(6/10) The first SF anthology TV show aired live in the US from 1951 to 1953. With material by some of the greatest SF authors of all time, its adult-oriented, intelligent scripts are often unsettling to watch even today. The cast boasts Leslie Nielsen, Rod Steiger, Paul Newman, Eva Gabor, James Dean, Joanne Woodward and many more.
Tales of Tomorrow. 1951-1953, USA. Created by Mort Abrahams & Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Mann Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, et.al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, et. al. Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon, distributed by ABC. IMDb: 7.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
We tend to view television as a feature of the fifties, but often forget that televised broadcasts first began as far back as the thirties, granted that very few actually had their own TV sets to view them on. In the late forties, TV was slowly becoming a staple household item among the American urban middle class, and TV stations had started producing their own fictional shows, broadcast live from their studios. These were often more inspired by radio shows than by movies, in particular in terms of their content, but also in terms of production. While the film serial might seem a closer point of comparison, the technical differences where huge, inasmuch as film serials were very often filmed outdoors for budgetary reasons, and had the advantage of not being aired live. Early TV shows, on the other hand, were broadcast live, like many radio shows, and as such were almost necessarily bound to a single studio where all aspects of production could be easily managed.
Juvenile SF like Flash Gordon (review) and Buck Rogers arrived on the radio and in film serials in the thirties, long before they entered the realm of feature films, and the first science fiction TV show, aimed explicitly at children, was called Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review), and began airing in 1949. 1949 also saw the transition of Arch Oboler’s hugely popular suspense show Lights Out (review) from radio to TV. While mostly focusing on horror and weird, Lights Out was the first TV show that produced science fiction stories aimed at an adult audience. 1951 was a watershed year not only for SF cinema, but also for SF television, as it brought the first TV show exclusively dedicated to science fiction stories aimed at an adult audience: Tales of Tomorrow. Again, the inspiration came from radio, and in particular the show Dimension X, which had hit the airwaves in 1950, and which featured stories by such SF nobility as Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, Robert Heinlein, Clifford Simak and Kurt Vonnegut.
Tales of Tomorrow ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. This has the distinction of being the first television anthology series to feature exclusively science fiction, foreshadowing legendary TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964).
Tales of Tomorrow was developed by Mort Abrahamson and the influential sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon as a science fiction only TV series. Sturgeon may not be very well known to the general public, like many of the science fiction writers of the thirties, forties and fifties, when pulp magazines were still in full swing. Much of his work was first printed in magazines like Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown, Weird Tales and Planet Stories, and he published a vast volume of short story collections. His work often commented on psychology and the human condition, sometimes with absurd plot twists and often with a battle call for critical thinking. He is also known for sometimes inserting subtle homosexual undertones in his work. His best known novel is More Than Human (1953), about six people with extraordinary talents, who can fuse their minds into a sort of hive mind. Sturgeon may be best known to film fans as author of the Star Trek episodes Shore Leave (1966) and Amok Time (1967), and for his contributions to the eighties reboot of The Twilight Zone. Sturgeon wrote at least three episodes for Tales of Tomorrow.
Tales of Tomorrow was created in co-operation with the Science Fiction League of America, which allowed the producers to choose freely from the over 2 000 short stories registered with the league. Many prominent writers also contributed with new material for the show. All in all, the show featured work of such contemporary writers as Frederik Pohl, Philip Wylie, Cyril Kornbluth, Stanley Weinbaum, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, John Campbell, Ray Bradbury, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Sheckley, John D. MacDonald, Raymond F. Jones and Arthur C. Clarke. The show also borrowed from books of science fiction greats that had fallen into public domain, such as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, H.G. Wells’ The Crystal Egg, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Fitz-James O’Brien’s The Golden Ingot and The Diamond Lens, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
What set Tales of Tomorrow apart was the fact that it was written by serious writers for an adult audience, and often tackled difficult and complex themes. Some of the episodes are genuinely unsettling even to a modern viewer. Others were more run-of-the-mill horror sci-fi stories. Since the show, like many TV shows at the time, was acted and broadcast live, the most effective episodes tend to be the intimate and claustrophobic ones with a fairly small cast, that don’t require much special effects or big sets.
One of my favourite episodes is A Child is Crying, about a young girl with an IQ so extraordinary that she can calculate the future, but refuses to tell the US military when and by whom an imminent attack on the United States will take place, in order to prevent the US from striking first and setting off a nuclear war. The episode is memorable especially for the performance of the performance of 10 year old child actress Robin Morgan, doing her role with a gravitas and intelligence of someone double her age. Morgan, of course, later became a world renowned political theorist, poet, editor, essayist and leftist, feminist political activist, still active today. The episode was based on a short story by John D. MacDonald, later author of the renowned Travis McGee detective series and the novel The Executioner, on which Cape Fear (1962) was based, and of course it’s 1991 remake.
A quirky and highly imaginative episode is What You Need, based on a story by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, about a reporter who stumbles across a little shop with a caretaker who has devised a machine that can foretell the future, and only sells things that people will need, although he doesn’t tell them why they will need it. He ends up saving the reporter’s life when he sells him a pair of scissors, but then the reporter tries to blackmail him for personal gain. The episode is extremely well directed and filmed with a very nice atmosphere and outstanding acting from fairly unknown actors.
The Children’s Room, based on a story by Raymond F. Jones, is a very creepy and heart-breaking episode of a father who finds his son reading a book in a strange language, which the father, to his surprise, finds that he can understand although he has never seen or heard it before. The boy, Bill, says he got it from the children’s room in the scientific library, a library that, as the father points out, has no children’s room. When he visits the library he finds that he can see a door that no-one else sees, and inside is confronted with an eerie librarian who tells him that his son is a mutant of a race that will take over the world. The father is also a mutant, but to a lesser extent, and the coming rulers have no need for him. He also says that Bill must very soon leave the comfort of his family to serve a higher purpose. When confronted, Bill says he knows all this in his heart, but struggles between his love for his parents and his higher calling. The librarian is played by Universal horror stalwart Una O’Connor, best known as the cackling landlady in The Invisible Man (1933, review). Raymond Jones’ story The Alien Machine was used as the basis for the SF movie This Island Earth in 1955 (review).
Other not so subtle, but none the less effective episodes are Plague from Space and The Red Dust, that both concern deadly viruses from outer space. In the first an alcoholic army captain finds new purpose when a spacecraft lands close to his airbase. When inspecting the spacecraft they find a glittery, but dead, alien and soon everyone in the base start dying. The captain must then choose between saving himself or ordering a nuclear strike on the base to save the rest of the planet by wiping out the plague. There’s a good performance by Harry Landers, who would later star in a prominent role in Willie Wilder’s low-budget sci-fi movie Phantom from Space (1953, review), as well as the last episode of Star Trek (1966). The Red Dust takes place on a spaceship returning to Earth from an interstellar journey to a planet where a whole civilisation has been wiped out. Soon they realise that they have brought with them a red dust that grows and starts to fill the spacecraft. Paranoia ensues when they find out it is radioactive and will kill them all very slowly. They realise that if they land on Earth, the dust will take over the whole planet, just as it killed the planet they visited. Arguments break out about whether they should go home, where they could still lead 12 happy years alive – and hope that the scientist would find a cure for the rest of humanity, or die alone in space and thus save the people of Earth.
The former episode features James Doohan in his first TV appearance, who would go on to appear on both The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. He also starred in The Satan Bug (1965) and the stop-motion animation series Jason of Star Command 1978). He is immortalised in the minds of sci-fi generations as Scotty in the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), as well as all the six Star Trek films made with the original cast, and Star Trek: Generations (1994). The latter episode stars Lex Barker, who took over the role of Tarzan when Johnny Weissmuller became too old to play it. When film roles in the US dried up in the late fifties, polyglot Barker embarked on a European career, where he appeared in many Italian and German films. He was even nominated for a Bambi Award as best foreign actor in Germany in 1967.
A third outer space adventure was Appointment on Mars, where three Mars explorers find uranium on the red planet and begin to place stakes on the findings. However, strange forces at work soon make them paranoid and suspicious of each other, and what could have been a trip that would have made them rich for life, ends up in a bloodbath. The episode is hampered by ridiculously cheap Mars sets, but wins laurels for its superb editing and directing, allowing the action to seamlessly move from place to place in a number of different points in time and even switch between day and night, although the whole episode takes place on a barren desert without indoors sets to mask light instant light changes or allowing actors to move between rooms and sets to mark time changes. Very impressive work. The episode stars later TV star Brian Keith, nominated for Emmys three times for his work on Family Affairs, as well as Leslie Nielsen, who had already appeared in Lights Out and Out There. Nielsen appeared on a total of six episodes of Tales of Tomorrow, before finding everlasting cult fame for playing the lead in the classic Forbidden Planet (1956, review). Of course, there are other roles he is better known for today …
A rare comedy episode is The Great Silence, by Frank de Felitta, about an old nagging couple who live out in the woods and encounter a UFO that turns all people in America temporarily mute. The only dialogue in the film comes from the radio, which eventually also goes dumb. The episode stars Oscar nominees Burgess Meredith and Lilia Skala. Boris Karloff turns up in a mediocre episode about an inventor who creates a time machine and goes back in time, where he tries in vain to get rich by selling the formula for penicillin, and in an ironic twist catches a deadly fever after a non-impressed doctor throws away the ”wonder drug”. The best acted episode (The Evil Within) is a master class in method acting between Rod Steiger, Margaret Phillips and none other than James Dean, about a scientist who invents a formula that brings out the evil in animals, and whose wife accidentally digests it after a test tube breaks in the refrigerator, turning her into a homicidal maniac.
Of course, being broadcast live, the show suffered from the kind of blunders that happen in live television. But despite some actors flubbing their lines and mishandling props, very few serious mistakes are made, with one notable exception. The most famous episode of all is the Frankenstein episode, actually starring horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster. In the first half of the episode Chaney can been seen walking lacklusterly around, making vague grunting noises, falling in and out of character and sometimes looking straight at the camera. In a famous scene where he is supposed to run amok and break chairs, he simply picks them up and gently puts them back down again. At one point he mumbles something about saving the chair, at another point he simply makes breaking gestures with his arms and shouts: ”Break, break!”, and before walking out of frame he reaches back to catch a chair that’s about to tip over.
As Chaney’s drinking problem was well known at the time, many have speculated that he was dead drunk, but he has given another explanation. He sat for four hours in makeup, and when he was called to the set, he simply assumed that it was a dress rehearsal, and naturally didn’t want to break the chairs. He said that after he left one set and walked to another, the director informed him that he was actually live, and in the next scene he is noticeably more energetic and focused, and doesn’t do any more mistakes, and actually puts in a very good performance.
Other famous actors who appeared on the show were: Walter Abel (5 episodes), Bruce Cabot, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Gabor, Veronika Lake, Vaughn Taylor, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Jackie Cooper and Paul Lukas. The show was principally directed by long-time TV director Don Medford, and among the guest directors were Franklin J. Schaffner of Planet of the Apes (1968) fame.
It’s a joy watching the camera crew, directors, actors and stage hands do their live magic to show the passing of time and even change of scenery during a few seconds, sometimes with even cutting to a different camera. In Appointment on Mars we get a short two-second close-up of the actors in one place in broad daylight. Suddenly it is dark and the actors are lying in a completely different place, sleeping outside their tent (yes yes, the absurdity of camping in a tent on Mars), in other sequences the camera zooms and throws the image out of focus for two or three seconds, then zooms back, and suddenly the scene has changed. The sets – especially when we’re talking indoors – are reasonably well dressed, we seldom feel like we’re on a sound stage. Outdoor sets are much trickier and frequently give the illusion away. The writing is somewhat inconsistent, and all episodes don’t carry the same quality.
The live shows of the fifties were in many instances completely lost after they had aired. Back in that day there still wasn’t any way to record the shows on tape as they were broadcast, like you could later do with for example VCR:s Those shows that were preserved were simply recorded by a 16 or 35 mm film camera, which was placed in front of a cathode ray, basically a monitor, which broadcast the show that was aired on TV. It was a clumsy technique that degraded the image somewhat, but we are happy it was done. Not all episodes seem to be available for home viewing, but around a half of them were released on DVD a few years ago, and I’d say that of these, about two thirds are of good quality and about half of them are top-notch quality. The lesser episodes tend to suffer from unimaginative writing, talky dialogue and a lack of pacing and suspense.
Tales of Tomorrow might not look like much to a modern viewer, and indeed its biggest asset is indeed in its writing. A competing show, Out There, was quickly cobbled together for CBS, and in 1955 pioneering SF producer Ivan Tors put together Science Fiction Theatre. In 1959, of course, came the show that almost everyone knows, SF fan or not: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which is set to get a third reboot. As Syfy puts it: “Without this show blazing the trail, who knows what other sci-fi shows might never have come to be. Even The Twilight Zone would full on revisit some of its tales. We can thank Tales of Tomorrow for giving us some of the most fantastic tales told today.”
Tales of Tomorrow. 1951-1953, USA. Created by Mort Abrahans and Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Man Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, Alvin Sapinsley, David E. Durston, Max Ehrlich, Gail Ingram, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Born, Henry Kuttner, et. al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Lee J. Cobb, Lex Barker, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, Jackie Cooper, Paul Lukas, et. al. Set designer: James Trittipo. Graphic art director: Arthur Rankin Jr. Sound: Nick Carbonaro. Technical director: Walter Kubilus. Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon for George F. Foley, distributed by ABC.
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