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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 2.5 – 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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Land of the Lost 2.1 – Tar Pit

Season two of Land of the Lost began with what I remembered as a pretty inconsequential story with dinosaurs and Pakuni – and non-threatening dinosaurs, at that – but I had overlooked that Daniel would become very worried for Dopey when the “two-ton” dino gets caught in the tar pit. That’s really all the plot is for the episode; the humans and the reluctant Pakuni make several attempts to free Dopey.

I really like the way that Margaret Armen’s script wasn’t afraid to give huge chunks of time over to the Pakuni arguing about whether to help. About a third of the dialogue isn’t in English, which is really impressive.

Some minor changes in between seasons: they found a new brown shirt for Wesley Eure to wear, and Ta is played by a new actor. Joe Giamalva had played the character in season one, and Scutter McKay, who played various costumed parts in H.R. Pufnstuf, took over the role here. I really like how McKay and Philip Paley debate whether to do some nebulous task or whether Cha-Ka is going to paint Ta’s portrait. When the Pakuni all finally arrive to see that Dopey is sinking in tar, Ta can’t be bothered to help. He dismisses Dopey’s problem with a dismissive “bye-bye” wave.

Behind the scenes, Dick Morgan became the story editor, and Tom Swale the associate producer. Between the two of them, they’d be responsible for seven of this season’s thirteen episodes, including the really big one that’s coming up next.

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Land of the Lost 1.14 – Stone Soup

I suppose that I could make the argument that “Stone Soup” is the weakest episode of Land of the Lost‘s first season, but it’s still pretty entertaining. What’s weirdest is that it feels like it didn’t have any second or third drafts before they taped it, and so the continuity of Joyce Perry’s script – Perry was another veteran from the Star Trek cartoon – jars against the previous episodes. Sa is twice referred to as “he,” when the character is generally assumed to be female, but it’s the pylon business that really doesn’t make any sense.

In the first place, Will and Holly are completely unsurprised to find that a pylon’s door is open, and remains so. They take shelter in it when the local apatosaur, Emily, gets angry with them, and comment that it is really dark, but they don’t actually note that the matrix table doesn’t have any crystals in it. Then there’s the bizarre wrap-up, after they refill the table with crystals that the Pakuni have pilfered in what must be random order – the Skylons, introduced in episode eight, bizarrely do not appear, though we will see them again soon – and step outside, and Rick closes the pylon door. Will and Holly react with a ridiculous “WOW!” like they’ve never seen that before.

It’s really kind of unfortunate that everything does jar so badly, because so much of LOTL was very meticulous about telling a structured story across many weeks, but this isn’t structured in line with what we’ve seen before at all. Still, the actual story is quite entertaining, and it’s always nice to see the Marshalls completely pull a fast one on Ta. This time, they trade him a stone for soup-making in return for all the crystals that he’d stolen. I approve.

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Land of the Lost 1.1 – Cha-Ka

“THIS IS THE SCARIEST SHOW EVER!” shouted Daniel. And he’s right. Four year-olds can totally get what’s happening when a mean twenty-foot tyrannosaur is stomping around after you.

I am really glad that we waited a few months to start this show, and get him used to some frights, because having Grumpy the tyrannosaur chase the Marshalls around the jungle while they try to see to a young ape-man, a Paku called Cha-Ka, really is stunning the first time you see it through small eyes. I’ve seen this episode sixty-eleven times already; I spent most of the twenty-five minutes watching not the set but my son, whose eyes were as big as dinner plates when they weren’t hid under his blanket or on the other side of the couch.

This was awesome.

The show was created, at different levels, by Sid and Marty Krofft, Allan Foshko, and by David Gerrold, who did the heavy lifting and the world-building. There are weird hiccups in this first script that sound like earlier drafts, unfinished, made the final cut. (For example, did the Marshalls really spend time building a basket-lift elevator, and prep “flyswatter” log deterrents for Grumpy before they talked about where they might be, and that there are three moons in the sky?) But it’s a heck of a good first script overall. Gerrold was absolutely right to start this with a simple story of rescuing Cha-Ka and running around trying to get away from the dinosaur. It establishes the immediate dinosaur threat with quite a lot of great stop-motion animation, establishes the Marshalls as resourceful, good people who believably squabble and have legitimate fears, and establishes Cha-Ka, smallest of them all, as a downright fantastic audience identification figure for the youngest viewers.

But Land of the Lost is an astonishingly neat series that is a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. It’s completely unlike anything that was on television for kids in 1974 because it has continuity and a story that unfolds across multiple episodes. I’ve been so looking forward to watching this again. Yes, many of the acting performances are weak, and yes, the chromakey effects are woefully dated, but the slow, week-by-week revelation of a great big world, a great big history, and the presence of great big questions is just so damn fun. It will all end in tears, it’s true, because season three is so head-trauma awful in missing the point and missing opportunities, but we’ll have so much fun getting there.

If we can get past the next episode. I’m still a little concerned about the Sleestak. Actually, a lot concerned.

(Note: Universal’s complete DVD set was released to coincide with the Will Ferrell movie from 2009, which is better than you have heard [if not by much], but the episodes were not remastered. These are badly color-washed, very old tapes with a lot of bleeding and blurring. I don’t get the finest results pausing for screencaps with my equipment in the first place, but I fear that this show’s going to drive me to distraction to get good illustrations for you. Please bear with me in case of poor pictures!)

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