Sid & Marty Krofft's live-action adventure/fantasy series Land of the Lost (1974-1976) aired during the golden age of Saturday morning entertainment, the 1970s. The story of an American family - the Marshalls - trapped in a pocket universe of dinosaurs, ape-men (called Pakuni...) and frightening lizard people (Sleestak) - ran for three glorious seasons on NBC, and for many of us in Gen X, the series represents our first exposure to serious science fiction concepts. Thanks to the brilliance of story editor David Gerrold, the series revealed a universe (the so-called 'Land of the Lost') with consistent rules, a unique history, and more importantly, it was an initiviative of cleverly though-out plots and ideas. The series featured time loops, alternate universes, metaphors about caring for the environment, messages about tolerance, and much more more. To this day, I believe that a parent of a young child could do no better than to introduce his children early to Land of the Lost, a series that is highly moral, well-dramatized, and serves as a gateway to imagination. It is a great primer for Star Trek, Space:1999, The X-Files, Stargate, and other popular sci-fi adventures. (Which in turn, are great gateways to the works of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and the like).
For this Cult TV flashback, there's a particular episode of Land of the Lost that I'd like to highlight. It may not be the most inventive of the series' 40-something episode run, but it is one which I've always loved. "Follow That Dinosaur" is the series' thirteenth episode, and it originally aired more than thirty years ago, on November 30, 1974. Written by Dick Morgan and directed by Dennis Steinmetz, the episode commences with just another morning in the Land of the Lost, as the Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed Grumpy attacks the Marshall family cave at High Bluff. The Marshalls awaken from their nightly slumber and realize that Grumpy attacks so frequently because the make-shift curtain at the lip of the cave, designed to keep out flies, is actually constructed out of ferns that young Holly (Kathy Coleman) calls "Dinosaur Nip." Rick (Spencer Milligan), Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly thus begin to clear the High Bluff area of the Land of the Lost of the offending material, dumping it over the high crevice that leads to Sleestak territory.
But there in the rocks, Will and Holly discover a dummy dressed in knickers and Revolutionary War-era jacket. In a jacket pocket is one half of a diary belonging to Private Peter Koenig, a soldier in General Washington's Revolutionary Army. He writes of his plan to exit the Land of the Lost through a hole in the Sleestak Lost City that leads "straight back" to New England. In fact, he believes that his buddy, Harry Potts, has already used the exit to return home.
Will, Holly and Rick follow the clues in the journal to the Sleestak Lost City, where the Sleestaks are currently asleep because it is their dormant season. They find another piece of the journal and vrawl through a cave to a lava pit, only to realize that Koenig didn't escape, as they believed, but that he died when the lava pit warmed the city and awoke the monstrous Sleestak. His last entry reads: "This is not the way out of this miserable, God Forsaken land. Go Back! Leave the crawlie caves. The Sleestak awaken when the devil's cauldron bubbles up..."
The Marshalls heed the warning, and barely escape the reviving Sleestak, but needless to say, are deeply disappointed that they have not found an escaped from this perfectly-balanced pocket universe.
"Follow That Dinosaur" is a splendid example of Land of the Lost's excellent story-telling for a number of reasons. First of all, it adds to the "lore" of the land, and reveals how the Altrusians came to be known as Sleestak. It was Pvt. Koenig who named them, after an officer in the army he disliked, one "Joshua Sleestak." The episode also reveals it is Koenig who wrote the warning on a pillar near the lost city: "Beware of Sleestak," which was revealed in the first episode. These touches reveal more background about the Land of the Lost, and also uncover a great deal of its history. People have been getting "trapped" there for centuries.
Beyond revealing some great background about the Land of the Lost, "Follow that Dinosaur" is a pretty suspenseful and dark 22-minute adventure for a show that aired on Saturday mornings. The Marshall family (including two children...) happen upon the corpse of their would-be savior, Pvt. Koenig, and the episode doesn't candy-coat his failure to escape this alternate world, or the details of his death. Furthermore, the episode is quite tense (and even a little scary...) as the Marshalls' realize their predicament in the lava cave, and try to flee the city. All around them, the frozen Sleestak begin to awake, ripping out of their cobwebs, and beginning that trademark "hissing" sound. I, for one, will never forget the sight of these leviathans awakening, like juggernauts, moving from their sleep pedestals and going after the family. Tolerable terror, no doubt, for an adult, but as a kid, this kind of thing was really fear-inducing, and I appreciate Land of the Lost for aiming high; not being a "kiddie" show in any conventional sense.
There's more to like in the episode too, including a brief message about equality of the sexes (Holly's comment to Will that "Girls can do anything a boy can do,"). I also love how Rick Marshall demonstrates his trust in his children and encourages them to clear the offending ferns by themselves. His message is clear: he has belief in their abilities, and trusts them to be safe and get the job done. It's a positive role model of how parents can treat children, and in the process build self-esteem (rather than infantilizing them...). As a dinosaur buff and long-time fan of the series, I also like the fact that this is the episode where Grumpy crosses the crevice and finally has a smackdown with Big Alice, the allosaur who guards the Lost City. As a kid weaned on King Kong, The Land That Time Forgot and other such ventures, I was thrilled to see some dinosaur-against-dinosaur action.
But most of all, I love "Follow that Dinosaur" because I enjoy the (old) idea of finding a journal, following written maps, and exploring new and dangerous terrain in a jungle world. Derivative, perhaps of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the story is still very exciting, and its grim conclusion is chill-inducing. "Follow that Dinosaur" reveals new Land of the Lost history, involves its characters in a stirring adventure, features some creepy chills, and ends on a dark, even grim note. What's not to love?
They just don't make kids' shows like this anymore. The entire series is available on DVD, and if you have young children, you should purchase it right now! If you want to a foster a life-long love of science fiction in your kids, this show will spark their imagination. And the stories are so good, you won't even mind the dated special effects (which were quite good in their day...).