Thursday, November 3, 2011

Television: Kip's Private War (Rocky Jones, Space Ranger)

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger has a bit of irony to it.  Not in the writing—in the fact that it wasn't terribly successful, but it's probably better known now than its contemporaries in the early-'50s TV science fiction boom.  And what makes it doubly ironic is that its survival and lack of success are tied together.

Captain Video, Space Patrol, and most other science fiction shows of the era were enacted live, and preserved, if at all, as kinescopes: a film taken of the live video image.  As a result, surviving episodes are of fairly poor visual quality.  They're often zoomed in a bit, so as not to catch the edges of the somewhat rounded video tube, so they don't even have the benefit of all 480 video scan lines, much less the full resolution of the film.  The contrast is frequently blown out, thanks in part to the low dynamic range of '50s video, and partly to the limitations of the kinescope process, in which a film camera was pointed at a tiny, bright video monitor.  The brightness of the monitor (necessary to make a filmable image) and the primitive tube video cameras both contributed to ghosting of the image.  Finally, the kinescope had motion smearing, since the film ran at the normal 24 frames per second, and video ran at 60 fields per second—with each two fields interlaced into one frame.

All of which is to say that the shows looked as good as any other '50s television when they were originally broadcast, but reruns were of substantially poorer quality.  They didn't look as good as videotaped shows (once that was an option) or filmed shows, and so they didn't tend to have that robust of an afterlife in syndication.  (I have the feeling the same thing is going to happen to the shows of the mid-'80s through the early 2000's, which had post-production on standard-definition video... and, worse, analog standard definition video for most of the period.  Something shot and posted on film, you can re-scan and broadcast in high definition, and it'll look better than it ever did.  But standard-definition videotape, you're pretty much stuck with.  Which, no doubt, is part of the reason CBS is currently shelling out the dough to rebuild Star Trek: The Next Generation in high definition with new special effects: they can give it new syndication life that fuzzy 1-inch analog video tapes won't have.)

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was uncommon for the time, in that it was produced entirely on film.  Which helped to make it more expensive than the other shows, even though the production quality, really, wasn't that much higher than Space Patrol's.  And that in turn contributed to the producers discontinuing it after less than one year.

But, having done that, they still had 39 filmed episodes which would look just as good on repeat airings.  What's more, 36 of the episodes were in twelve three-part serials, allowing them to have an alternative afterlife as 90-minute compilation TV movies.  Then, in the 1990's, two of the TV movies appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  And so the show that wasn't nearly as popular as its contemporaries when originally aired lasted much longer and was ultimately seen by more people.  Both MST3K episodes are now available on DVD, and the unadorned episodes and films are available from multiple commercial sources (due in part to their falling into the public domain).  Meanwhile, you can only find Space Patrol on DVD-R's from individual sellers.

This episode, by the way, was one of the exceptions to the three-parter rule.  The series was produced in two blocks, one of 26 episodes and one of 13, leaving extra episodes that were produced as standalone stories.  "Kip's Private War" aired a little over halfway into the show's run, on July 27, 1954.

The "cold light" mentioned in this episode was a previously-introduced method of invisibility.

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