A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)

Even if you can’t stand sports or watching competitions on TV, you know how they end. The camera celebrates the winner. That’s why this lovely, lovely moment at the end of A Boy Named Charlie Brown remains one of my all-time favorite gags in any movie. Charlie Brown has blown it, again, and instead of showing the triumph of the kid who won the spelling bee, the camera focuses on the first loser. The winner is completely forgotten. Lucy – voiced by the wonderful Pamelyn Ferdin – switches off the TV to rant at her friends, turns it back on, and the focus is still on Charlie. It slays me every time. They should try that the next Super Bowl just to drive home how downright mean this is.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown is 51 years old. It probably didn’t feel that downright mean then. Just to put that in perspective, 51 years before that, we were trying to wrap up World War One. I’m fascinated by the way society moves and changes and evolves. Since our culture shifted the way we teach children from “stand up to bullies” to “don’t bully” – I’m not sure why it took so long for us to figure this out – Lucy comes across very differently today than she did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Another little thing that comes across differently to this family just in the last couple of months is that our son has mostly retired his security blanket. Regular readers have seen me mention his little blue blanket, named Bict, several times over the years. For a while, it was joined by several other stuffed animals. But those only watched TV with him for a few months until only Bict remained, and one day in the spring we realized Bict wasn’t with him anymore. Bict stays in bed for cuddling when he sleeps.

Poor Linus may never get to that stage. One day without his own little blue blanket and he’s a mess. He gives it to Charlie Brown for luck, and unable to stand its absence, he and Snoopy take a bus to New York City to find it. The idea of a kindergarten kid staying out all night looking in trash cans in the alleys around the NYPL might just be one of the most fanciful things we’ve ever seen.

I’ve always liked this movie and it holds up very well. I like the musical detours and the interesting changes to the animation and art direction when it leaves the plot behind for Schroder’s concerto and Snoopy’s game of hockey. Our son was really amused by the slapstick and silliness, but had his heart broken a little when Charlie Brown flops in the end. He was really getting into the spelling bee, too. We made sure to tell him afterward that real national spelling bees go on for a whole lot longer than the four or five minutes this one takes. They’re more like dance marathons than the Super Bowl, aren’t they?

Our son has seen some of the other Peanuts movies and most of the TV specials. I’d been saving the best one for last and I’m glad that he enjoyed it. He says that it’s the best of all of them – I’d say it’s probably joint first with the Christmas special, honestly – and added it to his DVD collection with a smile. He’ll be getting another of the old paperbacks for his next road trip next month. In fairness, he doesn’t quite enjoy Peanuts as much as Garfield, but a new-to-him book of strips is just the right thing for a long car trip.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.2 – Puppy Love

Forty-some years before working with dogs on Mutt & Stuff, Sid and Marty Krofft brought along a few four-legged friends to the Paramount stage where they filmed this silly show, and let things get really silly as Sigmund falls in love with one of the neighborhood puppies. Fluffy’s owner, Peggy, is played by Pamelyn Ferdin, who we remember from 1977’s Space Academy. She made two appearances on the show; it’s strongly hinted during Johnny Whitaker’s closing bubblegum rock tune that he has a schoolboy crush on Peggy, but sadly this really wasn’t developed on the show.

Our son adored this episode, from all the dopey puns (“Clam up? Some of my best friends are clams!”) to the climax, in which Fluffy brings several other neighborhood dogs to chase off Blurp and Slurp. Incidentally, this is the second episode in a row where the noise of all the sea monster brawling is dismissed as “prowlers.” Zelda, the housekeeper, is oddly unconcerned about all this potential crime.

Regarding the quality of these screen captures, as with the DVDs of Land of the Lost, the copies available are very badly in need of restoration and remastering, and suffer from color bleeding and blurs. The seventeen episodes of season one have been released twice in North America, by Rhino and later by Vivendi, but you can get both seasons, all 29 episodes, in a region-free four-disk set from Beyond in Australia. Amazon’s currently sold out of that version, but click the pic above and you can order a box set that includes the complete Sigmund along with H.R. Pufnstuf, Land, and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. That’s 105 episodes in one package for about $60. Not bad at all, even with the need for some extensive restoration work.

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 1.12 – My Favorite Marcia

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.

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 1.10 – Life Begins at 300

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.

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 1.4 – Countdown

After the last episode of this show, which was so painfully stupid, my enthusiasm had ebbed. But then I saw that Tom Swale, who wrote three really good episodes of Land of the Lost, was credited with this script and sat up straight. While not on the crazy high level of those three gems, it’s still very good, by leagues the best of this show so far.

This time out, Laura, Chris, Tee Gar, and Loki are assigned junk duty and fly out to blast some debris from a two hundred year-old war between Earth and a rogue colony, Vega, that has drifted into the academy’s orbit. Among the junk is a large, sealed section of an old warship with a cryogenically-frozen Vegan. He’s played by George DiCenzo, who had recently starred as Vincent Bugliosi in the TV adaptation of Helter Skelter and would go on to do many hours of voiceover work for Filmation’s cartoons.

The story is a really interesting one. The Vegan has the power to immobilize his enemies with a touch, and he doesn’t believe the war ended with peace centuries ago. Complicating matters, a mine has attached itself to the Seeker’s hull. So there’s a lot going on, and even if the script doesn’t do anything too unexpected or weird, it’s a sold half hour that kept our son very curious and occasionally worried, and, perhaps more importantly, didn’t insult the grownups’ intelligence,

Well… I say that, but part of this show’s arsenal of tricks is that people can survive in the vacuum of space with just a little wristband. I guess we’re meant to pretend that it creates an invisible force field that works like a pressure suit around them? I realize the budget of this show was very tight and they spent a lot more money than any previous Filmation production, but they really should have shelled out for a couple of spacesuits. This is meant to be somewhat educational!

Space Academy 1.3 – Hide and Seek

You get used to a certain level of dopeyness with these shows where the science is concerned. With the Filmation shows, that’s a real shame as they actually claimed to be teaching about science. But this time, everybody starts vanishing, and it’s all because of some magic space dust that somehow gets into the academy after a meteorite gets blown up. All they have to do to counteract the vanishing is take a “formula” and run it backward in a computer. Dr. Science did not graduate from Space Academy.

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.