Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Land of the Lost: 'Album'

There is trouble brewing in the Land of the Lost. For starters, an unknown animal is coming into the Marshalls' cave at night and eating their stores; and then there is a strange buzzing noise that only Will can hear, that draws him to the Lost City.

In the Lost City, Will finds something that looks like a matrix table of the sort Enik used to open the time portal, but made with colored stones instead of the stones. On the floor is a pulsing blue crystal. When Will picks it up, a nearby doorway fills with mist -- as when Enik showed each of the Marshalls their deepest fears -- and in it he sees a woman beckoning him to come closer, whom he recognizes as his deceased mother.

Holly, who has been working on a trap to catch the animal eating their stores, eventually hears the buzzing; and she and Will go to the Lost City together. Holly sees their mother too, after she picks up the blue crystal. Will speculates that they've found a time portal has opened to a point where their mother is still alive, and that they see her through a mist because they don't remember her well. Their mother fades from view, and they return to their cave.

Rick Marshall notices how despondent his children have become, and when they wander off to the Lost City together the next morning, he fellows them. There he discovers that the whole thing is a trap. The Sleestak are using the blue crystal to show the Marshalls what they most love, as a way to draw them in, so they can feed them to the Sleestak god at the bottom of the pit. Rick frees his children, tackles two Sleestak and pushes them into the pit, and leads his family to safety.

Back at their cave, he explains to the children how the Sleestak trap worked; and Holly abandons her own efforts to trap the animal coming for their food.

What I loved about this episode:

It's tightly written. The subplot about trapping the animal synchs nicely with the larger plot about trapping the Marshalls. Rick explains to Holly that a good trap relies on offering the animal something it wants but doesn't already have easy access to. The Sleestak offer the Marshall children not just a loving parent, but a loving parent whom they have lost.

Family ties. There has been no mention the entire series that I can recall to the children's mother. Why wasn't she on the "routine expedition?" We're never told, until this episode, when we find out that she died, years ago. I can think of few things more upsetting to young children than the thought of losing a parent, particularly a mother. But that's what happened here. A 1974 children's Saturday morning show actually gave us a widowed father raising his children. Even more daringly, while the mirage of their mother is alluring enough to draw the Marshall children close, the trap doesn't work until the children believe they're seeing Rick.

The Sleestak. They don't move particularly fast, they hiss a lot, their aim with crossbows is terrible, and frankly they walk like they're grown men trying to move around in rubber suits. But they are cold-blooded, vicious, and evil to the core. When the Marshall children believe that they are walking through the Lost City with their father, the camera keeps showing us brief snatches of what is happening: A Sleestak is leading two trusting children to their intended deaths. I'm 45, and it still creeped me out.

I keep saying it, but it bears repeating. "The Land of the Lost" was an intelligently written TV series for children. Forty years after its initial broadcast, this remains a show that children and adults can watch and enjoy together in a way they can with few others.

Forget the Will Ferrell attempt to make a comedy about this show. It deserves a serious and respectful treatment, either as a new kids show revisiting the concept as respectfully as its original incarnation did, or as a serious show for the adults who grew up watching Spencer Milligan and his castmates.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

land of the lost: 'the stranger'

Self-control, and what that means, is at the heart of "The Stranger," the sixth episode of the classic "Land of the Lost" TV show.

Written by Star Trek alumnus Walter Koenig, "The Stranger" is where we start to see just how complex a sci-fi world David Gerrold created for this children's show. The episode begins with Holly and Will bickering as siblings will, while their father tries to keep the peace. They carry their fight as they go looking for food, and find a glowing crystal that converts the children's mutual hostility into actual physical pushing.

The crystal, it turns out, is called the Mageti. It is a stone that can operate the time portals in the Land of the Lost. The Marshalls are attacked by six Sleestak, and then rescued by Enik, a brown-skinned creature that looks like a Sleestak and claims to be an Altrusian from the future, descended from the Sleestak. The Mageti responds to emotions, but as a safeguard against violence, it self-destructs in the presence of too much hostility.

Enik acknowledges he theoretically could send the Marshalls home, but claims it would be too complex a calculation and refuses; besides, he needs the Mageti to return to his own time period. Will, predictably, becomes outraged; and in the ensuing fight for control of the Mageti, it explodes.

As it turns out, Enik possesses a stone that is a second Mageti, but it lacks a power source. The Marshalls lead Enik to the Lost City, where they soon find a gemstone to power Enik's Mageti; and Enik discovers that the Sleestak are not his ancestors, but the descendants of his people. He speculates that his people lost control of their emotions and descended into ignorance and savagery.

Another fight breaks out over the new Mageti, and this time Enik summons a psychoactive mist that subjects the Marshalls to their worst fears. Rick resists, and tells Enik that perhaps his people fell into the Sleestak not because they failed to control their anger and hate, but because they failed to display compassion and mercy. Persuaded, Enik releases the Marshalls and they let him return to his own time to warn his people of the danger facing them.

What I like about this episode:

Real sci-fi: OK, the matrix tables were pretty poor special effects; but this is some complex stuff. Interdimensional portals. Time travel. Evolution, and de-evolution. There's even an acknowledgment that this isn't magic; Enik could send the Marshalls home, yes; but as he points out time and again, with increasing irritation, it's not as simple as dusting crops. There are complex mathematical equations involved, and while he can do them, it could take years.

Complex world: Per the show's theme song, the Marshalls entered the Land of the Lost after an earthquake shook their raft while they were white-water rafting and plunged them down a waterfall. In the episodes, Rick has suggested that they fell through some sort of space warp, which he described as "a nightmare inside a nightmare." The world is obviously artificial, given that you can travel downstream from the swamp and end up back at the swamp without ever turning around. But now we're starting to see some of the machinery behind the world, which suggests that the Marshalls may be able to work that machinery themselves some day. (Albeit with risk. These controls are in the Lost City, which swarms with Sleestak.)

Unexpected twist. Enik is convinced the Sleestak are his ancestors, and why shouldn't they be? They're stupider, slower, and less advanced in every way. I can't imagine any viewer expects the Altrusians to predate the Sleestak, any more than Enik does.

Real fears. While a lot of kids shows have struggles like "How can I be popular?" or "How can I rescue him without revealing that I'm a mermaid?" the Marshalls just want to go home. Wesley Eure overacted a bit in this episode, and so did Spencer Milligan, but there has never been a child alive who hasn't been lost or separated from home and worried about never getting back.

Decent message. It's a kids show, so of course there's a moral. Rick Marshall puts it best: It's not enough just to control your emotions and not give into them; you also have to show empathy for others.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

land of the lost: 'tag team'

I keep writing about "Land of the Lost" as though it were a sci-fi adventure show, and it is; but for all the sophistication underlying the show, it's also a children's show, with all that goes along with that.

Fifth episode "Tag Team" is a lesson about cooperation. When the Marshalls go hunting for vegetables, their neighbors the Pakuni keep raiding their cart and stealing the gigantic carrots and turnips as soon as their backs are turned. (Food plants grow to enormous size in the Land of the Lost. Carrots are 3 feet long, strawberries are the size of basketballs, and a turnip is the size of an Ottoman.)

While the six of them threaten one another and yell about the vegetables, Grumpy returns and chases them away, breaking off pursuit only when they break into two groups; but since Cha-Ka has remained with the Marshalls, the conflict continues. Before long, they're being pursued not only by Grumpy but also by an allosaurus the Marshalls have named Alice -- and then the children all get trapped by themselves.

Eventually things work out, as they always do in these situations, but the episode is made ironically amusing as Rick Marshall explains his rescue plan to Ta and Sa, the other two Pakuni, through the time-tested means of speaking English very loudly and gesturing a lot with his hands in hopes that he'll be understood.

The Pakuni distract Grumpy and Alice while Rick rescues the children, and afterward the Marshalls show the Pakuni how to work together to harvest their own vegetables. Cooperation. It's such a nice lesson to pass on, especially when it involves running for your life from dinosaurs.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

land of the lost: 'downstream'

The mystery of the Land of the Lost deepens in "Downstream," as Rick Marshall leads his children on a rafting expedition downstream to see if they can find a way out of the land.

Along the way the episode sets up a number of mysteries about its setting. First is Jefferson Davis Collie, a Civil War artilleryman. Second is the cave where he lives and excavates jewels that store and direct large amounts of energy, enough that Rick speculates that they may be the power source for the time portal that brought theme there. Third, the show establishes that the land is finite and self-contained; heading downstream ultimately just leads back to the same point. Lastly, this is the first episode to mention Pylons.

As episodes go, this one was lackluster and not particularly exciting. But it does reveal just how intricate a world David Gerrold had created as a setting for the show. It's no surprise that 40 years after the show aired, my daughter right now is creating her own pretend Land of the Lost.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

land of the lost: 'dopey'

If "Land of the Lost" was an edgy show for children, with monsters like the Sleestak; it was still very much a Saturday morning show that competed with cartoon fare.

That's shown in Episode 3, "Dopey," where Holly Marshall becomes enamored of the latest dinosaur the family has encountered. Out foraging giant strawberries for food, she and Will discover a giant egg, hatched, and wonder what could have come from it. They don't have long to wonder, because they soon encounter a baby brontosaurus whom Holly names Dopey.

The episode becomes a classic stray dog episode, as Holly begs her father to let him keep her new pet. When it becomes evident that they can't make a 4,400-pound brontosaur leave if it doesn't want to, Rick reluctantly agrees; and Holly sets about showing how useful he can be. In short order she is training him how to fetch, riding on his back, and hitching him up to the cart.

The downside is that Dopey makes a lot of noise when he's hungry, and his cries keep attracting Grumpy, the T-Rex, and putting the Marshalls in danger. Thus it is not long until Rick Marshall is telling his daughter the sad news that she has to give up her new pet and let him be with other brontosauri.

"Dopey" isn't an adventure episode like "Cha-Ka," or a suspense episode like "The Sleestak God." Instead, it's very much rooted in family, with children wanting to adopt wild animals as pets, whining about chores; and a parent setting boundaries and enforcing good behavior. We also see signs that Rick Marshall is a handyman: Like the good folks on "Gilligan's Island," he has managed to make a wooden cart with wheels, and a dinner table, using only the natural resources available.

We also get a little more speculation about the nature of the Land of the Lost. In the first episode, Rick Marshall told his children that they weren't on earth, judging by the three moons he had observed, and said that when they fell down the waterfall it seems like they were traveling through some sort of "space warp." Now Will tells Holly that their father things they are in an entirely different universe, one that connects to all space and time, which is how there can be dinosaurs there the same time as humans.

Monday, August 31, 2015

land of the lost: 'the sleestak god'

If you want an example of how intense "Land of the Lost" could be for young children, check out its second episode, "The Sleestak God."

A similar concept to the Silurians on Doctor Who, but with slightly better productions values, the Sleestak are a race of reptile people who soon became the main villains of the series and its most iconic characters. They're tall, skinny and long-limbed. They don't move particularly fast, and they hiss instead of talking.

During "The Sleestak God," Will and Holly are sent to fetch water -- even in the Land of the Lost, this is still a family, with chores and whining over having to do them -- and decide to go exploring as they go. One of their discoveries is a mysterious and midlly foreboding building. Before long the two of them are caught by the Sleestak, put into a net and hung over a pit to be fed to a monster in the pit, the presumed Sleestak god.

The children are saved by their father (of course) after their friend Cha-Ka is able to alert him to the danger they're in, but if you think about it, this is a pretty intense concept for a young child. It's probably one of the chief reasons that the Sleestak gave me nightmares when I was younger.

'To Catch a Killer': Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy


I've spent about three hours the past two nights watching Brian Dennehy play John Wayne Gacy in "To Catch a Killer."

Gacy, for those unfamiliar with him, was a Chicago-area serial killer convicted of sexually torturing and murdering some 30 teenage boys and burying their bodies in his basement, under his garage, under the floorboards of his rec room, and elsewhere. To all outward appearances, he was an upstanding member of the community who regularly donated to civic organizations, and who performed for children as Pogo the Clown. The movie was made for TV, and aired in 1992.

Dennehy gives a great, just-the-right-side-of-creepy performance of Gacy, a man with cocksure grin who engages police in cat-and-mouse maneuvers as the pressure slowly builds; opposite an equally strong Michael Riley as Detective Joe Kozencza, who becomes convinced early on that Gacy is behind the recent disappearance of a local teen and then gradually realizes the monstrosity of Gacy's crimes.

The movie's got some good drama. In addition to the performances of its leads and supporting actors, it depicts Kozencza as a man under pressure as he overcomes colleagues' professional skepticism to bring Gacy in. He's got to convince not only his chief to provide the manpower, but his detectives that he's not wasting their time; and he's got to complete the case before Gacy's attorney can file a harassment lawsuit that will shut the case down.

It's got a few weak points too. I could have done with fewer car chases, myself; and the decision to include a psychic (Margot Kidder) seems silly in a story that focuses on more serious detective work in a true crime story. It also felt too often like the movie focused on Gacy's orientation, as if that were a sign of his depravity instead of incidental to it; but that at least may be a product of when the movie was made.

Still, what a movie. Dennehy was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Gacy; and Riley and director Eric Till each were nominated for a Gemini Award. I generally don't think much of TV movies, and there's no doubt that the movie glossed over the more horrifying elements of Gacy's crimes; but this was a good movie.

Part two:


Friday, August 28, 2015

land of the lost: 'cha-ka'

Today I began a task that every man must undertake when he is a father. Today I began watching "The Land of the Lost" with my youngest daughter.

"Land of the Lost" was created by David Gerrold for Sid and Marty Krofft, and originally ran on Saturday mornings on NBC beginning in 1974. For a show that ran opposite cartoons like Bugs Bunny, "Land of the Lost" had a pretty intense setup. It was about a father and his two children trapped in a mysterious land with dinosaurs and other menaces.

The episode Alex and I watched tonight was "Cha-Ka," on YouTube. It's the pilot episode, but the theme song that plays over the open credits is really all the introduction you need: Rick Marshall and his two children, Will and Holly, are whitewater rafting when a terrible earthquake drops them 1,000 feet. They miraculously survive the terrible fall, only to find themselves running from a Tyrannosaurus rex they call Grumpy.

The episode picks up not long after the Marshalls' arrival in the Land of the Lost, and for a young child especially, offers a fantastic mix of adventure and risk. There is Grumpy, a regular dramatic threat who chases the Marshall children or who corners them in their cave. And there is Cha-Ka, a missing-link ape boy whose friendship the Marshalls cultivate by rescuing him from Grumpy and by treating his broken leg.

The writing is a little corny some times, and the banjo soundtrack adds a touch of feelgood sensibility to what could be an otherwise scary show for a young child. But all that aside, it's as engaging to Alex as I remember finding it myself. Two hours after watching it, she was walking around the catching saying "Cha-Ka! Cha-Ka!"

She's already asking to watch Episode 2 tomorrow.