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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.

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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.

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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.

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Land of the Lost 2.10 – Baby Sitter

Daniel did much better with tonight’s episode than I thought he would! After the previous two appearances by the Zarn left him alternately angered and terrified, I was a little worried, but this episode is really pretty innocuous. In it, while Rick and Will take an overnight trip to continue a mapping project, Holly intervenes between Cha-Ka and Ta, who are at loggerheads.

The Zarn picks up on the conflict – or perhaps he overheard Will talking about him – and decides to escalate the conflict with his telekinetic powers, in the name of “research.” This involves a lot of quick cuts, wire work, and a little bit of slapstick, which our five year-old really enjoyed.

It is a strangely simple and inessential little story, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, I liked it a little less than I remembered it this time around. I do, however, really like the way that the Zarn is no longer a threat, but another neighbor with his own territory. Had this production team continued on and made the third season (oh, if only…), that would be a good place to start, with the humans, Pakuni, Sleestak, and the Zarn each with their own territories and each with their own opinions about how best to survive. (The Zarn, of course, would be that obnoxious neighbor whose lawn mower you do not wish to borrow, because he’d never let you forget it.)

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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.

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Land of the Lost 2.8 – The Pylon Express

I remembered this one as a very fun episode, without anything that would shock our son too badly. Wrong!

It turns out that every few years, the moons will line up in a certain order several times over the course of a few nights, opening time doorways inside a locked, key-less pylon, and dumping things into the Land. Ta has taken advantage of this, and leads the Pakuni in a ritual dance as though he opens it. He also quickly realizes this is a chance to get rid of the humans and get all their stuff, too. Holly spends several worried hours with her brother and father missing before Ta agrees to “open” the door for her as well. They return right behind her and we see, from her perspective, the bizarre journey across time and space until she can get back as well.

This was Theodore Sturgeon’s only script for the series, although his associate Wina had written a season one episode under her professional name of Wina Sturgeon. Since the journey is a real tax on the show’s meager resources, even with a lot of cut corners, more than two-thirds of the episode is in the Land, with Holly trying to get the Pakuni to explain what happened, and where they got a shopping cart full of groceries. Daniel loved all this business, as well as the only dinosaur moment of the episode, when the baby allosaurus, Junior, stops by for some squeaks.

The trip is just kind of curious and odd. One of the stops is apparently ancient Altrusia, with a beautiful (drawn) depiction of the Lost City before the civilization crumbled, and Daniel said later that he really liked that. Then Holly gets a strange fellow passenger – the robot box shown above – and then we see an alternate version of the Land – it looks like they turned the greens of the jungle up to purple on the video desk, wild fringing and all – which has the words HOLLY DON’T written in the dirt. The robot box bounces out and is destroyed by an unseen force.

Then things fell apart. Holly only spends a few seconds on the next world, depicted by animation. It looks like a miles-long vacuum cleaner hose, emitting a horrible beeping noise, spots the pylon and investigates with a menacing red glare. Daniel was absolutely horrified. You can never tell! I didn’t think anything in this episode was all that troubling, but those ten seconds of animation, and Kathy Coleman’s shocked reaction to the cleaner robot, sold the scene as much scarier to kids than I remembered. He confessed later that he really liked this episode except for the giant robot vacuum. I assured him it wouldn’t return.

Suddenly it’s a shame that it didn’t…

Oh, yeah, and the words HOLLY DON’T…? Rick and Will didn’t write them. So who did? Hmmmmmm…

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Land of the Lost 2.7 – The Longest Day

Forty years on, and it remains absolutely astonishing that “The Longest Day” was broadcast on Saturday mornings with the rest of the television for children. This is the episode where Rick inhales a roomful of Sleestak smoke in order to have a telepathic conference with the Sleestak leader, and has to come down via a boatload of freaky hallucinations. In these, his children recede into the distance, they become cavemen, and Kathy Coleman briefly plays a young lass from the 1760s who will not be born “for two hundred years hence.” Will becomes a football player tackled by two ungainly fellows in green uniforms, and a weird swirly video effect makes a silent bargain with the human.

Joyce Perry’s script is obviously playing on a couple of archetype, folk notions. This story is effectively about climbing to the top of a mesa and ingesting your weight in peyote and mushrooms and communing with spirits in order to understand them and your enemies better. No, I’m somehow not surprised that something like this was made by Sid and Marty Krofft, but I am amazed that the snickering chuckleheads who insist that H.R. Pufnstuf stands for “Hand Rolled” aren’t watching this with their jaws on the floor, and I’m absolutely astonished that NBC broadcast it.

Naturally, this was unsettling and weird for Daniel; heck, it’s weird for everybody, but it’s really the visceral shocks of Sleestak jumping out from behind people in dark corridors that provided the real punches.

In an earlier entry, I mentioned that the Kroffts invested in some new sound effects and music and seem to have split the cost between this show and Far Out Space Nuts, which was made at the same time and shown on CBS. About half the aliens in that series spoke through some kind of vocoder or processor which must have sounded insanely weird in 1975, and in this episode, Walker Edmiston got to use it to play the disembodied voices of some of the ancestral skulls. We’ll be hearing more from them later.

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Land of the Lost 2.5 – The Test

Big Alice always plays second fiddle to Grumpy when people remember Land of the Lost, but I always liked her best. I love how she always brings her head really low. The animation in the show is dated, but the crew put so much personality into those models. And make no mistake: she is absolutely convincing and utterly horrifying to kid viewers. Daniel was buried under a blanket for most of this installment, occasionally bellowing “I don’t want to watch this show of Land of the Lost!”

But he stuck with it, and was rewarded with the stop-motion team’s other great triumph. Tom Swale’s script – his first of three, all of which are very, very good – involves Cha-Ka being instructed to steal an allosaurus egg as part of the Pakuni rite of manhood, and if you don’t predict that the egg is going to hatch, you must be new to this kind of story. The baby allosaur, who is quickly named Junior, is the cutest thing in the entire universe, and communicates in an obnoxious but somehow charming squeak. Somewhere in TV Heaven, Junior is hanging out with the Clangers, squeaking and whistling at each other.

The story really shines from the direction. Like “Tag Team” in season one, this is a very simple story without a lot to it, and so Bob Lally has to build remarkable tension with the characters in mortal danger from the special effects, relying on music and pacing to make it all work. The first commercial break comes with Cha-Ka in the foreground struggling with the egg, unaware that Big Alice, on the other side of the Lost City’s plaza, has caught sight of him, has lowered her head, and, deep in the background of the shot, is slowly walking toward the camera. There’s no WOW! shot, no musical sting, and no need for pizzazz. It’s quiet and subtle and it worked astonishingly well; our son was scared out of his wits by it.

On the side of the plaza where Cha-Ka is fumbling with the egg, we get our first glimpse of a strange, ruined building that the Marshalls have not visited before. I can’t tell you how much I love the way the writers just planted all these seeds to revisit in later stories. Not even the prime-time dramas on American TV in the ’70s were so willing to develop long continuity like this. This was so ahead of its time.

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