Land of the Lost 2.13 – Blackout

If the previous two episodes were horrifying because of their alien strangeness and lack of answers, then this one is a more conventional creepy, with a pretty epic battle against the Sleestak. They apparently figured that if a malfunction in a pylon earlier in the season would keep the sun from going down, then some deliberate sabotage would keep the sun from coming up. They had asked the Library of Skulls how to obtain “eternal night,” and the Skulls showed them precisely that. The Sleestak want it to be night to be able to hunt their moths – important for their eggs’ fertilization somehow – but the longer it’s dark, the colder it gets, killing all the moths.

This turned out to be Spencer Milligan’s last episode of the show, but he went out on a high note. It’s written by Dick Morgan and Donald F. Glut – and I’m pretty sure that everybody in the United States who was under the age of twelve in 1980 owned a copy of Glut’s Empire Strikes Back novelization, which was a whole lot better than Mel Cebulash’s Love Bug novelization – and directed by Bob Lally, who did an amazing job making those three Sleestak costumes look like dozens this time out. Turning down the studio lights to represent darkness worked pretty darn well, too.

So that was it! That was all the Land of the Lost they made. It was more than just a great show, it was absolutely the best of its genre, but it ended after thirty episodes, and that’s all there is of that, yes.

No. No, that’s not true at all. I’m lying. There’s more to come. I’m sorry. There’s more.

Land of the Lost 2.6 – Gravity Storm

Season two is just wall-to-wall horrors for kids, isn’t it? Prior to this episode, Marie and I gave Daniel a short lesson in gravity so he’d have a better understanding of what the heck is going on in this episode. About halfway through, they make the educated guess that the reason everybody – human, Paku, and dinosaur – keeps getting pinned to the ground by an unseen force is that the Zarn is up to something in the Mist Marsh.

And up to that point, Daniel was doing just fine. There’s a very slight comic edge to everybody falling over, and again the animators gave so much character to the dinosaurs. When Spike finally gives up and stomps away, he cracks a tree with a grumble. But the Zarn is weird and off-putting at the best of times, and he’s in no mood to listen to the Marshalls. He doesn’t believe that a time doorway is necessary to return home; he thinks that the gravity drive of his spaceship can get him into space. He doesn’t understand that there’s nowhere to go; this Land is all there is inside the doorways.

When the Zarn gets bored of discussing physics with the Marshalls, he shoos them away with a robot guardian. Roughly dinosaur-shaped, about nine feet tall and lacking arms, he calls it Fred, and it scared the bejezus out of Daniel, especially when another gravity storm leaves the humans trapped on their backs as Fred, screeching, marches closer to them. Nobody has ever been so relieved as he was when Fred is struck by lightning and collapses, its circuits fried.

Land of the Lost 2.5 – The Test

Big Alice always plays second fiddle to Grumpy when people remember Land of the Lost, but I always liked her best. I love how she always brings her head really low. The animation in the show is dated, but the crew put so much personality into those models. And make no mistake: she is absolutely convincing and utterly horrifying to kid viewers. Daniel was buried under a blanket for most of this installment, occasionally bellowing “I don’t want to watch this show of Land of the Lost!”

But he stuck with it, and was rewarded with the stop-motion team’s other great triumph. Tom Swale’s script – his first of three, all of which are very, very good – involves Cha-Ka being instructed to steal an allosaurus egg as part of the Pakuni rite of manhood, and if you don’t predict that the egg is going to hatch, you must be new to this kind of story. The baby allosaur, who is quickly named Junior, is the cutest thing in the entire universe, and communicates in an obnoxious but somehow charming squeak. Somewhere in TV Heaven, Junior is hanging out with the Clangers, squeaking and whistling at each other.

The story really shines from the direction. Like “Tag Team” in season one, this is a very simple story without a lot to it, and so Bob Lally has to build remarkable tension with the characters in mortal danger from the special effects, relying on music and pacing to make it all work. The first commercial break comes with Cha-Ka in the foreground struggling with the egg, unaware that Big Alice, on the other side of the Lost City’s plaza, has caught sight of him, has lowered her head, and, deep in the background of the shot, is slowly walking toward the camera. There’s no WOW! shot, no musical sting, and no need for pizzazz. It’s quiet and subtle and it worked astonishingly well; our son was scared out of his wits by it.

On the side of the plaza where Cha-Ka is fumbling with the egg, we get our first glimpse of a strange, ruined building that the Marshalls have not visited before. I can’t tell you how much I love the way the writers just planted all these seeds to revisit in later stories. Not even the prime-time dramas on American TV in the ’70s were so willing to develop long continuity like this. This was so ahead of its time.

Land of the Lost 1.16 – Hurricane

I did promise our son that this episode was not a frightening one, but he sure pretended that it was, and found reasons to run and hide whenever possible, just because he enjoys the little rush. Even the reasonably harmless triceratops, Spike, had him making a dash for safety. About which, I’ve always wondered why the miniature unit shot that dinosaur in such a long shot. You know the one, they used it about five times, with the beast at the far end of a clearing, munching away, and making a sudden turn toward the camera as though something startled it.

This episode, written by Larry Niven and David Gerrold and directed by Bob Lally, sees a one-off visitor to the Land. Ron Masak, who would later have a major recurring role as Sheriff Metzger on Murder, She Wrote, plays Beauregard Jackson, a pilot from at least twenty years in the Marshalls’ future, who parachutes in from a glider, or possibly a Moonbase rocket, after Will opens a time doorway which slices off the back of Jackson’s ship.

The story includes another of the all-time freaky images of the show, as the characters use Jackson’s high-powered binoculars to look across the Land and see themselves from behind. It’s such a neat visual that it will make you forget that the mountaintop backdrop behind them has a great big vertical line running down the center of the sky, because it’s two separate panels badly aligned.

It also has fun with the reality of an open doorway from our world into the closed universe. Will opened the doorway into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where the wind is traveling much, much faster than the calm breeze of the Land. Interestingly, the skylons appear and try to tell the humans how to correct the weather, but their instructions don’t fix anything; the wind that is coming in is unnatural, and the force growing. I’m intrigued that the pylon used in this story can manipulate both weather and time doorways, and also that the pylon and one of the skylons are actually swallowed by the doorway, where, presumably, they plummeted into the ground or the ocean from several miles in the sky and were smashed to pieces.

Also of note: Jackson flat out says that the pylon is “bigger on the inside than the outside,” which is exactly what everybody says when they first step into Doctor Who‘s TARDIS. Now, at the time this was made, only thirteen of Jon Pertwee’s first fourteen Doctor Who serials had been offered for sale in the United States, and Jo Grant does indeed use that line in part one of “Colony in Space,” but only sixteen markets in the country ever picked up the package over the four years it was offered, and KCET in Los Angeles didn’t start airing it until 1975. While it is technically possible that Niven or Gerrold could have seen the concept and description in Who, it’s more likely that this is a delightful little coincidence.

Land of the Lost 1.8 – Skylons

On the surface, this episode of Land of the Lost is pretty light on plot. Will and Holly get inside a pylon for the first time – in fairness, they had no reason to think that the pylons contain anything, never mind that they’re bigger on the inside and have a table full of colored jewels waiting to be manipulated – press the wrong gems, mess with the weather, and are advised by strange lights in the sky how to fix things. But it’s triumphantly effective, and had Daniel petrified.

It’s Dick Morgan’s second script for the show, and it’s got lots of dinosaur business. This time out, the stakes get much higher: Grumpy attacks and kills a coelophysis. We’ve never seen this before, and the effect on a four year-old is thunderous. Now that Daniel knows that Grumpy is capable of killing the things that he chases, all of the dinosaurs became a much greater threat in tonight’s episode. Even the “stampede” of three plant-eating dinosaurs, which really looks for all the world like three old pals out enjoying a gentle romp in the woods, had him climbing over his mommy for protection.

The episode is directed again by Bob Lally, and there are some huge technical goofs, including a very clumsy series of edits right at the second commercial break, when a tree falls on Will, and he was unable to shoot the pylon in a long enough shot to mask that it’s actually right next to the kids, and not a half-mile or so away as the script implies. But as with his previous two stories, he really brings out the best in the actors, who seem genuinely afraid, frightened by the thunderstorm and baffled by the new technology. The youngest viewers feel that fear. This is great stuff.

Technology note: the sequence to repair the damage to the weather is yellow, green, red, blue.

Land of the Lost 1.7 – Album

As we sat down to watch this episode, Marie asked “Do they ever mention their mother?” I gave her a side-eye, suspecting for a second that she’d peeked ahead.

This episode is phenomenally creepy. Daniel spent most of it buried under his security blanket. It’s a great example of how Land of the Lost simply didn’t sound like anything else on TV. The occasional banjo in the incidental music is odd enough, but there’s a soundscape of ambient electronic noises that’s really eerie and unsettling, especially when so much of the story proceeds without dialogue. It sounds like a gentle breeze upsetting a badly-tuned theremin.

This is the first episode written by Dick Morgan, who’d been writing for TV since the 1950s and, while most of the other season one writers had a science fiction background, Morgan was a regular in the Jack Webb writers’ pool. In his first contribution, he has Will and Holly attracted by an illusory noise that leads them into the Lost City and into an “album room” where they can see a shadowy image of their dead mother, played by Erica Hagen, who is beckoning them into a doorway. It’s the first time that we see that the Sleestak have some understanding of the Land’s technology.

Dennis Steinmetz had directed the first five episodes of the show. The previous episode, and this one, were directed by Bob Lally, who really pushed the young actors harder and farther than the first episodes prepared us for. Last time out, Wesley Eure and Kathy Coleman were screaming in horror, and this time, they’re struck mute by the illusions, unable to express anything but sadness, silence, and misery. It’s not just creepy; this episode is downright grim.

Technology note: In this episode, a blue crystal can, without being paired with another crystal, create a powerful illusion. Something must have charged or powered the crystal to generate the spell, likely the odd table in the album room, but we are not shown details.