Space Academy 1.15 – Johnny Sunseed

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.

Space Academy 1.14 – Star Legend

“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.

Space Academy 1.13 – Space Hooky

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.

Space Academy 1.11 – The Cheat

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.

Space Academy 1.8 – The Phantom Planet

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.

Space Academy 1.7 – Monkey Business

There wasn’t anything wrong with tonight’s episode – it concerned a solar mirror jammed in the wrong position, pointing down at an artificial planetoid – but I guess I wasn’t in the right mood for it. I just kept questioning things instead of taking this inoffensive story on its own terms. For example, I wanted to know…

It’s 1977. Didn’t we already see a kid and a chimpanzee stowing away on this morning’s repeat of Speed Racer? And…

Why are the hangar bays at Space Academy so incredibly huge? Isn’t that a somewhat inefficient use of space?

Ah, well. My son wasn’t distracted by such boring adult concerns. He liked the story just fine.

Space Academy 1.6 – The Rocks of Janus

Back in the late sixties, when Marvel Comics was throwing all sorts of wild and bizarre ideas at readers and most of ’em, true believers, stuck, Smilin’ Stan and Jolly Jack introduced Ego, the Living Planet, in the pages of Thor. I would gently suggest that Jack Kirby managed the concept of a living planet with a little bit more magic and wonder than Samuel A. Peeples and the Filmation crew could bring to this story of two living planetoids, named Ergo and Tarr.

On the other hand, our son was really quite impressed. “That was SO COOL when the asteroids were alive!” he said. If you insist, kiddo.

Space Academy 1.5 – There’s No Place Like Home

Our son’s doing a lot better dealing with kids and innocents in danger. This time, Larry Dobkin – the “There are eight million stories in the Naked City” guy – plays an alien who forces young Loki to steal a chemical from the academy’s lab. He’s actually meaner than you’d expect from a kid show and his shapeshifting powers leave the audience unsure what he can do. The security blanket was employed, but he stood his ground and handled it pretty well.

This show’s not bad so far. It’s definitely more entertaining than I had expected.

Space Academy 1.1 – The Survivors of Zalon

Star Wars was released in theaters on May 25 1977, and two months later, Filmation’s Space Academy was in production. You may think that’s an incredibly fast turn-around to start cashing in on a hot property, but watching this show, it’s impossible to ignore certain design similarities between the movie and this show, especially between the way they each use corridors, and the presence, in Academy, of a waist-high robot called Peepo. Give that robot a thick layer of grime and some Jawas would try to sell it to you cheap with a moisture converter.

But really, Space Academy, which debuted in September 1977 as Filmation’s only new live-action show that year, has a lot more Star Trek in its veins. It starred Jonathan Harris as Isaac Gampu, the commander of an asteroid-based academy for young astronauts. This isn’t explained in episode one, but there are at least three “teams” of five or more young people rotating through assignments, and the show follows Blue Team, made up of Laura Gentry and her pilot brother Chris (Pamelyn Ferdin and Ric Carrott), scientist Adrian Pryce-Jones (Maggie Cooper), Paul Jerome (Ty Henderson), and Tee Gar Soom (Brian Tochi). In this episode, they pick up an orphan from the doomed planet Zalon, a child without a name whom Gampu coins Loki (Eric Greene), who has x-ray vision and can teleport short distances.

It’s a very seventies bit of Diet Star Trek. It won’t surprise anyone familiar with sci-fi in this decade to learn that Laura and Chris are mildly psychic, and can form a telepathic link with the rest of the team to overcome mental force fields. Gotta make way for the Homo superior and all that. Also, of course, humanity’s greatest strength is its compassion, and kindness to all life forms is emphasized. It’s an earnest show, as these are, but well made and light years ahead of Shazam! and Isis in special effects.

To be fair, the first episode is also really, really slow. The Academy kids fly from their base to planets in vehicles called Seekers, and I was very pleased that our son instantly recognized that the miniature Seeker looks suspiciously exactly like the Ark II, only with wings and a booster instead of wheels. Makes you wonder whether we’ll see a full-sized prop in another week or so. The Seeker moves through space at the speed of a glacier, which is probably pretty accurate, but it kind of shows you why Trek came up with the transporter room.

Our son enjoyed it, although without the energy and enthusiasm of the other two shows we’re watching right now, and that makes sense. This show is intelligent, well written, and surprisingly well acted, from the veteran Harris all the way down to the young rookies, and I think that I’ll enjoy watching it now, but it really doesn’t have any energy at all. I didn’t actually watch this show as a kid, because Laff-a-Lympics was opposite it on ABC. I’ll try to keep our boy away from such competition.