It’s fair to say that Terra Nova is the most anticipated new fall show, or close to it, if only because of all it’s trying to pull off—a TV show made on a blockbuster movie scale, with a massive budget, extensive CGI, location shooting in Australia, and a plot that incorporates dinosaurs, conspiracy and time travel. The jury’s still out—what I’ve seen of the pilot is still preliminary, even as it approaches airing in a month. But for all its fancy production and the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg, it would be hard to imagine it coming up with a storyline half as wild and creative as TV’s original family/sci-fi/dinosaur/time-space-travel show, Land of the Lost.
As with any Sid and Marty Krofft production of its era, it’s easy enough to make fun of the details of Land of the Lost: the stop-motion special effects, for instance, the latex Sleestak costumes, or the opening white-water sequence, above, which appears to take place inside a fourth-grader’s nature diorama. The dialogue was corny, the resolutions were sentimental and much the mythology hallucinatory.
But oddly, the essential premise is surprisingly like Terra Nova’s—except, when you think about it, darker and ten times as insane. At root: a family is sent through space time to survive among dinosaurs, except in this case, the mom is dead, a fact that lends poignancy to several of the episodes. The explanation is flimsy at best—they fall through some sort of rift when an earthquake hits while they’re rafting—but not much more so than Terra Nova’s (scientists somehow opened a hole in the fabric of space while doing unspecified “research”).
And as on Terra Nova, it turns out that they have not just gone back in time, but have actually traveled to an alternate universe, landing in a place that shares characteristics with prehistoric earth but is not exactly that. As a matter of fact, while it’s hard to judge Terra Nova on just its pilot, Land of the Lost’s sci-fi premise actually turns out to be fairly sophisticated, involving questions of causality paradoxes that the Terra Nova pilot simply sidesteps with a bit of expository dialogue in the first hour. (Land of the Lost, in fact, for all its cheese value, had contributors that included sci-fi luminaries like Larry Niven, author of Ringworld.)
And on top of all that: Ancient ruins! Aliens! Not just any alien villains, either; the Sleestaks who harassed Will, Holly and Rick, we eventually learned, were the fallen descendants of a past, less debased civilization. Bizarre alien technology, like the mysterious, universe-controlling pylons, whose power and inscrutability rivaled any oddities dreamed up for Lost. (On top of that, the show eventually revealed the Land to be powered by a pulsating red subterranean “Heart” that echoes the magic glowing water flume of Lost.) And a tribe of furry humanoids, nearly a decade before George Lucas ever put an Ewok on-screen.
Did I appreciate any of this watching the show as a kid (in retrospect, one way too young to be watching Land of the Lost)? No, I did not; I only knew that the hissing Sleestaks scared the living bejeezus out of me. And re-watching it on YouTube as a grownup does not lessen the dissonance of its trippy sci-fi and Little House on the Prairie wholesomeness. But I do have to respect the show’s inventiveness; the hold it had on me back then was not just because I was easily impressed and had fewer TV-viewing choices. If nothing else, it’s a reminder to the many, many producers and crew members of Terra Nova: there is a certain kind of insane creativity that the biggest CGI budget can’t buy.