Lazy Luddite Log

16.11.12

Altrusia

I have been more of a homebody of late than in the past. Partly comes from the fact I am between jobs. Partly just a decision that it is okay to do solitary and sedentary things. It can be overdone but it is also fun to turn inwards and sit at a computer obsessing over something. My latest obsession? A television show from my childhood - Land Of The Lost (1974-76) - that is full of fantastic things and a lot of fun to watch as an adult. I have mentioned it here in the past (scroll down to 'And Another Thing' behind that link).

Agamba!

Of the many fantastic things in Land Of The Lost (known within its story as Altrusia) the most prominent is claymation and puppet-rendered dinosaurs! They look crappy now but Land Of The Lost was a Saturday morning TV show from the mid 70s so for me crappy is charming. Even for the time they were more basic than the best Ray Harryhausen stop-motion work but it was a show for kids and I was enthralled by Grumpy and Dopey and Spike and all the other prehistoric monsters. There was more for me however than just terrible lizards.

I have now looked at all three seasons and am aware that the dinosaurs are mostly just part of the scenery and as an adult (with the star-struck wonder of the child I remember) am much more into the other aspects of the story. Get this - Altrusia is a pocket dimension in which an assortment of inhabitants live. Some seem to belong there long-term. Others however fall into it and get stuck. How do they get stuck and what the heck is this pocket universe anyway?

Oganza!

Thirty five years ago television was still a relatively young and developing phenomenon. The notion of exploring a story over many episodes was still a novelty and particularly so in programming for children. And yet Land Of The Lost had that. Bit by bit we discover that this setting is more sophisticated than the lost valley or island of so many other fictions. There are three moons so it is an alien setting. If one pilots a raft down the river one soon returns to ones point of departure - the whole setting is a sort of closed space-loop. And there are objects that hint at an incredibly advanced technology underpinning this primitive world - devices that if operated correctly can alter the climate or move the moons or open portals to other times and places. This may have been a bit much for a lot of kids but many of the script writers were science fiction authors like Larry Niven and Walter Koenig. Children just had to manage as best they could.

Sarisataka!

And then there are the sentient inhabitants. As a kid I was most excited by the Sleestak - sibilant shambling reptilian aliens who are like nasty-tempered Silurians with some insect-like behaviours thrown in for extra creepiness. They live in a decaying ancient "city" of catacombs and they are the degraded descendants of the Altrusians who originally may have made the pocket universe. We discover this because one of the cosmic castaways met in the story is an Altrusian called Enik who originally thinks the Sleetak are his primitive ancestors. Then Enik sees the Lost City - his home - and realizes that they are in fact his back-slidden descendants. You can feel the shock and dismay conveyed by an actor in a rubber monster costume which is pretty impressive acting. Enik has some surprisingly long-winded and technical speeches for a show aimed at kids. In his first appearance he casually refers to some crystals (they loved crystals in the 70s) as "fourth dimensional nodes". Technobabblesaurus!

Pakuni!

Another sentient species in Altrusia are the Pakuni. As a kid I wanted more Sleestak scenes and fewer Pakuni scenes. I now feel the reverse is true. The Pakuni are beautifully depicted as small hominids who are pretty much human in every way. The producers even got a linguist to develop a basic language for them. The young Cha-ka in particular is delightfully depicted as inquisitive and ingenious and desperate to form a bond with the humans he meets. Some of the scenes of him seeking to communicate with the humans are so sincere I forget I am seeing child-actors honing their skills. And the costumes are as good as something from Planet Of The Apes but way more cute.

Marashara! Wirra! Ari!

And now I come to the humans - the Marshal family consisting of a widower, Rick, who works as a park ranger, his post-pubescent son, Will, and his pre-pubescent daughter, Holly, who I feel is the central character. They fell into Altrusia via a portal during a camping holiday while rafting a remote river. They are contemporary to the audience and very much come across as average 70s Americans. Well let me qualify that somewhat.

The Marshals seem more enlightened than I would expect the average American family of decades ago to have been. The park ranger thing lends some believability to the ability of the family to survive in Altrusia but the most important survival skill they seem to have is the ability to negotiate cordial relations with the other sentient inhabitants of Altrusia. They have a live-and-let-live philosophy that they instantly extend to non-humans in a refreshing way for any science fiction show. I expect the producers were deliberately modelling good behaviours for children. Nonetheless it is an unusually pacifist depiction. Fans say that the third and final season lost much of what made the show worthwhile and I think one of the things it lost was this ethos. The Marshals become more self-serving and prepared to engage in petty rivalry. Still for most of the show they are pretty good trans-dimensional ambassadors.

I say that Holly seems to be the central character. She gets a lot of screen time and engages with characters more fully than any other Marshal. She is independent and resourceful. She is the character who grants names to things which is a kind of power in a small close-knit group. She connects with non-humans instinctively while the others do so as a result of deliberate need. She often seems as or more mature than the sometimes petulant Will. If I am right then this is an interesting thing. The central character of a show is the one that is there for viewers to identify most with. Was a show full of dinosaurs in the 70s intended for girls more than boys? That would be an unusual thing but then sometimes the past is more innovative than we give it credit.

Kasa

There are many other things about which I could enthuse. I find the opening credits narrative song with its strident banjo embarrassing but then I find much of the incidental music wonderfully trippy (and it seems banjo can work well with electric guitar and synthesizer to produce eerie atmosphere). I find the studio and model sets surprisingly good. Some of the acting is wooden but at other times rather convincing (especially from the child actors). I am particularly surprised at how much they can seem to fit into a twenty five minute episode. A full adventure story is told in that timeframe while also allowing for some rather plodding scenes of everyday life in Altrusia. There are demonstration of the Marshals engaging in mundane survival skills (possibly intended to be educational or demonstrate a work ethic). There are comic scenes involving possibly the original instances of what I call "slapsaur" (slapstick with saurians).

All castaways into Altrusia want to find a way home (all except for one incidental character from the Iron Age) but it sometimes looks like a nice setting in which to live. What of the scary dinosaurs? Well even the carnivores are stupid and all one has to do to evade them is travel in a group and then run in different directions then hide in the bushes. They get confused then bored then walk off to find a small herbivore to nom on. Sentients have got it made in Altrusia as long as they can get along with each other. Seems that way to me. Or possibly I just miss aspects of childhood.

Cross-posted here.

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