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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lost Childhood Found on Recliner Seat Cushion

I spent the holiday weekend catching up on one of my favorite shows. It’s about a mysterious place where time seems to be irrelevant. It’s hard to get to and even harder to leave. There are indigenous natives there that are not too friendly to outsiders and they tend to keep to themselves. If you happen to venture into their territory you might get hurt. In the jungles there are creatures lurking that are huge and tend to be loud and violent. Strange buildings and ruins mark the landscape which leave a lot more questions than answers. Time travel is a central theme as people continually end up there and while the main tries to get home, they often find themselves right back where they started from in the first place. Food is sometimes scarce as is shelter and the right survivalist could thrive there for years.

I think you have an idea of which show I am talking about. Oh, you thought I meant LOST. Well, it’s a common mistake. I am actually describing a 70’s cult kids show called Land of the Lost. Now, if that name seems familiar to you under 35 crowd, thank Will Ferrell. Then smack him for being a part of another in a long line of bad big screen adaptations of cult television shows. Remember Starsky and Hutch? Shaft? Yeah, that’s what I mean. Now, those that cannot seem help themselves by showing remake restraint are going to taint another childhood memory that consists of cheesy stop motion effects, guys in rubber suits, horrible green screen composites with miniatures, and compelling science fiction storytelling that makes LOST a little less confusing when you compare the two. While, I have not seen the movie, the trailers already depict a lot of differences from the original and quite frankly, that’s enough for me to skip this offering. However, I was delighted by the marketing tie in from television that made for a couch potato Holiday weekend.

I was sitting in my living room with my wife flipping channels when we happened to be on Sci-Fi. A commercial came on touting the 24 hour long marathon of LOTL on Memorial Day. “Honey, I think I need to stay home and, um, clean out my sock drawer. You go on ahead to your parents’.” That’s what I wanted to say. However, I chickened out, scanned my saved DVR programs, and made some tough sacrifices. I figured in the early part of the day, while everyone else was still sleeping, I could sit back with a glass of chocolate milk, a donut, and let the waves of childhood regression wash over me like a thick foam rubber boulder. I decided to ease the congestion of saved traffic in my DVR, I would try to get through as many episodes as possible eliminating the need for more unnecessary deletions from my other programs I have yet to watch…Hey, this takes precedence over the last 24 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy my wife and I haven’t watched. Of course, I had to watch the entire opening theme song, humming along in my head. If you could project my inner thoughts onto the real world you would get the image of a 34 year old version of my two year old daughter, rocking from one foot to the other while singing the theme to Caillou, one of her favorite kids’ shows. I will refrain from singing it for you, but the theme song gives you all the back story you need. Marshall, Will, and Holly on a routine expedition, met the greatest earthquake ever known. They plunge in their raft over the falls 1000 feet below into a portal that takes them to the Land of the Lost.

Apart from some really bad acting in the first episode, the show has held up well these last 35 years. The panic reactions to off screen baddies made for some comical moments from Will Marshall aka Wesley Eure, who comes off more like Buddy Lembeck in the last couple seasons of Charles in Charge, than Michael Horton from Days of Our Lives. Tree hugging and conservation of resource messages were alive and well in 1974 as patriarch Rick Marshall dispensed all the worldly wisdom of Woodsy the Owl and Smokey the Bear mixed with some granola. The fact that the Marshall clan hailed from California was testament to that, I believe.

Some of the Science behind the fiction was a little hokey. You have to remember, though, this is three years before Star Wars so, we became a lot more accepting of our suspension of disbelief over three years from the beginning of the series to the end. Yes, there were plot holes but when you are dealing with a demographic of regular Saturday Morning Cartoon watchers, you can get away with a lot in terms of plot, especially since you don’t have an online geek community dissecting each episode like we have now with LOST.

If you look below the surface the dispensing of explanations for the inner workings of the LOTL is quite fascinating. Millions of years ago, a highly intelligent race called the Altrusians built a closed universe designed as a way station for time travelers. It was a sort of wrap around environment that allowed you to walk forever in one direction constantly passing through your starting point in all directions that you travel. Sophisticated technology controlled the weather and time portals with things called Pylons. These little phone booth type buildings house a stone pedestal and basin with crystals that act like switches. The Altrusians lost their hold on their anger and emotions and eventually devolved into a warlike being, losing the ability to walk upright and even communicate beyond a reptilian hiss. The Land constantly gets buggy and opens up portals to other worlds and times bringing in visitors that either perish or assimilate into the background. Temples and other buildings have decayed and the land is overrun with dinosaurs and other creatures. In one episode it is theorized that the Marshalls cannot fully return home without being replaced with an alternate form of themselves. Why? Because, originally, they were too have died going over the falls. Instead, they were brought to the LOTL and created a paradox that continues on a loop.

Pretty heady stuff, huh? Also pretty scary, too. Now, the show premiered and ended before I was old enough to watch it on a first run basis, but it was rerun in the following years as I was still under the age of seven. For a kid my age, seeing the dinosaurs, whether they were of the stop motion claymation or the rubber hand puppet variety was a bit scary and the Sleestak, the warlike descendants of the Altrusians, were even scarier. These lurking lispers were reptilian in nature with big black alien style eyes, scaly bodies, and hissed as they approached. They were very menacing, even though they could never outnumber the entire Marshall clan as there were only three available suits in the production, making for clever editing to give the appearance of more than three attacking at a time. Still, what the production lacked in budget, they made up for with imagination and camera trickery.

A lot of times, the biggest baddies were never seen. In a few episodes, there is allusion to a “Sleestak” God that lives at the bottom of a misty pit. Quite often, the Marshalls found themselves thrown down there for a ritual snack, only to escape with their wits. Off screen growling and shadows onto the foreground made for the only evidence to the actual monster, yet the expressions peril and fear projected by the intended entrees gave a third dimensional aspect that make you feel their angst. A lot of times, impending danger came in the form of a vocal cue or a lot pointing and reacting to something that the audience never got to see. That allowed for a lot of mystery and conjecture by the audience built up the suspense and tension, even for a show with rubber suited monsters and Harryhausen style effects.

What you couldn’t see was the biggest draw for me watching that show. I always wanted a peak around the edge of the screen into the rest of the world the Marshalls inhabited. Whenever they travelled over the crevasse to the Lost City, I always wanted to be able to look off in the direction behind them around the valley walls. What was back there, other than a matte painting? In the Lost City, they always seemed to enter and exit via the same cave, yet there were other openings visible. What was down those other corridors, I wondered? In the third season a shift in base of operations for the Marshalls led them to a huge temple, but there was a other doors that were not fully explored or weren’t initially explored when they were first shown on screen, piquing my curiosity. I wanted to be dropped into the Land of the Lost with a couple of bulldozers or other heavy machines with the intent of opening up those few places that never got more than a line of dialogue explanation. With a modest budget and limited effects, a lot of exposition was used to tie up loose ends about what was going on, leaving the imagination to run wild. We accepted it but craved more.

Viewing the series, now, has a dual effect. The kid in me is unabashed in his inner geek being stoked with a 24 hour long cheese fest while the adult in me gets various rolling of eyes and catcalls from his wife who just doesn’t get the nostalgic feel that I do in watching this show with the learned knowledge and rationale of understanding what was going on, all the while, laughing at the visible shadows and seams on the backdrops. I’m undeterred by the sub par effects as it’s all part of the experience. The show has a pop culture following among people my age or somewhat older. I could imagine the dorms and off campus apartments in the Southern California higher education communities. Their rooms billowing with as much smoke as the pit from the Sleestak caves, and various foodstuffs and other ‘medicinal’ offerings strewn about adding to the enhanced acceptance of the shows mythology and outright campiness.

However, today’s average young adult demographic cannot grasp the full effect of LOTL, even when kitsch meets cool as Robot Chicken tapped into the pop cult archives to show Sleestak sitting in a library, interrupted by a cell phone call prompting various shushes from the others. Upon first viewing, I nearly had a coronary at the cleverness, but then that geek purist in me wanted to blast the show for displaying more than three Sleestak on screen which would never happen. See above for that explanation. My wife along with other college aged viewers may have picked up on the reptilian nature in the hissing, but only those of us with a degree from Sid and Marty Kroft Pop College got the reference to our beloved childhood.

Yet, today, a whole new generation will base their first exposure to LOTL on a movie with Will Ferrell and most likely will regard the original series with as much reverence as a first time viewer of J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie with no prior experience of watching the original series from the 60’s. It’s like reading the Harry Potter novels after watching the movie. You just don’t quite get it the way the diehard fans do. Not to say we are an elitist bunch of snobs but we do take our nostalgia serious and I just don’t think someone under the age of 20 can appreciate RUSH from playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band like someone who knows that the opening to "YYZ" is Morse code depicting the IATA identification code for Toronto Pearson International Airport being played on crotales. You just don’t get it kids. You just don’t. You’re living in a Land of the Lost. Now, if you'll excuse me, my DVR is choking under the weight of all these juicy episodes yet to be watched.

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