Saturday, August 25, 2012

Land of the Lost Season One Re-Cap: Episodes 1 - 6

Episode #1: “Cha-Ka.”

Our journey into Land of the Lost begins with the "Cha-Ka," the first episode of the three-season series (an an installment which aired in September of 1974). "Cha-Ka" was written by Tribbles creator David Gerrold and directed by Danny Steinmetz.

The opening montage (and theme song) set up the premise of the series, for us, and this episode begins at least one day after the Marshalls (Rick, Holly and Will) have arrived in this seemingly-prehistoric world.

The viewer first meets the Marshall family as it is peering over a swamp, and Holly has just named a small dinosaur "Spot." Will protests that a better name is required, but the debate is ended when a Tyrannosaurus, Grumpy, enters the scene with a roar. While Rick goes into the woods to gather supplies, Will and Holly happen upon a strange, construct in the forest, a pyramidal device "made by intelligent beings." This is a pylon. It's cold to the touch, Holly tells us, and Will says it feels like it's not even there.

The examination of the pylon is interrupted when Grumpy attacks three Pakuni -- small ape-men creatures -- nearby. The youngest of the Paku, Cha-Ka, falls and is injured in the escape. Holly and Will rescue him. 

When Rick returns, they determine to bring Cha-Ka back to their cave at high bluff, and set his fractured ankle with a splint. Unfortunately, Grumpy is still around, and he's hungry...

"Cha-Ka" introduces the TV viewer to the world of Land of the Lost, including all the main characters. Holly, Will, Marshall, Cha-Ka and even Grumpy each get their moment in the sun. With the help of stop-motion photography and chroma-key composites (the overlaying of live-actors on highly-detailed miniature landscapes), this unique kid-vid series comes to life with a bang.

One thing I noticed this time, watching the series is Land of the Lost's unique sound-design. It literally sounds otherworldly, and between the music and dinosaur roars, you've never heard anything like this on any other television series. It's a distinctive, individual sound model, and that makes the show truly seem unique. 

Often, sound is ignored in favor of visuals, so I wanted to make note of this here. Turn on Land of the Lost anywhere in a house, and without looking at the TV, you'll know exactly what program is on the tube.

While blogging Land of the Lost, I'm going to try to keep track of the Marshalls' equipment, because they seem all kitted up for having been on a raft rid. I noticed in 'Cha-Ka" they have at least one canteen, a lighter, a grill, three sleeping bags, a pot, a plastic water jug, a yellow drinking mug, and at least seven back-packs (ostensibly half-emptied, since these supplies must have come from somewhere).

At this point, they don't appear to have a change of clothes...

Because Land of the Lost was produced for children to enjoy on Saturday mornings, it's filled with valuable moral messages about the way people should treat others. After Holly makes fun of Grumpy the dinosaur, Rick admonishes her: "Don't call Grumpy names. It's not his fault he's stupid." Later, when Holly asks if she can keep Cha-Ka, this is the stern reply: "People don't own other people. Cha-Ka will stay with us just as long as he wants to."

Finally, the episode "Cha-Ka" introduces us to the Marshall's first (and only...) line of defense at High-Bluff, the "fly-swatter."  This is a thick spear, carved to be pointed (but not actually sharp...) at one end. When Grumpy tries to stick his toothy snout into the cave (and it's right at mouth level, unfortunately,..), the Marshalls get a running start and jam the fly swatter into his mouth. By the end of the episode, Grumpy has gotten smart to this trick. "He can learn things!," Holly notes. Yes, but he'll be back in future episodes. 

Queue the stock footage.

You'll also note that there's a brief sojourn to the pylon in this episode, setting up future storylines. And Cha-Ka has now been well-established as an ally, since the Marshalls have set his injured leg. At episode's end, he returns the favor by bringing them fruit and vegetables from the forest.

Episode #2: “The Sleestak God.”

In our second installment of the 1974-1976 Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning TV series, Land of the Lost, the stranded Marshall family is introduced  -- a bit unwillingly -- to the other race of "people" inhabiting this unusual pocket universe: the fearsome Sleestak.

"The Sleestak God" opens with Holly and Will being tasked by their Dad, Rick Marshall, to get a refill from the nearby watering hole. The watering jug we saw last week ("Cha-Ka") has miraculously reproduced, and now the Marshalls have two of them. Will and Holly head off across a bridge and over a chasm (and Cha-Ka follows them...) as they find an amazing forgotten city carved into the side of an imposing mountain. Our first view of the city and the ancient temple dominating it is a nice, long, revealing pan left across the grounds (and it's actually a highly-detailed miniature). Before long, however, Holly and Will get chased by the guardian of the campus, an Allosaurus they name "Big Alice."

On one wall near the city is scrawled in chalk the warning: BEWARE OF SLEESTAK. Since the message is written in English, this is our first inkling that other humans have before been trapped in the Land of the Lost.

When Will and Holly are captured by the hissing, reptilian Sleestak (who also adorn cross-bows as side-arms), Cha-Ka brings Rick Marshall to the temple. But will they arrive in time to save the kids from being a sacrifice to the hungry, bellowing (and unseen...) Sleestak God that inhabits a misty pit?

Since this is only the second episode of the series, it's clear that many of the concepts and people on the show are still being developed, and other than the dinosaurs, the Sleestaks may be the most important component. We don't know it yet, but they have a fascinating history (and future?)

My only problem in this installment is that the Sleestak are supposed to be cave dwellers who can't stand light (and can be fought with the only weapon the Marshals have: fire!). However, three Sleestak attack Will and Holly outside the city in broad daylight, which seems inconsistent.

This week also provides the first glimpse of another Land of the Lost native, the Triceratops named Spike. And we get more of Cha-Ka's language. "Osu" is the Paku word for water.

On the Gilligan's Island list of devices and instruments made by the Marshalls to make their stay in the Land of the Lost more "civilized," we see in "The Sleestak God" that Marshall has fashioned a basket out of twigs, and that Holly has built a broom out of straw (so she can do housework in the cave!)

Finally, each of the Marshalls is now also wearing a small square mirror around their necks (where did they get these?) They can communicate using the mirrors -- across vast distances -- in Morse Code, as Will and Rick do in this episode.

As for the geography of the Land of the Lost, this is the first episode in which viewers see the ravine separating High Bluff (and Grumpy's territory) from the Sleestak City (and Big Alice's territory).

Episode # 3: “Dopey”

On the third episode of Land of the Lost, written by Margaret Armen (Star Trek: "The Paradise Syndrome," and "The Gamesters of Triskelion"), Holly and Will tug an elaborately-built wagon (one made of logs and twine and with wheels made of tree trunks..) through the jungle, transporting a gaggle of oversized strawberries back to the cave at High Bluff, where Rick Marshall waits.

However, what occurs next in "Dopey" serves as the introduction of one the series' recurring dinosaur characters (and we've already met Spike, Grumpy, Spot and Big Alice.) Holly and Will spot a cracked-open brontosaurus egg and then meet a newly hatched brontosaur baby, which Holly promptly names Dopey. The kindly dinosaur (which mewls like a kitten) follows the duo home and Holly predictably asks Dad, "Can we keep him?" Marshall's smart response is that "a 5,000 lb. dinosaur stays where ever he wants."

Now that's practical parenting!

Holly teaches Grumpy to fetch a stick, kind of. The dinosaur retrieves the stick and then eats it. Then Holly rides Dopey like a horse and trains him to pull the cart. However, when Grumpy attacks High Bluff and nearly gets his sharp teeth on Dopey (who hides...), Holly realizes that her desire to own a pet could endanger Dopey's life.

"We'll have to find a good home for him...a place where he'd be safe," Marshall recommends - and with great difficulty, Holly returns Dopey to the swamp, where he can be with his own kind, including the adult Brontosaurus, Emily. The episode ends with the brontosaurs nuzzling.

Back a few years ago, when I interviewed some of the cast and crew of Land of the Lost, I learned that the series had an interesting template: the stories were separated into three categories. There would be Cha-Ka stories, Sleestak stories and dinosaur stories, and these three types would rotate over the weeks so that each consisted of one third of the series.

Naturally, "Dopey" is a dinosaur episode, and one that requires more special effects than some. Dopey is depicted both in miniature stop-motion form, and with an on-set mechanical head that doesn't look quite so convincing, though he does have nice, affectionate moon-eyes.

Thematically, like the other stories featured thus far, Land of the Lost's "Dopey" includes a lesson for the kiddies about responsibility and taking care of pets. It's about doing what's right for the animal, not for the master's comfort.

The Gilligan's Island quotient of this Land of the Lost episode (meaning the incredible instruments, devices and tools built with primitive measures...) reveals the Marshalls eating dinner out of giant carved bowls. They look to have been made from giant shells of some type. And then there's that wagon, which must have taken weeks to construct.

But then again, what else is there to do in the Land of the Lost?

Episode #4: “Downstream”

How many Saturday morning TV shows in the 1970s had episodes written by the great science fiction author, Larry Niven?

Or saw their dramatis personae face death week-in and week-out?

Or made knowing jokes about mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties?

Or pondered such ideas as a "closed universe" - a so-called "locked room in space?"

Well, the Star Trek animated series was pretty impressive too.  But these are just a few of the reasons, I believe, why Land of the Lost has continued to impress and convert new fans. Sure, it's a kid's show with 1970s special effects, but there's something convincing, even adult, about the show's consistent approach to drama and science fiction.

Take the fourth episode of the first season, this week's installment, "Downstream." It's authored by Larry Niven, and finds the Marshall family seeking to escape the Land of the Lost by building a raft and heading downstream.

The plan is to take the swamp to the river and -- sooner or later -- reach the ocean. The family flees on its make-shift raft, says its goodbyes to Grumpy and Dopey, and heads off, only to find a waterfall ahead. The family barely manages to escape to a subterranean cavern before their raft is destroyed.

There, in the cavern, the Marshalls discover Jefferson Davis Colley III (Walker Edmiston), a Civil War soldier, from the Confederate Army. He and his cannon have been prospecting a jeweled cavern. Thus this is the episode that introduces the Land of the Lost's power source: those colored crystals that power the matrix tables in upcoming episodes and can provide a light source or explosive, depending on how they are used in combination.

The discovery of this natural resource is an element of Land of the Lost's ongoing and recurring environmental theme. This closed universe, a microcosm for Earth, possesses everything it needs for its denizens, if only the resources are allocated wisely. The Marshalls will become the stewards of the land in upcoming episodes, maintaining balance and keeping the land harmonious, but the hardest thing about this task is dealing with other people (Paku and Sleestak, respectively), those who have a different philosophy about how the resources should be shared and allocated.

Anyway, Jefferson keeps the Marshalls hostage for a time, and Rick points out to him the error of his ways. "You fought a war because you didn't want other people telling you what to do," he reminds the Confederate, pointing out his hypocrisy.

"Downstream" also features some great, under-the=surface humor that no doubt went over the heads of many youngsters. Colley takes one look at the Marshalls and says "There are some mighty strange folk in California," a joke about the West Coast and the Entertainment Industry.

There's also a joke about television. Will complains while prospecting that he hasn't seen a TV show in a long time and Marshall quips that it doesn't seem to have done him any harm.

And later, Marshall makes a funny reference to drugs. "Some mushrooms have funny chemicals," he informs Will and Holly. Indeed, Rick Marshall. Indeed.

The best element of this episode is the ending, which finds the Marshalls discovering precisely where the river ends: where it started. There is no escape from the Land of the Lost. It's a pocket universe with no end and no beginning. There's no way out.

Again, this seems like a fairly advanced concept for a time bloc in which marketers were selling Cocoa-Puffs. But that's why I like Land of the Lost. It's easy to dismiss the show as kid's stuff, but there's more going on in this series than in many adult series from the same era.

Episode #5: “Tag Team”

Nothing too Earth-shattering occurs this week on Land of the Lost. "Tag Team" (by Norman Spinrad and directed by Dennis Steinmetz) simply finds the Marshalls in a vegetable patch contending with Dopey, the Pakuni, and --- inevitably -- Grumpy the Tyrannosaurus.

While Marshall, Will and Holly spend time collecting oversized carrots and turnips from the patch, the Paku steal their loot. There's a stand-off until Grumpy shows up and chases everyone off to their separate directions. Will, Holly and Cha-Ka get stuck on a ledge at the crevice, and Grumpy and Big Alice shout at each other over opposite sides of the precipice. The stranded kids have three choices: go up and play tag with Grumpy; jump down into the river far below; or stay where they are until Rick can manage a rescue.

"Well, I'll be a dinosaur's uncle," not much else happens here in terms of narrative, except that neighbors (Pakuni and human) learn to trust one another. I've always thought it' is neat how the human population balances the Paku population, and felt it was some kind of comment on how everything on Earth is balanced so that every population boasts an equal chance of survival.

Here, the populations must share the bounty of the Earth (or rather the Land of the Lost), rather than fight over it. The kindly Marshalls thus give the Paku a "lesson in harvesting vegetables." Even Dopey gets into the act, munching on an oversized carrot.

Episode #6: “The Stranger”

"The Stranger" is one of the most important episodes of Land of the Lost because it introduces so many key series concepts. This is the first installment to feature Enik (Walker Edmiston), the friendly "Altrusian" seeking to find his way home through a time portal. This is also the first episode that establishes the back-story of the Sleestak race. So it's critical, no doubt.

Unfortunately, "The Stranger" (written by Star Trek's Mr. Chekov, Walter Koenig) is also one of the talkiest and over-dramatic episodes of the series so far. In fact, it doesn't even seem to fit logically in the canon at this point, since the installment opens with the Marshalls in search of non-poisonous fruits. Last week, in "Tag Team," as you may recall, the human family taught the Pakuni how to crop oversized carrots and turnips so it seems like this crisis has already been solved. Thus we can only assume that this episode ("The Stranger") aired later, but was designed to occur earlier in the continuity. This also makes sense for another reason; because the performances are exaggerated and less-nuanced, as though the actors haven't quite found the right notes yet.

Still, "The Stranger" is one of those Land of the Lost episodes you always remember because of the storyline. Here, the Marshalls are introduced to the brown, talking Sleestak, Enik, a time-traveler from the Altrusian race who assumes that he has traveled into the distant past because the Sleestak are barbarians.
He thinks they're his primitive ancestors...as we might view Neanderthals. Of course, he's wrong: the Sleestak are actually his descendants, and this world is his "future," a Dystopian, post-apocalyptic place. Enik realizes this fact when he first sees the Lost City in a state of ruin.

But Enik is now a man with a mission: he wants to return to the past and warn his people that if they do not learn to control their anger, they will devolve into the monstrous Sleestak and live both metaphorically and literally in darkness.

Enik's tool to complete that critical mission is a temporal "divining rod" called a Meghetti; a device that can "locate and fix" dimensional doorways. However, the Marshalls realize that the Meghetti can also get them home safe, though Enik informs them he does not know "the combination" to locate their world.

Still, the Marshalls fight Enik for possession of the instrument. Will's aggression burns out the Meghetti, leaving Enik with only one alternative to save the Altrusian civilization: his small neck pendant can serve as a Meghetti too, if powered by an external source, the "fourth dimensional nodes" that dot the Land of the Lost and have been mistaken as crystals or jewels by the Marshalls.

Again, Will fights Enik, however, and the telepathic Altrusian forces the Marshalls to hallucinate, generating a mist consisting of their "worst fears." "These are the monsters that sleep within your minds," he tells a terrified, paralyzed Marshall.

Marshall finally saves the day, however, when he reminds Enik that by hurting the human family the Altrusian is succumbing to the forces of hate and anger that destroyed the once-advanced civilization. "It's all right to destroy," -- Marshall taunts -- as long as it is done "dispassionately," without emotion...
Okay so I've always had a soft-spot for "The Stranger" for introducing Enik and for featuring that great wrinkle about the past being the future. But so much of this episode is talky exposition that it doesn't work as effectively as most of the previous tales. This story had to appear early in the continuity -- it's absolutely critical to the series -- but The Stranger is ham handed and melodramatic instead of extraordinary and emotional.

Still, with Enik on board, all the elements and characters are in place for some of the Land of the Lost's greatest stories.

4 comments:

  1. I think the 'mirrors' were standard 'survival' equipment. I vaguely remember something about using 'camp mirrors' or highly polished metals to transmit morse code messages during a 'Wilderness Survival'merit badge course.

    And I loved the otherworldly sound and music. Moog and banjo... nobody does that anywhere.

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  2. I was just a kid when this came out but I have extremely vivid memories of the sound of the show. That hiss in the sleestak cave still gives me the willies. OK, i hate to end all of my comments with what I hope is coming BUT- I await seeing how the Will Ferrel movie fits into all of this!

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  3. Anonymous2:18 PM

    John excellent reviews of the original Land Of The Lost episodes. I was a boy in the ’70s and this series was a must see. It might have been low-budget live-action compared to prime-time, but this Saturday morning children’s series was extremely intelligent with engaging sights and sounds. The writers and production design of the Altrusia Land of the Lost truly made a believable world for us all to have adventures in. It was a ‘70s version of Jurassic Park meets Fantastic Journey(1976-1977). Another Saturday morning series debut in 1974 was the animated Valley Of The Dinosaurs which I watched, but it lacked the 'Bermuda Triangle' type mystery of the Land of the Lost.

    SGB

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  4. Anonymous8:36 PM

    Rockie's right about the mirrors being standard equipment. Every survival guide I've read recommends carrying one or at least reflective metal to signal passing planes if you get lost.

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