Saturday, May 28, 2011

SPACE ACADEMY: "My Favorite Marcia"

As I've said before, my Favorite Episodes are just that - my favorites. They're not necessarily the best episodes of the series in question; for that matter, they may not even be good ones, by most standards. But, for some reason or another, these are the ones that enjoy watching over and over, and somehow, never tire of them. One such favorite is the 1977 Space Academy episode, "My Favorite Marcia."

Set in the "star year 3732," the Saturday Morning series Space Academy, produced by Filmation Studios,  chronicled the lessons and adventures of "Blue Team," a group of young cadets stationed at the titular educational institution. Uniquely, the Academy was built on and into an asteroid, and was commanded by the 300 year-old Commander Isaac Gampu, portrayed by the great Jonathan Harris. Harris is best known to sci-fi fans for his role as Dr. Zachery Smith on the 60s Irwin Allen TV series Lost In Space. The year before Space Academy, he had made two guest appearances on Filmation's Ark II, and would follow up Academy by providing the voice of the charmingly snide Cylon cogitator Lucifer on Battlestar Galactica.

"My Favorite Marcia" is different from most of the other Academy episodes in that it is primarily a showcase for Harris, and his character, Isaac Gampu. In fact, it is in this episode that we actually learn the character's first name (no doubt a homage to science fiction author Isaac Asimov)... among other things.

As the episode begins, we find Commander Gampu and most of Blue Team aboard one of the Academy's Seeker shuttles, observing a white dwarf star that's due to go nova. While they are discussing the upcoming celestial light show, they receive a distress signal from one of the planets orbiting the doomed star. Being galactic good guys, they are obligated to investigate the signal and attempt to rescue the sender(s). They land on the unnamed world, and Gampu takes cadets Laura Gentry and Tee Gar (Pamelyn Ferdin and Brian Tochi - both of whom had appeared in the third season Star Trek episode, "And The Children Shall Lead") with him to search out the source of the signal, while ordering Paul (Ty Henderson), Loki (Eric Greene) and robot Peepo to stay aboard the shuttle and return to space, in order to scan the planet from orbit.

Of course, troublemakers Loki and Peepo sneak off the Seeker before it launches...

Gampu, Laura and Tee Gar find the distress beacon, and Gampu recognizes the name of the ship stenciled on its side - Sunbeam... commanded by one Marcia Giddings (Dena Dietrich), an independent space trader with whom the Commander has some history. "Dear Marcia always had the happy faculty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time..."

While searching for Captain Giddings, Gampu and the cadets encounter a large, ominous black robot (the legendary Robby the Robot with a more sinister cyclopean dome and a few other minor modifications), and are, rather embarrassingly, quickly ensnared in a force field (which Tee Gar hilariously attempts to kung fu his way out of!). Fortunately, Loki & Peepo have found Giddings, and with a little judicious rewiring of the Academy's robot mascot, are able to short circuit the force field and free the captive cadets and their commander. Needless to say, Gampu isn't happy about having had to be saved by Marcia (and Loki, one presumes)...

"Well, Marcia, we meet again."

"Hello, Captain."


"Sorry. Commander."

"I find you as I last saw you: on the brink of disaster. What havoc have you wrought this time?"

"Now, hold it, sonny..."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You've got your right shoe on your left foot again. It's you that's causing the trouble, not me."

"You haven't changed one iota!"

"Oh, yes, I have. I've come into the full flower of my womanhood."

"Albeit a bit wilted."

"You haven't changed either. Pity."

Turns out that Marcia had been mining for diamonds on the planet when the black robot appeared out of nowhere and destroyed her ship. Since then, she's been avoiding it and awaiting rescue. Gampu and company prepare to leave the planet, but unfortunately, there's still the hostile robot to deal with...

Using Peepo, they first communicate with the automaton, which is, according to Peepo, "...not a true robot, but a war machine." How this engine of destruction (which so far has only exhibited some decidedly non-lethal force field technology - amusingly accompanied by a "bionic" sound effect!) came to this otherwise uninhabited planet, is never explained. Anyway, Peepo determines the bot's control frequency, and using the Sunbeam's distress beacon to send a signal, they shut the brute down. Paul arrives in the Seeker, and they all escape the planet just in time to watch the sun go nova.

Back at the Academy, Gampu and Marcia exchange some bitingly sarcastic - but clearly affectionate - repartee before the Commander gifts her with a huge diamond that he happened to pick up back on the planet.

"You are a doll, Isaac."

"Never, never call me that."

"Three hundred years old and still acting like a baby over that name? It is yours, you know."

"Not by choice!"

"When, when, dear Gampu... when are you ever gonna loosen up?"

"Madam, I am as loose as I intend to be!"

That may be the most in-depth synopsis I've written for one of these essays yet, and it's funny, because this is an insanely simple plot, as befits a show aimed at ten-to-thirteen year-olds. And it's not even the story that makes this one of my favorite few episodes of Space Academy. No, what makes me enjoy it so much is the undeniable chemistry between Harris and Dietrich (who was familiar to me even in '77 from those margarine commercials where she played "Mother Nature"). The back-and-forth between these two old pros is just delightful (I particularly love it when she keeps referring to geezer Gampu as "sonny.") to watch & listen to.

Also, as a regular viewer then/fan now, it's a favorite because it hints of an intriguing history for the Gampu character beyond the established curmudgeonly grandfather/headmaster that we'd seen every other week. The idea that this ancient geezer had once been in love - and, clearly, it was a passionate, tempestuous relationship - showed a whole new side to the character. I probably didn't appreciate it when I was 13, but I do now.

Finally - and you knew this was coming - "My Favorite Marcia" ranks high with me because, well, Robby the Robot is in it. Sure, he's wearing a different head, but it's still my best 'bot Robby, playing the heavy for a change.

Yeah, it would be nice if there had been some more outer space/spaceship stuff (too bad they couldn't have afforded to build a miniature of Marcia's wrecked Sunbeam on the planet's surface), or if they'd managed to actually explain the existence of the warbot (perhaps a remnant from the "Vegan Wars" mentioned in an early episode?), or had a few more scenes with Maggie Cooper in her miniskirt... but it's still a pretty decent kid's adventure story, and the character stuff between Gampu and Marcia is great. And hey, I even get a smile out of the punny title.


  1. So vaguely familiar... I can almost remember this one... man, I've got to pick up the DVDs of this show.

  2. I was 13 too in 1977, I always liked Jonathan Harris(since Lost in Space), the Space Academy ship and the Seekers.


  3. That's a seriously cool conversion on Robby.I would love to have that as a model kit!

  4. Wow, Doug, I TOTALLY want to convert my Polar Lights Robby the Robot model now! (I wonder if the kit's been re-released, so I can start from scratch and not sacrifice my existing kit...)

  5. I was 25 when this series debuted.Watched it because I was desperate for any sf show.This was back in the day when there was only 3 networks & few sf offerings on any of 'em.
    I am also a fan of special effects & this show did have some decent ones for its era.
    The Seekers were very fine looking spaceships.I read that the front portion of the practical model was actually the front of the Ark II vehicle.