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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: Pre-1965, part 1 – 1949-57

Written By:

Alan Boon
Captain Video and His Video Rangers, 1949

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!

Pre-1965, part 1: 1949-57

There’s no concrete reason why The Telephemera Years begins in 1965, except for arbitrary reasons of available content and the more solid fixed point that is the great colour transference of that year, when it was announced that half of all network programming would be broadcast in colour from the Fall 1965 season. The years before we were gifted My Mother the Car, Lost in Space, and (eventually) Batman may look thinner in terms of genre programming but there were still those hardy souls doing pioneering work in the field of the strange and the fantastic.

So, while The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Wagon Train dominated the ratings, less rustic thrills could still be found dotted across the schedules, right up to a 1964 Fall season which saw The Addams Family, Bewitched, Flipper, Gilligan’s Island, Jonny Quest, The Man from UNCLE, The Munsters, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea all make their TV debuts. So sit back, pop on your slippers and light up your pipe, have the little lady bring you a little treat, and see what the pre-1965 era has in store for us…

Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, DuMont): Although there had been one-off productions on several US channels and on the BBC in the UK, Captain Video and His Video Rangers was the first science-fiction TV series to continue a story, from its premiere episode on June 27th 1949 right up to its finale, almost six years later. Producers James Caddigan and Larry Menkin created the show for the DuMont Network, the first challenger to the big three of NBC, ABC, and CBS (although ABC and CBS preceded it by only a year).

Set in Earth’s distant future in the year 2254, the Video Rangers were a courageous band of enlisted men under the direction of Captain Video himself (originally played by Broadway actor Richard Coogan, and subsequently by radio’s Green Hornet, Al Hodge). As was the fashion of the time, Video had a teen sidekick, confusingly named The Video Ranger, played throughout the series by Don Hastings (who would go on to play Dr Bob Hughes for over fifty years on As the World Turns).

Captain Video and His Video Rangers, 1949

Over the course of an estimated 1,537 episodes (exact records are difficult to compile and almost all of the shows are lost to history as actual recordings, with just twenty-four surviving in the UCLA Film and Television Archive), Captain Video kept Earth safe from such threats as Dr Pauli, the “yellow peril” of Hing Foo Sung, and alien Nargola (played by Ernest Borgnine in his first screen role. Stories were originally written in-house by Caddigan’s writing team and were largely earthbound, but the arrival of Buck Rogers on ABC led to Captain Video heading into space, with episodes written by a who’s who of science-fiction, including Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke.

At its peak, Captain Video and His Video Rangers attracted audiences of 3.5million but by April 1955 its viewing figures did not justify its costs, especially for an ailing network like DuMont (which would follow Captain Video into the abyss just sixteen months later). A syndicated animated series later saw Hodge reprise his role as the Captain, but the show has slipped out of the popular imagination of both the US and sci-fi TV worlds, with little in the way of nostalgia for a once-pioneering show. Coogan and Hodge (who died penniless in 1979 after spending the last four years of his life living in a hotel) may not have had glittering Hollywood careers but they were the first space heroes for a generation of TV viewers and deserve to be remembered for that, eternally.

Tales of Tomorrow (1951, ABC): Imagine a time when the Science Fiction League of America was not only a thing but a thing that wielded enough power and influence to get a TV show made. That in itself may seem like science-fiction, but Tales of Tomorrow stands as a testament to such things. The truth is a little more nuanced – the SFLoA may have actually been created at the urging of TV producer George F Foley Jr in imitation of the longstanding Science Fiction League to throw weight behind his programme pitch – but the guiding hands behind the show were SFLoA members Mort Abrahams and Theodore Sturgeon.

Foley and his ABC colleague Richard Gordon struck a deal with the SFLoA whereby they could choose from over two-thousand stories written by its members, adapting them for weekly Friday night episodes for an audience of eager sci-fi fans. The first episode – “Verdict from Space” – was adapted from Sturgeon’s “The Sky Was Full of Ships,” first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1947, and aired on August 3rd 1951, starring Lon McAllister and Marlon Brandt.

Tales of Tomorrow, 1951

Subsequent episodes in the shows eighty-five week run included stories by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and even HG Wells, with star turns from the likes of Boris Karloff, Leslie Nielsen, and Rod Steiger. A radio show ran alongside, although it was nowhere near as successful as the TV show and lasted for just fifteen weeks, coming off air just as its parent show was nearing the end of its run.

No reason was given for the cancellation of Tales of Tomorrow but it’s likely that the tastes of decision makers at ABC shifted slightly, resulting in its quiet demise. Most of the episodes that still exist are now considered to be in the public domain, as is the radio show, and can be found on video sharing sites and on several DVD releases. In many ways, Tales of Tomorrow was the proto-Twilight Zone (which adapted more than a few of the same stories) and was incredibly well-regarded in its day, even if it has been forgotten by future generations of sci-fi fans.

Science Fiction Theatre (1955, syndicated): Two years after Tales of Tomorrow finished its run on ABC, another anthology series debuted in syndication, its eventual fate pretty much equalling that of its inspiration. Science Fiction Theatre was created by Hungarian émigré Ivan Tors, a former playwright who moved into film and TV when he arrived in the US in 1939, specialising in producing family-friendly fantasy and adventure yarns.

For Science Fiction Theatre, Tors partnered with Frederick Ziv to sell the show to regional TV stations as a package of thirty-nine episodes, to be aired weekly over a nine-month season. Different channels scheduled the show on different times and days, but the first episode premiered on April 9th 1955, and featured the story of a test pilot who claims he encounters something mysterious on a supersonic flight.

Science Fiction Theatre, 1955

From a story by Tors, “Beyond” starred William Lundigan and was introduced by radio host Truman Bradley, who would remain a constant presence throughout the first season’s thirty-nine episode run, which would see the likes of Gene Barry, DeForest Kelley, and Vincent Price all step onto the Science Fiction Theatre stage. The first season was shot on colour film, but budgetary constraints forced a switch to black and white for a second season (also of thirty-nine episodes), along with more of an ensemble cast which included Rachel Ames, Michael Fox, and Arthur Franz.

There was no third season of Science Fiction Theatre, with Tors moving on to less fantastic fare, eventually developing Flipper, Daktari, and Gentle Ben for TV, as well as overseeing the underwater footage for Thunderball. The complete Science Fiction Theatre was released on DVD in 2015 but fans complained that the transfer was too dark, leaving nighttime scenes almost unwatchable. It’s on YouTube if you want to check it out yourself, and there’s a certain thrill to be had in experiencing such cheap and schlocky TV filler.

Colonel Bleep (1957, syndicated): In 1945, the first explosion of an atomic bomb had unseen consequences. Across the galaxy, denizens of the planet Futura are alarmed at man’s recklessness and despatch Colonel Bleep, an alien with a triangular head and a slender body, to investigate. Bleep’s arrival on Earth coincides with the awakening of Scratch, a hibernating Stone Age man, and Bleep soon commissions the innocent caveman as his deputy, also enlisting Squeak, a cowboy hat-wearing puppet.

Created by Robert D Buchanan and Jack Schleh, two staffers at the Soundac animation studio in Miami, Colonel Bleep premiered in syndication on September 21st 1957. Episodes were drawn from a variety of formulas, including training episodes (Scratch learning from Bleep), travelogues (the crew visiting foreign countries, as well as other planets), and conflicts with extraterrestrial threats also drawn to Earth by man’s tinkering with atomic power.

Colonel Bleep, 1957

The show was produced, as were most cartoons of the time, with extremely limited animation and were narrated by local (to Miami) newscaster Noah Tyler, who also provided voices for character when called upon. Schleh directed every one of the one-hundred episodes produced, which were written by Buchanan and Schleh to result in a cheap to make – and therefore cheap to sell – series. Syndicated episodes were shown over a three-year period before Buchanan and Schleh moved on to fitness cartoon The Mighty Mister Titan.

Considering its position as one of the first animated sci-fi series, Colonel Bleep is all but forgotten today but is fondly regarded by those who do stumble across it. Only forty-four episodes still exist, with nothing remaining of its production materials after Soundac closed in 1971 and all its assets were stolen from a removal van. Those episodes that survived can be found on YouTube and are cited as one of the main inspirations for The Ren & Stimpy Show; that’s evident in the animation style but also in the mood of the piece, a slightly sidewards and anarchic look at humanity through a distorted lens.

Next time on The Telephemera Years: We’re straddling the cusp of the 1960s with spacemen, groovy detectives, and womanising cartoonists!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1978 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1989 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1998 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2006 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: DIC (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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