Hollywood! Adapt This: SPELLBINDER

     April 7, 2013


On today’s installment of Hollywood! Adapt This, we’re going to get a little more obscure and talk about a mid-90s television series that took an Earthbound teenager and transported him into a parallel world.  Rather than being a straight “fish out of water” series, the protagonist uses his knowledge of high school science to combat the ruling class of the world, known as Spellbinders.  It was a fun bit of Medieval fantasy mixed up with wacky scientific inventions worthy of Nikola Tesla himself.  Hit the jump to find out more.  Hollywood! Adapt this: Spellbinder.

spellbinder-paul-rianaWhat It’s About:

Spellbinder, created by Mark Shirrefs and John Thomson, was developed for TV in a joint production between Australian and Polish production companies.  The series ran for an initial 26 episodes in 1995 and was followed up by a sequel series, Spellbinder: Land of the Dragon Lord (starring a young Ryan Kwanten).  The original series centered on Paul (Zbych Trofimiuk), a teenager with a mind for science. He and his trouble-making friend, Alex (Brian Rooney) pull a prank at a school camp that inadvertently opens a portal into a parallel world.  Paul investigates, only to be trapped in the other world when the door closes.

While the authorities search for him in his home world, Paul runs afoul of a teenage girl named Riana (Gosia Piotrowska) who mistakes him for a savage Marauder.  There’s clearly some miscommunication between the two as Paul talks about cities and telephones and cars while Riana keeps mentioning Marauders and Spellbinders.  Before long, Paul gets caught up in the Medieval world populated by agrarian peasants who are ruled by technologically-proficient Spellbinders.  While most of these rulers are benevolent, one particular Spellbinder named Ashka (Heather Mitchell) is hellbent on ruling with an iron fist.  Though the Spellbinders wield power through control over electricity and magnetic fields, they don’t truly understand the science behind these natural phenomena.  Paul does, which puts him at odds with the ruling class and lands him in the crosshairs of Ashka herself.

How Could / Why Should It Be Adapted:

Spellbinder was itself an adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, whether Shirrefs and Thomson intended it that way or not.  Just like the Yankee engineer used his knowledge of science and technology to appear as a magician to the commoners of the Middle Ages, so too does Paul attempt to enlighten the townsfolk of the parallel world.  As Paul becomes a thorn in the side of Ashka throughout the course of the story, an interesting theme of “knowledge as power” develops.  Some Spellbinders seek to rediscover the ancient secrets of their technology that were lost after a distant cataclysmic event referred to only as “the Darkness.”  The myth purported by the Spellbinders is that the ancestors of the modern-day Marauders caused the fall, but in fact it was caused by the ancient Spellbinders’ arrogance and lust for power.  This idea of “the fall of Icarus” (or Lucifer or any other entity who dared to reach too high, take your pick) is further reinforced by the fact that the existing Spellbinders have no knowledge of how to repair or create new weapons or vehicles, so their few existing functional items are most precious to them.

spellbinder-ashkaWhile Spellbinder is a lot of fun as a pure fantasy adventure, there is plenty of depth to the story when you start to consider the implications of knowledge in all its facets (who possesses it and to what extent, who is allowed to pursue it and apply it, etc) along with the power that that knowledge brings.  In a nice bit of sneaky meta writing, Paul also acts as a teacher for young viewers and on-screen townspeople alike as he explains concepts such as planetary orbits, aerodynamics and electricity, just to name a few.  (He’s basically a young Mr. Wizard in an action-adventure role.)  I’m always a fan of shows that try to educate their audience and give them a challenging story that forces them to think critically.  Spellbinder is a surprising example of one such show and I think it deserves another look.

How could it be adapted?  Spellbinder is one of those shows that, while it avoided too many goofy cliche anachronisms within the plot of the show, the show itself is now out of time with modern audiences.  Paul’s Walkman and Game Boy are as foreign to young 21st century viewers as they were to the people ruled by the Spellbinders.  The great thing about Spellbinder‘s story is that you can plunk a contemporary kid into any world you want, say for instance a world that is literally parallel in time to ours but was forged in the scientific crucible of Nikola Tesla.  Or it could go with any variety of “punk” machinations: steampunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, cyberpunk, what have you.  Continuuma show that’s currently on SyFy, does a nice job at covering the cyberpunk aesthetic with a bit of time travel thrown in, but it’s aimed at older audiences and features a procedural aspect.  Spellbinder could probably find success on the network as either a live-action series aimed at a younger demographic, a short-run miniseries or even an animated series if done right.

The Final Word:

Spellbinder was a fun fantasy adventure with science and science-fiction elements that not only stressed the importance of knowledge but actually doled some out to its viewers, too.  Another thing I loved about the show was the way in which informational tidbits were handed out since they were rarely heavy-handed or presented separately from the show itself.  A series that features a world dependent on a wholly different form of energy production would be a novel way to inform viewers on alternative methods of energy.  If that particular world was based on Tesla’s idea, which I’m obviously for, then that could be quite the interesting history lesson on the overshadowed scientist himself.  I’m all for any project that seeks to engage the mind of its viewers and challenges them to think in different and deeper ways while exposing them to new thoughts, ideas and technologies; a reboot of Spellbinder would be a perfect foot in the door for such a production.

Check out the U.S. intro and the first episode from the series below:

Be sure to catch up with our previous iterations of Hollywood! Adapt This and tune in next week when we do our best to avoid Temple Guards while getting advice from a giant carved stone head named Olmec.  If anyone knows where Kirk Fogg got to, tell him he’s invited.