If 1970s television was a world in the middle of a screenwriting drought, science fiction was its desert. Where the 1960s provided creative outlets for imaginative science fiction, from The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1965) to Star Trek (1966-1969), the dawn of the 1970s fielded no meaningful adult programs in this genre. This proved, in a sense, a boon for Saturday morning. Serious screenwriters and novelists found themselves writing for children, and in the process, they bequeathed us the confusing, bizarre, sometimes-inspired and profoundly uncategorizable Land of the Lost.

The show was a Sid and Marty Krofft production and so it follows the successful formula established in Liddsville (1971-1973) and H.R. Pufnstuff (1969-1970)…  at least to a point. This means its protagonists were stranded in surreal and hostile circumstances, trying to find their way home. In this case, it would be the Marshall family, including father Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan) and siblings Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly (Kathy Coleman). But rather than attempting to escape a land of merry hats or friendly stuffed dragons, this time, our heroes are pitted against Jurassic monsters, a proto-human tribe (the Paku), giant evil lizard men (the Sleetsak), and a mysterious set of physical laws, weather events, and alien technologies. This all has enormous potential for excitement.

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Figure 1: The Marshall family makes a pretty good go at survival in an impossible environment.

The era, budget, and technology, however, undermine a lot of the shows best efforts. The characters spend most of the show dashing back and forth in front of a green screen and a set constructed of Styrofoam rocks and potted ferns, looking up in terror and yelling at imaginary dinosaurs or simulated video spectacles of awesome weather.

The dinosaurs are an amalgam of a few repeated sequences of sloppy, low frame-rate, stop-motion animation: Ray Harryhausen with cataracts. These sequences are buffered with a number of “practical effects”, really just puppets.

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Figure 2: Grumpy the Tyrannosaur versus Alice the Allosaurus in an unusually good stop-motion combat sequence

The Sleestak are certainly scary giant lizard men, in fact portrayed by members of the USC basketball team (including Bill Laimbeer!) dressed up in rubber suits, but they never number more than a few on screen at any time (owing to an apparent shortage of their costumes). Some of the video work is creative, including strange inverted vistas, frightening electrical storms, and flashy video montages, but it would have to have been considered crude even in its own time.

All of this makes the show extremely improbable entertainment for a contemporary seven-year-old (or really just about anyone without a lot of patience). This simply won’t fly for today’s kids.

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Figure 3: As Sleestak, the USC Basketball team never looked more scary.

Land of the Lost Screenwriters

That’s really a shame, since there are moments of terrific inspiration and cosmic wit and philosophy here. We learn the Marshalls have fallen into a “closed universe”: a trip down river ends at its swampy source; a binocular view from a mountain top across to another high hill has the characters looking at the back of their own heads. More than this, the Land of the Lost is a dumping ground for detritus across the ages; the characters encounter an astronaut from the near future, a Civil War Confederate soldier, and the remains of a member of Washington’s Continental Army.

The landscape of Land of the Lost is also littered with bizarre technology, including “pylons”, alien metal pyramids whose extra-dimensional interiors are larger than their exteriors, and which contain crystals that control the weather. We learn, moreover, that this world was likely created by the sophisticated ancestors of the now devolved and barbarous Sleestak. This revelation comes to the viewer via the character of Enik (voiced by Krofft veteran Walker Edmiston), a civilized Sleestak who believes he has been thrown into the primitive past of his species only to later learn (in a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone) that this world is his people’s terrifying future.

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Figure 4: The inexplicable pylons owed much to 2001: A Space Odyssey

To top it all off, the language of the Paku (Pakuni), was developed by a UCLA linguist, had a 200-word vocabulary and a coherent grammar, years and years before Klingon became something you could study in college (this essay by my childhood friend Gary Susman tells the whole story).

This is sometimes-literate science fiction, often rivaling the story-telling and concepts of Star Trek, a show that had folded many years before.  This should be unsurprising. Writing credits go to several serious authors, including Larry Niven (author and creator of the mind-bending Ringworld series) and Ben Bova, who was then-editor of Analog Science Fact & Fiction. Without serious adult science fiction to compete for their time, these writers, and others, improbably found themselves working for Sid and Marty Kroft, and loaning a range of sophisticated ideas to this crude setting.

Beyond the 70s Survival Family

Apart from these concepts and themes, much of the show is simply a mediation on survival. As such, much of how one reacts to Land of the Lost depends on your feelings about the Marshall family, who occupy a lion’s share of screen time and whose interactions drive the limited dramatic elements of the story. These three are cut from some of the same stuff as many new 1970s TV and cinema families, from The Wilderness Family (1975) to Michael Landon’s brood on Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983), or arguably even the band of survivors from, Damnation Alley (1977); these are independent, strong, fighters, with a range of practical skills, from starting fires and gardening to operating alien obelisks and fighting dinosaurs. They have occasional sibling rivalries and spats, but none of these eclipse their teamwork and comradery.

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Figure 5: Rick Marshall trusts his kids to find their way under some really scary conditions

But this family transcends these others in its non-traditional structure. The absent mother (we learn early on that she died some time prior to the events of the show) certainly sets much of the important tone and messaging in this regard, insofar as Rick Marshall wrestles with being a good father, managing the quarrels of his kids, and balancing their independence versus their peril, all on his own. In an era where so much angst fell on divorce and the non-traditional family, the Marshalls seem to do pretty well for themselves.

The kids are a curious pair. Will was clearly cast as a bit of a hunk, but in the absence of a potential romance, he mostly busies himself with bantering with his sister, to whom he is occasionally patronizing, but never hostile. His character doesn’t grow or mature much from episode to episode, and he spends much of his time working with his father to battle monsters or find a dimensional doorway home.

Holly, on the other hand, is more interesting, and her bangs, braids, and red and white checked shirt are perhaps the show’s most memorable icons for good reason. Starting the series as under-estimated and a little immature (it’s hard to guess the character’s actual age – Kathy Coleman would have been twelve at the time the show aired), she is given a number of opportunities to take initiative, learn to trust herself, and even save the day. One terrific episode has her interacting with a mysterious woman, who gives her advice to inspire her rescue of her father and brother from a terrible pit monster (the Sleestak God!). The woman, of course, is Holly’s future self, a beautiful, thoughtful and self-assured (even slightly scarred) adult. I think this is pretty cool stuff, and a strong message for kids, especially girls. It’s Second Wave Tomboy Feminism, and it’s OK by me.

Between this interesting family dynamic, the occasionally visionary science fiction themes, and the overall goodwill and enthusiasm conveyed through the production, the show has a lot to offer.

Sadly, no contemporary kid will ever sit through it.

My viewing experience: Excellent

Chances that Alexander will enjoy this show: Poor