Sunday, January 15, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Atlantium" (February 10, 1977)

After an elaborate re-cap of "Vortex" that eats up over five minutes of story time, "Atlantium" -- The Fantastic Journey's second episode -- commences in the futuristic city of the Atlantean people. 

In terms of exteriors, this metropolis is represented on-screen by the Bonaventure Hotel (also frequently seen as New Chicago in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century).  

Inside the city, it looks like a real life, 1970s shopping mall, perhaps in keeping with the Logan's Run (1976) vision of the future as a consumer's paradise.

As our protagonists Varian, Fred and Scott reach Atlantium, they learn that Eve, Jill and Paul have returned to their time (now characterized as 1977, despite the title card reading "June 1976" in "Vortex") via an instantaneous transfer device.  Understandably, Scott is pretty upset that his father has left him behind, but one of the Atlantean triumvirate hands him a note from Paul Jordan that explains the decision.  Basically, Paul  went back to let his wife know he was alive, since she believed them both dead.

Though Scott accepts this explanation with grace and maturity, it's still remarkably lame.  Scott's mother lives safely in 20th century suburban America, under the rule of law, and with available law enforcement.  She might be sad to believe her husband and son are dead, but certainly she would be safe and taken care of.  She'd be okay.

By contrast, Scott is trapped in the Bermuda Triangle, with danger and mystery on all sides. 

Perhaps more to the point, Paul could have sent Jill and Eve back with the message to his wife that he was "okay," while he waited for Scott in the city of Atlantium.  This explanation makes Paul a jerk and a bad father, no two-ways about it.  

Anyway you cut it, this is also bad writing.  As I wrote in the review of "Vortex," it should have been established that the Source and the Triumvirate of Guardians had Paul and the others killed.  Though grim, that explanation would have tied up the dangling loose ends a bit neater.  And Scott still would have wanted to get be with his only living parent; his Mom. 

After this unfortunate business is wrapped up, "Atlantium" gets down to its plot, which involves the power "Source" of Atlantium seeking to possess Scott so it can continue to live.  The Source is characterized here, and in "Vortex" as a pulsating brain in a bubble surrounded by boiling, crimson fluids.   Behind the Source's diabolical plans for Scott, the episode also features a variation on a powerful conceit from the 1927 classic Metropolis: particularly that of a bifurcated, class society.  

In Atlantium, specifically, we learn that the "Unders" (Underclass) toil mindlessly to grow food for the coddled City Dwellers.  But here things are even worse than un-equal: the Source actually controls the thoughts of the "Unders," so that individual consciousness is not possible.  With the Source losing power, however, the Unders are beginning to awaken to the idea of slavery...and freedom.  Imagine if the 1 percenters could actually control our memories and thoughts, and you get an idea of the total enslavement in Atlantium.

Helping the "Unders" nurture the ideals of individual liberty is a half-Atlantean/half-alien beauty, Lianna portrayed by Katie Saylor.   By the way, Saylor remains one of cult-tv's greatest mysteries.  The actress was beloved for her role on The Fantastic Journey, but then left the series suddenly (with two episodes remaining...), reportedly because of a terminal illness.  Ms. Saylor is believed to have passed away sometime later, in the early 1990s, from this illness.  The actress however, still boasts a considerable and avid following.  I receive e-mails literaly several times a year asking me to investigate what happened to Ms. Saylor, but there are precious few details available beyond those I have provided above.  I have researched the matter some (and there are some answers in print, in Phillips and Garcia's McFarland book, Science Fiction TV Series), and there's not much else in the public record.

I will state this: Katie Saylor was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, and created a hybrid/empath character a decade before Star Trek: The Next Generation went in the same direction with Counselor Deanna Troi.

As Lianna, Saylor veritably radiates warmth and sensitivity, and her magnetic presence gives The Fantastic Journey a tremendous emotional boost.  Though young (and yes, incredibly sexy) Saylor assumes the role of 'mother' in the group easily and confidently.  She is a boon to the program, and gives every episode a lift.

By the end of "Atlantium," the Source has been defeated, and Lianna joins up with Varian, Scott and Fred as they depart the re-formed City for the next time zone.  Notice I didn't include Lianna's cat Sil-El in that sentence.  The friendly (telepathic?) feline remains behind in Atlantium, only to re-appear, following Lianna, in the introduction to the next episode, "Beyond the Mountain."

In terms of The Fantastic Journey's canon, "Atlantium" picks up on "Vortex's" 1970s fascination with mysteries such as the Bermuda Triangle.  Only here, of course, the mystery of the week is Atlantis (a factor, naturally, in Man from Atlantis as well). 

In particular, Varian tells Scott in this episode that by 2230 mankind has proof that Atlantis existed, and that it possessed incredible technology, even by 23rd century standards.  When Atlantis was destroyed in the distant past, Varian insists, the Earth's continents "re-shaped" themselves.   Accordingly then, the city of Atlantium featured in this episode is from a zone in the distant past (like the zone of the pirate privateers in the previous installment.)  Thus, in a sneaky way, the writers have gotten around the network's edict about using the "boring" past.  Clearly, Atlantis thrived in the past, but a science fiction sheen accompanies the tale and the locale, so the network was appeased.

Beyond the central mystery of "what happened to Atlantis?" "Atlantium" more succinctly acts as a pilot for the series than "Vortex" did by featuring a dynamic that would be repeated again and again on the program.  Namely, it's the idea of a civilization of the week in crisis, with two factions attempting to right some social wrong.  Here, a class society is brought down when the Unders awaken to the slavery of the Source.  Upcoming segments including "Children of the Gods," "A Dream of Conquest" and "Turnabout," to name a few, repeat the scenario but using different topical issues (including animal abuse, militarism, and even the battle of the sexes).

I must admit, "Atlantium" is probably my least favorite episode of The Fantastic Journey.  Although it introduces lovely Lianna (and Saylor) to the series, it opens  so weakly, with the explanation of Paul's decision to leave Scott behind.  Additionally, the show looks cheap by any standard, between the coruscating brain in a bubble and the use of the Bonaventure Hotel.  Even the idea of a "giant brain" controlling minds is remarkably hackneyed.

All that established, the episode does feature some intriguing touches, namely Atlantium's "pool of dreams" (where you can visualize your loved ones...) and "The Hall of Dreams" (where your fantasies can come true.)    Still, even these touches reminded me of the Logan's Run milieu, which featured locales such as "The Love Shop" and "New You."

I also enjoyed this episode's meditation on immortality, another trope of the 1970s (seen frequently in Space:1999, The Starlost and other programs of the day).  Here, we are told the story of "the Source," a brilliant man and leader who ruled the city, but -- even on physical death -- could not let go of life.  Now nothing more than a brain, he seeks to steal the life of a youngster, his good "human" qualities long since gone.  As humans, we gain immortality from our good deeds (or evil deeds, I suppose...) and in the lives of our children and their children, not in our physical continuance.  In sci-fi TV, many characters have failed to heed that distinction.

At the end of "Atlantium," the travelers unite and  commence toward Evoland, on "journey towards the rising sun."  That was Fantastic Journey's destination too, on ascent as it headed for greener pastures in the upcoming episode, "Beyond the Mountain." 

That's where Dr. Willaway, Roddy McDowall's character, is introduced, and that's our next installment.


  1. G. Eichler11:36 PM

    Yeah,"Atlantium" kinda sucks. Katie Saylor and Jared Martin had appeared in a martial arts themed TV pilot three years earlier playing brother and sister ("Men of the Dragon"). One of the reasons I dislike "Atantium" so much is that they totally throw away Varian's pacifist views. The healing sonic energizer would now be used as a weapon and Varian, no longer a pacifist. A shame really because that attitude would have brought some intriguing character interaction as the series progressed. Ah, if only it could all be done again.

  2. Hi George,

    I agree with you about the quality of "Atlantium." It's a pretty weak episode overall, and a poor follow-up to "Vortex."

    You are also right to point out that Varian's pacifist views are often compromised during the crisis of the week, in The Fantastic Journey. I fear its because most writers/producers/executives look at pacifism as being "weak" when it fact it is a form of strength. But that, of course, ain't the typical view, is it? Mr. Spock, also ostensibly a pacifist (in episodes such as "Galileo 7") also, by the end of the series, always seemed to have a phaser at the ready...

    Devices like the sonic screwdriver, sonic energizer or phaser make it easy for writers to get their characters out of situations with shows of power. Pacifism requires a bit more...thought and ingenuity, I think.

    Great comment!


  3. Anonymous1:43 PM

    I don't quite follow why you are so sure that Scott's father and the two women actually did arrive back at their own time after the Source transported them there, instead of killing them?

    From what I saw on screen*, the Atlantians and the Source mean to show honest intentions, and Varian knows through the "Aura" that the letter was written by Scott's father. That's it. We never get any proof whether the three missing people actually did arrive or whether the Source (because of its weakened state?) messed up.

    There's also the question of how a transport out of the Bermuda triangle/ the fantastic island would work: any method would need to cross time zones and space plus that force field or cloud that wrecked ships in the first place. After all in the first part of the pilot, Vortex, some of the group try to leave the island with a rowing boat, only to end up wrecked. So if the Source transported Scott's father and the women through time, but not through space, they would end up in the middle of the ocean without a boat, or on a lone island without radio in the correct time zone.

    * DVD made from Video tapes

  4. I don't know what the writers' intentions were re: writing the others out, but it comes across (just watched it like ten minutes ago) as being quite possible that Varian isn't quite the psi-stud we sometimes think- in other words his psi empathy was fooled by a civilisation that has mastered the powers of illusion... And that therefore yes, there are three corpses at the bottom of a ravine near Atlantium...