THE BASEMENT’S TIMELESS TELEVISION: Land of the Lost (1974-1976)
I often think of the highlights of my childhood and sometimes I feel bad for the kids growing up today. Back in the 70’s, before the introduction of cable television, we had Saturday morning cartoons on the three major networks (as well as cartoons every morning and afternoon on the UHF stations). Saturday morning cartoons were promoted by the major networks as strongly as their nightly programming and toy companies advertised them to the hilt with their latest offerings. I remember each new season making myself a schedule of what I would be watching each hour and on what network. Times were good.
Today there are 24 hour cartoon networks as well as OnDemand and places where you can stream your favorite shows whenever you want. Back in the day VCRs hadn’t even been introduced yet so if you missed a show, you were out of luck, and had to wait until a particular episode showed up in rotation again. This would often lead to frustration to kids who were loyal to their favorite shows.
Each season, especially during the early 70’s, in addition to the cartoon offerings, a production company called Sid & Marty Krofft would release fantasy-based live action shows. Sid & Marty Krofft started their producing career in 1969 after designing the characters and sets for the 1968-1970 NBC show The Banana Splits. Their first show was H.R. Pufnstuff which helped introduce the team’s trademark style of large scale, colorful design, puppetry, and special effects.
When the commercials for Land Of The Lost began to air, not only did I feel excitement, but so did all of my friends. In 1974, when the showed debuted, I was seven years old and most kids my age were fascinated by dinosaurs. I remember seeing the ads during the summer of 1974 and could not wait for the show to actually debut, despite it meaning that the show would be starting at the same time that the school year was beginning.
I still remember watching the show for the first time vividly. From the catchy opening theme song (Marshall, Will, and Holly…On a routine expedition…Met the greatest earthquake ever known…High on the rapids…It struck their tiny raft…And plunged them down a thousand feet below.) to the first scene of the Tyrannosaurus rex Grumpy chasing the main characters to their soon-to-be cave home, I was hooked! Hooked in a way that no Saturday morning television show was ever able to do.
The basic premise of the show is that the Marshall family, while river rafting, are thrust into a world of dinosaurs, a primitive race of primate-type people called Pakuni (an actual language was created for Cha-ka, Ta and Sa) and the very scary reptile humanoids called the Sleestak, as a result of going through a time warp triggered by a major earthquake. The time warp, known as a dimensional portal in the show, plays an important part in the show as not only did it bring the family to this dangerous land, but it is also the only way they would be able to return to their home on present day earth.
Though the show may be primitive by today’s standards, for the time, and for the fact that it was a Saturday morning show aimed at kids, the writing was always mature with many of the stories being exciting and well written. In fact, many acclaimed science fiction writers of the time worked on the show, including Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova and even Walter Koenig, of Star Trek fame. A few years ago I re-watched the series and not only did it bring me back to a favorite time of my life growing up, but I came to realize just how good this show was. If you can get past the very dated special effects I think you will be thoroughly entertained.
The show ran for three seasons, with the third featuring Uncle Jack replacing Rick Marshall as the actor who played him, Spencer Milligan, wanted more money to come back. I felt that the third season was the weakest of all of them and I wonder if most people did as it was not renewed for a forth season. The Sleestak were one of the scariest things on Saturday morning television, perhaps ever. From the hissing sound they made to the way they moved, when you are only seven they definitely will make you close your eyes.
The sets for this show were very detailed and appeared extensive, adding to the realism of the planet called Altrusia. The cave where the Marshalls ended up calling home was very realistic, even if it was never dark as a cave would be. The jungle was wonderfully portrayed with a mixture of what I believe to be real and fake plants and no detail was overlooked, such as the additions of rocks and logs. In one episode they even had a large beetle walking on a log which looked as it an actual South American beetle was used. The tunnels that the Sleestak lived in seemed like they went on together and looked very cold. The Sleestak pit, that housed the Sleestak god, only heard by a sound that reminded me of a stomach groaning when hungry, was also very scary. It was filled with smoke and you just never knew what was down there. Sometimes what you can’t see is scarier than what you can.
The dinosaurs, realized by the animation company Excelsior Animated Moving Projects, were very detailed and realistic by that time’s standards. There was a wide variety of species represented and the sets that they were animated on were also very realistic looking. Over the three years of the series, footage was also re-used, sometimes in reverse, to save money on animating more scenes. Most of the dinosaur scenes were exciting, especially when Grumpy was chasing the Pakuni or the Marshalls.
Land of the Lost may have been the smartest show on Saturday morning television, back when there was Saturday morning television geared at kids. Though there were other prehistoric offerings, such as Valley of the Dinosaurs and Korg: 70,000 BC, none stood up to Land of the Lost, at least for the first two seasons.
The Marshalls are brought to the mysterious world by means of a dimensional portal, a device used frequently throughout the series and a major part of its internal mythology. This portal opens when they are swept down a gigantic 1,000-foot waterfall. In “Circle”, which explains the time paradox, this portal is actually opened by Rick Marshall himself, while in Enik’s cave, as a way for the current Marshalls to return to Earth, resolving the paradox and allowing Enik to also return to his time.
Outfitted only for a short camping trip, the resourceful family from California takes shelter in a natural cave and improvises the provisions and tools that they need to survive. Their most common and dangerous encounters are with dinosaurs, particularly a Tyrannosaurus rex they nickname “Grumpy”, which frequents the location of their cave. However, many of the dinosaurs are herbivores, posing no threat to the Marshalls, unless unintentionally provoked. One is a particularly tame young Brontosaurus that Holly nicknames “Dopey”, and upon which Holly looks as a pet.
They also encounter the mostly hostile Sleestak (lizard men), and the primate-like creatures called Pakuni (one of whom, Cha-Ka, they befriend), as well as a variety of dangerous creatures, strange geography and unfamiliar technology. The main goal of the three is to find a way to return home. They are occasionally aided in this by the Altrusian castaway Enik.
At the start of the third season, Rick Marshall (played by Spencer Milligan) is explained to have been accidentally returned to Earth alone, leaving his children behind. Rick is immediately replaced by his brother Jack. Rick Marshall abruptly disappeared while trying to use one of the pylons to get home; Jack stumbled upon his niece and nephew after he embarked on a search of his own to find them.
Though the term “time doorway” is used throughout the series, Land of the Lost is not meant to portray an era in Earth’s history, but rather an enigmatic zone whose place and time are unknown. Indeed, within the first few minutes of the pilot, the Marshall family father tells his children that he spotted three moons in the sky. The original creators of these time portals were thought to be the ancestors of the Sleestak, called Altrusians, though later episodes raised some questions about this.
Many aspects of the Land of the Lost, including the time doorways and environmental processes, were controlled by the Pylons, metallic obelisk-shaped booths that were larger on the inside than the outside and housed matrix tables – stone tables studded with a grid of colored crystals. Uncontrolled time doorways result in the arrival of a variety of visitors and castaways in the land.
Land of the Lost is notable for its epic-scale concept, which suggested an expansive world with many fantastic forms of life and mysterious technology, all created on a children’s series’ limited production budget. To support the internal mythology, linguist Victoria Fromkin was commissioned to create a special language for the Pakuni, which she based on the sounds of West African speech and attempted to build into the show in a gradual way that would allow viewers to learn the language over the course of many episodes. The series’ intention was to create a realistic fantasy world, albeit relying heavily on children’s acceptance of minor inconsistencies.
The series for the first two seasons was shot on a modular indoor soundstage at General Service Studios in Hollywood, and made economical use of a small number of sets and scenic props that were rearranged frequently to suggest the ostensibly vast jungles, ancient cities, and cave systems. As is traditional in many effect scenes, miniatures or scale-version settings were used for insertion of live-action scenes. Additional locations were often rendered using scale miniatures and chroma key.
Nonhuman characters were portrayed by actors in latex rubber suits or heavy creature makeup. Dinosaurs in the series were created using a combination of stop motion animation miniatures, rear-projection film effects, and occasional hand puppets for close-ups of dinosaur heads. Wesley Eure points out on a commentary track for Land of the Lost‘s first-season DVD that the Grumpy hand puppet has no hole in the back of its throat, though it is often seen opening its mouth wide to roar. The series marked a rare example of matting filmed stop-motion sequences with videotape live action, so as to avoid the telltale blue ‘fringe’ produced in matting with less exacting processes. Though this occasionally worked very well, the difference in lighting between the video and film sequences sometimes brought inadvertent attention to the limitations of the process.
Because of the age of this show, getting quality images was very difficult so I apologize for what was used. Hopefully the behind the scenes images make up for that. In the future, I will be covering other Sid & Marty Krofft offerings, as they were all such a huge part of growing up for me. Make sure to read other entries in my BASEMENT’S TIMELESS TELEVISION series.
To buy this series, click on the images below: