Saturday, February 24, 2007

Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

Commander Buzz Corey of the Space
Patrol. Of course we never saw his
Picard-red uniform on our black and
white TV.
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Space Patrol

Then at 11 AM came my favorite, and perhaps the most generally popular of the Saturday morning sci-fi adventures: Space Patrol. It started out with a really neat space ship (named the Terra), and the announcer: "High adventure in the wild, vast reaches of space! Missions of daring in the name of interplanetary justice! Travel into the future with Buzz Corry, Commander in Chief of the SPACE PATROL!"

The Space Patrol was the service of the United (Federation of) Planets (like Star Trek later, and like Trek--Gene Roddenberry's biographer David Alexander points out--it was created by a military pilot of the U.S. Navy, as Roddenberry was, in this case by William " Mike" Moser. )

Commander Corry and the Space Patrol battled space pirates, evil scientists and other intersteller bad guys. But like all of these shows, they also warned of the dangers of radiation and promoted peaceful solutions and even disarmament. After Buzz Corey encountered a planet that had destroyed itself through hatred, he returned to earth determined to see that it didn’t happen there.

Their base of operations was an artificial planet in the solar system, also called Terra. There were real sci-fi plots like Corry traveling a thousand years in the past to find a particular blood donor, but mostly space opera adventures, traveling to a planet of Amazons, and to battle the Wild Men of Procyon, Captain Dagger, zombie robots, invisible creatures and their greatest nemesis, Prince Baccaratti.

Ed Kemmer played Corry. Kemmer had been a military pilot in World War II, was shot down and held in a prisoner of war camp. He had some theatre training but no TV acting experience. Lyn Osborn, Kemmer's pal from the Pasadena Playhouse and himself an ex-military airman, played the often comic sidekick, Cadet Happy. He did Robin for the space age with his "Smokin Rockets!" and "Blast off!" exclamations. Ken Mayer was the action assistant, Major Robertson. Norman Jolley was the wise old Secretary General of United Planets, Mr. Karlyle, and his comely blond daughter, Carol, was played by Virginia Hewitt, but there was also a sultry brunette with a "criminal past" called Miss Tonga, played by Nina Bara. Once again the future had short skirts (even before the 60s and Star Trek.)

Gene Barry (soon to star in War of the Worlds) had a guest shot, and probably the highest octane villain is one I think I remember, the evil Mr. Proteus, played by Marvin Miller, who not only starred later in The Millionaire TV series but was the voice of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet.

I have one strong memory in connection with this show. It was starting one Saturday morning when my mother heard the announcer or someone on the show refer to it being set in the thirtieth century. (I have the vague recollection it was another time travel plot.) She asked me if I knew what century it is now. I wasn't sure. She told me the twentieth, and then said that she used to listen to Buck Rodgers on the radio--his space adventures were in the 22nd century. I remember this partly because I hadn't imagined my mother listening to space adventures, but also because I began to sense the extent of time, and of the future.

UPDATE: Ain't the Internet great? Turns out there's an entire and really great website about Space Patrol with lots of information, the audio of the show's opening, and an entire episode to watch. (The production values don't match Rocky Jones, but listen to the crisp diction of the actors.) It's by the author of the Space Patrol Book, Jean-Noel Bassior, who left a comment here. Thanks Jean-Noel!
Space Patrol was on ABC from 1951 to 1955, and was one of the first Saturday shows to make a bundle from merchandise sales. I don't remember having any, but these binoculars look neat.

Space Patrol was sponsored by Nestles and the Ralston Purina cereals, Wheat and Rice Chex.
The actors sometimes did the commercials, and did them live. They came right from the action of the previous scene. This is probably why when we "played" Space Patrol and other TV adventures, we too would cap the action with a brief improvised testimonial for Nestle's Crunch.
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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was next at 10 AM Saturday morning. This show looked a little different from the others--it was shot on film, while others were broadcast live and then rerun on kinescope, a pre-tape method. But the mix of science fiction, adventure heroics and morality plays was the same.

The Space Rangers were the exploratory and police service of United Worlds. The stories unfolded over three episodes, and some were later collected into movies, like "Crash of Moons." There was some attempt to mix science in with the derring-do, and there was strong emphasis on the rule of law, and violence only as a last resort. Despite the spacegun displayed on this cover (that's Vena Ray with Rocky), there was little weapons fire--but a fair number of fistfights.

The series also bequeathed the automatically opening doors, the view screen and video phones to later sci-fi TV and movies. Some of the adventures preserved on DVD are still fun to watch. There's even a little secret humor, such as the bureaucratic dictatorship on the planet Officious. The only stuff I remember having from this show was a Rocky Jones writing tablet.
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This is a model of the Orbit Jet, Rocky Jones' spaceship. My cousin Dick remembers how it would fly horizontally, and then "parallel park" to land vertically on a planet's surface.

Richard Crane played Rocky Jones, Scotty Beckett was his comical sidekick, Winky. Sally Mansfield was Vena--probably only a 50s kids show could get away with that name--who was more than just a pretty face, although she was certainly that, and long legs in a short skirt as well. These shows were educational. Robby Lyden played Bobby, the pre-teen surrogate for boys watching, and Maurice Cass played Professor Newton, the old, absent-minded professor type. There were a few cast changes, as when Cass died and "Winky" was locked up for illegal weapons possession.

The aliens and planets were in the Flash Gordon serial mode--stereotypes in goofy costumes. The notable villains (both of whom are in the episodes collected into films that are available now on cheap DVDs) included "the beautiful but evil" Queen Cleolantha, and the suspiciously swarthy space rogue, Pinto Vortando.
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Monday, February 12, 2007

Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

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Tom Corbett, Space Cadet

The golden age of Saturday morning sci-fi had to be around 1954, when there was one outer space adventure after another, from 9:30 a.m. with Tom Corbett to 11:30 with Rod Brown, Rocket Ranger.

And it all started like this:

The announcer: "Tom Corbett...Space Cadet!"

Tom: "Stand by to raise ship! Blast-off minus!"

Announcer: "As roaring rockets blast off to distant planets and far-flung stars, we take you to the age of the conquest of space...with Tom Corbett--Space Cadet!"

"Tom Corbett, Space Cadet," went on the air in 1950, and had the distinction of appearing on all four broadcast TV networks (including the defunct Dumont) at one time or another, and for awhile appeared simultaneously on two. It also tried to create a self-consistent universe, with the help of a science advisor, the eminent rocket expert Willy Ley. The series pioneered special effects techniques, despite the fact that like most of these early sci fi shows, it was done live.

Tom Corbett was a graduate of the "best school in the universe--Space Academy," who took an oath to "safeguard the freedom of space, protect the liberties of the planets and defend the cause of peace throughout the universe." (It sounds a lot like Star Trek's Starfleet Academy.) Corbett served aboard the spaceship Polaris with a crew that---like the first crew of the Enterprise to hit the screen-- included a woman and an alien (the Venusian cadet, Astro).

It was the 24th century, when all nations formed the Commonwealth of Earth, which had eliminated warfare and banned deadly weapons. Then at the end of the last episode aired, the Polaris was ready to head off into space. "Where are we going?" a crewman asked. "Out," Tom Corbett replied. "Further than we've ever gone before!"

The series was based on Robert Heinlein's novel for young readers, Space Cadet. This was a very lucrative genre--Heinlein once said he made more money on these books than any others. I was a big fan of those novels a little later, but at 8 years old or so, I was mostly devoted to these TV adventures.

Frankie Thomas played Tom Corbett, Jan Merlin was cadet Roger Manning, and the alien Astro was played by Al Markim. Margaret Garland played Dr. Joan Dale. Other actors who played smaller parts in the series included Jack Lord, Jack Klugman and William Windom. One of the writers was Alfred Bester, author of some classic adult sci-fi novels and stories.The stories were often about exploration, and rarely featured space monsters. As in the Heinlein novel, the Academy stressed ethical responsibility, and their commander, Captain Strong, often warned them against using weapons or excessive violence...One of the show's principal sponsors was Kellogg's cereal.

Tom Corbett
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The Space Cadet Oath (TV version)

I solemnly swear to safeguard the freedom of space, protect the liberties of the planets and defend the cause of peace throughout the universe."

In Robert Heinlein's novel, the commanding officer talks to the cadets just before administering the oath. Here is part of what he says:

" I welcome you to our fellowship. You come from many lands, some from other planets. You are of various colors and creeds. Yet you must and you shall become a band of brothers.

Each living, thinking creature in this system is your neighbor--and your responsibility.

It is not enough that you be skillful, clever, brave--the trustees of this awful power must each possess a meticulous sense of honor, self-discipline beyond all ambition, conceit or avarice, respect for the liberties and dignity of all creatures, and an unyielding will to do justice and give mercy. He must be a true and gentle knight."
You didn't think this was a new idea, did you? A Tom Corbett, Space Cadet thermos.
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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

The classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials inaugurate our Boomer Hall of Fame look at Saturday morning sci-fi. Thanks to the new "labels" system, you can collect these posts, no matter when they appear. Just look at the labels sidebar, click on the label you want, and you'll be able to see all the posts on that subject.
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Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

I frankly don't remember seeing this serial, called Phantom Empire, but it was one of the first sci-fi serials to air on early 1950s TV, possibly even before. It's worth noting because it starred Gene Autry--I guess that's him with the thunderbolt on his chest. The same Gene Autry who we would know as the Singing Cowboy in numerous western shorts and movies aired very early Saturday mornings, along with the likes of Tex Ritter and sometimes even Roy Rogers. But apparently before he was back in the saddle again, he was fighting outlaws from space.
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Saturday Morning Sci-Fi

I do remember in the very early 50s, when we were still living in the "foundation" before our house was built on top of it (quite common as a "starter" home in our part of the outskirts of small town Western PA) on our first TV, seeing the movie serials of "Dick Tracy" and the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon. These would play from time to time, usually in those very early Saturday morning hours before the network shows started, and we saw movie serials, old (and often faded and dark) westerns and western serials, and the first anthologies with hosts that showed everything from jungle adventures from India to Laurel & Hardy.

This is Jean Rogers as the blond Dale Arden in the more daring first round of Flash Gordon serials in 1936, which I guess makes it pre-code. (She played Dale again in the next series, but as a buttoned-up brunette.)
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