A boy in a treehouse fort looks down at the forest floor fifty feet below him. Suddenly the rope in his hands snaps causing him to plummet down….down…down. He slams into the ground, knocking him out cold. But his descent doesn’t stop there. He suddenly finds himself in an old freight elevator heading past the first floor, further and further down. When it reaches the bottom, Jay Ziegler’s odyssey begins.
So goes the set-up of The Odyssey, one of the most mind-bending adventure dramas to come out of British Columbia or anywhere. Aired over three seasons on CBC from 1992-94, the show was inspired by a mix of ancient mythology and modern sci-fi as it chronicled the perils of young Jay Ziegler whom after plunging into a coma following a roughhousing incident, finds himself in a parallel universe within his own subconscious. A universe populated entirely by children.
“What we wanted to do was find a show where it was always about kids without having any adults in it.” explains North Vancouver-based Paul Vitols who created the show with writing partner Warren Easton. “One of the things we liked was Peanuts by (Charles) Schultz. (It) had just the kids and you never saw an adult in it ever. We liked that idea, but we weren’t sure how to bring that about and later on we came up with the coma idea.”
“We wanted to make something a bit more edgy and dramatic, of course.” notes co-creator Easton. “We were interested in series television and its potential to tell a story in a more developed, drawn out way, but still maintaining overarching plot.”
What Vitols and Easton would end up creating was a world (dubbed the “Downworld” in the series bible) completely devoid of adults where kids have organized into exclusive “clubs” (library, sports, tech, you get the idea) and the big kids have consolidated power in a central district. It is there that the all-powerful Brad rules from “The Tower” with an iron fist. Noticing a resemblance to his father Brad Ziegler who presumably drowned after a boating accident years ago and retaining only hazy memories prior to his Downworld arrival, Jay sets out on a quest to the tower and is joined by bookworm Alpha and tough-guy Flash who bear more than a passing resemblance to Jay’s friends Donna and Keith back home.
Due to his knowledge of “grown-ups” which the kids in Downworld have never heard of, Jay sticks out like a sore thumb in this subconscious upside-down universe. With this knowledge comes wisdom which with the help of Flash and Alpha, he uses to his advantage to overcome obstacles and leave people and places better than he found them.
Meanwhile in the real world (or “Upworld as the series scripts dictate), Jay’s mother Val is left to try to guide Jay out of his coma with help from specialist Dr. Oswald at Driftwood Treatment Centre. Their attempts to wake him often have trickle-down effects on events in Jay’s subconscious. The closer he gets to his goal in Downworld, the more likely he is to wake in Upworld. But like many before it, this odyssey is hardly a straight line, both on and off screen.
After falling into a coma, Jay descends into Downworld.
To bridge the gap between script and screen, the pair tapped into Vancouver-based producer Michael Chechik who had mostly specialized in documentary projects through his Omnifilm Productions outfit. Having already collaborated with the duo on an episode of the CBC anthology series Family Pictures, Chechik was eager to work with them again. And with the 1989 Banff Film & Television festival just around the corner, the timing was ripe.
“One of the strengths of (the show) was that there was nothing written, it was a verbal pitch.” Vitols recalls. “When Michael pitched it to Angela Bruce, then head of children’s programming at CBC, it just so happened she herself had been in a coma at one point in her life. She was saying ‘Oh wow, I love this idea. Get me something on my desk back in Toronto.”
Following positive word of mouth around the festival, the series was put into development by CBC in July 1989. Development would drag on for over a year until a pilot was finally approved for production in the spring of 1991. As Vitols and Easton laboured to construct a winning pilot episode, they had to adapt to the realities of network notes.
“At first we were thinking of doing the Downworld in black and white and the network said, ‘forget it, it’s gotta be in colour’.” says Vitols. “Our original vision was a world depopulated of adults, but a world that resembles our world. We’re just stripping the adults out so it was almost a little bit more post-apocalyptic. That was our vision and I think people were not totally comfortable with that.”
“The guy who came in to run it from CBC, David Pears was an executive in Vancouver.” Vitols continues. “His thing, he called it “the flaw”, a lot of it was all about trying to develop the Upworld side of the story.”
“He believed that the series required some kind of natural realism.” adds Easton. “A family drama, a real life in which to counterpose all the goings on of the Downworld and the imaginary or unconscious events.”
“We never were very happy with that,” Vitols admits. “but we played along, we had no choice. One of the great things about the show on the whole was that they really let us have our (way) with the Downworld, the world of the coma.”
With the script coming together, casting for the pilot fell to veteran Vancouver casting director Sid Kozak. Future anime voice actor Tony Sampson impressed the creators in an early audition and handily landed the dual roles of Flash and Keith. Ashleigh Aston Moore (credited onscreen as Ashley Rogers) read perfect on camera and scored the show’s other duo of Alpha and Donna. The adult cast was filled out by Janet Hodgkinson as Val and Dwight Koss as Dr. Oswald.
As the lead character, casting Jay turned out to be more of a challenge. While Kozak had been able to cast the remainder of the roster more or less locally in Vancouver, it was Toronto where they ultimately found their Jay in 10 year-old Illya Woloshyn.
The Odyssey’s power trio L-R: Alpha (Ashley Rogers), Jay (Illya Woloshyn), and Flash (Tony Sampson).
With the script and cast in place, production on the pilot commenced in late summer of 1991 with Chilean director Jorge Montesi who had built a reputation for himself on episodes of Night Heat and Captain Power. “He was not a kids director or anything.” says Vitols. “He brought a lot of edge to the show that way.” But even with filming in North Vancouver proceeding, the network still had concerns about the script, particularly “Scene 49”.
“In Scene 49, we have a kind of a transition moment after he is dumped into the swimming pool by the gang members he’s come across and it’s in that scene where we have kind of an intermediary experience for Jay.” explains Easton. “He encounters his mother who speaks to him about coming home. He says cannot come back just yet. There’s unfinished business. That was neither a figment of the unconscious world or of the Upworld. It was an in-between state, and that was a scene I was particularly pleased with. There was quite a large fight to maintain that scene. I always thought it was worth fighting for.”
The controversial “Scene 49”.
Undeterred, Montesi shot the scene regardless and when the pilot was screened for CBC executives in Toronto, no changes were requested and the scene remained intact.
With the pilot episode completed, it wasn’t until December that CBC commissioned the remaining first season scripts to be written. And when the pilot aired on March 9, 1992, they were finally green lit for production. However there was some contention over the show’s working title, The Jellybean Odyssey.
“The Jellybean Odyssey came in because Warren and I felt that “The Odyssey” was just a little bit too generic.” notes Vitols. “So we thought, ‘Oh well let’s have something kid in front.’ and Jellybean Odyssey seemed to have the right feel. But I think they were feeling that the seriousness and even the edginess of the show worked against the ‘Jellybean’ kind of feel and they wanted something more hard-hitting. Michael Chechik offered a prize of some kind like dinner out for anybody who could come up with a new title idea. But nobody did come up with anything so eventually he just pulled out jellybean and The Odyssey it was.”
With it’s new title now in place, the first season proper went to camera in the summer of 1992. Puberty had already left its mark on the main cast since the previous year’s pilot and other changes were afoot to cement the show’s look and tone. One major shift was the rendering of the Downworld sequences almost exclusively in dutch angles. An innovation brought on by Director of Photography Robert McLachlan.
“It was my idea to shoot everything in the Downworld with super wide angle lenses and Dutch angles as a means of immediately knowing what world we were in.” says McLachlan. “My idea was also to always to have the Upworld be rather drab and the Downworld super vibrant so I accentuated the art direction with the lighting and film stocks we employed.”
Downworld at a Dutch angle.
Designing the production would largely fall to Graeme Murray who would later find recognition on X-Files. He would be aided immensely by costume designer Trish Keating whose imaginative costumes for this strange world’s citizens managed to strike the right balance between odd and familiar.
“They wanted to appeal to kids and their fantasy world.” says Keating, noting demands from CBC. “When we talked about the concept of each episode, there was always a big meeting to talk about how the Director and Production Designer saw it. For instance the librarian girls, they wanted them to look kind of collegiate. The little woods guys, (the director) wanted them to look scavenger-ish. We always had to come up with them in 6 days or something. There weren’t many days and we always had a budget. It was a lot of work.”
Finding suitable locations for this off-centre universe was also a task and a half, but the show’s crew was more than up to the challenge. “Location Manager Rino Pace was great at suggesting creative spaces.” remembers production manager Lynne Bespflug. “To shoot those sequences we needed a lot of control of the location. That is expensive, so we were somewhat limited where we could go.”
A decidedly overgrown Vancouver Art Gallery as Downworld’s Hall of Justice.
The hard work payed off as places like Steveston’s Britannia Heritage Shipyard became a gypsy hideout, Downtown Vancouver’s Art Gallery was transformed into a hall of justice and even a hidden Gastown jewel was utilized. “I do remember shooting in the tunnels under the old post office that I think lead to Gastown.” Bespflug continues. “Not too long after that, those tunnels were filled with concrete but they were very cool. We would find locations and the writers wrote to those locations.”
Filling these locations were a cast of colourful supporting characters who would both aid and foil Jay in his quest to reach the tower. Hours after landing in Downworld, he runs afoul of Brad’s enforcers, the “monitors”. These Gestapo-esque goons were usually led by Finger, a sly and menacing officer played by Mark Hildreth.
“Finger developed was basically an exploration of what it’s like for a good little kid to deal with bullying which is a very real thing.” says Hildreth. “I think the analogy was ahead of its time.”
Jay faced a further obstacle in neo-enchantress Medea. Owing more than a passing debt to Jason & the Argonauts (which Vitols cites as a key inspiration for the series) and played with sass by Andrea Nemeth, Medea deduces that Jay fits a prophecy of a “wrecker” who will eventually destroy Downworld. Using every tool at her disposal, both magical and political to prevent Jay from reaching the Tower, Medea would continue to be a thorn in Jay and company’s side for many episodes to come.
Medea (Andrea Nemeth) stands between Jay and access to the Tower.
But the road to the Tower wasn’t completely paved with enemies. The tenth episode of season one, In the Dark, would introduce one of the more enlightened minds of Downworld: inquisitive scientist Fractal. Portrayed with gusto by Jeremy Radick, Fractal is one of the few Downworld denizens to be truly interested in theories around grown-ups and even other worlds. Despite an apparent loyalty to the tower, Fractal would often find himself aiding Jay on his quest in the name of scientific inquiry.
“I just saw him as Robert Oppenheimer.” says Radick. “I did some research on him and the other Manhattan Project scientists and decided Fractal was someone who got easily swept up in the idea of science for science’s sake. Ethically speaking, he just didn’t really consider the consequences while in the act of discovery. Afterwards, he felt tremendous guilt, but when inventing he just got lost. Like a lot of people in these situations, he was very good at rationalizing his actions.”
Fractal (Jeremy Radick) explains one of his Downworld theories.
Among a cast of characters that often stuck to one outfit for most of the series, Fractal’s wardrobe offered a unique opportunity for the costume department. Despite the base look of lab coat and coke-bottle glasses, the character still offered chances for aesthetic experimentation.
“The wardrobe department told me they had only one recurring character to vent all their pent up creativity on, and that was me!” recalls Radick. “This explains Fractal’s taste in frilly shirts, crazy vests, pith helmets, jodhpurs, and even the occasional gold jewelry. It was always fun.”
The first season is notable from how many of its supporting child players would ultimately go onto bigger stardom. New Amsterdam‘s Tyler Labine is virtually unrecognizable as workaholic monk Eagle whose feud with with an old friend nearly prevents Jay from passing a checkpoint on the way to the Tower. Firefly‘s Jewel Staite drops in as frustrated farmer Labelia who has to contend with the archeological antics of fellow west coast acting alumnus Final Destination‘s Devon Sawa as Yudo. “It was virtually his first job and he still credits me with getting him into this crazy business.” muses first season director Brad Turner who himself would go onto huge success with shows like 24 and Hawaii 5-0.
Devon Sawa as amateur archeologist Yudo, who finds evidence that adults once lived in Downworld.
This colourful menagerie of people and places would ultimately lead to that first season’s goal: The Tower. West coast viewers might recognize it as a more romanticized version of Vancouver’s Maritime Building. It was here that our heroes would learn that Brad had been deposed by his trusted advisor Macro, portrayed by arguably the brightest star to burst forth from the show’s wake: Ryan Reynolds.
Our heroes approach a familiar Vancouver landmark.
“Ryan was hilarious when he was on there.” Tony Sampson fondly recalls. “He’d just sit there and tell jokes the whole time. When you meet someone and know they’re gonna do good. You could always tell he was gonna make it, pretty funny.”
“I remember first seeing the rushes and I saw Ryan Reynolds.” adds Chechik. “Immediately he jumped off the screen, he was that character. I was so happy to see a terrific actor like that. I’m not surprised that he had a very successful career.”
“I can tell you in all honesty that Ryan,was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life and still is.” chimes in Mark Hildreth. “Here’s a 16 year-old cracking the whole set up. He had that same personality and that same sense of humour ever since he was a kid, so it comes naturally to him.”
The Odyssey’s Tower Trio L-R: Finger (Mark Hildreth), Macro (Ryan Reynolds) and Medea (Andrea Nemeth).
True to his talent, Reynolds brought just the right balance of smugness and insecurity the role required. Macro capably foils Jay’s goal by deposing Brad and even attempting to spin Jay into being the new public face of the tower due to his folk hero status among the masses. Jay rejects Macro’s offer and eventually tracks down Brad, but is disappointed by what he finds.
Far from being the father figure that Jay envisioned him to be, Brad is little more than an idealized image of Brad Ziegler at a young age. He has knowledge of “parents and family” and claims to have visited the Upworld via a “vest of power” which is in fact a life jacket. Narrowly evading Macro and the monitors, Jay himself tries the vest and nearly makes contact with the Upworld only to be confronted with an image of Dr. Oswald instead of his father.
Deciding this isn’t the way home, Jay and company instead direct their sights on a distant lighthouse where Brad suspects the vest came from. With Brad electing to stay behind and attempt to re-take the tower, Jay and friends set off toward the lighthouse.
With all thirteen episodes completed, and elevated by composer Michael Conway Baker’s pulsing musical score, The Odyssey‘s first season premiered on CBC on Monday, November 9, 1992 where it did “very well on Monday nights right before Northwood.” according to Michael Chechik. With a winning mix of adventure, fantasy, and thought-provoking themes, the show scored with audiences and convinced even the skeptical CBC to proceed with a second season.
Jay and friends leave for the lighthouse and ultimately the second season.
“Back then, I don’t know that everybody really knew how outside-the-box the whole show was.” says Mark Hildreth. “ Even from the start, it was a really unusual premise. The whole fantasy element (was) unique and unlike anything that was on Canadian television.”
“The scripts were funny and I thought they were smart and had an edge to them and lots going on beneath the surface.” adds Jeremy Radick. “Even at 15, we actors cared about that!”
“When I watch that first season now, I was amazed at how coherent it was.” says Vitols, “You know, wow, this looks like these guys kind of knew what they were doing, where it was going. But honestly the way it was done, it did not in any way foster planning or a clear idea. Warren and I only ever had the position of contract writers. “We were supposed to be the story editors on the show, but this was vetoed by the network ’cause they had no idea who we were.”
“We were missing in that first season that vital role of having the strong, creative showrunner.” says Chechik. “The creative side was all on the shoulders of Paul and Warren. These were complicated stories that required a lot of thinking. CBC wanted a more typical way of having a show run with a creative showrunner. Somebody in charge, somebody more experienced.”
It was this schism between creators and network that despite the first season’s solid numbers, would ultimately lead to a massive shake-up in the story department the following year. The Odyssey would continue, but along a vastly different path.
NEXT WEEK: The Odyssey forges a new path in Season Two.