Appellate Judge Erick Harper has often considered changing his name to "Captain DVD, Master of the La-Z-Boy."
He's in the movies now—bigger and better than ever!
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the dawn of the television age, there were four networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. The DuMont network, a pioneer in those early days of television, announced the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in its first broadcast on August 9, 1945. Later, DuMont was a leader in developing commercial programming, seen as a key to selling more DuMont-brand television sets.
One of the most popular shows produced by DuMont was Captain Video and his Video Rangers, which aired live five (and occasionally six) nights a week from 1949-1955. This pioneering space saga followed the adventures of Captain Video and his sidekick (identified only as "The Ranger") as they traveled through space thwarting the plans of all sorts of evil space tyrants, evil and/or mad scientists, and the like. The series, while intended for children, soon developed a sizeable adult fan base as well.
In 1951, Captain Video went where no television character had gone before: he made the leap from television to the big screen. (Thus began a craze that Hollywood has taken to ridiculous extremes since then, but that is a story best left for another time.) Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere appeared in theaters as a Columbia serial in 15 chapters, thrilling audiences each week with stories of adventure in the New Frontier.
Facts of the Case
Captain Video (serial stalwart Judd Holdren, Zombies of the Stratosphere, Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe, The Lost Planet) and his sidekick, the Video Ranger (Larry Stewart, A Yank in Korea, Blackhawk: Fearless Champion of Freedom), fight evil from their secret mountain lair. In this chapterplay, they face an evil plot hatched by Vultura (Gene Roth, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Earth vs. the Spider), evil dictator of the planet Atoma. It falls to Captain Video and the Ranger to thwart Vultura's plans for interplanetary conquest, both on the peaceful, neutral planet of Theros and on Earth itself.
Captain Video and Ranger must also contend with the devious efforts of Dr. Tabor (George Eldredge, Gang War, Psycho), one of Earth's most brilliant scientists. The turncoat Tabor has allied himself with the evil Vultura, assisting in the plan to conquer Earth.
Faced with the double threat of the dictator and his accomplice, Captain Video and the Ranger must defend against enemies both internal and external and ensure that the solar system remains safe for freedom and democracy!
By the time Columbia released Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere, the serial format was on its last legs, the victim of the very television craze that spawned Captain Video himself. Serials had always been notoriously low-budget, quickly-made affairs, and Captain Video is no exception. Captain Video and his sidekick sport blandly generic uniforms that look disturbingly like Luftwaffe surplus, topped off with what are easily identifiable as football helmets. (Frankly, the only time Captain Video doesn't look like a complete dork is when he steals someone else's clothes to infiltrate Vultura's lair.) Special effects are less impressive than those in Universal's space serials of a decade and a half earlier. The makers of Captain Video decided that hand-drawn animation would be the easiest way to depict rocketships flying through space and other wonders. Sometimes this works out all right, but usually the results are too cartoony and unintentionally humorous.
One of Captain Video's chief flaws is its reliance on gadgets and technobabble over real action. Nifty high-tech doodads were a hallmark of the original television series, and included the Opticon Scillometer, a viewscreen capable of feats of surveillance that should be impossible in an age before spy satellites. The real function of the Opticon Scillometer in the television series was to allow Captain Video to monitor the activities of his "undercover agents" around the world, thus allowing a portion of each episode to be filled with old cowboy serials. Here, this wonderful device allows Captain Video to monitor the activities of Dr. Tobor and his men without leaving the comfort of his headquarters. When coupled with other amazingly convenient technobabble devices, this becomes a way to conduct far too much of the "action" of the serial via remote control. Indeed, Captain Video's lab tech, a man identified only as Gallagher (Don C. Harvey), seems a lot more indispensable than the captain himself most of the time.
When Captain Video and the Ranger do leave their base, they generally travel about in a sleek, futuristic "jetmobile," which we are informed is the fastest thing on wheels—and therein lies one of the biggest disappointments with this so-called space serial. Far too much of the action involves generic car chases and tedious skirmishes with Dr. Tabor's pinstripe-clad, fedora-wearing minions. Making things worse, most of this "action" was filmed on a ranch generally used for shooting western serials. The surroundings are rugged, with lots of interesting rock formations and twisting paths, but not particularly well-suited to the adventures of an ultra-modern hero. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't watch sci-fi to see car chases on gravel roads surrounded by giant boulders. Also, one has to wonder: if Dr. Tabor were really interested in helping Vultura take over the planet, wouldn't it be better if he concentrated at least some of his efforts in places where there were actually people?
All of these flaws are really the fault of the low budget and could probably be forgiven, but Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere commits the one unforgivable sin of serialdom: it cheats on its cliffhangers. True to the serial form, each chapter ends in a tension-filled cliffhanger. Honest serials play fair with these cliffhangers, putting the hero into danger and giving the audience a week to sweat over how he will escape the peril. Then, the next week, the following chapter picks up where the previous one left off, generally showing how the hero fights or thinks his way out. Captain Video cheats on its cliffhangers by rewriting previously established events at the beginning of each new episode. For example, in one episode Captain Video and the Ranger are traveling in a small aircraft. The aircraft encounters a "flying disk" from Atoma, essentially a guided missile sent to shoot them down. We see a collision, the airplane explodes, and the chapter ends. In the next chapter, however, the action picks up with the Captain and the Ranger seeing the flying disc approaching their plane. Suddenly, in this new version of events, the two men have time to get to the door of the plane and bail out before the seemingly deadly explosion. In Chapter 12, Captain Video and his men face attack by a "nuclear rocket" (!) launched from Atoma. The episode ends in a massive fireball. However, when Chapter 13 begins, Captain Video has time to whip out his pistol and shoot the rocket down before it causes any real damage. This rewriting of previously established events flagrantly violates the accepted rules of serial fair play. It is one thing to put the hero into a seemingly hopeless situation and then have him escape by extraordinary means; it is quite another to give a false resolution and then retrench and revise events in the following episode. Sadly, Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere cheats the audience in similar fashion in almost every episode.
Video quality is about what you would expect from a 50-year-old low-budget kiddie serial. On the positive side, this is probably the only release of this serial to maintain the original red or green tinted Cinecolor sequences indicating locations on different planets. It's a semi-cheesy gimmick, but the color-coding works fairly well to help us tell the various planets apart. Overall, the flickering source image shows its age after 50 years with a noticeable amount of grain and dirt. There are some defects that appear to be digital in nature, such as when the screen seems to separate in thirds or fourths, with the sections ever-so-slightly out of alignment vertically. (I instinctively reached for the trusty vertical hold knob, only to remember that I haven't seen a television with one of those in at least 15 years.)
The other big visual flaw in these episodes is the presence of the VCI logo in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. This occurs for about the first 10 seconds of every minute. However, this is not the fault of the people at VCI. It seems that in order to get their hands on the source prints, VCI had to agree to "watermark" their digital incarnation of Captain Video. It's not clear just what in the world the owners of the source material hoped to accomplish by forcing VCI to do this, but it is to VCI's credit that they made the necessary compromise to acquire the serial and put out a DVD for future generations to enjoy. They have made it as unobtrusive as they possibly could, but it will still prove annoying to purists. If we want to see old movies with a logo superimposed on them, we'll watch them on basic cable.
The audio hasn't aged particularly well, either. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it verges on unintelligible. The musical score often distorts and warbles, like the old movies we used to watch on 16mm in eighth-grade Social Studies class. Voices come across as thick and "buzzy."
This release of Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere contains a fair amount of added-value content. There is a photo gallery of posters, lobby cards, and assorted promotional material for numerous serials and sci-fi schlock from the early 1950s. Titles like Brick Bradford—Amazing Soldier of the Future, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, and Devil Girl from Mars leap from lurid posters intended to stir the imaginations of adolescent boys everywhere. A collection of six trailers for other serials reveals, among other things, that Columbia used the cartoon special effects technique to much better effect in some of their Superman serials. Finally, a collection of cast and crew bios gives credit to these often unsung heroes of the bottom of the studio system food chain.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Quaint as it may seem now, the name "Captain Video" must have had a modern, futuristic ring to it when the original program premiered in the late 1940s. Video, in the form of television broadcasts, was as new and exciting a concept as atomic energy, jet airplanes, and the new, mysterious device known as the computer. Add to this the good captain's numerous video-oriented gadgets (like the Opticon Scillometer), and the name makes much more sense. Historical context, as always, is important.
Historical context becomes even more important when one examines the political undertones present in Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere. In 1951, the Cold War was cold in name only, with the world powers firmly divided into democratic capitalist and totalitarian communist camps. Indeed, the conflict of ideologies had come to real blows on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere in the world. It is difficult not to read contemporary geopolitics into this serial. Vultura, dictator of the planet Atoma, seeks to extend his domination throughout the universe. He does this by invading and co-opting peaceful planets like Theros under the pretense of "liberating" them from their indigenous rulers; furthermore, Theros is clearly presented as the first step in a sort of interplanetary domino theory that brings Vultura one step closer to conquering Earth. Captain Video and his organization fight a proxy war on Theros, advising the locals on tactics and strategy but not actually getting involved in the battle against Vultura's forces themselves. Back home, their chief responsibility is to battle the subversive forces of Dr. Tobor, a respected member of the intelligentsia who has sold out to Vultura, becoming his agent on Earth in exchange for a promise of power once the conquest is complete; perhaps Senator McCarthy was right after all. Even the Cinecolor-tinted scenes lend themselves to this interpretation, with the innocent planet of Theros colored green and the evil planet of Atoma helpfully colored red. Newspaper headlines in later episodes go so far as to refer to Vultura as "the red dictator of the planet Atoma," just in case we missed the parallels. In the end (this may venture into spoiler territory for those who couldn't clearly foresee the good guys winning), Vultura is defeated, partly by an uprising of the people of his own planet. Captain Video dutifully informs us that "there has never been any people in history who wouldn't be free of a dictator if they could," and "
;if all men were free to live by majority rule and to worship as they wished, the universe need never know war again." I wasn't aware that religious freedom had entered into the plot, but the happy ending indeed includes free elections for the planet Atoma, supervised by the people of Theros, former victims of Vultura's aggression.
Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere is really not all that much fun. It lacks the escapist sense of adventure and enthusiasm of the older Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serials. For a purported "Master of the Stratosphere," Captain Video spends a vexing amount of time kicking around remote dirt roads on Earth. Also, it seems bad form for such a heroic figure to hoodwink the audience time and again with dishonest cliffhanger conclusions to each chapter.
As a final thought, I'm not sure what it says about Captain Video, his serial, or the times in which it was made, but there is not a single female in the entire running time—not so much as a coffee girl or an extra in the background of a shot.
Guilty! Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere may be a delightful memory for many, but sitting through it proved a chore for this judge—and I'm usually a big fan of serials, sci-fi serials in particular.
We stand adjourned.
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