The Fantastic Journey was a delightfully trippy sci-fi series that aired on NBC in 1977, following a mismatched group of travelers: a fresh-out-of-med-school doctor (Carl Franklin), an inquisitive kid (Ike Eisenmann), a pacifist from the future (Jared Martin), a “rebel scientist from the sixties” (Roddy McDowall), and the daughter of “an Atlantean father and an extraterrestrial mother” (Katie Saylor) as they – along with a cat from the future! – journey between “zones of time” on an isolated island in the Bermuda Triangle that may (or may not) be Atlantis. It lasted only ten episodes, failing to find either a consistent storyline or an audience over a six-month period, and was sporadically scheduled by NBC. It’s fondly remembered by fans of cult genre TV, but that’s about it.
For years, The Fantastic Journey was not available in any commercially available form. A rerun on cable in the early 2000s was digitized by someone – probably from VHS – and, provided one knew which rocks to look underneath, it could be found, though the picture quality was at times most charitably described as “lamentable”.
It’s therefore something of a shock that the series was given an official DVD release – in Australia, of all places – in 2020. ViaVision’s officially licensed three-disc set can be acquired on Amazon, and if your only prior knowledge of the show comes by way of those old video files of questionable origin, prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise.
Not to make a joke out of it, but compared to the previously available means of viewing the show, the sound and picture quality are fantastic. There are a few brief instances where it’s easy to see that the original film masters of the episodes could probably use a little TLC, but those instances are few and far between. The picture is sharp, the sound is clear, and it’s a vast improvement over any means of viewing the show since its original broadcast run in the ’70s.
The menu system is no-frills, keeping it simple while also echoing the colorfully trippy packaging. Sadly, there are no commentaries or any kind of bonus material, but as obscure as the show is, we’re lucky to have a release at all. Given that McDowall and Martin have both left us, along with key behind-the-scenes players such as story editor D.C. Fontana, a lot of the story of the making of this show is gone forever. Additionally, Carl Franklin has moved on to an A-list film directing career, and Katie Saylor reportedly ducked out of the Hollywood spotlight (leading to persistent rumors that she, too, had died)…it would seem unlikely that very many of the show’s participants rank this show highly on their career highlights. (Don’t worry, I hear there’s a pretty good article about the show on Pop Culture Retrorama.)
Speaking of the packaging, it raised a comparison that raised my eyebrows. The back cover blurb claims that The Fantastic Journey created its own subgenre that would later be revisited by the likes of Quantum Leap and Sliders. I’m not sure that’s a claim that holds a lot of water, since the role of time travel or interdimensional/alternate-reality travel is made much clearer in those shows’ premises. And in any case, “our heroes show up at random in the middle of events that are already in progress” was hardly invented by The Fantastic Journey; that in media res format of filmed fiction had been a mainstay of TV since the days of Have Gun, Will Travel and The Fugitive. The Fantastic Journey simply puts a very disco-era paranormal spin on it, bell bottom pants and all.
The Fantastic Journey has completed its own journey and we can once again watch the episodes in reasonably good condition and marvel at what could have been with less random network scheduling and a clearer idea from the outset as to what the show would be about. Huge thanks to ViaVision for bothering to put the show on DVD for those of us who have sat through several of our own “zones of time” waiting for this. If ViaVision’s looking for any other cult classic recommendations, the criminally overlooked ’80s CBS series Otherworld is still waiting for an official release, along with quite a few others…