So here’s the deal. After our little investigation into Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness, I thought to myself, “Hey, you should maybe look into that show that the other guest child actor from the second season of War of the Worlds.”
I didn’t think much of Illya Woloshyn in the role of Torri. It was a terrible role that no one could have saved, but he’s Carrie Fisher in The Star Wars Holiday Special levels of glazed over. And, I mean, okay. He’s eight. Hardly any eight-year-olds are decent actors, and the fact that he could take direction, say his lines, and keep a straight face puts him way out ahead of the child actors they keep giving small parts to on Power Rangers.
Despite appearances, Illya Woloshyn must have had some skill, as by 1989, he was already a successful stage actor, having played Gavroche in the 1988 Toronto production of Les Misérables and later in the Canadian touring company. All the same, his TV credits are modest, a string of smallish guest roles, with one exception. From 1992 to 1994, he played the lead in the CBC fantasy adventure-series The Odyssey. So I reckoned I’d watch a bit of it and write an essay about it and that would be the end of it, since clearly, I should not be expecting much, given my past experience with the actor and the most ninetiestastic CGI opening sequence I’ve seen in years.
But here’s the thing: it turned out to be really good. Awkward in some places, sure, derivative in a few ways, okay, and with all the attendant problems of having a large, young cast. But still, really good. And kind of trippy. And it is, to a large extent, exactly the sort of thing that is in my wheelhouse. Not technically post-apocalyptic, but definitely eschaton-adjacent.
And so what I’m going to do is not give you a quick rundown on the series as a whole and then be done with it. What I’m going to do is talk about the first episode. And then I’m going to put it on a shelf and come back to it in more depth at some point in the future. Because you, dear reader, deserve it.
Because here is the basic idea that underlies The Odyssey: It’s Life on Mars crossed with The Tribe. In 1992. There’s other stuff mixed in there too, like shades of The Wizard of Oz and The Prisoner (weirdly, the interesting but misguided 2009 miniseries), but those are the big ones. The Odyssey is, of course, a Castaway Story, a theme that’s come up on this blog before. Specifically, it’s a children’s castaway story, which is a genre that seemed really common when I was a kid. They always had the same setup, more or less. A kid falls down a rabbit hole or gets sucked up by a tornado or gets lost on a carnival dark ride, or gets sucked into a mirror, or falls into a wormhole, or gets kidnapped by a weirdo in a police box, or steps into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and ends up in a surreal otherworld under the rule of a mad queen or witch or sorcerer or music company executive or the Borg, who they have to defeat and/or avoid as they look for a way home, a task at which they continually fail in ways which become increasingly contrived as the series progresses.
Seems like you don’t see this kind of castaway story so much these days. Certainly, none of Dylan’s favorite shows revolve around the idea, The Doctor gives his companions free cell phone upgrades, and while Stargate tried it twice, Atlantis only stuck out the whole “We’re stranded and can’t go home” thing for a season, and Universe revealed the communication stones in the first episode. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve got some guesses. The most obvious and banal might be that it sounds exactly like the sort of thing that the focus-group-driven 1990s would crush out as being “inappropriate” for children in much the same way that it was decided that it was probably a bad idea to base a running gag about Big Bird trying to tell adults something very important and true about his buddy Mr. Snuffleupagus (Big Bird can call him “Snuffy”; they’re besties. I will call him Mr. Snuffleupagus) and have them constantly dismiss and disbelieve him. As much as I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to 1990s focus groups, I can kinda see that perhaps it is not the best idea in the world to have children’s media constantly normalize parental abandonment, and that maybe the constant nagging fear that you might be whisked off to a weird place where supernaturally powerful status-quo-preservation forces keep you from ever getting home or seeing your family again is not something with which we ought to burden our children.
But even beyond that, I wonder if the whole idea of being whisked off to a new world and never seeing your family again is something that just doesn’t speak to millennials the way it does to older folks. As the world’s become exponentially more connected over the past few decades, the idea of “We’re moving to a new town so you will never see your old friends again,” doesn’t track with their experience the same way as it did with people from a few decades earlier. In an age before cell phones, Skype, and unlimited long distance, a family member who moved across the country may as well have moved to Mars. And a generation of people who moved back in with their parents after college don’t have the same relationship with the classic American narrative of sticking everything you own in a car and heading off to start a new life on your own in a distant city, so the classic fantasy narrative of being zapped away to Oz (The fictional fantasy land, not Australia.) isn’t one they relate to in the same way: it’s not one that serves as a metaphor for the same real-world anxieties.
Or maybe it’s just that it’s played out. After seven years of watching Captain Janeway spuriously sacrifice her crew in order to find new ways each week to sabotage Voyager’s attempts to get home, lest she break the real Prime Directive (Never ever disrupt the status quo), people were just sick and tired of the series of contrivances. Maybe they used up their ability to watch failure be the only option over and over again. The reasons and excuses just weren’t good enough any more. I still get annoyed at an episode of Kidd Video from 1984 where, to save the status quo, Whiz Kid tells a genie, “I wish my friends and I were safe at home,” and the genie insisted that “safe” and “at home” counted as two separate wishes, in order to grant the former without granting the latter. Cheating bastard. The long and short of the premise is that this kid Jay lapses into a coma due to a head injury and is transported to a surreal otherworld (Apparently called “Downworld”, though I haven’t watched far enough to hear anyone use the term yet), drawn from his subconscious and yet apparently with its own independent existence, populated only by children, counterparts of people from Jay’s waking life, who subsist by scavenging and organize themselves into The Warriors-style flamboyantly themed street gangs.
They waste little time getting started. Jay and his friend Donna (Also inexplicable, a pre-teen girl in 1992 being named “Donna”, as the name had gone pretty much extinct among names for newborns in North America by 1980) are, kind of inexplicably, standing by the side of a suburban street with his dog, playing chess. The local middle school bully Keith has offered Jay membership in his tree fort club in exchange for showing the gang the antique brass pocket telescope he inherited from his missing-presumed-dead father, and Donna thinks this is a terrible idea, what with Keith being a jerk and obviously setting him up. Jay won’t be swayed though, because man is that treehouse hella cool. I mean, it’s got trap doors and a climbing rope on a pulley and it’s surrounded on three sides by a stream and the only way to it is over its own private bridge, and it’s just freaking awesome.
So despite Donna’s reservations, he goes home and retrieves the telescope from a little shrine that includes a framed black-and-white childhood photo of his father in a navy uniform, holding the antique. Okay. Technically there’s nothing weird about someone Jay’s age having a black-and-white photo of his father. All of the childhood photos I’ve seen of my dad are black-and-white. But… Is that the most recent photo they had? That photo is of Jay’s dad at (we will learn by implication) fifteen. And why was his dad in the navy at fifteen?
Jay’s cool spyglass meets with the approval of Keith and the treehouse gang, because World War I-era boy scout gear is all the rage with early ’90s suburban Canadian bullies, and grant him membership in the club. Then Keith pretty much immediately gives the game away by declaring the spyglass their new official lookout device, despite his promise to give it back. Honestly, I don’t know how much to blame Keith here since it didn’t actually seem like he was trying to hide the fact that membership dues consisted of contributing something with which to enrich the fort. He spies Donna approaching via the footbridge — she never gives any specific reason for being there, presumably she’d anticipated the sudden but inevitable betrayal Jay’s about to suffer — and they use the pretense of ordering Jay to send her away to shove him out the (trap) door and shoot water guns at him until he leaves.
Jay has a brief exchange with Donna where neither of them say very much, but it’s communicated pretty clearly that (a) she told him so, but (b) he doesn’t need her rubbing it in right now, however, (3) she’s got his back. Donna gets a lot better as the show goes on, but for right now she kinda bugs me. She’s like every female character in a Dr. Seuss book (Sorry for ruining Dr. Seuss for you, but he’s basically complete shit at writing female characters, and at least once was rude and insulting to “silly women” who called him out on it. There’s some evidence that he did occasionally <em>try</em> to do better at it, but never managed to succeed), existing purely to look disapproving and remind heroic boys that their mother would not approve of him having fun adventures.
All the same, she runs interference for him by… Standing there and looking dour. Realizing that perhaps they should have waited until after Jay completed his assigned task to lock him out, the entire tree fort gang climbs down to get rid of her, taunting her and stealing her glasses and crutch (Donna has some sort of disability and uses a forearm crutch), though Keith seems to realize this crosses a line and gives it back to her a moment later, his indignant bully sneer turning to a look of shame. She just stands there and gives them a resigned, disapproving look.
Jay circles around and slips back into the tree fort, but that treasonous dog gives him away. As the gang forces their way back into the fort to catch him, he tries to escape via the climbing rope, but, what with the whole thing having been designed by twelve-year-olds, the pulley breaks off its mount and drops him down the side of the hill, where he rolls until his head whacks a large rock in a way that does not look at all realistic but nevertheless conveys unambiguously that he’s seriously injured his brain. As he falls, the beloved telescope goes flying into the air, landing in Keith’s hand as though magically drawn to him. He panics and throws it into the stream before hoofing it with the rest of the gang. Donna prods Jay with her crutch and tries to rouse him.
Jay experiences lapsing into a coma as traveling down in a freight elevator which eventually deposits him on floor “??”. We cut back to a hospital, where Jay is being rushed to a CAT scan to determine the extent of his brainstem injury as his mother looks on in — look, can we just stop here for a minute. There’s no nice way to say this. Jay’s mother looks like a young Jim Carrey in drag. I just really needed to get that out here.
Jay emerges into what either looks like a post-apocalyptic urban sprawl, or a section of the docks that doesn’t get much use due to the recession. Pretty much the first thing he sees is a bunch of cheaply printed handbills plastered to walls bearing the motto “BRAD IS RAD”, and that same picture of Jay’s dad we saw before. He follows a loud voice to a nearby rally led by the agents of “Brad”, who’s silent and dressed all in black, his face concealed by a motocross helmet. According to his spokesman, Brad is preparing to, “Make this whole city into the funnest place in the universe. It’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be nonstop games and fooling around!” And they put out a call for donations to complete their great work, asking for batteries, Game Boys, Walkmans (Walkmen?), and the like. “Brad” holds aloft Jay’s telescope, though it’s looking a lot worse for wear.
Donna — or rather, her Downworld counterpart “Alpha” — suddenly appears beside Jay and explains what you have, I hope, deduced from my use of scare-quotes: that’s not the real Brad, but an imposter running a scam. At this point, we’ve stumbled into something about this show that is either incompetent or brilliant, and I’m genuinely not sure which.
Because Jay never really reacts to anything as though it’s out of the ordinary. I don’t mean that Illya Woloshyn’s performance is wooden or anything — he’s nothing special at this point, but he’s okay. Rather, he reacts to everything like suddenly taking a freight elevator down to an urban Lord of the Flies where you have to fight the Stig is just your ordinary, everyday sort of affair. What’s missing is what we see in pretty much every other “Unexpectedly thrust into another world” story: the overly long part where the hero questions every damned thing and acts like a kind of a jerk, demanding that this world is wrong for not adhering to the rules of his world. He doesn’t find it unreasonable that no one else seems to even understand the basic concept of adulthood. He doesn’t question the fact that his dad is now fifteen and apparently some kind of messianic figure. It doesn’t occur to him until the very end of the episode that he doesn’t know where he is. It doesn’t occur to him to ask why his best friend is suddenly not crippled, doesn’t need glasses, and is dressed like she ought to be trying to wrest control of Starlight Music away from Jerrica Benton.
Maybe that’s nothing more than bad writing, but I’m not sure. Because Downworld is a dream world. And one thing about dreams — mine, at least — that you hardly ever see portrayed in fiction is that while you are dreaming, whatever crazy shit the dream world coughs up at you seems perfectly natural. You may be missing memories that you logically ought to have, like how you got here or why you came or who this woman you’re about to get married to is and why you’re living in the Brady Bunch House, but it doesn’t seem weird. I think this might be what Heidegger was getting at when he described human consciousness as intrinsically the state of being in a world: the consciousness one experiences in a dream is a consciousness relative to the world of the dream. Therefore, weird though it may be from an objective standpoint, a conscious entity in the dream world inherently experiences that world as the fundamental underpinning of their consciousness.
Yes I am pulling out Heidegger to explain a Canadian children’s show from the early ’90s. Next week, explaining Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers in terms of G.W.F Hegel.
False Brad is, in fact, Keith’s counterpart, Flash, and is unmasked when Jay knocks him down to reclaim the telescope. Alpha calls the crowd’s attention to the imposter, which provokes a riot as everyone tries to get their stuff back. Jay manages to snag the telescope and he and Alpha give the gang the slip. But after a very abbreviated explanation of who the real Brad is – he’s fifteen, lives in “the tower” and “knows everything” – Alpha abandons Jay to find the copy of Space Cat Goes to Venus that she dropped in the chase. Flash and his gang capture Jay the instant she’s gone.
In the Upworld, Donna is somehow still in the woods, rather than returning to civilization with Jay — I mean, you have to reckon she was the one who got medical help for him, so she hobbled to a phone, called an ambulance, then hobbled back, and was for some reason permitted to stay there unattended. She finds the telescope in the stream, but can’t retrieve it. Keith shows up and wades out into the stream, picks it up, and gives it to her, having reconsidered the whole “bully” thing. “I never thought you’d help,” she says, venomously. “Changed my mind,” he says with a shrug. She gives him a little nod of acknowledgment, and that’s that. Keith’s a “good guy” now.
The dialog in this show isn’t great. There’s a certain realism to how spartan it is, but it’s not like realism is something you necessarily want to go for in a show like this. What is really impressive though is the actors’ ability to express things through facial expressions. Their words don’t say much, but his guilt and shame comes across clearly in Keith’s shrug, and Donna’s nod seems somehow able to convey that she accepts that there’s no point in recriminations now. I don’t know how you make a nod say that, but there it is. For what it’s worth, this episode was directed by Jorge Montesi, who directed six episodes of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, including “The Intruder“, which also had a lot of good acting through the facial expressions.
Donna returns the telescope to Lloyd Christmas, suggesting that it might help Jay’s recovery to know they found it. Jay’s going to need the help, since his doctors are doing something unspecified and it’s making a unitless number on an unlabeled screen go up, and it starts alarming when it hits 30.
In Downworld, Jay’s been caged in a shopping cart, hanging over a filthy swimming pool, about to be dunked in a scene which would totally be ripped off from Waterworld except that Waterworld won’t come out until 1995. When Flash threatens to smash the telescope on the assumption that there’s something of value hidden inside, Jay explains about its sentimental value. Flash isn’t familiar with “home” and “fathers”, but the concept resonates with him and makes him reluctant to dunk the interloper. This more or less prompts a coup from his second-in-command, who takes the initiative to drop Jay in the pool himself.
When Jay doesn’t come up on his own, the aforementioned second declares Jay dead and lays the blame squarely on Flash before the entire pool club abandons him. Jay surfaces not in the pool, but inside a warehouse, where his mother appears to him, beckoning him back home. Tragically, she hasn’t told him about the telescope yet, so he turns back and willingly returns to Downworld since he still needs to find it. Rather than protesting, Mom simply reminds him of her undying love. I don’t think much of Janet Hodgkinson, and am not surprised to find that this was her last screen role.
There’s also something very strange about the way parallels work between the worlds. Remember how good the parallel scene construction was between the hero and villain side of the plot in Captain Power? This is sort of like that, but the timing is strange. There’s clearly a parallel intended between Jay’s fall in the real world, and his dunking in Downworld, but they’re separated by ten minutes of show time. Keith turning face is a bit closer to Flash doing the same, but still, what you’d expect is for them to happen simultaneously. In fact, it feels like there is a consistent “offset” between the worlds. Having Donna give the telescope back to Jay’s mother in the hospital feels for all the world like it ought to be more tightly juxtaposed with Jay meeting his mother in the warehouse: it seems like there ought to be a near-miss here. The more obvious way to arrange the scenes is to invoke dramatic irony, where Jay decides to return to Downworld because he doesn’t know what the audience does: that the telescope has already been found. But by having Donna return the telescope not only before Jay makes his decision, but before he’s even submerged, there’s no real sense that things might have gone differently.
If this is a deliberate attempt to enforce a sense of disconnect between Upworld and Downworld, I can’t see the point in it. And besides, in the next scene, they finally do get the juxtaposition right. In the real world, Jay’s unspecified medical crisis passes at exactly the same time as Flash and Alpha help Jay out of the pool in Downworld. Everyone in Upworld looks very happy and optimistic, though Jay is still in a coma and there’s no actual indication that his condition is going to improve. In Downworld, Jay and Flash stare blankly at each other for about ten seconds, then Flash returns the telescope. Jay muses distantly that there’s “something” he’s supposed to do with it, then realizes what time it is and that he’s got to get home. Oddly, while Illya Woloshyn’s face is very animated with that declaration, there’s absolutely no emotion or intensity in his voice. Alpha and Flash both give resigned sighs before following him.
After a few yards, it occurs to Jay that he has no idea where he is, how to get home, or, for that matter, where he lives. Flash and Alpha promise to help him find his way home and the three set off together, suddenly on a long rural road rather than the urban sprawl they were in a second ago and walk off into the distance as we fade out.
This show is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t very good. The acting is stilted in places. The dialog doesn’t really flow well. There’s awkward pauses. The pacing is odd, and there’s odd lapses in the worldbuilding. But in spite of — heck, because of — all its weirdness, it feels strangely authentic. Most works set in a dream world go all-out about symbolism and surreality, but hardly any really capture the way that dreams can be inconsistent, and nonsensical, and at the same time seem perfectly reasonable. And real children aren’t eloquent, and they don’t launch into histrionics at every opportunity: sometimes they don’t process things fully and don’t get worked up when you’d expect them do.
But of course, Downworld isn’t just a dream world: as the series progresses, there are increasing indications that events in one world influence the other beyond just being a reflection of Jay’s psyche. Characters will actively try to hinder Jay’s quest for fear of what his recovery will mean for their world, and other Upworld characters will be aware of Downworld.
Illya Woloshyn isn’t great as Jay, but he has his moments. He’s not aggressively awful as back in War of the Worlds, and even has a few good moments. I think that his slightly detached aspect works for him in this episode, though I imagine it would get tedious before long. From the little bit of looking ahead I’ve done, he does seem to grow into the part. Woloshyn only has three screen credits after this show, though apparently he still hoped to get back into acting as of 2013.
Tony Sampson is adequate as Flash and Keith. Definitely one of the better TV bullies I’ve seen. They avoid most of the usual cliches. He’s not secretly a coward. He’s not somehow inexplicably a ’50s greaser. He’s depicted as not fully understanding the consequences of his actions, and you genuinely believe him when he’s distraught at how things have spiraled out of control: there are three separate moments where we see him realize that things have gone too far, and in every case, he looks ashamed and he backs down, and tries to make things right. That makes his ultimate heel-face turn believable. By the turn of the century, Sampson had transitioned primarily to voice acting, and is currently best known as the voice of Eddy in Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy.
Ashley Ashton Moore (Credited under her birth name, Ashley Rogers) is probably most talented person in this. It’s a shame that’s wasted on Donna, who isn’t much of a character, seeming at this point to, as I said before, exist mostly to be a matronly sort of nag, but maybe the character will advance past that. Alpha is a much more interesting character. I like the way they code both characters as intellectuals: Donna by playing chess, Alpha by having her abandon Jay for her books. In both forms, she’s fantastic at conveying concern through facial expressions. She’d go on to play the 1970-version of Chrissy in Now and Then, before retiring from acting in 1997. Tragically, she died of pneumonia and bronchitis in 2007.
The Odyssey would run for three seasons. Jay actually wakes up at the end of the second season, but “leaves a part of himself” in Downworld. The third season is widely derided, though I don’t fully know why yet. It ends on what everyone calls a cliffhanger, but it’s a strange sort of one: it ends without any ultimate closure, but at the same time, it ends in a way that doesn’t seem like it calls for closure. It’s very much a “What now?” ending, with the status quo shattered, but without any lead-in to what might come next.
It’s a strange, fascinating little show, and I’m glad I took this little side-trip to take a look at it. I think I’ll be back.
- The Odyssey is available via Vimeo On-Demand or on DVD from Omnifilm Entertainment