fun to ponder what Jack
Hays, Leander McNelly and Bill McDonald would have thought if
someone had told them that rangers would someday be dealing with
bad guys in outer space – at least on television.
Of course, those famous old-time Texas Rangers wouldn’t have known
what TV is. But that’s beside the point.
More than 60 years ago, the nascent television industry had its
eyes both on the future and the past. The future involved a new
medium, a way of telling stories with both moving images and sound
to people sitting in their own living rooms, not a movie house.
The past inspired some of that pioneer TV storytelling.
Other than comedy, an early programming mainstay was science fiction.
And in creating one show about the future, a Hollywood writer came
up with the idea of expanding the ranger model of law enforcement
beyond earth. That show was Captain Video and the Video Rangers.
Aired by the
DuMont Network, an early if short-lived competitor of ABC, CBS and
NBC, the first science fiction program on American television hit
the airwaves in June 1949. Hokey as it was by today’s production
standards, the show became a hit.
special effects used by Captain Video’s producers were far from
special (the prop budget allowed $25 per show), but the series struck
a chord with young viewers. At the height of its popularity, the
captain and his rangers were seen by 3.5 million kids each week.
The show lasted
until April 1, 1955 – light years in the entertainment industry.
The same year, DuMont went out of business.
Two other successful early TV series kept the space rangers theme,
though they did not use “Ranger” in their titles: Tom Corbett, Space
Cadet and Space Patrol.
Another sci-fi Ranger show debuted on April 18, 1953. That show
was Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers. It was a live series that aired
on Saturdays, but it crashed into the moon when the producer of
the Tom Corbett show filed a copyright suit against the Rocket Ranger
crew because their show was clearly a clone of the Space Cadet program.
The most successful early 1950s sci-fi Ranger show was Rocky Jones,
Space Ranger. Set in the near future, the series featured straight-shooting
(as in clean cut and moral) space rangers under Rocky Jones. He
and his rangers policed the U.W.S.S. (United Worlds of the Solar
arose beyond Earth, all they had to do was climb aboard their rockets
(which looked amazingly like old German V-2s) and go where they
needed to as casually as most people used their cars. Speaking of
cars, vehicles of the future looked surprisingly similar to 1954
American automobiles. Too, alien life forms, though they wore weird
clothes, always knew English and looked eerily like Caucasian humans.
The show lasted only two seasons, but since it was filmed, it survived
in its entirety as opposed to the other space ranger shows that
aired on live television. Only portions of those series exist.
space shows deader than a zapped robot was the blast-off of another,
older genre – the Western. As the Cold War threatened to get very
warm, Americans suddenly seemed more interested in Old West lawmen
and outlaws than futuristic ray gun-toters traveling around on space
ships. Maybe all that modern stuff about rockets and fantastic new
weaponry seemed a little too close to home, given the nuclear arms
race between the U.S. and Russia.
So, led by
the most famous ranger of them all, the Lone Ranger, the traditional
rangers galloped back onto the little screen. Leaving their futuristic
counterparts in the star dust, the horseback rangers rode rough-shod
over the bad guys in assorted TV oaters for as long as the viewing
public remained interested in Westerns.
Space rangers were again launched into the entertainment cosmos
in 1987-88 with a series called Star Rangers. It was intended as
a comedy, but fell galaxies short of shows like “Mork and Mindy”
and “3rd Rock from the Sun.”
Still believing interstellar rangers had the right stuff, in 1993
CBS tried a sci-fi series called Space Rangers. The show was set
in 2104 at an Earth outpost on the planet Avalon called Fort Hope.
The only protection for the colonists on this distant orb were the
men and women of the Space Ranger Corps.
Launched on Jan. 6, 1993, the show blew up before it reached orbit.
Twenty days later, the network cancelled it. Only six episodes had
been produced, and not all of them aired. The series was released
as a video in the VHS era and eventually made it to DVD, but it
is only a faint, distant light in the sci-fi universe.
The small solar system of TV shows featuring rocket rangers proved
two things. First, the ranger concept – the notion of a “ranging”
para-military or law enforcement entity with broad authority – is
still an effective way of providing protection. Second, the various
space ranger shows demonstrated the world’s enduring fascination
with the ranger myth, no matter where they range.
After all, as William Shatner said in the voice-over for the opening
of the original Star Trek episodes in the late 1960s, space is “the
© Mike Cox
- July 10, 2014 column
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