There’s been so much attention focused on Star Trek this summer, people have barely taken notice of the other popular sci-fi television franchise that has been rebooted into a big-budget feature film: Land of the Lost. Despite the disparity in popularity, these shows sit pretty much right next to each other on the “memory lane” shelf for a lot of folks. Anyone in their late thirties to early forties probably grew up watching both simultaneously, since Land of the Lost aired at around the same time that Star Trek was reaching its apex of initial popularity.* It makes sense that sci-fi fans would enjoy both, since, while on the surface, the shows appear to be entirely different, they have a lot more in common than you might think…
At their best, Star Trek and Land of the Lost give you action/adventure, strange new worlds to explore, high concept science fiction and something to wrap your brain around. Both series used many of the same writers and relied on visual effects to help tell their stories (ironically, both shows also had two great seasons and one so-so third year).
Most of you probably remember Land of the Lost as a low-budget kids’ show with really bad dinosaur effects. Well, I recently re-watched the first two seasons on DVD and came away with a brand new opinion – wow. First of all, I literally said “wow” every time I saw the writing credits – we’re talking A-list SF authors: Ben Bova, DC Fontana, Donald Glut, Larry Niven, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon and many more. Do these names look familiar? They should – these people essentially wrote the first season of classic Trek! How did a “kids’ show” manage to pull that off? Easy – David “Trouble With Tribbles” Gerrold was the series’ show runner & story editor, so he simply hired his pals.
Gerrold was also responsible for (more or less) creating the Land of the Lost universe. Sid & Marty Kroft provided the basic premise: a family goes over the falls and ends up in a strange, prehistoric world – but nearly everything else was Gerrold at work. In an interview with The Pylon Express, he explains:
I created the idea that the Land of the Lostwas a separate dimension, I created the characters of Will, Holly, and Marshall, added the Lost City and the Sleestak to the LOTL, and essentially created the whole mythos. I hired the writers, decided which stories would be written, got them approved by NBC, and guided the writers as best I could. I also did whatever rewriting was necessary — which wasn’t much. I picked the best writers I could find.
Gerrold also explains how he almost had a script from Harlan Ellison:
He submitted two-thirds of a brilliant outline… It involved the discovery of a vast underground cavern. The first act got us into the cavern. The second act gave us hints at the dangers below. There was no third act… he refused to give me act three unless I bought the outline without it… Harlan typed, “I tie up everything neatly in the third act, trust me.” He was joking, and it was a brilliant joke, and I was this close to putting my butt on the line and buying it and making him write it — but I couldn’t see myself fighting with the network vice president on an incomplete outline. To this day, I regret not going for it.
Also of note to Trek fans is that the episode which introduced Enik, the ever popular “good but self-serving” Sleestak, was written by none other than Walter “Chekov” Koenig!
* Quick history lesson for the under-30s out there: When Star Trek first aired on NBC in the late sixties, the groundbreaking series received only a lukewarm reception and barely made it to a third season; it was only years later in syndication that it slowly but surely found its audience and grew to mass popularity, peaking in the mid 70s – then Star Wars came out and anyone reading this blog should the rest!
LOST AND FOUND
With so much talent behind the typewriters, it’s no wonder that Land of the Lost featured some of the best science fiction television of all time. That’s right, I said of all time. Just last week I reacquainted myself with season two on DVD and was absolutely astounded at the level of imagination, intelligence and “sense of wonder” in this oft-maligned “kids’ show.” I found myself wondering: what other television series have achieved this same level of sci-fi storytelling? The original Trek, to be sure… but what else? Next Generationand onward focused on character stories, so the episodes that truly delved deep into hard sci-fi were few and far between – and the ones that were really imaginative were even fewer. Lost In Space was a joke, Space: 1999’s heart was in the right place but never quite got there and Battlestar Galactica simply wasn’t that kind of show. Max Headroom is the only series I can think of in recent memory that was truly original and intellectually stimulating, but it’s debatable if it qualifies as science fiction.
For these reasons and more, I maintain that Land of the Lost is on par with Roddenberry-era Star Trek for the best sci-fi storytelling ever to grace the small screen. In addition, I’d wager twenty quatloos that every person out there raising their eyebrows at that statement hasn’t actually watched Land of the Lost recently. I mean fer chrissakes, this is a show that took place in an alternate universe and regularly dealt with time loops, parallel dimensions, weather control, organic technology, robots, spaceships, gravity manipulation and mind control – not to mention the complex development of two alien species, one of which had a complete language created from scratch!
Yes, the stories were simplified so a young audience could understand them, but only just. This is a show that did not talk down to kids and wasn’t afraid to challenge them intellectually or scare them to death (and I’m not just talking about dinosaurs and Sleestak – the episode I watched last night featured a menacing, stop-motion robot that relentlessly pursued our heroes with intent to kill (who wants to bet that James Cameron was a fan?).
Many people refer to the series’ “cheesy special effects” but, as a professional visual effects artist, I hereby declare that the effects aren’t bad at all. Sure, they are primitive by today’s standards, but the most important thing in FX work is consistent quality and the work’s ability to tell the story; on these levels, Land of the Lost exceeds. Despite being a little choppy (remember this was low budget), the dinosaur stop motion is surprisingly nuanced and the creatures behave realistically. And while the green screen work is obvious, it’s well thought out and does what it’s supposed to do – put the characters in an environment that would have been impossible to visit or too expensive to build.
Ultimately, I give Land of the Lost high marks for deciding to tell ambitious stories and refusing to back down because of budget – they just found a way. How many episodes of Star Trek (in all its iterations) frustrated you by not “boldy going” anywhere or backing out of showing key story points (i.e. space battles over the intercom) in an attempt to save money? More than I can count. I’d rather skimp on eye candy if it means challenging my brain any day (think early Doctor Who).
So if Land of the Lost was as good – or better – than Star Trek, why has it not enjoyed a long history of TV series and movies? Well, in a sense it has – the show did return in the 90s as a reboot, but whomever was in charge failed to grok what made the original work so it was short-lived (if they had brought back David Gerrold like Trek brought back Roddenberry to kick-start Next Gen, it might have succeeded).
And, of course, now we have a big budget Land of the Lost movie, just like Star Trek. But which does a better job at capturing the flavor of the original?
To some extent, Land of the Lost made me feel more like I was watching the show I grew up on; Dinosaurs, Sleestak, Pakuni, Enik, extra-dimensional theories and quite a few moments from the series (even banjo music) make appearences in the film. As we left the theater, Daren remarked “now this was a movie made by people who actually watched the show!” Land of the Lost didn’t feel like it was purposely sacrificing everything in the name of action nor was it trying to reinvent the wheel just so the producers could call it their own. On the other hand, because it was an action-comedy, the lighter tone prevented you from taking anything too seriously, nor did the film try very hard to invest you in the mythos.
It’s a shame, because had the studio taken the subject matter seriously, Land of the Lost could have easily become “the next big” franchise for the Harry Potter crowd. Looking at the series, it has everything you need to create a complex, textured universe full of adventure, excitement and imagination gone wild – not to mention a legitimate excuse for dinosaurs! Sadly, Universal decided to focus on the kitch value and a Will Ferrel vehicle, which pretty much doomed the possibility of an ongoing series (I don’t think anyone is excited about a Land of the Lost sequel (unless they hire David Gerrold and reboot the reboot)).
And that’s what ultimately gives the new Star Trek an edge – it leaves you wanting to see more. For all it’s flaws, it ultimately focused on what made the original series beat Land of the Lost for longevity – the characters. I’m not sure if it was because Gerrold wanted to focus on plot or if it was the dramatic limits of Saturday Morning or the limits of the actors, but I was never too emotionally invested in Marshall, Will and Holly. Make no mistake, the characters matured and you did care if they lived or died, but they didn’t capture anyone’s hearts the way Kirk, Spock and McCoy did. In fact, despite the debates over everything else, one thing pretty much everyone agrees on is they like the cast and the portrayal of the characters in the new Trek movie. Even if you hated the plot and the ham-fisted storytelling, you still want to see what these guys are going to do next.
If you want to see what the Marshalls are up to next, you’ll need to rewatch the DVDs of the original series again (but just the first two seasons).
————————- WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE? ————————-
Here are two great fansites for Land of the Lost:
Watch THIS video interview with the cast of the new movie. Trust me.
If anything proves that Land of the Lostendures, it’s how our most famous celebrities have been trying to look like Sleestak:
A little digging around has revealed that Sleestak Photoshopping is fast becoming a subculture of its very own:
But, for my money, a twisted individual by the name of YARBZ
wins the no-prize (click images for hidden secrets):
Click HERE to see more of Yarb’s genius
How do you know when you’re on the pop-culture radar?
When Robot Chicken jumps into the fray:
And last, but far from least, the two best music videos of the last ten years: