Sunday, January 30, 2011

Three Episodes of “Captain Video” (DuMont, 1949 & 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was a 1949 episode of the TV series Captain Video, which I believe was the very first science-fiction series ever aired on TV (U.S. mass-market TV, at least) — the title has become legendary but neither Charles nor I had ever actually seen an episode of it before, and this was at least in part because this was yet another show from the early days that was performed and broadcast “live,” the only preserved prints were old kinescopes and very few of them were preserved. Captain Video apparently began as a relatively “straight” space opera, but as the series progressed on the DuMont network they made it campier and aimed it more at the pre-pubescent boys that are and pretty much always have been the core audience for science fiction. This appears to be an episode called “Captain Video Prepares to Visit Regus” — Regus being the absolute ruler of a planet called Tercin that just lost a war to the Firmament (essentially what Star Trek later called the Federation) and Captain Video (Richard Coogan) and his assistant, Ranger (John Connell) have been delegated to go there and present the peace terms.

What I hadn’t realized was that Captain Video was a serial and that this was a “bridge” episode in which virtually nothing happened — the opening, a shot of a mountain crag with a building on the side of it that supposedly represents Captain Video’s headquarters, shown over a stirring version of Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman, is by far the most exciting part of the episode — though there are some interesting and decidedly mixed political messages that at some point tend towards Right-wing propaganda (the need to defend “Americanist” values against sinister enemies from abroad) and sometimes seem more progressive — not only the second “Video Ranger” talking spot, which calls for tolerance and an end to prejudice, but the debate of the Firmament officials in the opening scene of what sort of peace to offer Regus of Tercin, with the rest of the Firmament council calling for a brutal peace (the destruction of Tercin’s industry and its conversion to an agricultural planet, with all of its proceeds beyond what’s needed to feed the Tercinians shipped off to other planets in the Firmament — something along the lines of what Henry Morgenthau actually called for as how a defeated Germany should be dealt with after World War II) and Captain Video saying that such a peace would make more enemies than friends and the only way to ensure stability in the universe would be to offer the Tercinians softer terms and respect them as planetary beings. This argument rang true in terms of relevance to today’s situations!

Aside from that, Captain Video — at least as represented here — doesn’t seem like all that interesting a program, though it’s nice to have seen at least one sample of it (directed by Larry White and written by M. C. Brock — oddly, according to such major writers as James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Cyril Kornbluth, Walter Miller and even Sam Fuller contributed to this show!), and the weirdest parts of it are the two interludes that supposedly represent the activities of Captain Video’s agent on earth and are actually clips from a “B” Western about a federal marshal being confronted by a gang of baddies — the sort of surrealistic mashup one might expect from an avant-garde video work today but not from a slice of mainstream entertainment from the earliest days of commercial TV! — 1/22/11


The show Charles and I watched was the second episode of Captain Video we’d downloaded from, from 1950 and called “Code of Honor,” and though it had little actual action and it ended with a serial-like cliffhanger (the show was actually designed to work like a serial, with a plot that continued from week to week instead of resolving at the end of each episode), it was a quite good little drama, written by M. C. Brock and starring Richard Coogan in the title role. The episode was about a comet which is heading towards earth, and can be stopped only by firing atomic rays at it to break up its nucleus so it shatters harmlessly in planetary space — only for some reason Brock didn’t quite explain, this will essentially be a kamikaze mission meaning certain death for the crew of the spacecraft that does it. Captain Video is willing to end his own life to save earth from the killer comet, but two other space rangers who never intend to return to earth anyway (we get the impression they’ve been involved in previous bits of skullduggery that would prevent them from doing so without being arrested, sort of like Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca), Bascomb (Wright King) and Cromwell (David Lewis), decide to drive their ship into the comet and fire its atomic ray gun at it so they’ll spare both the earth and Captain Video.

The show is at its most engaging when it really does deal, as the title promises, with issues of honor — though in addition to the misunderstood Bascomb and Cromwell, there’s also an out-and-out baddie, renegade ensign Tubbs (Sam Weston — at least that’s how he’s billed on the show; according to, the actor’s real name was Anthony Spinelli), who left open some sort of valve on Captain Video’s spaceship so it’s doomed anyway, and at the end of this episode it looks really bad for our heroes and our planet: Bascomb and Cromwell fire at the comet, all right, but instead of getting it to shatter they merely split the nucleus in two, and one of the remaining parts is making an even more direct bee-line towards earth than the original intact one — and what’s more, Captain Video has just learned about the sabotage of his ship but it appears to be too late for him to do anything about it. According to, over 1,000 episodes of Captain Video and its various spinoffs were filmed — but just 24 are known to exist (this was a production of the DuMont TV network, which went out of business in the mid-1950’s; all of the company’s own archives, including the extant prints of its shows, were dumped in the river in New York in the 1970’s and the few that have survived seem to have been kinescopes that ended up elsewhere and still exist by pure chance), and though the loss of most of Captain Video isn’t that much of a cultural tragedy, it is incredibly frustrating to see bits and pieces of a show that was intended as a serial and not be able to follow its story arc with anything approaching coherence!

Captain Video
was clearly aimed for kids — the sponsor of this episode was Post Sugar Crisp cereal (the commercials boasted you could eat it three ways: out of a bowl with milk as a cereal, out of a bowl without milk as a snack, and out of the box as candy) and the acting had a golly-gee-whillikers attitude about it that the director (probably M. C. Brock — he’s credited as producer as well as writer and it’s not unlikely he would have been directing as well) probably wouldn’t have tolerated in a show aimed at adults — but it’s a nicely done little program and adults sitting at the TV (back when a lot of people didn’t have them at all and almost nobody owned more than one set) with their kids to watch this probably were entertained themselves. — 1/29/11


I ran Charles and I the third episode of Captain Video from the Web site — apparently of over 1,000 episodes aired (of this program as well as at least two spinoffs) only 24 actually survive, a tribute to the abysmal short-sightedness of copyright holders in the pre-video, pre-DVD age who didn’t realize they were sitting on a potential goldmine of sales to nostalgia freaks anxious to relive their youths. Captain Video was a pretty lousy program when it comes down to it, and this third episode was the weakest of the bunch, all about a bunch of villains with horrible accents (thereby just making their dialogue harder to understand given the primitive sound reproduction of early television) and a series of plots they were hatching against various planets with gibberish names (also hard to keep track of given the lousy sound quality) which Captain Video was somehow trying to dope out and stop in the proverbial nick of time. The show also contained one of those surreal inserts of “B”-Western footage through which its producers padded its length out to the requisite half an hour — supposedly this represented Captain Video’s agents on Earth interfering with yet more plots by the bad guys — and such scientific howlers as the propellers that power one of the super-villains’ planes (gee, we’ve got a high-tech show in which people are flying rockets around the galaxy, and the show cheerily ignores that by 1949 jets had replaced propeller engines in most military aircraft?).

In some ways the commercials, included in this download, were more interesting than the show itself; it was sponsored by a candy bar called PowerHouse (an interesting anticipation of the convention of computer nomenclature that programs get named with compound words spelled as one word but with a CapitalLetter IntheMiddle) and with ads telling people (kids, most likely) to save their PowerHouse Candy wrappers and enclose a 10¢ coin along with two 5¢ candy bar wrappers or one 10¢ wrapper and get a Captain Video secret ring complete with a locket on the ring that had his picture inside. (The commercial instructed the lucky recipients of this item to wear it at all times to identify themselves as official Video Rangers in Captain Video’s special force — and all I could think of was how quickly the cheap plastic those rings were typically made of would have worn out if any kids were gullible or foolhardy enough actually to follow those instructions.) — 1/30/11