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 1.13 – The Cryogenic Man

I’m again impressed by the guest casting on this show, with actors you wouldn’t expect would show up on a kids’ sci-fi series. This time, it’s Jim Backus and John Fielder. Both men played dozens of roles in the seventies. Fielder, apart from everything else he did, was a regular patient on The Bob Newhart Show and had a recurring part as Gordy in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, but he’s probably best known as the voice of Piglet for Disney. Backus had also been in everything, and had worked for Filmation before on an episode of The Ghost Busters the previous season.

In this episode, they play men from the distant past of the 1980s who had been cryogenically frozen. Backus is, of course, the rich guy and Fielder his subordinate. Backus is unethical, doesn’t understand ecology, and thinks the Ark II crew are a bunch of bureaucrats.

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 1.7 – The Lottery

There’s a really neat and old-fashioned video effect on this episode that represents the Forbidden Zone, into which starving villagers who lose a rigged “lottery” are sent. Remember when you’d leave your Atari 2600 on after a game finished and it would cycle through a series of color negatives? This took me right back and had me ready to play a gang of Invisible Tank Pong.

You can see a Star Trek-lite feel to much of this series in the premise, if not always the execution. This one really comes close, though. Daniel said that it was “pretty cool,” but didn’t really get into it. He misread the name of the co-writer, Robert White, as “robot” and was probably disappointed that one didn’t show up. If the back of the DVD package can be believed, he’ll have something to cheer about before long.

Guest stars included Eric Boles and his father Jim Boles, both of whom had pretty long resumes. Jim passed away the year after this was made; Eric still works occasionally. The villain is played by an Argentinian actor named Zitto Kazann who has shown up in small roles in darn near everything over a forty year career, from Ironside to Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. His only recurring role was in the Robert Blake priest drama Hell Town, which I bizarrely enjoyed when I was fourteen.

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 1.4 – The Slaves

The guest star in tonight’s episode of Ark II was Michael Kermoyan, who was principally an actor from stage and theater. He was best known for playing either the king or the kralahome in many performances of The King and I, even taking over from Yul Brenner during Brenner’s vacation from the role in the 1977-78 Broadway revival. Playing the villain, Baron Vargas, in this episode was almost like auditioning for his big TV part in the next season, when he’d play the evil Dr. Strange in 1977’s Mystery Island serial, which Hanna-Barbera made for CBS.

And as the villain, he gave Daniel one of his first genuine shocks in a while. Baron Vargas keeps a small group of superstitious slaves under his thumb via some telegraphed-to-any-adults-watchingly obvious fake magic. He warns Jonah that he will turn him into a chicken, and hocus-pocus, alakazam, with a trap door and a blast of smoke, Jonah is replaced by a chicken. “I don’t want to watch this,” Daniel grumbled and crawled into Mommy’s lap. “I’m pretty sure it’s just a trick,” she assured him.

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.