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Land of the Lost 3.1 – After-Shock

They made thirteen episodes in the third season of Land of the Lost. Three of them aren’t bad. This is one of those three.

Analyzing what in the name of heaven went wrong with this show would take forever, but it all comes down to the writing. Most people remember that Spencer Milligan did not return as Rick Marshall, possibly because of a salary dispute and possibly because he wanted a cut of merchandising money and possibly because he hoped to star as the lead in a CBS series called The Keegans, and some recall that the Marshalls got a new home because the program was moved from one studio (General Service, now called Hollywood Center Studios) to another (Goldwyn) and new sets had to be built.

So this is the year where Ron Harper’s character, Uncle Jack, Rick’s brother, joins the cast, and they pick up a new home in a temple near the Lost City. But there’s so much more than that, and almost all of it is wrong. Just wrong.

Most obviously: Ta and Sa are gone. There’s a throwaway explanation, to coincide with the fact that Cha-Ka has learned a whole lot more English than he ever spoke before (thanks, I suppose, to the events of “The Musician” in season two), but their absence robs the show of the very fun antagonism between the humans and Ta. Less obviously: all the writers and directors are gone. This is a mammoth, mammoth problem, because Jon Kubichan, who wrote this episode, and his principal colleague Sam Roeca only had a loose understanding of what the show was actually about, and did not know all the careful continuity that David Gerrold and his team laid out, and which Dick Morgan and Tom Swale carefully nurtured and developed. In seasons one and two, the Land of the Lost was a pocket universe accessible only by time doorways, with no space outside its ground and atmosphere. In season three, it might as well be a valley in some uncharted South American rain forest.

The tone is wrong, the geography is wrong, the technology is wrong, the characterization of Enik is wrong, the sudden English vocabularies of Cha-Ka and a Sleestak leader is breathtakingly wrong.

For a while, I petulantly wished that Wesley Eure, Philip Paley, Kathy Coleman, and Walker Edmiston had spoken up and pointed out the big continuity flaws. Eventually, I got a little more sympathy for the realities of actors’ jobs. They had a million lines to learn and new directors in charge and eight months of looking for commercials and guest star parts before coming back to work on the show; the script minutiae of time doorways and how Enik reacted in a situation that they had performed once a year and a half ago wasn’t their responsibility to remember in detail, certainly not in an age before home video. Plus, as the absence of Spencer Milligan, Sharon Baird, and Scutter McKay must have reminded them: actors can be replaced.

I did reach out to the Kroffts’ social media team hoping for an interview and to learn more about the changes between seasons but I have not heard back from them. Sid and Marty were, to be fair, unbelievably busy in the summer of 1976: they had set up an amusement park in Atlanta that was losing money hand over fist, and their midseason Donny & Marie variety show had become a mammoth hit and ABC not only wanted another 26 episodes immediately, they wanted a variety show for children on Saturday mornings as well, a show that would incorporate three separate new series (one of them Electra Woman & Dyna Girl, which we’ll be resuming here shortly). The blunt, dumb reality is that the Kroffts had more work than they ever had before, and they took their eyes off the jewel in their portfolio in order to manage much larger projects.

What matters now is this: for thirty episodes over two seasons, the team behind Land of the Lost produced the very best adventure show for kids that was ever made for American television. Then there are thirteen mostly forgettable episodes of some entirely different series with some of the same cast. Three are okay, and three are absolutely brain-hammeringly godawful, and the other seven are just mediocre and forgettable kids’ TV. That’s certainly not the way this show should have concluded.

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Land of the Lost 2.12 – Split Personality

This episode is horrifying. It’s completely amazing and it’s completely horrifying. I can’t imagine anything like it being shown on kids’ TV today. We can make some pretty good guesses about what happened, but, like last week’s episode, we don’t get any kind of definitive answer. But this time, unlike “The Musician,” it’s not just the unknown alien nature of the situation that’s frightening, it’s the amazing acting job that Kathy Coleman pulls off.

What seems to happen – and this is the most obvious explanation, built on the assumption of decades of media fantasy and SF, but by no means the only one – is that another Marshall family in another universe met a horrifying accident. They attempted a way home just as an earthquake hit, a quake so powerful that, with a time doorway open, it merged their Land of the Lost with ours.

In the mid-1980s, there was a popular computer game called Wizardry, the only one of its genre I ever played. If you cast your teleportation spell wrong, then you and your party would be trapped in rock. I swear the game’s writers got that from this episode. See, the “other” Holly, fading in and out of our reality, begs them for help, using our Holly as an anchor to speak, and leave mixed memories. Our Holly explains that she’s inside the rocks, and the rocks are inside her. And then there’s that image. The merging of dimensions is so scrambled that their floor becomes our wall.

But between those two moments, there’s one of the most shocking scenes in the entire series. Our Holly won’t go in the cave, slowly panicking, tears running down her face as the other Holly’s memories fade. “I’m losing her, Daddy, I’m losing her…” The implication is obvious: the other Holly has died of her injuries. You might could read that another way – after all, the beauty of this episode is that we are not given specific answers – but I can’t, not with Coleman’s stunning acting. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

Daniel was so scared by this episode he refused to acknowledge liking anything about it except Grumpy falling into a crevasse when the earthquake hits. Just about anything can be forgiven when a tyrannosaurus falls in a hole, I guess. I didn’t get the chance to ask him what he thought about the other Holly trying to explain that they should not trust the black Sleestak.

It’s natural to want answers, and to think that maybe had Dick Morgan stayed with the show into the next season, we’d learn more about the Zarn (and have him meet Enik!), and the Builder, and the black Sleestak, but another part of me kind of enjoys how, like the Marshalls, we never got those answers. All we can do is speculate in the dark.

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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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Land of the Lost 2.8 – The Pylon Express

I remembered this one as a very fun episode, without anything that would shock our son too badly. Wrong!

It turns out that every few years, the moons will line up in a certain order several times over the course of a few nights, opening time doorways inside a locked, key-less pylon, and dumping things into the Land. Ta has taken advantage of this, and leads the Pakuni in a ritual dance as though he opens it. He also quickly realizes this is a chance to get rid of the humans and get all their stuff, too. Holly spends several worried hours with her brother and father missing before Ta agrees to “open” the door for her as well. They return right behind her and we see, from her perspective, the bizarre journey across time and space until she can get back as well.

This was Theodore Sturgeon’s only script for the series, although his associate Wina had written a season one episode under her professional name of Wina Sturgeon. Since the journey is a real tax on the show’s meager resources, even with a lot of cut corners, more than two-thirds of the episode is in the Land, with Holly trying to get the Pakuni to explain what happened, and where they got a shopping cart full of groceries. Daniel loved all this business, as well as the only dinosaur moment of the episode, when the baby allosaurus, Junior, stops by for some squeaks.

The trip is just kind of curious and odd. One of the stops is apparently ancient Altrusia, with a beautiful (drawn) depiction of the Lost City before the civilization crumbled, and Daniel said later that he really liked that. Then Holly gets a strange fellow passenger – the robot box shown above – and then we see an alternate version of the Land – it looks like they turned the greens of the jungle up to purple on the video desk, wild fringing and all – which has the words HOLLY DON’T written in the dirt. The robot box bounces out and is destroyed by an unseen force.

Then things fell apart. Holly only spends a few seconds on the next world, depicted by animation. It looks like a miles-long vacuum cleaner hose, emitting a horrible beeping noise, spots the pylon and investigates with a menacing red glare. Daniel was absolutely horrified. You can never tell! I didn’t think anything in this episode was all that troubling, but those ten seconds of animation, and Kathy Coleman’s shocked reaction to the cleaner robot, sold the scene as much scarier to kids than I remembered. He confessed later that he really liked this episode except for the giant robot vacuum. I assured him it wouldn’t return.

Suddenly it’s a shame that it didn’t…

Oh, yeah, and the words HOLLY DON’T…? Rick and Will didn’t write them. So who did? Hmmmmmm…

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Land of the Lost 2.7 – The Longest Day

Forty years on, and it remains absolutely astonishing that “The Longest Day” was broadcast on Saturday mornings with the rest of the television for children. This is the episode where Rick inhales a roomful of Sleestak smoke in order to have a telepathic conference with the Sleestak leader, and has to come down via a boatload of freaky hallucinations. In these, his children recede into the distance, they become cavemen, and Kathy Coleman briefly plays a young lass from the 1760s who will not be born “for two hundred years hence.” Will becomes a football player tackled by two ungainly fellows in green uniforms, and a weird swirly video effect makes a silent bargain with the human.

Joyce Perry’s script is obviously playing on a couple of archetype, folk notions. This story is effectively about climbing to the top of a mesa and ingesting your weight in peyote and mushrooms and communing with spirits in order to understand them and your enemies better. No, I’m somehow not surprised that something like this was made by Sid and Marty Krofft, but I am amazed that the snickering chuckleheads who insist that H.R. Pufnstuf stands for “Hand Rolled” aren’t watching this with their jaws on the floor, and I’m absolutely astonished that NBC broadcast it.

Naturally, this was unsettling and weird for Daniel; heck, it’s weird for everybody, but it’s really the visceral shocks of Sleestak jumping out from behind people in dark corridors that provided the real punches.

In an earlier entry, I mentioned that the Kroffts invested in some new sound effects and music and seem to have split the cost between this show and Far Out Space Nuts, which was made at the same time and shown on CBS. About half the aliens in that series spoke through some kind of vocoder or processor which must have sounded insanely weird in 1975, and in this episode, Walker Edmiston got to use it to play the disembodied voices of some of the ancestral skulls. We’ll be hearing more from them later.

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Land of the Lost 2.4 – One of Our Pylons is Missing

Here’s a great example of that wonderful phenomenon of “the memory cheats.” My recollection of this episode had been a completely amazing special effect sequence at the end, with the people and objects sucked down by the large red “power source” moving very believably, and much, much faster. Think of all the oddball objects spinning around at the end of the video for “And She Was” by Talking Heads. The reality is a little less impressive.

Bill Keenan’s script challenged the special effects team more than anything in the show before. We learn this time that in a clearing where there should be a pylon, there’s a “black hole” that occasionally opens and sucks things down below, where a glowing red ball of matter waits. It keeps everything it sucks in an orbit until it absorbs it, and then redistributes it into the Land as energy. The “floating in space while orbiting” effect is accomplished by having the actors sit awkwardly on a blue screen floor, the sort of oddball acting school exercise that was a long time in Spencer Milligan’s past.

Daniel was absolutely terrified by this episode, despite the absence of Grumpy, Spike, or Sleestak. “I just want to go wait in my room until this is over,” he whimpered, but he never did actually budge, just frozen in place waiting to see what would happen next.

Last time, we either had the Sleestak egg caves and nursery on Grumpy’s side of the chasm or the animators used the wrong dinosaur model. This time, they’re evidently exploring on Big Alice’s side, but they refer to the allosaurus model as “he” and the sound effects crew gives Alice the roar of Grumpy. Unless there is a male allosaurus on that side of the chasm as well…?

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Land of the Lost 2.3 – Fair Trade

I think this is the only time in the series that we get to see that city slicker Ta without the other Pakuni, and I suspect there’s a fun reason why. This episode features Walker Edmiston as Enik, along with the three Sleestak actors. That probably only left room in the budget for one Paku. This could have been a cooperation with Cha-Ka as we’d normally see, but Wesley Eure and Scutter McKay have a very fun chemistry as antagonists, so that led the script in the direction of Will taking advantage of Ta, which could never happen with their friend Cha-Ka. But anybody concerned that the humans are taking advantage of the gullible, uneducated ape-man, hanging him up over a trap as bait for a 400 pound pig, don’t be too concerned. Ta’s a rascal and a bully, and he’ll pull one over on the humans before the season’s up.

Daniel decided to let us know as the credits rolled that he hates Grumpy, and Spike, and Sleestak. Just his luck this episode features two of the three, which had him crawling all over Mommy for protection. There is a completely brilliant bit of animation this week, by the way. Grumpy is chasing a Spot back and forth until he gets his foot stuck in the hole that the Sleestak dug. As he figures out how to free himself, Spot waits behind a tree until, getting a chance, he dashes into the clearing and bites Grumpy’s tail!

Geography note:This episode introduces the Library of Skulls, which will become a regular feature over the rest of this and the next season. However, it very strangely has the Sleestak tunnels and their egg nursery on Grumpy’s side of the chasm. I think this must have been a miscommunication to the stop-motion animation team and Big Alice should have been the big dinosaur chasing the small one. We’ll see Big Alice in action in a couple of weeks.

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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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