Captain Video and His Video Rangers was an American science fiction television series. It was broadcast on the DuMont Television Network, and was the first series of its kind on American television. It aired between June 27, 1949 and April 1, 1955.
Set in the distant future, the series followed the adventures of a group of fighters for truth and justice, the Video Rangers, led by Captain Video. The Rangers operated from a secret base on a mountain top. Their uniforms resembled US Army surplus with lightning bolts sewn on.
The Captain had a teen-age companion who was known only as the Video Ranger. Captain Video received his orders from the Commissioner of Public Safety, whose responsibilities took in the entire solar system as well as human colonies on planets around other stars. Captain Video was the first adventure hero explicitly designed (by DuMont's idea-man Larry Menkin) for early live television. "I TOBOR" the robot was an important, semi-regular character on the program, and represents the first appearance of a robot in live televised science fiction; the character's name was actually supposed to be "ROBOT I", but the stencil with its name was applied to its costume backwards.
The show was broadcast live five to six days a week and was extremely popular with both children and adults. Because of the large adult audience, the usual network broadcast time of the daily series was 7 to 7:30 p.m. EST, leading off the "prime evening" time-block. The production was for most of its existence hampered by a very low budget, and the Captain did not originally have a space ship of his own.
Until 1953, Captain Video's live adventures occupied 20 minutes of each day's 30-minute program time. About 10 minutes into each episode, a Video Ranger communications officer showed about 7 minutes of old cowboy movies. These were described by the communications officer, Ranger Rogers, as the adventures of Captain Video's "undercover agents" on Earth. During the 1953-1954 broadcast season, there was a spinoff series, the Secret Files of Captain Video (5 September 1953 to 29 May 1954), alternating Saturdays with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Each of these 30-minute Saturday broadcasts told a complete story.
Captain Video's early opponent was Dr. Pauli, an inventor who wore gangster-style pinstripe suits but spoke with the snarl of a movie Nazi or Soviet. Like the last few theatrical serials, the TV series' plots often involved inventions created by Captain Video or the evil genius Dr. Pauli, but obviously made from hardware store odds and ends, with much double-talk regarding their fantastic properties. The series was originally broadcast from a studio in the building occupied by Wanamaker's department store, and the production crew would simply go downstairs for props, often just a few minutes before air-time. Originally, only three Rangers were seen on camera: The Video Ranger; Ranger Rogers, the communications officer; and Ranger Gallagher. (These were also the only Rangers seen in the 1951 film serial version of the series.) As the budget increased, a larger roster of Rangers was briefly seen on TV.
Captain Video eventually had the use of three different space ships. In the first ship, the X-9 (later replaced briefly by the X-10), the crew at takeoff lay upon tilted bunk beds on their elbows, a posture based upon space-travel theories of the time. Later, the V-2 rocket-like Galaxy had an aircraft-style cockpit with reclining seats. The Captain's final spacecraft, after early 1953, was the Galaxy II.
The other space-adventure series of the period were Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, also broadcast live from New York City, and Space Patrol, broadcast live from California. There were some suspicious plot similarities between the three — at times, Space Patrol seemed to be doing a West-Coast recreation of Captain Video's latest adventure.
Al Hodge, who had created the role of Britt Reid, The Green Hornet on radio, is the Captain Video most original viewers of the series remember (1950–55). However, the original Captain Video was Richard Coogan, who played the role for 17 months. The Video Ranger was played during the entire run by teen-aged Don Hastings, who later became a soap opera star.
During commercial breaks, DuMont aired special "Video Ranger messages". These ranged from public service spots on morality and civics to advertisements for Video Ranger merchandise. Many premiums were offered by sponsors of the show, including space helmets, secret code guns, flying saucer rings, decoder badges, photo-printing rings, and Viking rockets complete with launchers. A clip of in-show advertising can been seen on YouTube.
The quality of the show is often considered crude or low-budget, owing much to the fact that the show was done live and DuMont had a meager budget to work with. A laudatory review of the Captain Video Rocket Ring, a promotional tie-in piece of merchandise, that was distributed via Power House candy bars, says that the ring "seemed to have a higher production value than the actual TV show."
In the early days of the series, scripts tended to be somewhat incoherent, and often were derided by critics of the day, but many of the scripts after 1952 were written by major science fiction writers active at the time, including Damon Knight, James Blish, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke. These late scripts displayed more intelligence, discipline and imagination than most of the other children's sci-fi series scripts of the era. Other well-known authors who occasionally wrote for the program included Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Milt Lesser, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Robert Sheckley, J. T. McIntosh and Dr. Robert S. Richardson.
Few special effects were seen on the series until the team of Russell and Haberstroh was hired in September 1952. For the rest of the program's episodes, they provided surprisingly effective model and effects work, prefilmed in 16 mm format and cut into the live broadcast as needed.
The show's theme song was Richard Wagner's Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Hollaender).
The TV series is mentioned in the first of the 39 independent episodes of The Honeymooners, "TV or Not TV". Honeymooners character Ed Norton was supposedly a fan of the show.
Columbia made a movie serial, starring Judd Holdren, under the name Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951). However, it displayed only marginally better sets and props than its TV inspiration. Some special effects were accomplished with cel animation, inspired by earlier use in another, successful serial from the same studio, Superman.
Six issues of a Captain Video comic book were published by Fawcett Comics in 1951. The rival space adventure programs Tom Corbett and Space Patrol shortly thereafter had their own comic books as well. Some of these comics were used as the basis for a British TV Annual, a hardcover collection produced in time for Christmas, which also made the claim that man would venture into space in 1970 and would reach the moon by 2000. Tom Corbett in addition had a syndicated daily newspaper strip, and a set of juvenile series books published by Grossett and Dunlap. Columbia Pictures made a theatrical film serial, Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere, the only instance of such a production being based on a television program. Tom Corbett and Space Patrol were also heard on ABC network radio; however, since DuMont had no affiliated radio network, DuMont never provided a radio version of Captain Video's adventures.
Captain Video comes close to being a lost series. Only five 30-minute episodes, three featuring Richard Coogan and two featuring Al Hodge, have been available to the public on home video.
DuMont's film archive, consisting of kinescope (16 mm) and Electronicam (35 mm), was destroyed in the 1970s by Metromedia, the broadcast conglomerate that was the successor company to DuMont, thus nearly dooming nearly all of its pioneering TV series to oblivion. To date, the person or persons responsible for ordering the destruction of the kinescopes and other recordings remains unknown.
The UCLA Film and Television Archive has 24 episodes of Captain Video; some prints also contain an episode of Marge and Jeff, a weekday sitcom which aired after Captain Video during the 1953-1954 TV season. As with all of the rest of the archive's holdings, the episodes are only viewable as part of a showing within the archives building.