Background: Saturday morning television has long been directed at children as adults like to sleep in or handle various chores in the Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 world said adults live in. Children being out of school on weekends mean they tend to get in the way of the adults so the mass media companies have encouraged such programming on Saturday's, the trend for decades being that it should be more than just commercials for products and needs to have socially positive messages. Companies like Filmation have long embraced such programming as a means of giving something back as well as allowing them to cater to the needs of their audience, including a lot of animated fare such as Space Sentinels where the kids could learn how to get along with others and contribute to society in a number of ways despite their lack of super abilities. Well, Filmation also provided years of live action programming along this vein too, including three shows now released together to form the Sci-Fi Box Set with complete series of Ark II, Space Academy, and Jason of Star Command that have come out separately in the past but are now bundled at a much lower pricing point in time for the holidays. Here's a few thoughts on each series, comprehensive reviews for each having already been written up here at DVD Talk:
Back in the 1970's, much like today, ecological issues were pushed into the forefront of the world due to all sorts of awareness campaigns across the country. The idea of going green, alternative energy sources, and living off the land were increasingly popular in light of the Arab Oil Embargo that not only drove prices sky high and set off crippling inflation but fueled scores of writers to present dystopian futures where mankind had regressed due to greed, social inequities, pollution, and lack of easily available resources since they had all been squandered by shortsightedness in contemporary times. Out of this mindset came Ark II, a 15 episode series of half hour shows about a small group of environmentalists that traveled the countryside in advanced equipment to help restore the world circa 2476.
The leader of the group as presented in the series was Jonah (Terry Lester) with teammates Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), Samuel (Jose Flores), and a chimpanzee named Adam (voiced by Lou Scheimer, one of the executives at the company). They literally traveled the desolate lands of a barren Earth moving from one community to another in a large RV while wearing jumpsuits (even Adam!) in an effort to help disseminate technological advice and greater understanding. There were references to a headquarters that was never seen and a larger command structure but without any time to develop characters in depth, we never got to see any of that. As it was, the show followed the traditional pacing of most such shows in that trouble would start before the first commercial break, followed by the group meeting the main players, one or more of them would be captured, and the rest of the team would save them (and save the day). Pretty basic stuff, huh?
The storylines that ensued were typically devoid of logic but would give Jonah the excuse to travel in his jetpack or Ruth and Samuel drive around in their tiny (and slow) solar powered car, each alternative transportation device greatly limited in terms of distance. They also allowed the team to get caught by primitive tribes that sought to use them for their own benefit, each quickie solution relying on non-lethal means of defense and the superior brainpower of the three scientists (and talking chimp) to overcome all odds. There were some great genre guest stars like Jonathan Harris, Jim Backus, and even Helen Hunt but it was always clear who the stars of the show were (and the writers catered to them at every turn, even scene stealers like Harris only given so much to do). Sans credits, the opening monologue, and commercials, the episodes were barely twenty minutes too which did not give a whole lot of time to develop a full story; the writers opting to "remake" classic stories in the futuristic setting since that would allow for quick corporate approval and a shooting schedule of a couple days.
The heavy handed messages espoused in the episodes would always prove that cooperation benefitted everyone more than competition, tribal leaders always looked out for themselves before their tribes (skewering the political types in the post Watergate era), and that the "haves" were always wrong while the "have-nots" were always manipulated by superstition and ignorance. The ideas are clearly laid out from the very beginning that most of the principles our society are based on are distinctly flawed and as a means to indoctrinate children, it worked all too well. The series descriptor said it like this: "In a post-apocalyptic world, the crew of the Ark II travel across a ravaged land righting wrongs, promoting peace and understanding as well as bringing help and sanctuary to people in danger and difficulty. Ark II is a specially equipped vehicle and home to Jonah, Ruth, Samuel and a super-smart chimpanzee called Adam." In all then, with as much bad acting as an adult can tolerate, as many special effects that could be bought on a dime, and as hokey a premise as you will find in children's entertainment, it was as nostalgic a trip to the past as I've ever seen (and even my jaded, politically astute, adult mindset couldn't help but appreciate the show for what it was).
Next up was a low budget science fiction show even more futuristic, largely believed to be the result of a certain George Lucas flick breaking all box office records with Star Wars, in the form of Space Academy. This show also produced 15 episodes of exploits by a more ensemble cast led by Commander Isaac Gampu (Jonathan Harris) as leader of a dumbed down take off of what would have been the Star Trek concept used to teach their cadets all about what they needed to know to serve the federation better. In essence, it was a high school atmosphere in space where the cadets would get the chance to explore new worlds (technically a single world with a moveable rock and lighting effects used to simulate multiple worlds) and help solve mysteries as they threatened the academy. As with Ark II, the time limitations kept character development to a minimum and the need to follow the usual Saturday morning formula described above prevented anything deep from happening but the show was amusing and gave children a look at a possible future in the year 3732.
The leading stars of the show were Captain Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott), his telepathic sister Lt. Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin), "almost super human" strong Tee Gar Soom (Brian Touchi from Revenge of the Nerds), Lt. Adrian (debut cutie Maggie Cooper), alien Loki (Eric Greene), and token black dude Lt. Paul Jerome (Ty Henderson); not to mention cute robot Peepo (voiced by Lou's daughter Erika Scheimer). The typical episode would feature one of the cast in trouble and the harder they tried to figure things out for themselves, the deeper they got into it until their friends came to help save them and restore order. The special effects were state of the art for the kind of budgets they employed and the timeline each episode was shot on, the missions the kids would be sent on allowed the show to provide the message of the week (usually some feel good, socially positive one in case you couldn't guess). Yeah, the holes in the plots were gigantic and broadcast way ahead of the dialogue but it was again a hokey show that allowed one dimensional characters to knock down the bad guys without force, generally converting them to the side of good by means of reason over force, such being the wishful thinking provided in the show.
The following season, a spinoff of the show then took the air as part of an anthology series, calling itself Jason of Star Command, starring Craig Littler as the titular Jason, an agent of the reigning authority of the time that would be called on to handle various incursions in the area around the Space Academy. The first "season" was a collection of short form episodes that were part of the Tarzan and the Super 7 show, the result being a cliffhanger style reminiscent of the days of old (I know that for many of you, thirty years ago qualifies for this designation but I'm referring to the serials of the 1930's and 1940's). While told in such form, the show amounted to a soap opera kind of event, each episode told in order as part of a larger theme, the story arcs equating to the relative equivalent of a full movie. The main antagonist of the series was a wannabe conqueror called Dragos (Sid Haig) and Jason was backed up by Commander Canarvin (James Doohan of Star Trek fame), Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell), Captain Nicole Davidoff (Susan O'Hanlon), and Wiki the robot, with season two adding Tamara Dobson as Samantha in place of O'Hanlon, and swapping out Doohan for Commander Stone (John Russell).
The first season's premise was quite simple: Jason would set out to thwart Drago's plans using whatever resources he had available to him and Drago would continue to strike back. Jason seemed to serve as the template for Gil Gerard's Buck Rogers just as Drago was the equivalent of Ming the Merciless, the other characters having doppelgangers too. Jason would get captured, break out of the cell, befriend another captive alien, and the story would show how his generosity would be rewarded time and again. The second season fleshed out the series using a full half hour stand alone series of episodes (closer to 20 minutes after commercials and losing the credits) perhaps to make syndication easier for network affiliates that had issues with needing to show episodes in order for them to make sense. The plot holes here were even larger than those in the previous shows of this boxed set too, but it was more of an action show than anything else, telling the moral of the week in such fashion that kids would not be turned off by it (and have them turn the channel to a competitor). Jason was not enhanced in any way, just a slightly roguish every man thrust into circumstances beyond his control, aided by Wiki's laser, the Commander's experience, Parafoot's science know-how, or Nicole's compassion. It moved far faster than Ark II or Space Academy too, the speed of events tending to help gloss over the weaknesses of any minor league budget stretched beyond the genre (Ark II's budget per episode was laughably small once you factored out the costs of start up, same with SA and Jason where the budget for the entire season was under $100,000 per the commentaries).
So, reduced to their component parts, each show is hopelessly outdated, cheesy, and devoid of the modern sensibilities so many fans demand of their entertainment but is that the best way to truly evaluate any of them? I'd suggest that just as the scientific principles were never anything beyond matchbook cover crap, the models and outfits recycled from other shows, and acting as wooden as any adult production I've reviewed, there was a sort of nostalgic cuteness defying analysis as to why I enjoyed each of them despite said limitations. I know that the three shows are best suited for the very young (substantially younger than their original target audiences) or those of us that fondly remember them, but I felt that in such a value oriented three pack it was worth a rating of Recommended. This does not mean any of them arise past the level of guilty pleasure but surely they made about as much sense as season two of Heroes and remind one of the childhood memories so endearing many years later.
Picture: Sci-Fi Box Set was presented in the original 1.33:1 full frame color the shows were shot in back in the mid to late 1970's for broadcast on Saturday morning syndication by various directors. The discs were encoded in MPEG-2 with video bitrates hovering in the lower 4.5 Mbps area when I spot checked them, the 480i resolution already pushing the episodes in most cases (so a high definition upgrade would be detrimental). There were compression artifacts and the episodes appear to be a repackaged set of what came out before, the effects looking even weaker than they did three decades ago thanks to modern advances in the field. Each series had its own issues with the DVD transfer and source material too; Ark II showing some serious film degradation in a handful of episodes (though a lot of the footage was weak when it aired; I remember because I never missed an episode), SA and Jason tending to be dark and the colors overly saturated (Ark II was always shot in the day so night scenes or the darkness of space were not issues). The macroblockage of the two space series was evident too but even as shot on film, the shows managed to look pretty good for their age.
Sound: Each of the shows was originally shot in monaural and presented here in a Dolby Digital cleaned track with an alternative Spanish language dub, the audio bitrate clocking in at 192 Kbps and the sampling rate the standard 48 kHz. Ark II had some serious synchronization problems in a few episodes in particular but the music, the audio effects, and the vocals were all balanced fairly well. Jason made best use of the effects but they all has substantial noise in the background (if you turn up the audio very much, you can hear a wealth of background hiss and increasing levels of minor distortion or unintended thumps). Still, if the special effects for the video were cheaply done, imagine how little attention the audio portion of these shows got considering there were no home theaters in nearly every home, little reason to hook up a stereo to your TV, even video recorders not in general distribution. As far as the dub is concerned, one of my neighbors wondered if the translations might have been accomplished by someone on the fly, straying from the subject matter all too readily in a laughable manner.
Extras: Unlike recent shows where minimal extras are seemingly the norm (like Reaper S1), each of the series had some decent extras to speak of, including audio commentaries with members of the casts and creative teams as well as a single booklet where each show was described in detail (episode breakdowns and anecdotes). In Ark II, the commentaries were on the premiere episode The Flies starring Andy Mangels, Lou Scheimer, Richard Rosenbaum, director Henry Lange, writer David Dworski, and actress Jean Marie Hon-Trager (Ruth on the show; the hotty Asian chick), and The Slaves with the same cast. Most of their comments were not episode specific but about the series in general, though none of them mentioned the dog under the ark in the opening episode after it had been run off the roadway by Fagon (Harris) as I would have liked. Seriously though, the troubles they had with the vehicles, the jet pack, the budgets, and lack of troubles with network censors all came into play. As with previous company commentaries, the concepts they were shooting for came up (provide light entertainment of a wholesome variety with good values rather than cater to the lowest common denominator). Most of them had not seen the show in years so they rambled on about anecdotes of what the shooting schedule was like a lot too. There were three photogalleries for the show too, trailers to other Filmation shows, a lengthy documentary about the show highlighting "Ruth" and other creative team describing the show in a manner that sounded very familiar to the commentary comments they made (too familiar at times), including how Adam the chimp bit Jean during an episode that caused quite a commotion. That was followed by a section where fans could read the scripts for the entire series on their computer (in pdf format) along with the series "bible" used by the writers to keep on track.
Next up was the Space Academy set that had similar extras, including the scripts and series bible, trailers, and four photogalleries in addition to the documentary where actors like Carrott, Tochi, and Greene were focused on along with the commentary contributors like Lou Scheimer, Andy Mangels, and Chuck Comisky (the special effects guy that hated the robot Peep for always breaking down). The commentaries were on The Phantom Planet and Countdown; both amounting to cheerleading efforts by the aforementioned people, concentrating largely on the series as a whole instead of the two episodes themselves, the "gee whiz" factor kicking in heavily by the actors as they described what it was like being young on such a show as well as how much they love what the show looked like. The creative types sounded much like they have on other company tracks (like Lou for example), but given what they had to work with and the oppressive time tables facing them, it makes sense they developed a spirit of camaraderie and affection for the show.
Finally, the Jason mirrored the above with trailers, photogalleries, pdf versions of the scripts, coverage in the booklet, two commentaries (Attack of the Dragonship and The Disappearing Man) where Lou, Comisky, and Mangels, were joined by actors Craig Littler and John Berwick, in addition to special effects guys Jim Aupperle and Carl John Beuchler. They also contributed to the half hour documentary on the show with the sole addition I noticed being the inclusion of some small Easter eggs and a special effects reel lasting a few minutes, but the team described some of the changes from the short form to the standalone version the second season provided, the troubles with getting certain things done, and their endless praise for the effects. There was some background on those that were on the show that have passed away, Lou again talking about which props were still located in his home (he does that in all his commentaries). The extras helped round out the production nicely though and were almost all located on the final discs of the respective series (sans the commentaries).
Final Thoughts: Sci-Fi Box Set was a solid collection of live action shows from the Filmation vaults including the complete series of Ark II, Space Academy, and Jason of Star Command together for the first time and at a price far cheaper than the shows were when they came out originally on DVD over the last few years. While each is an admittedly guilty pleasure and full of the kind of cheesy science fiction one would expect of Saturday morning kid fare, having watched them so long ago myself, I cannot deny the appeal of the material and note that they looked better than expected. They were not the best the company has to offer (in my opinion), but they did helped establish some appreciated trends by other studios that helped break away from some of the cartoon stereotypes so frequently relied upon to sell the latest breakfast cereal, action figure universe, or other product directed at kids, doing so in a socially positive manner. In short, no one will expect a trio of low budget kid shows from 30 years ago as provided in the Sci-Fi Box Set to compete with the near epic offerings of high dollar blockbusters or even some of the prime time titles so many of us love on DVD but they had a lot of heart and were made by a small, dedicated crew of professionals that helped start a revolution in the industry so check it out to find why myself and my associates found so much to appreciate (their reviews for the individual releases include Ark II and Space Academy by Ian Jane, and Jason of Star Command by Stuart Galbraith IV).