Sunday, January 08, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey (1977)

Back when I started this blog (waaaaaay back in 2005....) I occasionally blogged short-lived cult-tv series in their totality, including Logan's Run (1977),  Push, Nevada (2002) and Surface (2005). 

Since then, I've also occasionally launched on cult-tv blogging jags for the likes of Quark (1978), Star Maidens (1976), and episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973). 

Well, I figured this is a good time to get back to that old habit. 

Therefore, I've decided to blog over the next few weeks the series The Fantastic Journey (1977), a sci-fi program which aired for ten hour-long episodes back in the watershed year of Star Wars

I selected this particular cult series because I've always enjoyed it, it doesn't represent a vast investment in time (like blogging the entirety of Stargate, for instance...), the cast of characters remains intriguing, and because The Fantastic Journey is a cult series I'd like to see released on DVD or blu ray in the States.

With The Starlost and Man from Atlantis now available, and Logan's Run (the series) due in April, it's about time we get The Fantastic Journey too.  Along with Salvage One, Project UFO and Cliffhangers, this memorable series is one of the last 1970s cult programs not yet returned to contemporary pop culture for a second assessment.

For the uninitiated, The Fantastic Journey  -- initially known as "The Incredible Island" -- aired on NBC Thursday nights (at 8:00 pm) mainly in February and March of 1977.   Created by Bruce Lansbury, the story was story-edited, at least for a time, by Dorothy Fontana, one of the greatest writers of science fiction television during the 1960s and 1970s.

In terms of concept, The Fantastic Journey played on the in-vogue "Bermuda Triangle" craze of the disco decade.  Specifically, the series involved a group of marine biologists who inadvertently became snared by a menacing green cloud in the Bermuda Triangle, and then washed ashore on a mysterious, immense, timeless island.  This mysterious island consisted of "honeycombs" of  unique time zones, each one different from the next.  Local legends reported that a wayward traveler could find his way home to his own epoch by visiting a mecca called "Evoland," where "instantaneous transfer" equipment existed.

The Fantastic Journey underwent numerous cast changes in short order, and the first few episodes showcase this revolving door in terms of both personnel and concepts.  Eventually, the primary lead characters on the series became Varian (Jared Martin), a musical healer from the 23rd century, Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), an African-American medical student from 1976, teenager Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann), the manipulative and wily Dr. Willoway (Roddy McDowall), and telepathic/empathic alien/human hybrid, Liana (Katie Saylor), and her highly-intelligent cat, Sil-El.  

To put it another way, Varian was added in a late draft of the pilot, Liana in the second aired episode ("Atlantium") and Willoway in the third episode ("Beyond the Mountain"), if that tally provides a sense of how unsettled the cast was, even as the series was broadcast.

The creation of the series was rushed, no doubt, and the pilot episode "Vortex" certainly showcases this sense of zigging and zagging in many different direction. "We had very short prep time," story editor Dorothy Fontana informed me during an interview I conducted in 2001 for Filmfax: "The pilot was sold in November and we had to be on the air the following January. It was a race to get scripts ready that we could shoot, and get rolling, and actually have a show to put on the air by January. Adding to the problem, there were many cast changes from the pilot. The parents of the boy [Ike Eisenmann] were written out of the format, and we had a woman character, Lianna [Katie Saylor] in the second story ["Atlantium"].

"Roddy McDowell came along in the third episode, actually, ["Beyond the Mountain,']" Fontana noted. "In that case, I had rewritten that episode, and my job was to create a character that would attract Roddy McDowall to him. And then we liked Willoway so much that we wanted to continue him in further shows. He liked the character too, and became a regular."
"We were so rushed, doing re-writes, settling in, and trying to figure out who the characters were," Fontana explained. "After about the sixth show, we knew where we were going and were ready to run with it. Of course, at that point we started getting pre-empted, and the network started doing all those things networks do when they want to get rid of a show."

And get rid of The Fantastic Journey NBC did, cancelling the program in March of 1977. Just scant months before Star Wars revived interest in science fiction in a big way.

So in the coming weeks, between other posts here -- on The Films of 1982, Sinbad -- and more, look for an episode-by-episode retrospective of The Fantastic Journey.  The first show in the queue is that problematic pilot, the 90 minute initial outing, "Vortex."


  1. I remember this series, and I liked it, too. Yeah, the fact that it was rushed into production was pretty obvious, but it still appealed to me. A DVD is definitely needed.

  2. Anonymous3:03 PM

    As a boy, I remember watching FANTASTIC JOURNNEY early in 1977 in which the local NBC affiliate moved it from primetime to Sunday afternoon airings. It was entertaining for myself because it was dealing with the Bermuda Triangle. Being a kid in the '70s was fantastic(forgive the pun). Fantastic Journey's setting was one of the big '70s mysteries(e.g. explored on the documentary styled series In Search Of...) including UFOs, Bigfoot, Lochness Monster and the Bermuda Triangle.


  3. Wow. This is one completely off the radar and I'm thrilled to see you cover it and discuss it.

    I vaguely remember it because I recall McDowall and Ike of Witch Mountain fame [I think the last time we saw him was as Scotty's son in Star Trek II].

    I immediately looked for its availability thanks to your mention of it here. You're right, they need to get on this one.

    By the way, is that the same Carl Franklin who would become a film director on One False Move and Out Of Time? Just curious.

    Needless to say, I look forward to the look bac at this series. I suspect you will jar a few of the old nostalgic moments for me.

    By the way, wasn't the Bermuda Triangle one of the scariest mysteries in the universe as a kid in the 1970s John. I was always frightened of it. I remember going to the theatre even to see some kind of documentary on it way back in the day.

    I went to Bermuda once with my wife. Trust me, I was uneasy on that journey as a result. : )
    Look forward to the coverage. Best, sff.

  4. In the UK, the BBC had pick this programme up and decided to air it early evening, Friday nights opposite the commercial stations that were showing the 2nd season of Space:1999. Sci-fi at the time was thin on the ground. With no video recorders around back then this was a nasty treat for the sci-fi enthusiast.

  5. Great commentary on and memories of the Fantastic Journey.

    Wordboy: I think your assessment is entirely accurate. Yes, the show was rushed and it shows. But, yes too, it was immensely entertaining and enjoyable, with plenty of potential. A DVD release should definitely be in the cards.

    SGB: Definitely, the Fantastic Journey gets a lot of mileage out of its 1970s "fad" premise around the Bermuda Triangle. It's opening moments highlight a real Bermuda Triangle case from the 1945s, for instance. To me, this is the core of good series work, however -- taking something faddish and trendy and it spinning it into something with more depth and dimensions. The X-Fies picked up on the weird conspiracy vibe of the 1990s, for instance, thus sort of doing the same thing (only, I would argue, with more maturity...). But I love the Fantastic Journey, warts and all.

    to be continued...