Friday, 3 May 2013

The Television Space Operas of the Fifties

Today when people think of shows shows set in space, they will generally think of Star Trek and its many sequels and perhaps Lost in Space as well. If they are familiar with the genre, they might also think of such shows as Babylon 5, Farscape, and Firefly.  Television shows set in space actually pre-date Star Trek and its contemporary Lost in Space by over a decade. In fact, in the Fifties there would be an entire cycle towards space operas made for a juvenile audience.

This cycle actually began in the late Forties. It was on 27 June 1949 that the DuMont Television Network debuted Captain Video and His Video Rangers, possibly the first American science fiction television series. Captain Video and His Video Rangers centred upon the Video Rangers, a group that kept peace and fought for justice in the distant future. The Video Rangers were led by Captain Video, whose direct superior was the  Commissioner of Public Safety. The Video Rangers' jurisdiction was not only over the planet Earth, but the entire Solar System and human colonies scattered throughout the stars. Captain Video and His Video Rangers was a children's show that aired live five days a week. It was produced on a shoestring budget, so that special effects were kept to a minimum and the sets were extremely cheap.

Captain Video and His Video Rangers proved very enormously popular. During its run the show inspired a film serial produced by Columbia Pictures (Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere, released in 1951) and six issues of a comic book published by Fawcett Comics (also in 1951). The show ran until April 1955. When it did go off the air it was not simply due to a decline in popularity, but instead the declining fortunes of the DuMont Television Network. Failing in the ratings and losing money, DuMont ceased airing regularly scheduled programmes on 28 September 1955. After airing one last sporting event (a boxing match) on 6 August 1956, DuMont ceased operations entirely.

Regardless, the popularity of Captain Video and His Video Rangers would inspire an entire cycle towards similar space operas. It was only around nine months after the debut of Captain Video and His Space Rangers debuted that another space opera started its run. Space Patrol debuted as a local show in Los Angels on 9 March 1950. ABC added the show to its national, Saturday morning schedule on 30 December 1950. Space Patrol centred on Commander-in-Chief Buzz Corry (Ed Kemmer) and his sidekick Cadet Happy (Lyn Osborn), both of the United Planets Space Patrol. Together the two of them fought a dizzying array of diabolical masterminds, and the members of the Space Patrol were always equipped with such high tech gadgetry as tiny "space-o-phones (the Fifties space opera equivalent of a mobile phone, I suppose)", "atomolights," and, of course, the all essential ray guns.

Space Patrol would be a ground breaking show. The show was originally aired locally and then aired on other stations through kinescopes. Later it would become the first regularly scheduled, network morning show originating from the West Coast to be broadcast to the East Coast. Although at the time we take for granted that a programme can be broadcast around the world, at the time for a West Coast programme to be broadcast simultaneously on the East Coast required a complex and large network of relay stations and cable interchanges to do so. Space Patrol then received much more nation wide exposure than many of its contemporaries. As a result it became one of the first nationwide phenomena on American television. Space Patrol not only inspired a radio show of the same name (it ran from 4 October 1952 to 19 March 1955), there were also a comic book published for two issues by Ziff-Davis in 1952, at least two records featuring the TV/radio cast of the show, and merchandise from clocks to trading cards.

On television Space Patrol ran until 26 February 1955. The show's popularity would continue well after it went off the air, with three issue Space Patrol comic book published in the early Nineties, a 2005 titled Space Patrol by Jean-Noel Bassior, and an online book titled The Original Exploits of the Space Patrol by Warren Chaney published by Swapsale Magazine in 2008.

Following the success of Space Patrol it would not be long before another juvenile space opera debuted. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was created by writer Joseph Greene. On 16 January 1946 Mr. Greene submitted a radio script entitled Space Academy that centred on Tom Ranger of the Space Cadets to Orbit Feature Services Inc. Later in October 1949 he developed a Tom Ranger and the Space Cadets newspaper comic strip. In the meantime Robert A. Heinlen published the novel Space Cadet in 1948. Alongside Joseph Greene's earlier proposed radio show and comic strip featuring Tom Ranger of the Space Cadets, Mr. Heinlen's novel would inspire much of the TV show Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The series debuted 2 October 1950 on CBS.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet centred on the title character (played by Frankie Thomas Jr.) and his friends Astro (Al Markim) and Roger Manning (Jan Merlin), all three cadets at the Space Academy training to be a part of the Solar Guard. Much of the show was set at the Space Academy itself, although action also took place aboard the training vessel Polaris and on alien planets. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet tended to be a bit more scientifically accurate than the other juvenile space operas of the era. Science writer Willie Ley served as the scientific advisor on the show. That having been said, there was a limit to its scientific accuracy. Venus was portrayed as a lush jungle planet, while Mars was portrayed as a desert planet, even though astronomers at the time already knew otherwise.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet proved highly successful, so that it was naturally adapted to other media. From 1952 to 1956  Grosset & Dunlap published eight Tom Corbett, Space Cadet young adult novels. There was also a daily newspaper strip published from 1951 to 1953. Dell Comics published several Tom Corbett, Space Cadet comic books, first in their Dell 4 Colour title and later under the title Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. When Dell Comics stopped publishing Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Prize Comics took it over for three more issues. There was also a radio show that ran from 1 January 1952 to 26 June 1952. There was a large array of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet merchandise manufactured in the Fifties, from a Space Academy playset put out by Marx Toys to a lunch box to costumes to Little Golden Books.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet ran from 2 October 1950 to 25 June 1955. It was one of the very few shows to have run on all four networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont) at any given time. Indeed, it was one of the few shows to run on multiple networks at the same time. Its run on ABC overlapped with its first run on NBC for several months.

Following Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, the next space opera to air on American television was the first TV adaptation of the comic strip Buck Rogers. Buck Rogers debuted 15 April 1950 on ABC. It aired live from  WENR-TV in Chicago, and was then distributed through kinescopes to other stations. Despite being based on a famous comic strip, Buck Rogers did not prove as successful as some of the other space operas. It went off the air on 30 January 1951.

Strangely enough given the success of most of the juvenile space operas, there was a pause in the cycle form 1951 to 1953 during which no new ones were put into production. The next American space opera would be the Saturday morning programme Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers. It debuted on CBS on 18 April 1953. The show was a fairly obvious imitation of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. It centred on three youthful Rocket Rangers who were based out of Omega Base and travelled the galaxy aboard their spaceship Beta. Today the show is notable for primarily two things. The first is that it featured Cliff Robertson in one of his earliest roles, that of title character Rod Brown. The second is that it was William Dozier served as the show's executive producer. Of course, Mr. Dozier would go onto produce the classic Sixties series Batman. Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers ran until 29 May 1954.

By 1954 the cycle towards juvenile space operas would nearly be over, but one of the last would also be one of the best preserved. While most of the juvenile space operas were aired live, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was filmed. As a result the entire run of the series still exists and has even been released on VHS and DVD. Despite the fact that Rocky Jones, Space Ranger is better preserved than the vast majority of the juvenile sci-fi shows of the Fifties, it would not see the success that many of them of did. It was also took some time to actually make it to the small screen.

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was created by Roland D. Reed, who was one of the producers on the sitcom My Little Margie. In 1951 he formed his own production company and the same year veteran screenwriter Warren Wilson wrote the pilot for the show. By the end of the year the show had already been cast, with Richard Crane (who would later play Lt. Plehn on Surfside 6) in the title role. The pilot was shot between January and April 1952. When the pilot was screened on 29 September 1952 it was decided to recast several of the parts. As a result filming on the series would not begin until October 1953. The show finally made its debut on 23 February 1954 and aired in syndication.

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger centred on the character of the same name, one of the Space Rangers who enforced the law in the United Worlds of the Solar System. He travelled about in the spaceship Orbit Jet XV-2 (later the Silver Moon XV-3, which looked nearly the same). While the show's premise differed little from its contemporaries, as a filmed series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger looked more sophisticated. Not only did the show boast better sets than most of the space operas of the Fifties, but some scenes were actually filmed on location. Filming the show also afforded it much better special effects than its counterparts that were broadcast live.

While merchandising usually came about with most of the space operas of the era after they had become successful, a merchandising campaign was planned for Rocky Jones, Space Ranger even before it debuted.  Charlton published several issues of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and the character also appeared in three issues of Charlton's title Space Adventures. Gordon Baking Company issued Rocky Jones, Space Ranger pinback buttons as advertising promotions for both Silvercup Bread and Harvest Bread. There were also Rocky Jones, Space Ranger wristwatches, wallets, colouring books, records, and many other various bits of merchandise manufactured both before and during the show's run.

Despite the massive merchandising campaign, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger would not see the success of other space operas of the era. Having debuted in February 1954, its final, original episode aired on 2 November 1954.

The first television adaptation of the comic strip Flash Gordon would prove no more successful than Rocky Jones, Space RangerFlash Gordon was truly international, a joint production between Germany, France, and the United States. It was filmed in both West Berlin and  Marseille. The show aired on the DuMont Television Network on the East Coast, but in syndication through most of the United States.

Flash Gordon departed from the comic strip for the most part. Flash Gordon (Steve Holland), Dale Arden (Irene Champlin), and Dr. Zarkov (Joseph Nash) were agents of the Galactic Bureau of Investigation who travelled about the galaxy in their spaceship Sky Flash. The show is notable not only for featuring Steve Holland (who would later be the model for Doc Savage in the series of paperback reprints published by Bantam), but also featuring the early work of television writer Bruce Geller (who would go onto create Mission: Impossible). Despite being loosely based on the popular comic strip, Flash Gordon did not last long. It debuted on 15 October 1954 and ended its run on 15 July 1955.

The cycle towards space operas on American television in the Fifties came to an end with Flash Gordon. Most of the shows that debuted after 1953 in the wake of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet had seen little success, so television producers may have decided to abandon the genre. By 1955 the cycle had run its course as one by one even the most successful of the genre went off the air. Space Patrol was the first to go, leaving the air in February 1955. Captain Video and His Video Rangers followed, ending its run in April of that year. Tom Corbett — Space Cadet ended its run that June.

Although largely unknown to most people under 60, the juvenile space operas would have a lasting impact. It seems likely that much of the young audience for Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet grew up to be the college aged audience for Star Trek. And while the space operas of the Fifties were obviously made for children, one can see similarities between them and later science fiction shows made for adults. Indeed, not only was the premise of Space Patrol similar in some respects to that of Star Trek, but some of the technology was similar too (the space-o-phones of Space Patrol are similar to the communicators of Star Trek). While the space operas of the Fifties may be largely forgotten, their influence can still be felt today.

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