If there was a spike in applications for Classical Studies courses in the late ’80s, it’s probably down to Ulysses 31. First aired in 1981-1982 and shown on Children’s BBC four years later, this French/Japanese co-production transplanted the legends of Odysseus to the 31st century: so, for example, the Cyclops became a giant robot, and three-headed hell-dog Cerberus a heat-detecting “interceptor satellite”. After Ulysses – think Bee Gee Barry Gibb, but with a cape and lightsaber-like laser sword – saves his son from sacrifice by destroying the Cyclops, the gods punish him by sending him into “the strange cosmos of Olympus”, in search of the Kingdom of Hades. For me and no doubt many others, the show kick-started an interest in classical mythology in much the way that Ray Harryhausen’s movies did for an earlier generation.
It still looks fantastic today. In particular, I love the design of Ulysses’ spaceship, the Odyssey, which doesn’t seem to have a room that’s less than 40 feet high – it even contains fields with cows! That titanic sense of scale is characteristic of the many planets visited over its 26 instalments.
It’s a long, strange trip, with some psychedelic sights: flying unicorns, Lovecraftian monsters, a swarm of giant space moths. And it has its spooky moments, too: in the last episode, Ulysses finally reaches Hades, whose inhabitants – black-eyed revenants who float about backwards, causing anything they touch to disintegrate – seriously creeped me out.
Then there’s the groovy prog-rock score, with its flutes and wah-wah guitar. Three decades on, a doomy death-march cue called “La Malédiction Des Dieux” still bubbles up from my subconscious every so often, compelling me to hum it for the rest of the day.
There’s just one fly in the ointment... In the aftermath of Star Wars, every sci-fi series had to have a cute robot. Ulysses 31’s is Nono, a bolt-guzzling scaredy-cat who spends most of his time gawping open-mouthed in a manner which may have inspired Caitlin Moran’s photograph face, or spitting out cheesy catchphrases worthy of a Crackerjack presenter (“Mumbling moons!”). However, with judicious use of the fast-forward button he’s easily erased. If you’ve never seen the show, I urge you to hunt down the DVDs. You’re bound to enjoy it – unless you’re horribly Homer-phobic…
Ian Berriman is fighting all the evil forces, bringing peace and justice to all.