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Monday, March 3, 2008

Crash of Moons

Released as a feature film, Crash of the Moons (CoM) was actually three episodes of the TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger which aired in July of 1954. Since it was made for television (with incredibly small budgets) and a continuing plot line, CoM has a kinship with the movie serials like Flash Gordon and Captain Video. In that context, CoM is actually a step up, the next generation of space serials. Rocky Jones has a place in the historical sci-fi timeline as the stepping stone between Flash Gordon and Captain James T. Kirk. He's a little of both.

The costumes aren't much different from the serials. People of other worlds still seem to wear lightening bolts or other logos on all their clothing. The sets, however, have lost their Industrial Baroque look. Instead, there's a sort of spartan simplicity which reflected the 50s' sense of "modern" -- very different from the 30s' sense of what was modern. The characterizations are fairly two-dimensional, but since it was written for a "youth" audience, this was a feature, not a flaw.

Watch CoM as a sort of early experiment in TV space drama. It established several elements which the 60s version -- "Star Trek" -- would run with. More on that in the Notes section.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Two "gypsy" moons are traveling into a solar system. Their course will cause one of them to destroy the United Worlds space station OW9. No other rockets are near enough to evacuate the station's personnel, but Rocky Jones, in his rocket, the "Orbit Jet," arrive just in time to push the station out of harm's way.
The next danger is that the one of the gypsy moons is on a collision course with another small planet called Ophecius. Rocky is dispatched to warn both populations of the danger and need to evacuate. The leader of Ophecius is the evil queen Cleolantra, who refuses. She suspects everything the United Worlds does, so assumes this is just a plot to scatter her people and sabotage her reign. The rule of the moon Posita is much more affable, but lacks the resources to evacuate his whole population. In the meantime, Cleolantra decides the way to solve her problem is to blow up Posita. She and her aide, Atlasan, take a rocket to Posita and start bombing it with missiles.
Rocky disables Cleolantra's ship and assists in the orderly evacuation of Posita with a fleet of ships. He then travels in Cleolantra's repaired ship back to Ophecius in attempt to convince them to evacuate too. Panic ensues as the mob rushes the rocket in attempt to escape. Atlasan's wife urges calm and the evacuation is completed just in time. While in space on their way to new homes, the ruler of Posita waxes optimistic about the future of his people. This softens the cold heart of Cleolantra, who is then assumed to be much less thorny to the United Worlds. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Seeing Rocky Jones: Space Ranger as the forerunner of Star Trek (the original series), is in itself an interesting study. The plot is actually fairly good for an early TV series. Considering how early TV series had budgets comparable to a high school play production, the crew did a fairly good job. The special effects don't carry the show (as they're expected to in feature films nowadays), but the lack of them doesn't ruin the story's flow either. It's also fun to see John Banner in an early role (Bavarro), knowing that he would become famous a decade later for his Sergeant Schultz role in the TV series Hogan's Heros. And speaking of Bavarro and his planet, Posita, it's quite a hoot to see how almost everything on Posita is emblazoned with a lightening bolt. Doors, windows, walls, clothing. Posita was an enormously "branded" planet. Nike's marketeers may have watched TV in the mid 50s and been inspired.

Cold War Angle
While the characterizations are mostly stereotypes, it is notable that the evil ruler oppresses her people by denying them information from "outside." This is a classic Iron Curtain reference. The men of Ophecius are all dressed in ostentatious military uniforms. These things, as well as the selfishness of their autocratic ruler, are what amount to a juvenile casting of the Cold War. Good vs evil. Freedom and caring vs oppression and selfishness.

One Giant Leap for Woman-kind? -- Much was made over Gene Rodenberry including female crew members in his original Star Trek cast, as if it was such a ground-breaking move. A trip through 50s sci-fi takes some wind out of those sails. Sci-fi (even in the early 50s) often had its single woman crew member. Rocketship X-M of 1950 had Dr. Lisa. Flight to Mars ('51) had Carol Stafford. Commando Cody ('52) had his Sue Davis. Catwomen of the Moon ('53) had Helen aboard as the rocketship's navigator. Etc. etc. It was actually pretty routine to have a pretty woman among the crew. As such, having Vena part of Rocky's crew was not particularly ground-breaking. By that token, Ohura would not be either.
On another note, Cleolantra as the villain was not particularly novel either. It had been a long tradition at Disney studios to have the villain of a story be a woman. (the Queen in Snow White, Cuella de Ville in 101 Dalmations, Step Mother in Cinderella, etc.) 50s audiences would not have been shocked at a female villain.

World of Stereotypes -- The whole Rocky Jones world is stocked with stereotypes. Rocky is the brave and determined hero. Cleolantra is the shifty nemesis. Professor Newton is the typical scientist type (scatter-brained genius). Little Bobby is the token boy for the audience (of young boys) to identify with. It is interesting that the 50s notion of heros expected them to be squeaky clean and idealistically "good." Perhaps it was post-Vietnam disillusionment that sparked interest in heroes with a dark side (ala later Batman roles, etc.) But in the 50s, heroes were the idealized good-guy.
Even the two rulers are an exercise in manichean contrasts. Bavarro is the affable, caring and cooperative ruler of Posita. Cleolantra is the ruthless and oppressive despot of Ophecius.
50s sci-fi followed in the footsteps of the westerns for being morality plays. It's not hard to see them as simply westerns set in space.

Minimal Special -- One thing that stands out in CoM is how minimal the special effects are. Modern audiences have grown accustomed to on-screen action. This is a legacy of Star Trek which brought action and effects into primetime. In the mid 50s, however, these were far too expensive. In CoM, the actors talk about taking off in a rocket and walk out of the room. A few long moments of a re-used model rocket take-off are played. The next scene cut is of them inside the rocket's cockpit. This was early television. The model footage gave the actors time to exit one set, and take up positions in the other set.

Space Wiener -- Things rockety were hot in the mid 50s, especially to the youth. To promote the Rocky Jones: Space Ranger TV series, the producers had made up several (six?) "rocket" trailers with which they toured from town to town. These Rockets are a nearly-forgotten kin to Oscar Meyer's more famous Wienermobile (1936 to Present). They would get into parades and make appearances outside of grocery stores. "Rocky Jones' Space Ship Mars," was one of the better done of several rocket-trailer promotions of the mid-50s. It featured a big picture of Rocky on the side, as well as the sponsor, "Silvercup Bread". By the later 50s, the rocket trailer attractions faded in popularity. A few rusting hulks still remain. Note the photo at left with Rocky's picture barely visible yet. Such relics are a glimpse at a glorious rocket-fixated yesterday. Hot dogs, though, are forever.

Bottom line? CoM is a worthwhile look at 50s television. You can see the transition from the 40s serial style to the 60s' Star Trek. You can appreciate how much could be done with a low budget and see where the effects on Star Trek which look so laughably minimal now, were actually hot stuff at the time.

1 comment:

thingmaker said...

I was about 11 when my family got a new TV set in 1969 (I've only hazy memories of the tiny,snowy one we had till it died in 1963). I managed to catch only one episode of Star Trek in it's original run but till it hit syndication I watched a lot of minor SF on TV. The several Rocky Jones compilations still stand out in memory as entertaining and even somewhat interesting what with the wheel space station and such odd ideas as the atmosphere bridge between two planets in one storyline.