Forty Years of Sci-Fi Television (1993)
VHS, 0:30, Simitar
When this brief video documentary was released by Simitar Entertainment Inc. in 1993, the history of video tapes was already relatively long in the tooth. The first Blockbuster video-rental store had opened in 1985—the first ever video-rental store opening in 1978—and DVDs wouldn’t emerge in the United States until a few years later in 1997. At the time, there was already a wide range of science-fiction television programs available on video tape: Doctor Who, Lost in Space, Outer Limits, The Prisoner, Space: 1999, Star Trek and others. In fact, the original Star Trek series came out on VHS in its entirety starting in 1985, and the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation aired in September 1987; that program was released on video tape in 1991.
Even with the 40th anniversary hook—this documentary, produced by Wavelength Video in 1990, starts its coverage in 1950—it’s a bit strange to make such a short (30 minutes!) VHS “documentary” about the history of science-fiction TV at the turn of the decade. The popularity and impending end of Star Trek: The Next Generation might have been an inspiration, but given how little time the documentary gives to more modern science-fiction TV, the video doesn’t quite fulfill that promise. At least two paperboard slipcases were printed for the VHS, one a text-only treatment featuring ever-larger text from top to bottom reading “Forty Years of Science Fiction Television Featuring Star Trek” with the subtitle “With classic Star Trek bloopers never seen before.” The other featured the title 40 Years of Sci-Fi Television and four detail photos from the TV programs Batman, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Trek, and The Time Tunnel. The back cover and sides of the slipcase featured Flash Gordon, Lost in Space, Star Trek, and Superman.
While less-popular shows such as The Time Tunnel or Lost in Space might well have found hungry fans looking to learn more, it becomes clear while watching the tape that the documentary is less a documentary and more a bookending of—or Trojan Horse for—something else entirely.
The documentary opens in 1950, contextualizing science fiction in the wider range of available programming: westerns, comedies, dramas, sporting events, and “cops and robber programs.” The uncredited documentarians deem the earliest science-fiction programs—Captain Video and His Video Rangers; Space Patrol; and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet—children’s programming. Captain Video, considered the worst of the three, initially broadcast evenings on the DuMont Television Network from 1949-1955 (making it the first science-fiction TV show ever) and then finding a daytime home as The Secret Files of Captain Video from September 1953 to May 1954. The Secret Files episodes were different than Captain Video and alternated weekly with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Captain Video star Al Hodge later hosted a cartoon show, Captain Video and His Cartoon Rangers, on WABD New York City from 1955-1957.
Space Patrol also initially aired evenings on ABC in 1951-1952 and then Saturday mornings from June 1952 to February 1955. The program was noted for its use of stock footage from the U.S. Navy. And Tom Corbett, Space Cadet—considered the best of the three—first aired on CBS evenings in 1950 before moving to ABC in 1951-1952, with a brief overlap on NBC in 1951. The program later moved to DuMont on Saturday mornings in 1953-1954 before finally landing at NBC in 1954-1955. Captain Video was the only TV show to inspire a serial (15 chapters in 1951); usually, the reverse was true. Based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1948 juvenile novel Space Cadet, the 1952 radio program, TV shows, and serial helped coin the phrase “space cadet.” Even the character Ralph Kramden used the phrase in the first episode of The Honeymooners, “TV or Not TV,” in 1955.
It is that 1953-1954 Saturday morning block—Space Patrol from 11-11:30 a.m. followed by The Secret Files of Captain Video or Tom Corbett, Space Cadet from 11:30 a.m. to noon—that secured those three programs so firmly in the memories of a generation of science fiction fans.
Next came Flash Gordon (1953-1954); Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954); and Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957), hosted by Truman Bradley. The character Flash Gordon had a long history itself before its move to TV, with a comic strip first published in 1934, a radio program on the Mutual network in 1935, a 13-chapter serial that began screening in 1936, and two serial sequels. Those sequels, the 15-chapter Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and the 12-chapter Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, began screening in 1938 and 1940, respectively.
Superman also had a rich transmedia history by the time Adventures of Superman first aired in 1952. Debuting in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman was also featured in a Mutual radio show in 1940, a series of cartoons from 1941-1943, and two serials: The 15-chapter Superman in 1948 and the 15-chapter Atom Man Vs. Superman in 1950. There was also a 1951 feature film starring George Reeves, Superman and the Mole Men. The character’s popularity—continuing to this day—spilled into commercial sponsorship: Reeves appeared as Clark Kent in TV ads for Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (now just Frosted Flakes). “Because you like Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, you can be Supergirl!”
The onset of the 1960s brought on a wave of anthology programs, including One Step Beyond (formerly Alcoa Presents, 1959-1961), which featured supernatural phenomena and the occult; The Twilight Zone (1959-1965), hosted by Rod Serling; and The Outer Limits (1963-1965), known for its outlandish creatures. Also in the ’60s, producer Irwin Allen helmed a series of programs for 20th Century Fox: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968, based on the 1961 movie), Lost in Space (1965-1968), and The Time Tunnel (1966-1967). Interestingly, a 1965 theatrical release and midnight screenings of the 1943 15-chapter serial Batman helped inspire the debut of the 20th Century Fox series Batman in 1966. Lasting only three years, the still-popular TV show took a more light-hearted though largely deadpan approach to the superhero, which first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 and sometimes appeared on the Superman radio show.
Given the video tape’s inclusion and promotion of Star Trek on its slipcases and title screen, it’s not surprising that the documentary spends some time considering the 1966-1969 series. What is surprising, however, is how it does so. Because nestled in the center of this 30-minute program—like a handgun in a hollowed-out book—is a 12-minute span (the slipcase copy hawks 14 minutes) of a “rare assembly of outtakes” and bloopers. At the end of each season’s filming, the film editors made a bloopers reel to give to members of the cast and crew. The documentary frames the 12-minute sequence of bloopers with a blue border to set off the show within the show.
My opinion might be colored by the current-day availability of bloopers—represented by TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jackie Chan’s candid martial arts outtakes, and the DVD era’s prevalence of deleted scenes—but the bloopers are largely unremarkable, even to this Star Trek fan. An unnamed Gorn introduces the sequence as though he were hosting the Venice Film Festival, and the “Star Trek Behind the Scenes” assembly features pratfalls, awkwardly prolonged love scenes, Leonard Nimoy with a lollipop, pulling faces (and Harry Mudd’s mustache!), swearing, dropping lines, belching, surprise visits from family members on set, walking into closed doors, and the Enterprise backfiring.
This, then, is why the video tape was released. The outtakes—in one longer version dubbed “The Blooper Reel”—were never commercially released as such. Writing in Starlog, James Van Hise said, “Rumor has it that one of the cast members of Star Trek considers the outtakes to be private and that public screenings hold him up to ridicule.” Regardless, no less than creator Gene Roddenberry would show them, along with the pilot “The Cage,” during lecture tours. Bootleg 16mm copies of the reel were sold at science-fiction conventions. A bootleg LP record of the third season bloopers was released by Longwood, Florida-based Blue Pear Records. And Night Flight aired a couple minutes of Star Trek bloopers paired with a trailer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the late 1980s.
After the over-long sequence of Star Trek outtakes—Van Hise wrote in Starlog, “[N]ot all bloopers are funny, many are tedious.”—and some commentary on the film franchise (but no mention of the animated series), the documentary somewhat ironically suggests that Star Trek was responsible for inspiring a group of more “intellectual” science-fiction series, including The Invaders (1967-1968), The Prisoner (1968-1969), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). Those last two programs were both inspired by made-for-TV movies; the 1972 movie of the week The Night Stalker was the highest-rated made-for-TV movie up to that time.
The rest of the documentary is a rapid-fire, cursory run through the 1970s and 1980s: The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-1978) and the spin-off The Bionic Woman (1976-1978), Wonder Woman (1976-1979), Logan’s Run (1977-1978, inspired by the 1976 movie), Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980), The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), Knight Rider (1982-1986), and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). While the second Star Trek series might be the capstone for the documentary given the show’s air dates and relationship to the included bloopers, Buck Rogers is also of transmedia interest. First appearing as a TV series, Buck Rogers, in 1950-1951, Buck Rogers also appeared in a 1929 comic strip, on the radio from 1931-1939, and in a 12-chapter serial in 1939.
This video tape is a decoy, a macrophage, a Trojan Horse for a long-lost unofficial reel of Star Trek outtakes that can not be released commercially. The collection of bloopers still occasionally pops up in other packages, such as PC Treasures’s 2007 DVD Classic Television Blooper Bonanza 1960’s, which includes a 14-minute collection with some of the bloopers repeated, and additional material—as well as bloopers from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and McHale’s Navy. This video tape’s producers knew that they couldn’t sell what they wanted to sell as it was, so they padded the 12-minute bootleg with 18 minutes of original content to sell something else entirely. In the end, viewers get two prizes inside: Something secret that they might have never seen before, and a shallow—though wide-ranging—introduction to even more that they might have never seen before. (HR)
Note: You can watch the full video tape uploaded to YouTube: https://youtu.be/DAJHswR9e9Q. Inexpensive copies are also occasionally available on eBay.
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Nate Wilson: NW Devon Cahill: DC HR: Heath Row MA: Matt Average