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.

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