“Other Worlds lie outside our seeing; beyond the beyond; on the edge of within. The Great Pyramids: erected by the Ancient Ones as a barricade at the portal between two dimensions; two separate realities. This is the story of one family drawn through a mysterious vortex into the other world and their perilous trek homeward.”
-Opening narration to Roderick Taylor’s Otherworld (1985)
From the age of nuclear family sitcoms such as The Cosby Show (1984 – 1992) and Family Ties (1989) arrives this family-oriented science fiction series, Otherworld(1985).
Created by Roderick Taylor and airing on CBS, Otherworld — much like The Fantastic Journey (1977) — concerns a tightly-knit group of displaced people trapped in an alien world, moving from place to place, civilization to civilization, in search of a path home.
In The Fantastic Journey, that prized destination was the Devil Triangle’s “Evoland” (in the East…) where wayward travelers could return to their time periods and lands. In Otherworld, that destination is “Emar,” a city where wayward travelers could also find portals home and return to their lands as “sorcerers” and “kings.”
But where The Fantastic Journeyconcerned a group of characters who became an ad-hoc family over the course of many episodes and adventures, Otherworld focuses instead on an already-existing American family: The Sterlings.
That name sounds a lot like “Serling” (as in Rod Serling), which may or may not be an intentional tribute given the Twilight Zone nature of the premise.
More importantly, the word Sterling is defined as “genuine, pure or true,” and those descriptors very much apply to this suburban family. The family consists of resourceful engineer and Dad, Hal (Sam Groom), Mom and veterinarian June (Gretchen Corbett) — seemingly named after June Cleaver — teenagers Trace (Tony O’Dell) and Gina (Jonna Lee), and little Smith (first Brandon Crane, then Chris Hebert).
In the first episode of Otherworld, titled “Rules of Attraction,” the Sterlings are finishing up a summer vacation in Egypt, where Hal has been working to construct a hydro-electric plant.
On the day of a great planetary alignment — which has not occurred for 10,000 years — the family visits the Great Pyramids. In short order, the family is zapped through a whirling vortex (shades of The Fantastic Journey, again), and whisked into an entirely new, alien world.
Specifically, the Sterlings arrive in a barren “Forbidden Zone” outside the province of Sarlex, and have a terrifying run-in with a Zone Trooper Kommander named Nuveen Kroll (Jonathan Banks). After Kroll attempts to arrest the family for traveling in a restricted area, the Sterlings overpower him and appropriate his military hover-craft. More importantly, the Sterlings take Kroll’s “access crystal,” a small, cylindrical key which permits unlimited access to travel and information banks in this bizarre totalitarian world. In short order, Kroll is ordered to catch the fugitives and retrieve his access crystal.
Hoping to hide and blend in with the populace, the Sterlings soon settle down in the mining Province of Sarlex, which seems a weird reflection of 1950s America. Everyone seems to live by the edicts of a strangely-worded Bible, and in Leave it to Beaver-styled family units. The government of Sarlex even orders Mom – a medical professional – to become a “housewife.” Meanwhile, Trace falls in love with a high-school classmate, the beautiful Nova (Amanda Wyss).
But the Sterlings have a shock coming. Everyone in the town, including Nova herself, is an android, a “plasmoid replicant” designed to work the mines, which produce a radiation poisonous to human beings.
When June falls ill from exposure to the radiation, the Sterlings realize they must flee their new home, in search of another, and Nova helps the family escape through a series of subterranean tunnels. Before Nova says farewell to the Sterlings, she also tells Trace of Emar, the capital province where a technology is located that can send them home. She also informs them that in this strange world “every province is completely different” and also that “a long time ago, people would follow” strange monuments to reach Emar.
Cutting to the chase, “Rules of Attraction,” the pilot forOtherworld is a really great opening hour, and one that wastes no time beginning the adventure. We learn just enough about the family before the unexpected trip through the vortex, and then suddenly, we’re in an entirely different world, and in a new adventure.
In the finesttradition of science fiction television, “Rules of Attraction” also involves a social critique of the then-contemporary “real” culture in which it was produced. Specifically, Trace has trouble accepting that Nova – as an artificial life form – can feel love as fully as he does. “It’s not the same,” he declares
This is the old, widely-accepted fallacy we have all heard over the past few generations in America: that people of different ethnicity, religion and race don’t possess the same evolved sense of family, love and humanity as we do; that they are somehow “inferior” beings. In this case, Trace suggests that Nova must leave Sarlex with him, since he can’t possibly leave his family. Of course, she points out that she can’t leave her family, either. But Trace has a tough time seeing the families as equivalent. “If you cut me, I bleed. It’s the same,” Nova declares, hoping to sway him.
Making her point in brilliant, pointed fashion, Nova later shows Trace exactly where her “soul” is located (in a wall of computerized machinery beneath the city), and then challenges the Sterling boy to show her his soul.
Of course, he can’t so easily pinpoint his own soul, and so the question becomes, how do we know we have souls? Is it possible that the machines are more “alive” and “spiritual” than we are?
Talk about a heady brew for a first outing on network television…but Otherworld is extremely ambitious in terms of its subject matter and perspective on that material. At its root, “Rules of Attraction” brilliantly discusses racism in this subplot of Trace/Nova, which involves, essentially, an interracial romance. I must confess, I was gratified to see the series so quickly and so efficiently move into the “meat” of its theme, when so many opening episodes of cult-TV require laborious set-up and lengthy exposition. But Otherworld gets right to the action, and right to the beating heart of its premise.
There’s an even more subversive aspect of “Rules of Attraction” as well. The Sterling family meets with neighbors (who resemble the Flanders on The Simpsons) and there’s this uncomfortable sense of someone behind-the-scenes (the androids progenitors?) intentionally creating a world of social inequality, a world of 1950s stereotypes. For instance, women are not supposed to hold down jobs, only do the shopping. Why have the androids been created in the image of…an outmoded patriarchy?
At episode’s end, Hal battles for replicant rights by destroying a main computer under Sarlex that can audit the personal memories of each android, thus freeing them from domination by the Zone Troopers. With this very Captain-Kirkian blow against a corrupt establishment, one gets a sense of Otherworld’s burgeoning sense of morality and ethics. I remember watching this pilot in January of 1985 and thinking, at the time, that Otherworld was as close to a new Star Trek as we were likely to get in the 1980s in terms of TV sci-fi probing the edges and parameters of the human equation.
Of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered less than two years later. So I was wrong.
Still, there was a delight in discovering Otherworld on CBS, and its full-throated sense of humor and social commentary. Simply put…I loved this show. And I can’t figure out why in Hell it isn’t available on DVD, or at least for streaming. I know it boasts an avid cult-following…
Although produced cheap, “Rules of Attraction” features some good visuals that hold up pretty well today. For instance, there’s a nice matte painting of Sarlex (later re-used on TNG in episodes such as “Angel One”) and also the bizarre monuments of the Other World. Also, underneath Sarlex is a vast computer center and that wall of souls, and the breadth of the domain is impressive considering the TV budget.
You may also notice here the series’ trademark upside-down Zone Troopers guns. The barrels are below the handles, in other words. I always thought this was another creative way of showcasing the topsy-turvy, upside down nature of the Otherworld, but the weapons still take some getting used to.
Next Week: Otherworld episode 2, “Zone Troopers Build Men” starring Mark Lenard.