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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1998 – PART 2

Written By:

Alan Boon
Brimstone, 1998

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!

1998-99

Back in the last millennium, there was this thing called Must See TV, where NBC put ALL the best shows in one three-hour block and dominated the lives of everyone with a television. Friends, new Christina Applegate vehicle Jesse, Frasier, Veronica’s Closet, and ER were all the TV you needed, although the usual news and football was also on offer for anyone not tickled by NBC’s powerhouse line-up. Jesse wasn’t the only new show that NBC threw at viewers; they also had Will & Grace tucked in their back pocket. The other big new arrivals were over on HBO and Fox, where Sex and the City, Family Guy, and Futurama all hit the screens for the first time.

There were plenty of shows going the other way, with Home Improvement, Due South, Homicide: Life on the Street, Mad About You, and Baywatch entering their final runs, and genre fans had particular cause to feel aggrieved as the axe was about to fall on Millennium, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, with only Third Wave and Farscape on the docket to replace them. Well, there were others, of course, but they were part of that group of shows no-one much remembers; this is the story of four more lost treasures…

Brimstone (Fox): For those lucky enough to have seen it, Brimstone rates highly on any list of shows that were axed before their time, a decision made even more heartbreaking given that the show was set out to have a finite number of episodes anyway! Premiering on October 23rd 1998, Brimstone was given an 8pm slot on Fridays by Fox, a night best suited to western and medical dramas, but was seen as a decent lead-in to the third season of Millennium.

Peter Horton is Ezekiel Stone, a New York police detective who overstepped the boundaries of his authority when he killed the man who raped his wife in 1983. When he dies two years later, he is sent to Hell for his crime, despite dying the most decorated cop in New York history. Fifteen years later, a mass breakout from Hell occurs, resulting in one-hundred-and-thirteen souls escaping. The Devil comes to Stone and offers him a deal: track them all down and he will receive a second chance at life.

Brimstone, 1998

Stone is a likeable hero, and John Glover as The Devil gives the performance of his career, popping up in each episode to impart cryptic information on Stone’s latest target. The cast is rounded out by Lori Petty, Terri Polo, and a host of guest stars as the demon of the week, all working to a neat series bible concocted by creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, who had enjoyed recent success with Demon Knight and Josh Kirby… Time Warrior!

Unfortunately, Fox seemed unwilling to give Brimstone the time it needed to find its audience, noting that ratings were low in the face of competition from NBC’s Providence, the sixteenth most-watched show of the season. It was a slot they’d struggled to fill successfully since Sliders ended and Brimstone was merely the latest victim of that trend, cancelled after thirteen episodes, at least one-hundred short of its optimum run. It’s never been released on DVD or Blu Ray but retains a strong cult following, its irregular re-runs being hotly anticipated by fans who want to imagine what could have been.

Seven Days (UPN): Part of a resurgence in time travel TV that also included Time Trax, TimeCop, and Early Edition, Seven Days’ high concept sell was that time travel had been invented due to backwards engineering of Roswell technology, but that it could only send one human back to seven days before. Under the auspices of a secret branch of the National Security Agency, ex-Navy SEAL and CIA operative Frank Parker is chosen to be the one who “backsteps,” his first mission to prevent the assassination of the US President!

Seven Days was created by Christopher Crowe, in association with his brother Zachary, from a basic idea by President of Paramount Television, Kerry McCluggage. Crowe had a long career in film and TV, having created the TV shows BJ and the Bear and the 1994 reboot of The Untouchables, as well writing the script for Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans and designing the logo for the band Cheap Trick.

Seven Days, 1998

Australian émigré Jonathan LaPaglia – brother of Anthony – was cast as Parker, his second main role after becoming a regular in the final season of New York Undercover. Justina Vail as Russian doctor Olga Vukavitch provided a will-they, won’t-they angle, and over the course of the first season the pair helped prevent not only the assassination of the President but also the release of a deadly virus, nuclear war, and a Waco-style massacre.

Renewed for two further seasons, the storylines became increasingly tied up in internal logic and the search for fresh reasons to travel back seven days surely reached its nadir when Parker had to go back and stop the President’s daughter from dying at a rave. Vail had given notice midway through filming series three but was convinced to shoot scenes that would tie up her character’s arc, and with no real Backup Sphere available to change her mind, it was decided not to go forward with a season four.

Welcome to Paradox (Sci-Fi): An anthology series created by Lewis Chesler, a Canadian producer best known for the 1983 HBO show The Hitchhiker, Welcome to Paradox established the city of Betaville (based on Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville) as the location for all of its stories, despite their original sources having no connection to such a place or each other. Betaville is a paradise, where crime, violence, and disease have been eradicated but it has a dark undercurrent…

Chesler’s story picks were classic sci-fi stories by authors such as Greg Egan, Alan Dean Foster, and Ron Goulart that are principally concerned with the effect of technology on the human mind and body. This was filtered through a cyberpunk aesthetic that saw the citizens of Betaville challenged by artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gene therapy, often with unforeseen connotations and unpleasant consequences.

Welcome to Paradox, 1998

Each episode had a narrator – The Bold and the Beautiful’s Michael Phillip – to introduce and wrap-up the story, offering any lessons to be learned and warning us that technology isn’t always the advantage it first appears to be. The cast included a host of Canadian TV regulars alongside guests such as Ice T, Mayim Bialik, Henry Rollins, and Alice Krige, although the show’s biggest star was probably the then-New Volkswagen Beetle, chosen to be the vehicle of choice for the inhabitants of Betaville.

Welcome to Paradox aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in the US and Showcase in Canada, debuting simultaneously on August 17th 1998. Thirteen episodes were produced, stretching into early November but there was to be no future for Betaville beyond the end of episode thirteen’s tale of AI law enforcement. The show was only ever given a home video release in Australia but can be found on YouTube in its entirety and is worth a watch if you’re after a less cynical Black Mirror.

Fantasy Island (ABC): In the original Fantasy Island, Ricardo Montalban’s Mr Roarke oversaw a deliberately enigmatic place where wishes could come true, even if they weren’t the wish you thought you were wishing for when you wished it. Aided by Herve Villechaize’s diminutive Tattoo, any magic that may have seemed necessary for events to play out as they did was kept under wraps, the mystical nature of the eponymous island never fully explored.

This was a stark contrast to the 1998 reboot where Malcolm McDowell’s Mr Roarke – who dressed in black and had a coterie of assistants rather than one shouty little man – welcomed visitors to an island that was unashamedly supernatural. This was a conscious decision taken by executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, fresh off launching Men in Black and with a back catalogue including such darkly humorous tales as The Addams Family and Get Shorty.

Fantasy Island, 1998

Indeed, it was often hinted that the island was a place of purgatory for souls caught between afterlives, something later explored in Lost to the chagrin of those seeking a definitive ending, and that it was all in service of some greater power, perhaps the island itself. Unlike the original show, there was an ongoing storyline that played out between each episode’s two “guests,” although the superstar appeal of the original was not often recreated in the new show, with Kadeem Hardison, Lennox Lewis, Dean Cain, and Dwight Schultz a far cry from the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Debbie Reynolds!

Unfortunately, the TV audience of 1998 was a different beast to that of two decades previously and even those looking for another dose of schmaltz were probably put off by the reboot’s post-modern twist. After seven episodes, ABC took it off the air for a month while they rethought its future, returning it to the schedule to see out the remaining six completed episodes after deciding it wasn’t worth the cost of producing the show on location in Hawaii. The concept was revived for a Blumhouse horror prequel in 2020, followed by an unrelated Fox TV reboot a year later, which lasted two seasons with a female Roarke which took place in the same continuity as the original series, consigning the 1998 show to non-canon limbo. Which might be an island.

Next time on The Telephemera Years: The shows that didn’t make it to air, including the Hoff with an eye patch!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3,

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1978 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1989 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1998 (part 1)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2006 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: DIC (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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