Saturday, January 17, 2015

THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE (2000)

TRIBUTE TO THE FATHER OF STEAM PUNK, ... BEFORE THERE WAS SUCH A THING



VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS
WORTH SEEKING OUT

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     Usually by the time a movement (literary, artistic, political, what have you) has been christened with an official title, that movement has already run it's course, and all you get from that point on are pale and stale impersonator / wannabees "cashing in" on the hard-fought-for innovations of said movement's originators. Some might say it was such for "Steampunk", that "mash up" (long before THAT phrase was coined) literary / filmic / offshoot of William Gibson-esque "Cyberpunk" - wherein high technology (flying machines and weaponry, submersibles, super computers, etc.) are used in an alternate reality timescape (say circa the 1880s American West, Victorian England or post apocalyptic future), but powered by said era's romantically archaic means, ... e.g., steam, coal, compressed air pressure, whatever.

     And while the works of Philip Pullman (NORTHERN LIGHTS - aka "THE GOLDEN COMPASS") and Stephen Hunt (referred to as "Charles Dickens meets BLADE RUNNER") still make bestseller lists, ... and even corporations such as Prada, Versace, and Dior have dabbled in "Steampunk"-ish fashionista lines on occasion, the 1990s is largely considered by many to have been the movement's "Golden Era". That is unless your name is Jules Verne.

     Cited with H.G. Welles and Hugo Gernsback (after whom literature's "Hugo Awards" are named) as one of the three founding "Fathers Of Science Fiction", Jules Verne (1828 - 1905) arguably stands alone as the creator of the "Steampunk" genre, ... once again long before it occurred to anyone to call it such. Still lauded as one of literature's most scientifically "prophetic" authors (his pen would foresee the airship, submarine, space travel and more long before their real world realizations) he was also given to political commentary in the midst of such whallopingly hair raising classic adventures as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, TWELVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, MASTER OF THE WORLD and many more.


     That Verne "triple threat" of sci fi, adventure and politics would briefly coaleasce into one of the most intriguing (and intriguingly realized) television series at the beginning of the (then new) 21st century - the very short lived THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE. The brainchild of writer Gavin Scott (THE MIST OF AVALON, SMALL SOLDIERS), it's first (and as it turned out ONLY) season of 22 episodes was cleverly pre-sold for syndicated airing in primarily Canada and the U.S. But as it was a truly independently financed venture, it would never recoup it's hefty production costs to the point of allowing the filming of another season let alone any kind of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming or other home video release - for which many fans are still, FIREFLY-like, clamoring and chomping at the bit.

     Assuming he'd enter the successful law profession of his father, the family of young Jules Gabriel Verne was shocked when, after his first years of study in Paris, he detoured into the artistic world of the "literary salons", where he'd became good friends (and a writing collaborator) with Alexander Dumas fils, the son of THE THREE MUSKETEERS / THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK author Alexandre Dumas. Together they'd debut a play at Paris' Opéra-National Théâtre Historique, and this would be Verne's entre into a full time writing career; the bulk of his most popular works then falling under the thematically encompassing umbrella of the "VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES" (the "Extraordinary Voyages") - a sequence of fifty-four novels published between 1863 and 1905.


      A life long research, science and technology (hey, proudly call Verne what he was) Victorian era "geek" (long before THAT phrase was coined) the dual intent of the VOYAGES was (in the words of Verne's editor / publisher) "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format, the history of the universe." This Verne would do with some of the most famous, as well as (mentioned earlier) "prophetic" and popular stories in the history of published literature - he today holding the title of the "2nd Most Translated Author Of All Time", sandwiched between #1 William Shakespeare and #3 Agatha Christie - two more of our personal GullCottage faves by the way.


     Interestingly, with the possible exception of 20th Century Fox's 1959 big screen rendition of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, while making the transition to film - in classics such as Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), Ray Harryhausen's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), American International's MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961), and even to a degree, in the 1956 David Niven adventure / comedy AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, Verne's political subtext - very often anti-war / anti-aristocracy, would remain intact. It was this "political element" which gave SECRET ADVENTURES series creator Gavin Scott his first spark of inspiration. In the series' eventual promotional packet he'd recount:

     “I first came up with the idea of putting Jules Verne at the center of his own adventures when I discovered that he had originally written 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA because he was furious at the Russian invasion of Poland. Suddenly it came to me… what if there had been more reality behind the Jules Verne fantasies than we even knew? And what if I wrote a series of stories which revealed the true adventures behind 20,000 LEAGUES, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, then added to these stories some of Verne’s actual contemporaries – noted figures as diverse as Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, and Frank and Jesse James!

Showdown with the robotic gunslinger "Steely Joe"

     Scott would elaborate on that initial thematic inspirational tidbit by recollecting how in real life Verne's publisher convinced the author as to the need to "cloak" the real-world personalities of his stories behind the mask of a fictitious character so as to a) not risk foreign sales, and b) avoid international incidents between nations by making certain personages either villainous or heroic. In other words, Verne would "change the names to protect the innocent, ... and the not-so-innocent". Using this as a launch pad, there would be, in Scott's fertile imagination, the fictitious "sanitized" version of a story - which Verne would give to the world, and the secret X-FILES version of "what really happened"; this only now coming before the public in the form of the prospective new series. As every writer / artist knows however, it's far easier to imagine a clever product / series / film than it is to execute one.

     In Scott's "secret files" version of Verne's adventures, the titular author (in the series portrayed by DREAM ON's Chris Demetral) would remain a young up-and-coming writer in Paris. But here he would be plucked from a pre-fame nothing existence, and taken under the tutelage / protection of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS' globe-trotting Phileas Fogg (DYNASTY and ROBIN OF SHERWOOD's Michael Praed), here gone from clubland's adventurer to a "flawed James Bond"-like former British Intel operative. Reimagined by Scott, Fogg's valet / manservant Passepartout (Canadian mime / comedian Michel Courtemanche) would become a "Q"-like gadget master / inventor; our team's base-of-operations dirigible the "Aurora" being his greatest accomplishment. And the adventurers would be accompanied by the ever resourceful Rebecca Fogg, Phileas adopted cousin, and the first female agent of England's Secret Service (played by actor, dancer, swimmer and fencing master Francesca Hunt).

"Steely Joe"'s papa: Illustrator / Concept Designer Meinert Hansen

     A LITERAL, as well as literary, "visionary", in the series young Verne is unaware that he is in possession of a mental gift which allows him to psychologically cross time and actually see into the future; hence the numerous prophetic technological renderings in his stories. Wanting to possess Verne and his gift, which can bestow upon them an arsenal of future tech / world-conquering weaponry, is the League Of Darkness, lead by Count Gregory (WILLOW's Rick Overton), an international organization of terroristic aristocrats who believe the way to keep the "common masses" in check is to insure volatile world conditions (civil war, revolution, etc.) wherein said masses will beg for the care and leadership of the privileged elite.

     Scott's concept having much interest, the gathering of actual funds to realize the series was considerably more difficult to achieve. After spending years independantly obtaining backers in the U.S., England, Germany and Canada - where tax incentive credits would lead the production team to convert a defunct rail station into a period-dressed 100,000 square ft. soundstage, production began on the 22 episode first season of THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE ... before the series even had a broadcast deal / schedule in place!


     The first one hour series to be filmed entirely using the (then) new HDTV recording system, SECRET ADVENTURES suffered visually in that, eventually picked up by CBC / Space in Canada, and the SciFi Channel (later SyFy) in the U.S., at the time neither network was broadcasting in HDTV. Therefore the episodes were downconverted onto film, and as such much of the detail of it's exquisitely realized costumes, production design and visual FX, took on a distractingly dark and "muddled" quality when first aired on standard television.

     This didn't deter a wave of fans (us included) who immediately latched onto the series' considerable wit, style and visual and intellectual creativity. With impressive guest stars such as SHOGUN and THE LORD OF THE RINGS' John Rhys Davies as Alexandre Dumas, SUPERMAN's Margot Kidder, DALLAS and THE MAN FROM ATLANTIS' Patrick Duffy, along with Michael Moriarity, Mako, David Warner and more, THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE hopped the globe from Victorian era European adventures ("Queen Victoria And The Giant Mole", "The Cardinal's Design" - featuring a pre DA VINCI CODE-like mystery, "Rockets Of The Dead" - with Carpathian arms dealer Count Rimini actually a vampire seeking to equip his blood sucking army with jet packs for world conquest) to a MYSTERIOUS ISLAND / ROBUR THE CONQUEROR-inspired multi-episode arc set in the midst of the American Civil War - the standout installment here being "The Ballad Of Steely Joe" wherein our heroes meet Frank & Jesse James, Samuel Clemens - aka "Mark Twain", and a robotic quick draw gunslinging town "Sheriff").


     At $2 million per episode (approx. $40 million for the first season), THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE had too many creditors of a multi-national composition, and not enough broadcast outlets at the time (in addition to CDC / Space Canada and SciFi, it was carried by a few other syndicated outlets worldwide) to recoup it's substantial investment. As any future distributor wishing to revive or release the series on DVD, Blu-ray or other platform (streaming, etc.) would first be required to take on then pay off any contractual and other obligations, the show today is in legal limbo, and exists only in homemade VHS copies recorded by fans during the series' initial TV run.


     This is how we've been enjoying THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE for the last near 15 years, although the common sense need for preservation has since lead us to transfer all 22 episodes to DVD-R and digital realms. Others have also done so; and some of those efforts can today be viewed via condensed versions of selected episodes on YouTube, and even via a bootleg European import DVD of the complete First Season, ... although, as with other "independent" DVD releases we've discussed in Vaulted Treasures, we can neither vouch for said discs' quality or ability to play uniformly on all machines.

     Until a magical (or high tech) key unlocks the financial destiny of THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE, the series' promotional byline "Inventing the future; Battling to save it", has in recent years become much more than a cleverly realized tag. It, like the works of Verne himself, has become ... there's that word again, "prophetic".

  
                                                                                                                             CEJ

Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl   

Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved.

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