Thursday, March 31, 2011

Space Academy - "The Survivors of Zalon"

Spoiler Level: High

Space Academy was one of the "must see" shows during my childhood.  It was a Saturday morning show, made by Filmation, a company whose product was everywhere on Saturday mornings when I was growing up.  And like most Filmation products, it was never seen again once it finished its network run.

Because of its limited availability, I never had anything but my memories on whether it was any good.  I remembered it fondly, but then again I thoroughly enjoyed Lost in Space at that age too, which just as thoroughly disappointed me when I saw it again as an adult.

Now that I'm 42, not only am I less easily amused, but I have higher standards for kids shows as well.  Just because a show needs to be written for a younger audience does not mean that it needs to be bland, patronizing or out-and-out stupid. Sarah Jane Adventures and Wizards of Waverly Place understand this; K9 occasionally has problems remembering it.

Last weekend I found a DVD box set including not only the entire run of Space Academy, but Filmation's other live action science fiction shows, Jason of Star Command and Ark II as well, all in one nice box set for a mere $10.  Ten bucks! It was one of those South Park Wal-Mart moments, where I was trapped by the enticement of something I didn't necessarily need by the staggering low price. I couldn't go on without buying it.  I had to find out how well they held up.

And the answer is... surprisingly well.

The writing, model work, special effects and music are all very strong for television in 1977. The effects are better than Doctor Who's 15th season, which premiered at the same time.  Being a tech-head I especially love the modeling work done on the Space Academy itself, the Seeker ship, and the Seeker's launchbay.  The sets all look great, portraying the clean, slick designs we all expected from the future in the 70s, when the technology of the computer itself was still seen as something new and shiny.  It also has a very catchy, upbeat theme song.  I didn't notice any of the typical Filmation stock music, although their stock sound effects are here in abundance.

Space Academy premiered September 10, 1977, just three and a half months after the premiere of Star Wars.  This means one of two things-- either they had already been working on the show and the timing was a coincidence (and most likely gave them a boost), or a Filmation exec got this show moving the moment he walked out of the theater.  After watching the first episode, I suspect this series probably owes more to Space: 1999 and Star Trek than it does to Star Wars. It's got that sense of exploration, of meeting strange alien life (in this case, made out of energy) and a desire to learn from it.

If the show falls apart anywhere, it's in the acting.  Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith of Lost in Space fame) totally carries the show as Commander Gampu. Harris plays the part of a wise teacher and commander completely seriously, and comes across great.  The kids, on the other hand, often come across as stiff and uncomfortable, and the results are often cringe-worthy.  But this is their first episode; maybe Harris will rub off on them and they'll improve.

In this premiere episode, one of the students is monitoring a planet that's due to explode when she picks up signs of life on the planet.  When they investigate, the students encounter a young orphaned boy living alone on the world, protecting two glowing gems. The gems are children to a glowing red sphere, who is trying to make sure that its children mature by also becoming beings of pure energy when the planet explodes.  Desperate to protect its children, it traps the students on the planet in a force field and holds Commander Gampu in orbit so they can't interfere with the birthing process.  Gampu must then plead with the alien parent, explaining to it that what means life to them will mean to death to the humans on the planet.

Now seriously, couldn't you see that story on classic Trek or Space: 1999?  And it also gives Harris a chance to put in a great performance, showing his concern for the students under his care.

The character of Laura Gentry (played by Pamelyn Ferdin) was also really standing out to me; I knew that I recognized her, but for the life of me I had no idea where I knew her from.  It turns out she played one of the little kids on the classic Trek episode "And the Children Shall Lead."  And I'm pretty sure when I last rewatched that episode, it was bugging me there that I knew her from somewhere as well-- apparently, I had a faint memory of her from here!  At last, the circle is complete.

So all in all the pros way outweigh the cons, and if the rest of the season holds up as well as this first episode did, then this is going to turn out to be a show well worth seeing again as an adult.

If you have a Half Price Books near you, check it to see if you can find the same great deal I did. If not and you're still interested in the show, here are the Amazon links. The discs are also available to rent through Netflix.

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