From my perspective, the 1980's were a hotbed for sci-fi and fantasy, but my perspective was skewed. Kids' TV was full of giant robots, craggy dystopian worlds and far-out planets full of creatures sold individually as action figures. In prime time, this wasn't the case, especially in the first half of the decade.
Until The X-Files in 1993, network television tended to avoid science fiction if they could help it, the reason given that sci-fi stories were very hard to tell on a TV budget and just wound up looking campy. But CBS must have thought giving the genre a go as a midseason experiment was worth a try, just once. In 1985 Stacy Keach was thrown in prison and the show he starred in, Mike Hammer, was put on hiatus. One week later something called Otherworld appeared instead. And in all of TV show history (contained to the 1980's that is), there was really nothing like it before or again.
Otherworld was created by Roderick Taylor, who was fascinated by the concept of parallel universes and wanted to create the next big sci-fi franchise out of it. Even though the entire original Star Wars trilogy was out at this point and had permanently influenced much of sci-fi, Otherworld exudes a decidedly 70's, Logan's Run type of style. (Except for one episode which is very very 80's, but we'll get there.)
The Sterling family -- dad Hal, mother June, teenage siblings Trace and Gina, and one inconsequential little brother that factors into none of the plots and barely gets any screentime so forget about him because he won't be mentioned again -- are on vacation in Egypt. They're given a "tour" inside a dark pyramid by a conman who then threatens to leave them inside unless they pay him. When Hal refuses, the man vanishes and leaves them in the dark. At that moment the planets align, the ancient mechanics inside the pyramid start working, and the Sterlings are insta-warped to the planet Thel, which is divided into over 150 separate provinces. Each province is isolated from the others but all are controlled by a sinister singular party. Taylor intended to mimic Star Trek with this formula -- similar to Kirk going to a different planet in every episode, the Sterlings would go to a different province in every episode. "Anything THEY can do, WE can do!" Taylor excitedly stated.
Unfortunately, here we have another instance of a network buying a show they don't want and trying to mash it into one they do. Taylor wanted dark, grim, disturbing situations and death-defying adventures where the Sterlings would just barely escape each week with their lives. CBS wanted a wholesome, happy-go-lucky fantasy full of life lessons the whole family could absorb. Taylor wrote 13 scripts his way and CBS rejected all but one of them.
Consequently, the ones that got on the air have plots that are rather odd (At one point they do Beauty and the Beast. Just....straight-up do Beauty and the Beast.) However, Taylor shot and staged them in such a manner that they came off as eerie and unsettling as he desired. The network wasn't happy, but it was the ratings that would decide Otherworld's fate, and those numbers were dismal.
Once they arrive on Thel, the Sterlings wander around and find a stretch of road. It turns out they're in the "Forbidden Zone" between provinces, and an officer comes to arrest them. Having no idea what's going on, the father grabs the officer's blast-gun and nukes him, then steals a mysterious crystal from the officer's pocket. Good thing, as it's a universal key that will let them escape through any door. They also swipe the officer's vehicle and ride to the nearest town, where they do their best to blend in.
One scene that frequently comes up among those who remember any portion of Otherworld is this one: June is shopping, but all the food is canned in plain white labels with the words "GOOD FOOD." She takes a can and asks the clerk what kind of food it is. He replies, "It's good food."
Meme-worthy? Fer sure, but....it doesn't actually happen in the show itself. The "Good Food" cans are visible, but June picks up a can labeled "MEAT" instead, and gets the reponse "It's meat." Also, the context here is that everybody in this province is a robot. The Sterlings just haven't figured that out yet.
They do eat the robot food, which they find unpleasant ("They said it was good food," states June). By the time they figure out the droid-y nature of their neighbors, Trace has fallen in love with a robot girl. In another similarity to Star Trek, Trace would pretty much get the girl in every episode, if one was available.
Once Trace finds out the truth, he's reluctant to pursue the relationship any further. "This is because you think I have no soul, isn't it?" Trace doesn't confirm it, but she says "I have something to show you," and leads Trace to a vertically large wall full of thousands of little lights. She says it's where all their memories and thoughts are stored, then points to one of the lights and says, "This is where I am."
So she's basically ended the debate by going to a room, pointing to a dot and saying "Of course I have a soul; IT'S RIGHT HERE!!" This is good enough for Trace.
However, now the world's government is suspicious of them and they're being pursued by Commander Kroll, the series' recurring bad guy who would chase them out of every episode. They have to run, but not before resolving the other problem: freeing the robots from his control. Hal does this by approaching the province's master computer, which is controlled by one of those static lightning balls from the science store, and simply tells it to let the robots free and never listen to Kroll again. It obeys and they escape.
Episode Two: The family is hiding out in a relatively peaceful province, but Trace is restless. He feels he has no future due to being stuck so far from home, so why should he even work toward one? His grades are horrible and the teachers warn him if they slip any further, he'll be yellow-carded. "What's a yellow card, like a referral? Why does it matter? Who cares anymore? It's just not worth it to learn! I wish someone would teach me a lesson RIGHT NOW!"
Of course a yellow card means something far worse: you've been declared worthless and drafted to serve in the Zone Troopers, who patrol the Forbidden Zone and keep provincers in line. Soldiers arrive at the door and carry Trace away, where he'll toil in grueling conditions as a ZIT (Zone-Trooper In Training; someone thought it was cute). The family has to find a way to sneak him out, and fast, before Commander Kroll discovers where he is.
Episode Three: The Sterlings have landed in a province that appears to be PARADISE! Well, if you've seen an episode of any other show where the characters visit "paradise," you'll know ahead of time something isn't right. In this case, the island is run by an ageless woman who stays immortal by taking random people and draining their essences in a secret lab. This woman falls for Hal and uses a special lipstick potion to hypnotize him into obsession. Will Hal choose to live forever with a seductress, or will the series have another episode?
The episode manages to predict HD flatscreen TVs, though the picture frame is 4:3, and it isn't really the "future" they're in.
In "Valley of the Motorpigs," the Sterlings are caught by Zone Troopers while hitching a ride between provinces. Just when it looks like they won't escape this time, motorbike-riding barbarians ambush the Troopers and start attacking everybody. They take the Sterlings as prisoners and split the family apart inside desolate camps, set them to work on backbreaking jobs, and try to convince them to drink chalk. (The chalk is supposed to make them forget about each other and join the hivemind cult that has the others possessed.)
If I had to guess which remaning script out of the 13 Taylor wrote made it through, my best guess is this one, because it comes closest to his original vision out of the available eight. It's very bleak and I'm surprised it got made at all. Actually, it's the second half of the two-hour pilot, so presumably he wasn't getting as many notes at that stage.
In "I An Woman, Hear Me Roar," the Sterlings are in a province that seems hunky-dory up to the point where June's neighbor asks her why she seems unable to control Hal. It turns out they've landed in an extreme matriarchy where women control everything and men are their slaves.
In a scene that belongs up there with "GOOD FOOD," Hal is subjected to a degrading employment office interview. The woman behind the desk talks to Hal slowly as if to a small child, and tests his reading skills by holding up the word "THE." Hal reads it perfectly, to their astonishment. As we see what the other family members are doing, they keep cutting back to Hal reading more elaborate text cards as the ladies gather around, fascinated by him. As he finishes the most advanced card they have, the interviewer says between breaths, "Well, I have to say you're the most advanced candidate we've ever seen! We'll get you the best male job we have available!"
Hal is employed as a vegetable waxer.
I've left one out of the order until now, and there's a reason for it. Episode four is what I consider the most enjoyable episode of Otherworld, but only when viewed in the proper context. Roderick Taylor was mostly successful at giving Otherworld the grim and eerie tone he wanted it to have. Mostly.
Then there's episode four.
#4 is the one where Trace and Gina liberate a province through the power of rock and roll. Not only is it exactly as ridiculous as you think it could be, it's more so. Imagine if Footloose was ten times more over the top, and that's this episode.
It is GLORIOUS.
I'm sure this opening scene parallels Ed Sullivan deliberately. For their school talent show, Trace and Gina take to guitar and drums and sing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," which being from another world, nobody there has heard before. They aren't bad at it, either. I don't know if these were really the actors singing, but if so, they could have cut a real album.
The students are entranced and excited, and want to hear more. So does a talent scout for a record label, who hires them to record more songs they "wrote." Trace and Gina load their first album with Earth's biggest rock hits of the previous twenty years, but all the radio stations refuse to play a style so foreign. Instead Trace and Gina perform more outdoor concerts, and their legend spreads.....
So Trace and Gina become rock stars, screaming fans surround their limos, and merchandise includes posters and plastic dolls of themselves. This is still Otherworld. Where there was once strange phenomena and perilous situations, we're now watching garish music videos, complete with big hair and the wildest clothing the time period had to offer. To make things even more outlandish, opposition comes in the form of the Church of Artificial Intelligence, represented by a balding man who repeatedly condemns Trace and Gina's music as "rebellious noise" and even succeeds in getting them expelled from school. He plays their songs backwards to find evil messages and conducts record burnings outside the Sterlings' house.
Hal and June were ambivalent about what Trace and Gina had been doing, but once that guy starts getting in their face, they say "We're not leaving the province until you perform the concert to end all concerts. Stick it to the man!"
You need to see this episode, but you won't truly have a ball until you've seen at least three other episodes of Otherworld first. Only when you're fully aware of how badly it clashes with every other story in this universe can you appreciate it. I can't think of anything that'd make it better, aside from Riff Randell making a trans-dimensional visit.
"Princess Metra" is the final Otherworld episode, though it resolves nothing. They had an overall goal this season of getting to Imar, the capital of Thel. It takes this long for them to find out how, and we never get to see them follow the directions.
Via hot air balloon, the Sterlings land in a new province where the residents immediately surround Gina and treat her as if she were a goddess. Did they get her album? No, like I said earlier, each province is isolated from the rest. They're nuts for Gina because she resembles Princess Metra, their former leader, and they believe she's returned.
But the province's current leader is not willing to give up control that easily. Gina is expected to prove her identity as Metra, and that may be difficult. Many residents have taken the test of identification, and all have failed. Gina asks what will happen to her if she fails, and gets only silence.
But she can't back out of it, either, or she and her family will face the same fate. Gina nervously puts her palm on a glowing pad, and.....hears a voice telling her she's "groovy." She's relieved to hear all the questions are about Earth, and when she answers them correctly, the voice says "Far out!" and opens the door no one has been able to open since Metra departed.
It turns out Metra was another person who fell through the warp, twenty years ago in 1964. She was adopted by a monarch who then perished, making her the ruler (yet still a Princess, because they're more popular then queens). As she explains via hologram, Metra left because she may have found a way back to Earth -- and the clues can be found in Imar. But how to get there? Metra will only share the directions with the one who has solved her test. Good thing that's Gina.
Thing is, though, Gina doesn't feel she can leave until she fixes the province's social problems. Now that everyone thinks she's Metra, Gina uses her newfound authority to abolish the class system in the area, where certain children are raised to be little more than slaves. That has to stop! It was the former leader's law, and she's so outraged by this she starts plotting a coup behind Gina's back.
Gina sparks a romance with her commanding officer, and confesses she's not Metra, but he doesn't seem to care (how old is Gina anyway? How old is HE? No answers there; I hope it's legal, and not just because Gina says it's legal). She also sits on her throne and resolves the arguments of the villagers, as seen here in this awesome scene starring Larry Cedar:
Even for Otherworld this ep is weird, and it's about to get much weirder. Gina must go through a ritual where she sees a vision in isolation. She opens a treasure box, and puts her hand on a glowing crystal.
Below is the next seven minutes of the show, in its entirety.
This was the last episode of Otherworld CBS aired. The previous airing had scored dead last in the ratings. You might think a last-ditch effort to improve coherency was in order, but they said "damn the torpedoes" and took it as far as they possibly could. Imagine channel-flipping through the meager stations available to you in 1985 and coming across something like this where CBS used to be. Needless to say, the numbers were even lower when they came in for this night.
Anywayyyyy, since I know none of you are going to watch all that to find the five seconds hidden within that are important to the plot, at some point Gina sees the city of Imar. It's New York City, only there are three World Trade towers instead of two or none. She knows how to get there now.
But it'll be of little help when she wakes from the vision and finds the former leader has exacted her coup. She orders Gina arrested, along with her family, and imprisons them behind laser bars while she stands with her cohorts at a control panel and gloats.
they going to send us to the disintegration
chamber?" Gina worries as she hugs her boyfriend.
Just as she's about to execute them, a rebellion of soldiers loyal to Metra breaks through and stops the coup. They know the truth about "Metra," but they don't care -- Gina's been a good enough ruler on her own. Armed with directions to Imar, the Sterlings climb back in their balloon, and sail off. Where they landed next is up to you and whatever fanfiction you come up with.
It is a subject of debate as to whether there are 13 episodes of Otherworld or just the eight that were shown. My call is, unless I see evidence to the contrary (where are those videos, pal?), there were probably eight. Otherworld aired in reruns on various cable networks, and if there were more than eight episodes available, they would have shown up there.
Its lack of availabilty on legit home video is either due to its obscurity or the licensing costs for the rock episode, but it has a cult following to this day, and more people discover its existence all the time (like you just did). The only reason I can think of that JJ Abrams hasn't remade this already is that he does not know about it yet.