Captain Video and His Video Rangers

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first science fiction TV show, the first TV show to feature a robot, spaceships, aliens and ray guns, the first TV show to be adapted for the big screen. This live broadcast kiddie show aired six days a week in the US for over five years between 1949 and 1955 and had a number of prolific sci-fi authors as screenwriters. It was hugely popular and created an avalanche of similar shows. It was also very shoddily made, extremely cheap, sometimes mind-bogglingly dumb, badly directed, awfully acted and had unrelated clips of old western films spliced into the action to pad out time, save cost and allow for set changes.

Captain Video and His Video Rangers. (1949-1955). Created by Lawrence Menkin and James Caddigan. Directed by Steve Previn et. al. Written by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Jack Vance, Damon Knight, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Stephen Marlowe, Wabrocklter M. Miller Jr, Robert Sheckley, J.T. McIntosh, Robert S. Richardson, et. al. Directed by Steve Previn, et al. Starring: Richard Coogan, Al Hodge, Don Hastings, Ben Lackland, Brain Mossen, Hal Conklin, Fred Scott, Ed Condit, Edward Holmes, Jack Orrison, Mary Vallee, Dave Ballard, Ernest Borgnine, Arnold Stang. Produced by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Olga Druce, et. al. for DuMont Television Networks. IMDb score: 7.2

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The opening shot of the early Captain Video episodes, showing the Video Ranger Headquarters.

You won’t see me reviewing many TV shows, since this blog focuses primarily on sci-fi films. But occasionally I will pick up one or two TV shows, as I have done with film serials, if they have an especially important role in the history of the sci-fi genre. Ultimately you can’t pretend to give any cohesive resumé on the history of sci-fi films unless you at least mention TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and The X-Files. Now, granted, Captain Video and His Video Rangers aren’t perhaps quite all the way up there with those shows, but it is central to the history of sci-fi as the first science fiction TV show in the world. Continue reading

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Flash Gordon

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(7/10) In a nutshell: This hugely influential 1936 film serial was more or less the first American outer space adventure brought to the screen. It is high camp, silly and loads of fun, and boasts high production values for a serial, as well as an unusually imaginative and original script, derived straight from the pages of Alex Raymond’s comic strips. That the spaceships are obviously held by strings and the dragons look just like men in rubber and cardboard suits just adds to the fun.

Flash Gordon. 1936, USA. Serial film. Directed by Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor. Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Niell, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani. Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond and Don Moore. Starring: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Frank Shannon, Charles Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Richard Alexander, Jack ”Tiny” Lipson, James Pierce, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 7.3

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless on the cult classic serial Flash Gordon frpm 1936.

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless in the cult classic serial Flash Gordon from 1936.

The story of one of the most influential science fiction adventures of all time – Flash Gordon – starts in 1928 with the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. In particular the short stories Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han, which featured a central character called Anthony Rogers. In 1929 Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins adapted the character, renamed Buck Rogers, as a comic strip, that soon featured in many of the prominent newspapers in the US, quickly becoming one of the most successful comic strips of all times. The futuristic world of the 25th century with its strange space crafts, jet packs, weapons, robots and designs, the outlandish and quite politically incorrect Mongolian villains, and of course the handsome, brave hero Buck Rogers instantly inspired a whole range of similar science fiction comics. Some failed, others, like Brick Bradford, became highly successful. But few were able to touch the popularity of Buck Rogers – save one, which came hurtling along like a runaway planet Mongo on a collision course with Earth in 1934. Flash Gordon quickly surpassed the popularity of Buck Rogers, and stands to this day as one of the most highly regarded and influential comic strips of all time. Note: I will not be reviewing the 1938 Buck Rogers serial, as it is basically just another Flash Gordon season under a different name – it even starred Buster Crabbe. Continue reading

Aelita: Queen of Mars

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(8/10) In a nutshell: This highly visually influential 1924 sci-fi classic from the Soviet Union is not at all the socialist propaganda it is sometimes lambasted as, but rather a daringly critical and multi-layered satire on the concept of the popular revolution. Unfortunately its multiple Earth-bound social allegories also make it surprisingly talky for a silent film, resulting in occasionally dull stretches.

Aelita: Queen of Mars. 1924, The Soviet Union/Russia. Directed by: Yakov Protazanov. Written by: Alexei Fayko, Fyodor Ostep, Yakov Protazanov. Based on the book by Alexei Tolstoy. Starring: Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov, Yuliya Solntseva, Valentina Kuindzhi. Cinematography: Emil Schünemann, Yuri Zhelyabuszhky. Set design: Viktor Simov. Costume design: Alexandra Exter. Produced for Mezhradom-Rus. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 6.5

Yuliya Solntseva as the mesmerizing Aelita.

Yuliya Solntseva as the mesmerizing Aelita.

Aelita: Queen of Mars, has been just as highly praised as it has often been misunderstood, primarily by western critics. There are few, though, who contest its visual influence on the genre of science fiction. It is also the first Russian/Soviet science fiction film, closely rivalled by Lev Kuleshov’s The Death Ray (Luch Smerti) that was made the year after. The silent film was released in 1924, and was a box office hit, but a critical failure. It remains director Yakov Protazanov’s best remembered film. The film is sometimes dismissed by western (amateur) critics as a blatant example of communist propaganda, but this is not really the case, neither did the Soviet critics and politicians at the time see it as such. But we will get into that later. Continue reading