Tuesday, January 10, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Vortex" (February 3, 1977)

"Even as the first man walked upright from his neanderthal cave, man was also taking his first step on the moon, and there's only a thin tissue of consciousness separating one event from another."

- Varian describes the theory of the "space-time continuum" or "time-lock" at the heart of The Fantastic Journey (1977)

In "Vortex," the inaugural episode of The Fantastic Journey, a group of marine biology students led by Professor Paul Jordan (Scott Thomas), chart a small ship called the Yonder in Coral Cove, Florida, and head out to the high seas for a summer of deep sea studies.   The date is June 19, 1976.

Among Jordan's group are physician Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), and Jordan's adolescent son, Scott (Ike Eisenmann).  Other students include Jill (Karen Somerville) and Eve (Susan Howard).

Once at sea, the Yonder crew spots a strange green cloud on the horizon. The cloud soon pursues, intercepts and traps the ship.  Once inside the emerald haze, everyone on board the small vessel hears the deafening sound of ringing bells, as though hundreds of ships are facing the same struggle simultaneously. 

After losing consciousness, the crew and passengers of the Yonder awake on a strange, mist-enshrouded island that seems to stretch "forever" in Scott's words. 

Soon, the new arrivals are secretly observed by what appears to be an Arawak, a Native American man...really Varian (Jared Martin).  Eventually, Varian makes contact with the group and reveals that he is actually a (former) resident of the 23rd century.  He reports that in his time, people use music to heal ("to restore balance to the emotions and to the mind") and that all the races of Earth have melded into one; one that has given up war.  He describes humans as non-aggressive people, ones who "waste nothing."   Unfortunately for Varian, his spaceship was pulled into the Bermuda Triangle, much like the Yonder, and he has been marooned on the strange island for some time.

Varian further describes the unique character of this enigmatic land mass, one that even "the superior physics" of his own time cannot adequately explain.  In short, he reports that all times -- future, past and present -- seem to exist on the island simultaneously, amidst a honeycomb of "zones."    There is only a "thin tissue of consciousness" separating one from the other, a kind of magnetic or electric field.threshold that can be pierced by touch.

This explanation, though strange, helps the Jordans understand why, nearby, sixteenth century pirates, led by Sir Camden (Ian McShane), dominate the landscape. 

In fact, one of the Jordans' group, Jill, is captured by Camden, forcing action on the part of Jordan.  Varian offers to help retrieve her.  But in keeping with his pacifist beliefs, Varian refuses to engage in violence or murder.

After Jill is rescued by Varian and Jordan, Jordan's group heads onto the next province, unaware that "The Triumvirate" -- Guardians of the City of Atlantium -- are watching closely.  The city requires a "new body" for its power source, a pulsating brain called "The Source," and Scott looks like a perfect candidate...

The Jordans continue to explore their island, splitting up into two groups.  When Scott reaches Atlantium with Varian and Fred, he learns that Eve, Jill and even his own father, Paul, have been "transferred" home safely, leaving them behind at the strange metropolis.

A vortex is commonly defined as a "whirling mass," and so "Vortex" proves an apt title for The Fantastic Journey's somewhat disjointed pilot episode.  This initial segment of this 1970s cult-tv series spins out so many concepts and ideas -- and goes in so many zig-zagging directions -- that it's hard to keep everything straight.  Behind-the-scenes, the creators of the series faced a strong head-wind: the network kept changing its mind about cast-members, and also kept interfering with the general series concept.

In particular, authors Mark Garcia and Mark Phillips report in Science Fiction Series Volume 1 (McFarland; 1996) that actor Desi Arnaz, Jr. played a significant role in the original unaired installment as a World War II pilot trapped in the Bermuda Triangle, but that his role was entirely omitted from the aired version.  Additionally, the original teleplay by One Step Beyond (1959 - 1961) scribe Merwin Gerard and Ken Pettus was re-tooled to include the new character of Varian (Jared Martin), a man from the 23rd century.

And the changes kept on coming. 

The network, NBC, apparently demanded that the heroes of Fantastic Journey could never again encounter events or people from earlier historical eras on the series (after the pirates) because the past was "boring."  They could only encounter "futuristic" time zones. 

Furthermore, newly lensed footage had to be incorporated into the already-shot pilot to explain the disappearance of three primary characters: Scott's father, Paul Jordan, Eve Costigan, and Jill Sands. 

This new material involved footage of actor Gary Collins as Dar-L, a sinister representative from a neighboring time-zone, and character from the second episode, "Atlantium."  Yet all this footage is inserted rather clumsily.

So to clarify this "honeycomb" of overlaying plots, further:  we have the original story of marine biologists -- the Jordans and Professor Jordan's students -- stranded in an island in the Bermuda Triangle, but minus a crucial central character (played by Arnaz, Jr.).  Then, we have a re-vamped story introducing Varian and his 23rd century world.  And then, on top of that, we get an explanation for the disappearance of the main replacement protagonist, Paul Jordan, and the original leading lady, Eve, and an introduction to the second episode.  Whew!  Talk about trying to do a lot with very little time...

At the same time the pilot for The Fantastic Journey attempts to deal with this veritable "musical chairs" of rotating cast members, "Vortex"depicts the tale of 1970s Americans encountering 16th century pirates, a tale that is ultimately given the short end of the stick, and plays out in extremely simplistic, aborted terms.  McShane's Camden captures Jill and when she is freed successfully is never heard from again.   Did he just give up his pursuit?  What happened to him?  Given the network's dislike of "historical" elements in the series, the whole plot about involving the 16th century  privateers feels rudimentary at best and kind of slipshod at worst.

In terms of internal logistics and believability, it is also very hard to swallow that Paul Jordan -- a concerned father -- would simply leave behind his son, Paul, in the Bermuda Triangle, even if he believed wholly that Varian and Fred were good (temporary) wards.  What father would leave behind his son on an incredible island of unknown dangers?

Given the many problems in bringing "Vortex" to air, it's really  something of a wonder that the episode works as well as it does.  The episode's first twenty minutes are particularly engaging, as the Yonder encounters that menacing green cloud on the horizon, and is absorbed into it.  As I noted in the synopsis above, we hear the cacophonous sound of ringing ship bells as the transition into the Bermuda Triangle occurs, a cheep but effectively unsettling method of suggesting that, somehow, all disappearances are occurring simultaneously (since all time zones exist side-by-side in the Devil's Triangle).

The discovery of the island is also effective. It's probably more accurate to call this jungle location a "continent," as we see that it is huge...apparently endless.  The mystery components of the episode work well as Scott concludes "it's like we're not even in the same world...anymore."   Less effective, however, are the cuts to stock footage during the Jordan's "safari."  The episode cuts from the Jordans, looking agape on all sides, to views of animals from the around the world...in noticeably stock material (and in various, clashing environments.)

Perhaps the most powerful and effective moment in the pilot episode involves Varian's description of himself and the future world from which he hails.  This is a beautifully written monologue by Katharyn Powers and Michael Michaelian, and delivered with tremendous sensitivity by Jared Martin.    The speech goes, in part: 

"In 2230, man on Earth has unlimited resources because he's tapped the greatest resource of all, which is his mind.  Our machines are efficient and silent, and our cities are built miles high so that the land outside is free to grow food and sustain wildlife.  The five races have melded into one.  There's no more war, and no more countries.  It's just Earth.  We're productive, non-aggressive people.  We waste nothing: time, imagination, energy, effort.  Because we believe these things are the very essence of life."

I must admit, it's this kind of unfettered idealism and optimism about mankind's future that perpetually draws me, in large part to science fiction, Star Trek and yes, even The Fantastic Journey. I believe that, as a species, we possess the seeds of greatness within us, and that it is possible to achieve a world like the one Varian describes.  It's not easy, but it's a destination worth fighting for, and worth believing in.  

For the five minutes or so in which Varian explains the nature of his future paradise, The Fantastic Journey's "Vortex" truly soars.  The episode -- or at least this segment of it -- possesses a real vision and world-view.  Varian is a pacifist, a healer, a thinker and a humanitarian, and he is differentiated from the likes of Spock or Mark Harris (The Man From Atlantis) in the fact he is not an "other," meaning an alien.   He is one of us...only a better version of our nature.  The world Varian describes, incidentally, is also one that Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994) sought to develop, showcasing how man in the future would not succumb to self-destructive urges but rather, improve himself as a species.

After this high-point in "Vortex," however, the show is mostly a "run around" -- a story wherein characters are captured and required rescue.  And then the pilot ends poorly as a set-up for episode two, with the unbelievable idea of a father abandoning his son in the Bermuda Triangle.  I understand that in terms of theme, the idea at work here is the building of a "new" family with Varian as father, Scott as son, Lianna as Mom, Sil-El as pet, and Fred and Willoway as good/naughty uncles, but it might have been better to describe Paul as murdered by Dar-L (along with Eve and Jill) rather than as merely negligent.   Paul's decision to leave the island without Scott just doesn't ring true, especially since earlier in "Vortex" we see him desperately trying to find Scott when the boy goes missing.

Conceptually, "Vortex" (and thus The Fantastic Journey) commences with an historical incident (and one also featured, at least tangentially in Steven Spielberg's 1977 film, Close Encounters).  Specifically, the prologue of "Vortex" involves the famous last sortie of Flight 19 on December 5, 1945.  History records that  on that date five Navy Avengers, on a navigation training flight, disappeared from intsruments near the Bermuda Triangle and have never (to this day...) been recovered.  It is known that the planes' compasses ceased to operate before the disappearance, and an issue of American Legion Magazine in 1962 reported that one of the pilots, upon his last transmission, reported that the water was "green."

If you can watch "Vortex" today, you'll see how original scribe Merwin Gerard -- who frequently co-opted reports of the paranormal for One Step Beyond episodes -- depicted the specifics of the  incident relatively faithfully.  We get shots here of the Avengers in mid-air, and close-ups of compasses going haywire.  And of course, the green cloud on the ocean surface fits right in with the (apocryphal?) transmission reporting "green" water.  Whether you believe in the Bermuda Triangle or think the idea is pure hooey, it's rewarding that The Fantastic Journey at least attempted to get the details of the disappearance theory (or myth) down accurately, and then spun a unique science fiction story from it.

"Vortex" introduces two critical elements to the developing The Fantastic Journey format. 

The first is the "invisible threshold" which separates time zones.  When people cross through these thresholds, we see blobs of energy and light surrounding the travelers.  This effect is utilized throughout the program to signal the transition to a new time and place. 

And secondly, the episode introduces Varian's very handy, very cool all-purpose hand device, the "Sonic Energizer," which resembles an electronic tuning fork.  It's part medical tricorder, part Sonic-screwdriver, and absolutely awesome I'd love to have a toy mock-up of the prop.  As you might guess, in a show with wandering protagonists, no standing sets, and no "landing party" equipment, Varian's sonic energizer comes in handy.

 Next episode: "Atlantium."

6 comments:

  1. I love the premise of the green cloud and the set up. the Bermuda Triangle is always good. It's amusing but fun science fiction. You don't see that often. And people had a problem with the moon blasted out of orbit - why is that?

    By the way, I love the space-time continuum. How often have those words been employed in science fiction?

    How about that? Ian McShane making the rounds from Space:1999 to the Fantastic Journey. Very cool. I did not realize that. Good grief, how could Ian McShane as a pirate be "boring"?

    So, it sounds intriguing to recall elements of this pilot. I'd love to see it again someday.

    It's like Lost before Lost as far as location. Danger Island was always terrific too.

    And how could a Sonic Energizer not be cool. Very nifty. We'll need to see a shot of that one.

    By the way, I did some fishing and found a little info on that film I saw in theatres. It was called The Bermuda Triangle [1978]. That has to be the one. So yes, that was scary back in the day and I saw it in theatres.

    Great look at a clearly forgotten classic for me.
    sff

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  2. Anonymous2:11 PM

    John engaging review of the pilot. Watching this episode, as a boy in the 1977, I was distressed that a father could abandon his son in such an bizarre place. NBC's mistake.

    SGB

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  3. Anonymous2:35 PM

    Sorry, Jason, I accidentally deleted your excellent comment! D'oh!

    --John

    Anyway, Jason wrote:

    I was so enamored of this show as a small boy that my dad made me a Sonic Energizer out of wood and painted it to match the original(as closely as possible, anyhow, since I believe the prop was lucite, wasn't it?). I still have it somewhere in my basement. I'd love to see this show again...

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  4. Outstanding memories and insights on Fantastic Journey's first episode, "Vortex."

    SFF: I love your description: "Lost before Lost." Yes, that's it exactly. Watching the first half-hour or so of "Vortex," that's precisely the vibe. Nicely said. I will definitely provide some pictures soon of the Sonic Energizer, a handy-dandy device that remains mega cool. And "The Bermuda Triangle..." -- I have vague memories of that movie too. Now I'll have to check it out...

    SGB: I agree with you. It was a big mistake making Paul Jordan leave his son on the island. Who could believe that, really? The excuse given (in "Atlantium") is especially lame.

    Jason: That is a fantastic memory. You must have a wonderful father, to go that extra mile and actually construct a Sonic Energizer for you. I would love it if you could find that toy and send me a photo for the blog! The whole idea certainly speaks to how deeply (and permamently) we fall in love with these cult programs from our childhoods, even the more obscure or short-lived ones.

    Best wishes to all,
    John

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  5. John, I'll try to find my Sonic Energizer and take a photo for you...

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  6. Jason:

    Oh my goodness, I would really love to see that. It is so cool that your Dad created that for you. I just love this...

    best,
    John

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