Saturday, December 09, 2006


Filmation was really da bomb in the 1970s, at least in terms of Saturday morning science fiction television. They had Star Trek: The Animated Series, Space Academy, Flash Gordon, and this series, Ark II. What's not to love?

Ark II aired on Saturday mornings beginning September 11, 1976. Like many sf tv efforts of the time, it was a "civilization of the week" program; meaning that each week and in each episode, the diverse protagonists traveled (usually by a ground vehicle; sometimes on foot...) to a new and strange civilization. Basically, it was Star Trek again, only without the U.S.S. Enterprise and outer space. The format was seen on Logan's Run, The Fantastic Journey, The Starlost and, in the 1980s, Otherworld, to name a few. Gene Roddenberry himself had attempted to take the formula to new heights with Genesis II and Planet Earth, two made-for-tv movie/backdoor series pilots from the early 1970s.

Although airing during America's bicentennial year, Ark II is set in the 25th century, and focuses on a large, impressive tank-like vehicle, the Ark II, which traverses the wasteland to come to the aid of what remains of mankind after an environmental disaster. The opening narration goes like this:

"For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to re-build what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind."

The crew of Ark II consists of Captain Jonah (Terry Lester), scientist Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), and young scholar Samuel (Jose Flores). Bizarrely, they also travel with a talking chimpanzee named Adam(!)...who can play chess and drive the Ark in a pinch. Weird, huh? I have to say, as much as I like Ark II, it is really weird (and frankly, stupid...) to put a talking chimp in the crew. I guess this was the series' way of including a "resident alien" type. But I mean, really...where's Roddy McDowall when you need him?

The first episode of Ark II is entitled "The Flies." Written by Martin Roth and directed by Ted Post, it finds Jonah recording his log entry numbered 1444. The Ark is patrolling Sector 83, Area 12, investigating a gang called "The Flies" that is responsible for "serious infringements on the rights of the others." The assignment: bring "discipline" and "reason" into their lives.

Unfortunately for Jonah, the Flies - an interracial gang of youngsters - are all too loyal to their leader, a rapscallion named Fagon, a scoundrel played by the one-and-only Jonathan Harris. He isn't exactly susceptible to reason or diplomacy, and ties up Jonah, who has used the rocket pack to find the Flies. Making matters worse, Fagon is now in possession of a relic from old times: deadly gas canisters!

Fagon takes the poison gas cylinder (and a gas mask to protect himself), and heads to the HQ of the local warlord Brack (Malachi Throne), who lives in the "the Village of the Lords," actually the Ape City set from the live action Planet of the Apes TV series and films. Fagon believes he has found "the ultimate weapon," and attempts to wrest control of the warlords from Brack. Brack beats Fagon at his own game, however, and captures the Flies, forcing Fagon to forfeit his leadership.

Now it's up to the crew of Ark II to save Fagon and the Flies, and retrieve (and dismantle...) all the dangerous gas canisters. They do so cleverly, simply and without resorting to violence. I appreciate that (and this is a show for kids...). The episode ends with a nice moral. It's written well and doesn't come across as heavy-handed that much. Basically, "weapons man creates to use against others can easily be turned against himself." Yep, that's true.

I admire the look and production design of Ark II. The main cast, for instance, wears skin-tight, attractive space-age uniforms with computerized belts and cuffs (replete with wrist communicators). One can see how this design influenced later Star Trek outings, for example. Also the set design is kind of interesting, a mix of Old West, Viking and Planet of the Apes. It presages the barbarity of The Road Warrior on a TV budget and within TV restrictions. The Ark II itself, built by the Brubaker Group, is a remarkable piece of hardware (a life-size, operational vehicle...) that looks thoroughly convincing....especially in motion. It is equipped with a protective forcefield so the savages can't run off with it, I guess, and also billets a smaller vehicle, a fast-moving roadster. I also like Jonah's rocket pack, though I had just seen basically the same device in action while watching an early Lost in Space episode.

At 22 minutes, "The Flies" moves at a good clip and boasts a nice, literary feel (as the DVD insert notes). For instance, Fagon is clearly "Fagan" from Oliver Twist; and the "Flies" seems to reference Lord of the Flies. How many other Saturday morning shows allude to such works? I could name one: Star Trek.

Still, I could do without the talking (or croaking...) chimpanzee. I haven't seen the other episodes in years (though I will soon, as I blog them here...), but I wonder how Adam gets explained. I mean a talking ape who isn't named Caesar, Cornelius or Galen? Is this throwing a bone to Planet of the Apes fans? If so, it's a bad idea.

Until next week...

1 comment:

  1. John, as far as the Ark II uniforms, they seem to have been influenced by Rudi Gernreich's Space: 1999 costumes, especially the woman's outfit. And, I'm sure that I've seen the Ark II vehicle in other productions over the years, including a gasoline commercial.