The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.16 – Sole Survivor

There’s a pretty good chase in this story that our son really liked. Joe and guest star Jean Marie Hon are hiding from a villain in a huge storeroom full of mannequins and disembodied plastic arms. “That would be pretty creepy,” I said, in my foreshadowingly dopey Dad way. “I know,” our son replied, and then he leaned over and hissed in my ear, “Especially if they were Autons!” None of you rats told him, did you?

So the villains this evening – some East German spies operating in Hong Kong and hoping to snatch a defector, who include James Hong and a not-evil-enough Diana Muldaur – have convinced Joe that he’s been in a coma for almost a year and that Frank and their dad were killed. Joe figures out their scheme pretty quickly, and of course the dopes spoiled it all in the pre-titles clips anyway, but it’s an entertainingly complex and only-on-TV scheme, with the bad guys going to an insane amount of extra work to convince Joe that a year has passed, even faking the handwriting of his friends and family on some “letters from home.”

My favorite part of their plot: a hidden VCR that plays the spies’ news from the far-flung future of 1979. Among the current events being reported in Hong Kong that January: the collapse of the Ugandan government following the death of Idi Amin, and the surprise marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Caroline. Those East Germans were having far too much fun making this stuff up.

Ark II 1.15 – Orkus

In the final episode of Ark II, the writers once again tackled a familiar ’70s sci-fi trope: the mysterious community of immortals. This time, the group is led by TV vet Geoffrey Lewis, who IMDB tells us racked up an amazing 222 credits before his death last year, his longest-running role being the bartender on CBS’s Flo in the early ’80s. We’ll see him again in this blog a few times in the future.

This was a very surprising episode; in fact the show as a whole surprised me several times. It’s a much better program than I ever knew, despite its considerable budget limitations. This time, just a basic familiarity with this trope ensures that the grown-ups watching will know that Orkus and his gang of selfish five hundred year-olds are up to no good, but not really sure exactly what they’re after and why. It’s a very well-directed and creepy little episode, and Daniel really enjoyed the destruction of Orkus’s zero-budget “controller.” He liked the show a lot, and is a little bummed that we’ve reached the end.

CBS didn’t renew any of the three live-action Filmation shows from the 1976 season, although their cartoon Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle was a hit and returned with new episodes for a few years. Ark II was repeated on Sunday mornings after this before mostly vanishing. Jean Marie Hon and Jose Flores worked here and there into the mid-eighties before leaving the business. Terry Lester became a regular on The Young and the Restless and, later, Santa Barbara before passing away in 2003.

One final note: If anybody checks out the DVD set from BCI/Entertainment Rights, whether at crazy aftermarket prices or if you find a good deal on it somewhere, there is a mostly terrific half-hour documentary on it with some great contributions by Jean Marie Hon Trager, now a pharmacist, and several people on the show’s staff. I do take some umbrage at the claim made – twice – that Saturday mornings were all about cartoons until this show came along. Some of the contributors treated this series as though it was the mammoth hit that changed everything and launched the idea of live-action adventure shows for kids. As I hope this blog has demonstrated, that’s really, really far from the truth!

Ark II 1.14 – Don Quixote

I have to say, I really prefer the episodes of Ark II that are built around the popular sci-fi tropes of the time, like evil supercomputers or telepathic teens, than the ones that do another version of some old bit of folklore, like Robin Hood or Don Quixote.

Don Quixote was played by Robert Ridgely, who worked principally as a voice artist. Among many, many other credits, he took the lead role in Filmation’s Tarzan, which started the next season and ran for a few years. The omnipresent Vito Scotti played Sancho Panza. Scotti was in everything back then, and he’s much more watchable than this script. Looking ahead, I notice that we’ll be seeing Scotti again for the blog in a month or so.

Ark II 1.11 – Omega

I was all set to point out that a young Helen Hunt is the main guest star of this episode, and then the show pulled the rug out from under us and presented this big plot twist. The village in trouble this week is ruled by someone called Omega, and Omega turns out to be one of those evil supercomputers that were omnipresent from the late ’60s through the mid-’80s.

To modern adult eyes, it’s ridiculous, of course. You’ve got more power in your hip pocket than one of these things that can only be transported in an eighteen-wheeler. But it’s actually a pretty good example of the genre, as befits the Star Trek-lite nature of the show, since I think Trek had about six or seven evil supercomputers on that show. I actually really like the impractical and silly design of Omega. The grid in front is actually the shutoff circuit, which Jonah has to move across in a series of chess moves, and sure, this would be indefensibly ridiculous if it weren’t such a dramatic success.

And it absolutely was a success, because this had our son on the edge of his seat, extremely worried about Jonah and Samuel. Omega has mental powers as well, of course, because all evil supercomputers do. This was an extremely tense situation for him, and he handled it like a champ.

And yes, Helen Hunt is in it. She was about thirteen years old at the time.

Ark II 1.9 – The Wild Boy

Resuming our visit to the 25th Century, we pick back up with the cast of Ark II with another Star Trek-lite outing that has a feral kid played by Mitch Vogel and some mysterious glowing rocks that pose a threat to everybody. We saw Vogel a couple of months ago in an episode of Isis that aired the previous season.

And speaking of seasons, we’ve now synched up our viewing so that we’re watching all three of Filmation’s live action shows that aired during the 1976-77 season on CBS. Unfortunately for the company and the network, the lineup was not a success. As I mentioned previously, writing about the final episode of Land of the Lost, ABC completely dominated Saturday mornings that season with Scooby Doo, Dynomutt, and The Krofft Supershow. NBC was a very, very distant third and CBS somewhere in between.

Watching them all together, Ark II is by leagues the best of the three, and it’s weird just how much better the special effects are. It’s tough to explain how, but it really looks like the flying effects in the superhero shows, which were never all that great in the first place, took a quantum leap backward. Meanwhile this show uses primitive-but-effective lasers and color negatives and simply looks like it just swallowed the budget of its predecessors. And while the stories are certainly not edge-of-your-seat thrilling, they are much more thoughtful and interesting than what I expected, and our son really is enjoying installments like tonight’s.

Ark II 1.8 – The Drought

Here’s another surprise. Jonathan Harris also makes a return appearance as Fagin, whom we met in the first episode. Daniel was briefly alarmed by this episode; it has a primitive tribe run by a witch doctor worshiping a cloudbusting rainmaker device. The goofy ceremonial mask, and threats to send our heroes into a cave of no return, gave him some brief chills, but he got through just fine.

Harris’s portrayal of Fagin as a dirty-faced and disheveled yokel with a comedy “rural” voice reminds me of Jon Pertwee’s Worzel Gummidge, and that certainly takes me back to the old days of tape trading. In an earlier installment, I’d mentioned that Ark II had been the subject of some serious disinformation because of magazines and books that spewed out a lot of baloney and lies. This made me really curious about the show, which I only occasionally saw on Sunday mornings. In the late seventies, CBS briefly programmed some of their older Saturday morning shows really early on Sundays, where we could be counted on to watch them while playing with Mego dolls and Hot Wheels cars, because the only other things actually on at that hour in Atlanta were old men in suits behind podiums.

So as we moved into the nineties and nobody had published any clear information on exactly how many episodes of this show there were, I was also big into VHS tape trading, and I’d like to think, inasmuch as there are good guys and bad guys in this copyright-avoiding world, I was one of the good guys. If I worked out a deal with somebody and needed to get them four tapes worth of stuff, I’d go buy four new TDK E-HG tapes, copy on SP using the gold connector cables, write down the contents on a little card inside each tape, and mail them promptly in padded envelopes.

But a good friend of mine was friends with this one guy in North Carolina, and that guy knew another guy who had lots and lots of absurdly rare stuff on tape, like Worzel Gummidge. Most of the details are long forgotten, but dealing with the guy was an unbelievable headache. As befits somebody who didn’t care how watchable or not his collection was, I’d get tapes from this guy which were clearly recycled. Whatever he sent was recorded on EP on an old BASF tape crammed in a Panasonic box, and either he’d hand-write the labels, crossing out what was written on them already, or not include any identifiers and force me to guess. But because the guy was the only source I could find for some of this old stuff like Worzel Gummidge, I just kept biting my lips and dealing with it for the better part of a year. I’d ask for four episodes of Worzel on SP, and he’d send four episodes on EP, plus eight episodes of some show I’d never heard of before.

After a couple of swaps, he actually sent me three tapes of stuff that I did not even ask for or want, and had the cheek to request some stuff from me in exchange. That was pretty much the limit, and I let him know I wasn’t interested in further swaps.

The very next letter he sent me, he wrote that he had just got in four episodes of Ark II, and that he knew from my wants list that I wanted some, and could we work out a trade? The answer would be no. Flatly and firmly, no. I’d rather go without seeing the show than deal with any more of his nonsense.

About sixteen years later, those BCI/Entertainment Rights people put the fifteen episodes of the show out on DVD in a package called Sci-Fi Box Set along with all fifteen episodes of Space Academy and all twenty-eight episodes of Jason of Star Command. I picked that up for seven dollars at a Half-Price Books in Kentucky, and I didn’t have to deal with the guy to get them.

We don’t plan to watch Worzel Gummidge for the blog, as the available DVDs are said to be of very poor quality and I’d rather not pay for them. I hope somebody remasters and reissues it soon, because it’s a charming and ridiculous show, terrific for under-tens. And we’ll be taking a short break from Ark II for a couple of weeks but should be back in the future before the end of September. Stay tuned for more from this century!

Ark II 1.6 – The Mind Group

This was a nice surprise. I wasn’t expecting recurring enemies in Ark II, but here’s Malachi Throne again making a return appearance as Warlord Brack.

Psychic powers and ESP were really popular in the seventies. This story is about three telepathic and telekinetic children who have been captured by Brack. With this diverse group of longhaired kids telepathically talking to each other, it’s impossible to watch this without thinking of The Tomorrow People, which was being made at the same time in England. None of them bend spoons like Uri Geller, but the oldest one does move the Ark II across a field with the power of his mind, which seemed to impress our son somewhat.

It is kind of interesting that the “magic” powers displayed by the villain two episodes ago were exposed as a fraud, but psychic powers are not. It was the seventies, man. We’re just lucky they didn’t end up in the Bermuda Triangle like so many other lost souls in that decade.

Ark II 1.3 – The Tank

Another big name guest star – for the time this was made – shows up in this episode of Ark II. Leading the band of farmers who hate machinery is an older man played by Marshall Thompson. He had starred in the film Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and its TV spinoff, Daktari, which aired for four seasons on CBS. We also noticed Christopher Stafford Nelson, who had earlier played one of the teens-in-trouble from the first season of Shazam!.

Since this was kind of a slow runaround of a story, I’d like to note how, once upon a time, information about Ark II was almost comically scarce. It was a show that VHS tape traders like I was in the 1980s were curious to see, but nobody had copies of it and, more importantly, nobody had any solid information about it.

Looking back from today’s world, this was a laughable situation. Today, not only can you easily order a DVD with all fifteen episodes – although, as it’s out of print, it won’t be cheap – but you can learn there are fifteen episodes. Wikipedia and IMDB have that covered, although the actual airdates remain in question, as is frequently the case for 1970s Saturday morning shows. But in the late 1980s, even knowing that there were fifteen episodes was difficult.

In the days before Wikipedia and IMDB, there were two primary sources for information about old shows with a small audience like this: terrible magazines printed on cheap newsprint, and terrible books published by McFarland & Company, which never seemed to employ editors. (As I mentioned last year, one publisher released a book which contained a listing for a totally fake TV show.)

So throughout the 1980s, people were self- or vanity- or McFarland-publishing magazines and books called The Best of Sci-Fi TV or The Complete Guide to Saturday Morning Programming in the 1970s or The Absolutely Complete Guide to Everything That Was Ever on TV, 1974-76, Honestly, Formatted on my Mom’s Typewriter, and you also had people putting out program guides for SF conventions – the best-remembered of these was the 1986 Baycon Viewer’s Guide to Japanese Animation which was written and compiled by Toren Smith and photocopied by a thousand people – and, lastly, you had people trying their hand at desktop publishing to make their tape trading lists look more professional. In that case, I often saw traders formatting their lists like this:

STAR TREK (79 episodes, CBS 1966-69)
…followed by a list of all 79 they had, plus an alternate version of the pilot, and blooper reel, and so on. Then at the back, they’d have their want list, and it would say:

ARK II (24 episodes, CBS 1976-77)
…but that couldn’t be right, because somebody else’s magazine said there were only thirteen episodes.

Then you’d check some book and it would claim there were 66 episodes of Ark II and it ran from 1976-79. So you’d actually mail the dude a letter to ask about it and he’d write back a month later to say that they made 22 episodes for each of three seasons: one on Saturday morning and two on Sunday morning. That made sense. I did remember that CBS continued to air it on Sundays. Of course, it turned out that the Sunday screenings were all repeats, but I didn’t learn that until long after some other book – definitely a McFarland – saw that one dude’s claim of 66 episodes and raised it to 88, to which I replied “How in the sam hill are there more episodes of Ark II than there are of Star Trek?!”

For a few years, my trade lists’s want section had the following entry:

ARK II (CBS, 1970s, 13/15/22/24/66/88 episodes, any wanted)

One day down the line, I finally got the opportunity to trade for some Ark II and did not bite. More on that another day.

Note: I’m absolutely certain that McFarland & Company, today, publishes only the finest and most accurate books, and none of them claim that Filmation made 88 episodes of something when they only made fifteen, and nor do they claim that Sid and Marty Krofft made a show called Cha-Ka and Wolf Boy when they did not.

Ark II 1.2 – The Rule

In its second week, Ark II pulled out another big guest star. On the right in the picture above, that’s Philip Abbott, who played Arthur Ward for ten seasons on The FBI. This week he plays the head of a community bound by a stupid law. Also in the cast this week is Kenneth O’Brien, who never had a big part, but he sure had lots of them in the 1970s.

Bearing in mind that I mentioned Logan’s Run in passing last week, this community’s fool rule is that sick, elderly, and disabled people are cast out, no questions asked. It all gets resolved – and I was very impressed that it doesn’t get resolved by our heroes preaching like you might expect from a Saturday morning show, but by standing back and providing some support for a plan to win over the village’s stuffed shirts.

Our son was confused about what “cast out” meant, so Marie explained it. He didn’t pause for very long at all before expressing a fear that we might one day do that to him. Poor worried kid! Otherwise he really enjoys this show.

Ark II 1.1 – The Flies

In 1976, as Shazam! and Isis began their third and second seasons, CBS bought another half-hour drama from Filmation to air alongside them. Like its companion programs, Ark II was awfully earnest and mostly a humor-free zone, but its first episode surprised me by being rather more intelligent than most Saturday morning programming.

The show starred Terry Lester, who died in 2003, as Jonah, with Jean Marie Hon and Jose Flores as his companion scientists. It’s set in the 25th Century, as the Earth recovers from an ecological disaster that has left only pockets of tribes arguing with each other. There was a tendency in ’70s science fiction to depict the remnants of civilization as clinical and run by scientists, and everybody on the outside as nomadic savages. See also Logan’s Run or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for some other examples.

I don’t believe that we ever see Jonah, Ruth, and Samuel – oh, and their talking chimpanzee, called Adam – reporting back to their scientific bosses. They ride around the southern California wasteland in the Ark II, a mammoth mobile laboratory, a six-wheeled RV thing. It looks similar enough for some people to confuse it with the Landmaster in Damnation Alley, but that was made a year later by another company. The Ark II was broken down after this show ended and its parts used in other Filmation productions.

In the first episode, the Ark II team get involved in a land squabble between a gang of kids (“the flies”) led by Jonathan Harris as a flim-flam man named Fagin, and a tribe of warlords led by Malachi Throne. Things get worse when Jonah lets Fagin know that among the trash he’s collected are some canisters of poison gas.

It’s not thrilling, seat-of-your-pants entertainment by any means, but it’s a very well-made show with two excellent guest stars and a likable lead cast. Daniel really enjoyed it, although he confessed at the end that I managed to confuse him by saying “it’s a show set in the future.” That’s all that I told him, and he filled in the blanks to conclude that it would be about two kids who use a time machine to go to the future! I’m looking forward to seeing what will come next. I saw some of this show as a kid, when it was repeated by CBS on Sunday mornings in 1978 or so, and didn’t see any of it again until I bought this DVD in 2007 and watched the first four episodes. There’s a lot for me to rediscover and my son’s intrigued as well.