Science Fiction in Film Serials

In the early 20th century, the film serial was a regular part
of the cinema-going experience.
Adrian James reviews SF's contribution to serialdom.


It was the late 50's. I was a toddler who had spent the first few years of life accompanying his film-buff father to cinemas. One Saturday morning, as my parents intended a shopping trip elsewhere, I was hoisted upon a neighbour who took me to the Saturday Morning Club at the local Odeon. Along came the cartoons, then the newsreels... and then came Chapter 5 of the Columbia serial, Captain Video. After 18 minutes of daredevil adventures in space and on Earth, the Captain and his Video Ranger were threatened with certain doom. Sitting there, ignorant of the hordes of noisy kids around me, I was well and truly hooked! Then came those most frustrating of words...'TO BE CONTINUED!' Seven days later, I was back and in the front row! And there I stayed until I was too old to be a Saturday Club member. But the power of the serial had influenced me a great deal. And here we are, nearly 50 years later, and I'm still there in the front row, and still waiting for the next instalment.

But these days, I know I'm in good company. A certain Mr. Spielberg claims it was the fascination of the serials that influenced his future. Same goes for a certain Mr. Lucas. And where would we be today, cinematically-speaking, without Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.?

There is no doubt that there is a growing revival of interest in the chapter-plays that ended as far back as 1956, killed by television and an ever-changing culture. And the truth is, that science fiction itself owes a great deal to the serial. After all, the serial was designed in the 30's for youngsters. And at what better age to influence a mind than in its early days. Chances are that Messrs. Heinlen, Bloch, Ackerman, Matheson, Asimov et al grew up in the shadow of the cliff-hanger.

Whenever a retrospective of serials is undertaken, it is perhaps best to learn of their origin, and for that we must time-travel back to the early 1900's.

Imagine the thrill of being around in those days when the picture-house was a new and exciting prospect. As millions entered the dream doors of picture palaces, already the managers were trying to find a way of coaxing people back, week-after-week. And there, we have the reasoning behind the 'chapter play' that our forebears experienced nearly a hundred years ago now.

The silent serials ranged from 10 chapters to well over 20. During that silent era, hundreds were produced, bringing excitement to all ages and at the same time creating a valuable niche in cinematic history.

The silent serials were generally westerns and mysteries. Their budgets were usually small and they had to be filmed and completed quickly. The scripts usually had our heroes in search of lost treasure on an uncharted island...battling to restore an inheritance to the beautiful heroine...fighting the villains to build a railway line through Indian territory...attempting to locate a masked villain who was threatening the future of the city... etc.

At first no-one actually stepped into the realm of space and science fiction. We have to remember that in those days that particular genre was virgin territory. Pulp comics and newspapers had sparked the imagination but not enough to persuade Hollywood that it would be worth risking investment.

In the 30's, sound came to America. But so did the Great Depression. The production of the serial was reduced greatly as money became such an issue. But, over in Hollywood, a certain Nat Levine was in control of Mascot Studios, a small independent company based in the Valley. He had dedicated his output to serial-making, and in 1935, he master-minded a 15 chapter cliff-hanger called The Phantom Empire. Gambling on an unknown lead with limited acting ability, radio-singer Gene Autry, Levine mixed the singer's vocal talents with the sci-fi plot of an underground world called Murania, located near Autry's ranch. In each episode, Autry had to escape the dangers of Murania in order to get back to his radio ranch in order to sing for his adoring public! The singing aside, Murania was a futuristic world, manned by intelligent beings and deadly robots. The serial proved a surprising success and the promotional effect for science fiction was evident.

Over at Universal Studios, the company were just beginning to market serials. When The Phantom Empire proved its worth, Universal turned to the pulp newspapers for its own excursion into science fiction. One comic strip character, from the King Features Syndicate in 1934, was recognised in 1936 by Universal: an all-American hero in the guise of a certain Flash Gordon. At first the Studios gambled on producing just one serial based on the character. They cast ex-Olympic swimming-star Buster Crabbe in the role, dyeing the actor's hair blonde (which he loathed with a vengeance!) and pitting him against the greatest adversary that space has ever produced: enter Ming The Merciless, portrayed by the inimitable Charles Middleton in a role that would be his for ever! Young audiences were whisked to other worlds where they could watch Lion-Men, Shark-men, the 'Orangapoid', the dragon-creature, all obstacles in Flash's path to rescue the Earth from the tyranny of Ming!

Flash Gordon is quite possibly the greatest stepping-stone that science fiction ever received. In the year it was released, 1936, it grossed more money than any of the Studio's features. The 13 chapter cliffhanger was a roaring success and made Buster Crabbe a household name. We also must not forget the alluring Jean Rogers, the first female film character in space, as Dale Arden. At last, here was a serial for adults as well as children because Jean Rogers introduced sex appeal to the universe in a fashion that no other serial had done before or would do afterwards. But we must not ignore the properties of science fiction here. So let's take a brief look at how Flash enthused filmmakers and script-writers.

The undeniable success of the original Flash spawned its sequel, two years later, Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars in which the same cast travelled to Mars in order to prevent a revived Ming the Merciless from draining the Earth of its nitrogen. This time, audiences were introduced to the Tree People, the Clay People, Ming's army of alien-warriors, and the alluring form of Azura, Queen of Magic. Add to this the array of scientific weapons and gadgets, and every member of the audience was well and truly hooked! The serial was another resounding success, and perhaps the best of the trilogy. Buster Crabbe was box-office material now and so Universal looked for other avenues to exhibit their new star. Turning once more to the newspapers, the Studio came across the newspaper comic strip Buck Rogers, which itself was based on the (then) lesser known original book, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, by Philip Francis. And so in 1939, Buster donned a slightly different garb, was given a sidekick named Buddy, a new-style rocketship, and found himself blasted into space as the new space-hero for the late thirties. Buck Rogers was a reasonably successful serial at the time but lacked the style, the direction, the artistry and the class of Flash Gordon. The audiences called for more Flash and so Universal ditched their planned sequel to Buck Rogers and lavished their expenditure on Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, the third and final chapter in the trilogy. This was one polished and impressive serial! In this opus, Flash, Dale and Zarkov again battled Ming (who had somehow escaped the Disintegrating Chamber at the close of the previous outing!) who was now spreading 'The Purple Death' over the Earth's atmosphere. Wonderful stuff!

While Universal were successfully spinning out their science fiction serials, Republic refused to be outdone and created a few smaller cult classics of their own in the late thirties. In 1936, unable to match the budget of Flash Gordon, Republic gave us The Undersea Kingdom, starring Ray 'Crash' Corrigan. Corrigan, by the way, had played the 'orangapoid' in Flash Gordon over at Universal the same year. Now he was given top-billing in an adventurous and impressive serial that also featured a young Lon Chaney jr. Crash played a naval officer who discovers Atlantis, an undersea empire ruled by the cruel Monte Blue and his Disintegrator Ray! The serial featured futuristic automobiles, robots, scientific gadgetry galore, and proved a worthy step in the right direction in further introducing audiences to science fiction.

In 1938, the underrated Fighting Devil Dogs was a non-stop actioner that saw ex-Tarzan Herman Brix (later Bruce Bennett) battling 'The Lightning', a caped villain who controls bolts of electricity and travels via a futuristic plane called The Wing!

As the serials continued to present audiences with mad scientists (as did many features, of course) Universal brought in none other than Bela Lugosi for the incredibly campy The Phantom Creeps in 1939. Playing a crazed inventor, Lugosi creates the ugliest eight-foot robot the screen has ever-produced, along with a belt of invisibility, an army of mechanical spiders, amongst other weird and wonderful gimmicks! His intention is to rule the world with the help of powerful meteor fragments! Needless to say, Dr. Lugosi doesn't quite reach the heights he hoped for! For viewers who may never have witnessed this 12-chapter serial, it really is worth seeing if only for Bela's way-over-the-top performance and the wacky gadgetry involved!

From 1939 to 1943, serials were experiencing their 'golden age.' Many cult classic cliff-hangers were produced, many with a science fiction basis to them. In 1941, Republic produced what many enthusiasts rate as the greatest serial ever made! The Studio had tried unsuccessfully to bring 'Superman' to the screen. Red tape and budget restrictions had gotten in the way. So they turned to the pulps yet again, and found 'Captain Marvel.' This superhero had, at one time, been even more popular than Clark Kent's alter-ego, and Republic began working on the transfer from comic to screen. Cast in the lead role was action-star Tom Tyler, an excellent choice for the part. The flying sequences were, for their time, the best ever put onto screen, and the use of miniatures throughout the cliffhanger was amazing. Republic were recognized for their out-standing special effects, and the glory here goes to the Lydecker Brothers, Howard and Theodore. Without these geniuses of wizardry, Republic serials may never have achieved the honour bestowed upon them. The serial's opening chapter is brilliant, revealing how young radio-operator Billy Batson encounters the wizard, Shazam and is given his superhero powers upon uttering the Wizard's name. His newly-discovered abilities are put to the test for 12 action-packed episodes as Captain Marvel battles The Scorpion for possession of a matter-transference machine! Seven years later, Columbia Studios brought Superman to the screen but the serial is a lack-lustre entry, devoid of any strong plot, and the special effects are very poor. Its one saving grace is having Kirk Alyn as the man of steel. Atom Man vs Superman in 1950 fared no better.

By the mid-forties, the interest in serials was beginning to flounder. The war had affected everybody and the Studios were feeling the heat as less people visited the cinemas for entertainment. Less serials went into production and the quality began to diminish. Republic, in 1945, cast Roy Barcroft, usually a scond or third-cast villain in serials and features, into the title role of The Purple Monster Strikes! Despite its unimpressive title, this was a good foray into science fiction for the Studios, and the cliffhanger proved to be popular. Barcroft played a Martian who had rocket-crashed on Earth and spent the next 15 chapters trying to rebuild it in order to return to the red planet. With his Martian knowledge came Martian gadgetry such as the 'Electro Annihilator!' He was also able to become invisible and take over the body of other people. Actor Barcroft considered this one of his favourite roles, and the serial spawned two sequels: Flying Disc Man From Mars (1951) and Radar Men From The Moon (1952).

Devilish machines and futuristic gadgetry continued to play important parts in serial production. It was almost as if the Studios were taking detective or mystery stories and injecting them with science fiction-like materials. Many of the later serials slipped into this mode: In The Robot And The Monster (1945), Columbia gave us a killer gorilla teaming-up with an out-of-control robot in what should have been a better serial. Unfortunately, Columbia were never really successful with their chapterplays, having the wrong men at the helm and rather poor action sequences. Audiences wanted thrills and spills, and no-one came even close to Republic. Their crown would never be removed!

Brick Bradford (1947)was another Columbia serial, slightly better than usual, with the added attraction of having Kane Richmond as the lead. In this opening chapter of this cliffhanger, Richmond protects the Interceptor Ray anti-guided missile device from a gang of hoodlums as Dr. Tymak escapes via a Crystal Door that transports him to the Moon! Unfortunately for this serial, inhabitants of the Moon look and dress just like Earthmen! However, as the serial progresses, the magical Time Top shoots our heroes into an eighteenth century jungle. As usual, the prospects looked good but the serial is uninteresting and often dull.

Columbia stepped into the realms of space twice more in the next nine years with Captain Video (1951) and The Lost Planet (1953). Captain Video had begun life as a daily TV programme. The serial followed. As a youngster, I remember loving it. Viewed again as an adult, my impressions are totally different. And yet it still does retain some merit. Judd Holdren was a good lead for the role, matched equally by Gene Roth as Vultura, tyrannical ruler of the planet Atoma. Spacecrafts, ray-guns, scientific devices of all sorts can be found in this adventure, and there lies its appeal. Look for: The Opticon Scillometer, The Isotopic Radiation Curtain, The Radionic Directional Beam, The Mu-Ray, The Door Hinge Recorder...and more! Any science fiction fan cannot help but to put a smile to their face when watching this serial. Not one of the Studios best, but a decent effort.

Two years later, Columbia brought back Judd Holdren for their final venture into science fiction with The Lost Planet. In this space opera, Holdren has to get to the planet Ergro where the villainous ruler, Reckov, is planning to conquer the universe with the help of evil earthman, Dr. Grood. The amazing thing about this serial is the amount of scientific gadgetry created: fifty two devices! They include The Axial Propeller, The De-Thermo Ray, The Cosmic Cannon, The Prysmic Catapult, The Degravitizer....etc. You have to give the Studio an 'A' for effort in this one!

Meanwhile, over at Republic, King Of The Rocket Men was created in 1949, and has become a cult-classic, gaining status to this day. They cast usual-bad-guy Tristram Coffin in the role of The Rocket Man whose flying device was terrific! What made this one different was the fact that a normal mortal was able to fly. No super-human powers, no great strength, just a normal person with a flying device. The chapterplay was hugely successful and one of the Studios last, great hits! Indeed, the Rocket Man character proved so popular, Republic revived him again in 1952 in two of their last forays into science fiction. First came Radar Men From The Moon in which the lead-character had a few adjustments and became known as Commando Cody. Actor George Wallace became the Sky Marshal, doing battle with Roy Barcroft's Retik, Ruler of the Moon.. Stock footage galore was in use here, a sign of the times as the Studios realized that the serial was definitely waning.

The 'flying jacket' would return later in 1952 for the brilliantly titled Zombies Of The Stratosphere. Of course, there were no walking-dead in this adventure, just Martians, including a novice Leonard Nimoy (who was later to star in the TV series Mission Impossible and of course Star Trek). The hero was Rocket Man, played by stalwart Judd Holdren this time. Robots, ray-guns, wild devices, even more stock-footage, they all appeared in this entry which, again, has a cult-following today.

In 1956, the last serial was produced and the cinematic door closed on an era that had tasted six decades of entertainment. Hundreds and thousands of chapters had been produced but now it was all over. In terms of science fiction, it was just a coincidence that the atomic-monster and flying saucer B-films of the '50s were all the rage when the curtain went down on the cliff-hanger. But without their input, the cinema would be a sadder place these days. The revival of interest in the serial is obvious. Of the 231 sound serials made, well over half of them are available on video and/or DVD now. For anyone reading this, if you have not tasted the extraordinary delights of serialdom, allow me to recommend what I consider are the five best ever made:

Spy Smasher
Adventures Of Captain Marvel
Haunted Harbor
Manhunt In The African Jungle
The Mysterious Dr. Satan

And it's noteworthy that most of the above titles have a 'touch' of science fiction within them, whether it be space-travel, futuristic machines, deadly devices, monsters, robots and so forth.

Thank you for your time and interest, and if just one reader of this article goes out and watches just one serial, then I shall feel more than satisfied.

Adrian James

Adrian James is a school (drama specialist) teacher based in Suffolk, England. He is an avid fantastic film enthusiast and makes an annual pilgrimage to Manchester's international Festival of Fantastic Films.


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