[5 February 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Change is not always for the best. On occasion, it can undermine an otherwise perfectly sound conceit. When Sid and Marty Krofft, two exceptionally successful producers of Saturday morning live action kid shows (with classics like H. R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters to their credit) wanted to branch out into a more serious action/adventure format, they hadn’t a clue what to do. All they knew was that they wanted it to deal with dinosaurs, and provide a family-oriented offering of mystery and magic. Yet after three seasons, what had started as a serious speculative thriller was turned into just another wacky Saturday morning spree. And all because the powers that be wouldn’t leave it alone.
Truth be told, Land of the Lost is not really a Krofft production in the purest sense. Sure, they masterminded the basics of the show, but they weren’t prepared to take on the challenge of creating such a structured, sci-fi universe on their own. They knew they needed serious outside help. Setting aside their own vision, which was somewhat lacking, they wisely turned to David Gerrold, member of the illustrious Star Trek writing staff and guiding force behind the animated version of the series, to develop their idea. More or less giving him free reign to conceive and create the show, is was Gerrold who fathered what would eventually be one the longest running and best remembered series to carry the Krofft name.
It was Gerrold who devised the basic premise: a park ranger named Rick Marshall (played by stage actor Spencer Milligan) and his two teenage children, Will (soap star Wesley Eure) and Holly (newcomer Kathy Coleman), are whitewater rafting when a freak earthquake sends them cascading over a mysterious waterfall. They soon find themselves in an unusual land filled with dangerous dinosaurs, chattering ape people, and evil lizard men. It was Gerrold who dubbed the monkey men “the Pakuni” and the repugnant reptiles “Sleestak”. Relying on many of his Trek buddies to pen scripts including D.C. Fontana (“Elsewhen”), Ben Bova (“The Search”), Walter Koenig (“The Stranger”), and Larry Niven (“Hurricane,” “Circle”) he hoped to do something unheard of in Saturday Morning TV; he wanted to make smart fantasy for the pre and tween set.
And believe it or not, he did. Season One of Land of the Lost is a true minor gem in the sci-fi genre, a show that took itself, and its premise, very seriously. Carefully balancing elements both solemn and slapstick, the series wanted to engage the juvenile while it explored a more mature message and mannerism. Using the bonds of family as its primary foundation, the first few episodes offered exploration as an excuse to focus on cultural differences (human vs. pakuni), human foibles (as expressed by an intelligent and empathetic Sleestak character, Enik) and the standard stranger in a strange land dynamic. While the F/X were as close to cutting edge as a ‘70s television budget could make them (meaning lots of now-laughable stop motion silliness), there was still a sense of fear and trepidation in the show. We wondered if the Marshall’s would ever return home, and wondered how dangerous it would be for them to try.
Unfortunately, said potential was never really fulfilled. After Season One, Gerrold stepped down, and the untried Dick Morgan was brought in to guide the show. Right from the beginning, the changes were obvious: less overriding, serialized story arcs and more episodic installments with all dilemmas wrapped up neat and tidy in 25 minutes; greater emphasis on the ‘cute’ and ‘commercial’ Pakuni; more baby dinosaurs (Holly had a “pet” named Dopey that was a breakout character in the first series). In essence, they wanted to copy the obvious successes from the kiddie shows past. That is why we now had a new “intellectualized” evil character in the light-based bad guy, the Zarn. That is why we got Cha-ka (Philip Paley) and his parents (the only Pakuni on the planet) appearing in virtually every episode. It is also why Season Two feels like a retread, not an expansion, of Land of the Lost‘s possibilities.
This doesn’t mean the Second Season was a complete disaster (the disaster would come later). No, inside the prehistoric animal antics and claymation critters are some stellar installments. When Cha-Ka has to prove his maturing “ape-hood” by stealing an Allusaurus egg, said stunt provides “The Test” with its surefire suspense. The Zarn is responsible for a threatening shift in the planet’s particulars, creating a “Gravity Storm” and one of the show’s most inventive storylines. The Sleestak trap Rick, blaming him for the neverending sunlight of “The Longest Day”, while an accidental step inside one of the planet’s mysterious gold monoliths results in a time travel trip on “The Pylon Express”. Indeed, when viewed more closely, Season Two shines more than it shames. Though the lack of a linking plotline was problematic (the “heading for home” conceit getting lost in the shuffle), many of the shows found a way to stand out and surprise.
It was Season Three where things began to go downhill. Age was taking its toll on the performers, with stars Wesley Eure and Kathy Coleman looking more mature and less childlike. For undisclosed reasons, Spencer Milligan decided to quit. Needing to replace Rick Marshall with another father figure type, new script editor Samuel Roeca (an old Hollywood stalwart having worked on everything from The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok to Mission: Impossible) conceived of “Uncle” Jack. He was Rick’s brother who himself got “lost” while out searching for the missing family. In one of the more convoluted conventions in the show, Jack managed to tumble through the same time hole as the family, following them directly to the exact moment when Rick “disappeared” during an earthquake. To make matters worst, Cha-Ka also lost his kinfolk during the seismic shift. Thus, this newly formed family had to regroup and find a new home to replace their now-destroyed cave enclosure.
Naturally, they ended up in part of the Lost City, near the sinister Sleestak’s temple. This allowed for a constant threat, as well as more interaction with the popular villains. The series began relying on guest stars, strange beasts, and other anomalies to keep the fantasy alive and fresh. Season Three would see Richard Kiel play a Godlike creature worshipped by the lizard men (“Survival Kit”); the random arrival of other humans, including a cavalry officer and the Indian brave he was chasing (“Medicine Man”); a hot air balloonist (“Hot Air Artist”); and a few new dino foes. Yet that wasn’t apparently good enough for the creative brass, as unicorns, dragons, and other odd beasties were brought into the mix. Chaka became less chimp-like and more an unwashed human brat, and Uncle Jack was less fatherly and more flummoxed by everything around him. There were highlights: a particularly scary outing involving the loss of the sun (“The Repairman”), and another return from everyone’s favorite cultured reptile, Enik.
But what this season showed more clearly was that Land of the Lost was resorting to gimmicks to get by. Good writing and proper production values were no longer important. When Gerrold was at the helm, he wanted the series to resonate with every age group. But by the time Roeca took over, the show was quite prepared to talk down to, and even a little bit below, its audience. It was no longer adventurous and fun it was awkward and forced. Maybe Mulligan’s leaving was the key, or perhaps the desire to dress up every episode with as much sci-fi froufrou as possible or probable was to blame. Whatever the case, what once was a timeless classic worthy of the genre moniker was now just another Krofft experiment in speculative silliness. Its cancellation wasn’t unexpected. For some, it was merciful. Fans just couldn’t fathom another reconfiguration of what was once their weekend repast into an ethereal land of possibilities and pitfalls.
What stands out today, some 30 years later, is how good those first few shows were. Unlike Lost in Space, or other Swiss Family Crusoe’s concepts of individuals stranded in the cosmos, there was a real feeling of dread and danger, as well as a large dose of familial love. Gerrold understood that sci-fi was more than just weird looking places and strange monsters. It was about story, and characters, and audience identification. As the seasons passed, Land of the Lost got locked into its own little world, isolating itself from that which once made it great. Such insularity cost the show its creativity, and then its support. Had it simply stayed the course set out before, it could have continued on as a solid, seminal show. But every year, someone had to change something. And in the case of Land of the Lost, change was only took the show ever farther away from where it wanted to be.