Blast Off!

Tom Corbett - Polaris returns to Earth

October 2, 1950, a new and exciting television series blasted off on CBS. Space cadet Tom Corbett and his friends and fellow cadets Astro and Roger Manning took children everywhere out of their living rooms and into the next generation of space travel. Creator and writer Joseph Lawrence Greene originally envisioned a comic book then a script for a radio program following the adventures of Tom Ranger and the space cadets at a Space Academy. Eventually Greene’s radio script went to Rockhill Studios which was working to expand into the “newly developing medium of television”. A last minute name change from Tom Ranger to Tom Corbett and the new television show blasted off into TV history.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet followed the adventures of Tom (played by Frankie Thomas, Jr.), Venusian cadet Astro (played by Al Markim), and Roger Manning (played by Jan Merlin) as they train at the all-male Space Academy to become members of the Solar Guard and protect Earth and the colonized planets. The TV show was a huge hit and spun off a newspaper comic strip, a comic book, a series of books published by Grosset and Dunlap, and a short lived radio series that starred the same cast as the television show. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet is also one of only six programs in TV history to have appeared on all four networks of the times. The show started out as a 15 minute show on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings on CBS. January 1951 to September 1952, it continued as a 15 minute series on the same days but at a different time on the ABC network. July to September 1951, it was also on NBC as a half hour show on Saturdays. It moved to the financially challenged DuMont Network from August 1953 to May 1954, then finished out its TV run on Saturday mornings on NBC from December 1954 til the final show on June 25, 1955. The show also generated many toys and tie-ins besides the books and comics, including a View-Master pack, coloring books, children’s costumes, playsets, a set of molds for making figures and vehicles, a lunchbox, a pocket watch, records, and cardboard cutouts on the back of Kellogg’s Pep Cereal.

Tom Corbett - Al Markim & Frankie Thomas & Jan mERLIN

Roger, Tom, and Astro

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was set in the 24th century but unlike another popular show set in outer space, Space Patrol, Tom Corbett strove for as much realism as possible. The show’s technical advisor was Willy Ley, a founding member of the German Rocket Society who left Germany for the USA in 1935 and went on to write both fiction and nonfiction that helped to popularize rockets and space travel. Ley helped insure the show used accurate dialogue and even came up with an idea to help create the illusion of weightlessness on the show by using back paint and cloth. Monsters and space aliens were very very rare on the show. While the cadets did prevent disasters in space, rescued stranded space travelers, and even tracked down criminals, most of the focus was on the interaction of the space cadets themselves. Tom Corbett was the strong, confident leader and a natural pilot. Roger Manning could be egotistical and condescending but still managed to be somewhat loveable. And Astro was quiet and somewhat brooding with a quick temper but also good with his hands and a natural engineer. The show always stressed that the cadets were students at the Space Academy and showed them living in spartan dormitories and studying for very difficult examinations. Almost every episode, one or another of the cadets would get into some trouble and get a chewing out by Captain Strong (played by Edward Bryce), Commander Arkwright (played by Carter Blake), or one of their other superior officers. Early episodes of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet also featured a very strong (for the times) female role in the character of Dr. Joan Dale (played by Margaret Garland). Dr. Dale was a professor at the Academy as well as one of its top researchers. She invented rocket fuels and a new hyperdrive that expanded the reach of the Solar Guard’s rocketships. And, let’s face it, she was also the mother hen figure for the cadets and the kids in the television audience as well as a bit of sex appeal for the older TV fans. Sadly, Dr. Dale’s brand of educated, intelligent, independent woman did not last long. Her character was written out after the ABC run of the series in 1952.

Tom Corbett - Dr. Dale helps Tom out of hatch

Tom and Dr. Dale

The Internet Archive has several of the later Tom Corbett episodes, including the last episode from the DuMont run and six episodes from the final 1955 season on NBC. All the episodes are in black and white and run a little short of thirty minutes. The DuMont episode, “The Runaway Rocket”, is much more blurry than the NBC episodes and the only episode co-starring Jan Merlin as Roger Manning. After the DuMont run, the Roger Manning character was written out (he was reassigned to the Space Academy on Mars) and replaced with the character of TJ Thistle (played by Jack Grimes). Special effects are very primitive. When the Polaris rocketship blasts off, Tom Corbett counts down then throws himself backwards into his chair. When the Polaris is experiencing turbulence, the crew gamely throws themselves side to side. Venus is a lot of plants with some ankle deep fog. Ship controls are some knobs and levers the crew seem to randomly spin or push. Spacesuits are pillowly outfits. There are some simple models and some simple paintings of scenes. Most of the action on the Polaris is shot through the view ports and I loved it when characters occasionally pointed at action taking place off-screen and actually pointed their finger out through the view port. But, unlike many modern SciFi shows, the special effects are really of least importance. The characters of Tom and the other cadets are what drives the episodes. A few special effects just add a little spice. Despite the simpleness of the special effects, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was the first TV series to ever use electronic traveling mattes for live special effects and the series director helped design a “Gizmo” that allowed him to superimpose actors from a blank set unto an imaginative set (like a painting of the Moon) without image washout. The series also introduced TV audiences to two terms that are now part of our culture: “count down” and “blast off”. Some other popular phrases from the series include: “Aw, go blast your jet!”, “Don’t fuse your tubes!” and “Spaceman’s luck”.

Tom Corbett - Al Markim & Frankie Thomas

Tom, Astro, and TJ

The Tom Corbett, Space Cadet episodes at the Internet Archive can be watched online or downloaded FREE. All seven episodes are in black and white and all run under thirty minutes. Audio is very clear and crisp on all episodes. However the music of the DuMont episode is very scratchy and extremely old fashioned-sounding. The opening and closing music is aggressively patriotic but the music used throughout the episode sounds like someone banging away at an extremely Gothic and melodramatic organ. Video quality ranges from very blurry and a little washed out in the DuMont episode to pretty clear and sharp with a little blurriness and occasional scratchy damage and some stuttering in the six NBC episodes. Some of the episodes include the original commercials and some do not. All of the episodes are very fast paced and exciting with a healthy amount of humor thrown in. Fans can enjoy blasting off on the Polaris with Tom Corbett and the other cadets by clicking on the following links. Have fun and Spaceman’s luck to you!

1.) “The Runaway Rocket” – Broadcast May 22, 1954.
2.) “Assignment: Mercury” – Broadcast February 26, 1955.
3.) “The Mystery of the Missing Mail Ship” – Broadcast March 12, 1955.
4.) “The Monster of Space” – Broadcast March 19, 1955.
5.) “Pursuit of the Deep Space Projectile” – Broadcast April 30, 1955.
6.) “Ambush in Space” – Broadcast May 21, 1955.
7.) “Fight for Survival” – Broadcast June4, 1955.

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