Saturday, January 07, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 18: Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: "Escape Into Space"

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger is a space adventure TV series from waaaaay before my time. It aired in 1954, some fifteen years or so before I was even born. But that means that the syndicated TV show (which ultimately aired some 3-dozen episodes...) also pre-dated Doctor Who in the UK by nine years and Star Trek in the USA by twelve years.

So, I think it's more than fair to state that Rocky Jones is a genre pioneer (and I also put Space Patrol and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) in that category.)

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger chronicles the adventures of a well-muscled, straight arrow hero named - you guessed it - Rocky Jones (a beefy Richard Crane) who captains an XP-2 class rocket called an "Orbit Jet." His co-pilot is a whisper-thin sidekick-type named Winky (Scotty Beckett), and occasionally Rocky takes a pseudo-girlfriend, Vena (Sally Mansfield) and a kid named Bobby (Robert Lyden) on his voyages. A bulwark of decency and honor in space, Rocky takes his orders from the "Secretary of Space" Drake (Charles Meredith).

In the episode "Escape into Space," a criminal named Truck Harmon (known for trafficking the dangerous 'tarantula weed') and his buddy, Lawson, go an "unlicensed flight" in a space ranger rocketship. In our language, that means they steal it. You see, Harmon has committed many crimes on Earth, but none in space, and so - according to the space ranger guidebook - he can't be arrested in space.

Drake assigns Rocky Jones and the orbit jet to pursue Harmon, and it isn't long before they locate him. Turns out Harmon's ship flew through a meteor shower and has been badly damaged. There is "air seepage" aboard, and Harmon kills Lawson to preserve his air supply. Harmon is taken into custody by Rocky, but lies about Lawson's death. He says it was a tragic accident. With no evidence to support a charge of murder, Rocky must allow the nefarious Harmon to leave the nearby moon of Fornax. A free man...

But that sticks in Rocky's craw. Still what can he do? As Rocky says, "We can't go against the laws of freedom and immunity." Fortunately, little Bobby has the answer. He's been teaching the pagan natives of Fornax about Earth holidays, and Halloween is coming up. And hey, Truck Harmon is a superstitious guy, so Rocky and Winky decide to confront him with "the ghost of Lawson," and make him confess to murder.

"Your confession of a crime in space is a one-way ticket to Earth!" Rocky declares after getting the goods on Harmon, in this episode directed by Hollingsworth Morse and shot by Walter Strenge.

Okay, Rocky, but isn't that entrapment? Isn't THAT against space ranger laws too?

Anyway, in my blog's "cult TV flashback series" (usually written on Fridays, but this time on a Saturday because I'm behind...) I've covered TV shows from the 1960s right up to today. I thought that on this occasion it would be only fair and right to acknowledge that science fiction TV shows did not start with Star Trek.

Once upon a time, Rocky Jones was the Captain Kirk of his day! A stolid, law-abiding, fair-minded hero who wears a uniform, in this case one that consists of a ball-cap, and an insignia-ed white short-sleeve T-shirt. But still, Rocky was out there in the "black" early *along with Buzz Corry and Tom Corbett and Rod Brown...), and I'm sure that a generation grew up loving him and his adventures. He espouses unambiguous, core American values (of the 1950s) and there's no angst or brooding anywhere. Of course, that means there's very little character-depth too, but jeez, this was a show for kids, and it made outer space look as exciting as the wild west, all fisticuffs, alien savages, and damsels in distress. The attitude may be "gee whiz," but today - sometimes - our pop culture can overdose on the "dark" (the new Battlestar Galactica, anybody?)

Today, we look at the Orbit Jet's technology, the TV-set "visiographs" and cucumber-like(!) walkie-talkies, and are tempted to laugh at the oddities. But once, long ago - in the 1950s - this was cutting edge stuff. And truth be told, the Orbit Jet still looks awfully cool today. I wouldn't mind taking a spin aboard her...

1 comment:

  1. I recently occurred to me that there are a great many similarities between Rocky Jones and Star Trek

    Consider:

    Both series featured a likable crew who traveled through space in a very cool spacecraft. In Rocky Jones the solar system is presented as a fantastically rich and varied environment, complete with many alien worlds which serve as home to alien races.

    In Star Trek TOS, the galaxy is presented in exactly the same way.

    To be honest, I prefer the sleek and streamlined “Orbit Jet” to the less-than-aerodynamic "Enterprise". However, both spacecraft were idealized by their shows, causing the ships themselves to become characters in their own right.

    Both the Enterprise and the Orbit Jet were equipped with awesome weaponry. The Enterprise was equipped with photon torpedoes as one its main weapons. The Orbit Jet had trotanic missiles. Both spacecraft had automatic doors that hissed open when someone approached them. And the Orbit Jet was equipped with a “tractor beam” 15 years before the Enterprise made her maiden voyage!

    The spacecraft of both series traveled between the worlds at speeds which reduced the trip time to a tiny fraction of what it should have been. Every planet seemed to have a breathable atmosphere, and the natives always bore a striking resemblance to humans.

    The characters of both series were the representatives of a benevolent agency which served mankind (the United Federation of Planets and the United Worlds of the Solar System). These noble agencies battled the enemies of mankind and worked to bring peace to warring civilizations through their diplomatic efforts.

    In both series, the uniforms of the male crewmembers consisted of form-fitting T-shirts with the logos of their space agencies on the chest, along with boots and snug pants that came to mid-calf. The female crewmen wore tight, short skirts and boots. Both crew had a "dress uniform" which had a more formal appearance.

    The main character of both series is the captain of the spacecraft, a handsome and physically fit young man who always takes on the most dangerous aspects each mission himself, never delegating the job to his junior crewmen.

    Each series features a landmark episode which focuses on a meeting of interplanetary diplomats which is disrupted by evil forces that plot to disrupt the peace of the universe and cause and war (“Journey to Babel” and “Silver Needle in the Sky”).

    Also, consider the fact that Rocky Jones had a ten-year-old crewman named Bobby who represented the younger members of the audience. This idea was later used in Star Trek: TNG with the character Wesley Crusher. Frankly, Bobby was much cuter (and some folks would claim that he was a better actor . . . )

    At the end of the episode entitled "Silver Needle in the Sky", Bobby is scene as the helm of the ship, ala Wesley Crusher.

    Folks, I rest my case . . .

    If there are any fans of both “Rocky” and “Trek” out there who can think of additional similarities, please share them with us.
    ____________________________________________________________

    On a less cheerful note, the bio of actor Scotty Beckett on IMDB tells a sad story that seems unbelievable to fans of Rocky’s cool sidekick, Winky.

    If you’re fond of “Rocky Jones: Space Ranger” and have ever wondered why Winky was unexpectedly replaced after the first season, read the bio at the link below and find out why. It’s a tragic story.

    [http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0065717/bio]

    It’s also unfortunate that star Richard Crane died of a heart attack in 1969, just 15 years after his wonderful portrayal of the Rocky Jones.

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