(5/10) The first anthology TV show to feature science fiction, Lights Out was adapted from a popular horror radio show in the US in 1949. Lights Out sports an impressive roster of actors and writers, but it struggles somewhat to transfer what was so great about the radio program to the screen.
Lights Out. 1949-1952, USA. Created by Wyllis Cooper and Arch Oboler. Directed by William Corrigan, Laurence Schwab Jr, Kingman T. Moore, et. al. Written by: A.J. Russell, George Lefferts, Fred Coe, Ernest Kinoy, Douglas Parkhurst, Wyllis Cooper, Arch Oboler, et. al. Starring: Frank Gallop, Jack La Rue, Mercer McLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Gregory Morton, Peter Capell, Richard Derr, Ross Martin, John Forsythe, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Vaughn Taylor, Grace Kelly, George Reeves, Veronica Lake, Basil Rathbone, Anne Bancroft, Anne Francis, Boris Karloff, Anthony Quinn, Melvyn Douglas, Vincent Price. Produced by Herbert B. Swope, Fred Coe. IMDb rating: 7.3
Not really a science fiction show per se, Lights Out can still be credited as the first anthology show to bring sci-fi to the small screen. You could debate whether it was in fact the first science fiction show or not, but I’m going with the latter, and I’ll explain why below.
Lights Out was a popular American radio show created by prolific radio writer Wyllis Cooper in 1934, as one of the earliest horror shows. Cooper’s early stories were infamous for their macabre elements and tongue-in-cheek humour. He would have people skinned alive, eaten and vaporised and a legendary episode has a scientist create an ever-growing amoeba that starts eating everything in the lab (including the cat). The show was taken over by Arch Oboler in 1936, and Oboler infused the scripts with more social content, often anti-fascist and pacifist messages, as well as a slightly more sci-fi edge to some of the scripts. One of Oboler’s most famous episodes portrayed the panic striking America when a genetically engineered chicken heart starts growing exponentially and threatens to swallow the Earth. The story was made famous later when retold by Bill Cosby. Another gruesome episode, The Dark, followed two policemen into a dark house where a black mist turns people inside-out, complete with gory sound effects and a crazy, hysterically laughing woman.
NBC brought Lights Out to television as early as 1946 as a four-episode special. This would make it the first TV show to feature sci-fi – that is, if any of these four shows had contained any science fiction, which they didn’t. Rather, they were comprised of some of the more tame scripts, dealing mainly with traditional supernatural or ghost stories. This is often counted as the first season of Lights Out, however it didn’t become a regular TV show until August 1949, when other science fiction shows like Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review) had already started airing.
Like most TV shows at the time, Lights Out was broadcast live, which put certain restraints on the production and led to mishaps, blunders and forgotten lines. As far as production went, Lights Out was uneven and seldom reached the sort of sophistication regarding scripting or cinematography as the rivalling Tales of Tomorrow, which began airing in 1950. The scripts were written by a wide range of writers, including both Cooper and Oboler. One of the more memorable episodes, Dead Man’s Coat (1951), was adapted from one of Cooper’s earlier plays, regarding the legend that one can become invisible by wearing a newly buried person’s coat. The episode featured some clever editing and even some special effects of objects being held by an invisible man. It starred Basil Rathbone in one of the series’ finest performances.
Another famous writer who contributed to the show was Ira Levin, who later wrote books like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, both of course adapted into hugely successful films. Many episodes were based on classic horror or Gothic stories by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. One memorable episode, The Lost Will of Dr. Rant, was adapted from an M.R. James’ ghost story and starred a young Leslie Nielsen, who appeared in a total of four episodes from 1950 to 1952, when the show was disbanded. None of them were science fiction, though. Nielsen made his sci-fi debut in 1951 on an episode of another anthology series, Out There (the episode was Susceptibility), and later appeared on six episodes of the strictly sci-fi anthology Tales of Tomorrow in 1952 and 1953 (in one episode he prospects for uranium on Mars).
Other SF notables chipping in with a script or two were Henry Kuttner, Murray Leinster, Ray Bradbury and Fredric Brown.
The show sported a whole slew of famous (or would-be famous) guest stars, such as Burgess Meredith, who starred in one of the few actual science fiction episodes, The Martian Eyes, in 1950. Others included double Golden Globe winner John Forsythe, horror masters John Carradine, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, double Oscar winners Anthony Quinn and Melvyn Douglas, Oscar winners Beatrice Straight, Anne Bancroft, Eva Marie Saint, Jack Palance, Jessica Tandy, Thomas Mitchell, Hugh Griffith, Vaughn Taylor, a young Grace Kelly, Superman-to-be George Reeves, a slumming Veronica Lake, sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson, Golden Globe winner Anne Francis, scream queen Una O’Connor, sci-fi cult actress Joan Taylor, western villain Eli Wallach, Lost in Space star June Lockhart, and three-time Emmy winner Jane Wyatt.
Anyone looking for heaps of science fiction will be disappointed by the show, since most of it concerns more traditional supernatural elements and staple ghost stories. The TV show contains little of the macabre gore that made the radio show famous, although there are some admittedly creepy episodes. Over the course of watching about 20 episodes I came across two that featured science fiction. One was the above mentioned The Martian Eyes (1951), a really good episode with a paranoid cold war feel alike to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a jittery Burgess Meredith. The episode was based on a story by the great Henry Kuttner. The other one, The Man with the Watch, is one of the more clumsy episodes, based on a story by Sam Merwin Jr. Peter Capell plays a detective investigating the disappearance of over 200 people, who, it turns out, have been sent to another planet by an alien by the name of Ludovic Altimus, played by Francis L. Sullivan, noted character actor who also appeared in the British sci-fi films F.P.1. Does Not Answer (1933, review), Non-Stop New York (1937, review) and Fiddler’s Three (1944). Unfortunately Sullivan hasn’t practised his lines enough, and stumbles numerous times, when he isn’t looking like he’s desperately trying to remember what to say next, which robs his performance of any sort of impact.
Lights Out was very popular for a while, but was soon disbanded, partly because CBS aired the smash hit series I Love Lucy at the same time slot, but also because more inventive mystery and sci-fi anthology shows like Out There and Tales of Tomorrow came along.
Arch Oboler gradually moved into film making and in 1951 he produced, wrote and directed the first serious American post-apocalyptic empty world film Five, which was something of a white whale for sci-fi fans for many years, as it wasn’t until 2009 that it appeared in a home-viewing format. He went on the make the slightly less dramatic sci-fi films The Twonky (1953) and The Bubble (1966).
Lights Out. 1949-1952, USA. Directed by William Corrigan, Laurence Schwab Jr, Kingman T. Moore, Grey Lockwood, Fred Coe, et. al. Written by: A.J. Russell, George Lefferts, Fred Coe, Ernest Kinoy, Douglas Parkhurst, Wyllis Cooper, Arch Oboler, Henry Kuttner, Murray Leinster, Ira Levin, Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, et. al. Starring: Frank Gallop, Jack La Rue, Mercer McLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Gregory Morton, John Newland, Peter Capell, Alfreda Wallace, Richard Derr, Ross Martin, John Forsythe, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Vaughn Taylor, Grace Kelly, George Reeves, Veronica Lake, Basil Rathbone, Anne Bancroft, Anne Francis, Boris Karloff, Una O’Connor, Jack Palance, Anthony Quinn, Joan Taylor, Melvyn Douglas, June Lockhart, Vincent Price, Jane Wyatt. Music: Arlo. Set decoration: Tom Jewett, Richard Sylbert. Sound: John Powers. Produced by Herbert B. Swope, Fred Coe for NBC.