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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Space Academy 1.2 – Castaways in Time and Space

An interesting little first for our blog in this episode: this is the first of a few teleplays that we’ll see to be written by Samuel A. Peeples. He wrote for the original Star Trek and worked for Filmation on both the cartoon version and some of their later science fiction programs, like this show and Flash Gordon, but he also put in a little more work with Trek producer Gene Roddenberry as well. The same year that he wrote for this series, he also wrote the TV movie pilot Spectre for Roddenberry. This was a period occult thriller that starred Robert Culp and Gig Young. I’d like to see that one of these days.

Another oddball first for our son: this is the first time we’ve run into retooling between the first episode and the rest of the series. Last week, we met Ty Henderson’s character, Paul Jerome, as “the guy who gets left back at the base.” This episode is clearly set some time after the pilot, as Loki is a uniformed member of Space Academy’s Blue Team, but Paul is introduced to the others as a new character who has just transferred to Blue Team.

The bulk of the episode is conflict between the three young male leads. Ric Carrott’s Chris is reckless and driven, and Paul is a loner who wants to follow orders, and Brian Tochi’s Tee Gar Soom is stuck between their squabbles. A black hole leads them to a planet with a screaming stop-motion dragon-like monster, so they are forced to quit arguing and work together quickly.

We paused the episode to explain about black holes to our son, as we thought this was his first exposure to this favorite trope of sci-fi film and TV writers. He explained after the episode ended that we’d unwittingly cleared up a confusing bit from an episode of Clangers that he saw recently.

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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.

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