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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: O Canada! (part 2)

Written By:

Alan Boon
The Odyssey, 1992

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!

O Canada!

Although the odd European show occasionally slips through the net, a massive percentage of the shows featured in The Telephemera Years originate from North America, and almost exclusively from the USA. Canada, though, has a thriving film and TV industry – including providing locations and supporting cast members for many of those American shows – and even has its own range of TV channels, including CBC, CTV, Global, and Space. To celebrate those gems made north of the border – some of which enjoyed three- or four-season runs but little acclaim outside their native land – we’re giving over four weeks of this column to our Canucklehead friends.

Some of the shows produced in Canada that have enjoyed wider acclaim include telefantasy schlockbusters Lexx and Relic Hunter, while the beloved Due South also falls into this category. Viewers of children’s BBC in the 1980s will no doubt have fond memories of The Raccoons and Degrassi Junior High, while Kids in the Hall rewrote comedy in the early nineties with a decidedly surreal touch. But those are the shows you’ve heard of and probably watched… what about those that didn’t get much reach beyond the provinces and territories of the Great White North? This is the story of more gems from Lumberjack Country…

Maniac Mansion (1990, YTV): As Star Wars money flooded into his studio in the late 1970s, George Lucas decided he wanted to push the boundaries of what was possible using the computers of the time. In 1979, he established the Lucasfilm Computer Division which, after the computer graphics group was split off into its own department (eventually becoming Pixar), was renamed Lucasfilm Games. The first games produced by the team were done in conjunction with established studios such as Atari, Epyx, and Electronic Arts, but in 1987 they released the first game wholly developed by Lucasfilm.

Maniac Mansion was a point-and-click adventure game that put you in the role of teenager Dave Miller, attempting to rescue your girlfriend from a mad scientist. The game was a commercial and critical success, and when Lucasfilm animators Elana Lasser and Cliff Ruby pitched a TV show based on the game, the company were interested enough to contract Canadian production company Atlantis Films to develop the project. Atlantis brought in comedian Eugene Levy to head the writing team for the show and under Levy the concept moved away from the original game.

Maniac Mansion, 1990

Debuting on September 14th 1990 on both YTV in Canada and the Family Channel in the US, Maniac Mansion starred Joe Flaherty as Fred Edison, a wacky scientist with a family to match. Like Levy, Flaherty was an alumnus of the Second City theatre, the famous Toronto improv factory which enjoyed its own sketch TV show on from 1976 to 1984. Flaherty was joined by Deborah Theaker as wife Casey and by Kathleen Robertson, Avi Phillips, and George Buza as their children, the latter of whom – toddler Turner – had been rapidly aged into a balding middle-aged man. The cast also included another SCTV graduate in John Hemphill, playing Casey’s brother Harry, mutated into a human-housefly hybrid by the same accident that evolved Turner.

Over three seasons, Maniac Mansion combined regular family sitcom fare with science fiction and fantasy humour, bringing in a plethora of special guests like Jose Ferrer, Martin Short, Levy himself, and even The Fly director David Cronenberg in a very meta appearance. UK viewers might have caught the show when it aired overnight as part of ITV’s move to round-the-clock broadcasting and it remains highly thought of by critics and fans, although gamers are less fond of the show, which had the Edison family as its antagonists.

Beyond Reality (1991, CTV): Plenty of shows have been cited as influences on The X-Files, including Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Twin Peaks, but upon watching Beyond Reality, a two-season outing from Canada’s CTV channel, you have to wonder if perhaps Chris Carter might have caught an episode or two as it ran in syndication in the US…

Beyond Reality starred Shari Belafonte and Carl Marotte as Laura Wingate and JJ Stillman, two parapsychologists employed by a Toronto university who have a nifty sideline in investigating paranormal phenomena. Cases involving alternate worlds, doppelgangers, reincarnation, and UFOs all pass across their desks in the first season of the show, which debuted on October 4th 1991.

Beyond Reality, 1991

Many of that first season’s episodes were scripted by James Kahn, probably still best known for the novelisation of Return of the Jedi, who had met show creators Hans Beimler and Richard Manning when they were all part of the writing team on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The second season continued in the same vein, with psychics, near-death experiences, poltergeists, and alien viruses all featuring, leading to a season finale that dealt with a Satanic cult.

Season two saw a drop in viewing figures, though, attributed by some to a more melodramatic and fantastic air to the show that had developed. Critics also pointed to the short episode lengths at just twenty-three minutes a week, half that of the usual runtime for most dramatic shows on US and Canadian TV. Hans Beimler later co-developed The Dresden Files for TV, another attempt to do paranormal investigations, but that lasted for just a single, curtailed season in 2007.

The Odyssey (1992, CBC): Keen to join a tree-fort club led by bully Keith, eleven-year-old Jay Ziegler (Illya Woloshyn, an experienced hand already at thirteen) agrees to give them his father’s old telescope, only for Keith to renege on the deal and keep the telescope for himself. Trying to retrieve it – one of the only things he has left from his father (who is missing presumed dead) – with the help of his friend Donna, Jay climbs the tree but falls, striking his head and being left in a coma.

In the coma, though, Jay finds himself in Downworld, a fantasy land where everyone is under sixteen. In the absence of adults, the kids have formed into clans such as the Library Clan and the Forest Clan, with the despotic Tower Clan ruling the roost. Desperate to get home, Jay enlists the help of Alpha and Flash (who are identical to – and played by the same actors as – Donna and Keith), all the while wondering if there is any connection between Tower Clan leader Brad and his missing father.

The Odyssey, 1992

The Odyssey was created Warren Easton and Paul Vitols but they were fired after season one had finished production, replaced by Charles Lazer. Lazer guided the show through its second and third seasons, which continued Jay’s adventures in Downworld, alongside the real-life drama at his hospital bedside. By season two, however, Jay was out of his coma and combining his Downworld adventures with solving the mystery of his dad’s disappearance, something that continued into season three.

Today, The Odyssey is probably best remembered as one of Ryan Reynolds’s first regular jobs – he played the role of Macro, a tyrant who overthrew Brad and took over the Tower Clan – and it also gave early opportunities to the likes of Sarah Chalke, Mark Hildreth, Andrea Nemeth, and Jewel Staite. There was talk of a reboot in 2016 but nothing developed beyond the initial announcement.

Madison (1993, Global): It’s unlikely that there is any other show with an origin story quite like Madison, created as it was to be shown exclusively in schools as a tool for discussing teenage issues. Under the title Working It Out at Madison, each of the first thirteen episodes focussed on a different character, introducing the likes of Carol Lemieux (Sarah Strange), Penny Foster (Michelle Beaudoin), and Derek Wakaluk (Will Sasso), all of whom would return for a second season.

This time, however, the retitled Madison was a more traditional show, with multiple storylines threaded throughout, a large cast of interacting characters, and broadcast on the Global TV network. Joining Beaudoin, Sasso, and Strange as series regulars were season one returnees Chris William Martin, Enuka Okuma, Peter Stebbings, and Chad Willett, along with newcomers Stacy Grant, Shaira Holman, Jonathan Scarfe, and Joely Collins (adopted daughter of rock star Phil).

Madison, 1993

The show never shied away from touching on hot button topics such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, abusive relationships, and even death, even managing to mix in an understated cool that reflected the slacker ethos of the time. This, of course, ensured that Madison earned an audience beyond its target demographic, becoming must-see TV for twenty-somethings in shared housing across Canada, the US, and the UK, where it aired on The Children’s Channel on satellite TV.

Madison lasted for five seasons of thirteen episodes, with many of the cast staying for the full run, although Beaudoin ducked out after three seasons to take the role of Jenny in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Scarfe later turned up in ER, Sasso joined MADtv, and the rest of the cast would become familiar faces to viewers of shows filmed in and around Vancouver, even if they didn’t know their names.

Once a Thief (1997, CTV): Once a Thief was a 1991 actioner from prolific Hong Kong director John Woo, the fourth of his films to earn him a nomination for Best Director at the Hong Kong film awards. Woo had exploded into the West with the release of The Killer in 1989, the most successful Hong Kong film in the US since Enter the Dragon, but its follow-up – Bullet in the Head – didn’t quite do the business its backers had hoped.

Once a Thief saw Woo come back stronger and 1992’s Hard Boiled saw him become a desirable commodity in Hollywood, leading to a solid decade of action movie success with stars such as Jean-Claude van Damme, John Travolta, and Nicolas Cage. His directorial style was copied by many a rival with the slow-motion shootout becoming a well-used trope, but perhaps the strangest result of his Hollywood star ascending was a 1997 Canadian TV show based on one of his earlier films.

Once A Thief, 1997

The movie of Once a Thief centres on three orphans taken in first by a crime boss and then by a policeman, growing up to specialise in stealing high value paintings. In the TV show, one orphan – Sandrine Holt’s Li Anne Tsei – is raised by a gangster and falls in love with one of his underlings, Mac Ramsay (played by Ivan Sergei). Their attempt to start a new life fails but they are later reunited in the employ of The Director, the head of a crime-fighting institution that also includes Li Anne’s former fiancé, Victor Mansfield (Nicholas Lea). The trio have to form an uneasy team to carry out The Director’s instructions, all the while never completely trusting her.

The TV version of Once a Thief began as a TV movie which told the backstory of Li Anne and Mac, with the series picking up two years after the events of that film. The show was sold into syndication in the US and began with decent ratings, but these declined to the point that producers were informed before they filmed the last few episodes of the twenty-two-episode run that the show would not be renewed for a second season. This meant they were able to wrap up the series with an episode called “Endgame.”

Next on The Telephemera Years: Even more Canadian treats, with beastmasters, immortals, trackers, and more!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: pre-1965 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

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

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

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

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

The Telephemera Years: 1970 (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: 1974 (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

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: 1983 (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, 2, 3, 4)

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

The Telephemera Years: 2002 (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)

The Telephemera Years: O Canada! (part 1)

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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