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Monday, August 18, 2008

Manhunt in Space

Originally, this story ran as a three consecutive episodes of the TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. They ran in May of 1954. The three episodes were assembled into a "feature" film for theatrical release. While the TV series was fairly cutting-edge for television productions, it was little more than B-grade material in theaters. The producers were probably counting on squeezing the last bit of profit from the Rocky Jones brand. There was the TV show, the product associations (Rocky Jones bread) and the parallel comic book series. All of these were aimed at the young boy market. The feature film was, no doubt, expected to extract a few more coins from that audience in matinee duty.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The United Planets are trying to construct a strategic outpost on the planet Casa 7. Trouble is, the cargo rockets have been disappearing just before arriving. One of those rockets carried Vena, on her way to visit her brother Paul on Casa 7. Rocky Jones is sent to investigate. Space pirates have been disabling the cargo ships, offloading their cargo and leaving them disabled and virtually invisible in geo-synchronous orbits around Casa 7. Nonetheless, Rocky finds the dead ship with Vena on it. He locks his ship to theirs and takes them down to Casa 7. Rocky figures the pirates can only be working from the planet Prah. He flies the Orbit Jet there, equipped with Professor Newton's secret "Cold Light" device which renders his ship invisible. Rocky lands, but gets himself captured. The pirates are actually working for Cleolanta. She wants them to hold Rocky, but he escapes. The pirates plan to simply invade and take over Casa 7, but it turns out their inside man at the control station is discovered. They're about to escape with Vena and Bobby as hostages, but Winky had disabled their engines. Rocky and Winky subdue all the pirates. Cue the silly ending.

Why is this movie fun?
See the notes for Crash of Moons, the previous "feature" film made out of three Rocky Jones episodes. Much still applies. Seeing the simplicity of early TV is interesting. There were a few points. See the Notes section.

Cold War Angle
There's little Cold War in Manhunt. The story line and characterizations bespeak of a pre-Cold War mind set.

Again, most of the notes to Crash of Moons still apply. See those too. Nonetheless, there are a couple of distinct points to Manhunt.

Western in Space -- The premise and plot of Manhunt is essentially a western. It is little different than a gang of robbers, based out of a remote cave, robbing cargo wagons sent to re-supply a fort. The hero outsmarts the robbers and captures them.

Dazzling Blather -- In an attempt to make the story more science fiction, the writers inserted several scenes with long strings of techno-blather. One of the best is when Rocky is explaining to Winky how the Cold Light device works.

Invisible Advances -- Invisibility was not brand new when the TV series ran in 1954, but Rocky Jones did push sci-fi to a new, higher level. Individual beings had been invisible before: HG Wells' Invisible Man (book, 1897), the alien in Phantom from Space ('53), the incorporeal space creature at the start of Quatermass Xperiment ('55). Manhunt was the first time a ship itself was made invisible by technology. (The high-flying enemy aircraft in Gog ('54) was only invisible to radar.) Once Rocky Jones introduced it, ships with "cloaking devices" (such as the Romulans in the original Star Trek series) would popularize the plot device.

Prop Watch -- Take note of the "space helmets" used when the characters go from one ship to another. You'll see the clear fishbowl helmets used in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars ('53)

Time Capsule -- Most TV shows in the early 50s were performed live, with no record. Rocky Jones: Space Ranger was shot as film for later broadcast (an expensive approach at the time). Film allowed the producers to do somewhat better special effects (such as the invisibility thing), but it also preserved for us an example of what people sat around in their living rooms watching.

Bottom line. Manhunt made for a low-grade B sci-fi movie, even by 1956 standards. As TV, however, it was fairly big budget. Those looking for deep or lavish feature film sci-fi will be disappointed. A fan of the genre, however, can appreciate the spartan innocence of it.

1 comment:

Lloyd said...

It was because of the Rocky Jones movies that I tried the other 50's TV series, like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, and Men into Space.

After seeing the movies, that I became a fan. Now to blast off in the Orbit Jet XV-2.