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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.

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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.

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Land of the Lost 3.10 – Timestop

From the ridiculous to the (almost) sublime, “Timestop” is by leagues the best episode of Land of the Lost‘s third season, and it’s probably not coincidental that it’s the only one of the thirteen to have any writing or directing input from somebody who worked on the show’s first two years. Tom Swale had been a “production coordinator” – I’m honestly not sure what that entails – on season one and moved up to associate producer on season two, where he contributed two excellent stories.

“Timestop” is almost as good. I think it’s one draft away from being ideal. It really should have written out Enik, which, to be completely fair, isn’t the sort of thing that kids’ shows did forty years ago, but it missed a great opportunity by way of a big plot hole. The story concerns an old Altrusian “temporal regulator” that Will and Holly find. Enik wants it to return home, but they find themselves at cross-purposes. Things get worse when Torchy, the fire-breathing dimetrodon, chases Cha-Ka out onto a geyser bed and – get this – sinks to its death beneath the soft mud. I clearly remember this blowing my mind as a kid, and today, my son also gave this a solid, eyes-popped-out “whoa.”

But Cha-Ka is now stranded next to the geyser on a small patch of rock, and will also be killed when the geyser next erupts. Enik explains to Jack that anybody inside the pylon that the temporal regulator controls will be unaffected by reversing the flow of time, and they agree to a deal: Jack reverses time to save Cha-Ka, and then Enik opens a separate door to reverse his own timestream and go home, but then Enik idiotically steps outside and lets Jack get on with it, meaning he gets reversed as well, while Cha-Ka and Torchy get saved. As errors go, that was a massive one. Why in heaven would he do that?

In a perfect world, this should have been the season finale, writing out Walker Edmiston’s character, and giving the Marshalls a heroic finale, sacrificing their opportunity to leave to save both Cha-Ka and Enik. Since the series was not going to get renewed – more on that in a couple of weeks, although, since all thirteen episodes were probably taped before the first one aired, they couldn’t have known that – it would have served as the best possible series conclusion from the shows available.

So on the one hand, I can’t help but grumble about the missed opportunity, but “Timestop” is nevertheless a really good half hour. It brings back that sense of exploration and discovery that has been badly lacking this year – to its credit, the next episode also has a bit of it, though nowhere as good – and plays with science fiction elements with more success than any other installment this year. The sense of danger is massively ramped up, and the split-second error where Jack accidentally moves time forward, almost killing Cha-Ka with the geyser’s eruption, gave Daniel a sudden and genuine scare. When the episode concludes with another dead end – the resurrected Torchy blasts the pylon with enough heat to fuse its key in place, keeping anybody from entering it to use the temporal regulator – it’s downright heartbreaking.

But honestly, what’s really heartbreaking is knowing that Land of the Lost was once this good every week.

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Land of the Lost 3.9 – Abominable Snowman

I still have my View-Master reels of this episode, which I believe my mom bought for 89 cents at K-Mart. By an astonishing coincidence, 89 cents is also about how much they spent on the abominable snowman costume in this story.

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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.

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Land of the Lost 3.5 – Medusa

So, yes, this happened.

Medusa is played by an actress named Marion Thompson. She was unable to pronounce the word “mirror.” That is the most interesting thing about this episode.

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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.

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Land of the Lost 2.11 – The Musician

We’re all embarrassed by our earlier writing, but if you really want to see me cringe, get yourself a copy of Hal Erickson’s Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Childrens Television, 1969-1993 and turn to the bit where I’m quoted going way, way over the top in my praise for this episode. The hyperbole in that section aside – you can kind of tell I’d been reading and rereading those Classic British TV books by Paul Cornell, Keith Topping, and Martin Day – I stand by it. This is my favorite episode of Land of the Lost, and there’s never been another half hour of children’s adventure TV produced for this country that I enjoy more.

Why does this work so well? I think it’s because it’s the perfect example of slowly exploring the very, very alien world around them without any answers. So much of what the Marshalls experience does not come with a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps, had the writers Dick Morgan and Tom Swale continued into season three, they may have circled back to this new temple and the technology and promise here, as well as the interesting hints about alternate universes and different Sleestak to come in the next installment, but this introduction is all that we get, and it’s tantalizing, thrilling, and very, very frightening.

The arrival of a strange red being, and the ghostly voices of the Pakuni whistling in the wind, are completely alien. I was mistaken in thinking that Daniel would be frightened by the previous episode, but the sad, quiet, desperate energy of this installment’s third act was every bit as scary as I imagined it would be to him. He was curled up in his mommy’s lap, whispering “I want to wait in my room until this show is over.”

I just love the direction of the scene in which Will asks the red being, the Builder, to leave them alone, that they’re returning the ring that they unwittingly took from the temple. Wesley Eure keeps his voice low but his eyes wide with fear. There’s no music, just a pulsing, ambient noise coming from the being. Sure, grown-ups won’t be frightened by this, but how can kids help but be alarmed when they don’t even know what the red man is or what he / it wants?

Everything about this episode is just terrific; everybody involved was clearly working very, very hard to make the whole experience completely immersive and believable. The animators did one of their best jobs ever with Big Alice and Junior, the director lined up every single shot perfectly, the designers of this temple had a field day making it real, and the final scene’s revelation that Cha-Ka’s selflessness and bravery has paid off in a very unexpected way is simple, effective, and downright magical. I love this episode to pieces.

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