Science fiction has a long history in the pages of pulp magazines and paperback novels from the early days of the 20th century. Beyond magazines such as Weird Tales, Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, the genre enjoyed popularity in comic books, and, beginning in 1949, on television. Throughout its history, science fiction has kept up with the various technological advances which it trumpeted, whether it was better printers in order to print paperback books cheaply and efficiently; better infrastructure and computerized inventory systems; or a newfangled device which brought the motion picture into homes. Captain Video and his Video Rangers, written by some of the best authors in the business, is one such program that took advantage of the home television and brought science fiction into a promising new world.
Science fiction has been a fixture of film for a long time: In 1902, Georges Méliès filmed Le Voyage dans la Lune, inspired in part by the works of Jules Verne. Others followed over the coming years, from an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Thomas Edison's studio in 1910, to the wonderful German film Metropolis, released in 1927. Science fiction serials appeared in movie theaters across the world, attracting hundreds of aspiring authors, such as Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman, who snuck into movie theaters to catch the latest releases.
The rise of the technological industry is the 20th century is important to the evolution of science fiction. Let’s consider Hugo Gernsback’s story. Soon after immigrating to the United States, Gernsback set up the Electro Importing Company in 1907 with the design to import electronic equipment into the country. In doing so, he attracted many specialists from the radio industry, who, as Gernsback biographer Larry Steckler noted, "later became the engineers and executives of all our great radio, TV and electronics corporations."
Gernsback was even more successful in the magazine market, and set up a gadgets magazine called Modern Electronics, first published in 1908, which would later morph into a publication for fiction with an emphasis on the gadgets and gizmos he hoped to sell. The magazine later transformed into Popular Science Magazine, which is still published today. Gernsback also went on to edit another magazine, Electrical Experimenter, which saw contributions from notable figures such as Nikola Tesla, before moving on to publish several science-fiction-specific magazines like Amazing Stories. As Gernsback was publishing his magazines, researcher Philo Taylor Farnsworth successfully demonstrated a new type of technology, the television, in September of 1927. A year later, Gernsback himself began to use his radio station to broadcast television signals, and, slowly, an industry was born. Like with magazine and paperback publishing, science fiction began to permeate the new medium.
As with any new technology, companies had to establish the infrastructure for regular public usage. Television sets were at the height of luxury when the United States fell into the Great Depression, and throughout the 1930s, broadcast standards and receiver-set technology continued to evolve and improve. Another major problem: there was very little to watch.
In 1938, DuMont Laboratories created the first consumer-ready television set, and, with the onset of World War ll, they began developing broadcast capabilities. Following the war, regular broadcasts began in New York City, and other major companies such as ABC, CBS, and NBC also began making the jump from radio to television. As the market for television grew, so too did the demand for content.
Among the various lines of programming being developed for television was a children's science-fiction show created by James Caddigan called Captain Video and his Video Rangers. The 30-minute, live-broadcast show premiered on June 27th, 1949, on DuMont's television network. The show was set in the year 2254 and followed Captain Video, an agent who worked against the forces of evil alongside the Video Rangers, assistants located around the globe. The heroes possessed "scientific secrets and secret weapons," and "usually accomplished [their] goals through a combination of physical strength, moral rectitude, and a mastery of science." The show took its heroes into outer space and around the world, and seems to have taken much influence from science-fiction serials such as those by E.E. 'Doc' Smith and others. From 1949 through 1951, Maurice Brockhauser, under the name M.C. Brock, wrote the daily scripts for the show. During this time, he encountered problems: as David Weinstein notes in his book The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television, "Brock apparently had trouble with the basics: plot, character development, and plausibility."
In April 1951, the show’s sponsor, Post Cereal, brought on Olga Druce as one of the show's producers. Druce had studied theater in the United States and in Germany, acted on Broadway, and worked closely with youth theater. When she took over Captain Video, "she upgraded the production quality of the programs many-fold by investing in quality sets and costuming, and hiring a number of the finest science-fiction writers of the era." One of her first acts was to fire Brockhauser. Druce, however, wasn't well-versed in science fiction, so she turned to literary agent Scott Meredith for help.
Meredith brought in some of the authors he worked with, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, Walter Miller, Robert Sheckley, Jack Vance, and Dan Wilcox, all major figures in the sci-fi marketplace who had plenty of experience in the areas in which Captain Video was lacking. Their presence helped to improve the quality of the daily show, allowing them to "tell complex stories that tackled concepts like freedom, democracy and scientific ethics." Jack Vance recounted in his autobiography that "when I arrived at [Druce’s] office in New York, I found myself part of a group which included Robert Sheckley, Arthur C. Clarke and a few others." He was to be paid $1500 per episode (almost $15,000 in 2014), and set to work, thrilling Druce with his scripts. However, Vance eventually relocated to the West Coast, disliking the NYC climate, which strained relations between him and the show's producers.
Arthur C. Clarke, on the other hand, wasn't interested in writing for the program, but remained around to help in other ways. According to Druce, he was a regular guest on set: "I was in the first few months of producing Captain Video when I met Arthur, and he was on the set a lot...I didn't know a damn thing about science fiction, but I had just taken over the show for General Foods... Arthur never actually wrote for the show; he wasn't the slightest bit interested in that. He was always having fun and making fun of me in a kind way. But he also inspired me. He was appreciative of what we were trying to do for the youngsters." Clarke seems to have used his technical knowledge to help the show show, acting as a sort of consultant for the writing and production teams: "he helped me a lot. For example, he advised me when I wanted to have a space ship built and nobody wanted to pay for it. He told me what to ask for, which was a big help because I had to deal with all the unions, and I had to save up enough money from my budget to pay for it. Well, we actually built the spaceship and did the first special effects for space on the air," noted Druce.
In the meantime, Jack Vance soon ran into trouble with the show's producers: "On my last script or two, I had been letting my imagination range too far, injecting humor into the scripts and putting the characters into amusing predicaments. I got a call from Olga Druce complaining that I was turning Captain Video into a farce, and that my scripts would get her fired. Instead, she fired me."
Despite behind the scenes issues with some of the show's writers and the bare-bones production values, Captain Video was a popular show with children: Jack Gould of the New York Times "identified Captain Video as the first show of the 'electronics era,' recognizing an emerging aesthetic of visual excess that had little relation to reality." Over the years that the show ran, the format changed, moving from a 30-minute show laden with clips from b-movies to a 15-minute show without them. In 1953, Post Cereal dropped the show, taking Druce with it. The show continued on, and soon joined with another serial science-fiction show, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, which was loosely inspired by the works of Robert Heinlein. However, the DuMont network began to run into financial and legal issues, and the last episode of Captain Video aired on April 1, 1955, shortly before the DuMont network collapsed.
Captain Video and his Video Rangers, despite its cheap production, was a forerunner of what would become a major television genre: the science-fiction television show. Its follow-up show, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, went through several network changes before also ending in 1955. Other television shows blossomed at this time, like Buck Rogers and Space Patrol, and major anthology shows such as Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone found incredibly successful runs in the late 1950s and 1960s. However, it was in 1966 that the best-known space program of them all appeared on CBS: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Like Captain Video, Roddenberry hired prominent science-fiction authors, including Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch and others, to help with the show.
Unfortunately, most of the episodes of Captain Video have since been lost: much of the content from DuMont and other early television networks were destroyed in the 1970s, although some episodes still remain online. The show likely had some lasting impacts on some of the authors who helped create it: Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on another sci-fi film venture, 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Stanley Kubrick over a decade later. He heavily consulted on the story’s development alongside Kubrick.
As technology advanced in the 20th century, science fiction, heavily influenced by the stories, tropes and authors of the pulp days of the genre, made the inevitable jump from the printed word to television, a format well-suited for serialized storytelling. This jump allowed the creators of the sci-fi stories we love to bring a new dimension to their imagined works. As they did so, science fiction began another grand tradition which persists to this day: the serialized science-fiction adventure that takes its readers and viewers to fully imagined new worlds.