It has taken quite a few “zones of time”, but you can finally bring Varian and the gang home from the island.
NBC’s deliciously oddball 1977 series The Fantastic Journey was hard to classify. Fantasy? Sci-fi? Supernatural? Time travel? All of the above plus a lady with a cat?
The Fantastic Journey began life as a pilot movie produced by Bruce Lansbury Productions with a completely different name. The Fantastic Island, as it was known prior to broadcast, would follow a group of modern-day adventurers in their quest to survive and escape the perils of an unknown island in the Bermuda Triangle – with hints that the island might be Atlantis, or somehow related to Atlantis. A father-and-son duo led the team, which would start out as a surprisingly large ensemble cast prior to being whittled down to a more manageable number by the island’s many dangers. A man from the future, also stranded on the island, would befriend the explorers and help guide them, but being from a pacifistic future, he would not fight for them except in defense; any adversaries met along the way would have to be dealt with by means of present-day wits or present-day fists, whichever the writers thought was more exciting during a given week.
But The Fantastic Island, which underwent a title change to The Fantastic Journey along the way, had a journey ahead of it that was every bit as troubled as the quest it depicted.
NBC executives’ notes to the show’s producers were not kind. If The Fantastic Journey had any chance of being picked up as a series, major changes to the format would be required, not the least of which was the elimination of several characters, including the show’s father figure. The man from the future, played by Jared Martin (later to star in the late 1980s TV version of The War Of The Worlds), was an exciting and mysterious character, but most of the explorers would be exploring no further. The writers, with story editor and Star Trek veteran D.C. Fontana, regrouped to try to meet the network in the middle with its proposed changes.
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of these changes was that young Scott Jordan, played by Ike Eisenmann (who had also starred in Escape From Witch Mountain and would later gain another footnote in genre history by appearing as Scotty’s doomed nephew in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan), would stay on the show, while his father would be one of the characters jettisoned at NBC’s behest. Despite an explanation that hinted strongly that Scott’s father was not given the option of taking his son home with him, added to the pilot in hastily-scripted scenes filmed at the beginning of production of the weekly series, this notion strained the show’s credulity as much as any mention of men from the future or the Bermuda Triangle.
The only other characters retained from the pilot movie were Martin’s character, Varian, and Dr. Fred Walters, played by African-American actor Carl Franklin.
Added to the show’s format in the first post-pilot episode would by Liana, played by Katie Saylor, an all-purpose woman of mystery and vaguely-defined abilities that verged on superpowers, including a telepathic bond with a cat who could act as her eyes and ears. The following episode would introduce yet another character, one which the writers constructed with actor Roddy McDowall in mind, in the hopes that he’d commit to appearing in the series every week. Bearing a vague resemblance to Lost In Space’s Dr. Smith, McDowall’s character was an eccentric, amoral scientist named Willaway who was as likely to act in the group’s interests as he was to act in his own. Intrigued by the character’s ambiguity, McDowall signed on for his first regular series TV role since Planet Of The Apes.
The production was almost immediately beset by problems. The turnaround between NBC’s acceptance of the altered pilot and the show’s first airing was mere weeks, meaning that production had to be ramped up, and new scripts written, on extremely short notice. Mere weeks into the show’s run, there was little indication that a significant audience had latched onto the adventures of Varian and friends; the show was removed from the schedule for a month and then returned intermittently. Katie Saylor was reportedly too ill to appear in the last story shot before the series was cancelled. The final episode produced, The Innocent Prey, was quietly aired in June 1977 – by which time Star Wars had premiered and completely changed the audience’s expectations of speculative fiction.
Much of the writing and production staff from The Fantastic Journey immediately moved on to a new TV project, a television adaptation of the 1976 movie Logan’s Run, which would premiere in late 1977 on CBS, featuring another band of adventurers roaming through the post-apocalyptic wilds of southern California.
NBC, however, wasn’t done visiting Atlantis: in March 1977, while The Fantastic Journey was on its first hiatus, another TV movie premiered starring TV’s Patrick Duffy as the titular Man From Atlantis. The success of those four movies made a weekly series almost inevitable in the fall of 1977, after The Fantastic Journey had become little more than a memory.
The cast and crew of The Fantastic Journey moved on to other projects, with Ike Eisenmann eventually giving up acting to work in sound editing, though he still does voice work in projects such as the English dub of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Carl Franklin became a respected director, with such movies as Devil In A Blue Dress, Nowhere To Run, One True Thing and episodes of series such as 13 Reasons Why and The Leftovers under his belt. Rumors of Katie Saylor’s death persisted for years, until it turned out that she had simply left show business. Jared Martin went on to a recurring role in Dallas and eventually starred in another sci-fi series, War Of The Worlds, before devoting most of his time to nonprofits promoting the arts in his adopted home town of Philadelphia until his death in 2017.
Sil-L, on the other hand, probably wandered through a sparkling blue vortex.
The Fantastic Journey was hard to catch in reruns unless it was picked up by a specialty cable channel, and it wasn’t until 2019 that it finally received a DVD release – a PAL-encoded region 4 (Australian) DVD release no less! – from Via Vision to satisfy its small cult following. The set boasts the pilot movie, the nine episodes that followed, zero bonus features, and no attempt to restore or clean up the original film prints was made prior to publication – it’s the very definition of a no-frills release of a show that became as difficult to find as Atlantis itself.