense, this is another "myth" story re-told for Otherworld; Homer's Odyssey. You know, the one about Odysseus and the Sirens. Accordingly Hal -- ever the loyal family man -- is seduced by the beautiful Ray until June stands up to fight for him.
Again, "Paradise Lost" finds Otherworld operating on several thematic levels. On the surface there's the villain (Scarla Ray) and the threat to the family's survival; but on another narrative dimension all together, "Paradise Lost" concerns Hal's mid-life crisis.
Sure, it's a drug-induced mid-life crisis, but it's the kind of thing that real families go through and fight through. "She's got some kind of strange power over him," June worries about the beautiful Raye, afraid of losing her husband. And she almost does: Hal rejects his wife, selfishly stating: "From now on, I only think about me and what I need."
Remember, the early 1980s saw a record number of divorces (over a million divorces granted) in the United States, and Ronald Reagan is our only divorced commander-in-chief in history, so Otherworld is discussing matters of life and death for the contemporary American family here; about how infidelity hurts; about the cost to the family unit.
In "Paradise Lost," what ultimately draws Hal back to the family hearth is June's sincere entreaty that though they may not know eternity and youthfulness forever, they do share the "hope of growing old together." Hal concludes that "paradise begins at home," and flees the island with his wife and children When he steals a look back at the abandoned Scarla Ray, she has been transformed into a monstrous old crone...
If fans remember Otherworld today at all, it's likely either for the cool, upside-down hand-guns of the Zone Troopers (where the trigger is on the handle butt...), or for the bravura, nutty fourth episode: the surreal, amazing and truly bizarre "Rock & Roll Suicide."
In this trademark episode, Trace and Gina introduce rock music to a staid, conservative province that resembles (right down to the automobiles...) 1950s Eisenhower America. After Gina and Trace perform "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" at a local talent show, their new-fangled music stokes the impulses of the province's repressed youth and earns enemies of the Otherworld's dominant religious faction, The Church of Artificial Intelligence. It's not long before the Church is burning Gina & Trace albums at a bonfire.
The most amazing thing about "Rock and Roll Suicide" is that it charts the entire rise of rock and roll, from rock music as voice of rebellion and anti-authoritarianism (think juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950s), to rock as transformative cult movement (think Beatlemania), to rock music as marketable pop product (here we see Mego-style Gina and Trace dolls mass produced...just like those of Donny and Marie, and Cher).
Many scenes in this virtuoso episode of Otherworld are actually lensed as cheesy 1980s rock videos, utilizing old school MTV techniques (split screens, fog, soft focus, etc.) And don't even get me started on the fact that the show's father figure (Hal) spends virtually the entire episode in clown make-up and costume...a sure "anti-establishment" swipe at fuddy-duddy parents.
Depending on your perspective, you will either find this episode absolutely hilarious...or totally ridiculous. I favor the former interpration, simply because "Rock & Roll Suicide" finds a new and inventive way to to introduce "American" (or at least Western...) values to the "civilization of the week."
On Star Trek, Captain Kirk gave the Yangs and The Cohms the U.S. Constitution in "The Omega Glory." On Otherworld, the Sterlings share rock and roll with the natives, fostering an all-out revolution against the fascist establishment (a tyranny which forces households to decorate with signs that read propaganda, like "CORPORATION" or "Emotions can be DANGEROUS.")
Other episodes of Otherworld included "Village of the Motor Pigs," which found Trace falling in with a bad element: a motorbike gang out of The Road Warrior (1982). "Mansion of the Beast" was another mythic story re-cast for Otherworld, this one The Beauty and the Beast (with Mom, June, as Beauty). "Princess Metra" saw Gina mistaken for the ruling dauphin of another province.
In all, just eight hour-long episodes aired. There remains an enduring fan myth that thirteen episodes of Otherworld were actually created and that in the final episode, the Sterlings arrived at Emar and found their way home. Alas, this just isn't the case. Only eight episodes were made, and they've all been seen. Period.
During a short time on broadcast television, Otherworld managed to accomplish a whole lot with very, very little by way of resources (meaning budget). The production values were minimal, and most sets were re-dressed suburban houses and schools, with the oddball futuristic technology (like a weird game system) thrown in to provide the show an "other" worldly feeling.
But the settings hardly mattered. It was in the characterization (the dynamics of the family unit) and in the quirky storytelling that Otherworld truly found its niche. The series has a goofy, 1980s vibe, and an awful lot of heart.
Truth be told, before Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, Otherworld was as close as we got in the 1980s to genuine, Star Trek-type "civilization of the week" storytelling: science fiction adventures with real social commentary as well as entertainment value. And let's face it, the characters on TNG suffered under the burden that they always had to be evolved and perfect. On Otherworld, these everyday Americans, these "Sterlings" -- grown-ups and kids -- could fail, make mistakes, and authentically prove themselves heroic without the advantage of living in a utopia.
While Otherworld no doubt seems pretty dated today, an official DVD release absolutely seems in order. If -- for no other reason -- to bring "Rock & Roll Suicide" back into the Light of Day. That episode is a hoot.