"Neanderthal man left no written records of his history. Just some bones, tools, and burial mounds. This story is based upon assumptions and theories drawn from these artifacts. It might have happened in 70,000 B.C.."
"Today...we have food."
Mavis think Korg good. Warner Bros.' fabulous Archive Collection, the super-secret vault of coveted, hard-to-find cult movie and TV classics, has released Korg: 70,000 B.C. - The Complete Series, a 2-disc, 16-episode collection of the 1974 Hanna-Barbera live-action Saturday morning kiddie show. A surprisingly sober, fact-based (or perhaps more accurately, theory-based) account of a Neanderthal family unit, Korg: 70,000 B.C. stays away from the silliness you might expect from a H-B series on prehistoric cavemen, and keeps focused on a rather relentless storyline of naked survival...and man's growing awakening into a more (ahem) "civilized" animal. No extras for these unrestored―but just fine―transfers.
70,000 B.C., somewhere on prehistoric Earth where the game includes lions, wolves, elephants, and deer (I'd say right around Griffith Park and Franklin Canyon Park, in the heart of L.A.). A small clan of hunter/gatherers cling precariously to life in the inhospitable world of drought, predators, scarce game, hazardous terrain, and other ravenous bands of Neanderthals. Thoughtful, quiet hunter Korg (Jim Malinda) is the leader of the group. His mate, Mara (Naomi Pollack), is in charge of keeping the fire going in their various caves, and for directing the berry, root, and vegetable gathering of their three offspring: teenager Tane (Christopher Man), who now hunts with his father; young Tor (Charles Morteo), who will soon hunt; and Ree (Janelle Pransky), who sticks close to her mother. Rounding out the band is Korg's younger brother, Bok (Bill Ewing), the group's amusing storyteller and, by Korg's account, the group's best hunter. Life is very simple―and very hard―for the Korg clan. They only have one goal each day: find food.
I absolutely remember ABC Saturday morning mid-season replacement Korg: 70,000 B.C., back in 1974...because I never watched it. I remember having a couple of the comic books, and it always looked pretty cool in the "Coming Up" bumpers when I watched Hong Kong Phooey earlier in the morning, but there was no way I was going to miss either Sigmund and the Sea Monsters on NBC or Shazam! on CBS at 10:30am (you can read my review of that series here). Hanna-Barbera, right at the height of their production stranglehold on the Big Three's Saturday morning lineups, put high hopes on Korg: 70,000 B.C. bumping them into what many in the industry thought was the next "big thing" in Saturday morning children's programming: live action. However, Korg: 70,000 B.C.'s failure against rival Filmation's Shazam! pretty much put the kibosh on H-B's plans for expanding Saturday morning live-action filming, with the company returning to more familiar animated ground like The Great Grape Ape Show, The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour, and Jabberjaw (H-B's next Saturday morning live-action excursion wouldn't happen for another three years: the less-ambitious Mystery Island segment of their package program, The Skatebirds in 1977). ABC quickly yanked Korg: 70,000 B.C. off the schedule and put back reruns of the show it replaced, the animated Lassie's Rescue Rangers, with Korg: 70,000 B.C. (to my knowledge) never being shown again on the network.
Too bad, too, because Korg: 70,000 B.C. turns out to be...quite involving for a cheap little Saturday morning kiddie show. Hanna-Barbera apparently wanted this outing to stick as close to the "truth" as the most up-to-date anthropological theories held, so consultants from The American Museum of Natural History, The Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and The Fuller Theological Seminary (well...Korg and Mara weren't "married," you know...) were engaged to give the scriptwriters clues to constructing more realistic storylines. Now, do I think that Neanderthal man lived this way, not only in the physical recreations of his hunting/gathering activities but also in the moral/ethical manner depicted here? Who knows. I'm no scientist; all Korg: 70,000 B.C. has to do is entertain me. I don't watch a show like Korg: 70,000 B.C. to write a thesis paper. But clearly, the somber, relentlessly realistic tone of Korg: 70,000 B.C. differs from what you'd expect it to be, particularly coming from Hanna-Barbera (you won't find any Flintstones wooly mammoths acting as dishwashers, shrugging their shoulders and dead-panning to the audience: "It's a living.").
Indeed, you might see that cover shot on the DVD case and go in expecting to laugh at Korg: 70,000 B.C.. But right from the start, with the cool opening pan to a dusky prehistoric sky, and those unnerving Planet of the Apes-like hunting horns wailing on the soundtrack, you get the feeling the show is going to track in a different groove. Using Burgess Meredith as the show's narrator to explain certain plot points and elaborate a bit on Neanderthal habits and behavior, further gives Korg: 70,000 B.C. a docu-drama feel that's unexpected. Like Hanna-Barbera's other prehistoric entry for 1974, the equally entertaining animated Valley of the Dinosaurs (you can read my review of that series here), Korg: 70,000 B.C. uses quite a bit of situational action to drive the plots, with one motif firmly rooting each and every entry: the Korg family must eat...or die. And from that strict focus, the show develops a surprising amount of tension across the episodes as we immediately put ourselves in the characters' places, wondering how they're going to successfully hunt, day after day...or starve. The individual scenarios are also firmly rooted in realistic depictions of the obstacles Neanderthal man might have faced. A drought drives away the animals...so the Korgs must follow them. A forest fire drives away the animals...so they must cross a river to better hunting grounds (and invent the raft by necessity).
Korg: 70,000 B.C. doesn't just settle for realistic storylines and setups; it treats them, through the direction and performances, in an equally unexploitive, naturalistic fashion. In Tor's First Hunt, we're given lots of cool action as Tor shows he has the makings of a good hunter. Once a kill is made, we think everything is fine...until the hunters have to defend their meat from a hungry predator. When we think they've eluded their hunter, Korg falls over a cliff and hurts his leg―it just never lets up here. The struggle for survival is constant in Korg: 70,000 B.C., and that struggle is presented in a refreshingly straight, naturalistic manner (the performances are particularly good: no silly grunting or overly-stereotypical "caveman talk"). When Korg: 70,000 B.C. treads onto moral/ethical waters, it presents its little fables in a way that's the opposite of Filmation's openly lecturing tone (Shazam!'s end-of-episode "Morals"). In The Picture Makers, runaway mute Moon can "talk" with pictures―an astounding revelation to the Korgs―but even Korg is not sure Moon should stay because he can't hunt―if you can't pull your weight in Neanderthal times...you're out. And the number one rule of the Neanderthals, as Burgess Meredith intones several times, is survival at all costs. When Moon's father comes to retrieve him, we think everything is fine...but the episode offers no resolution. Maybe the father will let Moon live, maybe he won't. As with all the Korg: 70,000 B.C. episodes, such ethical considerations are important, at the time, but nothing supercedes the hunt. Of course, there will be scenes in Korg: 70,000 B.C. that will seem silly to more modern viewers, jarring them out of the solid suspense scenes that dominate the majority of screen time. However, these moments―fake bear suits and goofy spiders―are few and far between, and more importantly, they're the result of a low Saturday morning production budget, not purposeful design (on the opposite side, the actors' make-up is Planet of the Apes-worthy, with believable brow and teeth prosthetics). Considering its humble origins, those few shaky moments, and its undoubtedly hurried production schedule, Korg: 70,000 B.C. turns out to be a surprisingly effective show that was head and shoulders above its competitors.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.