Mar 31, 2020
1985’s Otherworld imagined a universe without the Beatles
Next month sees the release of Yesterday, the Danny Boyle-directed musical fantasy where an aspiring musician wakes up in a parallel reality where the Beatles never existed. He proceeds to pass off the Fab Four’s compositions as his own, riding the strengths of the Lennon-McCartney songbook to instant fame and fortune.
And the general reaction to the trailer has been (despite some less than enthusiastic reviews) that Yesterday is a brilliant, creative, and wholly original idea for a movie. Well, it turns out the idea isn’t quite as original as it seems. A very similar concept aired on primetime TV back in 1985, on the short-lived CBS sci-fi series Otherworld.
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The premise of Otherworld is that the Sterlings, an American family visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza during a rare planetary alignment, accidentally pass through a misty green vortex into an alternate dimension. They find themselves on Thel, a dystopian realm made up of 77 provinces which, following centuries of “Unification Wars”, are now ruled by a fascist Praetor living in the capital of Imar. The provinces are isolated from each other by “Forbidden Zones”, where no one is allowed to travel except for the “Zone Troopers”, Thel’s version of the SS.
When the Sterlings first arrive in Thel, they’re nearly apprehended by a Zone Trooper named Commander Kroll. A scuffle ensues, and the family is able to abscond with Kroll’s “access crystal”, which gives them the ability to interface with the government’s central computer and create new identities for themselves. They also learn that the capital of Imar may provide a way back to Earth, and a trail of Egyptian-like obelisks can lead them there. And so, the show follows the family as they search for Imar and a way back home, while always staying one step ahead of Kroll as they travel to a new province each week, encountering a different sci-fi/fantasy subgenre in each.
(Fun fact: Commander Kroll was played by Jonathan Banks, who back in the ‘80s was the go-to character actor for playing villains on shows like TJ Hooker and Simon & Simon and movies like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs., but in recent years he’s experienced a career resurgence, winning two Emmys for playing a hitman on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.)
Otherworld was very much like the low-budget, direct-to-VHS movies of the day: One episode has the family trapped in a village of “Motorpigs”, essentially Mad Max rejects, led by Marjoe Gortner. Another province appears normal at first, but is really populated by human-looking androids. Another finds the family in a society run by women, where the men are treated as dumb sex objects, which is a sci-fi trope that never stops giving. In another episode, they discover a castle where the mother is taken captive by a half-man, half-monster, in an obvious swipe of Beauty and the Beast (the Jean Cocteau version, since this show predates both the Disney movie and the Linda Hamilton series). In another episode, the son is drafted into the Zone Troopers and deals with the harsh realities of boot camp while proving his mettle to a commandant (Mark Lenard) who rules with a literal iron fist.
But the high point of the series is an episode where the family ends up in a province that strongly resembles uptight, conformist post-war America, just prior to the birth of rock and roll—with a little PMRC-inspired hysteria mixed in. The Sterling kids invent rock music in this parallel universe, and just like in Yesterday, they rewrite the music of the Beatles (as well as other acts like David Bowie, Cheap Trick, and the Rolling Stones) and ride these songs to instant fame and fortune.
Otherworld is the brainchild of Roderick and Bruce Taylor, a father-son producing team who also wrote most of the episodes. And Roderick previously had a career as a recording artist, releasing several albums under names like Rod Taylor and Roderick Falconer, which ranged from bluesy and folk-inspired rock to more glam and new wave outings. Which is probably why this ranks as the best episode of Otherworld by far, as it deals with a subject that’s near and dear to its creator’s heart. Taylor also finds a few ways to work his own music into the plot of the episode, but more on that later.
And now, here’s an in-depth look at the fourth episode of Otherworld, titled “Rock and Roll Suicide” (after the Bowie song), which originally aired February 16, 1985.
It starts, as all Otherworld episodes begin, with this week’s premise being set up via narration from father Hal Sterling (played by Sam Groom, an actor who primarily worked in soaps—his credits include both Otherworld and Another World). In this episode, the family has taken refuge in the Centrex province, and Hal has found work as a children’s clown. He’s in full clown makeup here, which ultimately turns out to be a bizarre bit of randomness, because there’s no such thing as clowns in this province.
Inside the house, son Trace (Tony O’Dell, later a regular on Head of the Class) is horrified by the music options available on Centrex TV. “There’s no rock, no pop, there’s not even any R&B!” Instead, there are just some very white and very nerdy musicians.
There’s also an interview on TV with Dr. Scorpus Klaxon, a high priest in the “Church of Artificial Intelligence”, which we know from other episodes is this world’s official state-endorsed religion. And while it tantalizingly sounds like the people of Thel are worshipping computers, the show gives us very little specifics on the inner workings of this religion.
This is interrupted by crashing noises, and they run into the kitchen to find daughter Gina has dropped all their china on the floor. She explains she was just trying to “balance some cups and saucers on my head” to practice for her school’s talent show. But of course. Gina is played by Jonna Lee, one of many bombshell actresses I recall from my youth who had a couple of significant roles, then seemed to vanish off the face of the planet. And I’m thinking for that talent show, maybe she should just, like… stand there.
Enter mom June (Gretchen Corbett, from The Rockford Files), who suggests Trace and Gina could just “sing” for their school talent show. And without any further ado, we cut to said talent show (according to the sign on stage, they’re attending “Developmental Thought Center #47”), where Trace is playing guitar and Gina is on drums, and they’re joined by a phantom bass player as they perform the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. And in an unusual directorial flourish, we get even a few frames of actual footage of the Beatles (as well as an animated clip of the Statue of Liberty[?]) to kick off the song.
The other students in the auditorium, who are all dressed like Mormons, initially look disturbed by what they’re hearing, but soon start getting into the music and standing up. The school’s uptight principal Dr. Dromo tells them to sit down, and instead of just making Gina and Trace stop playing, he goes backstage and shuts off the circuit box.
The next thing we see is Trace and Gina leaving the auditorium, and it’s nighttime. So I guess in this universe, school is at night. They’re surrounded by a few students who are fawning over their music and talking about how it “distorts time”. Suddenly, a middle-aged guy in a suit walks up and introduces himself as Billy Sunshine, and he’s your stock talent scout character seen in every rock pioneer biopic. He also seems to be partly modeled after Alan Freed, the DJ widely credited with coining the term “rock and roll”. Billy says he loves their music, and “it’s great, it’s raw, it’s distilled energy,” and he wants to hear more of it at his office.
Back home over breakfast, Gina and Trace share the news, but Hal doesn’t want any of this to go to his kids’ heads. But Gina’s already way ahead of everyone when she declares that they “just invented rock and roll!”
They go to Billy Sunshine’s office, where the walls are covered in photos of lots of boring guys in suits. They wonder if they really belong here, and Billy assures them, “You’re new, you’re raw, you’re great, you’re distilled energy!” He wants them to “cut some repo discs”, which I think is Otherworld-ese for singles, and then we get a moment of alt-universe weirdness where Billy grabs a small piece of fruit off a potted plant on his desk and eats it.
At home, Hal is absolutely against the idea of his kids becoming recording artists. For one thing, they’re currently fugitives from the law, and they have to keep a low profile or else the Zone Troopers will find them. But more important to Hal is that the kids didn’t write any of this music, and he thinks that saying otherwise is “a little dishonest”. But the kids protest that the musicians they’re ripping off don’t even exist in this universe, and they just want to have a little “fun”, and for some reason June sides with them.
Cut to the studio, where some hopelessly unhip musicians are trying and failing miserably to play the guitar riff from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. So it’s up to Trace and Gina to show them how it’s done; they grab their instruments and launch into the song. They’re joined by an actual, non-phantom bass player this time, who turns out to be another girl from their school, who I guess is a really quick study as far as rock bass guitar goes.
Gina steps up to the microphone and informs us that she was indeed born in a crossfire hurricane, and after they’re done, Billy Sunshine is convinced this record will sell millions, and he wants “more, more, more!” This leads into Trace recording a David Bowie song, and of all the Bowie songs they could have picked, he’s singing “Modern Love”, most likely because it was a recent hit when this episode aired. During the recording, Billy’s secretary hilariously declares, “It’s exciting, but i-it frightens me!”
The rest of the Sterlings show up at the studio to watch the recording, and when they arrive there’s a inexplicable exchange were Hal says they’re late because their youngest kid got stuck in the bathroom, and Hal had to take the door off the hinges. Am I high right now?
And yes, there is a younger son in the family, named Smith, which I failed to mention earlier because the show often forgets he exists. Smith is played over the course of the series by two different actors (Brandon Crane and Chris Hebert), and I swear I didn’t even notice the cast change until I started researching the show to write this article; that’s about how much attention the character gets.
Mom and Dad ask what songs they’ve recorded so far, and Gina rattles off a list. We of course won’t be hearing the vast majority of these songs, because music rights ain’t cheap, but they’ve supposedly recorded “Bennie and the Jets”, “Billie Jean”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Satisfaction”, “Come Feel the Noise” (I assume she means “Cum On Feel the Noize”), “Space Oddity”, “Modern Love”, “Hey Jude”, “Sweet Dreams” (Eurythmics, I assume, and not Patsy Cline), “Whip It”, “London Calling”, and “the Beverly Hillbillies theme song!” Trace adds, “And that’s just side A!” And this sounds like perhaps the most musically schizophrenic album ever recorded. Michael Jackson, the Clash, and Devo songs all on the same album?
After seeing their dad’s disapproving look, the kids start to confess that they didn’t actually write these songs. But they’re saved because Billy gets distracted when an engineer makes a mistake and tape goes shooting across his recording console, and in this universe, it seems audio tape is bright pink.
Cut to Trace sleeping on the couch, and having a dream that turns out to be our next musical sequence. And this time, the song is… something you’re definitely not going to recognize. It’s actually a tune originally recorded by series creator Roderick Taylor, titled “Rock and Roll Will Never Die” from his 1980 album Straight. It’s a bit of a cheat to add your own original songs to a story about kids reinventing rock and roll, but I imagine they broke the bank getting the rights to the Beatles and the Stones, so some concessions had to be made.
Though I have to say, for a blatant bit of self-promotion, this song is actually pretty good. The guitars are awesome, and checking the album credits, it looks like they were provided by Earl Slick, the legendary guitarist who worked with David Bowie, John Lennon, and many more. Here’s the song:
In the dream, the song plays while Trace fantasizes about being a famous rock star, and there’s slow-mo and bright lights, and hot women are all over him, and he autographs a cast on a girl’s arm. Then he sees Gina and gives her a slow-mo thumbs up.
Gina wakes him up because Billy Sunshine is here to break the news that the radio stations in the province are refusing to play their music, calling it “noise”. In other words, they do not want to cum on and feel that noize. And then Smith almost blows the whole scheme when he blurts out that this can’t be true, because “They’re some of the most popular songs ever!”
Luckily, this comment goes right over Billy’s head, and he again calls them “distilled energy” and says they’re going to take the music of Trace and Gina directly to the people with a live concert tour. And we go right to the concert, as Trace and Gina and their still-nameless bass player are performing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”. There’s a slow-mo pan across the audience as they get their minds blown by the music, which is demonstrated by wind blowing in their faces like they’re in that cassette tape ad. And when the song ends, we get a clip of a mushroom cloud [?].
After the concert, “Trace and Gina-Mania” is in full swing as their car gets mobbed by fans, and Hal says this is exactly what he was afraid of. Over at the Church of Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Klaxon is listening to some of this new-fangled rock and roll and getting utterly disgusted. His lackey then plays the record backwards, claiming it contains an anti-authority “hidden message”. Suck on that, Tipper Gore! Dr. Klaxon is horrified and wants to see this band in person.
At school, Trace discovers he’s becoming popular with the ladies. A girl named “Zeta” says she saw him play and never heard anything like it. Trace responds, “It’s only rock and roll, but I’m glad you like it!” I see what they did there. Gina’s also becoming somewhat notorious, as two guys fight over her, and Dr. Dromo has to break them up. He yells at Gina because she and Trace are “disrupting my Thought Center!”
This leads to Dr. Dromo paying a visit to the Sterling house, where for some reason Billy Sunshine answers the door. Dromo mistakes Billy for the Sterling kids’ dad and starts complaining about how Trace and Gina are causing trouble at school, and Billy just runs with it, and I have no idea what the point of this scene is other than bad comedy.
Thankfully, we go to another Trace and Gina concert, and this time some random guy takes over the drums so Gina can sing Bad Company’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy”. (Though I’m pretty sure the first line of the song is “Here come the jesters,” and not, as Gina sings, “Here come the gestures”.) Dr. Klaxon looks on disapprovingly from the crowd. Flames shoot up from the stage as Gina goes over to Trace and grabs his guitar and they play it together at the same time, which honestly sounds and looks a little too sexual for characters who are supposed to be brother and sister.
Back at the Sterling house, fans are now crowding around their front door. Zeta and Trace are now an item, and they’re watching a news report about Trace and Gina on TV. This includes another interview with Dr. Klaxon, who continues to channel the Moral Majority as he denounces rock and roll as “a grave peril to our youth”, complaining that he even saw a young man today with “excessive facial hair!”
Billy then gives Trace and Gina their first “royalty checks”. The two of them and Zeta immediately run to the mall, where Trace says he’ll buy Zeta anything she wants. Gina calls them over to look at one particular item on sale: Gina and Trace dolls. Yes, they have their own Barbie-like action figures, and they look disturbed at their likenesses being used for merch.
Back at home, Hal is upset at how the kids have become super-famous in two weeks (all this has happened in two weeks?), which means they may have to leave the province soon. Hal then gives one of his signature overly earnest speeches where he reminds his kids to focus on what’s real and to not become “plastic” like these dolls.
Over at Dr. Dromo’s office, Klaxon is showing him the Trace and Gina dolls, and complaining that the kids aren’t playing with “Praetor dolls” anymore. He pounds Dromo’s desk, causing fruits to fall out of his potted plant. Eventually, he tells Dromo to expel Trace and Gina for all the trouble they’ve been causing, or else he’ll have Dromo fired.
Back at home, Trace and Gina are now hard at work; it seems they’re now trying their hand at writing their own original songs. Well, not exactly; the song they’re “writing” is another tune previously recorded by series creator Roderick Taylor, titled “Rock City”, from 1977’s Victory in Rock City, which coincidentally happens to mention all four Beatles in the first verse. And I’m sorry to say from this point forward, the notion of the kids rewriting music by famous artists is dropped, and the rest of the episode has them performing songs that pretty much no one’s ever heard of.
Dad interrupts Trace and Gina to yell at them for getting expelled from school. But Gina says their only crime is they “resisted the pressure to become mediocre”. That’s pretty big talk coming from someone who’s basically in a Bad Company cover band.
Billy Sunshine barges in with big news: they’re going to perform a concert to be multicast to several provinces. Hal angrily tells him that the kids got expelled, but Billy doesn’t care because they’re making “millions of Thawns”. Whoa, Reverse Flash has his own currency in this dimension?
And now comes more bad comedy where Dr. Klaxon is out on their front lawn, along with several protesters, and in a spin on Bible Belt record burnings, he’s tossing Trace and Gina dolls into a flaming barrel. Somebody throws a brick through the Sterlings’ window, so Gina picks it up and throws it back, hitting Klaxon in the foot. Klaxon yells at the kids because they’ve “disrupted the spiritual equilibrium of this whole province!” He promises that they’ll never perform in public again. This totally changes Hal’s tune, and he decides this is no longer about the music, but “freedom”. He says the kids have no choice but to do the concert now.
Now it’s time for another one of Trace’s slow-mo dream sequences, set to another song from the show’s creator: “Only So Much Time”, from the 1984 album Rules of Attraction. In this very MTV-like dream sequence, Zeta fawns over some jewelry while Trace looks perturbed. He then sees a tall blonde, who turns around and reveals that she’s… their arch-nemesis Commander Kroll, in a blonde wig and drag.
Trace wakes up screaming, then he gets a visit from his girlfriend Zeta, who’s already showing her true gold-digging colors by asking him to buy her a new dress for the concert and get tickets for all her friends. Meanwhile, Dr. Klaxon places a call directly to the Praetor, which involves dialing up a receptionist and giving his “penetration code”. Klaxon warns the Praetor about this “rock and roll” that’s causing citizens of his province to “question authority” and wants him to send in “observers”. The Praetor is enraged that Klaxon is bothering him about something so inconsequential, and after a moment of thought, he figures out the ideal man to send.
It’s the night of the final concert, and mom and dad break the news to the kids that after it’s over, they’re leaving this province. The kids are glum about not being famous anymore, but they decide that they can at least “strike a blow for freedom”. They hug it out, and then Zeta comes downstairs, complaining about how she was “trapped in the bathroom”, in a strange callback to the earlier gag about taking the bathroom door off the hinges.
Then we’re at the concert, as the words “TRACE and GINA” light up in front of a picture of the two of them while they perform “Rock City”. Klaxon enters the auditorium, accompanied by the Zone Trooper that the Praetor sent, who of course is Commander Kroll, who knows the Praetor sent him here as a joke. Kroll listens to the music, and much to Klaxon’s dismay, he says he “likes it.”
Now Gina is performing the song “Bop Girl” by Pat Wilson. What’s that? You’ve never heard this song? That could be because it was only a hit in Australia and South Africa. Yep, that’s what things have come to.
Trace performs another song, which I can’t identify, but seems to be called “Been a Fool”. Every search I do on the lyrics turns up nothing, so I can only assume this is a Roderick Taylor song that never got released. Gina does a tag team with another drummer so she can run up and sing with Trace. And that’s when Kroll realizes the two singers are from the same fugitive family he’s been pursuing, and he starts to storm the stage. Alas, he’s treated like just another fan and pulled away by security.
After some pyrotechnics go off, Trace and Gina run off stage and tell their family they have to leave now. They finally break the news to Billy that they’re wanted by the Zone Troopers. He seems a bit put off at first, but eventually calls for his limo to help them escape.
In the hills above the city, they thank Billy for his help. Billy tells them he’ll be alright, because thanks to them, he’s got plenty more rock and roll acts lined up. Trace says farewell to his girlfriend Zeta. For some reason, he hands her an envelope full of money while saying, “Here. This is all you wanted anyway.” She says that’s not true, so Trace starts to take his money back, but she says that if he’s leaving, she might as well keep it.
Meanwhile, Gina hugs Billy and says, “Rock and roll will never die.” Uh, nobody tell Gina what the pop music charts look like in 2019. The family gets into a car, when suddenly Zeta realizes there’s no money in the envelope. She tells Trace, “I’m glad I used you,” and Trace blows her a kiss. What the hell is all this about? What a weirdly sour note to end on. I wonder if Zeta is supposed to represent some of the materialistic women that were harshing Rod Taylor’s mellow when he was trying to make it as a rock star?
Hal’s voiceover re-enters while “Rock and Roll Will Never Die” plays again. He tells us Centrex will never be the same, and neither will his family, and then he quotes Jimi Hendrix with, “For castles made of sand must fall into the sea, eventually.” Damn, I had a feeling Hal was a closet rocker. We get some final shots of the Beatles, a star falls, and the episode ends with a still of Trace and Gina from their final concert.
Well, I didn’t glean much about what the upcoming movie Yesterday will be like from this episode, which completely forgot about the general concept of rewriting famous artists’ music after the halfway mark, and fell back on songs by the show’s creator, songs no one in America had heard of, and at least one song that apparently was never released. I suspect the producers really wanted to go all out with the use of existing music here, but were severely limited by the show’s budget. Also, I can guarantee that this one episode is the primary reason Otherworld has never seen any sort of release on DVD or streaming.
While this episode isn’t all that great—the comedy is hit and miss, the swipes at bible-thumping opponents of rock and roll are kind of cheap, and the “meteoric rise to stardom” plot comes directly from every TV movie ever made about a pop or rock icon—I’ll be damned if this isn’t one really fun hour of TV. Of course, the concept completely falls apart upon closer inspection; there’s no way that Beatles songs, completely divorced from their historical context and contemporaneous musical scene, could be released today (or in 1985) and have the same impact—and I’m pretty sure the upcoming Yesterday movie suffers in this same respect. But at least in the case of this episode, the instant fame and fortune probably shouldn’t be taken too literally. From starting with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and then gradually moving into harder and more flamboyant music, it’s clear the idea behind this episode was to tell the whole story of rock and roll in America in under an hour.
Interestingly, it seems creator Roderick Taylor (as “Rod Falconer”) went on to re-release one of the songs used in this episode, “Only So Much Time”, because the music video features brief clips from Otherworld, as well as Jonna Lee reprising her role of pretending to play the drums. Check it out:
If for some reason you can’t watch the video above, never fear: I’ve distilled the most important moments down to a single GIF:
I’m not sure how many episodes of Otherworld were filmed, but only eight episodes aired; In the final aired episode, a lot of details are dropped about the capital of Imar and how the family might find a way home there. Gina learns about a teenage girl who previously crossed over from Earth, then experiences a wild, seven-minute psychedelic vision where she gets a glimpse of Imar, which turns out to be this world’s version of New York City, with the obvious notable exception that there are three Twin Towers.
We never find out if they make it to Imar or make it home, though I would imagine if the show had been a success, they would have pulled a Star Trek: Voyager and snatched away the “way home” at the last minute to keep them in the parallel world. Sci-fi and action shows didn’t really start to get serialized until years later, so I doubt they would have done anything to radically alter the show’s concept during its run.
But Otherworld did have a fantastic premise, one that I often wish would be remade today. But you know if they did remake it, they would serialize and Mystery Box the hell out of it, with flashbacks, and flash-forwards, and multiple parallel timelines, and every visit to a new province would last eight episodes. So I guess just like the music of the Beatles, Otherworld came out at the right time and place to have the greatest impact, even if that impact was limited to a handful of episodes and a place in the fond memories of a select few like me.