Mysterious Island (1995)

A lengthy and largely location set TV adaptation of Jules Verne’s second Captain Nemo adventure, this Canadian & New Zealand co-production is underpinned by the intriguing premise, ‘what if Captain Nemo was the bad guy, a psychopath enjoys playing mind games with people instead of helping them?’

Staying true to the sweep of the novel, the US CivilWar-era castaways crash land on a deserted island. Only here they have been shot down by Nemo. This is a knowing riff on how Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest begins, with the wizard Prospero creating a storm to shipwrecks passing boat so he can toy with them.

Further drawing on The Tempest, this Nemo is a manipulative figure played with theatrical relish by John Bach, who uses the island castaways for lab rats in a series of experiments to explore the limits of human psychological endurance.

Nemo becomes increasingly sinister and violent figure, adding much needed tension, with the tone nearing that of TV’s The Prisoner at its best moments, with the castaways being provided with gifts by Nemo, while subject to ever more ingenious and dangerous trials, and anticipates the rise of Reality TV shows such as, I’m a Celebrity.

Far from being an exiled Indian prince, Nemo is white, nor is he seeking revenge on the British for past wrongs. He does live in a steampunk Nautilus, and is introduced early as the antagonist. He’s interestingly complex, wanting to be the sole arbiter of death on the island and not taking kindly to his will being thwarted.

Living in splendid isolation with no-one to talk to, he records his thoughts by speaking them into a machine, so the audience can hear his thoughts and intentions. And his viewing machine harks back to communicator device of Ming the Merciless from the 1930’s Flash Gordon serial.

This version mixes up, takes away and adds to the core list of castaways, enhancing them from Verne’s empty paragons to more complex, more realistic and dramatically interesting, failures of humanity.

There’s no dog or orang utan and the characters are fleshed by the game performers. Verne’s character of young Herbert is reconfigured as the teenage son of Jack Pencroft, who is accompanied by the new character of his Irish wife, Joanna. A woman!

As Joanna, actor Colette Stevenson often outshines the men and is a scowling sarcastic nurse and nursemaid and object of attention from not just her husband. And she’s frequently frustrated at being left at the home while the men go off hunting and fishing.

Here the Confederates among the castaways are unrepentant racists, and Neb is a freed slave turned Union soldier under command of Captain Cyrus Harding, which allows for more dramatic conflict among the castaways than Verne achieved or was interested in.

Neb is eager to act as a salve to Cyrus’s conscience, and no sooner has Neb been used b the scriptwriters to forgive Harding his slave-owning past, then Neb is dispiritingly revealed to be regarded as little more than a Star Trek redshirt.

For an adaptation which cleaves reasonably strongly and pleasingly to its source, this is one departure than rankles rather than enhances the series.

However the introduction of Maori characters make for an interesting addition to Verne’s story, and they speak in own language with the show providing subtitles. And Nemo revels in the castaways ‘becoming a downtrodden minority in their own home’.

Yes this series is often formulaic and each episode feels padded, but it’s no worse than other shows of the time and it improves as it goes along. There’s great use of New Zealand locations, the stunt team are working hard, and with a little more money spent on interiors and props, plus a sharper sense of humour, this could have been very good indeed.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett