The Great Fantastic Journey Rewatch: Vortex Part 1

Prologue:  The Journey Begins

Let’s travel in time, shall we?

It’s the first weekend of February 1977 in Middleboro, Massachusetts, and the 10-year-old-version of me is hanging around the family homestead on a Saturday (or maybe Sunday) afternoon.

I’m doing homework or something equally mundane at the kitchen table, when I look up and notice stock footage of WWII bombers on the TV in the living room (which, like the refrigerator, was always running in my home).

Though I’m not really paying attention, it sounds like whatever just came on has something to do with the Bermuda Triangle.  Must be a new episode of In Search of my younger self doesn’t think, since the docu-series about mysterious phenomenon (awesomely hosted by Leonard Nimoy) wouldn’t premiere for another two months.

But wait:  next thing I know, the WWII planes are gone, and the action has moved to the Dr. Leo Bleck Memorial Department of Marine Biology in Los Angeles, circa 1976, where two young dudes are carrying some sort of equipment past a scientist and…

journey8HOLY SHIT!  The scientist’s son is Ike Eisenmann, one of the stars of my then favorite movie, Escape to Witch Mountain!

Fully engaged now, I abandon whatever I’d been doing and devote my full attention to the TV, where Ike’s character, his father, a young black guy, and a young Asian dude are boarding a plane…

…and now there’s a crusty old sailor onscreen, dressed like a more leathery Skipper from Gilligan’s Island, outfitting his charter boat, the Yonder (!!!), so he can transport “eggheads around the Caribbean all summer.”

What the hell had I stumbled upon?  A movie?  A TV movie?

No:  it was The Fantastic Journey, an NBC series which had premiered to little fanfare a few days before (on February 3) and would subsequently disappear without a trace just four months and nine episodes later into the network equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.

Yet, in its few precious weeks of existence, the time-jumping island adventure became one of my favorite TV shows of all time, a spiritual predecessor to Lost, and a cherished pop culture memory which I hope I won’t ruin for myself in the coming weeks as I revisit every episode for the first time in 38years, starting with…

EPISODE 1:  VORTEX (PART ONE)

[00:00 – 10:00]  As it turns out Ike Eisenmann is Scott, the son of Dr. Paul Jordan, leader of the aforementioned eggheads:  a shaggy, multicultural group who spill from an ugly brown panel van like the Polyphonic Spree to load their gear and bags aboard crusty sailor Ben’s boat for a three month research expedition…a three month research expedition…

So, you see where this is going, right?

journey3Exactly:  just after the groovy synth-pop opening credits (and assurances from Captain Ben that “if a ship goes down, there’s always a good reason, not just because of some funny place on the charts”)…well…

…the weather starts getting rough, the tiny ship is tossed, and if not for the courage of the fearless crew (who, to be fair, probably shouldn’t have steered straight into the big weird green cloud on the horizon full of ghost ship chimes), the Yonder would be lost…the Yonder would be lost!

[11:00 – 25:35] Instead, the Yonder winds up on the shore of some uncharted desert isle with Eisenmann, the skipper, too, the scientists, and the rest…

…but not Captain Ben’s mate, Carl, who washed overboard in the storm, making him the first person to buy it in a highly unpredictable pilot where I had no idea (back in 1977) who the main characters were or who would survive the episode (an early precursor to the 21st century pop culture phenomenon that would later become known as Game of Thrones Syndrome).

As for the Captain himself, he’s laid up on the beach with a broken arm, muttering to his fellow castaways about how they’re not on any Caribbean island he’s ever heard of…and he’s a crusty old sailor!

Then the befro’d young scientist, Dr. Fred Walters, shares his own existentially optimistic opinion that “the main thing is we’re on something solid.  I mean, wherever we are, it exists, right?”

Uh…right?

One of the lady scientists, Jill, isn’t so sure and seems to be having a nervous breakdown, while the others start building a bonfire, figuring a rescue party must be out looking for them, while two other scientists zoom off to search for help in the Yonder’s dinghy.

So, clearly, Dr. Jordan reassures his son, there’s nothing to worry about…except, perhaps, for the shirtless man in the peculiar Native American wig staring down at them from the rocks!

journey4Even more troubling:  the two dead dinghy scientists, who wash back ashore the next day.

Okay, then, screw this waiting for rescue jive, the remaining castaways figure, heading deeper into the lush, mountainous, muskrat (and…uh, cheetah and giraffe?) festooned jungle in search of sustenance.

But, instead of food or shelter, the group stumbles upon the tangled wrecks of those World War II planes from the opening minutes of the show…as well as the naked wig man, who points a glass gizmo at Captain Ben and somehow mends his broken arm!

A storm breaks out, and the mute wig man follows Dr. Fred and the gang into a cave, where another female scientist, Eva, discovers cuneiform writing and ancient cave paintings (which, unnervingly, seem to have been freshly painted).  Even stranger, she adds, “that Indian?  He dresses like a Caribbean Arawak, except the Arawaks have been extinct since the 17th century!”  — while a few steps away, the Arwak remains mute, somehow resisting the urge to say, “Um…you know I can hear you, right?”

But instead, the next day, he ventures out of the cave for a stroll, followed by young Scott…who watches in astonishment as the Arawak vanishes in a puff of glowing blue pre-digital compositing special effects work!

Where did the shirtless man go, and why didn’t he say goodbye

(y’know, aside from the whole “mute” thing)?

And just what the heck’s the deal with this crazy island, anyway?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Fantastic Journey:  “Vortex”…coming soon!

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