Judge Bill Gibron never met a Sleestak he didn't like.
"Cha-ka abiya ye beni i eroka bisa."
Dinosaurs have always fascinated kids. Even before they are old enough to realize that these steroid-sized lizards are nothing but evolutionary bad news—what with their tendency to eat humans and decompose into environment-polluting petroleum products—bratlings bray at the sight of a stegosaurus and whiz themselves over pterodactyls in flight.
For this critic, his prehistoric fix came at the hands of a foreign narrative about four teenage friends who visit the Museum of Natural History in New York. While rowing out into Central Park Lake, they stumble upon a mysterious entrance and end up in a world of Czech Republic stop-motion monsters. Originally a 1955 film entitled Cesta do praveku (gotta love the Slavs), American TV serialized the film, added the necessary Western prologue and dubbing, and offered it to local kid shows nationwide.
As this reviewer over-romanticizes it, in between episodes of The Funny Company and Clutch Cargo, Garfield Goose and Friends would show the newly named Journey to the Beginning of Time, and at his precocious age and inclination, it was mandatory viewing. As the detailed dinos herked and jerked their way across the screen, the slowly developing short hairs of this entertainment-starved six-year-old (this was 1967, mind you) would start to tingle. One of his most vivid memories was of the final episode. After trying every manner of maneuver to leave the precarious primeval plane, a couple of the kids managed to make it back through the original opening…only to discover that they have moved even further back in time, to the actual beginning of the universe (tell me this didn't mess with many an adolescent's agitprop attention span).
A little less than a decade later, another episodic adventure into the realm of the raptor was instrumental in providing children with enough fright fodder to keep their beds in an ever-constant state of dampness. With its pissed-off pituitary-case chameleons, and enough rampaging rubber monsters to de-frock Freud, Sid and Marty Krofft's time-travel tantrum Land of the Lost, meant many a sleepless night for early '70s juveniles. Problem is, when revisited on the recently released Complete First Season DVD box set from Rhino, Land has indeed lost many of its most mundane aspects. Instead, it becomes a rather effective science fiction adventure tale.
No, really, it is.
Facts of the Case
As with every other entry in the Sid and Marty Krofft canon, one listen to the main title theme song gives you a pilot's worth of plot points and character development in an easy-to-memorize jingle format. So after star Wesley's warped vocals sing the final echoed elements, we understand the basics of how our stranded family ended up in this weird world of the misplaced. Rick Marshall, a park ranger of some sort, was taking his eldest son Will and his young daughter Holly on a white-water rafting trip. After hitting some turbulent rapids, they found themselves trapped in "the greatest earthquake ever known." This shift in the planet's mantle caused a huge cliffside to open up, and the raft passed through and careened over a waterfall. Unconscious but very much alive, the clan awakens to discover a Tyrannosaurus Rex lording over their prone persons. A mad dash to a mountainside cave later, and the parameters are in place for a man vs. fossil adventure series.
Except, Land of the Lost was not really about a journey back to Jurassic Park: The Early Years. Indeed, the Marshalls had ended up on a kind of parallel, temporally displaced alien world. While this closed universe was indeed populated by pea-brained dinosaurs, there were also Pakuni, a kind of combination man / ape / stuffed toy people who spoke in their own arcane language. There were the ruins of a Lost City, and inside, another race of resident anomalies, the Sleestak, prayed to their underground—and always hungry—beast-god. While Cha-Ka, Ta, and Sa became begrudging friends to the human family, the Sleestak were always looking to feed the mostly hairless Marshall mammals to their deity. Finally, scattered around this queer cosmos were huge, golden Pylons that were able to control the weather, as well as serving as the keys to unlock time doors. Will and Holly spend a great deal of time experimenting with the Pylons' colored crystal base code system.
There are other interesting and outrageous elements at play during the first season of the Land of the Lost, items best addressed in an episode-by-episode discussion of the series' semi-continuing plotlines. The 17 segments of the show featured on this DVD set do indeed make up one continuous narrative, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. But instead of a cliffhanger, we have kind of a "re-boot" when it comes to a conclusion. Individually, the Marshalls experience the following mysterious adventures.
• "The Sleestak God"
• "Tag Team"
• "The Stranger"
• "The Hole"
• "The Paku Who Came to Dinner"
• "The Search"
• "The Possession"
• "Follow That Dinosaur"
• "Stone Soup"
• "Circle": Enik, still unable to return home,
determines that it is the Marshalls that need to return to their own time. Only
then can the reciprocal nature of the gem matrix lead the Sleestak to his own
It had been five years since the insane kidvid brother combo of Sid and Marty Krofft crash-landed onto network affiliates everywhere with their bizarre burst of surreal psychedelia known as H. R. Pufnstuf. The tender tale of a kid, his magic flute, and an oversized phallic symbol that vowed to protect him, Living Island, and its inhabitants became the stuff of legend, destined to be remembered as vividly as an earache-induced hallucination by a generation of gullible preteen TV addicts. Striking while the iron wasn't looking, the crazy Kroffts saw even more of their demented musings make it onto early '70s small screens. The Bugaloos, an insect-inspired fantasy about the music industry and an insect British Invasion, had lasted the standard Marty and Sid 17, and Lidsville, a warped wonder about a boy, an evil magician, and a bunch of talking hats, kept kids' coconuts cracking for another run of 17 episodes.
It took the wildly successful Sigmund and the Sea Monsters to break the ten-plus-seven cycle. Managing 29 mighty installments, this show—about a waterlogged aquatic whatsit and its friendship with a teenager who was sadly saddled with looking exactly like Johnny Whitaker—was a huge hit and gave the goofy siblings carte blanche to unearth another wacky-weed-inspired wonder from their fevered, fertile brains. Having always wanted to do a dinosaur show, the guys grabbed their trusty idea-filled scrapbook (a portfolio of patented perplexity used by the Kroffts to pitch their shows) and headed over to NBC. All they had to say was "Swiss Family Robinson meets One Million BC," and the network went nuts. Without a script or even a pilot, Land of the Lost was sold with a standing order for—you guessed it—17 shows.
But this was not about to be another retread of crackpot Krofft LSD for the little ones. The Peacock Palace, having found some recent ratings success with an animated Star Trek series, called on long time Trek affiliate David Gerrold (responsible for one of the most beloved installments of ST:TOS, "The Trouble With Tribbles") to help Sid and Marty conceive their creation. Working from the brothers' famous folder (which Gerrold describes as being filled with collages of cutout images from sci-fi magazines), David devised the entire scenario for the newly christened Saturday morning series. He came up with the family—Rick (Dad), Will, and Holly Marshall—the furball Pakuni, and the reptilian Sleestak. He inserted the Pylons and their flying brethren the Skylons, and envisioned the ancient Lost City. Outside of these obvious elements, Gerrold also mandated that the show not only involve dinosaurs, but also take on many of the themes and imaginative ideas shows like Star Trek had used to make their narratives more compelling. Time travel, alternate universes, alien species, and complex backstory mythology were all employed to keep the potential camp factor as low as possible. Indeed, instead of a half-hour kids' show with stop-motion animation beasts, zipper-backed bad guys, and diminutive actors running around in monkey suits, Gerrold wanted to make Land of the Lost a bastion for science fiction fans, both young and old, to come and enjoy intelligent, engaging stories filled with mystery and wonder.
And you know what? While it may be some manner of speculative fiction blasphemy to say it, Land of the Lost is actually pretty good. As a matter of fact, it borders on greatness so many times that when it does go lamentably loopy, you can't help but sigh in satisfied acknowledgment of the effort that went into the attempt. Land of the Lost is the rare example of a show that really did want to move beyond the limits of the Saturday morning children's show to offer its audience something sincere and serious. Sure, it had to balance this straight sci-fi mentality with the knowledge that certain issues would fall outside the realm of acceptable demographic dramatics. But for the most part, Land of the Lost dealt with many of the hot button topics—intolerance, friendship, loyalty, cooperation—that the big-budget boys had wallowed in since before Isaac Asimov grew those massive muttonchops. How LOTL managed to accomplish this in light of the production values (which were decidedly on the cheap side) and network pressures (almost exclusively revolving around product merchandising) is one of the most amazing aspects of the show. The other is how engaging and interesting the stories are, avoiding cliché and crass formulas to speak honestly about important universal themes.
Now, Sid and Marty Krofft were not well known for intentionally expanding the consciousness of their audience. While many people still believe that the majority of their output was some manner of munchies-based pro-marijuana propaganda, the truth is that these quasi-genius generators of outrageous imagination usually surrounded themselves with people who plugged directly into their desire to delight and dazzle. Gerrold was such a phantasm helper, and he is perhaps the main reason why Land of the Lost is still a viable piece of speculative fiction today. Aside from his creative input, he also employed dozens of top-notch sci-fi writers, some of the best working in the business at the time. That is why you will see such names as D.C. Fontana ("Elsewhen"), Ben Bova ("The Search"), Walter Koenig ("The Stranger"), and Larry Niven ("Hurricane," "Circle") scripting the shows offered here. Gerrold tapped many of the names that helped make Star Trek: The Original Series and the Saturday morning animated spin-off such critical cult favorites, and the same serious magic works for Land of the Lost. Instead of turning the series into one big constant chase scene between human and dino, with some strange lizard- and monkey-men thrown in for good measure, the writers in the first season of Land of the Lost made a conscious effort to speak directly to, not down to or over the heads of, their audience. They assumed that a good chunk of the show's viewers would be adults (and they were right), and that the simple, solemn messages they put across would be readily picked up by kids (who also had lots of creature-comfort eye candy to enjoy as well). They were right on both counts.
Additionally, the acting was, for the most part, uniformly excellent. Sure, Wesley Eure never met a piece of phony, foam-rubber soundstage scenery that he couldn't chew with carnivorous relish—he is all hysterical reactions and smart-aleck attitude—but the rest of the cast is wonderful in their attempt to instill realism into the series. Spencer Milligan, who many may recognize as the fey partygoer in Sleeper, makes his father figure Rick Marshall a contradiction in considerations. While he is desperate to get home and return to a normal space/time frame, he is also a compassionate father trying to raise his kids properly. Kathy Coleman, who is stuck with the Cindy Brady buck-toothed and pig-tailed cutie-pie role, finds the proper balance between childlike and courageous to make her moments onscreen memorable. As for the Pakuni, little Phil Paley (who, at the time, was the world's youngest karate black belt) never hits a wrong chord or sour note as the precocious, unpredictable Cha-Ka, while Joe A. Giamalva (as Ta) and ex-Mouseketeer Sharon Baird (as Sa) round out the rest of the furry family effectively. Singular standouts include Walker Edmiston as the alien visitor Enik (he has one of the great voices in all entertainment, and uses it superbly in this role) and Erika Hagen as the otherworldly woman Rani. Combined with the expert direction of series stalwarts Bob Lally and Dennis Steinmetz (with the help of others), all levels of the production, from the written word to the composition and action framing, are wonderfully successful.
But what most people remember are the ersatz inventive special effects, that were for their time about as unique and state-of-the-art as could be accomplished on a Saturday morning kidvid budget. Using a unique approach to the backgrounds—combining bluescreen, film, video, miniatures, and true-to-life sets—a very effective and eerie universe was created. The sharp-eyed viewer will notice how props and perspectives are utilized to cheat scope and suggest vastness. From the three-mooned sky to the detailed Lost City, the terrain of the Land of the Lost is as evocative as its storylines. The Sleestaks also make capable villains because they manage to combine recognizable entertainment conceits (read: guys in suits) with wholly original elements (the eyes, the tall stature) to create convincing monsters. The Pakuni find a way to transcend their monkey-suit situation to deliver believability and naturalism.
About the only place were the pieces don't fall 100 percent into place is in the prehistoric panorama. While stop-motion dinosaurs were the cutting edge of technology in 1974, in 2004—thanks to the magic-killing maneuvers of CGI—they look like Ray Harryhausen's first grade science fair project. It's not that the saurians here are bad—indeed, they are on par with those seen in many of the movies of the time—but when the Kroffts substitute hand puppet close-ups of rather unimpressive dino heads, some of the sinister quality is lost. Still, for a show that tried to push the limits of what could be accomplished—both visually and intellectually—with a standard network half hour, Land of the Lost had no competition. Today, it still stands as an effective experiment in sci-fi action-adventure.
For its retro kitsch appeal alone, Land of the Lost stands head and shoulders above all the other Krofft carnivals of the cracked as one of the sole examples of seriousness in their otherwise lightweight, whimsical canon. The first season specifically marked one of the rare occasions were a show was allowed the chance to change and grow, to challenge and subvert expectations by avoiding (for the most part) the silly and the stupid to concentrate on the dark, grim, and realistic. As much as the Kroffts' names grace this production, it is really the work of David Gerrold and his Star Trek cronies that helped LOTL make the leap from kiddie crap to commendable science fiction. While it doesn't always stay true to its universe and its parameters (characters and elements frequently pop up out of plot-convenience-nowhere to help out a narrative) and can occasionally rely on the cute (the baby dino Dopey) or the derivative (ineffective villains who have a hard time managing their own homemade weaponry) to drive a show, Land of the Lost is still a fine piece of pre-Star Wars spectacle.
Indeed, George Lucas and his constantly-in-special-edition-flux blockbuster erased the possibility for shows like LOTL to succeed. It set the benchmark too high for something as simple and yet substantive as the Kroffts' Cretaceous creation to wow the wee ones. But for its time, and its eventual timelessness, the Land of the Lost is a fine, formidable entry into the history of televised sci-fi. It's as entertaining and engaging today as it was 30 years ago, and this Complete First Season DVD box set from Rhino is a must-own for any fan of the genre and its various incarnations.
As a digital presentation, Land of the Lost: The Complete First Season has so many fantastic aspects to it that the occasional flaws are merely minor quibbles. Beginning with the transfers, it is clear to see that, as the show progressed, the attention to detail, preservation, and recording levels vastly improved. The 1.33:1 full screen image for the first few shows are lacking in clarity, color correction, and contrast. The cast looks too gray/green in fleshtone, and the bluescreen flares to alert us of its existence. But after about the fourth episode, these issues resolve themselves, and Land of the Lost looks 1974-new in its vibrancy and atmosphere. For the most part, the transfer is fine. But there will be some initial defects that may irritate those hoping for nothing but pristine prints of their favorite show. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Stereo is sufficient to put across the series' wildly eclectic aural palette. The score sounds like a collaboration between Tangerine Dream and the Deliverance kid as synthesizer showboating meets banjo bunkum to near-cacophonous effect. The mood is well maintained by the animal noises ever-present in the mix, and when the Sleestak hiss and shriek, their alien voices are really creepy. Because of age and other source issues, we do experience the occasional dropout or distorted moment, but overall, the sound is as impressive as the video.
Thankfully, Rhino understands both the nostalgic and the contextual need for extensive bonus material, and they offer up a wealth of wonders. We are treated to ten—10!—commentary tracks on the three-disc set, many of which are marvelous. While actors Wesley Eure and Kathy Coleman spend more time cutting up, chiding each other, and flirting than they do discussing the show, they also offer up a few choice anecdotes (why Eure dropped his last name from the credits; Coleman's desire to upstage her soap opera hunk costar—Eure was on Days of Our Lives at the time) and seem to be having a lot of fun revisiting their past. David Gerrold gets a chance to discuss four shows here and he is a nonstop source of valuable information. From revealing where various characters got their names (one was his sister's boyfriend) to how he met with Harlan Ellison to write a script for the show (the story is priceless), Gerrold's opinions and insights are incredibly important to understanding the series. Phil "Cha-Ka" Paley provides some details as to what it was like playing a Pakuni, and writers D.C. Fontana, Walter Koenig, and Larry Niven all spice up their episodes with jokes, specifications, and deleted story elements. Only Sid and Marty's mangled narrative on the pilot is an easily avoidable diversion. With lots of missing facts and confusing contradictions to what others have to say about Land of the Lost, you get the distinct impression that this show represented their least "hands-on" job as producers/creators (with the limited presence of puppets, this isn't hard to believe).
But that's not all. On Disc Three (where all the other non-episode-specific extra material resides), we are also given our own scroll-through version of the Pakuni Dictionary, a Land of the Lost quiz hosted by Cha-Ka himself, and a series of interviews with Gerrold, Niven, Koenig, and Eure and Coleman. Much of what the stars have to say is very interesting (they are far more informative than on their joke-filled commentaries), and both Gerrold and Niven discuss how important the show was for the sci-fi community. Old Chekov himself, Walter Koenig, tends to dismiss the whole LOTL experience as if he was simply slumming for an old friend. Though his effort—the initial Enik show "The Stranger"—is one of the best in the first season, he seems embarrassed to be part of the show's mythology. About the only missing element is Spencer Milligan, who played Rick Marshall. He seems to have simply dropped off the face of the Earth.
At almost an hour of Q&A content, and the brief history of the series presented as liner notes on Disc Three, this is a nice, substantive package from Rhino. It's nice to see the respect for fans and those familiar with the show.
A weird sensation comes over the audience while watching Land of the Lost. At first, part of us is laughing at the lamentable effects and insane Krofft production standards. But once the whimsy has worn off, we discover we are beginning to care for the characters. We await the next installment of the show and wonder what mystical, mythical, or menacing entity or item we will run into next. By the time Enik arrives with the gemstone time tunnels, and the Pakuni have become the reluctant allies of the Marshalls, we're hooked. The show no longer represents a boy's adventure tale of man versus monsters, but it has become, instead, a thoughtful, well-written sci-fi series.
While it won't win any awards for invention or inspiration (as said at the beginning, there were dozens of dino shows in the pantheon of kidvid), Land of the Lost is still a skilled display of exceptional storytelling and unbridled intelligence—especially when you consider the source and the circumstances. Sid and Marty Krofft were known for making imagination seem iniquitous, and for fostering enough drug-culture speculation to warrant an investigation by the DEA. But when NBC greenlit this series and got David Gerrold to agree to guide it, something special happened. A hokey, hackneyed premise about a family lost in a Jurassic jungle world became a closed universe of aliens, time travel, survival, and perception. Land of the Lost is the crowning achievement in the Krofft canon, a show worthy of timelessness. Thanks to Rhino and its excellent DVD presentation of Land of the Lost: The Complete First Season, fans both old and new will be able to enjoy it for decades to come. Here's to getting lost in this wonderfully evocative show.
Not guilty! Land of the Lost, Sid and Marty Krofft, and Rhino are all free to go. Charges on all counts are dropped. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track on Episode 1 ("Cha-Ka") by Sid and Marty Krofft
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