Okay, here it is - only I’m not quite sure what “it” is going to be. But as the boss of this site, Ken Plume, tells me, this is my own little section of cyberspace to do with as I please. I’ve been here in cyberspace before - most recently reviewing DVDs for a site called DVDAngle, a combination of two events ended my participation. First, I became very tired of reviewing the constant barrage of “Red Green” DVDs that were sent my way, and around the same time I experienced trouble critiquing Red’s adventures with duct tape, the site stopped operating entirely.
Before that, I tried to revolutionize the movie review industry with my own site “The Movie Monkey,” an award-winning, yet time consuming effort whose brilliance can still be enjoyed via “waybackmachine.com.”
But that was then, this is now - and as I said earlier, “this is it” - and as I say now for the first time, “here I am.” But who, am I? In my bio, I describe myself as a writer in various media. After spending 14 years at the Jim Henson Company (working on everything from full scripts to the backs of trading cards), I went freelance and have written episodes of Courage the Cowardly Dog, Oobi and several pilots that you’ve never heard of. My most recent achievement is the creation and writing of a series of Disney Channel interstitial cartoons called Lou and Lou: Safety Patrol. And, I write my own plays and screenplays to help keep me sane.
I am also on the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Legacy, a non-profit organization which helps to preserve Jim Henson’s work. It is through my continuing association with the Henson organization that I began dabbling as a documentarian - first producing a one-hour Emmet Otter retrospective for the show’s most recent DVD release, and now I’m working on producing a new project to bring Jim Henson’s short films and commercials to a wide audience.
Full disclosure: I am very happily married to the lovely and talented Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Tony-nominee for her performance in the original Broadway Cast of Avenue Q. And, in a nice bit of Quick Stop synergy, she recently filmed a guest star role in the musical episode of Scrubs, during which I incessantly shot oodles of tape so I could make some guest contributions to the “Scrubs Production Blog.”
Stephanie also gave me the name for this column - describing “Ooooh… Shiny!” as the expression of wonderment that comes over my face when I see something incredibly cool - either on television or in a store window when she’s trying to pull me through the mall on the way to buy socks or some other necessary item. Mind you, I don’t really say it - I just look like I may do so at any moment. Stephanie also inadvertently supplied the graphic that accompanies the title when she commissioned Avenue Q’s Rick Lyon to construct a puppet version of me as a recent birthday gift. Trust me, it’s a perfect likeness.
So as I said twice previously, “this is it.” And, to be slightly more specific, yet still vague, “this” is anything I want it to be - Reviews, Opinions, Anecdotes, Pictures, Audio, Video - who knows, but we’ll find out together. And what do we find this week? A review of one of may favorite Saturday morning kid shows of the 1970’s, and the most recent to arrive on DVD, Ark II.
I can just imagine the pitch meeting.
“It takes place on post-apocalyptic Earth… the place is a wreck. The cities are all gone. A nuclear holocaust. Wars! Environmental disaster! Overpopulation! Are you with me? And, there’s this team of young people in a souped-up RV and they go throughout the wastes and deserts and help people. The planet blew itself up and our heroes are in this portable laboratory and they’re helping everyone.”
“Sounds good, Lou.”
“Yeah. And it’s a Saturday morning show for the kiddies.”
“We’ll take it. But, you gotta throw in a talking monkey.”
Well, maybe it didn’t happen that way, but I’m guessing that’s close to how one of my favorite shows of my youth was born. The show was Ark II and for those of you who were too young or too old to enjoy the program when it was broadcast on CBS back in 1975, that really was what the show was about.
Produced by Filmation, which was primarily an animation company before it had some success in live action with Shazam and Isis, Ark II was the first of Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott’s science fiction series - Space Academy and Jason of Star Command would soon follow. Their live-action Ghost Busters starring Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch is also worth mentioning, and may be the topic of an entire essay in the future.
Terry Lester (later to star in Young & the Restless) led the Ark II crew as Jonah, accompanied by Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), Samuel (Jose Flores) and a talking chimp named Adam (played by a non-talking chimp named Mooch).
Oh, and the guest stars!! The guest stars!!!! The DVD is well worth the price just to see Lost in Space’s Jonathan Harris chew the scenery in TWO episodes as Fagon - a futuristic play on Dickens’ Fagin, leading a group of orphans in small time crookery. (Chewing the scenery is more figurative than literal, as Filmation’s early live action programs were shot almost entirely outdoors to avoid the cost of building sets - why do you think Billy Batson and Mentor drove around in a Winnebago and didn’t have a cool Batcave-like HQ?) Don’t forget to watch for a very young Helen Hunt, a very old Jim Backus and an ageless Robbie the Robot.
And the greatest star of all - the Ark II vehicle, which to a 10-year old child in 1976 was the coolest thing on wheels since the Batmobile - trust me, I happened to be a 10-year-old child back then. We can’t forget the Ark Rover, a small jeep-like thing which was carried in the back of the Ark (although even a ten year old had questions about how the passenger quarters of the Ark could be so large and still carry the Rover inside). Oh, and of course, there’s the Jet Jumper - which was just a fancy name for the real-life experimental Bell Rocket Belt. (Yup, the same thing that we all thought we would be flying around with by now, if the scientists could every figure out how to carry more than one minute’s worth of fuel in the darn thing).
Well, after decades of relative obscurity under the ownership of various parties (including a stint with Hallmark entertainment), various Filmation properties are emerging on DVD for the first time courtesy of BCI-Eclipse. Ark II is the first of the live action programs to be seen outside of the bootleg DVD tables at every science fiction and comic book convention across the country.
BCI-Eclipse has packaged the program beautifully, adding several bonus features to the mix, the most significant of which is a retrospective documentary. Produced by novelist and entertainment writer, Andy Mangels, the 30-minute “Launch of Ark II” is a well-made collection of interviews and photos. Mangels managed to assemble a pretty good collection of insiders - a pretty neat trick when you consider the program is 30 years old and produced only 15 episodes during its entire run.
Leading the list of interview subjects is Lou Scheimer, a name those in my generation will only recognize when accompanied by “Norm Prescott” in a revolving circle of text. The still beautiful Jean Marie Hon-Trager (Ark II’s Ruth, whom we learn is now a pharmacist in California), producer Richard M. Rosenbloom, director Henry Lange and writer David Dworski also participate. Long time fans and newcomers will enjoy their behind-the-scenes anecdotes, (did you know Ark II was built on a very cheap truck chassis that kept breaking down so much that they had a welder on standby?)
Also included are two audio commentaries by those involved in the documentary interviews, a photo gallery and an art gallery of illustrations for a proposed animated version of Ark II (And no, its not Lou Scheimer’s Ark II Babies). A booklet containing basic information and fun facts about each episode is packed inside the crisply designed colorful packaging (although I will say some of the print was a bit tiny for those of us who actually grew up in the 1970’s).
The only bad news here (other than the really depressing cold-war era pessimistic mood you’re in after watching this show for a few hours) is the actual condition of the episodes themselves. The show was most likely shot on 16mm film, which yields a somewhat low resolution image to begin with, but the Ark II episodes on this DVD look like they themselves have been dragged behind the Ark Roamer through the desert wastelands. While certainly more watchable than the convention bootleg versions, the image quality is a disappointment.
My own theory is that the original 1970’s era videotape transfers of the 16mm film masters may have been used for this release. Telecine technology has improved over the past quarter century and I can’t help but think that new transfers would have really made a difference here, but I can’t be sure. This material may have been the best available, or the only material available. Pure conjecture here, but sometimes properties that are sold from entity to entity occasionally lose some elements along the way.
In any event, BCI-Eclipse has shows a great deal of respect to Ark II and they should be applauded. In an industry where legendary television shows like The Andy Griffith Show are released without any DVD extras, and a 15-episode, mostly forgotten children’s show from the 1970’s gets a package like this, the DVD label responsible should be supported with sales and kudos, so they continue to offer this same treatment to future releases (and maybe even work on getting better quality elements!).
Go buy this DVD - and consider its grainy image quality an unlisted bonus feature - let’s call it “Seventies Vision” - because I just realized that Ark II looks just like it did when I was watching it on broadcast television in 1976 (except I think we were between color televisions at the time, and this DVD has no Evel Kneivel toy commercials on it). And just as most Filmation shows ended with some sort of public service commentary, let’s end this review the same way. “Put litter in its place, kids. Now stay tuned for In the News on most of these CBS stations.”
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