Thursday, May 10, 2007

Saturday-morning sci-fi series was crossroads of ’70s

The season 1 cast of "Jason of Star Command."
It was 1978, and Saturday mornings still meant something, especially to a 7-year-old like me.

Before Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, you got your cartoon fix once a week. Every Saturday began with the ritual consumption of sugar-frosted cereal and snowy TV reception.

But in the year following the release of “Star Wars,” the best show on Saturday mornings wasn’t a cartoon. It was a live-action sci-fi/adventure show called “Jason of Star Command.”

Rarely seen since its initial broadcast, “Jason of Star Command” returns this week on DVD. The three-disc set from BCI Eclipse includes the entire series, plus a documentary featuring two of the series’ stars, members of the special effects team and producer Lou Scheimer.

Scheimer, along with his late partner Norm Prescott, was head of Filmation Associates, one of the ’70s most successful animation studios, responsible for “Fat Albert” and “The Archie Show,” as well as live-action shows like “Shazam!” and “Isis.”

The most expensive Saturday-morning children’s show ever produced, “Jason of Star Command” originated as one segment of “Tarzan and the Super 7” before getting its own half-hour slot the following year.

Set in the far future, the series follows a “soldier of fortune” — that’s Jason, played by Craig Littler — who works for a top-secret agency, Star Command, which roams the spaceways on an asteroid decked out to resemble a futuristic city.

During the first season, the late James Doohan, better known as Scotty on the original “Star Trek,” played Jason’s commanding officer. Doohan left after one year to co-star in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which revived the Trek franchise.

“Jason” was an instant hit with me and my elementary-school classmates. If our playground role-playing didn’t involve pretending to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, it involved “Jason of Star Command.”

The show relied on cliffhanger stories reminiscent of “Flash Gordon” movie serials and boasted special effects that took advantage, on a smaller scale, of the advances George Lucas and his effects team made with “Star Wars.” As a result, the spaceship models looked as good as or better than anything that had appeared on TV previously.

But every space opera needs a memorable villain. “Star Wars” has Darth Vader, “Flash Gordon” has Ming the Merciless, and “Jason” has Dragos, a scenery-chewing baddie with a long cape, menacing laugh and laser-shooting eyepiece.

Dragos was played by Sid Haig, who had spent most of the decade appearing alongside Pam Grier in B-grade exploitation films like “The Big Doll House,” “The Big Bird Cage” and “Foxy Brown.”

As Haig says in the documentary, Saturday morning TV is the last place he thought he’d end up. But playing Dragos paid the bills, and Haig has nothing but respect and affection for the team that put “Jason” on the air.

Haig is best known today, however, as Captain Spaulding, the clown-faced killer in Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” And he isn’t the only unlikely actor to appear in “Jason.” In the second season, Jason’s partner was portrayed by the late Tamara Dobson, better known for her title role in the 1973 blaxploitation classic “Cleopatra Jones.”

“Jason” is a strange crossroads of ’70s culture. And unlike a lot of children’s shows that haven’t aged well, “Jason” retains its ability to entertain children while appealing to the nostalgic streak of Generation Xers.

No comments:

Post a Comment