Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

Captain Video (Al Hodge) and the Video
Ranger (Don Hastings.) The TV show
inspired comic magazines, like this one.
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Captain Video

To the stirring strains of Wagner's Overture to "The Flying Dutchman," the announcer intoned: "POST--the cereals you like the most...take you to the secret mountain retreat of Captain Video! Master of Space! Hero of Science! Captain of the Video Rangers! Operating from his secret mountain headquarters on the planet Earth, Captain Video rallies men of good will and leads them against the forces of evil everywhere! As he rockets from planet to planet, let us follow the champion of justice, truth and freedom throughout the universe! Stand by for...Captain Video...and his Video Rangers!

But these words weren't first heard on Saturday morning. Most of Captain Video's best adventures were seen on weekday evenings, years before the height of Saturday morning sci-fi. In fact, Captain Video was one of the first television heroes, and the first that--true to his name--started in television.

And I was one of the first kids in America to see him. Captain Video went on the air in 1949, on the Dumont network, which never had more than a half dozen stations. But its flagship station was WDTV, Channel 3 in Pittsburgh ---for years, the only commercial station in the city capable of reaching much beyond it. So every night, Monday through Friday (and sometimes on Saturday) at 7 pm, I watched Captain Video. And so did just about everyone else.

I can't say for sure when I started watching it, although I remember when WDTV switched to Channel 2, and that was 1952, when I was 6. I can also remember a day in school--probably when I was in second grade--that a teacher we didn't know (probably a young nun working on her teaching certificate or advanced degree research) came to our class and told us she would play some music, and even though it didn't have any words, we were to draw whatever the music made us think of. She put a record on a phonograph--and as we heard the strains of "The Flying Dutchman," a titter went through the class. She just smiled at us, and didn't understand what was going on until she got a surprising number of drawings of space ships and robots.

Captain Video and the Ranger in
uniform, and as we saw them--in
glorious black and white.
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Al Hodge played Captain Video for most of its run. He'd been a radio actor, giving voice to "Mr. District Attorney" and "Gangbusters," which eventually became TV shows. Many if not most TV shows and forms came directly from radio (and indirectly from theatre, Vaudeville, movies and comics.) But Captain Video started with and on TV--and its popularity there led to a couple of movie serials.

Captain Video was set in the year 2254. He piloted the sleek spaceship The Galaxy. The show was live and on a very small budget--if the Captain and Ranger slid in the grass, it was apt to wrinkle like the throw rug it was. But the filmed inserts of The Galaxy and other minatures were magical.

Captain Video's adventures were primarily fighting villains--often scientists, like himself. (Dr. Pauli was the best known, and most popular. ) Since these confrontations turn out to be one scientific invention against another, they mirrored the simultaneous admiration and suspicion of scientists in the 1950s, the age of atomic power and radiation fears. There were some real science and science fiction ideas in what was basically space adventure. Imaginative extrapolations of radio and television in particular made the show seem futuristic.

Even though he had his advanced devices--including a Cosmic Ray Vibrator that shook his enemies into submission--Captain Video was also an action hero (Hodge was also a former track star.) One reviewer called him a combination of Einstein and Flash Gordon.

Hodge also taught Sunday School, so he took to heart his moments on the program talking directly with the "Rangers at home." As the Museum of Broadcasting site comments: "While messages on other children's programs would focus on children's issues such as safely crossing the street, Ranger Messages dealt with more global issues such as freedom, the Golden Rule, and nondiscrimination." Showing the scientist and his shadow side (in the villain) also emphasized the potential for good and evil within everyone, and the importance of asserting and living up to these ideals. Hodge even told a congressional committee that Captain Video never used the word "kill."

Captain Video did wind up on Saturday morning in 1953 and 1954, as "The Secret Files of Captain Video," which sometimes alternated with the Dumont version of "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet." But the Saturday series only featured some actual Captain Video episodes. It was also a showcase for other science fiction stories, including one by James Blish. At some point the Saturday morning Captain was reduced to introducing other old movies and cartoons, shown on a screen in Tobor's midsection. By 1953, the week night Captain Video was down from thirty to fifteen minute episodes--I seem to recall that at least one other science fiction series shared that 7 to 7:30 slot. By 1955, the Captain was still making good stories, but the Dumont network was on its last legs. When it failed, Captain Video went off the air.

These are Captain Video toy robots that you either found
in boxes of Post Raisin Bran or sent for with boxtops and
cash. The most memorable figure in Captain Video history
was the robot named Tobor--robot spelled backward. His
reversed nameplate was a kind of symbol for a deranged and
dangerous machine. He was indestructible, and built for
good, but the beautiful but evil Atar stole him. I remember
that for the first several episodes he was entirely inert and
motionless--and huge, as Captain Video talked about his power.
I kept staring at him to see if I could see him "wake up."
His most conspicuous features were the lobster-like claws
he had for hands. He really was frightening. But also popular--
when he did wake up and became Captain Video's nemesis over
many episodes until a typical robot conflict of being unable to
serve two masters "destroyed"him, there was such a clamor
that the show brought him back, this time as Captain Video's ally
and a force for good. Posted by Picasa
Oath of the Rangers

We, as Official Video Rangers, hereby promise to abide by the Ranger Code, and to support forever the cause of Freedom, Truth and Justice throughout the universe.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

Cliff Robertson as Rod Brown of the
Rocket Rangers
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Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers

Then at 11:30: "CBS Television presents--- Rooodddd Brrrroooowwwn of the Rooocket Raaaangers! Surging with the power of the atom, gleaming like great silver bullets, the mighty Rocket Rangers space ships stand by for blast off! [Roar of ignition.] Up, up, rockets blazing with white-hot fury, the man-made meteors ride through the atmosphere, breaking the gravity barrier, pushing up and out, faster and faster, and then... outer space and high adventure for the Roooocket Raaaaangers!"

I don't actually remember much about this show, and according to the Space Hero files that's not unusual. It was broadcast only for about a year (April 1953 to May 1954), and for part of its run was on opposite both Tom Corbett and "The Secret Files of Captain Video" (more on Captain Video soon.) It was done live from New York, never rerun and apparently no kinescopes survived. But it was a top drawer production for this kind of program, having stolen some seasoned pros from the original Tom Corbett team, and using young talent that later went places, like director John (The Manchurian Candidate ) Frankenheimer, and most conspicuously the actor who played Rod Brown: Cliff Robertson.

Robertson was then a student at the "method" acting Actors' Studio, and was acting in the New York theatre, sometimes doing two shows after his Rod Brown live broadcast on Saturday morning. Robertson of course had a long and distinguished movie career. I suppose some of his futuristic image may have rubbed off when he played JFK in P-T 109, but today's sci-fi and superhero fans will know him as the revered uncle in Spider-Man who tells Peter Parker that " with great power comes great responsibility" (itself a kind of JFK line-- he quoted the adage, "To whom much is given, much is required.")

Rod Brown made first contact with the winged girl of Venus, battled a bank-robbing robot on Mars, and discovered earth's twin planet on the other side of the sun (a sci-fi idea used more than once before and since.) There was also a Venusian ocean octopus, the tiny inhabitants of Mercury, stickmen from Neptune, and shadow creatures from the 5th dimension (forerunners perhaps of the Lectoids from the eighth dimension Buckaroo Banzai encountered.) The globe men of Oma! The phantom birds of Beloro! The Colossus of Centauri! Pretty busy for a series that lasted 13 months!

The serious mid-50s theme of radioactivity was tackled at least three times, including one about the spread of radiation sickness called "The Apples of Eden." And they built stories around at least a couple of pretty advanced sci-fi ideas: aliens without form or mass (Star Trek's "energy beings" perhaps) and a radioactive meteor that converts energy into matter.

So by the time Rod Brown signed off, after two and a half hours of space adventures and all the cinnamon toast, peanut butter and saltines, , jelly on white bread, peanut butter on celery, etc. , we would blast off outdoors to play--using the adventures we'd just seen as our imaginative springboard. And then maybe a double feature at the movies on Saturday afternoon!

Still to come: Captain Video, Johnny Jupiter and Captain Midnight!

Back row: Ranger Wilbur "Wormsey" Wormser (Jack Weston, who also then had a long career in TV and movies and on Broadway), Commander Swift (John Boruff.) Front: Rod Brown (Cliff Robertson) and Ranger Frank Boyle (Bruce Hall.) Guest actors included Don
Knotts and Jonathan Winters, spacemen in their own right.
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The Code of the Rocket Rangers:
(from the Joe Sarno Science Fiction 50s TV site)

I shall always chart my course according to the Constitution of the United States of America.
I shall never cross orbits with the Rights and Beliefs of others.
I shall blast at full space-speed to protect the Weak and Innocent.
I shall stay out of collision orbit with the laws of my State and Community.
I shall cruise in parallel orbit with my Parents and Teachers.
I shall not roar my rockets unwisely, and shall be Courteous at all times.
I shall keep my gyros steady and reactors burning by being Industrious and Thrifty.
I shall keep my scanner tuned to Learning and remain coupled to my Studies.
I shall keep my mind out of free-fall by being mentally alert.
I shall blast the meteors from the paths of other people by being Kind and Considerate.