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So you've seen all of the new shows this fall - but what about the ones that didn't make the cut? For the next 30 days we're going to take a "first look" at a collection of 30 pilots that didn't land on the 2009-10 season schedule. Are there any gems that got passed over or are they all deservedly locked in the networks' vaults? Stay tuned.
CAPTAIN COOK'S EXTRAORDINARY ATLAS (ABC)
(written by Tom Wheeler; directed by Thomas Schlamme; TRT: 49:36)
What is it? A drama about a 13-year-old girl who finds a magical atlas detailing worlds hidden among our own.
Who was behind it?: Thomas Schlamme ("Invasion") directed the hour from a script by Tom Wheeler ("Empire").
The plot in a nutshell: We gave the script a whirl last year but here's a fresh recap of the finished product: Captain James Cook, perhaps the greatest explorer of all time, was murdered in 1879 on the island of Kona. Legend has it, according to the narrator ("Battlestar Galactica's" Jamie Bamber, unless my ears deceive me), before his death Cook compiled an atlas of all the arcane knowledge he acquired in his travels. In the present day, 13-year-old Gwen Malloy (Jodelle Ferland) is about to stumble across this "extraordinary" book. First she's got to find Jasper, her pet tarantula. You see, she and her family - younger brother Poe (Nathan Gamble), dad Porter (Patrick Breen) and mom Marion (Janel Moloney) - have just relocated to Valley Springs. There Porter has snagged a job working for the legendary Dean Davis Winters (the always awesome Hal Holbrook) and the entire Malloy clan have been invited to a reception at his house.
The overly precocious Gwen however will have nothing to do with stuffy parties and instead spends the night exploring the dean's massive estate. Amongst his collection of mysterious antiques: an old book inside a chest entitled "Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas." Said document contains what appears to be the impossible - instructions on how to find portals that lead to worlds hidden among us. Furthermore those who use the book are called "Navigators" and must follow three rules: "wear sensible shoes, never travel at night and never ever leave anything behind... for if you leave no marks nor trail then nothing can follow you out." A few pages in however she's spooked by a young boy that warns her "no one comes down here." The following morning Gwen wakes up to find the Atlas sitting on a shelf in her closet, as if it followed her home. Tucked in one of the pages is a note that reads, "Gwenevere, can you find this?" The object in question is a "dragon portal."
And that she does, in a nearby foundry, after following the book's instructions. There, much to her surprise, she literally finds a dragon who isn't too thrilled about being disturbed. Thankfully a mysterious stranger named Bishop ("Chuck's" Jonathan Cake) rescues her, issuing a strong warning about what she's playing with in the process. Not sure what to do, Gwen seeks out Dean Winters for answers. There she discovers that Bishop and Winters are acquaintances of some sort as they argue about things we don't quite understand yet. He does however give some answers: Gwen is special, so much so that the Atlas has chosen her as its Navigator, its "chief exploration officer." Her job then is to help complete Cook's work by continuing to chart the unknown. She'll also face dangers beyond what she finds in these worlds, namely those who want the Atlas for themselves. Case in point: Mr. Boots ("CSI's" Marc Vann), Gwen's new teacher, who's overly curious about the latest addition to his class.
She'll have to get up to speed quickly though as Winters is murdered that night leaving Bishop as her sole protector. He explains that a Naga, a shapeshifting creature, is responsible. And it's probably not alone. His suggestion is to turn over the Atlas to him so he can give it to people that can keep it safe. Confused, Gwen returns home to discover that Poe has taken the Atlas from her room and done some exploring of his own. He however neglected to follow the rules and something has followed him back. That something - a Bridge Troll - conveniently turns out to be the natural enemy of the Naga. So when the Naga returns - revealed to be Mr. Boots in disguise - Gwen manages to lock both creatures in the basement, the "friendly" one emerging victorious. Her first trial behind her, Gwen turns to bigger questions, namely, is she really Marion and Porter's daughter?
What works: The first 15 minutes or so are genuinely endearing - whispers of legend, promises of secrets and the like all suggest a truly adventurous hour is ahead. Throw in a charming lead (Ferland will undoubtedly have her own show someday), a scruffy protector (Cake's Bishop) and the universal theme of wondering about where you fit in and there's definitely a lot to like about "Atlas." It always surprises me how few attempts have been made at this particular genre as a family action-adventure hour along the lines of "Harry Potter" seems as worthy of a shot as anything else that's been tried in recent years. As for "Atlas" itself...
What doesn't: ...it ultimately proves to be kind of silly. First and foremost is that the Atlas turns out to be a giant MacGuffin device that solves and creates all problems. Gwen isn't really tasked with doing much other than reading a giant instruction manual with danger only creeping in when she hasn't had a chance to finish it. It's a frustrating development as the original script seemed to suggest the maps were vague enough that Gwen had to put the pieces together. Here it essentially boils down to figuring out some pages are Mad Magazine fold-ins, a fact that takes the edge off Gwen's purported specialness. Furthermore the various creatures are presented as so menacing that it's almost preposterous that Gwen can not only survive their attacks but ultimately outwit them. I get that this is a family show but the suspension of disbelief is a little too far off the charts. All in all, I really want to like this show...
The bottom line: ...I just wish it didn't fly so far off the rails.