What comes to mind when you think of Saturday morning TV? So-called “kiddie fare”? Both live-action and animated shows meant to entertain children as they scarfed down their (probably much too sugary) cereal? Yes, there were (and are) such shows, but an excellent science fiction series also aired on Saturday mornings, beginning in 1974— a series initially story-edited by David Gerrold and which had scripts from Gerrold, Larry Niven, D.C. Fontana, Walter Koenig and Theodore Sturgeon, among others.
That series was Land of the Lost.
Produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, Land of the Lost ran for three seasons (the only Krofft show to run that long), and concerned the adventures of Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan), his son Will (Wesley Eure) and daughter Holly (Kathy Coleman (and in season three, the kids’ Uncle Jack (Ron Harper)), in a small, enclosed universe which the Marshalls called the Land of the Lost. This place featured, among other things, three moons, dinosaurs and a race of xenophobic creatures called Sleestak, described as both reptilian and insect-like.
The Marshalls entered this small universe when their raft plunged over a waterfall and they fell through a time doorway. Though some fans dispute this (it was debated from time to time at the now defunct Land of the lost.com website), I’m among those who believe the “rules” of this enclosed universe require a balance. For X number of people to enter, X number must leave (or vice versa).
Land of the Lost was the best Saturday morning TV series ever made. What made this show— which was remade in 1991 (and focused on a family named Porter) and more recently adapted into an ill-considered comedy film (a comedy?! WTF?)— such a great series? First, Gerrold— who in many ways was the series true creator— hired science fiction writers, people who understood the genre.
Second, the language of the small ape-like Pakuni (singular: Paku) was developed by UCLA linguist Dr. Victoria Fromkin. It was a language, not just random gibberish.
Third, Gerrold had a strong story arc that first season, with an underlying subtext of discovery running through those first 17 episodes. In the second episode, “The Sleestak God”, the Marshalls (and we) discover the Lost City and the Sleestak. But it isn’t until the sixth episode, “The Stranger”, that we begin to learn anything about the people who built the city.
Will and Holly discover a pylon in the first episode, “Cha-Ka”, but the Marshalls don’t learn more about these obelisks (some of which deal with the operation of the Land of the Lost; some of which contain time doorways) for several more weeks.
In the fourth episode, “Downstream”, the Marshalls discover the river returns to its source (the first indication that they’re in a small, enclosed universe); but it’s not until the 16th episode, “Hurricane”, that they see a visual example of the nature of the closed universe. They look through a pair of binoculars and see the backs of their own heads.
Land of the Lost also paid attention to tiny details that other Saturday morning shows might have ignored. In the opening credits, as the mist of the time doorway clears and the Marshalls find themselves in a small clearing with an angry tyrannosaurus Rex (whom Holly later names “Grumpy”) standing over them, we see that both their raft and their clothes are wet.
How many other Saturday morning shows would bother with such a detail for a quick shot in the opening credits? Probably not many. In most other cases, they’d put a raft on the set, put the actors in the raft, say “action!” and start rolling the film, unconcerned about making it look as if it had just been in the water. Yet the people behind Land of the Lost took the time to add that little touch of realism that viewers might not have even noticed.
Season one ends with one of my favorite episodes, “Circle”, written by Gerrold and Niven. The Marshalls discover that they’re at the center of a paradox. They’re in the Land of the Lost, but they’re also on the waterfall. Yet there’s no mist of the time doorway. If the Marshalls died in the falls, they couldn’t be in the Land of the Lost now; and how could they be in the Land of the Lost if there was no time doorway over the falls?
My theory? Somehow the universe “hiccuped” just as the Marshalls went over the falls and they ended up “jumping a time track” and finding themselves in the Land of the Lost before they actually arrived (The Doctor Who episode “The Space Museum” (1965) explored a similar theme).
The time doorway is locked on the waterfall scene, replaying the Marshalls’ plunge over and over again. Rick eventually figures out a solution to the paradox. If the doorway is opened so the Marshalls on the waterfall can enter, then the Marshalls already in the Land of the Lost can leave and the doorway will no longer be fixed on that one scene. In fact, once the loop is broken and the raft falls, the Marshalls in the Land of the Lost must leave, because the Marshalls on the raft would remain suspended on the waterfall until they do.
Gerrold has said “Circle” was written with the Marshalls both getting out and coming in for the first time, in case Land of the Lost only got a single season. That way there’d be both a resolution and a continuous cycle of episodes for the rerun market.
What happened to the Marshalls who left? They either popped out of existence like soap bubbles or, more likely, merged with their past selves, who subsequently experienced a great deal of déjà vu during the events of the first season. Everything happens as before. Except the events of “Circle”, since there’s now no paradox.
Land of the Lost was a great show, but it also had its flaws. Season three, which saw the departure of Rick Marshall and the arrival of Uncle Jack, wasn’t as good as the first two seasons, with writers ignoring much of the internal logic that had previously been established (Gerrold had left by then); but even the third season had its (few) bright spots.
Even with its flaws— as I’ve said elsewhere— the original Land of the Lost was Masterpiece Theatre compared to the remakes.
If you buy or rent the DVDs, get the individual season sets from Rhino, which contain various extras, including actor and writer interviews. Seems the “complete series” DVDs, packaged in a replica lunchbox, doesn’t have those features.
You can also watch Land of the Lost on the Memorable Entertainment Television (ME TV) network. According to their schedule, it airs Saturdays at 7:30 a.m.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating