RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Space Academy: “The Survivors of Zalon.” (Episode 1) 1977

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In the summer of 1977 I was ten years old, and already a fledgling geek, well conversant in the ways of TOS and Space: 1999 and Lost in Space, and Mantango: Fungus of Terror, and all manner of equally useless things. I hadn’t seen Star Wars yet, though, since I went to a Baptist school at the time, and they frowned on that kind of thing. (Both movies in general, and Star Wars in specific. They also had bad things to say about Fonzie.) I’d just discovered Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as well. I’d even watched

CBS was plugging the heck out of their new live-action Saturday morning show, called “Space Academy.” I was excited, really looking forward to it. A new SF series! There really weren’t any on TV in those days, the last ones I could remember were “Space: 1999” which frequently scared me, and Planet of the Apes, which bored me, and seemingly preached evil things like Evolution. Or maybe not. The whole Apes timeline is pretty convoluted. Anyway: the point is that there hadn’t been any new non-superhero SF shows in forever, and suddenly we got two in the same month! This one and “Logan’s Run.”

And of course both of ‘em sucked out loud.

I was eager with anticipation for this show for months in advance, I watched the premier episode, and I found it…pretty lame. Every bit as disappointing as the premier of Clue Club had been the year before, and Partridge Family 2200 AD had been two years before that. It was an endless series of heartbreaks on CBS, I can tell ya’. Yeah, sure, they had Fat Albert, which won them a boatload of awards, but they seemed to be pretty much phoning it in otherwise.

PLAY BY PLAY

At some point in the waaaaaaaay distant future (Deliberately vague, but implied to be a thousand years or more), there’s a massive complex built on an asteroid called “The Space Academy.” This is actually a huge ship that goes to various locations, and does the whole ‘Planet of the Week’ thing already amply mined to death by numerous other shows. What makes this a bit different - and intriguingly so - is that the crew is composed of adolescents being trained for….well, that’s a bit unclear, actually. Military? Space College? Dead end jobs at the Alpha Centauri food court? Dunno. Kind of a neat idea, though.

So the SA is on hand for the explosion of the planet “Zalon.” Another planet in the area went blooey sixty years earlier, showing the same signs beforehand. Both planets are/were completely lifeless, however, so no one really *cares,* it’s just an item of curiosity to study. While looking the place over, a very pretty girl named “Adrian” notices life signs on the monitor, so Commander Gampu decides to take a landing party to check it out. He, Adrian, an Asian guy named Tee Gar, The Gentry Kids (Brother and sister) and Pepo The Irritating Robot, grab a shuttle and head down.

There’s some interference blocking transmissions back to the SA, so Gampu leaves the kids and heads off w/ the robot to get clear and check in. He gets nabbed by a red glowing light that kinda’ intercepts him and freezes his shuttle by implication, though they never actually *say* this. On Zalon, the scouting party find a boy protecting some crystals. Owing to his fear and their misunderstanding, they grab the crystals, and end up in a force field.

Using telekinesis, the Gentry kids are able to knock down the force field. Meanwhile, Gampu is able to talk to the glowing light alien, who, in typical Star Trek form, is a being of awesome power and wisdom who, neverthess, ain’t got a clue ‘bout nuthin’. The alien explains that their species reproduce by putting their eggs (Crystals) on a planet. The planet then explodes when they hatch, providing the energy the aliens need to survive. They didn’t seem to realize this would kill the boy.

Gampu flies back to the planet, rescues the kids, and talks the boy into leaving as well. The planet blows up.

Flying back in the shuttle, they talk to the kid, who has only the vaguest memories of life before the planet (“My mother used to play me this flute, and when I woke up here, I was wearing this necklace”). They decide to name him “Loki” because he has X-ray vision, and can teleport.

Everyone lives happily ever after. For fourteen weeks. Then it’s off to the unemployment line, or regular school, or whatever the heck happens to child actors.

OBSERVATIONS

You know what? This isn’t nearly as bad as I’d remembered. It’s a little perfunctory, and more than a little on the bland side, with no real sense of peril, but it actually was a nice little episode that I probably would have appreciated more had I not been a little punk-assed snot-nosed kid. It very much follows the Space: 1999/TOS formula: Landing Party gets imperiled by mysterious stuff, figure it out, escape a bit the wiser.

The puzzle box in this episode is actually pretty clever: Aliens *need* the planet to explode, or they themselves will die, and the idea that what’s disastrous for one species is merely good health for another is actually a pretty good one that I don’t think would make it on to a modern SF show. (Trek did something like 700 episodes. Did they ever specifically do that? I don’t think B5 ever did it either.) So: kinda’ clever. Cleverer than I was expecting.

Of course it’s robbed of a lot of it’s impact by the very flat direction, some over-earnest dialog, and a general sense that no one is ever in real peril, but it’s still not bad for kids.

The concept of a Space Academy itself is kinda’ neat. Some may say it’s completely unreasonable, but in fact there’s a long naval tradition of training future officers on an actual ship rather than in a school. That’s where Midshipmen come from originally. During the Civil War, the Confederacy’s dedicated Naval Academy was actually a ship cruising around Virginia. Sort of a neat idea.

The model work is interesting, and not bad. Nowhere near the level of Space: 1999, but way better than TOS. The Academy itself is a neat looking structure, and the shuttle - called a “Seeker” - is well designed, if not particularly memorable. I do like the launch sequence, where we see a *massive* hangar door open, to release the shuttle, which is about the size of a truck, but doesn’t even come close to filling up the available space. Then we pull back and see four other hangar doors just as big. It gets across the scale of the SA very nicely.

The fake planet set and cyclorama background are easily on Lost In Space quality. Which isn’t an insult, LiS had some high production values in the day. Uniforms are not immediately silly looking or embarrassing, though Gampu’s has a built in cape that does nothing for the guy. They seem functional. The only standing sets we see are the control room, and the interior of the seeker, both of which are substantial and well-designed, if perhaps not really eye-popping. The SA folks could easily have half-assed it and gone the “Far Out Space Nuts” route, but they spent some money on this.

The Seeker interior feels a bit like the inside of a nice motor home, which is more-or-less what it is, I guess. It’s got multiple rooms, but we only see the cockpit. I’m not crazy about the ‘highchairs’ that lock the passengers in, but, eh.

I’m fuzzy on why they decided to name the kid “Loki,” since he’s displayed nothing but noble behavior up to that point.

The cast:

Jonathan Harris played “Commander Gampu.” He’s best known for playing Doctor Smith on LiS, and in another year he’d be playing Lucifer on Battlestar Galactica. It is strangely nice to see him playing a good guy role, and he’s not a popinjay for once. He’s got a good manner with the kids, and the way he explains himself to Loki is nice, though the bit with the aliens is a bit strained. I like that he makes a point of thanking the aliens for taking care of the kid lo these many years. Nice touch. I don’t think they’d do that on a more modern show.

Pamela Ferdin plays the Gentry girl. She’s best known from the TOS episode, “And the Children Shall Lead,” as well as a few episodes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. She was kind of a staple of late-’60s/early ‘70s TV, and she’s pretty good here (Much better than I remembered. I hated Pamela Ferdin as a kid). She’s since gone on to get arrested several times for various animal rights/ecological causes. The impression I’ve gotten is that she’s maybe a little bit unstable, but here in 1976 she’s like a prototypical version of Jewel Staite: Cute as hell, and likeably perky. She was 18 here. The character is probably supposed to be about 14 or so.

Rick Carrot plays her brother. Blandly handsome, leader of the team. The actor never went on to do much. I can’t find his age, but I suspect he’s probably 20 or so, though the character is obviously supposed to be much younger.

Brian Tochi plays “Tee Gar,” who really has nothing to do in this episode. He’s best known as “Takashi” from Revenge of the Nerds, but he’s still working in character roles. He was 14 at the time this was filmed, and is probably the only person on here playing their own age. He’s apparently the muscle for the team.

Maggie Cooper plays “Adrian.” Gosh, she’s pretty as hell here, and I have no idea how I didn’t notice that at the time. (Oh, yeah, I was ten.) As with most actresses these days, it’s hard to find out their ages, but ain’t no way she’s a teenager in this thing. I take her to be about 20 or 22 since I’ve seen her playing considerably more mature roles in TV movies just two or three years later. She would appear to be ‘the smart one’.

Eric Green plays “Loki.” He seems to be about 7 or 8, but he could be a young-looking kid maybe as old as ten or so. Instantly recognizable from TV shows of the period. The mystery of who he is, and how he got there is never resolved, as far as I can recall. Though it’s never explicitly stated, it’s mentioned that the last survey of the planet was three years prior. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implication is that he was somehow left behind by the survey team, and raised by the aliens. How they managed this on a completely lifeless rock is unclear, but, eh. Whatevs.

There’s also a guy named “Paul” played by Ty Henderson. He’s actually 31! Yeah, he looks young, but he doesn’t look THAT young! He’s in Commander Uhura duty here, and doesn’t get to leave the bridge. He gets more stuff to do in subsequent episodes, apparently.

So: A little bland, but really not bad at all. For the life of me, I can’t remember why I disliked it so much at the time.

Two things I wondered about:
1) Do ALL the students get this much care and attention from Gampu, or is this just an honor-roll thing?
2) Are there other adults in the Academy, or do they trust running the whole thing to the kids? At one point Gampu gives some orders to a lieutenant over the intercom, but it’s unclear if that’s just another student, or one of the adult staff, assuming there is any.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS SHOW?

Kinda’. No reason not to.

You can watch this whole episode online here:

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