Space Academy finished its run with another really good episode in which Gampu’s brother, Professor Sunseed, comes on an official visit. He’s an eccentric hillbilly with a parrot on his shoulder who has been tasked with some Federation inspection about whether the academy is worth keeping, and things don’t look good for the team since he hates technology, computers, and machines.
It’s got a “season finale” feel that seventies programs typically didn’t have, and also some great new miniature work. This is the only episode to show three Seekers in flight at once. All ends well, of course, and almost everybody gets a central part to the story, except Eric Greene, who kind of got squeezed out of this story. Our son really enjoyed this one, and said it was one of his favorite stories of the series.
This show was really a lot better than I ever knew. There were a few clunkers and disappointments, but the overall average was way better than I expected, and I bet a second season would have been even better. Of course, Space Academy didn’t come back for another season, although some of its sets and costumes would be back in the fall of 1978 for Jason of Star Command. We’ll be watching that a couple of months from now, so stay tuned.
As for the cast, it can safely be said that none of the young actors became superstars, though each of them had a few more interesting parts in their future. Most have retired from acting by now. Looking over IMDB, I don’t think that we’ll be seeing any of them again for this blog, but I genuinely enjoyed all their performances in this show. Jonathan Harris still had a few neat jobs in his future, and he was a regular fixture at sci-fi conventions in the eighties. He seemed to be in Atlanta every other month for years, entertaining giant crowds at Dixie Trek and the AFF and whatever other shows, frequently reunited with his Lost in Space co-stars Bill Mumy and Mark Goddard. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 87. He was a tremendous talent and an incredibly fun guy.
“That was very silly and it was very scary!” That’s the announcement from our five year-old critic tonight. There’s honestly the gem of a really good story in this episode. A thousand years ago, a Captain Rampo was lost in the “Alderan Triangle” of space, and his ghost ship is occasionally spotted, warning people away. It turns out he’s been alive all this time, fighting off an energy-draining vapor.
Unfortunately, he’s warning people away with spooky voices and Halloween masks for some Saturday morning reason. Well, it worked here. Our son was under a blanket for several minutes and almost – almost – had to hide behind the sofa. In the end, Rampo, played by Howard Morris, has Loki sitting on his lap and he’s telling him wacky stories about the lollipop trees of the Red Galaxy. Well, this is for kids, dear readers.
We’ve seen Howard “Howie” Morris a few times here at the blog. He had played the Red Baron in Ghost Busters for Filmation a couple of years previously, and he’d later play Sivana in Legends of the Super Heroes. He was mainly a voice actor, and did hundreds of cartoons over a forty-plus year career, including Atom Ant, and Jughead, Big Moose, and Dilton in Filmation’s various Archie series.
There’s a cute double-meaning in the title of tonight’s episode, another in the series that’s written by Samuel A. Peeples. It seems to be referring to Loki and Peepo sneaking into space without authorization, but then they meet a couple of odd aliens – simple colored lights, which is actually more effective than covering a body stocking with silver tinsel – who are also playing hooky. The alien “children” can hide in human minds and possess people, but they’re not malevolent, only immature and mischievous.
That said, our son did get briefly worried when one of the lights pops into Gampu’s head. He gets to pull faces and act about as silly as the actors who play Arashi and Ito on Ultraman, actually.
Also of note this week, one of the cameramen made a really odd error filming this episode and stuck a circular “POV” lens (or something) over the action, so about half the shots in the climactic moments have this curious “halo” effect around the picture. Here’s another screen grab, so you can see what I’m talking about.
Honestly, this is purely to illustrate the odd camera error, and not to give you a bonus picture of pretty Maggie Cooper. Surely not.
There have been a few episodes of this show that I didn’t like. Most of them have been pleasantly entertaining. This one, however, is just wonderful. It’s so cute! Dena Dietrich, whom we all remember as Mother Nature in Chiffon Margarine’s decade-long ad campaign, plays an old flame of Commander Gampu’s. She’s a treasure hunter who gets stuck on a planet whose sun is about to explode while hunting for diamonds, and she runs afoul of a war machine that has wrecked her ship.
The war machine is played by a slightly modified Robby the Robot, wearing a new head. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this version of Robby before.
Honestly, it would be a fun enough simple story if anybody had played Marcia Giddings, but Dietrich and Jonathan Harris are just electric together. They haven’t seen each other in twenty years – when Gampu was a captain – and they resume bickering instantly, each of them completely convinced that the other was the one who was always getting in trouble. Events on the planet assure each of them they were always right. It’s always the other’s fault.
We never learn much about their history; we don’t have to. They admit their love at the end as Marcia takes her leave and reveals Gampu’s first name as Isaac, much to the cadets’ amusement, and we’re left with a supernova that explodes in seventies disco color – the whole episode impressed our boy, but that effect most of all – and the absolute pleasure of watching two really good actors create lifetimes of backstory, two old sweethearts who crossed paths for one more adventure. The chemistry was absolutely perfect, and the episode a simple joy.
Here’s another example of the show doing a downright great job acting and producing a script that makes Dr. Science’s head hurt. Everything about the production of this series is so much better than anything Filmation had done before. The miniature work is top-notch, and all the actors are doing a splendid job, and then they blow it with some gobbledygook about knocking asteroids together to create a new star.
And what really grated was that they could have left it with “we need to smash this asteroid into the other one that has a runaway reactor; we can rebuild later.” That would have been silly, in a “we take shortcuts on sci-fi TV” way, but no, they had to make the happy claim that this has created a “natural sun” and all the problems are solved. Marie closed her eyes and winced as this nonsense happened. “Dr. Science hates this show,” she moaned.
But never mind the fuddy-duddies. This episode was so exciting for our son that he couldn’t decide what his favorite part was. He seemed to enjoy the simmering antagonism between Chris and a guest character from Red Team named Matt Prentiss, who was played by John Berwick. Surprisingly, Berwick would play the character again in at least one episode of the next season’s spinoff, Jason of Star Command. Berwick went on to play Rex Ruthless in Filmation’s Hero High and had a small role in Goliath Awaits, one of those two-part TV movies that were common in the eighties, and which I’d badly like to see again one day.
My son and I had a science chat after this evening’s episode, which turns the spotlight on Jonathan Harris and lets him take center stage instead of his young co-stars. His character, Commander Gampu, is racked with guilt after making a mistake that almost kills Paul, and he’s ready to resign, feeling that, at age three hundred, he’s too old for the job. Then someone else’s mistake forces him into action. Since in this show they use “life support bracelets,” nobody around has his astronaut experience in pressure suits, and one is needed for this rescue. So we talked about why spacesuits are used, and why every outer space show and movie ever made hand-waves a convenient reason why they’re not needed. It’s good to occasionally talk about actual science, because science fiction on screen can’t be expected to.
The guest star this week is Paula Wagner, who plays a cadet from one of the other groups at Space Academy, the Yellow Team. If you don’t recognize an actress with that name, you’re probably not alone; she only has two acting credits listed at IMDB. She worked principally as an agent at CAA until the mid-90s, when she became a producer. She seems to have worked behind the scenes on what looks like most of Tom Cruise’s movies over the last twenty years.
Another very weird coincidence this time: this episode of Space Academy features a guest star named Don Pedro Colley. He plays a lonely man on an isolated planetoid who messes up Tee Gar’s experiment. I looked up his credits on IMDB, and found that he’s been out of the business for quite some time. But literally two weeks ago, Midnight Massacre, his first screen credit in eighteen years, was released, and he seems to have two other films in the works. Good to see he’s still around and getting work.
Last time out, I mentioned how Space Academy is the quintessential ’70s sci-fi show. Another point for it in that sweepstakes: Peepo. This robot is very likely the first of all the many R2-D2 clones and copies that made their way into movies and TV and grocery store personal appearances in the late seventies and early eighties. K-9 from Doctor Who is sometimes given this credit, but K-9’s first story, “The Invisible Enemy,” was taped in April 1977, a month before Star Wars was released. Space Academy went into production in July and began broadcast in September, and K-9’s first story sat on the shelf for six months and was first shown in October. Unless there’s a cash-in I don’t know about, I believe Peepo was the first robot character to have been designed as a reaction to Star Wars, and he beat K-9 to screens by a couple of weeks.
Did Peepo succeed in charming children? Well, the grownups tonight were a little restless, because Dr. Science was not happy with Tee Gar’s goofball ideas, nor his downright reckless – yet approved! – methods of experimentation. But when Colley’s character picked up Peepo and walked off with him, our son growled “Not cool, not cool,” very annoyed that the robot might get hurt. He’ll probably fall completely in love with K-9 when he meets the tin dog in a couple of years.
Halfway through its run, Space Academy is revealing itself to be pretty much the quintessential seventies sci-fi show. This episode, again written by Samuel A. Peeples, has been my favorite so far. You’ve got your Diet Star Trek storyline – a strange creature is trying to communicate with our heroes to preserve artifacts from an ancient civilization before its planetoid is destroyed – and your Star Wars sense of design and shots of the undersides of miniature spaceships with big glowing engines and your very, very seventies addition of telepathy and ESP and all that silly Tomorrow People stuff. This episode even does the mind reading one better and adds astral projection to Chris and Laura’s list of psychic powers.
Who gets the blame for all the telepathy and mind-reading and such that pushed its way into shows about spaceships, anyway? I think we can blame Erich von Däniken for all that “there are those who believe that life here began out there” nonsense in Battlestar Galactica. I’d like a scapegoat for the ESP stuff as well, please.
Anyway, understanding that any modern viewer will have to take a deep breath anytime Laura and Chris do any of their seventies psychic stuff, this really was an entertaining episode. The creature – a zero-budget “ghost” that howls and moans like ghosts always did on TV when you were a kid – is unusual and we weren’t sure what it was up to at first. Despite the goofy costume on the creature, they really did a great job with the miniature effects, and the shots of a Seeker flying among some asteroids is truly impressive. So yeah, the show’s dated, but really entertaining for all its limitations.