Although I just have vague 30-year-old memories of "Robin Hood"'s nail-biting near-miss, I was surprised how well this series stood up. The episodes were small morality plays geared toward teen and pre-teens. However, as a five year old, I just remember the excitement.
Of course the production values are dated--antique special effects, reel magnetic tapes, red LEDs--but the nostalgic charm is there, as it is for Classic Star Trek. For a kid's show, the writing was superb. It is as good as anything on TV right now, and a bit more intelligent. But what made this series stand out from the hazy crowd was the setting.
Indeed, "Ark II" is a wonderful blending of setting and theme, specifically "scientific redemption." It is set in an post-ecotastophe world, with the science of Ark II renewing the 25th century. For TCM aficionados, it reminds of the organization Wings Over the World in movie "Things to Come." Both rely upon "the freemasonry of efficiency-the brotherhood of science." Actually, it is not just science, but scientism: all problems solved by reason. The keystone is "Scientific optimism."
The series' one quirk was the Aesopian moralizing. I was not bothered by this, since a story without a moral component is not worth seeing. And Filmation never afraid to sermonize, as with other series: "Shazam!," "He-Man," and "Ghostbusters." Unlike the "GI Joe" cartoon where the moral was random sage advice, Filmation's morals flowed from the plot. This forced them to write better, which makes us better too.
I noted two flaws. First, there is the false assumption that science breeds peace. Pre-war Germany was one of the most scientifically advanced civilization, but also one of the most brutal.. Science not only gives us Newtons but also Dr. Germs and Chemical Aliis.
The second flaw (which "Star Trek: Enterprise" also made) is the motto: "Use your wits; not your six-shooter." The series started without weapons, just flash-mirrors. Later, the lasers were added, which added credibility to the series. You cannot hug a charging rhinoceros to submission.
Additionally, I would have liked to see more background, the subtle things that add to a series setting. For example, in Star Trek, we see other ships, star bases, and Kirk is frequently checking in with Star Fleet Command. Ark II is adrift in shallow waters; we never see her in contact with the scientocracy--although "The Robot" implies that there is only one Ark.. This breeches MST3K's admonition to not worry about these thing, but it would have rounded things out and added fodder for new episodes.
Overall, the best episode is "The Tank." Thematically, it is man against society, man against machine, war against peace, and the under-girding forbidden love story. Having a teenager as the center makes it more poignant.
I disagree with the shows politics, which means I disagree with their metaphysics. However, you cannot question the courage of Jonah and his crew. Compared to some of the missing links I have had to work with, they are people I would love to work with, support, and even die for.
Since the episodes are compact, I recommend watching one full disc in a sitting. Recommended episodes:
"The Slaves" Jonah becomes a slave, and therefore becomes a Christic figure. "But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant." (Philippians 2:5 - 9). It also focuses on the tension between science and superstition, with science winning.
"Omega" has a image that has stayed with me for three decades--the man playing chess with the black monolith that keeps zapping him. In one sense, the story is a rewrite of Star Trek:TOS's "And the Children Shall Lead," with the Angel being replaced by the computer from "Return of the Archons," and being given the attitude of Nomad. It also has a touch of "Logan's Run," to boot. However the end-credit sermonizing did not mesh with the story.
(PS-look for a 13 year old Helen Hunt in this episode!)
"Robin Hood" is not only a good example of a general Ark II episode, it is also an example of quintessential Filmation writing. Slapstick humor mixes with the moral choices of the lead and supporting charters, and the ensuing chaos of evil slowly going out of control.
In fact, it is the varied ethical choices define this episode. On one hand Lord Leslie uses stolen grain as fuel. Then you have Robin, who steals the grain back, because the townsfolk eat it. But is Robin Hood justified in stealing back? And is Alan moral when he leaves Jonah to join Robin? Sadly, this subtle ethical choice gets overshadowed by the next few minutes of drama.. This has another memory that has haunted me these three decades--the Ark II being driven by Adam, and it stopping inches from Jonah's face.
"Orkus" (Not Orko). This was almost a ST:TOS episode because Jonah develops a Kirk-like swagger, and the conflict revolves around Malevolent power that promises a boon in exchange for slavery. A great way to end the series.
"The Lottery," harkens back to the eerie play of the same name. When Ruth entered the Forbidden Zone, I genuinely felt both concern for her, and that I was watching New Testament Descensus literature. The condensed sermonizing was more shouting than solid logos (rational thought and discussion), akin to teenage girl putting everyone in their place.
"The Robot." I liked the crew getting R&R, but this episode has the most plot holes: Where did Robby come from? Where did Samuel's skills come from? Are there more robots? The religious townsfolk are cut out of the same flat cardboard used in "Bloom County" and "Inherit the Wind." Scientism again!
"The Cryogenic Man." A retelling of "Connecticut Yankee." However, the businessmen are burlesques of Burns and Smithers. The ending worked, but I would have preferred Jim Backus saving Jonah, thereby returning the life-debt.