This month, the Obscure Sci-Fi Primer returns to take on the little known series Odyssey 5. It’s kind of a generically vague sci-fi title, something that sounds like it’s referring to some space outpost (or maybe it just reminds me of Babylon 5). The truth of the series is actually quite different, keeping a fairly grounded approach to its time travel-based subject matter. Odyssey 5 first premiered on Showtime in 2002, the same channel that hosted our earlier subject Total Recall 2070. The show was created by Manny Coto, who went on to run the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise, right when it started to get good. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this forgotten series and decide if it’s worth digging into.
The series starts out with 6 astronauts aboard the space shuttle Odyssey, orbiting the Earth. Then the Earth is enveloped in fire and implodes, leaving the crew aboard the Odyssey as the last few humans alive. Or most of them, anyway, as one of the astronauts is killed in the turbulence afterwards and another suffers a concussion that will leave her to soon follow. Of course, the space shuttle isn’t exactly designed for deep space, long duration missions anyway, so the crew themselves basically have just a few days left to enjoy being the last humans before they’re all dead. But lucky for them, a weird being called the Seeker comes along. He’s seen this before, but never encountered survivors. He offers them a second chance, and with time ticking, they take it. So, having been sent back in time by a hyperdimensional snowflake without any instructions, the five surviving crewmembers have just 5 years to stop it all from happening again.
Odyssey 5 follows Chuck Taggart, the hardened mission commander played by Peter Weller (most famously of Robocop, but recently seen in Star Trek Into Darkness). Also on the mission is Chuck’s son, Neil, the youngest astronaut who has quite a bit of friction with his father initially. Resident scientist Kurt Mendel is the immature straw atheist who initially takes it as 5 years to engage in consequence-free debauchery before the end. Angela Perry, another astronaut, is the daughter of a senator and finds herself dealing with a situation she barely had any awareness of due to the concussion. Lastly, there’s Sarah Forbes, a reporter who was sent on the mission and constantly struggles with the urge to avert the many disasters she’d reported on over the last 5 years. The characters as a whole are actually pretty well developed and believable, although it takes a while to build them up to that point; Kurt in particular starts off as highly annoying before becoming more likeable.
- What with this being a time travel show that’s effectively landed them in the present (or what was the present at the time the show was made), it could very easily have devolved into a soap opera with little more than the barest sci-fi trappings. Instead, Odyssey 5 manages to address the personal challenges of being sent back in time while keeping its sights firmly set on the story arc of saving the Earth. Every episode is involved in advancing that arc, although not every character is involved in it each week. It strikes a good balance between the two needs.
- Odyssey 5 also does a good job ensuring the protagonists’ actions have repercussions. People get fed up with the characters acting like they know the future. Sending other people off to do things they didn’t do the first time may get them killed. And given that practically none of them knew each other 5 years ago, their sudden and radical shift in routine draws a lot of negative attention (from friends and enemies alike). All this is on top of the suspicious behavior that results from attempting to change the future, which gets them in trouble with law enforcement. The kind of things that would ordinarily end up forgotten at the episode’s end on most shows will come back to bite them–HARD.
- The diverse predicaments that the characters end up in by being sent back leads to a number of interesting circumstances. Neil, being so young at the time of the incident, is thrust back into high school with the experience and knowledge of a 22-year-old astronaut. While having both Neil and Chuck in the same family seems like it’d make it easier to convince people of the truth, it actually splits the family in half. Sarah’s sent back to her first marriage, and to her still-living child, while having to work with the man who she’d been dating at the time of the Earth’s destruction. Angela, having missed out due to the concussion, wakes up to find herself on a spacewalk with no clue about the Seeker, and her momentary freakout ends up costing her big on her career. Kurt swings between indulging in vices as if nothing matters and desperately trying to save the world because he’s afraid not to. All of it makes for great TV drama, and the actors do a good job bringing it to life.
- Without divulging too many spoilers, the threat that they face is powerful and fascinating, if still a bit unclear in terms of its origins and goals at the series’ conclusion. Their capabilities are pretty extreme and they’re proven to be a top-tier threat compared to our heroes. There’s also a bit of complexity to the situation as to whether or not they’re actually the bad guys. On the other hand, it can also seem a bit cheesy when the ominous nature fails to come across.
- As usual for these shows, it ended on a cliffhanger. Unlike a lot of them, like last month’s VR.5, there’s absolutely no resolution. Period. Because your enjoyment of this show is so hinged on being invested in the characters, that’s particularly problematic. If the prospect of leaving characters you care about mid-story is a difficult one for you, then you may as well pass on this one now.
- Since Odyssey 5 is set in the present, it had to keep a pretty good grasp on its science and making things seem reasonable, for the most part. And while there are some (fairly major) exceptions, the main point where it fails in its plausibility is its depiction of the Internet. One episode hinges on a portal to cyberspace through which a being can physically emerge into our world, which is just… no. There are other instances of Internet misunderstandings that stand out more from today’s perspective, but that’s by far the worst.
- There’s a not-insignificant amount of nudity in the show. I didn’t count the episodes or anything, but I’d say about a third of them, particularly those near the beginning, feature it. As we saw with TR2070, this is typical for something on Showtime, and they do at least manage to make it somewhat relevant by incorporating most scenes into Kurt’s arc of pleasure-seeking nihilism. Still, it frequently feels like it’s more about viewer titillation than necessity or believability. Tolerance for gratuitous nudity is something that’s going to vary from person to person, and since it might turn some people off the show, I feel like I need to mention it here.
A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. I watched the show on Youtube here, and that’s the only place you’re going to be able to stream it. DVDs, as usual, remain an option.
Well, does Odyssey 5 sound like a show you’d like to watch? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like for me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. In the mean time, feel free to check out some of the previous entries in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer. To be notified of the next entry, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here.