Land of the Lost 3.13 – Medicine Man

As Land of the Lost limped to its end, I’d like to take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Well, first I’d like to note that I really do question the decision to end the season, and therefore the series, with a “can’t we all get along” morality tale instead of something with meat on it. Even if these thirteen were made with the expectation and hope that they’d be back for a fourth year, they darn well should have shuffled the order and run “Timestop” last and go out on a high note instead of this weak thing.

Anyway, when we watched the first episode of this season back in May, I wrote about the show’s internal problems, but there were big external issues as well. NBC’s Saturday morning lineup was a real mess in the fall of 1976. As subpar as the last year of Land was, it was, by leagues, the best thing on the network’s schedule.

I think part of the problem came from a resistance to cartoons that had worked its way into the NBC mindset. To be fair, most of what Hanna-Barbera and their peers were pitching in 1976 was truly terrible, but the kidvid censors and advocacy groups were really, really loud then, and I think NBC decided to cave. Their 1976 lineup featured a half-hour of Woody Woodpecker repeats followed by a 90-minute anthology package of godawful cartoons under the Pink Panther banner: forgettable junk like Texas Toads and Misterjaw. Then the live-action started: Land was the anchor at 11 am, preceded by McDuff the Talking Dog and Monster Squad, and followed by Robbie Rist in Big John, Little John, Don Kirshner’s oddball Monkee-lite Kids from C.A.P.E.R., and the real square peg, Muggsy, a videotape drama about a thirteen year-old girl on the mean streets of Bridgeport, with no fantasy elements at all. I have no memory of Muggsy; it is possible that WSB, which was then the NBC station, did not show it in Atlanta.

The night before the new lineup, Freddie Prinze hosted the customary Saturday morning preview show, with the Kids from C.A.P.E.R., Robbie Rist, and the Monster Squad at the Magic Mountain amusement park. You can watch it on YouTube here. Pop ahead to 21:45 to see how NBC’s publicity department has no idea whatsoever how to promote Muggsy. I love these preview shows, they’re all pretty bugnuts, but this one has the amazing aura of complete and total desperation.

We’ll come back to Monster Squad before the end of the year. Time has proven it to be pretty dire, but I absolutely adored it as a kid, and I’m keen to watch it with Daniel. ABC had the incredibly popular Scooby-Doo, teamed with the popular new characters Blue Falcon and Dynomutt, as their Saturday morning anchor, leading into the hugely successful Krofft Supershow. This may have been the only occasion that the Kroffts had two of their programs broadcast at the same time, and the Supershow just destroyed Land, along with Monster Squad and Big John, Little John. I can’t swear to my little kid memories, but I think that I probably watched Monster Squad and Land before switching over to the last half-hour of the Supershow. Not many other people did that. The Scooby-Doo/Supershow combo was huge, and would take down a couple of CBS programs that we will also discuss before the season was finished.

NBC shuffled some of their fall ’76 programs around, and dusted off some ancient Speed Buggy and Space Ghost cartoons to sub for some of the live-action bombs, but nothing worked. The whole lineup was axed in the end, but wouldn’t you know it, the exact same thing happened the following season. In the fall of 1977, NBC launched five hours of turkeys that flopped so badly that, within a few months, they were once again digging around in the archives for older shows to prop the numbers up a little bit. To save their bacon, they put on some repeats of Harlem Globetrotters, Hong Kong Phooey, and… Land of the Lost.

Land of the Lost 3.12 – Scarab

If you ever want a perfect example of a middle-of-the-road “just okay” episode of Land of the Lost season three, this’ll do. It’s perfectly exciting for kids – ours was practically hopping up and down – and has lots of dinosaurs, and the central mystery of “why is Cha-Ka acting awful” is perfectly directed at five year-olds, who won’t figure it out instantly. It has the requisite spooky caves and danger, with the Sleestak Leader giving clearly understandable threats and villainy. It’s all perfectly adequate kidvid, in other words. Daniel was excited and worried, which is exactly how this should be.

From grownup eyes, there are plot problems (everything about Enik’s knowledge of ancient Egyptian magic bugs), production problems (it wasn’t just a fumble in the title sequence; the Grumpy puppet evidently didn’t survive between seasons) and direction problems (once again, somebody has the Sleestak actors try to run, which they simply cannot do in those costumes). It’s succeeding as entertainment exclusively with kids, which wasn’t how this should be.

Land of the Lost 3.8 – Hot-Air Artist

So I was mentioning David Healy the other day, and here’s the story. I’m not blogging about it because we’re not watching it with Daniel, but Marie and I are slowly making our way through the terrific Jason King, an ITC adventure series from 1973.

Part of the fun, for me, is spotting all the recognizable actors in the guest cast, people who also showed up on Doctor Who and The Avengers like Nicholas Courtney, Kate O’Mara, and Ronald Lacey. I try not to cheat, and wait until the episode’s over before checking out imdb.com, but when David Healy showed up as an undercover CIA agent, it drove me nuts because I knew that I remembered him from somewhere. I was pleasantly surprised to realize he had been among the voice cast of Captain Scarlet, which we’d just finished watching with Daniel, so I’d heard his voice on about twenty occasions over the previous six months. Then I read a little further over Healy’s long list of credits and realized we’d be seeing him in this episode.

So there’s your connection between Sid and Marty Krofft and Gerry Anderson. I was going to say that this may not be all that interesting, but it’s more interesting than this episode, but then Daniel got absolutely horrified by the climax, in which Healy’s character, a self-promoting aviator and adventurer from 1920 named Roscoe Post, attempts to abduct Cha-Ka. He drew up on the couch, eyes wide and hand over his mouth in shock, and was incredibly relieved when Cha-Ka escaped from the balloon’s gondola.

As is usual in season three, you sort of have to accept that however all these guest stars are getting into the Land of the Lost, they’re able to retrace their steps precisely, and rather than the manipulated time doorways of the previous seasons and the specific rules for them, there are just random cracks in time that people can access back and forth, because none of this makes any sense otherwise.

Land of the Lost 3.7 – Flying Dutchman

My wife suggested that it was kind of inevitable that they’d do a Flying Dutchman episode. This or the Marie Celeste, I said. And it’s a little frustrating, because there’s the germ of a really, really good story here, but it never quite gels. Or perhaps it’s just a standard borderline-okay season three episode that’s really elevated by Rex Holman’s performance as Captain Ruben Van der Meer. He’s believably haunted, really fascinating in a quiet, compellingly understated way.

He’s especially effective when compared with Richard Kiel, back for a second appearance as Malak, all bluster and yelling. Malak helps sink what should have been a much more interesting episode. Perhaps Kiel was under contract for two stories and they had to find something for him to do? So there are two plots intertwined in a program with only twenty-three minutes to spare them. Neither is well developed, and the whole show seems very oddly rushed, damaging what seemed like a promising, weird story that would have benefited from more time.

Daniel said that this installment was “pretty cool,” though he was much less vocal and wild about it than the previous six episodes. He most enjoyed the too-brief animation of the galleon lifting off and vanishing into the mists, and a bit where they fire a mini-cannon to scare off the Sleestak.

Rex Holman, incidentally, never did find the star vehicle that he deserved. He had dozens of small parts in TV shows, mainly in the sixties and mainly in westerns, and these petered out instead of building into a regular part somewhere. Looking over IMDB, I can’t honestly swear that I’ve seen any but a few, but one of his great roles was as that odd version of Morgan Earp in my favorite Star Trek episode, “Spectre of the Gun.” Nobody believes me when I say that unloved, weird, no-budget hour is my favorite episode of that show, but it’s true.

Land of the Lost 3.6 – Cornered

FIRE-BREATHING DIMETRODON!!!

So, what I was saying back with episode four… the cold light of adulthood showed the third season of Land of the Lost to be many leagues poorer than the previous two, but for kids, the excitement level went through the roof. And indeed Daniel could barely contain himself tonight, completely wild with the thrill of seeing this bad boy in action.

This episode is by some measure better than the previous few, even with Enik being downright hostile, the strange logic of a carnivorous animal wanting to chow down on coal, and the horrible coda – not the only one – of Wesley Eure picking up a homemade guitar and lip-synching to a pre-recorded teen dream “junior dance”-style song. It’s just wildly fun and exciting, and this fire-breathing beast makes all the difference.

By a bizarre coincidence, just three days ago, Daniel and I spent a few hours at Tellus Science Museum, just north of Cartersville GA, which is money incredibly well spent if your kid’s at the dinosaur age. And wouldn’t you know it, look what they have on display:

Now, to be fair, at no point in “Cornered” do they actually identify Torchy as a dimetrodon, but kids in the seventies knew exactly what that animal was, because every “Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals” coloring book or bag of plastic creatures had a dimetrodon in it. (Some of those bags also had rust monsters and owlbears, but that’s another story.) The actual dimetrodon, a creature that lived before the dinosaurs, in the Permian period, was a very big animal, but nowhere near the size of the gargantuan thing that’s onscreen in this episode.

And it doesn’t matter, because this thing is just crazy fun cool. About twelve years ago, I was watching some antiseptic children’s program with Daniel’s two older siblings and grumbled that what that show needed was a fire-breathing dimetrodon. I dug my old VHS copy of this out to show them what I was talking about, and it blew their minds, too. We thought about all the kid shows on Nick Jr. that would be improved by the inclusion of a fire-breathing dimetrodon (“Hola, I’m Dora…” ROAR!) and the evening concluded with what is still one of the funniest things I can remember my older son doing around that age (maybe seven) as he said “I’m Franklin, and I’m LOST!” in a truly perfect impression of that dopey turtle before bellowing “FIRE-BREATHING DIMETRODON! ROARRRRR!”

I did a quick check, however, and the stars of Sprout are safe and free to grow, as Daniel would rather not have the Doozers and the Berenstain Bears attacked by a fire-breathing dimetrodon. Shame.

Land of the Lost 3.4 – Repairman

This is so strange. I remember, as a kid, being absolutely thrilled by the third season of Land of the Lost, and let down and betrayed when I came back to it in the cold light of adulthood to see how dumb it is. So what’s going on with our five year-old? After seasons one and two scared the pants off him upward of a dozen times and he treated the show with kid gloves, afraid of what mindfreaking horror was coming next, he is absolutely loving season three in an entirely new way. It’s tremendously exciting to him, and the new plot elements are introduced in a way I can only classify as safely.

This week, for instance, Laurie Main plays a mysterious repairman named Blandings who has come from somewhere to replace a crystal that the Sleestak have stolen from a black “sun pylon.” Yes, in another bout of Saturday morning villainy, their leader wants to rid the valley of the Marshalls. Now, compare how the Zarn was introduced in season two to this guy. The Zarn came with harsh ambient music and a very strong feeling that everything was very, very unsafe. Blandings is all smiles, kindness, and British politeness and “My, my,” and they reuse the musical cues that Dopey used to receive. It’s whimsical.

Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with this episode, I just think it’s flat and boring. I would quibble that the director, Joe Scanlan, didn’t have a clue how to shoot the Sleestak and make them threatening in the way that Bob Lally and Dennis Steinmetz did, but this was very early in Scanlan’s long career – twenty years later, he’d be shooting Lois & Clark, La Femme Nikita, and Brisco County Jr., so he definitely improved with time – but on the other hand, Daniel was jumping up and down with the awesome-to-him fight scenes with explosions in the tunnels.

I’ve always said that it’s fascinating to watch shows with children to see how they view them. I didn’t enjoy the Colin Baker years of Doctor Who until I watched them with my older kids when they were about eight and ten and saw what they were seeing and loving completely. Watching this through a child’s eyes is much, much more fun than watching it alone.

Land of the Lost 3.3 – The Orb

A couple of entries back, I mentioned how the characterization of Walker Edmiston’s Enik in season three is all wrong. It feels for all the world like the new producer Jon Kubichan understood that this show was created by people with a Star Trek background, remembered that Mr. Spock was all about logic, and concluded that would be a good hook for Enik. It doesn’t work, and just leaves the character saying “That is not logical” constantly. It’s pretty obnoxious, actually.

But the really obnoxious bit is the Sleestak leader in season three, played by Jon Locke. Now, back in season one’s “The Hole”, we met a Sleestak called S’Latch, who could speak English and explained that every few years, a “freak” Sleestak, born with intelligence, language, and an understanding of their history, is born. I’ve always figured that there is a gap of many months between “Blackout” and “After-Shock,” and during that gap, a new “freak” was hatched, and this one managed to not aggravate everybody else with talk of compassion, because he was instead a big bully with dreams of conquest. It’s still a massive miscalculation, going from “weird hissing monsters who don’t talk” to “we want to conquer the valley and rule everybody,” but that’s really the only explanation that makes any sense.

Giving the fiction of the show a sizable gap between seasons also covers the fact that Kathy Coleman grew about five inches between the second and third production block, and that the Sleestak plan in this episode – eternal night – was one that they just freaking pulled three episodes ago. Even Daniel piped up and said “Their moths will die and their eggs won’t hatch!” If a five year-old is pointing out your plot holes, you have a problem. This only makes sense if enough time had elapsed since “Blackout” for the new leader to be hatched, grow to maturity, and take over the tribe. It’s not as though we really know how long it takes for Sleestak to mature, or what their life span actually is.

But even though Daniel saw the flaw in their plan, he still really enjoyed this one. He liked the exciting bit where Will, made invisible for most of the episode via some pylon shenanigans, pulls an Orb out from the Sleestak God’s pit and snatches it away from the Leader, and said there weren’t any bad bits. Perhaps toning down the horror in favor of kid-friendly excitement might have been the right idea for the target audience, even if it resulted in something more tame and dull for grown-ups.

Land of the Lost 3.1 – After-Shock

They made thirteen episodes in the third season of Land of the Lost. Three of them aren’t bad. This is one of those three.

Analyzing what in the name of heaven went wrong with this show would take forever, but it all comes down to the writing. Most people remember that Spencer Milligan did not return as Rick Marshall, possibly because of a salary dispute and possibly because he wanted a cut of merchandising money and possibly because he hoped to star as the lead in a CBS series called The Keegans, and some recall that the Marshalls got a new home because the program was moved from one studio (General Service, now called Hollywood Center Studios) to another (Goldwyn) and new sets had to be built.

So this is the year where Ron Harper’s character, Uncle Jack, Rick’s brother, joins the cast, and they pick up a new home in a temple near the Lost City. But there’s so much more than that, and almost all of it is wrong. Just wrong.

Most obviously: Ta and Sa are gone. There’s a throwaway explanation, to coincide with the fact that Cha-Ka has learned a whole lot more English than he ever spoke before (thanks, I suppose, to the events of “The Musician” in season two), but their absence robs the show of the very fun antagonism between the humans and Ta. Less obviously: all the writers and directors are gone. This is a mammoth, mammoth problem, because Jon Kubichan, who wrote this episode, and his principal colleague Sam Roeca only had a loose understanding of what the show was actually about, and did not know all the careful continuity that David Gerrold and his team laid out, and which Dick Morgan and Tom Swale carefully nurtured and developed. In seasons one and two, the Land of the Lost was a pocket universe accessible only by time doorways, with no space outside its ground and atmosphere. In season three, it might as well be a valley in some uncharted South American rain forest.

The tone is wrong, the geography is wrong, the technology is wrong, the characterization of Enik is wrong, the sudden English vocabularies of Cha-Ka and a Sleestak leader is breathtakingly wrong.

For a while, I petulantly wished that Wesley Eure, Philip Paley, Kathy Coleman, and Walker Edmiston had spoken up and pointed out the big continuity flaws. Eventually, I got a little more sympathy for the realities of actors’ jobs. They had a million lines to learn and new directors in charge and eight months of looking for commercials and guest star parts before coming back to work on the show; the script minutiae of time doorways and how Enik reacted in a situation that they had performed once a year and a half ago wasn’t their responsibility to remember in detail, certainly not in an age before home video. Plus, as the absence of Spencer Milligan, Sharon Baird, and Scutter McKay must have reminded them: actors can be replaced.

I did reach out to the Kroffts’ social media team hoping for an interview and to learn more about the changes between seasons but I have not heard back from them. Sid and Marty were, to be fair, unbelievably busy in the summer of 1976: they had set up an amusement park in Atlanta that was losing money hand over fist, and their midseason Donny & Marie variety show had become a mammoth hit and ABC not only wanted another 26 episodes immediately, they wanted a variety show for children on Saturday mornings as well, a show that would incorporate three separate new series (one of them Electra Woman & Dyna Girl, which we’ll be resuming here shortly). The blunt, dumb reality is that the Kroffts had more work than they ever had before, and they took their eyes off the jewel in their portfolio in order to manage much larger projects.

What matters now is this: for thirty episodes over two seasons, the team behind Land of the Lost produced the very best adventure show for kids that was ever made for American television. Then there are thirteen mostly forgettable episodes of some entirely different series with some of the same cast. Three are okay, and three are absolutely brain-hammeringly godawful, and the other seven are just mediocre and forgettable kids’ TV. That’s certainly not the way this show should have concluded.