Friday, October 22, 2010

Sci-Tech # 2: Altrusian Edition

In Sci-Tech # 1, "The Cage" Edition, I looked back at some of the early imagery from the Star Trek TV universe, including those great goose-necked intercom screens and an overall "busier" fashion of set design for the starship Enterprise in Captain Pike's era. 

Today, I want to turn the attention to Land of the Lost (1974 - 1976), an inventive Saturday morning program set in "Altrusia," an artificial (?) planet positioned inside a closed pocket universe. 

According to the mythology of the program created by celebrated science fiction author David Gerrold, advanced humanoid Altrusians once lived peaceably in this strange habitat, and boasted a great science and high sense of technology. 

But the Altrusians ultimately de-volved into barbarian Sleestaks, and their technology -- in the time of the stranded Marshall family --  has been largely left untended and in disrepair.  To the Sleestaks, their repository of  race knowledge -- the Library of Skulls -- might as well be magical.

Interestingly, there are Star Trek connections here beyond the presence of story editor Gerrold. Walter Koenig (Chekov) wrote one of the earliest and best episodes -- "The Stranger" -- which introduced Enik (Walker Edmiston), the Altrusian.  He was a time traveler from the land's more civilized  past; a character shocked by how primitive (and superstitious) his people had become.

Also, Herman Zimmerman -- who went on to design several Star Trek TV series and films -- served as the art director of Land of the Lost.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Zimmerman some years back, and he told me: "I built the opening miniature of the series: the rapids.; The show began with a group of young people, their father, and their raft, in Colorado, and I created this a large miniature, probably 25 to 35 feet long. I shot it on videotape with miniature figures and a life raft. And the letters that arose out of the mist and announced the title Land of the Lost? I carved those personally."

Zimmerman designed and created many of the mechanisms and strange devices of "Altrusia," which seemed based on a crystalline-technology.    "Saturday morning TV was not blessed with much money, so we built all the Sleestak caves out of heavy-duty tin foil," he also reported.  "A good bit of my time was spent repairing holes in the foil when someone leaned against it and tore it open."

And yet despite the grievously low budget, there remains great visual consistency to the world of Altrusia, as you will hopefully detect from the selection of photos below.  From the miniatures to the live action sets, from matte painting to the props, Altrusia seemed like a real living place...a place you could reach out to touch and explore.  It's amazing how far that "tin foil" goes when creative minds are at work; creative minds determined not to talk down to children.

I've always maintained that at its heart, Land of the Lost offers a powerful environmental message.  Frequently, the various races inhabiting Altrusia (Human, Sleestak and Pakuni) must work together to maintain the balance of the environment so that life there is beneficial for all the species.  The series goes to great lengths to depict how in a single eco-system, all life-forms are intimately interconnected. 

For instance, in one episode, Sleestak attempt to modify Altrusia to exist in perpetual night, so they can hunt for the nocturnal Altrusian moths which fertilize their eggs.  The Sleestak neglect to remember that in the coldness of perpetual night, the moths will die from the low temperatures.

Several episodes of Land of the Lost deal with the mechanisms of Altrusia that cause an environmental imbalance.  The land seems to get an "irregular heart beat" in "One of Our Pylons is Missing."  Devices called "Skylons" warn of weather anomalies in "Skylons" and "Hurricane."  And so on. 

If only on Earth, it were as easy to correct such problems of environmental imbalance.  If only a re-shuffling of a planetary "matrix table" that could set everything right...

Anyway, here are some photos that reveal the lost world of Altrusia, one of sci-fi television's most unique destinations.

The Lost City of Altrusia, after the fall of civilization.

An Altrusian "maghetti," a kind of divining rod for locating time doors.

From "Album," a time-door.  Lots of mist in Altrusia.

An Altrusia Pylon catches the attention of Grumpy, The T-Rex.


The beating heart of the Land of the Lost/Altrusia.

A more advanced Altrusian matrix table? Mysterious tech from "The Musician."

More Altrusian architecture; from "After Shock."

Altrusia's repository of Knowlwedge: The Library of the Skulls.

An Altrusian Matrix-table (interior Pylon).

An "ancient" Altrusian guardian.

An Altrusian spirit dwells inside a Pylon ("The Possession").

The Altrusian city before the fall of civilization.


  1. How the remakes failed to match up or improve on the original is astonishing, considering the Saturday morning "reboot" (on ABC) and the movie (less said of which, the better) had the money and talent to give it a go!

    Can you imagine what the results would've been if the property had been handled by Hanna-Barbera or Filmation?

  2. Grayson6:57 PM

    Growing up in the 90's I don't remember watching the 1970s version of LOTL but do recall the 1991 series. Even so, I likely did watch at least a couple of episodes. I didn't know David Gerrold was involved! This would be something cool to watch with my little brother. And the production design does look interesting!

  3. Anonymous5:20 AM

    I am a HUGE Krofft fan, and I did know of it's Star Trek ties. Alot of people only remember Land of the Lost for it's dinosaurs and Chaka and forget the sci fi side of the show. The show had some great sci fi writers such as Norman Spinrad (The Doomsday Machine, Star Trek), Larry Niven( Star Trek: The Animated Series), Dorothy Fontana aka J. Michael Bingham or Michael Richards (Star Trek TOS, TNG, The Animated Series and DSN), and Theodore Sturgeon (The Synthetic Man, More than Human). It was truly a sci fi show at it's core and not just another whacky Sid and Marty Krofft creation like Lidsville or Puf n Stuff. I didn't really get that from the 90's remake of the show. I didn't see the movie version, which I believe was all comedy, now if it had been more of a hard core sci fi flik, I probably would have watched it by now.
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia "Marshallwillenhollie" Scareum

  4. Loved your Land Of The Lost Tech tribute.

    Your analysis and images make me realize I have yet to see this entire series as much as I loved so much of it.

    I really need to sit down and watch it through.

    I knew Walter Koenig wrote for it and Gerrold, but I guess we owe alot to Gerrold for making this more than its surface what have you believe it to be. I never realized Land Of The Lost had such terrific science fiction writers behind it, but it all makes sense.

    But you're right John, the mythology built around the series and by its writers is genuinely consistent and solid in much the same way Star Trek was built "bottom-up".

    I suppose if Dr. Who could bubblewrap their stories to death, Land Of The Lost could use tin foil. : )

    Anyway, I really need to do a thorough analysis on Land Of The Lost myself someday.

    Thank you John.

  5. Fang: I very much agree with you about the remakes. The 1970s series was actually a pretty serious sci-fi show (and better than a lot of sci-fi ventures that came before and after); the re-boot on ABC made it more a kiddie venture; and the less said about the Will Ferrell edition the better. That movie should get lost in a time door...

    Trick or Treat Pete: Yes! Thank you for enumerating the sci-fi creds of the show. This series had many great writers, not just Gerrold and Koenig, as you indicate: Spinrad, Sturgeon, Niven and Fontana among them. At one point, I know Gerrold tried to get Harlan Ellison to write an episode. Can you imagine?

    Land of the Lost regularly gets dismissed as "kid's stuff" with "bad special effects" by people who haven't taken the time to sit down and actually experience the show fully, and look at the serious sci-fi concepts it puts up (time loops; alternate universes, etc.) Thanks!

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: I'm a big admirer of Land of the Lost. Many stories ended with mysteries raised and unanswered ("The Pylon Express" for instance), and the show was much more adult than many high-profile genre programs. There was something about the 1960s and 1970s: even the so-called "kids" shows didn't talk down to the audience; or spoon-feed us easy answers. "Land of the Lost" has much in common with greats "Dr. Who," "Star Trek" and "Space:1999."

    Thank you all for the great comments.


  6. Wesley Eure makes me giggle! :)