Monday, December 13, 2010

Land Of The Lost S1 Ep1: Cha-Ka

The lasting legacy and magic of Star Trek: The Original Series' lived on in an odd way. It was unexpectedly channeled through some of its original writers into a Saturday morning feast. That quality television fare began with Star Trek: The Animated Series [1973-1974] followed by the extraordinary Land Of The Lost [1974-1976]. This iconic image says it all.
My God, or more appropriately my Sleestak god, if there was ever a series that yearned for a little bit of fun-poking Mystery Science Theatre-style, it was Land Of The Lost [1974-1976], at least as evidenced in the pilot. That's not to say Land Of The Lost didn't have a whole lot of wonderfully sincere factors going for it, but a little unintentional humor now and again was certainly one of them. That aside, I remember Land Of The Lost for much more than its unintended humor. Land Of The Lost, as it does for many, holds a special place in the old heart chambers.
As a kiddo, I loved Land Of The Lost and seeing it again it still has amazing charms and story and character elements that continue to elevate the childhood series into the classic science fiction arena. Land Of The Lost certainly ranks as one of those terrifically entertaining and influential series on this particular Sci-Fi Fanatic. A little Captain Crunch cereal, maybe Boo-Berry or Franken-berry, and some cozy, comfy feet pajamas and Saturday mornings were complete back in the day. My mom even threw in dough boys from time to time.
That reminds me, remember when your fix for cartoons were locked into Saturday mornings? By God, 7:00 am until roughly noon were the golden hours. And boy when high noon rolled around it all came to a near screeching halt. What a shame! It was sheer torture for kids to get a cartoon fix back in the day. We were like addicts without the fix too. It wasn't pretty. We were high on Hawaiian punch and candy and without cartoons we brought our childhood adventures to life. It gave way to cowboy hats, plastic belts complete with six shooter cap guns loaded with red paper reels of explosive magic for pure, unbridled imaginative entertainment. All of this coupled with ray guns and even homemade weaponry and it was cowboys and aliens indeed.
Land Of The Lost was chief among the classics of the day. It's no surprise then the series benefited from a host of science fiction writers many of whom brought their talents to Star Trek: The Original Series. David Gerrold [The Trouble With Tribbles], Norman Spinrad [The Doomsday Machine], Theodore Sturgeon [Amok Time & Shore Leave], Walter Koenig [obviously lived ST:TOS], D.C. Fontana [The Enterprise Incident among others] and science fiction author Larry Niven [who penned The Slaver Weapon for Star Trek: The Animated Series]. These writers and creators set the tone for a series with a developing mythology. Sound familiar? It should. Yes, when talented, smart writers are involved on a series, smart things happen and Land Of The Lost, while a children's program, was no exception. Writers weren't writing strictly for kids, but rather the bigger picture.
Theme composer Linda Laurie recalls the Krofft mantra: "Don't patronize children. - take them on a ride, but never talk down to them." These creative people drove the engines of these inventions so that a quality end product resulted rather than the drivel of studio formula. Executive producer Albert Tenzer recognize times were good then. "Today, there are layers of bureaucracy." The visionary Sid and Marty Krofft managed to skirt those issues. They executed some wonderful programming like Far Out Space Nuts [1975], The Lost Saucer [1975], Sigmund And The Sea Monsters [1973] and H.R. Pufnstuf [1969], but Land Of The Lost is arguably one of their smartest and most enduring thanks to its bevy of fine writers and creative contributors. Series co-creator Allan Foshko, who worked for the Kroffts said it best, it was like "Alice In Wonderland or Journey to The Center Of The Earth with these people falling into another world. We had... magic."
Writer David Gerrold, Season One story editor and mythology director, set the tone by writing Land Of The Lost, Season One, Episode 1, Cha-Ka. It's surprising Gerrold doesn't receive proper recognition in his career for his involvement in this series. I must tell you that I had no delusions that this nostalgic return to the Saturday morning serial from Sid & Marty Krofft was going to unveil a special effects masterpiece. Heck, I vividly remember that little raft projected onto some very bad blue screen [chroma key compositing] rapids to this day. Still, some of the special effects, created on a shoestring budget, do their job. I'm torn between the stop motion animation [Gene Warren & Wah Chang] or the dinosaur hand puppet, but both had me running for that cave as a child. An illusion is created right from the very outset of a fantastical, prehistoric, seemingly alternate reality or universe. Those superficial, artificial, early blue screen effects transport us into something truly bizarre and give Land Of The Lost its own unique feel and reality. And while Land Of The Lost certainly couldn't rival the production design of Space:1999, for a kid's program it was easily as good as Doctor Who.
Magnificent set pieces were also filled with rich detail and make for an extraordinary, immersive experience. These sets, thanks to production designer Herman Zimmerman, on low grade home video filming were a Sid and Marty Krofft trademark. Zimmerman is known for his important contributions to Star Trek. He received four Emmy nominations for art direction on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Are you seeing a trend in quality here? Point to Sigmund and The Sea Monsters or any other and you'll see these painstakingly imaginative designs in all their splendor. The world known as Altrusia, as Land Of The Lost's lost world would come to be known, was certainly at the mercy of a children's budget, averaging 400 to 500 thousand dollars an episode.
We must find a stick and thrust it into that terrifying hand puppet!
John Kenneth Muir said it best in his own Sci-Tech #2: Altrusian Edition entry. "Despite the grievously low budget, there remains great visual consistency to the world of Altrusia. From the miniatures to the live action sets, from matte painting to the props, Altrusia seemed like a real living place...a place you could reach out to touch and explore. It's amazing how far that "tin foil" goes when creative minds are at work; creative minds determined not to talk down to children." Muir goes on to discuss the concept of balance or ying yang on Land Of The Lost and makes a very strong case for its importance on the show and its applicability in our own lives. There's loads more Land Of The Lost over at John Kenneth Muir's Reflections On Film/TV. Surprisingly, finding historical reference material on the series is limited and John Kenneth Muir's site has a good deal of it thanks to extensive interviews that can be found there.
Thanks to the wonderful imaginations of those involved on Land Of The Lost, a great deal of information is delivered in these wonderful little 22 minutes installments and Cha-Ka is a reasonably sharp, if clunkily overacted, tablesetter. Let's kick things off with that unforgettable classic river song composed by Linda Laurie. A lot of information can be gleaned from the images of the Grand Canyon and our Ranger father Rick Marshall.

When that theme ends, the Boy Wonder logically asked, "How come they wake up in their raft underneath Grumpy? Where is the water?" Good question Boy Wonder! I don't know. But I do know one thing, every Saturday I woke up in that raft with the family and every Saturday I ran up into that cave from the jaws of dinosaur death. So, yes, I'm not sure how they got there, but I never really cared and I went over those falls every week plunging into pure action adventure bliss.
From the opening credits of that insanely catchy theme song we are hurled into another place and time and transported into a reality of fake prehistoric vegetation, palm trees and hairy monkey men called Pakuni. Land Of The Lost was special because it was more than than a mere pre-historic Earth, but rather a peculiar, strange, science fiction mix of the tribal and modern. Questions surrounding strange technologies and unique creatures populated the show's mythology coupled with that of the dinosaur-era, which kids love, and it was sign us up! Dinosaurs and aliens! Was there ever a more perfect combination? Can you imagine what could have been achieved with a budget? Oh, that's right, the 2009 Will Ferrell movie. Oh well. While the Land Of The Lost series is far from perfect, the results were amazing considering what the series had working against it. Limitations aside, it will keep you thoroughly engaged, amused and lost in its world long after the close of that insanely catchy and memorable closing theme track.

I was totally crushing on Holly.
Land Of The Lost may have had little going for it financially, but the care from its creators, actors, writers and other team members saw it achieve lofty aspirations and spring its way onto a list of certified sci-fi cult classics. It's not done too badly for a kid's show thanks to the talent that showed up in spades.
You can look past the imperfect effects limitations, because they do sufficiently transport the viewer into the alternate universe that is Land Of The Lost and that's half the challenge. The fun begins there, but ends with a charming cast of enthusiastic actors with loads of heart and some wonderfully delicious little tales.
Land Of The Lost does very well out of the gate establishing the seedlings of an ongoing mythology that becomes more densely woven as it proceeds along. Land Of The Lost wasn't your ordinary children's program on Saturday mornings. As I explained to the Boy Wonder, Land Of The Lost was superior entertainment back in my day. He scoffs choking at the notion as he watches with amusement by what he sees. He's partially appalled and partially intrigued by the experience. Land Of The Lost does have that effect on a contemporary child beyond a certain age. No longer do the eyes deceive or generate the magic they once spawned. Nevertheless, even still, it captures his attention, because the show drives along at a nice pace with some interesting plot points. Cha-Ka gets busy right away with establishing the mythology of its world and the rules by which its three primary characters, Rick Marshall, Will and Holly, will live. I'm sad to say, but my son was bored to tears by my recent attempt to indoctrinate him with Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. He laughed at the once, state-of-the-art animation sequences. It was an amusing experience. With Land Of The Lost he sticks around, because it is fun. It's certainly not my intention to compare Sid & Marty Krofft's Land Of The Lost to Harryhausen's work by any stretch. But the fact of the matter is, the Krofft's knew how to deliver adventure and Land Of The Lost was indeed a cut above in scope to their other works.
A pylon is introduced, Grumpy the dinosaur, the Pakuni tribe and Rick Marshall alludes to those three moons. It's all eerie good fun in the land of the lost. Our heroes are also thrust from their Earthbound camping adventure to one in which they are forced to literally live off the land and off human ingenuity. Modern convenience is gone and its back to the stone age of a sort for this crew. We share in their plight, their adventure and root for their survival and that is why we are attached to the series from the very moment they run from their raft into the safe confines of that unforgettable cave dwelling that becomes their cozy, little safety net and home away from the jaws of the dinosaurs. Now I'm not sure whose brain is smaller Will or Grumpy? But seriously Will, would you keep your squash down, that's a T-Rex brother. In fact, when Holly mocks Grumpy's brain is only the size of a walnut, you half-wonder if she isn't talking about her brother.

Will Marshall clearly the walnut of the family based on this move.
It was all about discovery for them and for the viewers and in the capable hands of Gerrold, there was much to discover indeed. As a child, anytime you're attempting to survive being chased by dinosaurs and then up the ante with a race of green-skinned, bug-eyed Sleestak creatures you've got our attention. Things certainly weren't normal here and we were completely captured by the imagination of those who designed this place.
Some of the clunky dialogue or simplistic lessons for which Rick Marshall shares with Will and Holly are cute and funny, because they are child-like in their nature, but beyond those lessons there was much more. There's a greater plan at work and those elements do materialize even here in the series Pilot. Still, comical moments like Holly asking if she can keep Cha-Ka like the family pet after her father mends his leg are pretty damn classic. Her Dad deadpans a retort of "No Holly, people don't own other people." Sure, the delivery is a little stiff, but the cast is just getting comfortable.

The continuity is strong here as well, because Cha-Ka will retain that splint into Episode 2, The Sleestak God. Other gems include Rick's facts of life advice to Holly following Cha-Ka's departure, "It takes a lot of trust to make a friend Holly, maybe next time." Thanks Marshall for the Land Of The Lost life lessons. You can't tell me that isn't amusing, but there's much sincerity here even if the cast is just warming up.

Friends, I have to give credit where credit is due. Land Of The Lost even lured The One To Be Pitied into this flashback viewing. She noticed this classic moment of Thespian timing. It is a pure classic funny. The Boy Wonder had me rewind the scene five times. Despite the wonderful drama and excitement, you can't help but find humor in it. Kathy Coleman may well be the second finest of the three actors here behind the wonderful Spencer Milligan. Seriously, Coleman as Holly is very good. Note the arm bump as Coleman nudges Wesley Eure to speak his line here. She completely schools her older counterpart.

Thanks for the big ass fruit Chaka! The family will be having apple for dinner.
Sure, it has its hokey moments, but it's good, clean hokey fun. The actors all play the excitement and adventure for real and for keeps, which is why we buy into the story. There are times when they ham it up to the point of overboard, but this improves in future entries. If I recall, the actors do calm down, the writing strengthens and their performances tend to smooth out and become more natural as the series progresses. Those introductory episodes can be rough going for any show, especially for a Saturday morning program clearly filming with one take. Still, Land Of The Lost, despite its weaknesses [essentially video and audio quality], which are few, is a refreshing original. It manages to capture the imagination and allow viewers to fill in the world outside of the camera frame thanks to some wonderfully simple, panoramic shots that bridge the action sequences throughout the series.
It's unlikely to win new fans over, like ST:TOS, but in its time it was a monster hit with this generation. Those kids have now grown up and those that have taken the time to reinvestigate have discovered there was something special indeed about Land Of The Lost. Like any good show seen through the eyes of a child there had to be more than nostalgia that appealed to us. There had to be something more for a classic to be remembered, something greater creatively, and Land Of The Lost has all of those hallmarks in spades. The Incredible Hulk TV series was more than just an angry, green monster. There was something deeply psychological that probed that series for its five season run. Space:1999 was far more complex than the Eagle landing. A great many questions about humanity were explored in its two seasons. The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman dealt with humanity, survival, acceptance and a whole gamut of issues and emotions under the surface glare of bionic action. Land Of The Lost, too, required intelligence and imagination to decipher complex, adult themes [like time paradoxes] realized within a lost pocket world of something refreshingly new and different beyond the employment of mere rubber dinosaurs. It was a series of lost survivors making their way into uncharted space and brought the viewers on a journey of discovery with them into a place like nothing we had ever seen. It was a series that embraced a strong idea and had fun doing it. It just happened to be on Saturday mornings. But it was science fiction with ultimately bigger ambitions than its budget might suggest. It's cult status looms large today and if it hadn't been more than just a children's show it surely would have been lost long ago.
Cha-Ka: B
Writer: David Gerrold
Director: Dennis Steinmetz
Spencer Milligan [Rick Marshall]
Wesley Eure [1951-present] [Will Marshall] [credited simply as Wesley]
Kathy Coleman [1962-present] [Holly Marshall]


John Kenneth Muir said...


Wow! A very thorough and nice review of "Cha-Ka" and Land of the Lost in general. The illustrations and text are terrific.

You make many insightful points about the acting, the writing and the special effects. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the latter front: the effects are certainly up to the Dr. Who standard, and should probably be viewed in that light. Shoestring budget and all.

Gerrold did an amazing job with the series, and it grew more and more complex over the first two seasons.

I agree with your rating/grading of "B" for "Cha-Ka," certainly not the best show the series ever did by a long shot, but a decent introduction nonetheless.

Thanks so much for taking us back to Altrusia! Looking forward to the next installment.


The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you John.

Well, you know, I think you have to judge a story or a film or a serial episode on its own merits rather than compare it to something from a different era technically.

As far as serial openers go, this is a solid start.

On another note, and I can't even recall if I mentioned here in this entry, but your work and some of the others who presented infomation in those early film magazines is abouty the only subject matter out there on this series it would seem.

Information on Land Of The Lost seems fairly scarce. Superior work from you out there. Regards, SFF