Otherworld: A Short-Lived 1980s TV Gem?

This was a very short-lived alternate reality show on CBS that was a mid-season replacement in early 1985. The jist was that a family on vacation in Egypt happened to be on a pyramid tour at the right (or wrong?) place and time during some sort of planet alignment. Within the first ten minutes of the show, this typical-American-family found themselves zapped to an alternate Earth named ‘Thel.’

The pitch was as a sort of “Lost in Space” but on Earth, if that made any sense. This world of Thel was much like the 1980s United States, although the world building was kind of patchy. Society functions much like smallish towns in the U.S. but there were things like advanced computers, human-like androids, laser weapons, and advanced computers that the fascist-like military leadership controlled and used. People live in these different zones or districts and early in the first episode, the family bumbles into possessing an identification crystal that let them move between zones and control computers due to being identified as being important leader-level people. This obviously came in very handy.

The state of affairs reminded me a little bit of the situation on Earth in the television continuation of “V” (which more or less pre-dated this show by a year or two, so this vibe might not be a coincidence given that “V” was a big phenomenon on television for a couple of years). The leadership weren’t aliens though, they were just fascist-types.

The show worked well by having a distinctly different location and premise every episode, basically the family settling into some new zone and then eventually having to flee. In one zone everyone was an android due to the area harboring a deadly secret, in another zone it was a pleasure island with a deadly secret. There was some church-and-state tension.

One episode’s premise that I found amusing involved introducing rock-and-roll to a district. Keep in mind that “Footloose” had come out a year earlier, in February 1984. It was not too hard to figure out what was an inspiration. They even work in the same angle of the church leadership hating such music, which amounted to covers of Beatles songs. Pure Baby Boomer writing, to be sure.

Other oddities included a “Beauty and the Beast” riff where the family happened to be traveling via horse-drawn wagon in the seventh episode. It was more of a pure fantasy departure with a castle situated in a dead forest (with its own deadly secret?).

Clearly the big question mark hovering over the entire series was when or if the family would return back to Earth of 1985. Unfortunately, the eighth episode ‘finale’ left audiences hanging on that question, although some hints were given of a possible way out during asides in the latter half of this short run.. Then again, maybe it didn’t entirely matter as the family members seemed oddly content to often settle in at a given zone. The father character’s mantra was that home was really just where your family was at. Fair enough, I guess.

To be certain, this isn’t a ‘classic’ show by any stretch. Each episode presents some pretty epic concepts that didn’t get followed up on to much of a degree. There was a focus on both of the parents and also the teen children, so the show was sometimes focusing on high school topics (the teen children seemed to meet a love-of-the-life every other episode) and other times adult topics (such as fantasy infidelity) were hinted at. This diversity seemed like it might work but did not always fit together. In fact, it seemed like a show that ‘the whole family’ could (awkwardly?) watch but the low ratings give evidence that that did not happen. The budget and effects limitation were obvious but not really heavily relied upon.

None of the creatives nor the acting talent really popped out with any name recognition today or any notable later success in television or film. Rather, most seemed to be working performers and creatives, who had solid working careers. There was nothing really exceptional to call out with the show’s talent nor was it so-bad-it-was-good.

Given some of the logic questions and world building shortcomings of the show, I question how the show could have sustained itself over several seasons. That said, the mythology certainly started to gain momentum by the eighth episode, with hints of time moving at a different speed in Thel versus Earth. There were some hints that a bigger plan might have come together with a way to get back to Earth, although some revelations had suggested the situation being much more complicated than a goal of merely getting home. As it exists, there are some interesting ideas in each episode that made it worth checking out and I found it more-watchable than I had maybe expected.

That’s maybe a lukewarm recommendation but if this concept sounds compelling, it’s a fun short-run show to binge watch.

On a personal note, it took me literally decades to figure out the name of this show, with me spending Google searches over the years trying to figure out what it was based on vague memories of seeing it as a kid. It seemed like my kind of jam and it certainly was. Not only did the show face critical review problems but it’s Saturday evening timeslot didn’t help. My only exposure to it was randomly catching a replay of a pre-empted episode that was done on a Sunday afternoon and little kid me didn’t realize that it actually aired in primetime.

“Otherworld” only lasted eight episodes though, so it wasn’t like anyone – me included – had much time to figure all of this out. While its pop culture footprint was virtually non-existent, the show did get some later re-airings on USA network and, most notably, early Sci-Fi Channel. Sci-Fi liked to show these short-run shows to fill their schedule and one could see how it might have easily made for a fun Saturday marathon special.

Episodes tended to float around in low-resolution VHS copies on Youtube and that’s about the only way to see “Otherworld” as of the time of this writing. It had not yet been released on DVD but maybe some distributor would eventually get around to it.

D.S. Christensen
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