Adventures in Odyssey is the sort of thing you either know a lot about or nothing at all. Focus on the Family’s long-lived radio drama was, for many kids, their first real introduction to serialized storytelling. In many homes, it was one of the few acceptable forms of family friendly, Christian entertainment. The radio drama, which follows the adventures of the citizens of a small Midwestern town, offers chummy moral lessons and gentle biblical teaching, but did so with a lot of flair, humor and adventure. And at least one time machine.
Yes, as Odyssey fans know, the drama’s central character is John Avery Whittaker, an ice cream shop owner and dispenser of Christian wisdom who has also invented a time machine called the Imagination Station. This Imagination Station, which looks sort of like an old-timey phone booth, is just sort of there in Whittaker’s ice cream shop. Once every few episodes, Whittaker crams a kid or two into the Imagination Station and sends them hurtling back in time, usually to a Bible story though sometimes to an event in American history.
This raises a good deal of questions. Chief among them, did Whit actually crack time travel? It doesn’t seem like it. The Imagination Station’s first appearance is in episode #46, and Whit just refers to it as the “Environment Enhancer.” He tells his friend and employee Connie that the new invention “adds effects and music while you’re listening to a story, to make it seem like you’re there.” Setting aside that music would seem to take you out of the illusion, this makes it sound like Whit was simply early to the VR software game, beating Oculus Rift to the punch by several decades. Impressive, but not necessarily time travel. Not yet anyway.
Twenty episodes later, in episode #66, Whit introduces the first real Imagination Station, which he uses to send an Odyssey kid with the unlikely name of Digger Digwillow back to witness the death and resurrection of Jesus. The whole thing is realistic enough that Digger seems to genuinely fear for his life at a few points, fully forgetting that he’s safely tucked into some sort of VR phone booth. He also seems genuinely awestruck by the experience of witnessing the most important event in human history. The actual passage of time is a bit of a mystery, since this adventure would take at least three days, though the episode does not record Digger’s parents expressing any concern for their missing son or how he takes care of basics like eating and sleeping.
Later episodes would find Imagination Station users both eating and sleeping, suggesting Whit upgraded his “environment enhancer” to something closer to the Holodeck. As far as we know, Whit would never charge people to use the Imagination Station or even monitor its use very closely. One would think the Imagination Station could be used to generate considerable income, though Adventures in Odyssey only rarely records anything resembling long lines or any level of public interest outside of a few kids who swing by for milkshakes and maybe a quick trip to witness the Ten Plagues during the Egyptian Captivity as recorded in Exodus firsthand.
But the public’s lack of interest may not have been apathy, but fear, as we have only scratched the surface of the Imagination Station’s true capabilities. Fans would learn just what the Imagination Station could really do in episodes #211 and 212, an infamous two-parter called “The Mortal Coil.” In it, both Whit and his employee Eugene inadvertently use the Imagination Station and get a taste of the afterlife. Whit, being a Christian, glimpses Heaven, where he is reunited with his late wife. He is so taken by the illusion of his own creation that he slips into a coma for several days, unconsciously unwilling to depart the Imagination Station’s depiction of glory.
Eugene suffered a far worse fate. A religious skeptic, Eugene’s experience of the afterlife was one of the eternal torment of damnation, an experience that sent him into several days of horrified catatonia. Adventures in Odyssey was supposed to be family friendly, but it’s a safe bet that secular alternatives like Muppet Babies weren’t finding ways to send their fan favorites to Dante’s Inferno.
This all suggests something far more elaborate than a virtual reality device. Time travel creates all sorts of conundrums handily explored by movies like Back to the Future, Terminator and Avengers: Endgame, but the Imagination Station’s power over life and death raises a lot more questions. Did Whit program Heaven and Hell into the Imagination Station? Like, why? Should kids really be using a device this powerful? Are there any waivers or parental consent forms involved? If not, what sort of lawyers is Whit working with to send kids zipping across the timestream and out beyond the mortal plane of existence? Come to think, should this thing really just be sitting in an Ohio ice cream shop? Shouldn’t the CIA and potentially the United Nations be aware of its existence? Maybe it should be boxed up next to the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movies?
Future Adventures in Odyssey movies would expand the Imagination Station’s power even further. It would even get wrapped up in a plot for world domination, which is the least surprising thing you can imagine someone wanting to do with a machine this powerful. But no matter how many times the world is endangered or how many people witness their eternal destinies, Whit soldiers on with his invention, either too blinded by hubris to back down or too obsessive to fully comprehend what infernal machinations his machine has wrought. Like so many inventors before him and even more since, Whit has failed to understand that just because he can do something does not mean he should. And since Whit’s End has no ethics board that we know of, he is allowed total autonomy over what may well be the most powerful machine in the world.
None of this answers the question of how the Imagination Station works. But we do have a clear answer as to whether or not it should go on working. Whit should clearly retire the Imagination Station. It’s only a matter of time until our worst fears are realized. Unfortunately, the passage of time is not something Whit has to concern himself with. Not anymore.