Friday, December 04, 2009

Land of the Lost: Part One

I was fascinated with Land of the Lost as a kid. I mean, who wouldn't be with all the dinosaurs and lizard-men and monkey-people? But in those days before VCRs (much less TiVo), when catching every episode of even your most favoritest show was unlikely, what made me most curious was the mythology and the world that the show built. I never felt... well, lost... watching it, but it was always obvious that there was a lot more going on than what I was seeing in the current episode. If only I could watch them all in order...

The premise was simple enough and it's all explained in the theme song. A widower and his two kids are on a rafting trip when "the greatest earthquake ever known" opens the ground beneath them and they fall into the Land of the Lost. Because they're outdoorsy people and equipped for an extended camping trip, they're set up pretty well to survive, so long as they can avoid those dinosaurs and lizard-men.

Each episode is self-contained, but the series isn't episodic at all in the sense that you can watch them in whatever order you want. Rick Marshall and his kids continually explore their world and learn new things about it. And what they learn factors into later episodes. It's sort of Lost for kids.

The special effects are crude by today's standards, but really very good for their day and easy to look past. Certainly much easier to get over than the acting. Spencer Milligan is pretty cool as Rick, but Wesley Eure (Will) and Kathy Coleman (Holly) are way prone to over-acting. Even that eventually becomes manageable though. After a while you get into the rhythms of what the actors are doing and accept that that's just the way they're going to be. Will and Holly will change emotions at the drop of a hat, bantering fondly one second and quarreling vehemently the next; dutifully going about their chores an instant before whining like brats about whose turn it is to fetch water. There's no subtlety to their acting, but once you get used to that, you can sit back and enjoy the writing, which is mostly quite wonderful.

I'm not quite through the first season (there were three) as I write this, but I want to get some thoughts down now before I keep going and overwhelm myself. I'm especially interested in tracking the world-building and character-development (if any), so that's what I'll tend to focus on.

I'll also, incidentally, be ignoring the Will Ferrell movie. I've mourned and accepted its existence, but I haven't seen it, don't plan to, and don't really care to contrast it with the original.

Episode 1: Cha-Ka

I'd kind of hoped that the first episode would be an expanded version of what we see in the title sequence: the rafting expedition, the earthquake, the fall into the Land of the Lost, the first encounter with Grumpy the T-Rex, and the discovery of the cave that becomes the Marshalls' home. It's not that, but it does seem to occur very soon after the incident; maybe even the following day. The family hasn't explored very much yet and Rick's just noticed the night before that there are three moons in the sky.

The three moons are something I never picked up on as a kid, even though they're present in the title card for a lot of episodes. I always figured that the Marshalls just went back in time or got pulled into some kind of underground world like in Journey to the Center of the Earth or At the Earth's Core, but I obviously hadn't been paying attention. This is something much weirder.

The episode also introduces us to Cha-Ka, the little monkey-boy who befriends the family and becomes a staple of the show. He was in most - if not all - of the episodes I remember from childhood. The Marshalls encounter him after Grumpy attacks him and a couple of other members of his species (the pakuni).

Episode 2: The Sleestak God

The most iconinc element of the show - after the dinosaurs - are the Sleestak and I think it's cool that they don't show up until the second episode. Will and Holly discover a ruined Lost City guarded by an allosaurus and holding an ominous message on one of its outer walls. The message is in English, which is odd enough, and it reads, "Beware of Sleestak."

Cha-Ka is with them again (in a neat bit of continuity, Will and Holly remove a splint in this episode that they'd put on Cha-Ka in the previous one) and he either recognizes the writing or the city or both. He starts yelling about "sareesataka," his word for the Sleestak, which raises the question (for me; not Will and Holly) of which word is a variation of the other. We won't find out the answer to that for another several episodes when it's finally revealed who wrote the warning and why it's in English.

We do meet the Sleestak though when the lizard-men attack and capture Will and Holly. Cha-Ka, who's had the sense not to go into the ruins, runs to get Rick and the two try to rescue the kids before they can be sacrificed to the Sleestak's diety, a creature that lives in a deep, mist-filled pit.

Incidentally, it's because of the Sleestak that my son won't watch the series with me anymore. Big, spooky eyes trump cool dinosaurs, I guess. Although, that's also the reason he didn't beg me to go see the Ferrell movie, so I'm not exactly complaining. Those Sleestaks are really creepy.

Episode 3: Dopey

Not a lot happens this episode, but it does introduce another recurring character, the baby brontosaur named Dopey. Today we call them apatosaurs, but when I was a kid they were brontosaurs.

Dopey's obviously meant to appeal to the youngest viewers and he's my least favorite part of the show, from his whiney cry to the goofy music that plays whenever he's on screen.

Episode 4: Downstream

There are a couple of cool things about this one. First, it's written by Larry Niven. Several big name science fiction writers (and even an actor or two) contributed to the series.

But the story itself is also cool. The Marshalls decide to try to escape the Land of the Lost by building a raft and seeing where the river takes them. If nothing else, they hope to find the ocean and a possible coastal community. Unfortunately, they learn that the river actually loops back on itself and brings them back to the spot where they entered it.

Or... I just now thought about this, but a big part of the episode involves the family's having to leave the river to avoid a huge waterfall. They end up in a cave where a Confederate soldier is prospecting for the glowing jewels that abound in the Land of the Lost. There are also Sleestaks, just to make things more interesting. At first the lonely prospector doesn't want to show the family the way to the river below the falls, but they trick him into it and are able to resume their journey. What's just occurred to me though is that there's no way to know for sure that when they come out of the caves that they're actually downstream from where they went in. They think they are - and so does the prospector - but what if they weren't? I'm guessing that this isn't addressed again and it fits with the weirdness of the Land that the river loops back on itself, but I wonder...

Something else worth mentioning is that Rick forms a hypothesis about the glowing stones. He thinks that maybe they give off some sort of radiation that causes the holes between this world and Earth. He'll be able to test that idea in a couple of episodes.

Episode 5: Tag-Team

The kids and Cha-Ka get chased by both Grumpy the T-Rex and the Lost City's allosaurus (named Big Alice by Holly). Rick teams up with Cha-Ka's family (a couple of other pakuni named Ta and Sa) to save the children, who get trapped in a crevice.

Not a lot of world-building in this one, but it does develop the relationship between the Marshalls and the pakuni. Cha-Ka continues to be friendly with the Marshalls, but Ta and Sa are distrustful, though they're able to put that aside long enough to help rescue Cha-Ka.

It's not clear what gender Ta and Sa are. I grew up thinking they were Cha-Ka's parents, but they could be older siblings for all we know. The confusion about their gender will lead to some uncomfortableness in a few episodes, but that's another post.

The only other thing worth mentioning is that the crevice is an important landmark in the series. It separates the Marshall's cliff home from the Lost City as well as divides Grumpy and Big Alice's territories.

Episode 6: The Stranger

Another celebrity writer contributed this episode. It was written by Walter Koenig (Star Trek) and it's another big step in the world-building.

After finding a weird device in a cave, the Marshalls meet a Sleestak-like being named Enik who differs from the Sleestak in some important ways. He wears clothing and has a different coloring, but more importantly, he talks and isn't hostile. He explains that he's also become trapped in the Land of the Lost and that he believes the Sleestaks to be his not-yet-evolved ancestors.

Enik explains that the device the Marshalls found is called the Mageti and that it's basically a space/time machine that allows him to travel around the universe. Thinking that the Mageti could possibly get them back home, Will is especially reluctant to give it back to Enik. Unfortunately, the Mageti also has some limited ability to psychically execute the impulses of those around it, so Will is able to use it to prevent Enik's retaking it. Even more unfortunately, the Mageti's limitation is based on the intensity of the impulse, so extreme emotion - like anger or hostility, exactly what Will's projecting - will overload and destroy it. That's exactly what happens, so because of Will's selfishness, Enik is now also stranded in the Land of the Lost.

Enik does have a smaller version of the Mageti, but it doesn't have a power source. That's when Rick explains his hypothesis about the crystals being the things that are causing the time/space holes. If that's true, then maybe they can power the mini-Mageti too.

The Marshalls lead Enik to the Lost City, since they've seen a lot of the crystals there. Enik recognizes the City as the ruins of his civilization. The Sleestak aren't his ancestors, they're barbaric descendents.

Once in the Lost City there's some more fighting between Will and Enik over the mini-Mageti. I generally like Will in the series, but he's a grade-A prick in this episode. He just completely snaps and is willing to steal Enik's technology and strand Enik there if it means that Will and his family can get home. There's a bunch of discussion about how important feelings are and blah blah blah that Koenig pulled right out of Star Trek and eventually the Marshalls convince Enik that he's really not that different from Will. Except, you know, that it's his frickin technology and he ought to be able to defend it and use it however he wants without their trying to take it from him. I don't know, the episode gets kind of mushy at this point, both emotionally and intellectually.

It even gets a little soft from a story-telling perspective. Or maybe I just wasn't paying attention properly. It looked to me like Enik prevailed and went home at the end of the episode, but we find out later that he's still there. Did I see it wrong or did the writers later change their mind and decide to retcon the episode in order to keep him around? Unfortunately, I'd already returned the first disc to Netflix before seeing the next Enik episode, so I don't know. Someone who's got the series can hopefully fill me in on that.

That's long enough for now. Next time, things get weirder still with the crystals, the Sleestaks, and some uncomfortable goings on between Holly and the pakuni.


Christopher Mills said...

The first season, under the stewardship of story Editor David Gerrold, maintains a surprising continuity and internal logic (especially for 70's television). He did not return for later seasons, and although the show remained imaginative and still had occasional standout episodes, his coherent universe began to unravel in the hands of writers who didn't know about or understand his concepts. (The big name sci-fi writers also disappeared in later seasons, without Gerrold to recruit them.)

But, you'll see this for yourself.

The first season of Land of the Lost is arguably the *smartest* science fiction show of the decade; certainly it had bigger ideas than any of the ostensibly 'adult' prime time SF shows of the era.

Michael May said...

That's disappointing. :(

I was originally going to take a break after Season One and watch some other stuff, but I think now I'm going to plow through. Curious to see how this all plays out. Or doesn't, maybe.

Wings1295 said...

I have to say the first two seasons are the best, and flow pretty well together. The basis and truth of the Land stays all in tact. Even with Dopey around.

But season three is a whole different magilla. Way different, and a big let down for me, in many ways.

Can't wait to read more of your posts. I, too, think this show is often dismissed as mere 70s kid stuff. But there was a pretty deep logic behind it all.

Wish it had gone on, would have love to have seen more and had some answers!

Paul Allan Ballard said...

Very interesting reviews.

As a kid I thought the Sleestaks were evolved from dinosaurs and had come through a portal to rebuild their dying civilization only to have it collapse again and to revert back to primitives.

I was sad when I realized that wasn't at all the case. Not sure where I got that idea in my head.

Recently watched it on a Scifi Ch marathon and was surprised at some of the adult themes I missed back in the 70's.

Christopher Mills said...

While the third season is the weakest of the three - and makes the fatal error of letting Wesley Eure sing in several episodes - it must be admitted that I prefered Ron Harper's "Uncle Jack" over Spencer Milligan's Rick Marshall. Looking at the show now, it seems clear to me that Spence felt he was slumming (and often looks stoned, frankly), while Harper seemed a lot more engaged.

Of course, it could just be that I like Harper because he was on THE PLANET OF THE APES television show around the same time....

mavericstud1 said...

Land of the Lost could have really retarded-especially since it came the same guys that HR PUFFINSTUFF-who looked more a talking penis,that a dragon.The show,I once was told was inspired by an idea by Bozos son or so the story goes,about two kids and father fall into a black hole in their backyard and find themselves in prehistoric times.David Gerold smarted the idea up pilons,Sleestack,crystals and the pakuni making better and smarter all over shows around it,who still set on stupid.
I didn't go see that movies and plan,too.Like Bewitched,it's insult to the original and the fans

Sweet One said...

Harlan Ellison said that it was Bozo's son who came up with the idea of a family falling through a Black Hole in their backyard and into another universe.

But that was just a rumor. Sid and Marty wanted to do a lost world show about dinosaurs, and they hired David Gerrald, who really turned the core idea into an innovative science fiction gem.

Comedian Stevie Mack said...

Ron Harper, who played Uncle Jack on Land of the Lost will be my guest on STEVIE MACK RADIO Monday 12/12/2011 6pm (PST) Tune in:

Enik1138 said...

I have some detailed studies of Land of the Lost on PopApostle at


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