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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 3.11 – Ancient Guardian

Well, here’s a pleasant surprise. This episode is markedly better than I remembered it. I’d place it in that top tier with “After-Shock,” “Cornered,” and “Timestop.” Weirdly, this is another one of the better episodes of year three that ends with Wesley Eure lip-synching one of his bubblegum songs. You’d think that sort of thing would lower the installment a notch or two, but no, it’s really not bad, and better than the average.

I love that it just dumps more information and half-explained material into the story, including a new area that they’ve never visited. Most unusually, the episode opens with the Marshalls being pursued by some unseen tree-climbing creatures that are throwing things at them. These beasts, whatever they are, are never mentioned again.

The ancient guardian of the title is a statue with a heat ray inside. It has been protecting the valley from an incredibly long-lived hairy beast called Kona for many, many years by keeping the rocks and air in the only passage from a high mountain area super-heated.

It’s clunky, and during one dopey moment where Jack concludes that some algebraic equations on the statue have to do with optics, obnoxiously so. It’s directed with absolutely no grace or style by Joe Scanlan, who has to once again lower the Sleestaks’ threat level by having them flee, awkwardly, in terror from Kona rather than fighting to the death. It’s written by Peter Germano, and 90% of his resume prior to this was westerns and not SF, but somehow it all just about works, and there’s a sense of weirdness and urgency that raises the episode above the low average for the season.

Incidentally, some money was clearly saved this week by having the Tapa costume from “Abominable Snowman” dyed and sent back for a different actor to wear. Last time, Jon Locke, who normally played the bombastic Sleestak Leader, wore the suit, but this time, Locke has to appear in some of the same scenes as the beast, so Mickey Morton plays Kona. Morton, who was a really big guy, would later play Solomon Grundy in Legends of the Superheroes and one of Chewbacca’s relatives in The Star Wars Holiday Special. He’d earlier worked for the Kroffts on two episodes of Far Out Space Nuts, and in a Wonderbug installment that was probably made within a month or so of this. The first commercial break came with the hairy monster casting a shadow on the Marshalls’ temple door, which gave Daniel a solid little fright. He really enjoyed this episode, especially since both Grumpy and Spike put in brief appearances.

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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 3.6 – Cornered

FIRE-BREATHING DIMETRODON!!!

So, what I was saying back with episode four… the cold light of adulthood showed the third season of Land of the Lost to be many leagues poorer than the previous two, but for kids, the excitement level went through the roof. And indeed Daniel could barely contain himself tonight, completely wild with the thrill of seeing this bad boy in action.

This episode is by some measure better than the previous few, even with Enik being downright hostile, the strange logic of a carnivorous animal wanting to chow down on coal, and the horrible coda – not the only one – of Wesley Eure picking up a homemade guitar and lip-synching to a pre-recorded teen dream “junior dance”-style song. It’s just wildly fun and exciting, and this fire-breathing beast makes all the difference.

By a bizarre coincidence, just three days ago, Daniel and I spent a few hours at Tellus Science Museum, just north of Cartersville GA, which is money incredibly well spent if your kid’s at the dinosaur age. And wouldn’t you know it, look what they have on display:

Now, to be fair, at no point in “Cornered” do they actually identify Torchy as a dimetrodon, but kids in the seventies knew exactly what that animal was, because every “Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals” coloring book or bag of plastic creatures had a dimetrodon in it. (Some of those bags also had rust monsters and owlbears, but that’s another story.) The actual dimetrodon, a creature that lived before the dinosaurs, in the Permian period, was a very big animal, but nowhere near the size of the gargantuan thing that’s onscreen in this episode.

And it doesn’t matter, because this thing is just crazy fun cool. About twelve years ago, I was watching some antiseptic children’s program with Daniel’s two older siblings and grumbled that what that show needed was a fire-breathing dimetrodon. I dug my old VHS copy of this out to show them what I was talking about, and it blew their minds, too. We thought about all the kid shows on Nick Jr. that would be improved by the inclusion of a fire-breathing dimetrodon (“Hola, I’m Dora…” ROAR!) and the evening concluded with what is still one of the funniest things I can remember my older son doing around that age (maybe seven) as he said “I’m Franklin, and I’m LOST!” in a truly perfect impression of that dopey turtle before bellowing “FIRE-BREATHING DIMETRODON! ROARRRRR!”

I did a quick check, however, and the stars of Sprout are safe and free to grow, as Daniel would rather not have the Doozers and the Berenstain Bears attacked by a fire-breathing dimetrodon. Shame.

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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 3.2 – Survival Kit

They made thirteen episodes in the third season of Land of the Lost. Three of them are absolutely brain-hammeringly godawful. This is one of those three.

For those stumbling through, this is the episode in which the gigantic Richard Kiel, who’d later battle Roger Moore in a couple of James Bond movies, plays a loudmouthed “cro-magnon” and battles the Sleestak. Since their leader now speaks English, we now suffer the indignity of watching the baddie plea for mercy because the caveman has diverted a river(!) to flood their egg chamber. You want to know how to instantly remove all the menace from a villain? Make them grovel. For two seasons, the Sleestak were the greatest monsters of all American television. You could scarcely communicate with them and only make bargains if somebody interceded on your behalf. You didn’t know what they wanted, they just made horrible hissing noises and leapt at you from shadows. And now this. This episode should never, ever have been made. It cheapened everything done in the first two seasons.

So I’ll talk about something different.

Back in the VHS trading days, season three of this show was incredibly difficult to source. It was something that nobody owned but many people had on their wants list. CBS had shown most of, or possibly all of, seasons one and two in 1985 and 1987, so those were out there, but finding season three meant finding somebody who had taped it on the syndicated Krofft Super Stars package between 1979 and 1983 or so.

So there was this one guy who finally landed a set. This guy was everything bad about tape traders. He parlayed his collection into this magazine that was nothing but episode guides on the cheapest newsprint available, his plot descriptions plagiarized shamelessly from old issues of Files Magazine and Time Screen. I started buying them from the dollar boxes at Titan when he started adding these long, paranoid, hilarious editorials about how various interns were screwing him over, and how the massive economic recession that Bill Clinton created to personally destroy his publishing empire meant that his magazine wasn’t selling what it used to, and how the Sci-Fi Channel was ruining his life by (a) putting that little planet logo in the bottom corner of the screen and (b) not purchasing the Mel Brooks sitcom When Things Were Rotten.

Well, his whining about the Sci-Fi Channel must have come later, because my friend Mike finally worked out a deal for the third season of Land of the Lost from this guy, and of course Mike had to pay hand over fist for them, because that’s what kind of trader this guy was. Mike probably had to send the guy nine or twelve blank tapes in exchange for three with the episodes, and if he had to include a small monetary donation for “wear and tear” on that guy’s VCRs, I would not have been at all surprised.

So he got these in on a Thursday and I came back to my parents’ house from Athens the next day, and that is what we did Friday night: we watched all thirteen episodes of season three, and I think that about the time this episode ended, I must have put my head in my hands because I could barely make it through this turkey and yet I was pretty sure that at least one episode coming up was even worse. (It is.)

About a year later, the Sci-Fi Channel started running edited copies of this (and Stingray and Captain Scarlet) on a morning block called “Sci-Fi Cartoon Quest.” We could finally get off-air copies, but these fourth- or fifth-generation copies we got from the trader were still handy. I was so annoyed by the edits that I reconstructed the episodes, dropping in the chunks that the Sci-Fi Channel cut. What really annoyed me was that the episodes weren’t being cut for commercials, they were being cut for these dimwit twenty second bumpers in which three models wander around a post-apocalyptic music video set in silly costumes chasing a little Sci-Fi Channel logo.

As tedious as “Survival Kit” is, it’s not half as tedious as watching it side-by-side on two monitors looking for cut footage. I can promise you that.

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