- Marty Krofft is known for an array of truly bizarre kids’ shows in the 1970s, including H.R. Pufnstuf and Sigmund and The Sea Monsters.
- The cream of the crop was Land of the Lost, about a park ranger and his kids trapped in an alien world full of dinosaurs 20 years before Jurassic Park.
- TLand of the Lost embraced real science fiction concepts like closed universe and parallel worlds, along with high-end screenwriters like Larry Niven and Theodore Sturgeon.
Along with his brother Sid, Marty Krofft built a TV empire out of some of the weirdest children’s television programs ever put on the air. The producer — who passed away on Nov. 25, 2023 at the age of 86 — was best known for the surreal likes of H.R. Pufnsuf and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, featuring giant puppets cavorting in what often appeared to be a live-action Hieronymus Bosch painting. They were very weird and sometimes quite awful, but they were definitively different. Amid the low-end Hanna-Barbera clones of the 1970s, the Kroffts definitely made an impression.
Gen Xers remember the Kroffts’ works fondly, if sometimes ironically, and Krofft’s passing feels like the loss of a unique voice in pop culture. The unquestioned high point of the brothers’ catalog is Land of the Lost, which mostly eschewed the puppets in favor of a surprisingly sophisticated sci-fi concept. It entails the adventures of Rick Marshall and his two teenage children trapped in an alternate dimension full of dinosaurs and lost alien civilizations. Thanks to a remarkable team of screenwriters and some competent execution, it became a cult classic to the point of producing an early 1990s remake and a sadly forgettable Will Ferrell movie in 2009. More impressively, it delivered fun stop-motion dinosaurs on a weekly basis in an era when the likes of the Jurassic Park movies were nowhere to be seen.
Land of the Lost Was Something Different for Sid & Marty Krofft
Jurassic Park made a number of character changes from the novel to the movie. But its biggest change greatly affected an unsung hero of the movie.
The Kroffts were vaudevillian puppeteers in the early years of their career, which culminated in a job designing characters and sets for the Hanna-Barbera variety show The Banana Splits in 1968. One year later, they debuted their first stand-alone series, H.R. Pufnstuf, which established the brothers’ out-there aesthetic. It follows the stranger-in-a-strange-land template of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, as a young boy and his talking flute are shipwrecked in a magical world called Living Island that looks suspiciously like a studio set in Burbank. Most of its inhabitants were portrayed by puppets and actors in full-sized costumes. They were led by the titular friendly dragon and eternally threatened by the schemes of Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo.
The series is exactly as weird as it sounds, and while it only lasted a single season, the Kroffts quickly followed with other equally bombastic shows. That included the likes of Lidsville, The Bugaloos, The Lost Saucer, and Far-Out Space Nuts, as well as 1976’s The Krofft Supershow featuring a half-dozen rotating mini-series. It also entailed a slow transition away from puppets and towards cheaper live-action performances, as they developed variety shows such as the infamous Brady Bunch Hour and Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters featuring the country music star. Land of the Lost looked and felt like none of that. It first aired in 1974, with the Krofft aesthetic well in hand and the brothers more or less certain of their vision.
Land of the Lost endeavored to deliver an epic-scale world on the same modest budget as their other shows. The series centered on the Marshalls caught in a mysterious dimensional portal which deposits them in a closed universe from which there is no apparent escape. Besides dinosaurs, its inhabitants include primitives called Pakuni, as well as the sinister Sleestak, which are devolved descendants of a fallen alien civilization. Mysterious metal obelisks called Pylons are scattered across the landscape, and appear to exercise some control over the environment. The Marshalls survive thanks to their adept outdoor skills, seeking a way home and often encountering other castaways from different times and universes in their search.
Land of the Lost Embraced Real Science Fiction
In the wake of the ambitious Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, Netflix has a sequel animated series, Jurassic World: Chaos Theory, due out in 2024.
The first big difference between Land of the Lost and the Kroffts’ other shows is its dedication to the universe. H.R. Pufnstuf and its ilk rely heavily on young viewers overlooking the bizarre details and incongruous components onscreen by using colorful trappings and sheer creative weirdness to cover up the trouble spots. Land of the Lost commits itself to proper world-building and providing a strong backstory that organically explains its disparate components.
Story editor David Gerrold developed a convincing history for the Sleestak while alien technology such as the Pylons obeys understandable rules instead of simply acting as plot devices. The effects are still dodgy — especially to modern eyes — but deliver an impressive bang for their very modest buck. The dinosaurs, in particular, benefit from Harryhausen-esque stop-motion effects that invest them with a lot of personality, while the Sleestak and Pylons give the show far more distinctiveness than simply trapping the Marshalls in Earth’s prehistoric past.
A Reddit theory suggests that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are merely genetic miasma monsters made to look and act like “real” dinosaurs.
Credit for that lies largely with the screenwriting team, which boasts a number of familiar names. Sci-fi author Larry Niven wrote or co-wrote a trio of episodes, while Theodore Sturgeon penned Season 2, Episode 8, “the Pylon Express,” which answers a number of questions about the mysterious artifacts. Gerrold himself was a veteran of the original Star Trek, and the writer who famously wrote Season 2, Episode 15, “the Trouble with Tribbles.” He brought a slew of fellow Trek writers to the new project, including D.C. Fontana, Margaret Armen, and even Walter Koenig whose script for Season 1, Epsiode 6, “The Stranger” gave the series a viable ongoing plot arc.
Their pedigree contributes immeasurably to the final product. While Land of the Lost is still intended largely for kids, it embraces a number of sophisticated science fiction concepts, such as parallel universes and time paradoxes. The Sleestaks’ lost civilization carries the seeds of real tragedy, as evinced by a time-traveler named Enik (introduced in “The Stranger”) who hails from their more enlightened past. The fellow castaways who cross paths with the Marshalls always carry a hint of real danger with them, even when they turn out to be friendly. The show even features a unique language for the Pakuni, developed by UCLA linguist Victorica Fromkin, who later performed the same feat for the vampires in 1998’s Blade. In the years before Star Wars, few science fiction projects of any kind possessed such ambition, let alone one airing on Saturday mornings.
Land of the Lost Was a Show Ahead of Its Time
Emerald Fennell wants to “get in on the dinosaurs” with an “erotic” Jurassic Park film.
Most of the Kroffts’ shows benefit from sheer novelty value. No one else could have come up with them, and even the worst of them retain a compulsive fascination. But Land of the Lost tapped into the early zeitgeist of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg before either of them was on the map, starting with the dinosaurs themselves. The likes of King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s various films were largely limited to movie theaters, and in many cases had been out of circulation for some time. The Kroffts brought that energy directly into the living room, giving kids their T. Rex fix on a weekly basis and taking care to build an interesting setting around them.
Its resemblance to Jurassic Park is particularly striking, with a knowledgeable adult leading a pair of young people through what amounts to an enclosed game preserve full of prehistoric reptiles. Though they’re largely treated more as pets than threats — as befits a kids’ show — they retain the sense of personality that the Jurassic Park films invest in their creations. There’s a viable ecology at work, and while the Marshalls are smart enough to take care of themselves, Land of the Lost ultimately stresses that the reptiles are in charge. It even captures Jurassic Park’s Frankenstein-esque notion of science gone wrong, with Enik and the Pylons suggesting some manner of alien technology that grew beyond its users’ control.
Without the Kroffts’ unique sensibilities, it just wouldn’t have been the same. Land of the Lost arrived at the right time to make the right impression, with their creative efforts solidifying and the ambition to try something different. In the process, they created a show that exemplified their zany spirit, without resorting to the dodgy production values and stylized puppets of their other efforts. Land of the Lost showed an entire generation of children what science fiction could be, when they were still young enough to accept it unquestioningly and with Lucas and Spielberg just a few years down the road. Marty Krofft’s legacy is an unusual one to be true, but Land of the Lost gives him something to be remembered for: real science fiction on a shoestring budget, and a herald of much bigger things to come.
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