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 2.12 – Split Personality

This episode is horrifying. It’s completely amazing and it’s completely horrifying. I can’t imagine anything like it being shown on kids’ TV today. We can make some pretty good guesses about what happened, but, like last week’s episode, we don’t get any kind of definitive answer. But this time, unlike “The Musician,” it’s not just the unknown alien nature of the situation that’s frightening, it’s the amazing acting job that Kathy Coleman pulls off.

What seems to happen – and this is the most obvious explanation, built on the assumption of decades of media fantasy and SF, but by no means the only one – is that another Marshall family in another universe met a horrifying accident. They attempted a way home just as an earthquake hit, a quake so powerful that, with a time doorway open, it merged their Land of the Lost with ours.

In the mid-1980s, there was a popular computer game called Wizardry, the only one of its genre I ever played. If you cast your teleportation spell wrong, then you and your party would be trapped in rock. I swear the game’s writers got that from this episode. See, the “other” Holly, fading in and out of our reality, begs them for help, using our Holly as an anchor to speak, and leave mixed memories. Our Holly explains that she’s inside the rocks, and the rocks are inside her. And then there’s that image. The merging of dimensions is so scrambled that their floor becomes our wall.

But between those two moments, there’s one of the most shocking scenes in the entire series. Our Holly won’t go in the cave, slowly panicking, tears running down her face as the other Holly’s memories fade. “I’m losing her, Daddy, I’m losing her…” The implication is obvious: the other Holly has died of her injuries. You might could read that another way – after all, the beauty of this episode is that we are not given specific answers – but I can’t, not with Coleman’s stunning acting. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

Daniel was so scared by this episode he refused to acknowledge liking anything about it except Grumpy falling into a crevasse when the earthquake hits. Just about anything can be forgiven when a tyrannosaurus falls in a hole, I guess. I didn’t get the chance to ask him what he thought about the other Holly trying to explain that they should not trust the black Sleestak.

It’s natural to want answers, and to think that maybe had Dick Morgan stayed with the show into the next season, we’d learn more about the Zarn (and have him meet Enik!), and the Builder, and the black Sleestak, but another part of me kind of enjoys how, like the Marshalls, we never got those answers. All we can do is speculate in the dark.

Land of the Lost 2.11 – The Musician

We’re all embarrassed by our earlier writing, but if you really want to see me cringe, get yourself a copy of Hal Erickson’s Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Childrens Television, 1969-1993 and turn to the bit where I’m quoted going way, way over the top in my praise for this episode. The hyperbole in that section aside – you can kind of tell I’d been reading and rereading those Classic British TV books by Paul Cornell, Keith Topping, and Martin Day – I stand by it. This is my favorite episode of Land of the Lost, and there’s never been another half hour of children’s adventure TV produced for this country that I enjoy more.

Why does this work so well? I think it’s because it’s the perfect example of slowly exploring the very, very alien world around them without any answers. So much of what the Marshalls experience does not come with a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps, had the writers Dick Morgan and Tom Swale continued into season three, they may have circled back to this new temple and the technology and promise here, as well as the interesting hints about alternate universes and different Sleestak to come in the next installment, but this introduction is all that we get, and it’s tantalizing, thrilling, and very, very frightening.

The arrival of a strange red being, and the ghostly voices of the Pakuni whistling in the wind, are completely alien. I was mistaken in thinking that Daniel would be frightened by the previous episode, but the sad, quiet, desperate energy of this installment’s third act was every bit as scary as I imagined it would be to him. He was curled up in his mommy’s lap, whispering “I want to wait in my room until this show is over.”

I just love the direction of the scene in which Will asks the red being, the Builder, to leave them alone, that they’re returning the ring that they unwittingly took from the temple. Wesley Eure keeps his voice low but his eyes wide with fear. There’s no music, just a pulsing, ambient noise coming from the being. Sure, grown-ups won’t be frightened by this, but how can kids help but be alarmed when they don’t even know what the red man is or what he / it wants?

Everything about this episode is just terrific; everybody involved was clearly working very, very hard to make the whole experience completely immersive and believable. The animators did one of their best jobs ever with Big Alice and Junior, the director lined up every single shot perfectly, the designers of this temple had a field day making it real, and the final scene’s revelation that Cha-Ka’s selflessness and bravery has paid off in a very unexpected way is simple, effective, and downright magical. I love this episode to pieces.

Land of the Lost 2.9 – Nice Day

Here’s another “memory cheats” episode. It’s not a blessed thing like how I remembered it as a kid. When I finally obtained copies of all the season two episodes that I hadn’t seen in years – this would have been about 1990 – I was thunderstruck how simple and calm this episode is. Apart from a couple of grunting appearances by Spike the triceratops, there wasn’t anything in this story to give our son even the mildest alarm. It really is the calm before the storm, because after this little outing by Dick Morgan, the next four are terrific, freaky fun.

To set the scene for how my memories tricked me, let’s roll back to the halcyon days of VHS tape trading, a subject we’ll revisit when we get to season three. Many episodes of Land of the Lost were not hard to find in the late 1980s; Embassy Home Video had released the first four, and CBS actually reran at least twenty and perhaps even all of the first thirty episodes on Saturday mornings in 1985 and 1987. So there were copies of quite a few floating around, and eventually somebody landed an episode guide, but there was an episode that I remembered very clearly that was not among them.

What I remembered was that Sharon Baird’s character, Sa, was the witch doctor, and not Ta. This made sense to my little kid brain; Ta was the dominant member of the tribe, and “witch doctor” was Sa’s function. And while I remembered, kind of, that a poisonous plant had stung Holly, I remembered this being a mammoth part of the episode, and not something that happens right at the second commercial break. I also misremembered that somehow, Rick and Will had also been poisoned, and that Sa cured them all after all the humans were left prostrate on the jungle floor. This is actually just a very minor part of the story, another example of Ta insisting on some foolish “ritual” to command attention from everybody else. He doesn’t cure anybody; he just waits out the powerful, but short-lasting, poison and demands payment.

So somehow, I became convinced that there was a missing episode of the show where Sa saves everybody from some horrible sickness, and had no idea that it was this one, because it’s really mainly about Will teaching Cha-Ka what fish are and how to catch them, and Sa doesn’t even appear in it. Memory’s a weird thing.

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 2.2 – The Zarn

“It’s a… jingle man,” Daniel said, as the Zarn slowly made his way into the show with the sound of wind chimes. He found tonight’s episode curious as it unfolded, but was very quietly aggravated with the resolution. He didn’t like that “Sharon,” whom we thought was another stranded human from Indianapolis, turned out to be a robot sent by the Zarn to study the family. He didn’t like that at all, and quietly steamed, outraged on their behalf.

The Zarn is an incredibly interesting idea, realized with brilliant simplicity. The character is played by longtime Krofft puppeteer and actor Van Snowden, with the unmistakable baritone voice of Marvin Miller. Miller is arguably best known as the original voice of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, and starred for years in a hit 1950s series called The Millionaire. Later, the Kroffts would tap him to provide the breathless, ridiculous narration on Electra Woman & Dyna Girl. Snowden played the Zarn on a blue screen stage, wearing a blue body stocking dotted with white circles and rhinestones. Some years later, Peter Gabriel would wear a similar “suit of lights” in the video for “Sledgehammer,” which MTV played approximately three million times, allowing every viewer in the United States between the ages of 14 and 21 plenty of chances to shout “The Zarn!”

But it’s not just the new recurring character that debuts this week. If the previous episode felt like a gentle reminder of dinosaur fun, this time out, everything is thunderously new. The lighting is radically different, and there’s a whole new bank of sounds and musical cues. The Kroffts invested in a new score, with a low, urgent guitar and twinkling piano, which also appeared on their new series Far Out Space Nuts on CBS this season, but there’s also a new stock of strange, ambient music, and I use that term specifically because it reminds me of Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting.

Brilliantly, there’s an entirely new set for the creepy, dark Mist Marsh where the Zarn’s ship is parked, and it’s established that it’s all below ground level. Rick and Will, mapping out the area, take shelter in the mist when Grumpy chases a wounded Spot in their direction, and that’s when they introduce the new score, when the actors are in a completely new and alien environment, dotted with weird, petrified trees and mist. Wesley Eure is completely convincing as Will just wants to get the heck away from there, and Spencer Milligan really gets a chance to shine this week as he befriends Sharon and just feels complete relaxation and relief having somebody about his own age to talk to.

I think that’s what aggravated Daniel so much about the story. Even knowing that something was strange about Sharon, Rick Marshall was happy for a little while, and the Zarn is an arrogant bully who stole it away. Milligan completely sells the situation, and it’s telling that he can only just walk away from it, hoping that he never has to cross paths with this other visitor ever again.

Land of the Lost 1.13 – Follow That Dinosaur

It’s been so long ago, an incident whose reality has been corrupted by its telling, but the first time that television scared me out of my wits was the first time I saw this episode. It was such a long time back that I don’t remember whether I was familiar with Land of the Lost already, or whether I’d ever seen Sleestak before, but the reality is that the incredibly brief scene in which the Marshalls escape through the Lost City while the dormant Sleestak twitch slowly back into life absolutely horrified me to the point that I did not watch Saturday morning television again for weeks.

My father later told me that I didn’t watch television, period, for at least a month after my screaming fit ended (“You woke the whole house,” he shared, reminding me that my uncle lived with us then and worked a late job Friday nights), and that my parents had to turn off the black and white set in the kitchen whenever I was in the house. They would turn on the TV in the den just to get me to run, yelling, to my room and get ready for bed. Eventually, this turned into enough of a game that I began to have fun with it, and the television lost its immediate power to frighten me, and, eventually, I began to trust that Sleestak wouldn’t show up on every other show on the tube. Mercifully, the producers of CHiPs borrowed a different Krofft character a few years later.

No, it’s not that scary from adult eyes. Childhood TV traumas never are, in the cold light of day, but Dick Morgan’s “Follow That Dinosaur,” which answers the question of who wrote “BEWARE OF SLEESTAK” on the Lost City pillars, retains its amazing power to shock children. Around 2002 or so, it sent big sister Ivy screaming from the room as well, and while Daniel didn’t quite exercise his leatherlungs, his eyes welled with tears and he fled, security blanket bunched tightly in his mouth.

Part of the horror is this: outside the Lost City, Grumpy the tyrannosaur has followed the humans into Big Alice’s territory. There, in the plaza, they fight, and seriously, the special effects team still deserves a round of applause forty-two years later. That is an amazing piece of stop-motion photography, better than anybody else in 1974 had managed, and I include Ray Harryhausen’s remarkable work in that assessment. So outside, you’ve got two killer dinosaurs, and inside you’ve got Sleestak which are not merely dormant but covered in spider webs, which is incredibly creepy, and then the trail of an old diary leads them into a dead-end pit room with the skeletal remains of Peter Koenig, who died there years before, overcome by the heat and fumes of a rising lava pit… which, of course, inevitably, wakes the Sleestak.

It is the bleakest, most terrifying trap ever, the tension ratcheted up by the slow exploration of the tunnels and the resigned sorrow of the actors, realizing that this is not the way out, just before the real revelation hits them: they have to get out of the tunnels before the heat wakes the Sleestak.

Daniel recovered quickly, a whole lot quicker than I did at his age, and has been talking excitedly about lava with Mommy ever since we finished. I did have to assure him that the next episode is nowhere as frightening. It’s the one after the next one…

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.