The first science fiction TV show aired as a live broadcast in the US every weekday for almost six years beginning in 1949, totalling in over 1,500 episodes. Aimed at a kiddie audience, the show was cheap and shoddy, even compared to its film serial inspirations, but involved writing talent such as Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke and James Blish. 3/10
Captain Video and His Video Rangers. 1949-1955, USA. Created by Lawrence Menkin & James Caddigan. Directed by Steve Previn et. al. Written by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Jack Vance, Damon Knight, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley, , et. al. Starring: Richard Coogan, Al Hodge, Don Hastings, Ben Lackland, Brain Mossen, Hal Conklin, Fred Scott, Mary Vallee, Ernest Borgnine, Tom McDermott. Produced by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Olga Druce, et. al. IMDb score: 7.2
The first science fiction TV show, Captain Video and His Video Rangers, started airing in 1949, and came about more or less by accident. TV company DuMont Television Networks had acquired the showing rights to a number of old western films and serials and had intended to show the highlights of these in a 30 minute children’s segment. But rather than just show old serials, the idea was to pick out the action highlights and concoct a new story around them, so the network didn’t have to show all of the shoddy serials in their entirety. Someone came up with the idea to combine sci-fi and westerns (not for the first time, nor the last, unfortunately) by having a team of ”video rangers” fighting crimes in the 22nd century from their video ranger base, and keeping in touch with their other ”agents” on horseback, many of whom seemed to reside in California and some of them looking like John Wayne. The video ranger segments would be aired live, and Captain video and his underlings would basically work like presenters, setting up a story to which the western clip, often about 7-10 minutes in length, could be attached, as well as reading public announcements and presenting advertisements.
However, the video ranger segments proved much more popular among kids, so the focus of the show was quickly shifted from the westerns to the sci-fi. The problem was, of course, that the production team didn’t have the time, the resources nor the artistic staff to create a solid science fiction serial. But the team came through with the help of the props department of Russell & Haberstroh Studios, that sat literally below the studio, some ingenious on-the-fly set decoration, clever live editing, the short western clips that gave the team just enough time to change sets and set up special effects and a good dose of humour and some seriously hammy amateur acting.
The show ran for over five years and quickly became one of the most popular TV shows in the US. It aired every day except Sunday, so it had a gruelling working pace for everyone involved. The pace became too much for Richard Coogan, who played Captain Video for the first year, and he was replaced in 1950 by Al Hodge. Teen Don Hastings played Captain Video’s trusty sidekick, known simply as the Video Ranger for the whole series. A third important character was the Commissioner of Public Safety, played first by Jack Orrison and later by Ben Lackland. Captain Video’s nemesis throughout the show was the evil Dr. Pauli, played first by Brian Mossen, and from 1950 onwards by Hal Conklin. Another major villain was Tobor, a robot. Both were actually killed off pretty early in the series, but were brought back due to public demand. Tobor was reformed and made to use his powers for good.
Tobor marks the first appearance of a robot in a TV show, and has been described by some over-eager Wikipedia editor as ”one of the most important works of the science-fiction canon at the time”. I wouldn’t perhaps go that far, as robots of the buckethead version had been around for quite some time in serials (see Undersea Kingdom, 1936, review), and one of the most seminal sci-fi robots, Gort, was created for The Day the Earth Stood Still (review) in 1951. Tobor didn’t enter the Captain Video series until 1953.
Tobor was played by 7’6 feet tall Dave Ballard, who didn’t have many other film or TV roles to his credit. The name of Tobor was actually a mistake. The constantly rushed costume and props department created an adhesive stencil for the robot, but didn’t take into account that when drawing on the paper that protected the sticky side of the laminate, the words came out backwards when glued on to the costume. The stencil was supposed to read ROBOT-I, but became I-TOBOR. When they realised their mistake there simply wasn’t enough time to make a new stencil. So the mistake became canon. Other robots were also used on the show, primarily the wonky drainpipe suits originally used for a deleted scene in the 1933 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie The Dancing Lady, and then used prominently in a number of serials, like The Phantom Empire (1935, review). Since reviewing The Phantom Empire I have, incidentally, stumbled on another clue as to why these robot costumes were so prolific in different low-budget movies, serials, TV shows and even public events. According to J.P. Telotte’s book Robot Ecology and the Science Fiction, Mascot acquired a number of these costumes from the famed Western Costume Company, which either must have bought them from MGM, or manufactured them for The Dancing Lady. My guess, then, is that Western Costume simply rented out these costumes off the rack over the years.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about the character Tobor as portrayed in different films and TV shows, and for a long time there was a faulty Wikipedia article which confused all the different iterations of Tobor as somehow being the one and same Tobor, when in fact the different versions had nothing to do with each other.
The original Tobor of Captain Video and His Video Rangers should not be confused with the robot Tobor from the 1954 film Tobor the Great, designed at Republic. The two have nothing in common but the name. In 1956 Guild Films filmed a pilot of a spinoff of the movie called Here Comes Tobor, but the series never materialised as they weren’t able to sell the pilot. According to the now defunct website TV Acres ”Tobor’s body featured a cylindrical manlike form, rockets mounted on its back; an antenna sprouting skywards from each shoulder; a triangular flap of metal on its chest containing a lens which shot a death ray; and activation by voice commands via a pocket-sized device attuned to the vocal frequency of its controller (see image above).” There’s also a Japanese manga Tobor, a video game Tobor, a much later movie Tobor and a toy Tobor.
Few images exist of Tobor, partly due to the fact that DuMont’s successor Metromedia destroyed nearly all the tapes of DuMont’s early TV series in the seventies. Of the over 1 500 episodes that were made, only 24 have survived in the archives of UCLA, and for some reason UCLA hasn’t digitised them, so they can only be seen at UCLA’s own screenings. Five episodes have been made public, three starring Coogan and two starring Hodge, but unfortunately none of them feature Tobor, nor the other ”big” design of the series, Captain Video’s spaceship, the Galaxy. There is a short crappy clip online, filmed off someone’s laptop screen, featuring Tobor and Galaxy II.
Captain Video was described not only as a brilliant and capable government agent/captain, but also as a scientific genius, responsible for the ”Opticon Scillometer, a long-range, X-ray machine used to see through walls; the Discatron, a portable television screen which served as an intercom; and the Radio Scillograph, a palm-sized, two-way radio”, according to Jay Telotte’s and Gerald Duchovnay’s book Science Fiction Film, Television and Adaptation. Many of the episodes used gadgets such as these, and a number of weapons created or stolen by the villains as McGuffins, mirroring the plots of many film serials and radio shows. The early scripts were written single-handedly by Maurice Brachhausen, under the pen name of M.C. Brock, and were described as whimsical, incoherent and stupid. Brachhausen had experience from writing radio shows, but wasn’t able to bring his talent to TV, and as David Weinstein points out in his book about DuMont, seemed to have problems with some of the small details, such as ”plot, character development, and plausibility”.
In late 1951 one of the show’s major sponsors, Post Cereals, brought in Olga Druce as producer. Druce had studied theatre, worked as an actress on Broadway and worked with youth theatre, but was not familiar with the show. When she got to the studio and reviewed some of the old scripts, she is said to have exclaimed: ”These scripts aren’t even written in English” and promptly fired Brachhausen. With the help of a literary agent, Druce compiled a team of writers familiar with the genre, who could not only write actual scripts in actual English, but help to broaden the scope of the show. Druce had immediately started to invest more in set design and special effects, so that the show resembled a TV show more than people in surplus army fatigues and football helmets sitting in front of cardboard sets pretending to be in space. The new scripts could have scenes set outside a cockpit or an office, and actually show something of outer space and not only talk about it.
But Druce also wanted the scripts to have some relevance to the children who were watching, and hoped that it could teach the kids as well as entertain them. The new writers were tasked with writing stories that would not only teach children a bit about science and the world, but more importantly address big questions like democracy, freedom, responsibility, loyalty, scientific ethics and so on. These were big tasks to take on in a 30 minute children’s’ show punctured by announcements, ads and westerns, but the writing team she hired were game to take on the challenge. Oh, and who were on the writing staff? Well, a few small-time writers like Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight, Robert Sheckley, C.M. Kornbluth, among others. Clarke actually never wrote for the show, but liked the production so much that he used to hang around the set and offer advice and, as Druce put it ”make fun of me, in a nice way”. She said Clarke especially helped the show through his scientific knowledge and was on hand to offer advice when Druce finally set about actually showing a space ship on the show.
The difference between the two eras are significant. The early shows online are extremely clunky and sometimes the only set decoration is a brick wall painted on cardboard or plywood, and the plots are completely random, and at times don’t seem to have anything to do with either science fiction or the western serials that are awkwardly spliced in between. The latter shows actually have some sort of production values (not much, but some), some actual thought has gone into lighting, filming and prop manufacturing and the plots have actual substance.
This doesn’t make Captain Video and His Video Rangers a good TV show, but as the format goes, at least it has some merit. But even in the latter episodes the dialogue is clunky and expositional and the acting terribly hammy. The sets are still cardboard and plywood, even if they are better made. Because of the live TV format, actors regularly flub their lines, drop things they aren’t supposed to drop and knock over sets and props. But this is part of the charm of live shows, although watching it with hindsight is quite hilarious. One of the keys to the show’s success was viewer engagement. The communications officer often stopped to make announcements to the audience, and commented on the show, viewing it as he was on his monitors. Sometimes he would interrupt proceedings and comment that ”the pressure really is on Captain Video and the Video Ranger at the moment. But it’s sure nice and cosy down here in the command centre, where I have a package of this great new cereal made by Post. This new Sugar Crisp Cereal you can actually eat three ways! Like snacks it’s handy, like cereals it’s dandy, or eat it like candy! The new Post Cereals are the first ever cereals that are guaranteed fresh. I hope you have a package of these handy right now. If not, you should buy a package of these, or why not a couple, at your local grocery store.”
The viewers were regularly addressed as Video Rangers, and were recommended to join the Video Ranger Club. The show also advertised a whole range of merchandise, like helmets, toys and games, and most famously the Video Ranger Ring. Children would also regularly write to the show to suggest new inventions or even plot twists, for example like bringing back Dr. Pauli and Tobor.
So popular was the show that Columbia Pictures purchased the right to make a film serial called Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere in 1951, marking the first time that a TV show had been adapted for the big screen. Six issues of a Captain Video comic book were published the same year. The series suffered slightly when Post Cereals pulled out in 1953, taking Druce with them, but its popularity remained. Battling with financial and legal issues, DuMont tried to capitalise of the show’s popularity by creating a weekly show called The Secret Files of Captain Video in 1953, that ran until 1954. DuMont even created a second show called Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, but that also folded eventually when the DuMont television network collapsed in 1955.
However, other networks had quickly picked up on the show’s popularity, and the early fifties suddenly saw a deluge of sci-fi TV shows. In 1950 ABC created the short-lived Buck Rogers, and the long-running Space Patrol, which was probably the best produced of the live shows of the era. ABC also started the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow in 1951 (review), MPTV and Warner carried the Superman series starring George Reeves in 1952. Republic made Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe in 1953 and Columbia aired Captain Midnight in 1954. DuMont aired a Flash Gordon series in 1954, rivalled by OFT:s Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Even the Brits jumped on the band wagon, with Stranger from Space in 1951 and The Quatermass Experiment (review) in 1953. Of course this wasn’t all because of little Captain Video, as science fiction got its final breakthrough into mainstream popular culture, film and TV in 1950, partly because of the beginning of the space race.
So what’s the verdict? Well first of all, I can only rate this series on the five episodes I have seen of the 1 500+ episodes that were made, so this really isn’t very reliable. But within these parameters, I can say that although watching these badly made juvenile stories are loads of fun, and I can see what attracted the kids to the show, it is a shoddy show. I have the utmost respect for what the producers were doing with the meagre resources they had on their hands, and one does notice a remarkable difference between the early and the later shows as far as production values and scripting are concerned. However, would this have been a show aimed at an adult audience, the network would have heaped money over it when it realised how popular it was. Now it was kept as a cheapo because it was made for children, and that is something I resent. Children deserve just as much quality as adults. Fun? Yes. Good? No.
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, Walter M. Miller Jr, Robert Sheckley, J.T. McIntosh, Robert S. Richardson, Samuel Fuller, 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, Georgeann Johnson, John Connell, Alan Hale Jr, Arnold Stang, Ruth White, Lois Nettleton, Gary Wright, Peter Fernandez, Bob Hastings, David Lewis, Stefan Schnabel, Frank Sutton, Jack Weston, Dickie More. Editing: Peter Sarkies. Makeup: Peter West. Production supervisor: Sylvester Gowen. Art department: Rudy Glickman, Arthur C. Clarke, et al. Sound: Irving Robben et. al. Special effects: Alex Haberstroh, Leo Russell, Harry Persanis, Don Gianotto. Wardrobe department (uniforms): Valles. Music producer: Irving Robbin. Produced by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Olga Druce, et. al. for DuMont Television Networks.