Thursday 1 October 2020

Voyagers! (1982)

Voyagers! Is a children’s science fiction adventure series that premiered on NBC in 1982. At the time the networks were being forced to make a token number of educational shows and NBC figured that a time-travel series would qualify. In fact Voyagers! cheerfully plays fast and loose with history and is nothing more than a light-hearted adventure series. 

The problem for Voyagers! is that it was screened in the timeslot as CBS’s 60 Minutes and in 1982 that meant it was guaranteed to get hammered in the ratings. Voyagers! lasted just twenty episodes. Which is kind of a pity because it’s goofy energetic fun.

Time-travel series are expensive to make, unless you happen to have access to a practically unlimited supply of footage from historical movies and the producers of Voyagers! Just happened to have access to Universal’s back catalogue (just as Irwin Allen had access to 20th Century-Fox’s back catalogue when making The Time Tunnel back in the 60s). So that was no problem.

Since it was going to be, in theory, an educational children’s series one of the two leads was going to have to be a kid. Meeno Peluce was therefore cast as the eleven-year-old Jeffrey Jones. The other lead would be Jon-Erik Hexum as time traveller Phineas Bogg, the young good-looking Hexum being presumably chosen to provide some eye candy for female viewers.

Being aimed at kids it’s not a series that takes itself too seriously. There’s quite a bit of humour which Jon-Erik Hexum in particular handles adroitly. Obviously there’s an attempt to provide some excitement while keeping the violence level low. And Bogg’s energetic and determined pursuit of the ladies is kept fairly innocent - care is taken to make sure he doesn’t have the opportunity to get up to any actual hanky-panky.

While most such series take their time-travellers to one time zone per episode in Voyagers! our temporal adventurers get dropped into multiple time zones in each story. A fairly standard formula is to drop Bogg and Jeffrey into one historical period and then have them discover that to repair the rift in time they will have to bounce back even further in time.

Voyagers! doesn’t bother itself with technical details. Bogg has a device called the Omni which looks like a pocket watch but it’s a time machine. We don’t need to know how it works, we just need to know that it does work. It shows a green light when everything is fine, and a red light when something has gone wrong with history. One weakness is that it’s never explained why history keeps going wrong so often but if it didn’t there wouldn’t be a story and there wouldn’t be a series, and it is a kids’ show and kids are unlikely to worry about asking awkward questions like that.

All the technical details of time travel are covered in Bogg’s guide book, or they were until it got eaten. Which is convenient (and quite clever) because it means the writers can just ignore those details.

The people from the past seem a bit to much like 1980s Americans but projecting contemporary social attitudes onto the past is something that every historical TV series (and movie) does.

While the tone is generally very light there is one interesting bitter-sweet aspect to it. Bogg gets to meet a lot of charming young ladies and he falls in love with a few but he knows he’s always going to lose them - he can’t take them out of their own time periods so he’s always saying goodbye to them. The series also does confront one issue with time travel - just how hard it is to accept that the proper course of history cannot be tampered with. This is especially the case in the episode involving Spartacus. Bogg and Jeffrey both know there is going to be no happy ending for poor Spartacus. Sometimes being a time traveller can be heart-breaking.

Episode Guide

The pilot episode sets things up and sketches in enough of the two leads’ background stories and it also sets the tone for what is to come. The action is frenetic, the tone is good-natured if a bit silly, Meeno Peluce is annoying but not too annoying and Jon-Erik Hexum is loud, brash and likeable and we learn that Phineas Bogg is more interested in womanising than in time travel.

Jeffrey Jones is a boy whose parents died and now he’s being brought up by his aunt and uncle, to whom he’s something of a nuisance. Then some guy smashes through Jeffrey’s bedroom window and gets attacked by Jeffrey’s dog and in the confusion Jeffrey and the stranger go hurtling through the window to certain death (Jeffrey lives in an apartment in a skyscraper). Only Jeffrey and the guy don’t die, they land safely. But where have they landed? This don’t look like anywhere in the city. The stranger then informs Jeffrey that they must be in Egypt in the year 1450BC. Which, to the history-minded Jeffrey,  means the baby they find floating down the river must be Moses. Then Jeffrey pushes a button on the stranger’s stopwatch and then they’re somewhere else, and then somewhere else again. Now it’s 1918, they’re in France and there’s a war going on. 

The explanation is that the stranger is Phineas Bogg and he’s a Voyager, a kind of time traveller whose job is to fix up historical anomalies and just generally make sure that history turns out the way it’s supposed to. His watch is actually an Omni, a time machine. The problem is that Phineas wasn’t really paying attention in time-traveller school and he knows nothing about history so he’s totally dependent in his guide book  and that’s another problem since Jeffrey’s dog Ralph ate Phineas’s guide book. Fortunately Jeffrey does pay attention in history class at school so he finds himself functioning as a kind of living guide book.

Phineas’s great passion in life is not history or time-travel technology, it’s women. There’s just no way you can expect Phineas to focus on anything else if there’s an attractive female around. And when they arrive in France in 1918 the first thing our two intrepid time travellers encounter is a gorgeous blonde. She’s a Hollywood movie star who’d gone to the Western Front to entertain the troops and raise morale. She’s already raised Phineas’s morale and he has hopes that she’ll be able to entertain him. 

He gets to meet famous American air ace Eddie Rickenbacker, only Rickenbecker isn’t even a pilot because aircraft haven’t even been invented yet, and this is 1918. So what went wrong for the Wright brothers? Bogg and Jeffrey have to find out, and it turns out the problem was a woman. Bogg isn’t too strong on historical problems but sorting out problems with the female of the species is something he really is good at. This pilot episode is non-stop fun 

The second episode, Created Equal, has our two time travellers trying to free slaves in ancient Rome and the American South. A bit too much speechifying in this one and it’s a bit slow.

Have you ever wondered who would win in a gunfight between Teddy Roosevelt and Billy the Kid? No, neither have I. But if you had wondered about it then the next episode, Bully and Billy, provides the answer. Bogg and Jeffrey arrive in Cuba in 1898 and they’re expecting Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to show up (although Bogg is more interested in a pretty Cuban girl he’s just met), only to learn that Roosevelt was shot dead by Billy the Kid eighteen years earlier. So they have to go back to 1880 to fix that problem, making a brief detour to fly kites with Ben Franklin. Jeffrey idolises Billy the Kid but he discovers that legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. A pretty decent episode.

Agents of Satan takes our two voyagers back to the Salem Witch Trials (where they will have to try to save Benjamin Franklin’s Mom) then forward to 1922 (where they will have to try to persuade Harry Houdini not to believe in ghosts), then to 1814, then back to 1922 and after that back to 1692. The theme of this episode is, obviously, illusions and delusions and the dangers of both. And it’s a pretty decent episode.

In Worlds Apart Jeffrey and Bogg are separated, with Bogg having to try to save Lawrence of Arabia while Jeffrey helps Edison invent the light bulb. A fun episode with a bit of action.

What do Cleopatra and Babe Ruth have in common? Well, not very much, but in Cleo and the Babe they’re both in a lot of trouble. And only Jeffrey and Bogg can can get them out of it. They also have to persuade Cleopatra that being a gangster’s moll is not a good idea. A pretty fun episode.

In The Day the Rebs Took Lincoln our time voyagers arrive in Pennsylvania in 1863 to find that the South has the Civil War all but won. If only the Rebels hasn’t captured President Lincoln! In trying to put that right they end up in London in 1832 and a pickpocket steals the Omni. The pickpocket is the Artful Dodger and now Fagin has the Omni. Yes, it turns out that all that stuff that Charles Dickens wrote was based on fact, and Jeffrey and Bogg meet Dickens as well. In fact they break into his house. So this is an interesting episode, with fiction and history getting rather entwined. And Bogg gets to meet a glamorous lady spy, and has to romance her. Not that he’s complaining about that. A fairly enjoyable episode.

Old Hickory and the Pirate takes Jeffrey and Bogg to New Orleans in 1815 here they discover that General Andrew Jackson has just lost the Battle of New Orleans. Since he was supposed to win our time travellers have to find out what went wrong which means going back to 1798 to stop a certain pirate from being hanged. Most of this episode revolves around pirates and you can’t really go wrong with a pirate adventure. And there are two beautiful ladies who are more piratical than any pirate. Plus there’s an all-in sword-fight in which those two ladies demonstrate their ability to out-fence some tough buccaneers. It’s all good fun.

It takes a while to figure out what is going on in The Travels of Marco... and Friends. Jeffrey and Bogg land in New York in 1930, they meet Einstein and they meet a retired Voyager who has decided he doesn't like New York. He wants them to drop him off on an island in the South Seas but instead they end up in France in 1870 in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War. Eventually they end up having to get Marco Polo out of a jam. An OK episode.

In An Arrow Pointing East Charles Lindbergh needs a bit of help getting to Paris, and Robin Hood is in big trouble. This episode is perhaps just a little bit slow but it’s OK.

In Merry Christmas, Bogg it is Christmas Eve for our time travellers - in fact they get two Christmas Eves, one in 1776 and one in 1892. In 1776 they have a run-in with a formidable British naval officer who has successfully crushed the American Revolution - a fellow by the name of Admiral George Washington. In 1892 they have to help Samuel Gompers save a labour union. And Jeffrey is made a tempting offer. An OK episode which is in danger of becoming sentimental but avoids the temptation.

In The Trial of Phineas Bogg our two voyagers are dragged before the Voyager Council and Bogg is put on trial. This episode is almost entirely made up of excerpts from previous episodes, an obvious cost-cutting measure which may be connected with the fact that the decision had already been made to cancel the series. It is unfortunately a lame, boring episode. It does however introduce a character who will later reappear - an evil Voyager by the name of Drake. It’s tempting to think that the intention was that he would serve the same purpose as the Master in Doctor Who, serving as a traitorous villain (and a villain is something the series lacked).

Instead of being cancelled the series gained a brief reprieve and after a brief hiatus resumed with Sneak Attack. Phineas and Jeffrey have to save Macarthur from being killed at Pearl Harbor, where of course he’s not even supposed to be. They get arrested by a lady intelligence officer and they get to find out how the Pony Express really started. A good episode to get the series restarted.

In Voyagers of the Titanic Phineas and Jeffrey are, obviously, on board the Titanic. But there’s something else aboard, something which definitely should not be there and cannot be allowed to go down with the ship. In this episode Phineas and Jeffrey encounter another Voyager, which leads to trouble but makes things interesting. They also make a detour to help the cause of science. Another good fairly well-plotted episode.

In Pursuit Bogg and Jeffrey arrive at Cape Kennedy to watch the first American manned moon mission only to discover that NASA was closed down two years earlier after their rockets kept blowing up. They soon discover the reason - the German scientists who made the US space program possible had fallen into Soviet rather than American hands in 1945. This one is unusual in having only a single plot strand - most episodes have two plot strands. It’s reasonably exciting and works quite well.

Destiny's Choice takes our time travelling duo to Hollywood in 1928, where legendary director Wild Frank Roosevelt is making the first talking picture. That’s obviously all wrong but Bogg’s Omni gets confiscated by a security guard so how are they going to go back further in time to get Roosevelt into politics? They also have to sort out a drama with a pretty starlet, and of course pretty soon Bogg is sweet on her. Not a very exciting episode but OK.

In All Fall Down Bogg and Jeffrey have to restore Joe Louis’s confidence before his big title fight with Max Schmeling, and Jeffrey has to learn to land a 747. This one is a bit heavy-handed.

Barriers of Sound has a typical Voyagers! plot which connects two historical events gone wrong. President Eisenhower is not going to be born and it’s all because the telephone hasn’t been invented, even though it should have been. So Jeffrey and Phineas have to figure out why Alexander Graham Bell somehow failed to invent the telephone. And this time Bogg really falls in love and discovers what it costs to be a Yoyager.

Jack's Back, like the earlier episode involving Dickens, mixes history and fiction. Bogg and Jeffrey are on the trail of Jack the Ripper, helped by Arthur Conan Doyle and a Feisty Girl Reporter from America. This episode sees the return of rogue Voyager Drake, causing even more trouble. Not a bad episode to end the series.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to nit-pick a series like this but it was after all aimed at kids and as a kids’ show it works. Just don’t think too much about the science, or the history. It’s lightweight fun and Jon-Erik Hexum’s hyperactive performance carries it over the weak spots. I think it deserved a better fate. Definitely worth a look if you enjoy children’s science fiction series.


  1. This sounds like fun! I might get this, so I didn't read the individual episode bits. Amazon says this is out of stock, even as an import, but I'll keep an eye out.

  2. Pity about Hexum. He seemed so likeable, and what a tragic ending to his life. This series is actually pretty good.

    1. Oh, I hadn't realised that it was the same guy - I watched Cover Up when it was shown on UK TV, and I remember all that. I remember the episode where his replacement took over, because by then we all knew why.

  3. I loved Voyagers as a kid and remember watching it religiously, even if I don't remember a single episode/story line. Thank you for this comprehensive synopsis!

    Ya' know, I never did like history classes back when I was in school...I wonder if it was because it was never as entertaining to my young mind as "educational" shows like Voyagers!
    ; )