Appellate Judge Dave Ryan intends to spend the post-apocalypse hanging out in the Playboy Mansion, not gallivanting around the desert in an RV.
Aren't they supposed to have two of everything?
In the annals of Saturday morning television, Filmation Associates is best known for its many animated series (the most famous probably being Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and the animated version of the Archie comics). In 1974, spurred by requests from Fred Silverman (then in charge of programming at CBS), Filmation got into the business of live action children's programming with Shazam!, based on DC Comics' Captain Marvel character. Several other live-action shows followed, including 1976's Ark II, about…well, about a post-apocalyptic RV and its crew. Out of all the live-action Filmation shows, Ark II is probably the best. That isn't saying that much—but the show is probably a lot better than you'd expect.
English media company Entertainment Rights obtained the rights to much of the Filmation catalog (which had previously been owned by (of all companies) L'Oreal and Hallmark!) in 2004. This two-disc set is one of a series of planned Filmation releases in conjunction with BCI Eclipse. It contains the entire 15-episode run of the show, plus far more extras than you'd expect for a 30-year-old low-budget kids' show. Although it's definitely a niche product, it's a surprisingly thorough release.
Facts of the Case
In the year 2476, Earth has been ruined by pollution and other ecological disasters. Humanity has, for the most part, reverted to a Dark Ages level of existence, bereft of technology, communications, and large-scale society. A group of scientists band together and create Ark II, a powerful mobile science platform. Crewed by three humans—adults Jonah (Terry Lester, The Young and Restless) and Ruth (Jean Marie Hon, The Man From Atlantis), and teenager Samuel (Jose Flores)—and an intelligent talking chimp named Adam, Ark II will bring civilization back to the world, one village at a time.
There were 15 half-hour episodes made for the show's one season (the 1976-77 television season, although it lasted in repeats for three years), all of which are contained, in their production order, in this set:
• "The Flies:" In the show's pilot, Jonathan Harris (Lost in Space) guest-stars as Fagon, a Fagin-like character leading a band of ragamuffins. Fagon and the kids discover a cache of canisters of poison gas—which immediately puts them in the crosshairs of the mean War Lord Brack and his thugs. The Arkies have to help Fagon and the children fend off Brack's threats.
• "The Rule:" The Arkies have to teach a village that the old, sick, and infirm shouldn't just be exiled out of town—they can still contribute to society.
• "The Tank: "When the beautiful daughter of a local chief is kidnapped by scavengers, it's up to the Arkies—helped by a local boy and his antique tank—to rescue her.
• "The Balloon:" Jonah and Ruth are trapped by a rockslide in a disease-ridden community. Ruth has to take to the skies in—yes—a balloon before Jonah succumbs to the disease.
• "The Mind Group:" War Lord Brack (Malachi Throne) is back, and this time he's kidnapped a trio of psychic children. When the Arkies try and help them, the scared children turn on Ruth…
• "The Lottery:" The chief of a water-poor village uses a rigged lottery system to keep his enemies under control, with losers exiled to the "Forbidden Zone." What is the Forbidden Zone—and will the Arkies be able to rescue those trapped there?
• "The Drought:" Fagon and the kids make their second appearance on the show. This time, Fagon's plan is to steal ("borrow") the Ark II in order to capture a time capsule that may contain a cloud seeder. But the capsule's current owners, a tribe of very primitive scavengers, have taken Ruth and Samuel captive. Will Fagon do the right thing and help the Arkies?
• "The Wild Boy:" The Arkies encounter a wild boy (more of a wild young man, really) and the tribe hunting him down. They're forced to choose sides, and they pick the boy's side. The tribespeople, though, have no intention of abandoning the chase—and some unusual rocks are making Ruth, Samuel, and Adam weak and dizzy.
• "The Robot:" Samuel builds himself a robot, Alpha 1 (easily recognizable as good old Robbie the Robot of Forbidden Planet fame). Alfie, as he's dubbed, is a klutz who causes chaos whenever he tries to help out. Jonah orders him deactivated, but Alfie has other ideas…
• "Omega:" The Arkies find a village where children rule over their elders. It turns out a mysterious machine called Omega is using alpha waves to control the children. The machine takes over Samuel's mind, and it's up to Jonah and Ruth, aided by local girl Diana (Helen Hunt, Mad About You), to rescue him.
• "Robin Hood:" The mean Lord Leslie is taxing the life out of his little village. The Arkies show up to help, as does local bandit Robin Hood (and his men, who appear to be merry). Trouble naturally ensues.
• "The Cryogenic Man:" The Arkies revive two businessmen from the 20th Century, Arnie Pool (Jim Backus, Gilligan's Island) and his assistant Norman Funk (John Fiedler). The devious Pool immediately formulates a plan to revive his chemical empire using the Ark's technology—whether the Arkies like it or not.
• "Don Quixote:" The Arkies are detonating unexploded bombs in an old battlefield when they attract the attention of a would-be Don Quixote (Robert Ridgley, Boogie Nights) and his faithful companion Sancho. The Don—who is a bit, shall we say, unbalanced—thinks that Jonah is the Black Knight, and the Ark II itself a giant white dragon. Pseudo-Spanish hijinks ensue.
• "Orkus:" While out and about in the Ark Rover, Ruth discovers a group of elderly wanderers. A pollution-related gas in the area is making people age at a tremendously accelerated rate. Ruth and Adam are both affected by the gas—but the ageing effect is still reversible, so long as the antidote is administered within 12 hours. The search for the antidote leads the Arkies to the titular Orkus (Geoffrey Lewis), whose community seems to have discovered the secret of eternal life…
I'll admit it: I thought I had this review completely written before I even received the discs. Beloved show of my youth turns out to be utter crap; childhood ruined; you can never go home again; life marches on inexorably; oh, the folly of youth; I blame Lucas; and so forth. It would have been brilliant, literate, and perhaps even earthshattering. Unfortunately, a spanner was thrown into my master plan.
Ark II is actually a pretty decent show.
I mean, who saw this coming? When you think "Filmation live action Saturday morning shows," the words "high quality" typically don't follow. These shows, like Filmation's cartoons, were made quickly, cheaply, and in volume. For much of the 70s, the majority of CBS's Saturday morning lineup bore Filmation's signature circular "Produced by Norm Prescott / Lou Scheimer" credit. Today, being that prolific almost guarantees that you're putting out boatloads of garbage. But Ark II is different. It's not the greatest show ever made, mind you—it's still a low-budget sci-fi kids' show. However, it's clear that the cast and crew of Ark II took pride in their work, and tried to make it as good as it possibly could be, given the limited resources at hand. Like most of the Filmation shows, it's filled with new or inexperienced actors trying hard to make a name for themselves, plus the occasional big-name actor who enjoys the limited time commitment a guest spot entailed. (Each episode was typically shot in under three days.) It's a "message" show, where some important lesson is imparted by the end of the half hour, and there is (of necessity, given the shortness of the episodes) a certain heavy-handedness to its morality, but it's never annoyingly heavy-handed. Thirty years on, Ark II is surprisingly watchable and entertaining, dated though it may be.
If the look and settings of Ark II seem a little bit familiar, there's a reason for that. The location shots for the show were done almost entirely at Paramount's "ranch" in Malibu (now the Malibu Creek State Park), using the sets (and many of the costumes) left over from Planet of the Apes. Recycling may seem like a bad thing, but in this case, it's a big plus. Using already established sets, costumes, props, and the like was like Hamburger Helper for this show: it helps extend the show's limited budget. After blowing $50,000 or so on the Ark II vehicle itself, the show wouldn't have been able to afford to build a realistic shantytown, or a small wooden fort, or…well, anything, probably. It makes the show look quite a bit better than its pedigree would suggest. (Compare this to Ark II's contemporary The Secret of Isis, itself soon to be released on DVD, where Isis always seemed to wind up chasing the bad guys through the same junkyard. Thirty years later, my mother and I still joke about that.)
Acting-wise, the biggest name is, obviously, Terry Lester, who went on to craft a long and acclaimed career in the soap opera field before passing away from a heart attack in 2003. Lester is probably best remembered for two things: his creation of the role of Jack Abbott on The Young and Restless (he played the suave but manipulative Jack for a decade), and his messy and ugly exit from the show. Lester publicly called out show creator William Bell over his belief that Bell was reducing his (Lester's) role in order to push the Christine character more—a character who happened to be played by Bell's daughter Lauralee. But that's a story for another time.
Like everyone, Lester had to start his career somewhere. For him, the starting place was Ark II, his first big leading role. Soap fans will have no problems recognizing the handsome Lester—but may be shocked by his oh-so-70s facial hair. There's also his strangely breathy delivery, reminiscent of Eve Plumb's voice on The Brady Bunch. (Sadly, he never goes into a pouty "It's not fair! Marsha always gets to go!" kind of rant, so I can't make a direct comparison.) But truth be told, he ain't bad here. There's not much to work with here—again, the show and the characters are just vehicles for The Big Message that every show must impart—but he's charismatic enough to hold your attention. Jean-Marie Hon (Ruth) and Jose Flores (Samuel) acquit themselves well for first-timers, although Flores does tend to rush his delivery, something frequently seen in non-native English speakers. The chimp acts like a chimp, which is probably doesn't technically count as "acting."
The guest stars and secondary character actors run the gamut, from high-quality "name" stars like Jim Backus and Jonathan Harris to people who probably just graduated from low-level community theater. The number of recognizable faces is quite high for a show of this ilk. In one of the commentary tracks included as extras, Scheimer explains why: Ark II was a quick and easy buck for Hollywood actors. A given episode only took, at most, 3 days to film, so the guest star's time commitment was minimal. Everything was filmed at the easy-to-reach Paramount Ranch, so no long drives were required. It was a good fit for actors looking to pick up a little work during their down time. (Ark II was filmed in mid-summer, when TV productions typically go on hiatus.) Harris actually became a Filmation regular, taking the starring role on the company's subsequent Space Academy. Then there's little Helen Hunt. Ark II was an early screen credit for Hunt, who had just made her first real mark in television with her role in The Swiss Family Robinson. Camp buffs will be disappointed, though—her role here is small, and she performs it pretty well. It's nowhere near as campy as her legendary appearance as the space princess on The Bionic Woman.
Picture and sound on the episodes are adequate. Which is an outstanding achievement, given that this is—to reiterate—a low-budget kid's show from the mid-'70s. Even more impressive is the raft of extras that BCI has included with the set. Extras for a show of this era (and budget) are typically rare; this set, believe it or not, has multiple quality inclusions. None of them are life-altering, but they're absolutely worth it for fans of the show. The primary extras are the two commentary tracks, on the first and fourth episodes of the show, and a half-hour documentary on the show's history. The focal points of the commentary are Scheimer and Hon (who is now married and going by the name Jean Marie Trager), accompanied by Richard Rosenbloom (a co-producer of the show), director Henry Lange (who has had a long career in Hollywood—he currently produces the hit My Name Is Earl), and writer David Dworski. The "host" of the commentaries is Andy Mangels, a TV historian who is also responsible for assembling the other extras on the disc. The conversation is a bit on the slow side at times, and some of the information is duplicative of stories included in the documentary, but it's not a bad pair of tracks. There are also a number of production and promotional photos included on the last disc, and a small art gallery consisting of concept drawings for a proposed Ark II animated series.
A really neat bonus is the DVD-ROM material on the fourth disc. If you have a DVD drive on your computer (PC or Mac, according to the package—I only tested it on a PC), you can access the scripts for all 15 episodes (in PDF format), plus a copy of the "series bible" for Ark II. For all you non-showrunners out there, a "bible" is a written summary of the show's backstory, setting, and important details, to be used by scriptwriters when writing. It helps to maintain continuity within the show's (pardon the pun) story arc. I wish more shows would release their bibles on DVD—especially that legendary Star Trek master bible that Gene Roddenberry supposedly kept. But I digress. Here, the DVD-ROM material is an unexpected and enjoyable extra for this show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I fully and freely admit that I have a built-in fondness for this show, since I watched it and loved it as a kid. But even I have to be honest—it's probably not going to entertain a lot of adults. The stories are pretty simplistic, with very bright right-and-wrong lines drawn. For contemporary audiences that crave the moral ambiguity of The Wire or The Sopranos, Ark II will come off as cloying and overly blunt.
Plus, only really young children are likely to enjoy this show. Kids today are too sophisticated for a show like Ark II. After all, let's face it: today's digital watches, let alone today's kids series, have better special effects (although they do lack compelling drama). When push comes to shove, Ark II: The Complete Series is just a nostalgia trip for people like me, not a serious entertainment option in today's market.
In the battle of super-cool post-apocalyptic RVs, there are only two contenders: Ark II, and the Landmaster from Damnation Alley. Unfortunately, Ark II the show isn't quite as cool as the vehicle in it—in fact, by the standards of today's kids, it's probably completely uncool. But for those of us who used to watch and enjoy the show, Ark II: The Complete Series is a fun trip down memory lane. It's also somewhat refreshing to see a show like this given such a royal treatment from its DVD publisher. As mentioned, BCI has a whole slate of Filmation titles in the works; if Ark II is any indicator, fans can absolutely look forward to getting their hands on them.
Surprisingly and shockingly, not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Commentary on "The Flies" and "The Slaves" by Actress Jean Marie Hon-Trager, Producers Lou Scheimer and Richard Rosenbloom, Director Henry Lange, Writer David Dworski, and Andy Mangels
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