Friday, July 18, 2008

(Auto) Pilot: Reviewing the Pilot Script of Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas

(Simul-posted at Pink Raygun)

If his pilot script for Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas is any indication, Thomas Wheeler is one ambitious storyteller. Combining elements of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and a slew of Saturday morning kids shows and young adult fantasy books, Wheeler's script is a breezy, enjoyable read that seems aimed at younger viewers, but still manages to include enough layers to be of interest to the adults in the audience.

Atlas begins with a narrator, who quickly fills us in on the mythology of the show. Captain Cook was the greatest English navigator of his time, not only exploring the unknown corners of this world, but also embarking on adventures in "another world existing beside our own, a fantastical world of adventure and magic." He wrote all of his magical adventures down in his Extraordinary Atlas, then hid it so that it would not fall into the wrong hands. Yet, over the years, a few have found it and become Navigators, traveling to the other world to have adventures. And now, it appears, it's time for a new Navigator to find the book.

Immediately we get a sense of adventure and mystery, and learn that Atlas takes itself seriously when the narrator tells us of Captain Cook's death at the point of a native spear: adventurers can be killed. There's fun to be had here, not to mention adventure and excitement, but do not expect the whimsical humor of something like, say, Pushing Daisies.

Following the opening narration, we are immediately introduced to the Malloys as they move into their new home. There's Marion (Janel Maloney), the cheerleader-like mom who just wants her family to be normal; Phinneas Sr. (Patrick Breen), the college professor father; Finn (Nathan Gamble), whom IMDB expositionally lists as simply Brother; and Gwen (Jodelle Ferland), the 13-year-old tomboyish heroine of the show. Quickly and efficiently, their characters are established and they arrive at the house of Phinneas's new boss, Dean Winters, for a party. Marion warns Gwen not to sneak off exploring because it's "embarrassing," but naturally Gwen does just that. In short order, she discovers a secret stairway inside a closet, which leads her to a basement room full of antique objects, maps...and Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas. A mysterious, pale boy interrupts her reading and scares her away, but not before she's able to learn about the "secret world beside our own." As Gwen rejoins the party, Dean Winters shares a secret smile with her and tells her that she's welcome to stop by at any time.

The next morning before school, Gwen goes to talk to Dean Winters, but when she discovers his house is empty she decides to return to the secret room. She's just started looking at the Atlas when a closet door creaks open and Gwen bolts, unintentionally stealing the Atlas. The school bus disappears as Gwen exits the dean's house, and she arrives late to school, having the typical fish-out-of-water experiences we've all come to expect from any kid-goes-to-a-new-school story. There's even a complete jerk of a teacher, Mr. Boots (Marc Vann), who takes joy in embarrassing her in front of his class.

But now Gwen has the Atlas, and it's not long before she's accidentally off on a Dragon Safari. She learns from the ever-helpful Atlas how to spot the telltale signs of a nearby dragon and that one should bring diamonds, rubies or gemstones to appease them. Unfortunately, Gwen left all of her rare jewels at home (whoops!), and it's only with the help of a mysterious stranger that she escapes with her life. More adventures and danger follow, but it would be a shame to give any more of it away. Suffice it to say that we see more of the dean, the pale boy, the stranger and even Mr. Boots, and before the end of the pilot, Gwen learns that the Atlas has chosen her to be the new Navigator and explore as many of its mysteries as she is able.

At its best, Atlas feels like a young adult fantasy novel, safe for kids but layered enough for adults, and containing a fantasy world that feels both real and fully realized, but never in a way that feels too ridiculous or silly. More importantly, by the end of the script it's made quite clear that Wheeler has specific plans for where this show will go. Seeing as how he has no other IMDB credits, I can only hope that whatever showrunner ABC brings on board actually lets him stay true to his vision.

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