If there’s one thing the upcoming “Land of the Lost” movie can be counted on to do, it’s generate some long overdue interest in the classic Sid and Marty Krofft series upon which it’s based. Viewers of the new film, starring Will Ferrell, will largely be made up of two groups: those who watched the show back in the seventies, and those who have no idea the movie is even based on a TV show. With a sweet new “Complete Series” box set currently in stores, there’s no better time than now to look back at the show that began scarring many a young psyche when it was unveiled in 1974.
The Kroffts unleashed all manner of trippy live action television fare on Saturday morning viewers back in the ‘70s, but the majority of their output was campy and comical. “Land of the Lost” really stood apart from most of their other productions with its far more serious themes and dramatic approach. The first season of “Land of the Lost” is oftentimes seriously thought-provoking science fiction, wrapped around a fair amount of fatherly advice, sibling friction, and heaping helpings of action & adventure and thrills & chills. Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan) and his teenage children Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly (Kathy Coleman) are, as the famous theme song goes, on a routine expedition when they go over a waterfall and end up in a strange place populated by dinosaurs, monkey people, and a slew of lizard men that gave a generation of kids nightmares that lasted for years.
While the Krofft brothers were behind the basic idea of the show, David Gerrold (famous for writing the “Star Trek” tale “The Trouble with Tribbles”) was hired as the show’s story editor, and it became his job to flesh out and create the entire universe for the series, a task which he accomplished admirably. (One wonders if the job had been given to someone else, how much less a series it might have been.) Gerrold took the entire premise very seriously, enlisting the creative juices of such sci-fi writers as D.C. Fontana, Ben Bova, and Larry Niven to write episodes for the first season. While the special effects are often times silly by today’s standards, this stuff was pretty cutting edge for Saturday morning TV fare in 1974, particularly the stop-motion animation of the dinosaurs, which isn’t quite up to the level of Ray Harryhausen, yet still managed to capture the imaginations of a generation of young dino-enthusiasts. Aside from the stop-motion footage, the show is shot on videotape…which, as we all know, is often considered the mark of bad drama. But I certainly don’t feel that way, and if it’s something you can get past, you’ll likely find quite a bit to enjoy within the 17 episode first season of this series.
All that said, Season One begins in about as lackluster a manner as anything I’ve ever seen; it would be very easy to give up on this show after only a few episodes. The first five installments are mostly interested in introducing the various elements of the series, and how the Marshalls will relate to all these elements over the long haul. Episode 1, “Cha-Ka,” introduces the family, and thus the viewer, to dinosaurs, the ape-like Pakuni, and (briefly) the mysterious pylons. It’s really a very boring start for the series, as Cha-Ka (Philip Paley) and his Pakuni brethren are one of the show’s least engaging elements, yet we can’t fault the series for not attempting to scare the bejeezus out of 7 year olds coming right out of the gate; this was a very safe and probably smart jumping off point for the show. It’s also noteworthy that the series begins with the Marshalls having been in the Land of the Lost for what appears to be at least one night; the opening credits take care of explaining how they came to be there. (This was specifically mentioned, as I’ll be coming back to it later.) Episode 2, “The Sleestak God,” as you might surmise, introduces the humanoid lizard foes that will plague the Marshall family for their entire stay in this otherworldly dimension…and it’s always worth reiterating that this show does not take place in Earth’s past, as many seem to think it does. Again, not much happens here; the Sleestak capture Will and Holly, and Rick and Cha-Ka must rescue them. Regardless, there’s no question that the Sleestak make a big impression right off the bat. These bastards – along with their bizarre caves and unseen God – are creepy as hell. (There’s a reason the basic Sleestak design has been retained for the new movie – it works.)
Episodes 3 and 5, “Dopey” and “Tag Team” are both straight-up dino tales, while Episode 4, “Downstream,” at least begins to offer us a peek into how complex this series could become. After an encounter with another man trapped in the Land – a Confederate solider living in a cave who regularly consumes “mushroom tea” (kid’s TV in the 70s – ain’t nothing else like it) – the Marshalls learn exactly how difficult it may be to escape from the Land.
Finally we get to Episode 6, “The Stranger,” written by no less than Walter “Chekov” Koenig. “The Stranger” is when “Land of the Lost” really begins to take off, and it becomes glaringly obvious that this is far more than just a kid’s show. The episode introduces the character of Enik the Altrusian (Walker Edmiston, who also played the aforementioned Confederate soldier). Looking similar to a Sleestak – yet shorter and clothed – Enik is clearly the first intelligent lifeform the Marshalls have encountered. Claiming to be from the future, Enik has also fallen through the time doorway, and having encountered the Sleestak, he has deduced that they must be his ancestors. He has ideas about how to get home, thanks to a device called a Mageti, and may be able to help the Marshalls return as well. What follows is part sci-fi and part morality play. There are some really hefty ideas on display in this half hour – stuff that puts most adult shows to shame in the thinking department. Delivering what’s probably the best acting job in the entire series – from within a cumbersome costume, no less – Edmiston is a huge coup for the series. He plays Enik with such pomposity and intellect that his mere introduction couldn’t help but alter the feel and direction of the show.
“The Stranger” is followed by a string of tight installments: “Album,” “Skylons,” and “The Hole.” “Album” sees the Sleestak ensnaring Will and Holly in such a twisted, hallucinatory trap that it indicates they’re perhaps not quite as primitive as they usually act. “Skylons” further opens up the world of the pylons, the peculiar, pyramid-like structures dotted around the Land of the Lost. Do they hold the key to getting home, or do they just cause more headaches for the Marshalls? (Usually the latter.) “The Hole” again expands on the world of the Sleestak when Rick finds himself trapped in the bottom of the Sleestak pit with a Sleestak – only this one can not only talk, but has a name – S’Latch. Man and ‘Stak must join together to escape before they’re devoured by the always unseen Sleestak God. Of course, the series can’t possibly maintain the intense momentum, and Episode 10, “The Paku Who Came to Dinner,” is yet another banal Cha-Ka episode, offering up very little that’s either dramatic or interesting, and yet there can be no doubt than when the show aired back in ’74, legions of little girls probably thought Cha-Ka was just adorable, and so the show must occasionally throw an easy-to-chew bone at the audience. The fact that “Land of the Lost” can veer back and forth between such wildly different types of storytelling is actually something of a testament to its strength as a series that’s potentially reaching out to a very wide audience.
Things quickly get back on track with “The Search,” which sees the return of Enik. Will must seek out the Altrusian’s help when Rick is left paralyzed after messing around with crap he does not understand, and once again Enik is less than pleased to have to deal with the inconvenience of the Marshalls. “The Possession” and “Follow That Dinosaur” both keep the pace being pylon and Sleestak stories respectively. The latter features the lizard men at their creepiest – awakening from hibernation – as well as offering up an excellent backstory about two other men who were once trapped in the Land of the Lost. Then we are once again back to a silly Cha-Ka story, “Stone Soup,” for Episode 14. (There’s almost a pattern to the way the season is structured if you’re paying attention.)
As we get nearer to the end of the season, up pops “Elsewhen,” written by D.C. Fontana, a very good Holly story, in which a beautiful blond woman, Rani (Erica Hagen, who’d previously played the deceased Marshall matriarch in a vision in “Album”), appears to the youngest Marshall and helps her to save her father and brother. The story’s a little cheesy, and probably not quite as brilliant as it thinks it is, though it’s often considered quite the fan favorite and Gerrold once said that he thought it might be the best entry of the entire season. The penultimate episode, “Hurricane,” sees the Marshalls once again messing around with the skylons/pylons and this time yet another human – an astronaut played by character actor Ron Masak – is dragged into the Land of the Lost. While this was quite a novelty for Season One, these types of stories would eventually become more of the norm in later seasons, and it isn’t difficult to see why: there are ultimately only so many things that you can do with dinosaurs, crystal tables, and monkey men in a series of this type, and I think really, as Season One moves along, it becomes more and more evident that there are a finite number of tales to tell with the elements Gerrold set up. Make no mistake, the season does a fantastic job of exploring and exploiting the ideas set up in the first half dozen episodes, but if a Season Two was going to happen, perhaps a few new elements were going to have to be brought into the mix.
Of course nobody really knew if there was going to be a Season Two, and Gerrold, tired of seeing shows finish up without definitive endings, decided to give “Land of the Lost” just that with Episode 17, “Circle.” Once again an out of this world hodge-podge mixture of sci-fi, the story sees Enik messing around with the time doorway, only to find that it is “stuck” on a loop of the Marshalls going over the waterfall. He explains that they can finally go home, as long as the three Marshalls caught in the loop come through after their departure. Of course, in true Enik fashion, this is all done out of self-interest, as the doorway is useless to him until the Marshalls go through it. And so Marshall, Will and Holly return home, and the entire story starts over with the Marshall family that was stuck in the loop entering the Land of the Lost and taking the place of the Marshalls who exited. Further, the last few minutes of the tale actually show the Marshalls arriving in the Land, and moving into High Bluff, and thus providing viewers with the intro they were denied in the first episode. When Episode 17 is over, you just simply put Episode One on after it and start the entire cycle over again (hence the title of the episode). I’m pretty sure this concept made my head explode when I was a kid, and Gerrold didn’t do the series itself any favors with this installment, since it must be ignored to be able to move on to Season Two. Yet had there never been a Season Two, it would today be looked back on as one hell of a series finale. Indeed, it’s almost unfortunate the next two seasons exist so as to prevent it from being the last word on “Land of the Lost.”
Be sure to come back to Premium Hollywood on Wednesday for a breakdown of “Land of the Lost”: Season Two!
Tags: Ben Bova, Cha-Ka, Chaka, D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, Enik, Erica Hagen, Holly Marshall, Kathy Coleman, Land of the Lost, Land of the Lost movie, Land of the Lost TV series, Larry Niven, Pakuni, Philip Paley, Rick Marshall, Sid and Marty Krofft, Sleestak, Spencer Milligan, Walter Edmiston, Walter Koenig, Wesley Eure, Will Marshall, Zarn