Thursday 3 December 2015

Fantasy Island, season one (1977)

If you’re of a certain age the words “De plane! De Plane!” will bring a rush of nostalgia. Yes, we’re talking about Fantasy Island.

Fantasy Island premiered in 1977 and ran for seven seasons on the American ABC network. It was one of legendary producer Aaron Spelling’s many television hits.

It can be considered as a variant of the anthology series concept. Each week a number of guest stars arrive on the private island owned by Mr Roarke (Ricardo Montalban). Each has paid $50,000 to live out a cherished fantasy. Mr Roarke provides the setting and the people they need to live their fantasy. You have to exercise a certain amount of suspension of disbelief here - some of the fantasies require Mr Roarke to reproduce luxury homes or in one case an entire London pub as the setting and even in 1977 that would obviously cost a lot more than $50,000. On the other hand it is implied that Mr Roarke is very rich indeed and that money is no object for him. It is also implied that he has no real interest in making a profit and some guests do not pay anything at all or only a token price.  Mr Roarke just likes acting in a God-like capacity.

In fact it probably helps to regard Mr Roarke is a bit of a Mephistopheles-like figure, or perhaps a kind of wizard able to grant any wish, or even perhaps an angel or minor deity of some variety. The hints that he may have some supernatural powers are very subtle but they are there and there’s no question that he seems to know more about his guests than he possibly could know. The island also seems remarkably huge and has a seemingly impossible variety of terrain types - in the second TV-movie it appears to have a large chunk of the Wild West in it. This also strengthens the likelihood that Mr Roarke is more than he appears to be. Of course he could just be unbelievable rich and have a network of private detectives working for him to supply him with so much information on his guests.

He is a benevolent sort of wizard. Well, mostly benevolent.

Hervé Villechaize plays Mr Roarke’s pint-sized assistant Tattoo. The interplay between Mr Roarke and Tattoo was one of the highlights of this series.

The guests always get the fantasy they asked for although more often than not it turns out in a way they didn’t expect. They don’t always really understand exactly what it is they are looking for from their fantasy, but Mr Roarke always knows.

Fantasy Island began with two tele-movies and they are subtly different from the series proper - there is a slightly darker and definitely less sentimental tone. The original concept as expressed in these two tele-movies really was extremely clever and both are very well executed.

Most episodes comprise two separate stories but the two movies give us three stories. In the pilot we have an American ex-serviceman wanting to relive a wartime romance in London during the Blitz, a woman who wants to attend her own funeral so that she can discover what her family really thinks of her and a big game hunter who wants to find out how it feels to be the hunted rather than the hunter (obviously inspired by the countless film adaptations of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game). All three stories have a dark edge to them and have some neat and unexpected twists.

The second TV-movie, Return to Fantasy Island, again comprises three separate stories intercut. There’s a couple who hope to be reunited with the daughter they surrendered for adoption twelve year earlier and a man who wants to spend the weekend with his female boss only she doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the idea. The third story is the most interesting, a psychological thriller tale about a young woman who lost her memory during her honeymoon four years earlier.

The series proper unfortunately doesn’t have quite the same edge to it. On the other hand as it progresses it becomes more and more apparent that Mr Roarke must have some supernatural or science fictional powers - one small island could not possibly accommodate so many incredibly elaborate fantasies involving entire quite sizeable communities.

The idea of having two completely separate stories per episode is a good one. Some stories (such as The Funny Girl) do edge dangerously close to out-and-out schmalz but pairing a story like that with an adventure yarn like Butch and Sundance makes it tolerable. The Prince/The Sheriff is another episode that combines a slightly sentimental love story with a more action-oriented tale. Family Reunion is even more schmaltzy but it’s paired with an excellent and much darker story, Voodoo. Pairing very lightweight or romantic stories with adventure-type stories seemed to become a definite template. Sometimes it fails miserably, as with Superstar/Salem which combines a dull story about a man who dreams of being a baseball star with a heavy-handed and clumsy tale of the witch trials in Salem. At other times the template works reasonably well, as in Trouble, My Lovely/The Common Man with a mildly amusing tale of an insignificant dweeb wanting to be a hardboiled private eye and a story of a downtrodden husband and father who just wants a little respect.

I have seen criticism of this series as being too much like soap opera but that seems to me to be perhaps somewhat unfair. That might apply to some of the stories but others are quite dark and twisted. In fact some stories remind me just a little of the blending of black comedy and twisted psychology of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents series (this is true at least of the two tele-movies). Unfortunately in the series itself this element tends to disappear. The big problem is that too many scripts are under-developed and the desire to give every story a happy ending leads to excessive predictability. The basic idea behind the series was extremely good and the two TV-movies lived up to the promise but the series gradually becomes just a little too bland.

Ricardo Montalban as Mr Roarke and Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo really are the series’ biggest assets. They are so good they tend to overshadow the guest stars.

The first season is available on DVD everywhere.

Fantasy Island is interesting for its nostalgia value, its unusual format and for the Mr Roarke-Tattoo interplay. Probably worth a rental but not a purchase.

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