(Copyright 2000, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times)

January 21, 2000

HEADLINE: Here, History Is Reheated, the Future Is Flash-Frozen

'Back 2 Back' features double bills of early American capers and a cryogenically preserved bombshell's futuristic misadventures.


Not many people know this yet, but in 2025 something terribly bad will go down on Earth. Machines dispatched to clean up the environment, the Bailies, figure out the best way to accomplish their task is to exterminate the source of the problem: humankind. The Bailies will turn rogue and force us to go underground.

Next year, in 2001, something bad will go down in an L.A. operating room. A stripper named Cleopatra will fall into a coma during a routine breast enhancement. Her benefactor boyfriend will have her cryogenically frozen. When she defrosts 524 years later in a spare body parts dealership, the ever-evolving Bailies will still control the Earth's surface. Worse, there will be no insurance companies to sue for malpractice.

Nor do many people know that when George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776 it was American spy Jack Stiles who watched his back. History books will tell you that the U.S. bought Louisiana from France for $15 million, but the truth is, Jack Stiles won it from Napoleon in a card game.

At the turn of the 18th century, Jack Stiles was dispatched to the East Indies by President Thomas Jefferson to work undercover against French imperialism. He was teamed with a wealthy British widow who was a secret agent for the guy we Yanks beat in 1783, King George III.

Fasten your seat belts, TV time travelers, it could be a bumpy ride across nine centuries in just 60 minutes when "Back 2 Back Action" premieres Saturday on KTLA-TV. Produced by Renaissance Pictures and distributed by Studios USA to replace "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," which aired its series finale in November, "Back 2 Back" is an hourlong package of two half-hour shows.

" Cleopatra 2525" is a moody, post-apocalyptic sci-fi action drama set 500 years in the future. Think "Charlie's Angels" meets "Terminator." The other half of the package, "Jack of All Trades," is a wacky, swashbuckling comedy that takes place during the Age of Enlightenment at the pace of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Think Zorro played by Groucho Marx meets "Moonlighting," "Hogan's Heroes" and "Wild Wild West," with a smidgen of "F Troop" too. "No, no, no. None of this is derivative," joked co-creator and executive producer Rob Tapert in New Zealand, where the shows are shot. "It's all new, all action, all our own original ideas."

It seems an odd match, Action Barbie fighting computer-generated Rorschach inkblots gone bad in the far future and a roguish goofball of a gumshoe relying on corny sight gags. " Cleo 2525" features high- tech weaponry--booster rockets on boots and such--digi-mapped battles, conspiracy theories and a big dry-ice budget. "Jack" features drawn pistols, rapier fights, repartee and little plot; it's a "relationship show," Tapert said.

Yet, what sticks the two shows together is tonality. Both use the same formula of a campy, contemporary sensibility applied to an unaccustomed scenario that the production company cooked up first for "Hercules." Fish-out-of-water characters pay tongue-in-cheek homage to modern-day culture. And by returning to the half-hour format, Renaissance expects again to be a TV trend-setter.

"The video generation needs fast-paced action," said co-executive producer Eric Gruendemann. "We'll be the first to get the trend as it's coming around again." Tapert said, "We had to totally readjust how we tell stories. The shows are still about characters and how they interact, but the cuts have to come in different places to fit the heart of a one-hour drama into 21 minutes."

When Cleopatra awakens underground after five centuries, the Bailies still roam the Earth's surface. Whether Bailies are machines or aliens or both, no one knows anymore. For the series, they're computer-generated and look like a plasmatic cumulus cloud extruding continuously, with a mood ring for an emotional center. Underground, human guerrillas are waging a war, using thousands of shafts to move up and down levels of habitation. Ditzy dame Cleopatra, who uses 20th century pop-culture references to fake out opponents, teams up with Hel. She's the brains and moral compass with a voice implanted in her jaw that directs the attempt to retake the surface. Also on board is Sarge, the muscle, incapable of tenderness. She's a female Bruce Willis with abs and a secret weapon, "The Pelvic Thruster," deployed from her thong. Mauser is the gadget man straight from "Mission: Impossible." He's an android, but beefcake, and a constant frustration to the chicks: He's not programmed for sex-- yet.

The producers cast the new shows from "Hercules" and its spinoff, "Xena: Warrior Princess." Gina Torres, who appeared often in "Hercules" as the pirate captain Nebula, stars as Hel in " Cleopatra 2525. " Jennifer Sky, the hotheaded warrior Amarice in "Xena," is Cleopatra. Former Canadian track and field champ Victoria Pratt guest- starred in the "Xena" opener last season. She plays Sarge. And Kevin Sorbo's body and stunt double for six years on "Hercules," Patrick Kake, is Mauser.

Starring on "Jack of All Trades" is Bruce Campbell, who started Renaissance with Tapert and Sam Raimi and was a "Hercules" regular as Autolycus, king of thieves. New Zealand TV star Angela Dotchin, who's guest-starred in both "Hercules" and "Xena," plays British spy Emilia Rothschild. Rothschild's assigned to an island called Pulau Pulau. As part of her mission, she has befriended the island's governor, Croque, Emperor Napoleon's advance man in the East Indies. It's a little- known fact that Croque is also Napoleon's "illegitimate twin." Jack's cover is to serve as Rothschild's personal attache. British Emilia is refined, capable, idealistic, impatient. Yankee Jack is a scoundrel and a wise guy who can't keep a lid on it, spouting such lines as "So long, sister. It's been revolutionary." Emilia and Jack can't stand each other; they can't live without each other; they drive each other crazy. They're a perfect pair.

While "Hercules" depended on action and special effects, "Jack" "relies on performance and dialogue," director Christopher Graves said in December on set. " 'Jack of All Trades' will be as comic as we can make it." The humor is almost Borscht Belt, despite the youth of the head writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. You can hear them cracking up over their own jokes as they write. In the pilot airing Saturday, Jack saves a grateful damsel in distress. They leap off a parapet into bed. There's a knock at the door. "Beat it, turkey. I'm in the middle of some Thanksgiving," Jack yells. Someone who sounds a lot like John F. Kennedy calls, "Open the door, Jack. It's Thomas Jefferson."

Said Orci, "We're twisting history to serve the needs of comedy." Kurtzman agreed. "We have a passing awareness of the facts. We know Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence. We know he had a ponytail. We know he was president. We know Napoleon was short. We know he kept his hand in his jacket. We know he combed his hair forward and wore a funny hat. "We don't get much more historical than that," he added.

Revisionist, too, is the world of " Cleopatra 2525. " Production designer Rob Gilles has been reworking a 1950s idea of what the future would look like. He's been recycling industrial products.

For example, Gilles cannibalized an old-fashioned hooded hair dryer for use in the lab where Dworks--an enslaved tribe of humans harvested by the Bailies--are cloned into Betrayers, or infiltrators to the human front below ground.

" 'Cleo' is similar to 'Xena' in that it offers good, honest adventures in which there's lots of jeopardy, comedy and some melodrama," said head writer R.J. Stewart, who created the series with Tapert. "With 'Xena,' we always had the Greek myths as a starting point. And did we jump off!

"But with this show we've invented our own mythology, making a world where people's belief systems are challenged," he said. "And then along comes Cleopatra, who has millenniums of knowledge about humanity--data that's been lost--and she alters everything."

She packs quite a wallop in an unimaginable world where people don't know anything about Dirty Harry. When she wakes up, it doesn't take the defrosted stripper long to figure out she's not in Kansas anymore. She grabs a gun and yells, "Go on. Make my day: I know what you two are asking yourselves, 'Does she know that weapon well enough to take us both on?' Well, do you feel lucky?"