Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951)
Film review #379
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace A. Grissel
SYNOPSIS: The heroic Captain Video and his Video Rangers from across the globe help maintain peace on the planet Earth, but when Earth becomes subject to meteor bombardments from the planet Atoma, Captain Video must find a way to thwart the evil schemes of it’s leader Vultura before it is too late…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere is a 1951 movie serial. The serial stars (as the title suggests) Captain Video, the leader of an organisation called the Video Rangers, who help protect the Earth. When the Earth becomes subject to meteor bombardments originating from the planet Atoma, Video must stop them before they can invade the Earth. The plot resembles the vast majority of sci-fi serials, which copy the highly successful Flash Gordon and caught the genre in a thinly-veiled repetition of its plot and characters for over twenty years. A lot of the story revolves around Captain Video trying to prove that the scientist Dr. Tobor (yes, that is ‘robot’ spelled backwards) is working with Atoma’s leader Vultura, as Video and Vultura try to outsmart and thwart the other’s plans. I think this format and plot structures were gotten away with for two reasons: one, there was no way to re-watch old serials once they had first aired at the theatre, so new ones could come out with the same story and similar characters; particularly since serials such as this would be aimed at kids, who would not have seen earlier serials. The second reason being that the second world war probably didn’t leave much room or money for the development of anything too original or ambitious, as resources would have been focused elsewhere. Nevertheless, by the time this serial was released in 1951, there probably should have been some effort to change the formula or offer something new.
Despite it’s lack of originality in the story department, there’s still a decent amount of variety going on. The early chapters see Video travelling to the planet Theros, where the peace-loving people are under attack by Vultura’s forces, and Video has to teach them to be guerrilla fighters and fight back. Again, this plot structure shows up in many previous serials. The next major chunk of the serial consists in the back-and-forth between Tobor and Video, as they try and outdo each other on Earth. Video and Vultura only meet in the final half of the last chapter, which feels like a waste. The serial however, does keep things interesting with a whole host of gadgets and inventions that would undoubtedly spark the imaginations of youngsters watching. The guns that the Rangers use that shoot out sparks are quite a nice effect of the time. However, the serial often falls into the trap of explaining what is going on and what all these inventions do rather than actually showing them, mostly due to budget constraints, but often the plot is explained before it happens, leaving little surprise or tension. The inventions too have bizarre technological names, and accompanied techno-babble that try to justify the implausible things they do.
Most of the characters are based off the ones on the TV series, with Captain Video being the typical white American male hero that is the star of all these serials. His younger sidekick is strangely only referred to as “the Ranger” and never given an actual name. This is in keeping with the TV series, but other rangers are shown to use their own names, so it’s odd that he doesn’t. Maybe it’s a way to get kids to imagine themselves in the role of the young teenage sidekick, as anyone could be “The Ranger”. There’s also Ranger Gallagher, who does all the technical stuff at Video headquarters, and Vultura clearly has some east Asian influences in his design, again echoing the “Ming the Merciless” type villain that originated in Flash Gordon. One final note about the characters is that while you will expect these serials to only feature a white cast, there is not a single woman anywhere featured in the serials fifteen chapters. Often there is usually a solitary token female character that sometimes serves as the protagonist’s love interest, but there is none at all here, not even in any of the backgrounds. I suppose the lack of a female character could be attributed to the fact this is geared towards a younger, male, audience, who would not be interested in a female character or a romance sub-plot, but having this cast of inter-changeable white men interact with each other really emphasises the monotony of the story at points.
The serial was directed by Spencer Bennet, a veteran of these kinds of serials, so he had plenty of experience in what to do. Some of the effects are fairly decent; as mentioned, the ray guns the Video Rangers use is pretty cool, and their super-fast car stands out with its unique look. There is also a ‘space platform’ which allows transportation between earth and Atoma, which apparently is millions of miles away. Captain Video also has a rocket ship he travels in, which again adds some variety. Some of the effects (such as the rocket ship in flight) are done through using hand-drawn animation, which allows a lot more freedom in terms of effects, although this is not the first time this was done, having been integrated into the Superman serial a few years earlier. Overall, I think I can place the Captain Video serial just above average in the miasma of similar sci-fi serials: it has a lot of the well-worn tropes and characters, but has some decent effects and various inventions that add a bit of extra spice. It’s obviously meant for a younger audience, but there’s enough content for those who haven’t seen such a serial before to enjoy.