This drama series ran for just eight episodes during the 1984-1985 season on CBS and was soon cancelled due to low ratings. Nevertheless, it developed a small but passionate fan base intrigued by the concept of an everyday family marooned on a parallel Earth where life is similar but different in every way. CBS insisted on a family friendly show and during its short run Otherworld produced episodes resembling Beauty and the Beast, Footloose and Mad Max.
CBS had several mid-season replacements waiting in the wings as the 1984-1985 season got underway, including sitcoms The Lucie Arnaz Show, House Detective and Crazy Like a Fox plus a fantasy drama called Otherworld . Otherworld and House Detective were both officially picked up and given six episode orders . Crazy Like a Fox, however, was the first CBS mid-season replacement to go on the air, premiering on Sunday, December 30th.
Earlier that month, on December 7th, Stacy Keach was sentenced in London to nine months in prison for smuggling cocaine. He starred in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer on CBS. It ran from 9-10PM on Saturdays. Although 22 episodes had been ordered for the 1984-1985 season, just 14 had been completed. The network announced on December 19th that Airwolf would be shifted from 8PM to 9PM and a new drama series called Otherworld would fill the 8-9PM time slot .
Otherworld, according to CBS, would follow the adventures of the Sterling family who suddenly find themselves “marooned in a strange ‘other world,’ a parallel universe just a few degrees off from our reality. The family becomes fugitives from the authorities in this strange universe and sets out in a quest for Capital, where Masters reside whom they hope will return them to their own world” . The last episode of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer for the season was broadcast on January 12th, 1985 (it would return in September of 1986). The following week, CBS aired a movie and on January 26th Otherworld premiered.
(House Detective, renamed Detective in the House, premiered on March 15th, 1985; The Lucie Arnaz Show on April 2nd.)
Although the network only initially ordered six one-hour episodes, it had a total of eight to work with. The two-hour pilot was split into two episodes, with the first half acting as the actual pilot and the second half just another episode to be aired at a later date. Otherworld‘s 8-9PM competition consisted of Diff’rent Strokes and Double Trouble on NBC and action T.J. Hooker on ABC. The premiere ranked 47th for the week, out of 65 programs .
Reviews of the series were mostly lukewarm, with some critics admitting that the premise had promise while doubting it would catch on due to the simple fact that it was science fiction. One positive review came from Fred Rothenberg of The Associated Press, who wrote that while “science fiction is a very iffy proposition on the small screen […] this fantasy-adventure series has some nice parody and an interesting twist that allows it to rise above straight hardware shows” .
The Chicago Tribune‘s Kenneth R. Clark felt the show had a chance at catching on with viewers despite a “rather hokey opening premise,” pointing out that “the scenario, of course, has been done many times in many guises, but like the Swiss family Robinson, the American family Sterling, is spunky and appealing, and if their flight across the desert of a parallel universe keeps the adrenalin pounding for the rest of the season, they yet may find safe haven among the A.C. Nielsen Co. ratings” .
Terrence O’Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle, on the other hand, wrote that the lack of concrete details in the pilot left viewers puzzled rather than with a sense of mystery, with clothes mysteriously drying and wallets being left behind  UPI’s Joan Hanauer compared the series to “a simplified ‘1984’ and a sinister ‘Wizard of Oz'” and, like others, joked that the family would have only “as many adventures as ‘Otherworld’s’ standing in the Nielsens will allow” .
Following the already low-rated premiere, Otherworld soon sank to the bottom of the Nielsen charts. The February 16th episode ranked 63rd out of 67 programs while the March 2nd episode tied for 61st out of 65 programs [10, 11]. CBS cancelled Otherworld during the second week of March, replacing it with E/R and Charles in Charge, both shifted from Wednesdays .
The eighth and final episode, broadcast on March 16th, ranked dead last in the Nielsens, 68th out of 68 programs . For the season as a whole (ignoring programs that ran less than six episodes), Otherworld ranked 70th out of 75 programs with a 10.4 Nielsen rating, above only Silver Spoon, Glitter, Berrenger’s, Hot Pursuit and People Do the Craziest Things .
The Sterling family hailed from California. Sam Groom and Gretchen Corbett starred as parents Hal and June Sterling. The three Sterling children — Trace, Gina and Smith — were played by Tony O’Dell, Jonna Lee and Chris Hebert, respectively (Brandon Crane played Smith in the two-hour pilot; because it was split into two hour-long episodes, Crane appeared in the first and fifth episodes, respectively). At the beginning of the first episode the family is in Egypt where Hal is finishing up a job. Trace is ready to get back to California where he can breathe smog, watch MTV and listen to rock ‘n’ roll. But first they have to visit the Great Pyramid.
Once inside, their tour guide gets greedy and asks for additional money. When Hal refuses, the tour guide disappears with his torch, leaving the family in the dark. Gina has a lighter, which helps a little, but before they can even get their bearings the entire pyramid begins shaking. A vortex appears out of nowhere and the Sterlings are swallowed up into it. They’re deposited in a lake and when they swim to the surface they find the light of two unfamiliar moons shining towards them. A strange beam of light flashes as they swim to shore.
How were they transported to this other world? An alignment of six planets that hadn’t taken place in 10,000 years had something to do with it, apparently, nut the Sterlings don’t have much time to worry about how they came to be wherever they are, because they soon meet Commander Kroll (played by Jonathan Banks). According to The Washington Post‘s John Carmody, likely working from CBS press material, Kroll is Zone Commander of the Imperial Forces of Imar’s 13th Phantom Security Division .
Kroll accosts the family when they can’t show the proper identity papers but they manage to escape during a scuffle along with Kroll’s access crystal, which lets them open any door they come across. The Sterlings soon learn that Thel (the planet they’re on) is made up of provinces, each surrounded by a “forbidden zone” that is patrolled by Zone Troopers. Each of these provinces has its own customs and laws but all are ruled by the capital, called Imar.
The Sterlings aren’t the first strangers to find themselves on Thel. Legend has it that people from other worlds have occasionally popped up. Following stone monuments, they had made their way to Imar in the hopes of finding a way home. So, the Sterlings decide to do the same thing, traveling from province to province towards Imar and the promise of Earth. Each episode saw the family in a new province. In one episode, for example, they take up residence in a province where men are subjugated by women. In another, they live for a time in a province where rock and roll music — after being introduced by Trace and Gina — is considered rebellious.
During the course of their travels the Sterlings learn more about the connection between Thel and Earth. A man shows Hal and June a dollar bill that belonged to his grandfather. He tells them that his grandfather came to Thel from another world through a dimensional passageway that may have been built or controlled by Zone Troopers. It was sealed by a great pyramid to keep people from coming through. In another episode, Gina is mistaken for the great Princess Metra, who was actually a woman from Earth named Kelly Bradford.
Kelly came from the United States in 1964, only two decades before the Sterlings, but it has been two centuries on Thel. She left a message for any other people from Earth, telling them that the secret to the way back home lies somewhere in Imar.
Otherworld was cancelled before the Sterlings found Imar or a way to return to Earth. The series was created by Roderick Taylor, who came up with the concept after reading a book about parallel universes. “This was a way of having continuing characters and still having the anthological advantage of going into a whole different environment and dealing with a whole different big moral issue every week. It’s like ‘Star Trek': They could go from planet to planet; we can go from province to province. Anything they can do we can do” .
For the network, however, there was quite a bit Otherworld couldn’t do. The network turned down 12 of the initial 13 story ideas he pitched because they were either too dark or not family friendly . CBS executives were “much more interested in exploiting the family action-adventure aspect of the show” while Taylor was “more interested in putting a typical American family into really extraordinary circumstances and just giving that an incredible twist. And I want it to be intense. I want them to confront their worst fears and fight for their lives” .
Some of these themes were covered by the series but viewers simply weren’t interested. Was CBS to blame for forcing Taylor to tone down the series? Or, as critic Terrence O’Flaherty suggested, was Otherworld filled with too many plot holes? The series was syndicated on cable by both USA Network and SCI FI (now Syfy) Channel and to this day has its fans. Rumors of an additional five episodes never aired in the United States, however, are simply untrue. There were just eight: the two-hour pilot split into two one-hour episodes plus six additional one-hour episodes. One other episode, titled “Seeing Double,” was scripted, but it was turned down by CBS.
Taylor wrote the episode with his son, Bruce, and it saw the Sterlings pitted against evil duplicates. Said Taylor, “the replicants have to destroy the paradigm that they’ve been modeled after and cannibalize its psychic energy, but they don’t do it simply by killing them. They do it by destroying the person from within, confronting them with their worst fears” . Had “Seeing Double” or any of the other ideas turned down by CBS been produced, would Otherworld have survived? It’s impossible to say.
2 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 13 Dec. 1984: C17.
3 “CBS Replaced ‘Mike Hammer’ with ‘Otherworld,’ a Sci-Fi Series.” Associated Press. 19 Dec. 1984: AM Cycle.
4 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 20 Dec. 1984: B14.
5 Rothenberg, Fred. “CBS Wins Prime-Time Ratings in Closest 3-Way Competition in 7 Years.” Associated Press. 30 Jan. 1985: PM Cycle.
6 Rothenberg, Fred. “NBC’s ‘Sara’ Tonight; CBS’ ‘Otherworld’ Saturday.” Associated Press. 23 Jan. 1985: PM Cycle.
7 Clark, Kenneth R. “‘Otherworld’ a Familiar, But Good, Shot at Series.” Chicago Tribune. 26 Jan. 1985: 13.
8 O’Flaherty, Terrence. “Never Be Stingy Inside a Pyramid.” San Francisco Chronicle. 25 Jan. 1985: 66.
9 Hanauer, Joan. “TV World – ‘Otherworld:’ A Sinister Oz.” United Press International. 25 Jan. 1985: BC Cycle.
10 “List of Nielsen Ratings for Week of Feb. 11-17.” Associated Press. 19 Feb. 1985: AM Cycle.
11 [No Title]. Associated Press. 5 Mar. 1985: AM Cycle.
12 “Renick Slips in Ratings.” Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale). 13 Mar. 1985: 8.E.
13 [No Title]. Associated Press. 19 Mar. 1985: BC Cycle.
14 [No Title]. Associated Press. 24 Apr. 1985: PM Cycle.
15 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 20 Dec. 1984: B14.
16 Gendel, Morgan. “‘Way-Out’-A Style CBS Can’t Refuse.” Los Angeles Times. 23 Jan. 1985: 1.
18 Rea, Steven. “A Man of Many Worlds.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 Feb. 1985: D.1.
Originally September 10th, 2009
Last Updated April 5th, 2015