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My Television Diary: 4/11/12

11 Apr

Tales of Tomorrow (1:13, “Sneak Attack”), December 7, 1951

When you look into the early days of live television, one thing you learn in a hurry is that it wasn’t all Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Steiger. Your towering legendary powerhouse productions were the exception, not the rule.

The typical live TV drama was less like “Requiem for a Heavyweight” than like this Tales of Tomorrow episode. I’m not saying it was bad, and I’m not saying it can be enjoyed only to the extent that one can laugh at it. I’m just saying it was ordinary.

But an ordinary silent melodrama of 1925 can still be fascinating as an historical document, and so it is with this. And just like the silent, there’s a lot to enjoy if you’re attuned to it.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was exactly one slender decade old when this little spy drama went over the air, and the script mentions Pearl Harbor specifically. A certain large and powerful Eastern European country has landed giant drone airplanes at every large American city. One by one, they explode by remote control, destroying everything for miles around and killing thousands. But it just so happens that an American spy is recovering in an Eastern European hospital, and you’ll never guess what’s in the room right next door to his. That’s right, it’s the headquarters for the entire sinister operation!

Zachary Scott, a promising mid-1940s film actor now on his way down the ladder, plays the leading role with all the brash cockiness you’d expect from a fictional mid-century American spy. Danger? Ha! He laughs at danger! And his irresistible sex appeal soon wins the heart of his heavily-accented doctor (Barbara Joyce)— not to mention her cooperation.

I don’t need to watch this episode again any time soon, but it was good fun, and an interesting time capsule. The plot device of unmanned aircraft wreaking such massive destruction was a typical sci-fi howler for the 1950s, but it’s uncomfortably close to reality today.

I wonder if these writers ever thought of doing a story about America six decades in the future, in which the country spends a trillion dollars a year on defense and still doesn’t feel safe.

Nahh… who’d believe it?

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Lights Out (3:44, “The Passage Beyond”), June 25, 1951

I’d never heard anything good about NBC’s Lights Out television show, so I wasn’t in any hurry to watch one until I discovered I had this beautiful kinescope on a compilation disc.

The episode opens radio-style, with a creepy host (veteran radio announcer Frank Gallop) introducing the story. The good news is that it’s a gothic ghost story, set in a big dark mansion. The bad news is that for a long time, nothing happens but conversation.

Actually, that’s not so bad, because the script is pretty solid. A love triangle has developed in a mansion where, long ago, a similar love triangle had ended in murder. The murderess is now said to haunt the place.

I really have to hand it to director William Corrigan, who had one big stage to work with and made a spooky old mansion out of it, largely by shadows and flickering firelight. A story like this really needs atmosphere to work, and Corrigan delivered.

The actors were just about perfect as well. About 98% of the episode was carried by only three performers, who had a great deal of heavy dialogue to lift. And all of that was delivered flawlessly in elegant Mid-Atlantic accents. There wasn’t a stammer or stutter to be heard, and no panicked searching for off-stage cue-cards, either.

I said earlier that it seemed like this episode is all about people talking. Well, that’s true up to a point. But once character development is out of the way, the love triangle is revealed and ghost stories are told, things start moving. I don’t want to give away too much, but the script pretty much delivers exactly what you want it to, and there’s even a happy ending.

The bells were tolling for Lights Out itself, though, and there wasn’t a happy ending in store for the series. It was haunted this season by the red-headed specter of Lucille Ball, whose I Love Lucy was its direct competition over on CBS. In September the following year, the lights went out forever.

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Captain Z-Ro (“Magellan”), syndicated 1955/56

“Contact has been established. We now transmit you direct to the laboratory of Captain Z-Ro! Please stand by.”

So begins another adventure through time and space with the Captain, whose lab is equipped with all sorts of futuristic-looking gizmos, including a teleportation chamber with a stylish Art Deco design entirely lacking in Star Trek‘s utilitarian version.

From an undisclosed location “somewhere in a remote uncharted region” of the Earth, the Captain monitors the past, as scenes from history appear on his giant video screen. When he finds things unfolding in an historically inaccurate way, he teleports back in time to set things back on course.

In this episode, he scans the year 1520, and spies Ferdinand Magellan’s crew threatening to mutiny, which would have kept the explorer from being the first man to sail around the world. Zipping back through time, Captain Z-Ro prevents the mutiny and the voyage continues. It would’ve been nice for Magellan if Captain Z-Ro had also prevented his upcoming death at the hands of angry Filipinos, but apparently there was pressing business back at the lab.

Originally produced by San Francisco’s KRON as a 15-minute local show, Captain Z-Ro graduated to a half-hour filmed production, syndicated for the 1955/56 season. By all indications, the venture was successful, but a legal dispute between the producers and the syndicator put the Captain out of business thereafter.

Yes, the show is silly kid stuff, but that’s its charm. There’s a lot of imagination, a brisk pace, and a discreet history lesson or two. The Captain enlists his 13-year-old assistant “Jet” to do a lot of the time-traveling by himself, providing his young audience someone to envy.

Those of us watching from a more cynical era may wonder if Jet’s parents are aware that their son is spending a lot of unsupervised time alone with a flamboyant mentor who doesn’t seem to have a wife or girlfriend. But then educational television is supposed to be thought-provoking, isn’t it?

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