By Brother Bill / September 26, 2016
Three hominid creatures, possibly mankind’s evolutionary ancestors, creep through the brush in a primeval forest, drawn by an otherworldly sound. They come upon an obelisk standing in a clearing, its symmetrical perfection defying nature. They are awestruck. They want to touch the smooth surface but are afraid. Overhead, three moons align, as if in deliberate conjunction, above the scene. Finally, the smallest of the three creatures puts a simian hand against the metallic artifact. A portal opens in the mysterious pylon, and the creature is drawn inside. When he emerges a minute later, he is holding a weapon granted him by unseen alien benefactors. The social hierarchy of his group is upset for the first time. Cha-Ka, the smallest member of the pack, turns the tables on the older, dominating pair, Ta and Sa, and sends them fleeing into the brush in fear.
The scene just described is an obvious and deliberate homage to the opening chapter of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. What makes it remarkable is that it occurs in an episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1974 children’s series, Land of the Lost, a show perhaps better remembered for its flimsy sets, budget special effects (unconvincing video chroma key compositing was a series staple), and the sometimes corny family dynamic of its human protagonists, the Marshalls, than for its ambitious themes and bold storytelling. The scene just described plays out across the first five minutes of season one’s “The Possession,” and contains no spoken dialogue, notable in an era when children’s programming was increasingly and condescendingly telling its young audience what was happening rather than showing them. “The Possession” was written by first season story editor David Gerrold, an alumnus of the original Star Trek series and its animated follow up, and one of several established science fiction authors who penned for Land of the Lost, others including Ben Bova, Walter Koenig, Larry Niven, and D.C. Fontana.
Land of the Lost, the fifth television series developed by Sid and Marty Krofft, represented “a far, far cry from the innocent charm of [H. R.] Pufnstuf” (as Sid Krofft related in the Land of the Lost DVD commentary), Lidsville, The Bugaloos, or Sigmund and The Sea Monsters, the Kroffts’ music-infused comedies with one-off plots.
NBC wanted “something with dinosaurs,” and the Kroffts and Gerrold gave them all that and more by setting the series not in the prehistoric past of the real world, but in an alternate dimension outside of linear time, populated with fantastic ape-men (the Pakuni) and alien lizard people (the Altrusian Sleestaks). Of course, there would be dinosaurs, too, designed by Wah Chang (veteran effects and prop designer who worked extensively with George Pal and designed the tricorder for the original Star Trek) and realized via stop-motion by an animation team that included Gene Warren, Jr. (who would go on to do visual effects for The Terminator, The Return of the Living Dead, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to name a few) in work that is often impressive even if you don’t consider the low budget and demanding production schedule.
As conceived by Gerrold, the Land of the Lost was to be a staging area for inter-dimensional transportation, connected by time doorways controlled by “fourth-dimensional nodes,” glowing crystals arranged in matrix tables, a deus ex machina inspired by writer Harlan Ellison, who, according to Gerrold, wanted to include such a device in his lauded Star Trek episode “City On the Edge of Forever.”
Unlike the Kroffts’ other series, there would be clear continuity between episodes. Discoveries like the pylons and the Sleestak, as well as the Sleestaks’ ruined Lost City, would be meted out and built upon as the series progressed. The Marshalls’ provisioning would improve across the series as well, with a homemade wagon, weapons, and other developments being introduced and incorporated over several episodes. Even their relationship with the Pakuni would evolve across the series, most visibly in their ability to communicate with them in a 300-word language invented specifically for the show by Dr. Victoria Fromkin, the chair of the UCLA Linguistics Department.
Trapped in the Land of the Lost after falling through a time doorway in the real world (the famous raft-born “routine expedition” depicted in the opening credits), the Marshall family—Rick (Spencer Milligan), Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly (Kathy Coleman)—not only had to learn to live and survive among the land’s permanent residents, but would also encounter hallucinatory enemies conjured via telepathy or technology and even alternate versions of themselves, caught in time paradoxes or parallel universes that would occasionally cross over into their own. This was heady stuff for a children’s show that also featured, in contrast, a pet baby brontosaurus being hand-fed giant strawberries, and teen idol Wesley Eure attempting to use the show as a platform to further his music career by suddenly belting out the occasional pop song.
The “closed universe” of Land of the Lost lent itself to some interesting phenomena. A first attempt to escape by river (“Downstream”) had the Marshalls simply arriving back at their point of departure, as if in a continuous loop. In “Hurricane,” the family scales a mountain to get a bird’s-eye view of the area, peering through binoculars only to spy themselves, standing on a distant mountain, peering through binoculars! Another episode (“Elsewhen”) finds Holly descending by rope through the land’s core to emerge on the other side, dangling below the underside of the world.
The temporal weigh-station concept allowed for a variety of guest appearances on the show, some admittedly silly (a gorgon from Greek mythology with the winking nickname “Medi”), others genuinely fascinating, like the recurring character The Zarn, an alien being sensitive to the psychic energy given off by human emotions, who crash landed his ship in the Land of The Lost while surveying life on various planets. His human-impersonating robot assistant, “Sharon,” ingratiates itself with Rick Marshall by telepathically reading his thoughts and being exactly what Rick subconsciously wants her to be.
The complications and paradoxes of time travel were frequently explored. When a time doorway to the 1920s opens (season three’s “Hot Air Artist”), Will ponders what will happen to them if they return home fifty years before they were born. In “Timestop,” Uncle Jack (introduced in season three) uses a “key to the temporal regulator” to shift time back an hour to undo a literally sticky situation in which Cha-ka is trapped by mud pits near a hot geyser. But, being unfamiliar with the key’s operation, he accidentally fast-forwards time a few minutes into the future, appearing to scald Cha-ka in the geyser, before quickly rolling back time an hour to reverse the damage.
The entire first season is even retconned as an endless time loop thanks to the clever season finale written by Gerrold, who wasn’t sure the show would be renewed and wanted a satisfying ending to the series (Gerrold himself left the series after season one). “The Circle” ends with the Marshalls discovering that their “routine expedition” raft trip, which sent them into the Land of the Lost, is caught in a time-loop caused by a defective time doorway, endlessly repeating the last few seconds of their plunge over the waterfall. The Marshalls are able to fix the time doorway, allowing them to exit the Land of the Lost and presumably return home, while simultaneously correcting the time-loop and reintroducing an alternate set of Marshalls, who repeat their arrival and subsequent actions in what is ostensibly another timeline. By series end, the fate of the Marshalls is never resolved, and Gerrold’s clever season one time-loop finale is negated.
While definitely a show targeted to children, Land of the Lost wasn’t afraid to assay real world lessons and darker themes. Even though the dinosaurs were all given cutesy nicknames (the T. rex was Grumpy, the Allosaurus was Big Alice, etc.), some of them actually die violently, either eaten (Spot, a smaller Coelophysis in the episode “Skylons”) or drowned in a mud pit (Torchy, a fire-breathing Dimetrodon, in “Timestop”), casualties of the “law of the jungle.” Even the puppy-like Dopey is mistakenly believed killed in his introductory episode, with Will offering cold comfort to his traumatized sister with the counsel that “only the strong survive, and Dopey was too weak.” In Season two’s “Nice Day,” the Marshalls discuss whether to slaughter or free a live pig caught in a trap, ultimately deciding on the latter because “you should not kill more than you can eat.”
The Marshalls’ own mortality is hinted at in “Elsewhen” (written by D.C. Fontana and considered by Gerrold to be one of the best episodes of the series), in which an older version of Holly, deliberately entering the Land of the Lost from approximately 10 to 15 years in the future, tells her younger self that she needs to learn to be self-sufficient since Rick and Will won’t always be there for her, in a melancholy tone suggesting that both men will die well ahead of their time (or at least become permanently separated from her). In a bizarre showdown with the alien Zarn (Season two’s “Gravity Storm”), Rick and Will deliberately inflame their emotions by remembering an atrocity visited on an elderly candy shop owner back home, apparently abused at the hands of young thugs in an incident that left them emotionally scarred. “Remember… what they did to that nice old man?” Rick says through gritted teeth.
Marty Krofft once commented that “you cannot do a show stoned,” in response to rumors that the trademark psychedelic imagery of their earlier series (H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, etc.) was the product of anything other than a healthy imagination. While not quite the stuff of hippy head trips, Land of the Lost was no stranger to hallucinatory imagery and scenarios. Season two’s “The Longest Day” finds Rick trapped in a smoke-filled cave, the fumes affecting his thinking and causing him to have visions. We hear his confused inner monologue as he tries to distinguish reality from fantasy. The mist itself is produced by glowing alien skulls displayed on pillars (an accidental “head trip” metaphor?). Rick, under the influence, perceives his son struggling with a pair of Sleestak as a mere football game. Later he encounters Will marching past him in a soldier’s uniform and his daughter as a 17th century English girl before they both shrink away into space before his eyes. In the same season’s “Split Personality,” Will and Rick watch as a cave they are exploring suddenly rotates 90 degrees in front of them, as if on a gimbal. In the same cave they encounter a disturbing image of themselves frozen like statues and protruding halfway out of the wall. A bad trip, indeed. The possibility of drug-induced hallucinations is addressed head-on in a weird episode from season three, “Flying Dutchman,” when the captain of the eponymous ghostly galleon, grounded in a swampy realm called the Misty Marsh, suggests they’re under the influence of the narcissus blossom, whose effect is “like an Oriental incense, inducing dreamlike fantasies.”
The show could be scary, too, beginning with recurring antagonists the Sleestak, seven-foot tall aliens described alternately as either reptilian or insect-like throughout the course of the series. Their dark and unblinking eyes, expressionless faces, and inability to communicate beyond a constant, unnerving hissing sound make them an unsettling presence in the Land of the Lost (there were a few speaking Sleestak characters as well, including series regular Enik). In one episode, the Marshalls happen upon the Sleestak during their “hibernation” period, in which they simply stand frozen like statues, covered in spider webs, nightmarish exhibits in a decrepit wax museum. Nocturnal creatures, their home was part pirate cave, part haunted house, with one nasty surprise hidden in a mist-shrouded pit: a man-eating beast referred to as “the Sleestak God.” While never seen on camera, the Marshalls frequently crossed its path, usually while being offered up for human sacrifice. Even the children were considered worthy offerings, and in the second eponymous episode, “The Sleestak God,” are left dangling in cages over the snarling creature for several horrifying minutes.
“Split Personality,” to return to one of the trippier episodes, has a version of Holly from an alternate reality trying to cross over into the Land of the Lost. It’s presented very much like a traditional ghost story: strange sounds foreshadow the appearance of the otherworldly Holly, who is not quite fully manifested and described as looking like “a person pushed through an egg slicer.” Hovering around the Marshalls and crying out like a mournful soul trying to reach the living, she eventually possesses a cowering Holly by drifting inside her body and speaking through her as though she were a psychic medium. Another season one episode, “Album,” finds the children being lured into a Sleestak trap by the telepathically conjured illusion of their dead mother beckoning them to “come home… come home… before it’s too late…”—as if she’s a spirit from beyond the grave. The image of Will and Holly, standing in tears as they contemplate their mother, aware she is only a phantom, yet reluctant to end the fantasy, is chilling.
In “Flying Dutchman,” the out-of-time seaman Captain Van de Meer notes the similarity between Holly and his own lost daughter, but his interest turns unintentionally disturbing as he plies the minor child with drug-laced tea in an attempted kidnapping, all the while sermonizing about how “terribly lonely” he is. “Flying Dutchman” is a third season episode, the final for the series in which some notable changes occurred. The season opens with an earthquake that sends Rick through a time doorway and out of the series (actor Spencer Milligan had declined to stay on, and a double was used for his character’s brief appearance in the season three premiere, “Aftershock”). Uncle Jack (Ron Harper of the Planet of the Apes TV series) serendipitously arrives in the Land of the Lost soon after, having rafted through the same time doorway as the Marshalls while searching for them. The earthquake also mixes up the geography of the land, permanently evicting Pakuni Ta and Sa from the show and introducing a few new stop-motion monsters (LuLu and Torchy) that are more dragon than dinosaur. This final season frequently engaged in the “monster of the week” trope, in which each week a new character, ranging from the Abominable Snowman to an 1877 Native American “Medicine Man,” is introduced for the course of one episode and then never seen again.
While many Krofft properties of the era faded into obscurity (Kaptain Kool and The Kongs, anyone?), Land of the Lost achieved cult status and is still revered by fans old and new. While the name and premise returned for a short-lived reboot in 1991, ditching any continuity with the original show, and became an unfortunate Will Ferrell vehicle in 2009, there is simply no recapturing the precocious magic of the original, which stands as the most serious and ambitious children’s fantasy program the Kroffts, or anyone else, produced at the time.
Brother Bill is curator of The Haunted Closet blog. He loves spooky children’s books and old Halloween records, and his taste for pop culture ranges from Rankin Bass to Russ Meyer.