Series Retrospective: Land of the Lost
A predominant theme throughout much of the Saturday morning world of Sid and Marty Krofft is a character or characters becoming lost and then trying to find their way back home. H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, The Lost Saucer, and even Far Out Space Nuts all used this plot device as their basis. In 1974, they took the concept of being lost to an entirely new level when they built a whole world around it. In Land of the Lost, the Krofft’s fifth in a long string of successful children’s shows, not only are the main protagonists misplaced but so is just about everyone and everything else.
There is a certain simplistic beauty to any television program that can bring the viewer up to speed on what they are about to watch with the opening theme song and Land of the Lost is a prime example of this. Forrest ranger Rick Marshall, his son Will and daughter Holly, are all on rafting trip when a massive earthquake (supposedly the greatest one ever known) opens a gaping chasm in the ground in front of them. Along with a few million gallons of river water, they are pulled over the makeshift water fall into a mist shrouded vortex and wash up on an unfamiliar bank. They have no sooner come to their senses and realize they are not dead when a tyrannosaurus rex accosts them and makes them rethink their assessment. This was all in just the opening credits.
The first season of Land of the Lost dealt primarily with the wayward nuclear family coping with their incongruent surroundings while trying to find their way home. The land presented an endless variety of challenges that ranged from prehistoric monsters to futuristic technology. One constant threat was a race of hostile creatures that appeared to be some type of reptile/insect hybrid. The Sleestak, as another group of inhabitants, the ape-like Pakuni had dubbed them, were thankfully limited to the dark caverns of an ancient city due to their aversion to light but they still managed to cause plenty of problems.
The Marshalls also made a few allies in their daily quest for survival. The first episode introduced the Pakuni tribe whose youngest member, Cha-ka, would befriend Will and Holly. Enik was a stranded Sleestak from a different time period who revealed that his race was actually called the Altrusians. He was a scientist of sorts who had fallen through a time doorway he opened accidentally. Enik originally thought that he was from the future but later discovered that his people had devolved into the Sleestaks and he became determined to discover the cause.
The end of the first season presented viewers with a very unusual episode titled Circle. Enik discovers that the Land of the Lost has become a closed system because of another group of Marshalls from an alternate timeline that are trapped in a never ending loop just as they fell into the void that brought the other family there. The only way to undo this, and potentially allow Enik to return to his own time, is for the current Marshall family to enter the time doorway and return home. This will release the family stuck in the time loop and they will finally be able to enter the Land of the Lost. This strange episode brought a premature close to the series, which still had two more seasons ahead of it, and also presented one of the most unique excuses for reruns ever devised since the “new” family picked up right where the first one had started.
In the second season, the show began to downplay the dinosaurs in favor of greater emphasis on more futuristic elements. The second episode introduced a marooned alien called the Zarn whose space ship had been pulled through a vortex and crashed in the swamp. While not exactly a villain, the creature had little regard for any life form aside from itself and would take any measures necessary to escape. It also seemed like every other show this season featured the pylons, small pyramids scattered about the terrain that controlled things like the weather, temperature, and even gravity via a matrix of multicolored crystals inside. This became an overused plot device responsible for almost any unusual occurrence.
The third and final season of Land of the Lost began with some literal shake ups. In the first episode, After-Shock, an earthquake similar to the one that brought the Marshall family into the land strikes it directly. The results are devastating as their cave home is destroyed, Cha-ka is separated from his tribe, and Rick Marshall, who was inside a pylon when the quake hit, is hurled through a time doorway and presumably sent home. In an amazing coincidence reserved for Saturday morning television shows, the quake opens another vortex and Will and Holly’s uncle, Jack Marshall – who had been searching for the family since their disappearance two seasons earlier, falls in.
The third season pitted the Marshalls against all kinds of new creatures including two-headed and fire breathing dinosaur mutations, the gorgon Medusa and even the Abominable Snowman! While the plots became more outlandish than usual, stories involving the Flying Dutchman, a megalomaniac giant, and a pylon repairman did keep the viewers entertained. Apparently this wasn’t enough though to bring the show back for a fourth year. Land of the Lost was canceled at the end of 1976 but its forty-three episodes continued on in reruns for an additional four years on two different networks.
The special effects in Land of the Lost are laughable by today’s standards but they were really as good as you were going to get for a weekly Saturday morning series in 1974. The mixture of stop motion and puppet dinosaurs turned the show into an episode of blue screen theater every week but some of the costumes, like the Sleestaks and the Pakuni were actually very impressive for their time. The effects were bolstered by an excellent crew of writers that include science fiction notables like David Gerrold, Larry Nivan and D.C. Fontana.
In addition the excellent writers, Land of the Lost had a strong cast that was a cut above the typical Saturday morning offering. Spencer Milligan had only been acting for a brief time when he was cast as Rick Marshall but he would continue for many years, mainly in television, after leaving the series. Will Marshall was played by Wesley Eure, billed only as Wesley in the first season to presumably help position him as a teen idol. Eure did double duty appearing in both Land of the Lost and the soap opera Days of Our Lives simultaneously. He acted in a few films after the series ended, including the notorious Toolbox Murders with Cameron Mitchell and fellow child actor Pamelyn Ferdin, before embarking on a successful career as a writer. Kathy Coleman did not have much of an acting career either before or after her turn as Marshall daughter Holly, but she had no trouble keeping up with her seasoned co-stars. In the final season, Ron Harper, who had just lost his job as another time displaced character, Alan Virdon, on the prime time series Planet of the Apes, joined the cast as Uncle Jack. Harper already had fifteen years of continuous acting credits under his belt, including the lead role in the short lived television series Garrison’s Gorillas, when he replaced Spencer Milligan and he has continued acting steadily ever since.
Following reruns of the series on NBC and CBS, ABC decided they wanted to get in on the action with their own version. In 1991, they convenienced the Kroffts to return to the Land of the Lost with an updated version of the show. This re-imagining featured a new family, the Porters, led by veteran actor Timothy Bottoms as father Tom, new Sleestaks who resembled the originals in name only and new characters like Christa the jungle girl and Tasha the domesticated baby dinosaur. This version may have offered superior special effects but it lacked the charm of its predecessor and was lost for good after two marginal seasons.
As far back as the original series, rumors circulated that Land of the Lost was destined for the big screen. These were intensified after the cancellation of the 90’s series when an intriguing plot was hinted at that involved the Porter family meeting the Marshalls and an explanation for what had caused all the changes that occurred between the two series. Once these died down, a new rumor started about a more faithful feature version of the classic series that would star comedian Will Ferrell as Rick Marshall. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, someone in the great brain trust of Hollywood must have decided that families aren’t very interesting and dinosaurs do better when played for laughs. In this latest revised version which opens this Friday, June 5, Rick Marshall is a scientist who is pulled through a vortex along with his adult assistants, Will and Holly. The time tossed trio meets the anticipated Sleestaks (who are currently busy ordering chicken sandwiches in Subway commercials), Pakuni, and dinosaurs – only this time it’s supposed to be intentionally funny. How well this reimaging sits with audiences and fans remains to be seen but let’s hope that the time vortex is the only thing that sucks!